United Infinity: Borges & The Aleph

2009 May 1
by Zachary McCune

alef_symbolIt is difficult not to reduce Jorge Luis Borges’  “The Aleph” to the eponymous object of the story’s narrative. The object of the Alpeh is indeed an overwhelmingly fascinating concept representing united infinity- a single glance within which all visible reality is manifest simultaneously. But before we can engage the Aleph directly, I think it is worth spending sometime thinking about the rest of the story, particularly the first few pages, which read like a piece of romantic fiction, musing over the death of a beloved (”Beatriz Viterbo”), and seemingly focused on the mundane existence of our self-absorbed protagonist (who is referred to as “Borges”).

Our protagonist has a good memory, he remembers successive details about Beatriz almost obsessively, rattling off facts and observations on her life that border on pedantic. What perhaps matters most in these early paragraphs is that the protagonist puts his life on hold for Beatriz.

“The universe may change, but not me, I thought with a certain sad vanity. I knew that now that at times my fruitless devotion had annoyed her; now that she was dead, I could devote myself to her memory, without hope but also without humilation.”

This commitment of the protagonist to the deceased female, as well as the use of the name “Beatriz” suggests that Borges is referencing Dante, possibly with the hope of establishing his protagonist as a cosmic adventurer like the Florentine poet-protagonist. But unlike Dante Aligheri, who sees the death of Beatrice as the moment his life loses meaning, and the order of the world collapses, Borges’ protagonist becomes spiritually sedentary by the death of his love. “The universe may change, but not me” he says, imagining that he can construct his own experience of the universe as a construct to protect him from the fact that the universe not only “may change” but already has: he has lost the love of his life. What comforts our protagonist is that he can now devote himself to the memory of Beatriz, not the changing woman, and in this dedication to a static concept gain some form of control over his life. It is a pursuit he writes is “without hope, but also without humiliation” suggesting the practice as a perpetual suspension of reality within which there are neither benefits nor consequences, or perhaps, the benefits are the lack of consequences.

In short, our protagonist is interested in a personal cosmos, or microcosm far before we encounter ‘the aleph.’ This idea of the protagonist’s personal cosmos is born out by his truncated experience in this short story. Though years pass, we find the protagonist indeed devoted to Beatriz in that we see him do nothing save visit the Viterbo estate, looking at old photographs of his love (a further document of suspended reality) and talking with her relatives, most notably Carlos Argentino who seems to manifest his own ideas of a closed cosmos, which both disgusts and fascinates our protagonist.

“I view [Modern Man] … in his inner sanctum, as though in his castle tower, supplied with telephones, telegraphs, phonographs, wireless sets, motion-picture screens, slide projectors, glossaries, timetables, handbooks, bulletins …”

Thus speaks Carlos Argentino to our protagonist. The opinion is perhaps best summed up by the ellipsis at the end of the statement, suggesting a sort of endlessness or infinity to this list. And what is the list made up of? Media. The suggestion of Carlos Argentino is surely that modern man in his no longer experience reality, but having reality experienced for him through this array of media. Travel, Argentino continues, is almost unnecessary, as man “in his inner sanctum” has the world brought to him.

The differentiation between these two characters is really important. On one hand, Argentino speaks of a microcosm that will take all the world in and mediate it for man in a single location. On the other, our protagonist wishes to push all of the world and its changes from his life. He wants to live in a suspended (already past) present. Argentino’s idealized microcosm is overflowing with life, it is a sort of hyper or mega life- composed of endless lives stitched together. Our protagonist’s idealized microcosm is infinite only in the sense that it is finite. Our protagonist seems either contented by the limits of his ideal reality, or unable to see the limits as such because of his emotional convictions towards Beatriz which might well be endless.

The difference between the two men are born out by their reactions to the Aleph. For Argentino, the collected totality of the world is invaluable. In fact, he calls it “inalienable” as though he is in firm possession of it to the point of becoming an intrinsic part of his reality. Infinitude, distilled by the Aleph, represents all that could be desirable for Argentino. We might re-imagine his ellipsis at the end of his media list (above) as thus not a endlessness, but perhaps a moment when he remembers the Aleph, and overcomes the artificial inifinity of media, for the mystical true infinitude of the Aleph.

Our protagonist is certainly struck by the Aleph but in ways that are incomensurate to the experiences of Argentino. Where Carlos Argentino wrote poetry inspired by the Aleph and thus broke up the infinity of its experience, our protagonist says it is quite impossible to write about the experience.

“All language is a set of symbols whose use among its speakers assumes a shared past. How, then, can I translate into words the limitless Aleph, which my floundering mind can scarcely encompass.”

A theoretical study of “The Aleph” would take on the story at this point, using this statement of Borges’ as a way to deconstruct this text. Paradox and contradiction are overwhelming in Borges’ attempt to write about a concept like the aleph, and this short quote illuminates the difficulty; language is inherently a “set” meaning it is limited, and moreover, it is predicated on a “shared past.” The aleph, in contrast, is not only infinite (rather than a set) but also part of a collective present, past, and future which cannot be “shared.” The experience of the Aleph, because it can only be seen by one person at a certain angle, represents a rather ultimate individuality. It is the experience of everything as a unity so constricted it only yields itself in a glance, but in that glance, it is infinity.

“The only place on earth where all places are”

For the point of this indepdent research, “The Aleph” is a crucial text, setting up Gibson’s own “aleph” in Mona Lisa Overdrive. Personal cosmologies, or the development of technological microcosms of the larger world, have been a major theme in cyberpunk and in my analysis of the mythological aspirations of this sci fi subgenre. Can technology reproduce Borges idea of the aleph, “the microcosm of the alchemists and Kabblaists, our true proverbial friemd, the multum in parvo”? That is only a part of the question this research needs to ask, as the real question for cyberpunk is why would someone desire a microsom, an aleph?

The aleph is also significant in its meaning as a symbol, the first letter in fact of the hebrew alphabet and in fact a part of the word “alphabet.”  Kabbla and other mystic traditions put great value on the idea of the aleph, but for my purposes, these values are only important in the sense that they are part of vast web of references Borges was surely making in using the term. Further work on the Aleph as a symbol will take place in my final paper for this study, to be completed in the next two weeks.

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