Jorge Luis Borges’ Birthday:
Four stories of philosophy, touching upon fantasy, horror, and weirdness, and even H.P. Lovecraft.
-The Voice before the Void
“The Aleph” is a short story by the Argentine writer and poet Jorge Luis Borges. First published in September 1945, it was reprinted in the short story collection, The Aleph and Other Stories, in 1949, and revised by the author in 1974.
In Borges’ story, the Aleph is a point in space that contains all other points. Anyone who gazes into it can see everything in the universe from every angle simultaneously, without distortion, overlapping, or confusion. The story traces the theme of infinity found in several of Borges’ other works, such as “The Book of Sand.”
As in many of Borges’ short stories, the protagonist is a fictionalized version of the author. At the beginning of the story, he is mourning the recent death of a woman whom he loved, named Beatriz Viterbo, and resolves to stop by the house of her family to pay his respects. Over time, he comes to know her first cousin, Carlos Argentino Daneri, a mediocre poet with a vastly exaggerated view of his own talent who has made it his lifelong quest to write an epic poem that describes every single location on the planet in excruciatingly fine detail.
Later in the story, a business on the same street attempts to tear down Daneri’s house in the course of its expansion. Daneri becomes enraged, explaining to the narrator that he must keep the house in order to finish his poem, because the cellar contains an Aleph which he is using to write the poem. Though by now he believes Daneri to be quite insane, the narrator proposes without waiting for an answer to come to the house and see the Aleph for himself.
Left alone in the darkness of the cellar, the narrator begins to fear that Daneri is conspiring to kill him, and then he sees the Aleph for himself:
“On the back part of the step, toward the right, I saw a small iridescent sphere of almost unbearable brilliance. At first I thought it was revolving; then I realised that this movement was an illusion created by the dizzying world it bounded. The Aleph’s diameter was probably little more than an inch, but all space was there, actual and undiminished. Each thing (a mirror’s face, let us say) was infinite things, since I distinctly saw it from every angle of the universe. I saw the teeming sea; I saw daybreak and nightfall; I saw the multitudes of America; I saw a silvery cobweb in the center of a black pyramid; I saw a splintered labyrinth (it was London); I saw, close up, unending eyes watching themselves in me as in a mirror; I saw all the mirrors on earth and none of them reflected me; I saw in a backyard of Soler Street the same tiles that thirty years before I’d seen in the entrance of a house in Fray Bentos; I saw bunches of grapes, snow, tobacco, lodes of metal, steam; I saw convex equatorial deserts and each one of their grains of sand…”
-“The Aleph,” by Jorge Luis Borges, translated from the Spanish by Norman Thomas di Giovanni in collaboration with the author
Though staggered by the experience of seeing the Aleph, the narrator pretends to have seen nothing in order to get revenge on Daneri, whom he dislikes, by giving Daneri a reason to doubt his own sanity. The narrator tells Daneri that he has lived too long amongst the noise and bustle of the city and spent too much time in the dark and enclosed space of his cellar, and assures him that what he truly needs are the wide open spaces and fresh air of the countryside, and these will provide him the true peace of mind that he needs to complete his poem. He then takes his leave of Daneri and exits the house.
In a postscript to the story, Borges explains that Daneri’s house was ultimately demolished, but that Daneri himself won second place for the Argentine National Prize for Literature. He also states his belief that the Aleph in Daneri’s house was not the only one that exists, based on a report he has discovered, written by “Captain Burton” (Richard Francis Burton) when he was British consul in Brazil, describing the Mosque of Amr in Cairo, within which there is said to be a stone pillar that contains the entire universe; although this Aleph cannot be seen, it is said that those who put their ear to the pillar can hear a continuous hum that symbolises all the concurrent noises of the universe heard at any given time.
“The Zahir” (original Spanish title: “El Zahir”) is a short story by the Argentine writer and poet Jorge Luis Borges. It is one of the stories in the book The Aleph and Other Stories, first published in 1949, and revised by the author in 1974.
Zahir is a person or an object that has the power to create an obsession in everyone who sees it, so that the affected person perceives less and less of reality and more and more of the Zahir, at first only while asleep, then at all times.
In the story, a fictionalized version of Borges gets the Zahir in his change after paying for a drink in the form of a 20 centavo coin. Borges then tells the reader about a train of thought focused on famous coins throughout history and legend, and the fact that a coin symbolizes our free will, since it can be turned into anything. These feverish thoughts keep him awake for a while. The next day, Borges decides to lose the coin. He goes to a faraway neighbourhood in Buenos Aires, while he carefully avoids looking at the street names and numbers, and manages to get rid of the Zahir by paying for another drink in an anonymous bar.
The writer is unable to forget the coin, which he gradually becomes more obsessed with. He tries to look for a cure, and after some research, he finds a book that explains the history behind the Zahir, and that it manifested previously as a tiger, an astrolabe, the bottom of a well, and a vein in a marble column in a mosque. According to the myth, everything on earth has the propensity to be a Zahir, but “the Almighty does not allow more than one thing at a time to be it, since one alone can seduce multitudes.”
Borges tells us that soon he will be unable to perceive external reality, and he will have to be dressed and fed; but then he reflects that this fate does not worry him, since he will be oblivious to it. In idealistic philosophy, “to live and to dream are synonymous,” and he will simply pass “from a very complex dream to a very simple dream.” In a mixture of despair and resignation, he wonders:
Others will dream that I am mad, and I [will dream] of the Zahir. When all men on earth think day and night of the Zahir, which one will be a dream and which a reality, the earth or the Zahir?
“There Are More Things”
“There Are More Things” is a short story written by Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges in 1975. It was first published in the short story collection The Book of Sand, as the collection’s fourth entry. The story tells of the encounter the narrator has with a monstrous entity inhabiting an equally monstrous house. It bears the dedication “In Memory of H. P. Lovecraft” and accordingly holds many parallels with Lovecraft’s stories, employing similar plot devices. The title alludes to Hamlet’s lines “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy” (Hamlet I.5:159–167).
The story has been criticized because the episode of the encounter with the monster and the house—the heart of the story—which is described in the final two or so pages, is preceded by “eight pages of complicated subplots,” spoiling “a basically sound idea.” Borges himself was quite skeptical about his memorial to Lovecraft (as expressed in the book’s epilogue), whom he in fact considered “an involuntary parodist of Poe.”
The story’s protagonist, while in Austin, Texas, receives the news of the death of his uncle, Edwin Arnett, in Lomas de Zamora, Argentina. Shortly after, Arnett’s house is bought by a man called Max Preetorius. Preetorius immediately disposes of all the furniture and initiates a series of modifications in opposition to Alexander Muir, the architect responsible for the original design of the house and the late Arnett’s best friend. The modifications are performed under unusual conditions—during the night with all the windows and doors closed. In addition, all trees within the bounds of the property are cut down.
The protagonist is surprised by these events, and travels to Lomas de Zamora to investigate. He asks Muir and Preetorius’ carpenter about Preetorius’ intentions, and about the purpose of the strange modifications. He is unable to obtain any relevant information.
He soon discovers that the inhabitants of the town deliberately avoid passing near the house. One of the locals tells him that one night, as his gaze wandered across the house’s garden, he “saw something.” It is also reported that a missing dog was found decapitated and mutilated on the lawn.
One rainy night, the protagonist is caught in the storm and is forced to enter the mysterious house; the front door is unexpectedly open. Once inside, his nose immediately detects what he describes as “a sweet, sickening smell.”
Turning on the lights, he discovers strange, incomprehensible pieces of furniture, such as a long U-shaped desk with circular holes on opposite ends and a ladder with irregularly-spaced steps.
When it stops raining, the horrified protagonist decides to leave. He hears the house’s occupant moving between him and the door, and realizes that he will have to pass by the creature in order to exit the house. His curiosity overcomes his fear and he does not close his eyes as he does so.
“The Book of Sand”
“The Book of Sand” (Spanish: El libro de arena) is a 1975 short story by Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges (1899–1986). It has parallels to the same author’s 1949 story “The Zahir” (revised 1974), continuing the theme of self-reference and attempting to abandon the terribly infinite.
The story was first published in 1975, in Spanish, as the last of 13 stories in a book of the same name. The first English translation – by Norman Thomas di Giovanni – was published in The New Yorker; the entire volume The Book of Sand (ISBN 0-525-47540-0) first appeared in English in 1977.
An unnamed narrator is visited by a tall Scots Bible-seller, who presents him with a very old cloth-bound book that he bought in India from an Untouchable. The book is emblazoned with the title “Holy Writ,” below which title is emblazoned “Bombay,” but is said to be called “The Book of Sand” … “because neither the book nor the sand has any beginning or end.” Upon opening it, he is startled to discover that the book, which is written in an unknown language and occasionally punctuated by illustrations, is in fact infinite: if one turns the pages, more pages seem to grow out of the front and back covers. He trades a month of his pension and a prized “Wiclif Bible” for the “Book of Sand” and hides it on a bookshelf behind his copy of One Thousand and One Nights. Over the summer, the narrator obsesses over the book, poring over it, cataloging its illustrations, and refusing to go outside for fear of its theft. In the end, realizing that the book is monstrous, he briefly considers burning it before fearing the possibility of the smoke of an infinite book suffocating the world. Instead, he goes to the National Library where he once worked (like Borges) to lose the book among the basement bookshelves, reasoning that “the best place to hide a leaf is in a forest.”