From the last summer, I have been procrastinating on writing book review series for Borges’s Collected Fictions. There have been a lot of things going on since summer. Plus, I always feel that reading his books requires some extra concentration and I certainly felt distracted by events going around me(moving to different continent might be a good excuse). Now, since I have lived in the new place for over 5 months, I can be relatively more relaxed and re-initiate to read the rest part of the book.
(For previous posts: Borges(1): A Universal History of Iniquity, Borges(2): Ficciones)
The third post on Borges’s Collected Fiction is “Aleph“. According to wikipedia, Aleph is the first letter of Semitic Abjads(e.g. Arabics, Hebrew) like alphabet “A”. Also, it can be used “number 1” as well. 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.
We have all experienced different dimensions in our life, to name just three: waking, deep sleep and dreaming. Yet when it comes to describing or imagining the afterlife, I’ve read very few accounts postulating how awareness could shift between various levels; rather, life (or lack of life) after death tends to be portrayed as an uninterrupted hum all at one frequency, the three major frequencies: 1) awareness within a specific form, like a light body 2) formless awareness, that is, our consciousness merging with undifferentiated oneness, an ocean of universal conscious 3) complete obliteration without a trace of conscious awareness.
Why is this? Why can’t we think in terms of an alternating between various frequencies or modes of awareness, perhaps even with an occasional shift into oblivion? And these questions are compounded if we also think of our bodily existence on planet earth continuing forever, if we became part of the race of the immortals. Questions such as these pop up, at least for me, after reading this Jorge Luis Borges tale.
Vintage Borges: The Borges-like narrator discloses a verbatim transcription of a document a French princess purchased in an old London bookshop after a conversation she had with the grubby old bookdealer in various languages: French, English, Spanish, Portuguese; she subsequently walked out of the shop with Alexander Pope’s rendering of Homer’s Iliad in six volumes and later found this document in the last volume. You have to love how our Borges-like narrator isn’t claiming to invent the story; quite the contrary, he is simply reporting on someone else’s factual account of their extraordinary experience.
The Manuscript: The document’s narrator provides us with his back-story in brief: he is an officer in the Roman army in Egypt, the Roman legions that have recently defeated Egyptian forces; however, since he himself didn’t participate in any of the bloody combat, he was propelled to embark on an adventure through the deserts in quest of the secret City of the Immortals. You also have to love how the narrator, an adventurous soldier, hale, hearty, bold leader of men and lover of the god Mars, functions as an alter-ego to the frail, bookish, solitary Borges.
The Spark: One day a stranger, exhausted, covered in blood, rides into camp and, prior to dropping dead that very evening, informs the tribune how he is searching for the river that purifies men of death; and, he goes on to say, on the other side of that river lies the City of the Immortals, a city filled with bulwarks, amphitheaters and temples. With the inclusion of amphitheaters as part of his description of the immortal city, we are given a direct signal that what is contained within its walls shares a common culture with the Greco-Roman world. Anyway, the stranger’s words fire his spirit and imagination, thus primed for an astonishing discovery, off they go, the tribune and two hundred soldiers under his command provided complements of a high-ranking military commander.
Going Solo: As the tribune informs us, the first part of the journey proved harrowing, grueling and strenuous beyond endurance – most of his men were either driven mad or died, while others, attempting desertion, faced torture or crucifixion. Also in this initial phase, the seekers crossed lands and deserts of fantastic tribes, including the Troglodytes who “devour serpents and lack all verbal commerce.” Events reach such a pitch he is told by a soldier loyal to his cause that the remaining men desire to avenge a crucifixion of one of their comrades and plan to kill him. He subsequently flees camp with several soldiers but disaster hits: in the fury of blinding desert whirlwinds he quickly gets separated – from now on, he is on his own.
Turning Point: Our tribune wanders for days in the desert, forever scorched by the sun and parched by thirst until his living nightmare shifts and somehow he finds himself bound hands behind his back and lying in a stone niche the size of a grave on the slope of a mountain. There’s a stream running at the foot of this mountain and beyond the stream he beholds the dazzling structures of the City of the Immortals. Marcus Flaminius Rufus (at this point the tribune lets us know his name) can also see numerous holes riddling the mountain and valley and from those holes emerge grey skinned naked men with scraggly beards, men he recognizes as belonging to the race of Troglodytes. My sense is these Troglodytes represent a mode of being at the extreme opposite end of the spectrum from that of a refined aesthete and man of letters like Borges. I suspect Borges perceived (and perhaps dreamed) many of his fellow humans inhabiting a Troglodyte-like existence.
Exploration, One: After many days and having finally freed himself from his bonds, Marcus enters the City of the Immortals. Soon after he explores the periphery, we read, “The force of the day drove me to seek refuge in a cavern; toward the rear there was a pit, and out of the pit, out of the gloom below, rose a ladder. I descended the ladder and made my way through a chaos of squalid galleries to a vast, indistinct circular chamber. Nine doors opened into that cellar-like place; eight led to a maze that returned deceitfully, to the same chamber; the ninth led through another maze to a second circular chamber identical to the first.” Anybody familiar with Jorge Luis Borges will recognized a number of recurrent themes: mazes, caverns, ladders, doors, chaos, circular chambers.
Exploration, Two: Having spent what appears an eternity underground, Marcus spots a series of metal rungs on a wall leading to a circle of sky. He climbs the ladder, sobbing with tears of joy, until he emerges into a type of small plaza within the brilliant City. Marcus senses the city’s antiquity and wanders along staircases and inlaid floors of a labyrinthine palace thinking how all what he sees is the work of the gods or, more accurately, gods who have died or, even, perhaps, since much of the architecture appears to lack any trace of practical purpose, gods who were mad. Then, we read, “I had made my way through a dark maze, but it was the bright City of the Immortals that terrified and repelled me.” And this is only the beginning: as Marcus further discovers, there are revelations even more astonishing, including the shocking true identity of one of those Troglodytes.
Universal Questions: The second half of the tale takes a decidedly philosophical turn and, in the spirit of this Borges classic, I will conclude with a series of question posed either directly or indirectly by the narrator:
• How does memory relate to immortality? Is the erasure of our memory the first step in achieving immortality?
• Likewise, how does time relate to immortality and is the erasure of time a critical step in experiencing immortality?
• If we were to experience a state free of memory and time in this life, through powerful hallucinogens, deep meditation or otherwise, have we achieved a kind of immortality, at least for a time?
• What part does ecstasy and bliss play in the state or experience of immortality?
• How far does the consequences of our action extend? To a subsequent rebirth or afterlife in another state?
• How much weight should we give to history or a specific epoch of history? To our own personal history? How much of history is so much smoke and mirrors?
• What role does transformation on any level, physical, mental, artistic, spiritual, play in our life?
When I read the work of Jorge Luis Borges I feel like my universe is expanding a thousand-fold. And for good reason – my universe is, in fact, expanding a thousand-fold! This is especially true as I read The Aleph and Other Stories. Such sheer imaginative power. Fantastic! There are nearly fifty stories and brief tales collected here and every tale worth reading multiple times.
The Two Kings and The Two Labyrinths
The king of Babylonia builds a labyrinth “. . . so confused and so subtle that the most prudent men would not venture to enter it, and those who did would lose their way.” Although the king of Babylonia tricked the king of the Arabs into entering his diabolical labyrinth, the king, with the help of God, manages to find the secret exit. After claiming victory in a bloody war, the king of the Arabs leads the king of Babylonia, in turn, into a different kind of labyrinth, and says, ” . . . the Powerful One has seen fit to allow me to show thee mine, which has no stairways to climb, nor doors to force, not wearying galleries to wander through, nor walls to impede thy passage.” Then, the king of the Arabs abandoned the king of Babylonia in the middle of the desert. These two images of a labyrinth, one intricate, convoluted, infinitely confusing and the other an endless desert, have remained with me since I first read this tale some thirty years ago and will remain with me as long as there is a `me’ with a memory.
A tale of identity where a young boy with sky-blue eyes is kidnapped in an Indian raid. The parents recover their son who is now a man and bring him back to their home. The man remembers exactly where he hid a knife. Not long thereafter, the man, now an Indian in spirit, returns to the wilderness. The story ends with a question, “I would like to know what he felt in that moment of vertigo when past and present intermingled; I would like to know whether the lost son was reborn and died in that ecstatic moment, and he ever managed to recognize, even as a baby or a dog might, his parents and the house.” For Borges, memory and identity are ongoing themes. After reading Borges, I can assure you, memory and identity have become ongoing themes for me also.
Around the universe in fifteen pages. There is a little something here for anybody who cherishes literature – a dearly departed lover named Beatriz, a madman and poet named Carlos Argentino Daneri, who tells the first person narrator, a man by the name of Borges, about seeing the Aleph, and, of course, the Aleph. What will this Borges undergo to see the Aleph himself? We read, “I followed his ridiculous instructions; he finally left. He carefully let down the trap door; in spite of a chink of light that I began to make out later, the darkness seemed total. Suddenly I realized the danger I was in; I had allowed myself to be locked underground by a madman, after first drinking down a snifter of poison.” Rather than saying anything further about the Aleph, let me simply note that through the magic of literature we as readers are also given a chance to see what Borges sees. I dare anybody who has an aesthetic or metaphysical bone in their body to read this story and not make the Aleph a permanent part of their imagination.
This is a masterful collection by a writer of genius. I believe The Aleph is just as good as Fictions,” and Fictions is as good as any book of short pieces produced in the 20th Century. If you like paradoxes, puzzles, doppelgangers and labyrinths used as metaphors for the relation of microcosm to macrocosm and the fluid nature of personal identity, then this is the book for you. These stories are profound, but they are written in such an entertaining traditional narrative style that they might often be mistaken for pulp fiction if they weren’t so astonishingly elegant.