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In search of the Aleph: Memory, truth, and falsehood in Borcess's poetics.

Oh vana gloria de l'umane posse!

(Dante, Purgatorio XI)

Of all the short stories written by Jorge Luis Borges, 'El Aleph' stands out as one of the most suggestive in terms of its literary and psychological interpretations. Estela Canto (its dedicatee) refers the composition of 'El Aleph', a story she links with 'El Zahir' and 'La escritura del dios', back to the summer of 1945. (1) There are three factors that particularly strike critics of 'El Aleph': its autobiographical allusions, its literary references to Dante, and the presence of an implicit poetics in connection with the cultural reality that the author confronts directly. I explore here some aspects of this complexity in order to provide a tentative definition of its poetic principle as a whole.

Regardless of whether or not the author acknowledged any biographical content in the story, it is a fact that at the time of its composition Borges was going through a difficult period in his relationship with the dedicatee. (2) Not only is Estela Canto present in the story (in the fashion of a frame) but, in addition, her corporeality acquires a relevance comparable to that of the author himself. Thus she gives us an important key to the psychological aspects in the story when she says:

El amor de Borges era romantico, exaltado, tenia una especie de pureza juvenil. Al parecer, se entregaba completamente, suplicando no ser rechazado, convirtiendo a la mujer en un idolo inalcanzable, al cual no se atrevia a aspirar. No era sentimental, sino lirico. Pero yo no podia amarlo. (Canto, p. 81)

Me repetia que el era Dante, que yo era Beatrice y que habria de liberarlo del infierno, aunque yo no conociera la naturaleza de ese infierno. (p. 95)

The characters in 'El Aleph' have an allusive nature and play a multi-dimensional, symbolic role: 'Borges', the nostalgic and thoughtful persona, reflects the conflictive empirical author who identifies himself (outside the story) as Dante. (3) Similarly, Estela Canto is referred to as Beatrice (Dante's symbolic guide through Paradise), whose poetic image paradoxically suggests that of Beatriz Viterbo. (4)

In her initial appearance to Virgil, Beatrice refers to Dante as 'l'amico mio' (Inferno, II. 61), and certainly the traditional theme of literary friendship, transformed into enmity in 'El Aleph', underlies the poetics of the story. (5) As critics have noted, the name Carlos Argentino Daneri is a pun on Dan[te] [Alighi]eri (Rodriguez Monegal, p. 414). (6) In this respect Dante recalls other names, such as that of his friend and literary rival Guido Cavalcanti ('questo mio primo amico a cui io cio scrivo', Vita Nuova, XXX), (7) and Arnaut Daniel, the famous Provengal poet, of whom Dante says 'fu miglior fhbbro del parlar materno' (Purgatorio, XXVI, 117). Both Cavalcanti and Arnaut wrote highly sophisticated poetry of love, and both play an important role in Dante's evaluation of his own poetic language.

Contemporary Spanish American poets may also be perceived in the name: Ner[u]da (whose collection of poems Residencia en la Tierra and Canto general may be alluded to in Daneri's poem La Tierra), and R[ub]en Dari[o]. (8) A more immediate allusion, as Alicia Jurado puts it, is that Carlos Argentino represents 'la caricatura de un escritor nacional'. (9) Thus Daneri effectively embodies a web of references, implying both the author's homeland and fellow countrymen, as well as representing the figure of a poet who is also a rival and an enemy. Furthermore, there is an element of parodic self-representation in both male characters (note the double identification Borges-Dante, Daneri-Dante); in Borges's own words: 'El poeta es cada uno de los hombres de su mundo ficticio.' (10) Borges was very critical of his early ultraist period and he dedicated much of his reflections on literature to defending his deviation from the movement.

It is a frequent habit of Borges to confront his identity and thought under the guise of other writers or fictional characters, a trick he also attributes, as proof of cunning, to Pierre Menard: 'Su habito resignado o ironico de propagar ideas que eran el estricto reverso de las preferidas por el' (OC, I, 449). Such a view allows us to interpret Borges's statement 'yo creo que el Aleph de la calle Garay era un falso Aleph' (p. 627) as being a judgement about Daneri's poetry: if the name Carlos Argentino Daneri is a corruption of Dante Alighieri, then we can take it to mean 'Daneri is a false Dante', and hence 'Daneri is a false poet'. In a Platonic sense, he who contemplates the eternal essence become a divine being himself. Through the Aleph Daneri beholds the cosmos; however, in the sarcastic view of 'Borges', the analogy between the Aleph and Daneri's literary work is limited to his pretensions to write an all-encompassing poem which, nevertheless, 'parecia dilatar hasta lo infinito las posibilidades de la cacofonia y del caos' (p. 622).

On the other hand, the story is firmly grounded in an antagonistic context in which one poet mocks another by showing the falseness and inefficacy of his opponent's art while simultaneously indicating the superiority of his own talent, a skill that nevertheless is also dependent on the successful manipulation of lies and tricks through the use of rhetorical language (hence the title of the literary work 'Borges' presented to the Premio Nacional de Literatura: Los naipes del tahur). Furthermore, there is something of a magician or diviner's apparel (the South American 'magos') in Daneri's ridiculous trope: '"Recibi tu apenada congratulacion", me escribio, "Bufas, mi lamentable amigo, de envidia, pero confesaras--!aunque te ahogue!--que esta vez pude coronar mi bonete con la mas roja de las plumas; mi turbante, con el mas califa de los rubies"' (p. 627, n. 1). This seems to show that literature is a craft of deception, that is, appearance with the semblance of truth. Indeed, 'Borges' explicitly says of his narrative: 'Quiza los dioses no me negarian el hallazgo de una imagen equivalente, pero este informe quedaria contaminado de literaturea, de falsedad' (p. 625). However, the dichotomy truth/ falsehood proves to be irrelevant when confronted with the psychological aspect of its credibility. What matters, implies Borges, is the writer's ability to create well-made fictions independently of their content. In other words, art has to persuade us of its alleged truthfulness and we (with Simonides) should be proud deservers of its enchantments (see Plutarch, How The Young Marz Should Study Poetry, 15d, in Moralia (London and Cambridge, MA: Loeb Classical Library, repr. 1960), I, 79). Thus aleph, the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, represents the struggle to obtain a worthy place in the literary competition: 'falso Aleph', therefore, characterizes an undeserved, false winner. Although Daneri looks down on 'Borges' throughout the story, in the end it is 'Borges' who ridicules Daneri the more, conveying to the reader his radical condemnation of a pseudo-literature that aspires to universal recognition and fame. The point is that technical skill should not serve as a mere disguise for the author's lack of intellectual and poetic competence.

On the other hand, if Beatriz Viterbo is to represent the reality of the literary account (that is, Estela Canto), then one might expect a nobler recipient than the one embodied here. Viterbo is the name of an Italian city in Lazio. Dante alludes to it twice in Inferno, both times with negative connotations. In Canto XII, the verse 'lo cor che'n su Tamisi ancor si cola' (l. 120) refers to Guy de Montfort who, in revenge for his thther's death, murdered his cousin Prince Henry of Cornwall during a Mass at a church in Viterbo. Later, in Canto XIV 'Quale del Bulicame esce ruscello | che parton poi tra lor le peccatrici' (ll. 79-80), Dante compares the Phlegethon (one of the imaginary rivers of Hell in classical mythology) to the Bulicame, a hot sulphurous spring near Viterbo. The point is that, as Paget Toynbee explains, 'the hot-spring of Bulicame was a resort of prostitutes'. (11) Thus Beatriz's surname personifies evil and hate.

Unlike Guy de Montfort, 'Borges' does not kill Beatriz's cousin in revenge. Instead, he decides to treat Daneri as a lunatic and wishes to see him driven mad: 'La locura de Carlos Argentino me colmo de maligna felicidad; intimamente, siempre nos habiamos detestado' (p. 623). 'Borges's' destructive thoughts could not be more clear.

Beatriz's unworthy affection is indicated by her indifference towards gifts from 'Borges', a fact aggravated by the revelation of her 'obscene' letters to Daneri. (12) 'Borges' also says of her: 'Habia en ella negligencias, distracciones, desdenes, verdaderas crueldades, que tal vez reclamaban una explicacion patologica' (p. 623). Like the mythical figure of Pandora, (13) Beatriz embodies a paradoxical nature that Borges has chosen to symbolize, rather than to expound, in her own name. For him, the lover incarnates both heaven (Beatrice) and hell (Viterbo); as Canto puts it: 'El sabia que yo no era una de las ninas asomadas a balcones rosados y celestes que pintaba su hermana Norah' (Canto, p. 98). Pietro Pucci notes what he calls ah 'oxymoronic quality' in Pandora, for she is simultaneously 'pleasant and dangerous, an excess and a loss'. (14) Similarly, Beatriz is an all-inclusive notion: she represents love and death, praise and condemnation, pride and shame. As Borges writes: 'Habia en su andar (si el oximoron es tolerable) una como graciosa torpeza, un principio de extasis' (OC, I, 618).

In his study on spirit symbolism, Carl Gustav Jung explains the nature of such seemingly incompatible representations:

Logic says tertium non datur, meaning that we cannot envisage the opposites in their oneness. In other words, while the abolition of an obstinate antinomy can be no more than a postulate for us, this is by no means so for the unconscious, whose contents are without exception paradoxical or antinomical by nature, not excluding the category of being. (15)

This applies to all poetic and symbolic expressions. As is often the case in Borges's narrative, the author of 'El Aleph' veils his emotions from the sight of the reader. It is as if writing constitutes an attempt to expose the self to an inner truth, an exercise that necessarily requires concealment. (16)

However, if it is true that our literary choices and likings are determined by our education and upbringing (factors that also help to shape our emotional responses), our emotional world, in turn, may also influence our appreciation of literature. Based on this assumption, one can render Borges's essays on Dante (his Nueve ensayos dantescos) as Nueve ensayos 'bogianos', for his analysis results in an interpretation that effectively reflects his own emotions. (17) His essays on Dante shed light on 'El Aleph' not least because they are contemporary with the publication, in 1949, of the collection of short stories that b ears its title (Rodriguez Monegal, p. 415). (18) The recovery of Beatrice meant for Dante an increase of the spiritual dimension. To say, with Borges, that the Commedia is an imaginary creation where the lover could finally encounter the beloved's corporeality ('Dante [...] jugo con la ficcion de encontrarla, para mitigar su tristeza' (p. 371)) diminishes the symbolic truth she embodies whilst, on the other hand, it emphasizes the sentimental realism typical of the Romantic view. (19)

Reversing Borges's reading of Dante, therefore, it may be plausible to say that he wrote 'El Aleph' in order to expurgate his troubled emotions. Note the coincidence between his declaration in 'El Aleph': 'Beatriz querida, Beatriz perdida para siempre, soy yo, soy Borges' (p. 624), and the author's words in his essay: 'Dante, muerta Beatriz, perdida para siempre Beatriz' (p. 371). Consider, also, his words to Estela Canto: 'I shall abound no longer in self-pity. [...] Estela, Estela Canto, when you read this I shall be finishing the story I promised you' ('Thursday, about five', in Canto, p. 143, my italics). Words such as 'piedad', 'infinitamente', 'veneracion', and 'olvido', which permeate 'El Aleph', appear later in the essay. Compare, for instance, 'Senti infinita veneracion, infinita lastima' ('El Aleph', OC, I, 626); with 'todos nosotros propendemos por piedad, por veneracion, a olvidar esa lastimosa discordia inolvidable para Dante' ('El encuentro en un sueno', OC, III, 371) (see Menocal, pp. 159-60). Furthermore, Borges conceives Dante's love for Beatrice as a kind of idolatry ('una adoracion idolatrica. [...] Un amor desdichado y supersticioso'). This view can stem only from a deliberate confusion between the literal and the allegorical sense in Dante's work (indeed, Borges had referred to some allegorical passages a few lines before). As far as Dante and Beatrice are concerned, he chose to ignore the symbolism conveyed in the poem. Thus he disregards the allegorical meaning because he is interested in the literal sense, perhaps the one that coincides with his own erotic experience ('Esa dicha que no logro'). Indeed, the final words of the passage betray his longing for a fulfilling relationship: 'Pienso en Francesca y en Paolo, unidos para siempre en su infierno [...] Con espantoso amor, con ansiedad, con admiracion, con envidia' (p. 371, my italics).

The contemplation of the Aleph also involves torment and generates envy. Going down the ladder to Daneri's basement, like the soul's fall in Platonic and Christian allegory, indicates something evil about the nature of the Aleph in Garay Street. (20) It has therefore been asserted that the story is a parody of the Divine Comedy (Rodriguez Monegal, p. 414). Nevertheless, the story can be read more forcefully as self-caricature and as a mockery of certain modern writers and schools. From this perspective, and by way of a positive contrast, 'El Aleph' is a tribute to Dante and the lyric tradition, as opposed to Daneri's empty rhetoric. (21) Hence the task that the story proposes is to reconstruct a genuine poetic expression after its symbolic ruin (the demolishing of Daneri's residence and the consequent loss of the Aleph).

It is true that neither the Florentine poet nor his 'sacred poem' is mentioned by name in 'El Aleph'. (22) Instead, Borges hints at the Jewish doctrine on the names of God which, according to Alazraki, he may first have known about through Longfellow's translation of the Divine Comedy (Borges and the Kabbalah, p. 5). In his postscript the author intends to provide a note on the nature and meaning of the story, but contrary to the medieval fashion of explaining the (allegorical) text to the reader, Borges deceitfully chooses to enumerate a few instances of what he calls Aleph'. This is a symbol for the overwhelming completeness of the universe as experienced in a mystical vision: 'la ilimitada y pura divinidad' (p. 627).

Regarding the topos of light, Borges's indebtedness to Dante is manifest. The final cantos of the Commedia, with their amazing display of light and visuality (including the anaphoric vidi) have obvious similarities with Borges's narration. Compare, for instance, 'vi una pequena esfera tornasolada, de casi intolerable fulgor' (p. 625), with Paradiso XXVIII:

un punto vidi che raggiava lume

acuto si, che'l viso ch'elli aflbca

chiuder conviensiper lo forte acume;

(l. 16)

or Paradiso XXX:

e vidi lume in forma di rivera

fulvido di fulgore, intra due rive,

dipinte di mirabil primavera.

(l. 61)

Canto XXX (indeed the whole poetic composition) revels in luminous vision. (23) Borges clearly imitates Dante's rhetoric. In the description of what he sees in the Aleph, the anaphoric vi occurs thirty-eight times. (24) Furthermore, his Aleph is a reflection of that other 'Aleph' he does not mention in the postscript: Dante's Empyrean heaven and its Celestial Rose. Compare, for instance, 'los vertiginosos espectaculos que encerraba' with the 'velocissimo movimento' of the Crystalline Heaven described in Convivio, II, iii. 9-10, or 'un conjunto infinito [y] simultaneao', with 'Questo [l'Empireo] e lo soprano edificio del mondo, nel quale tutto lo mondo s'inchiude, e di fuori dal quale nulla e' (Convivio, ed. by Piero Cudini (Milan: Garzati, 1992), pp. 74-75).

The theme of the visionary ecstasy occupies the central description in the narrative of 'El Aleph'. Paradoxically, 'Borges' describes his vision as a moment preceded by fear and panic (caused by the thought that he might have fallen into a trap set by an evil maniac). Indeed, the notion of ekstasis (displacement) is linked to another medical concept, mania, a pathological dislocation described as being out of one's mind. It is at this stage that the narrator encounters what he perceives as a real threat to his life, a danger he links to poisoning or to the effects of a drug (he had drunk a glass of cognac Daneri had offered him minutes before). The mention of a drug (Borges uses the words 'veneno' and 'narcotico') is particularly interesting for its many literary associations. In the Odyssey, for instance, the use of drugs is ambivalent. Circe uses them for magical purposes, while Helen mixes a drug with wine in order to remove grief and anger, thus 'banishing all painful memories' caused by telling tales (Homer, Odyssey, trans. by E. V. Rieu, IV, 221). Justas drugs can be good or poisonous (IV, 230), discourse can be either genuine and beneficial or simply deceitful. (25) Thus it is not surprising that the sophist Gorgias, speaking of Helen, described the power of persuasive language as a kind of drug (Encomium to Helen, ed. and trans. by D. M. MacDowell (Bristol: Bristol Classical Press, 1982) [section] 14). Plato, on the other hand, refers to artistic (mimetic) productions as deceptive images that have a 'realistic' effect on the mind of the spectator through the artist's skilled, though bewitching, handling of form, proportion, and colour (Republic, X, 602c7-602d4). Furthermore, in Ion, he asserts that the rhapsodist, when reciting Homer, is enraptured in a divine possession (ecstasy) and no longer in his senses, a state he transmits, like a magnet [sic], to the audience. (26) The origin of such a power, Socrates would make Ion believe, lies not in the rhapsodist's full control of the audience's response to words and poetic delivery (a knowledge the sophist would certainly claim for himself) but in an external and otherwise inexplicable source: the Muse (Ion, 533d-534e, but see Gorgias, 502c-502d). Borges, too, asserts the power of words to enchant and deceive like a drug acting on the senses and distorting the perception of things. Thus in 'El Aleph', through the reference to a drug, he may be giving the attentive reader a wink: as a fiction writer he is saying: 'Caution! storyteller at work.' In addition, it emphasizes the falsity (in the postscript he uses the words 'artificios' and 'meros instrumentos de optica' (OC, I, 627)) of Daneri's Muse: the Aleph.

The revelation of the Aleph echoes the prophets' visions in their imagery and rhetoric, but where the Scriptures refer to the history of the Church in order to reveal a human destiny, the Aleph finally turns itself against its voyeur to torture him with painful images of the dead woman. With regard to Borges's life, the Aleph includes names, objects, and places that belong in the author's memory and imagination: 'baldosas [...] en el zaguan de una casa de Fray Bentos', 'una quinta de Adrogue', 'Plinio', 'la Chacarita'. (27) There are also, naturally, mirrors, labyrinths, tigers, battles and armies, and even a fleeting sketch of a later short story, 'El libro de Arena'. (28) From this point of view, the Aleph is a synthetic vision of Borges's own imagination and experience (see Alazraki, Borges and the Kabbalah, pp. 119-21; Berrenechea, p. 120, n. 13). (29) Yet personal memory should not come as a surprise, for it precedes the list of allusions in an attempt to remember an ordeal that remains indescribable: 'Empieza, aqui, mi desesperacion de escritor. [...] ?Como trasmitir a los otros el infinito Aleph, que mi temerosa memoria apenas abarca? [...] Algo, sin embargo, recogere' (pp. 624-25). 'Recoger' refers to memory as the faculty that gathers past impressions, emotions, and thoughts. Borges could be alluding to Augustine who, in Confessions, x, xi, explains the etymology of the verb 'to think' in relation to the act of recollection: 'But they must be drawn together again [the things recollected], that they may be known; that is to say, they must as it were be collected together from their dispersion' (The Confessions of Saint Augustine, trans. by Edward Bouverie Pusey (New York: Quality Paperback Book Club, 1991), p. 23.

Memory is not only an act of gathering, it is also a gathering of the self. (30) In Dante's Paradiso, the notion of ineffability is linked to a certain incapacity of the mind to recollect and express in its entirety what is essentially described as a transcendental, personal experience: 'e vidi cose che ridire | ne sa ne puo chi di la su discende' (Paradiso, I, 5-6), which he glosses in Epistole X: 'Knowledge he has not, because he has forgotten; power he has not, because even if he remembers, and retains it thereafter, nevertheless speech fails him' (paragraph 29 in Dantis Aligheri Epistolae, ed. and trans. by Paget Toynbee (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1920), p. 209). On several occasions Dante appeals for words, courage, skill, and inspiration in order to gather and give full utterance to his vision: 'dammi virtu a dir com'io il vidi!', he exclaims (Paradiso, XXX, 99). However, where language fails him, that is, when the poet's imagination can no longer locate a 'referential stability', memory, too, proves unfathomable, as in lines 55-66 of the final canto. (31) Here Dante compares his fading memory with the scattered leaves of the Sybil, 'cosi al vento ne le foglie levi | si perdea la sentenza di Sibilla' (ll. 65-66), thus reversing the metaphor of the book of memory that marks the beginning of the Vita Nauva, 'dinanzi a la quale poco si potrebbe leggere'. While the poet's autobiographical account arises from memory, forgetfulness announces its end. Gathering (the writing of the self) may be lost to dispersion. Still Dante makes a final effort to recount his most sublime vision, until, in line 142, he reaches the limits of his power and the whole endeavour threatens to collapse: 'A l'alta fantasia qui manco possa'. It is a desperate and, at the same time, consoling confession. Thus writing comes to an end, and it does so because the only thing left to the poet is to complete his steps of pilgrimage asa 'living man' on earth. (32)

Unlike Dante's Empyrean heaven, the Aleph is a failed attempt to gather the poet's life in a final joyous and spiritual vision. The images are there but they lack life and deep meaning; above all, they are egotistic. Tragically, as memory seals the past, the narrator's will is blind to the future: 'Felizmente, al cabo de unas noches de insomnio, me trabajo otra vez el olvido' (p. 626). Thus the story does not yield the blissful experience that the reader of the mystical tradition would expect to encounter. From this perspective, the vision of the Aleph could be made to represent a parodic rewriting of such a tradition. But it is also more than this. Years later, Borges denied any symbolical meaning in the story, whilst on the other hand he asserted the historical reality of its characters: 'Beatriz Viterbo really existed and I was very much and hopelessly in love with her. I wrote my story after her death. Carlos Argentino Daneri is a friend of mine, still living.' Thus (Borges would have his naive reader believe) 'El Aleph' is nothing other than a playful, insignificant construction, and he adds: 'I wonder whether our modern worship of complexity is not wrong.' (33) Yet how do we reconcile this statement with his praise of the classical narrative mode, which postulates 'una realidad mas compleja que la declarada al lector'? ('La postulacion de la realidad', in Discusion (1932), OC, I, 219). Perhaps the irony is a reminder of the writer's lies and tricks, as well as his ultimate evasiveness. Borges himself admits this in a lyrical tone: 'Poco a poco, voy cediendole todo, aunque me consta su perverso costumbre de falsear y magnificar [...]. Asi mi vida es una fuga y todo lo pierdo y todo es del olvido, o del otro' ('Borges y yo', from El hacedor (1960), OC, II, 186).

More fundamentally, without memory, without a faculty that not only fixes and retains past impressions but is also capable of using them in a creative way, Dante could never have realized his journey of ascent and return. To return to earth means to have completed the demands that creative memory imposed on the pilgrim in order to represent his truth, a vision now guarded for future generations in the poet's finished book of memory. The challenge of the Commedia is for the poet to go all the way to the end of the journey, to reach fulfilment in the final unitary gaze and to communicate that experience to men (see Paradiso, XVII, 128). This challenge, however, is not only literary, it is also ethical. In both respects, Dante's achievement remains an ideal: as a literary accomplishment, it marks an obligatory and unsurpassable point of reference in Western literature; as a poem that touches deeply on ethical questions, it remains a model for the search of truth, truth as the realization of man's full moral capacity. It is in relation to such an ideal that Borges's story asserts from the beginning its inevitably unfulfilled and fragmented essence: his book of memory, as the passage from 'Borges y yo' shows, will remain unfinished.

Like Eurydice, princess of the dead in classical mythology, Beatriz is lost for ever: 'Beatriz, Beatriz Elena, Beatriz Elena Viterbo, Beatriz querida, Beatriz perdida para siempre, soy yo, soy Borges' (OC, I, 624). The figure of the dead woman is itself asserted in 'El Aleph' as an image of illusion and temporality. Things change and become obsolete, Borges thinks to himself, but will he (like Orpheus) ever acquire glory and fame? Whilst humanity becomes lost amid the appearances and contingencies of the world, the poet will keep alive in memory the irrecoverable presence of his beloved. (34) However, far from achieving praise, the story ends in blame and destruction. Such memory bears no fruit, for it is doomed to oblivion from the very moment of Beatriz's death: 'Comprendi que el incesante y vasto universo ya se apartaba de ella y que ese cambio era el primero de una serie infinita' (p. 617). The lyrical representation of the lover who transcends death in the beloved could not be further removed form the story. Who was Beatriz Viterbo to deserve such an ill-favoured poetic destiny?

On the one hand, Beatriz's psychological features are compared to her cousin's eccentric personality: 'Me asombro no haber comprendido hasta ese momento que Carlos Argentino era un loco. Todos esos Viterbo, por lo demas [...]' (p. 623). More important is the paradoxical nature shared by the two characters. Whilst Beatriz is described by way of an oxymoron (as already indicated), Daneri is said to be 'autoritario, pero tambien ineficaz; [...] su actividad mental es continua, apasionada, versatil y del todo insignificante' (p. 618). This contradictory, imperfect human quality impregnates the whole story. Consider, for instance, the adjectives in 'imperiosa agonia', 'melancolica vanidad', 'bagatela inmortal', 'vana devocion', 'biblioteca ilegible', 'inservibles analogias', 'ociosos escrupulos', 'admiracion rencorosa', 'maligna felicidad', 'temerosa memoria', 'piano inutil', 'torpes colores', 'palabras insustanciales', 'conjunto infinito', 'instante gigantesco'. There is a continuous semantic tension qualifying (in a negative way) perception and thought. This constitutive characteristic of the story effectively links its parts to a common feature, that of the dual essence of being. At a psychological level, this duality is expressed in terms of love and hate (that is, the ambivalent nature of human emotions), at a social level it is expressed in terms of success and failure, while at the rhetorical level it opposes truth and falsehood.

'Borges' recalls that the day Beatriz died coincided with a new publicity advertisement in the Plaza Constitucion. The fact that the author of 'El Aleph' hardly gives any substantial information about the heroine emphasizes Beatriz's frivolous existence, as her collection of photographs attests: she was a woman who had enjoyed some degree of popularity and fame. She is presented as a glamorous woman, and this quality likens her to classical representations of female beauty as something enchanting and deceitful. (35)

Furthermore, Beatriz and Carlos Argentino have a common feature: vanity. Even 'Borges' (at the beginning of the story) believes he possesses everlasting youth and an uncorrupted, faithful memory: 'Cambiara el universo pero no yo, pense con melancolica vanidad' (p. 617). Borges seems to suggest that vanity is a form of blindness (note that both Beatriz and Daneri are deceptively called ninos, thus emphasizing their childish egocentric tendencies, as well as their bourgeois affiliation). In the poem 'El ciego' (in El oro de los tigres, 1972) we find remote echoes from 'El Aleph'. Expressions such as 'vana devocion', 'biblioteca ilegible', 'piano inutil', and 'torpes colores' find their equivalent in 'vanas bibliotecas', 'vanos atriles', 'voces inutiles', 'una cosa gris', and 'formas amarillas'.

The relationship between ethics and poetics, however, had already been formulated by Borges in his early verse. (36) In 'Jactancia de quietud' (from Luna de enfrente, 1925) he says: 'Seguro de mi vida y de mi muerte, miro los ambiciosos y quisiera entenderlos' (l. 3). Later, he adds:

Mas silencioso que mi sombra, cruzo el tropel de su levantada


Ellos son imprescindibles, unicos, merecedores del manana.

Mi nombre es alguien y cualquiera.

Su verso es un requerimiento de ajena admiracion.

Yo solicito de mi verso que no me contradiga, y es mucho

Que no sea persistencia de hermosura, pero si de certeza espiritual.

(l. 12)

That Daneri should join the ranks of the greedy should not come as a surprise. Compare line 15 with remarks by 'Borges' on Daneri's work: 'Comprendi que el trabajo del poeta no estaba en la poesia; estaba en la invencion de razones para que la poesia fuera admirable' (OC, I, 619-20). In addition, the narrator of 'El Aleph' recalls a few lines from a self-satiric poem by Daneri which ends with the apostrophe, '!Olvidaron, cuitados, el factor HERMOSURA!' (p. 620), which contrasts sharply with line 17 above.

Carlos Argentino is a poet of the twentieth century who defends modern values and, at the same time, seeks 'una gloria intachable' (p. 618). The word 'fame' (here synonymous with 'glory') is itself ambivalent. Because it possesses 'antithetical' meanings, fame can be good or bad, depending on the adjective we attach to it. (37) But even in a positive sense, fame is something that depends on a collective judgement (in the sum of individual opinions) and, as such, it is arbitrary and controllable. The notion that archaic poetry conferred memory and fame/glory (kleos) is a commonplace in classical philology. As Gregory Nagy explains, the word kleos is related to the 'act of hearing':

The word came to mean 'fame' because it had been appropriated by the singer in his traditional role as an individual performer to designate what he sang about the actions of gods and heroes. The meaning 'fame' betrays merely the consequences. It shows the social prestige of the poet's art form. (38)

The act of hearing to which Nagy refers acquires its full importance in oral-traditional societies, but it does not lose its significance if considered outside a specific oral context. (39) Thus Dante's rhetorical personification of the poem as a kind of messenger sent by the poet to spread the news to every listening, worthy ear, as in the congedo of his famous canzone 'Donne ch'avete intelletto d'amore' (Vita Nuova, XIX; compare Convivio, II. xi, 7)" However, to the power of poetic language Dante implicitly adds a new element. It is not only the poem's subject-matter, verse form, and expression that count; if the poet's lofty style is to be effective and appreciated it must be received by a noble heart ('cor gentil'). (40) A poem is vain if it does not reach a worthy heart, but a poem cannot be worthy in the first place if it is not composed by a noble poet, and this means simplicity and humility on his part.

Memory, glory, and fame constitute Daneri's highest aspirations. However, far from achieving an illustrious style, he produces a poem characterized by a degenerate rhetoric, cacophony, chaos, extravagance, and metrical clumsiness. Lacking a sense of nobility and humility, he nevertheless believes himself to be a great poet. (41) 'Borges', a seemingly less arrogant writer though contemplating literary ambitions as well, ridicules his rival. This point takes us to the question of an implicit ethics in 'El Aleph'. Daneri has been working for many years on the composition of an all-embracing poem he appropriately entitles 'La Tierra': 'Se proponia versificar toda la redondez del planeta' (p. 620). Note the similarity with that other modernist, Pierre Menard, and his never-accomplished task, his '[obra] interminablemente heroica':

No hay ejercicio intelectual que no sea finalmente inutil. [...] En la literatura, esa caducidad final es aun mas notoria. El Quijote me dijo Menard fue ante todo un libro agradable; ahora es una ocasion de brindis patrioticos, de soberbia gramatical, de obscenas ediciones de lujo. La gloria es una incomprension y quiza la peor. (OC, I, 449-50)

Despite this, Menard 'resolvio adelantarse a la vanidad que aguarda todas las fatigas del hombre; acometio una empresa complejisima y de antemano futil' (p. 450). Why would Menard defy the limits of human action by rewriting the adventures of the most famous lunatic? The explanation, of course, is that he himself was a madman: apart from being a megalomaniac, Menard is a liar and a shameless plagiarist. (42) It is clear that he and Daneri share more than a literary ambition. They are both vain counterfeiters. Note the double pun used by Borges to qualify Daneri's poem as fragmentary and mutilated: his initial cantos are first published as 'trozos argentinos' (p. 626) by a publisher sarcastically called Editorial Procusto. Like Menard's unfinished work, Daneri's poem is similar to a part removed from the whole: it is a lopped-off segment.

Returning to Daneri, it could be said that the poet's solitary work, combined with his creative though arbitrary method, would guarantee his success: 'Primero abria las compuertas de la imaginacion; luego hacia uso de la lima' (p. 619). Carlos Argentino takes pride in his literary ambitions, not realizing the utter mediocrity of his poetic creations. 'Borges' secretly laughs at his intentions: 'Tan ineptas me parecieron esas ideas, tan pomposa y tan vasta su exposicion, que las relacione inmediatamente con la literatura' (p. 618). What 'literature' is he referring to? The kind of 'soberbia gramatical' Menard describes above? The kind of writing that deliberately arises from a far-fetched complexity and futility? Is he thinking of modern schools of poetry such as surrealism, Italian futurism, or the ultraist movement? Estela Canto supports this latter hypothesis when she writes:

Guillermo [de Torre] estaba intensamente interesado en todos los ultraismos y cubismos, en Dali en Stravinsky y sus distorsiones, en el dadaismo y el surrealismo. Su cunado [Borges] consideraba que todo esto era una chachara bastante tonta y esnob. (p. 87)

Carlos Argentino Daneri representa la venganza secreta que el autor se toma contra algunos 'modernistas'. (p. 208)

At any rate, in the hands of Carlos Argentino literature acquires a negative value not only because of its vain triumphs but also for its dubious use of language and its intellectual pretensions.

However, Borges's criticism and dislike of the moderns is equally applied to his precursors whenever their poetry fails to transmit the emotion demanded by his poetic sensibility. In the poem 'Baltasar Gracian' (from El otro, el mismo, 1964 (OC, II, 259-60)) we find echoes of Daneri's (and Menard's) poetic limitations as well as a renewed attack on poetry as a purely intellectual game. The poem begins and ends with the same words ('Laberinto, retruecanos, emblemas'), suggesting that Gracian's intellectual stubborness (that is, his dogmatism and lack of lyrical sensibility) effectively reached a dead end. Furthermore, in Gracian the poet's garden (a metaphor for figures of speech) is replaced by degenerate rhetoric: (43)

No hubo musica en su alma; solo un vano

Herbario de metaforas y argucias

Y la veneracion de las astucias

Y el desden de lo humano y sobrehumano.

(l. 5)

Later, adopting a religious representation, the poet asks himself what Gracian might have perceived on his death: '?Que sucedio cuando el inexorable | Sol de Dios, La Verdad, mostro su fuego? (ll. 29-30)' In the final stanza Borges conjectures that the Spanish poet failed to see the truth and, deceived by his own blindness, keeps wondering amongst scattered memories in search of worthless trifles. (44) If the mystical trope 'el inexorable Sol de Dios' stands for the Aleph, then what is said of Gracian is applicable to Daneri's insensitive poetry. Elsewhere, in the poem 'A un poeta menor de la antologia', Borges opposes the negative connotations of glory and fame with the relieving, redemptive aspects of forgetfulness: 'ey habra suerte mejor que la ceniza | de que esta hecho el olvido?', he asks assertively, and adds: 'Sobre otros arrojaron los dioses | la inexorable luz de la gloria' (ll. 13-16). A mirror effect may be found in the above lines. If there is an underlying message in both poems, it will be better perceived if they are considered together. Whilst Borges condemns Gracian's imagery ('Gallinas de los campos celestiales', l. 16), (45) he praises Theocritus's lyrical voice through the very metaphor of the lyric poet: the nightingale. (In comparison, the sound of 'gallinas' can represent only an unbearable cacophony.) By the same token he suggests that the true poet, the one who carries music in his soul, is, unlike Gracian, a humble mortal but a more profound poet (see Jactancia de quietud', ll. 3, 14, quoted above).

In addition, the Platonic echo in the word 'extasis' ('En el extasis de un atardecer que no sera una noche' (l. 19)) implies that Borges supports the notions of inspiration and madness voiced by the rhapsode Ion. On the other hand, the Platonic resonance in 'Baltasar Gracian' (stanzas 7-8) alludes to the parable of the cavern in Republic VII:

And if he were compelled to look at the light itself, would not that pain his eyes, and would he not turn away and flee to those things which he is able to discern and regard them as in very deed more clear and exact than the objects pointed out?

(Rep. 515e, in Plato: The Collected Dialogues)

The man not accustomed to the light of truth is blinded by its radiance. But Borges proposes something else: perhaps the 'light of truth' does not lie in a possible afterlife, nor in the philosopher's intellectual contemplation, but in the uncertain 'here and now' of human existence. This he states clearly in his essay 'Historia de la eternidad' (1936): 'El tiempo es un problema para nosotros, un tembloroso y exigente problema, acaso el mas vital de la metafisica; la eternidad, un juego o una fatigada esperanza' (OC, I, 353). In a poetical sense, truth rests not in resounding glory but in the acceptance of temporality. The expression 'el extasis de un atardecer' clearly parallels that well-known passages where Borges reasons: 'Hay una hora de la tarde en que la llanura esta por decir algo; nunca lo dice o tal vez lo dice infinitamente y no lo entendemos, o lo entendemos pero es intraducible como una musica' ('El fin', OC, I, 521). These passages show Borges's position with regards to the poetic both as an unpretentious activity and an inner experience. Far from yielding to a gratuitous coupling of opposites, he attaches a relative ethical meaning to notions such as 'glory', 'memory', and 'truth'.

In confronting Daneri's poetic style, Borges is implicitly asking by what criteria should one judge and appreciate poetry and literature as a whole. In Carlos Argentino's work, there is an absence of clearly defined rules to guide the creative process, and it is not possible to find (a procedure that seeks only popular applause) an objective standard by which to measure the poetic value of a poem or literary work: 'En su escritura habian colaborado la aplicacion, la resignacion y el azar; las virtudes que Daneri les atribuia eran posteriores' (OC, I, 619).

Daneri's literary technique betrays a deceptive aim. He is thus portrayed as a poet of falsehood and decadence such as the 'shepherds of the wilderness' criticized by Hesiod in Theogony (l. 26) (Works and Days). If the expression 'literary heresiarch' is meaningful then it should be applied to Daneri, for he holds principles contrary to the tradition that he, as a poet of glory and fame, wishes to perpetuate. Daneri embraces literary tradition (or rather a multiplicity of traditions) only to stab it in the back. 'Borges' seems to respect that tradition, but is unable to defend it from Daneri's attack in so far as he himself is incapable of winning literary recognition.

Looking back to Borges's ultraist period, the poet's biographical projections in the characters of 'El Aleph' appear at a deeper level of signification. Compare Daneri's enthusiastic comments on the pretentious initial verses of his poem: 'Nada dire de la rima rara ni de la ilustracion que me permite !sin pedantismo! acumular en cuatro versos tres alusiones eruditas que abarcan treinta siglos de apretada literatura' (p. 619), with Borges's pompous proclamation of the ultraist doctrine: 'El ultraismo no es quizas otra cosa que la esplendida sintesis de la literatura antigua', and it will become clear to what extent Carlos Argentino reprersents a parodic image of those youthful years. (46) Daneri's lines are humorous not only because of their extravagance and lack of taste but also because they mock the very notion of a synthesized totality of which the Aleph itself is an image. Thus his poem begins with the perfect tense 'he visto', an anticipation of the anaphoric 'vi' of the vision described by 'Borges', as well as a reference to the poet's source, the Aleph:

He visto, como el griego, las urbes de los hombres,

los trabajos, los dias de varia luz, el hambre;

No corrijo los hechos, no falseo los nombres,

Pero el voyage que narro, es ... autour de ma chambre.

(p. 619)

The poet can sing to the earth, not because he is a Ulysses but because he fraudulently copies the Aleph. Hence the bard's adventurous odyssey consists of a fantastic journey around his room ('ma chambre'); he is a shameless cheat! At its best, therefore, Daneri's poetry can be only a mechanical reflection of the Aleph: that is, the product of a mere technical skill lacking inner life.

In the epilogue to 'La busca de Averroes' Borges describes the narrative as the telling of a defeat, and adds: 'Senti, en la ultima pagina, que mi narracion era un simbolo del hombre que yo fui' (p. 588). In 'El Aleph' that man is Borges himself and the taste of disappointment is no less his own. In a letter to Estela Canto, Borges remarks: 'La tarea de construir una buena revista es interesante, pero no deja de ser ardua en un Buenos Aires desierto' ('Jueves 28', in Canto, p. 132). Indeed, Borges's disparity with the literary environment in Argentina reached a frustrating climax in 1942, when his short story 'El jardin de senderos que se bifurcan', which he had presented for the Premio Nacional de Literatura, failed to win the first prize. (47) In 'Desagravio a Borges', a special issue of Sur in which the author's literary merits are vindicated, Eduardo Gonzalez Lanuza satirically states what, a few years later, Borges would treat as a theme in 'El Aleph':

Lamento tener que decir que este fallo me parece honesto; que la exaltacion del aguachirlismo y de la subliteratura no es el resultado de una injusticia, sino de una intima conviccion. Los senores del jurado serian dignos de un premio a la virtud, por la entereza con que mantuvieron su propio parecer por encima de toda vana consideracion literaria.

(quoted in Jurado, p. 43)

In the 1943 postscript, the narrator of 'El Aleph' declares: 'Carlos Argentino Daneri recibio el Segundo Premio Nacional de Literatura. [...] Increiblemente, mi obra Los naipes del tahur no logro un solo voto. !Una vez mas, triunfaron la incomprension y la envidia!' (pp. 626-27). Whilst the portrayal of a writer whose merit is denied reflects Borges's isolation from the contemporary Argentine literary mainstream, the mention of Los naipes del tahur suggests an ironic glance at the reader, for this was the projected title of a prose book Borges intended to write during his ultraist period. (48) The reference to a specific time in the author's literary development, however, can hardly fulfil a merely realistic purpose. Given the agonistic ground of the story it is not surprising that the paragraph where the winner of the Premio Nacional de Literatura is finally disclosed is also one of the most sarcastic; indeed, here Borges puts into practice several rhetorical means of deprecation. To perceive this, one needs only look at an earlier essay: Arte de injuriar' (in Historia de la eternidad, 1936). (49)

Only a witty understanding of irony would conceive of a character (Daneri) carrying in his name such a wealth of literary allusions, yet representing the anti-poet in every possible respect. On the other hand, whilst the mention of the literary prize sets the narrative within an unreserved polemical framework, the title Los naipes del tahur provides the story with a clue towards its poetic intentions. (50)

Also in 'Arte de injuriar', Borges compares the mocker with the gambler in that both assume a set of rules by which meaning is conferred: 'El burlador procede con desvelo, efectivamente, pero con un desvelo de tahur que admite las ficciones de la baraja, su corruptible cielo constelado de personas bicefalas. Tres reyes mandan en el poker y no significan nada en el truco. El polemista no es menos convencional' (OC, I, 419). The content of the rules may change, but not their organizing principle. Hence, different modes of signification will abide by contrasting rules and may suppose distinct expectations. This idea is already present in 'El truco', from Borges's first book of poems, Fervor de Buerlos Aires:

Cuarenta naipes han desplazado la vida.

Pintados talismanes de carton

nos hacen olvidar nuestros destinos

y una creacion risuena

va poblando el tiempo robado

con las floridas travesuras

de una mitologia casera.

(OC, I, 22, l. 1)

The card game opens a space through which the player forgets his ordinary life and enters a new dimension. As a world of fictions opens up (Adentro hay un extrano pais' (l. 10), old gestures and symbols come to life. The game repeats itself (ll. 17-18) and in this circularity a world is tenuously revealed. The poem ends with an allusion to the poetical (l. 24). If we drawn an analogy with literature we can infer that (1) there is a set of rules governing the writer's creative process, (2) these rules must be recognizable by others, and (3) literature demands (or produces) a specific psychological attitude that may, or may not, be distinct from other types of verbal manifestations.

Borges deals with various aspects of this general proposition throughout his work. By mocking the pretentious aspirations of Carlos Argentino Daneri, he presents in 'El Aleph' what he sees as a negative poetic principle. Daneri's literary technique lacks method (other than calculated artificiality) and a true dialogue with the reader and his tradition; (51) in short, it is mere diction deprived of poetic insight. As Maria Rosa Menocal puts it: 'Truth is the Aleph, the magic shown to the faintly ridiculous Daneri, who doesn't really know the true magic of poetry' (Menocal, p. 135).

In the 1969 prologue to Fervor de Buenos Aires Borges admits: 'Aquel muchacho que en 1923 lo escribio ya era esencialmente [...] el senor que ahora se resigna o corrige. Somos el mismo. Para mi, Fervor de Buerlos Aires prefigura todo lo que haria despues.' (52) There, he instils the intimate character of his native city with a poetic essence that exceeds its own poverty. Through various images and metaphors ('calle', 'tarde', 'patio', 'noche', 'campo', 'cielo', and so on) he explores his subject-matter with ajoyous vision that transcends the precariousness of the old, peripheral neighbourhood. Rather than describing it, he recovers a 'mythical space': (53) 'nos echamos a caminar por las calles | como por una recuperada heredad' ('Barrio reconquistado'); 'he repetido antiguos caminos | como si recobrara un verso olvidado' ('La vuelta'); 'Grato es vivir en la amistad oscura | de un zaguan, de una parra y de un aljibe' ('Un patio'). It is this jocund insight that Daneri's poetry lacks. In comparison, we can assume a 'true' Aleph to be a reflection of the sheer plainness of temporality: 'La vida es demasiado pobre para no ser tambien inmortal' (p. 367), Borges concludes paradoxically in 'Historia de la eternidad' (his self-quotation from El idioma de los argerztirzos (1928)).

I have now reached a point from which it is possible to interpret the poetics of 'El Aleph' positively, for the concluding part of 'Historia de la eternidad' constitutes a veritable ecstatic vision. After considering a few classical views on the problem of time, Borges gives his own: this, he says, 'es una pobre eternidad ya sin Dios, y aun sin otro poseedor y sin arquetipos' (p. 365). Here, the 'infinite Aleph' is turned into simplicity (he uses the word 'sencillez' (p. 366)), a revelation ('me senti percibidor abstracto del mundo') not of a chaotic multiplicity, but of a tranquil sameness: 'Esa pura representacion de hechos homogeneos--noche en serenidad, parecita limpida, olor provinciano de la madreselva, barro fundamental--no es meramente identica a la que hubo en esa esquina hace tantos anos; es, sin parecidos ni repeticiones, la misma' (p. 367). In contrast with the poetics of falsehood and forgetfulness of 'El Aleph', here Borges affirms an image of truth and permanence. Thus in 'Arte poetica' (from El hacedor) he asserts: 'El arte es como ese espejo I que nos revela nuestra propia cara.' Contrary to this view of poetry as sincerity of feeling and thought, the fiction writer abides by a creative principle whereby irony, cunning, and deception play a major role in inducing a specific psychological and intellectual effect.

(1) Estela Canto, Borges a contraluz (Madrid: Espasa Calpe, 1989), pp. 15, 94. All further references are to this edition.

(2) 'El Aleph arroja luz sobre su compleja, patetica, exaltada y dramatica personalidad. Las cartas que me escribio en esos anos son un flagrante ejemplo de sus ilusiones, frustraciones y esperanzas' (Canto, p. 15). See also pp. 77, 81, 94.

(3) I use single quotation marks in order to distinguish 'Borges' (the character) from Borges (the author). On Borges's persona, see Emir Rodriguez Monegal, Jorge Luis Borges: A Literary Biography (New York: Dutton, 1978), pp. 413-14; on Borges's use of proper names, see Daniel Balderston, Out of Context: Historical Reference and the Representation of Reality in Borges (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1993), p. 57.

(4) See Borges's own remarks in 'Commentaries', in 'The Aleph' and Other Stories, ed. and trans. by Norman Thomas di Giovanni (London: Cape, 1971), p. 264.

(5) All quotations are taken from Dante Alighieri, La Divina Commedia, 3 vols, ed. by Giuseppi Villaroel (Milan: Mondadori, 1985).

(6) For the Dantean connections in 'El Aleph', see Roberto Paoli, Borges: percorsi di significato (Florence: Universita degli Studi di Firenze, 1977), pp. 9-49; J0n Thiem, 'Borges, Dante, and the Poetics of Total Vision', Comparative Literature, 40 (1988), 97-121; Maria Rosa Menoc al, Writing in Dante's Cult of Truth: From Borges to Boccaccio (Durham, NC, and London: Duke University Press, 1991), Chapter 4; Teresa Cirillo, 'Echi e memorie di Beatrice nella cultura ispanoamericana', in Beatrice nell'opera di Dante e nella memoria europea: 1290-1990, ed. by Maria Picchio Simonelli (Florence: Cadmo, 1994), pp. 417-37 (430-37).

(7) Dante Alighieri, Vira Nuova e Rime, ed. by Guido Davico Bonino (Milan: Mondadori, 1985). Cavalcanti is surprisingly absent from the Commedia.

(8) On Neruda, see Paoli, p. 32; Dictionary of Borges, ed. by Evelyn Fishburn and Psiche Hughes (London: Duckworth, 1990), p. 23; Rodriguez Monegal, pp. 279-83. On Ruben Dario, see Borges's aggressive remarks in 'Ultraismo', in Expliquemonos a Borges comopoeta, ed. by Angel Flores (Mexico City: Siglo XXI, 1984), pp. 19-26 (first published in Nosotros, 151 (1921), 466-71).

(9) Genio y figura de Jorge Luis Borges (Buenos Aires: Editorial Universitaria de Buenos Aires, 1964), p. 65; see also her pejorative remarks on pages 55-56.

(10) Nueve ensayos dantescos, OC, III, 346. Unless otherwise indicated, all further references to Borges's work are taken from Obras completas, 3 vols (Barcelona: Emece, 1989).

(11) A Dictionary ff Proper Names and Notable Matters in the Works of Dante, revised by Charles S. Singleton (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1968), pp. 118-19, 647.

(12) See Borges's chiasmus: 'Infinitamente existio Beatriz para Dante. Dante, muy poco, tal vez nada, para Beatriz' (Nueve ensayos dantescos, OC, III, 371).

(13) So called because 'all [pantes] they who dwelt on Olympus gave each a gift [doron]' (Hesiod, Works and Days, ll. 81-82, in 'The Homeric Hymns and Homerica, trans. by Hugh G. Evelyn-White (London and Cambridge, MA: Loeb Classical Library, repr. 1982), p. 9).

(14) Hesiod and the Language of Poetry (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977), p. 86.

(15) The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious: Collected Works, trans. by R. F. C. Hull, 2nd edn, 20 vols (London: Routledge, 1991), IX, Part I, 230.

(16) See Jaime Alazraki, 'El dificil oficio de la intimidad', in Flores, pp. 145 68, and Borges and the Fabbalah and Other Essays on His Fiction and Poetry (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), pp. xii, 124-35; Guillermo Sucre, Borges, el poeta (Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico, 1967), pp. 9, 15-16.

(17) Jurado, for instance, describes Borges's criticism in the essays as a projection of his own emotional world and reads 'El Aleph' in connection with the former (see Jurado, p. 65). See Borges, 'El encuentro en un sueno', and 'La ultima sonrisa de Beatriz', in Nueve ensayos dantescos, pp. 371, 373.

(18) Although the critic considers the identification of Beatriz Viterbo 'a pointless task', he acknowledges that the best way to understand the character 'is to read what Borges has to say about Dante, and Beatrice'.

(19) See Erich Auerbach, 'Figura', in Scenes from the Drama of European Literature, (New York: Meridian, 1959), p. 73.

(20) Barbara Nolan, The Gothic Visionary Perspective (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1977), Chapters 1-2.

(21) See Menocal, pp. 159-60; Thiem, pp. 98-103.

(22) See Thiem, pp. 97-119: 'Omission, which is a serious defect from a representational viewpoint, becomes a virtue in evocation' (p. 113).

(23) See Paradiso, XXVI. 1-18; XXVIII. 109-12.

(24) This is also a Whitmanesque device; see Rodriguez Monegal, p. 414; Alazraki, Borges and the Kabbalah, pp. 116-22 (also in Borges, the Poet, ed. by Carlos Cortinez (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1986), pp. 149-56); Ana Maria Barrenechea, La expresion de la irrealidad en la obra de Borges (Buenos Aires: Paidos, 1967), p. 118. Ofcourse, the anaphoric 'I saw' is already present in the Odyssey, Book XI.

(25) Simon Goldhill, The Poet's Voice: Essays on Poetics and Greek Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), pp. 61-64.

(26) 'When you chant these, are you in your senses? Or are you carried out of yourself, and does not your soul in an ecstasy conceive herself to be engaged in the actions you relate, whether they are in Ithaca, or Troy, or wherever the story puts them?' (Ion, in Plato: The Collected Dialogues, ed. by Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairnes (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, repr. 1987), p. 221. Further references are to this edition).

(27) 'Fray Bentos': the place where 'Borges' meets Ireneo Funes (in 'Funes el memorioso') who lives in 'un rancho' with a 'patio de baldosa'; 'Adrogue': where Borges used to spend the summer holiday; 'Plinio': one of his favourite Latin authors, whose ambitious compilation, the Naturalis Historia, is cited in 'Funes el memorioso'; 'la Chacarita': a cementery in Buenos Aires (see Cuaderno San Martin).

(28) 'Vi a un tiempo cada letra de cada pagina (de chico yo solia maravillarme de que las letras de un volumen cerrado no se mezclaran y perdieran en el decurso de la noche)' (Borges, OC, I, 625).

(29) It should be noted that the presence of personal memory in the enumeration of the vision, a list that reflects Borges's creative faculty in action, points towards Henri Bergson's distinction between a repetitive or retentive memory and memory that imagines and creates. Clearly, Borges is using the notion of memory in both senses: that is, he is using memory as a means to recover and re-create. Furthermore, Bergson's dualistic philosophy, his conception of time (Bergson is mentioned in 'El Zahir' in connection with this issue (p. 591)), and the idea of an original force in nature (which he identifies with God and Love), fit in very well within the mystical context of the story. Even his psychological studies on dreams seem to be echoed in 'El Aleph', although I cannot tell whether Borges knew them at all. A. J. J. Ratcliff, in a book on dreams first published in 1923, observes: 'Bergson said that if we closed our eyes, and gazed attentively as if they were still open, we should first see a black background, and then transient points of light, moving up and down, and changing size very slowly, some one colour, some another, brilliant or dull according to the person, and colliding with or displacing one another. [...] Ocular spectra, he argues, are idealized into the images of our dreams by the creative power of our imagination, which, in its turn, depends upon our memory. [...] During sleep, memory is impartial, it does not discriminate between impressions of ten years ago and impressions of the day, past and present mingling in perfect freedom. [...] The process of dreaming now closely resembles that of seeing' (A History of Dreams (London: Senate, 1996), pp. 101-04). There is a striking similarity between this description and the vision of the Aleph, particularly if we notice that Borges discreetly slips the word 'almohada' (clearly a reference to sleep and dreams), and few lines later adds: 'Cerre los oj os, los abri. Entonces vi el Aleph' (p. 624).

(30) Mark Freeman, Rewriting the Self: History, Memos, Narrative (London: Routledge, 1993), p. 47.

(31) Giuseppe Mazzotta, Dante, Poet of the Desert: History and Allegory in the Divine Comedy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1979), pp. 253-67 (p. 262), to whom my reading is much indebted; also George Steiner, Language and Silence, 2nd edn (London: Faber & Faber, 1985), pp. 59-60.

(32) See Erich Auerbach, Dante, Poet of the Secular World, trans. by Ralph Manheim (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, repr. 1974), p. 171.

(33) 'Commentaries', in 'The Aleph' and Other Stories, p. 264; see Rodriguez Monegal, pp. 416-17; Thiem, pp. 97-98, 105, 116-17; Menocal, pp. 164-75.

(34) Donald L. Shaw, Borges' Narrative Strategy, Liverpool Monographs in Hispanic Studies, II (Leeds: Cairns, 1992), p. 72.

(35) Beatriz's second Christian name, Elena, could be an allusion to Helen, the Greek mythical figure who embodies a series of oppositions: beauty and danger, love (lust and adultery) and war. See Paoli, p. 21; see also Rodriguez Monegal's comments (p. 166) on an article by Borges entitled 'Maison Elena (Toward an Esthetic of the Whorehouses in Spain' (1921), and Alvaro Melian Lafinur's influence on him: (Dictionary of Borges, p. 136). In 'El Aleph' Borges remarks that 'Beatriz siempre se habia distraido con Alvaro' (p. 622), which, from this perspective, amounts to calling her a prostitute.

(36) See Sucre's analysis of the poem, in Flores, pp. 174-82 (pp. 176, 178, 179) from which I quote below; Adolfo Ruiz Diaz, 'Arte poetica', in Flores, pp. 242-63 (pp. 244-45).

(37) Ronald R. Mcdonald, The Burial-Places of Memory: Epic Underworlds in Virgil, Dante, and Milton (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1987), pp. 27-28.

(38) Greek Mythology and Poetics (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990), p. 26.

(39) See Rosalind Thomas, Literacy and Orality in Ancient Greece (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), pp. 123-27.

(40) Vita Nuova e Rime, XX. See Auerbach, pp. 46-49.

(41) For a critical appreciation of 'humility' in Borges, see Sucre, Borges, el poeta, pp. 57-69, and 'Jactancia de Quietud', in Flores, pp. 174-82.

(42) I am describing Menard's psychology, not the narrator's conclusions on his method and results. As Borges himself repetitively acknowledges in his prefaces, writing constitutes for hito a conscious attempt to imitate and re-create, an act in accordance with literary practices since Antiquity. Such is the example furnished by classical Greece with its reworking of mythology in drama and poetry, a technique described by H.-I. Marrou as 'fundamental': see 'Education and Rhetoric', in The Legacy of Greece: A New Appraisal, ed. by M. I. Finley (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1984). On Borges, see Sylvia Molloy, Signs of Borges, trans by Oscar Montero (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1994), pp. 26-35; Beatriz Sarlo, Jorge Luis Borges: A Writer on the Edgs (London: Verso, 1993), pp. 32-33; Alicia Borinsky, 'Repetition, Museums, Libraries', in Jorge Luis Borges, ed. by Harold Bloom (New York: Chelsea House, 1986), pp. 149-60.

(43) Compare Daneri's words in 'El Aleph': 'Porque ese dilatado jardin de tropos, de figuras, de galanuras, no tolera un solo detalle que no confirme la severa verdad' (p. 622).

(44) Borges was equally self-critical in a later poem, 'El remordimiento': 'Mi mente | Se aplico a las simetricas porfias | Del Arte, que entreteje naderias' (La moneda de hierro (1976), OC, III, 143, ll. 9-11). On the poem 'Baltasar Gracian', see Sucre, pp. 85-86. On Borges's style, see Alazraki, Borges and the Kabbalah, pp. 77-89.

(45) See 'Las Kenningar', in Historia de la Eternidad, p. 370. The question of the authenticity of Gracian's lines is immaterial for my present discussion.

(46) 'Al margen de la moderna lirica', Greda, 31 (1920), quoted in Sucre, p. 30. For Borges and ultraism, see Guillermo de Torre, 'Para la prehistoria ultraista de Borges', in Flores, pp. 27-42; Sucre, pp. 23-39; Gloria Videla, El ultraismo (Madrid: Gredos, 1963); Thorpe Running, Borges' Ultraist Movement and its Poets (Lathrup Village, MI: International Book Publishers, 1981).

(47) Jurado, pp. 42-44; Rodriguez Monegal, p. 417; John King, Sur: A Study of the Argentine Literary Journal and its Role in the Development of a Culture: 1931-1970 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), pp. 116-17.

(48) See De Torre, 'Para la prehistoria ultraista de Borges', p. 36.

(49) Compare Borges's wording in these passages: 'Doctor es otra aniquilacion. Mencionar los sonetos cometidos por el doctor Lugones, equivale a medirlos mal para siempre, a refutar cada una de sus metaforas. A la primera aplicacion de doctor, muere el semidios y queda un vano caballero argentino. [...] Decir que un literato ha expelido un libro o lo ha cocinado o grunido, es una tentacion harto facil; quedan mejor los verbos burocraticos o tenderos: despachar, dar curso, expender' ('Arte de injuriar', I, 420, Borges's italics); 'En 1941 ya habia despachado unas hectarias. [...] Carlos Argentino Daneri recibio el Segundo Premio Nacional de Literature. El primero fue otorgado aldoctor Aita: el tercero, al doctor Mario Bonfanti' ('El Aleph', pp. 620, 626-27).

(50) Estela Canto used to call Borges 'El Tahur'; see Canto, pp. 216-17.

(51) These correspond to points 1 and 2 above. Borges does not deal here with the psychological aspects involved in the poetic experience.

(52) See Running, pp. 41, 60-61; Alazraki, Borges and the Kabbalah, pp. 124-36.

(53) Graciela Palau de Nemes, 'Modernismo and Borges', in Cortinez, pp. 161-69 (p. 160). See also Borges, 'Historia de la eternidad': 'La calle era de barro elemental, barro de America no conquistado' (p. 366).

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Author:Nunez-Faraco, Humberto
Publication:The Modern Language Review
Date:Jul 1, 1997
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