On “The Aleph” by Jorge Luis Borges:
Observations and Questions

By Ralph Dumain


I prepared the following essay in August 2006 for a literary group discussion of Borges’ masterpiece "The Congress":

On “The Congress” by Jorge Luis Borges: Observations and Questions

. . . with links to other relevant pages on my site and elsewhere. See also my blog commentaries on Borges, starting here:

Borges Revisited (14)

I have lifted some of the material from my blogs (mostly synopses of other stories) for an upcoming group discussion of Borges’ story “The Aleph” (‘El Aleph’, 1945). The translation by Norman Thomas Di Giovanni (in collaboration with the author) can be found at pHinnWebb.


The Aleph” replicates themes found in most of Borges' stories:

1. Infinity & infinite divisibility
2. the paradox of the reduplication of the universe in a microcosm . . .
3. . . . resulting in cosmic destabilization as well as an anxiety of infinite regress
4. some liminal talismanic object of perfection representing aforementioned destabilization
5. obscure manuscripts, exotic lore
6. the impossibility of living with the consciousness of total flux
7. the instability underlying the illusion of permanence
8. language and personal identity (seen as illusory abstractions) dissolved into extreme nominalism
9. the sense of breaking a taboo, sense of shame, sense of defilement of the order of things by encountering structures such as the Aleph
10. shrinking back from such limit states to the ordinariness of the finite world, even to the point of not discussing the extraordinary limit experience
11. slippage of identity and memory
12. chance encounters
13. a background of violence (or in this case, tragedy).

Note that many of Borges' poems embody his characteristic themes, e.g. potentially infinite regress of dreams and dreamers.


Here are a few examples in Borges’ fiction to illustrate my points.

The symbolic duplication of the universe is a constant menace in Borges' oeuvre. "Parable of the Palace" is one brief such illustration. The doubling of the act of creation threatens the disappearance of the cosmos. The creator or interloper in the secrets of the cosmos, as he approaches the grasp of Everything, vanishes as an individual, becoming no-one and no-thing. This theme is repeated oft-times in Borges' work; one such example is "From Someone to No One." In "Everything and Nothing", the individual Shakespeare is unable to assume a fixed identity: God, observing his creation, tells him He is the same.

"The Mirror and the Mask" embodies a common Borgesian theme: the sense of transgression in the act of creation and the quest for perfection. There is a dialogue between the King of Ireland and his court poet. The poet has managed to compose the perfect ode but is afraid to recite it. The king urges him to do so. The consequences are disastrous. The poet commits suicide; the king becomes a vagabond. The king's fate reminds me of don Alejandro Glencoe selling off his ranch in "The Congress".

"The Book of Sand" is one of Borges’ most compelling stories, perhaps exceeded only by "The Congress." The narrator possesses a collection of rare Bibles and is willing to make a trade with a caller who has brought him The Book of Sand, a strange holy book that has an infinite number of pages. Once acquiring the book, the narrator becomes obsessed with it, becomes a hermit and shuts out the outside world. The book becomes a nightmare—'monstrous', he calls it.

"The Circular Ruins" embodies the themes of duplication, reflection and regress, and the reversal of dream and reality. A man dreams a son, and then worries whether his son will one day discover the nature of his real existence, but the man, facing death, learns that he too is someone else's dream.

"The Immortal" explores the logic of immortality showing it to be a horror. There is also the notion of the indistinguishability of memories as one's lifeline stretches to infinity. And the familiar Borgesian theme of transgression.

"Funes the Memorious" involves inter alia Funes' alteration of language, as if outdoing Locke's thought experiments with language, for Funes remembered not only each individual object, but each experience of it.

The story “Shakespeare's Memory” features a German Shakespeare scholar who acquires Shakespeare from another fellow who acquired it from a dying soldier in World War I. The narrator accepts Shakespeare's memory, and is told that it will take awhile for him to remember things. Bits and pieces of Shakespeare's memory come to him at various times, but the experience is not what he had hoped to learn as a curious scholar. He realizes that memory cannot be forced, it must be activated or stimulated so that memories come forth; even Shakespeare did not have full, deliberate access to his own memory. Eventually the narrator is giddily in possession of Shakespeare's memory. He also acquires a vague feeling of guilt—Shakespeare's guilt. He realizes that the life is not the work, and that part of him has become Shakespeare the man not the poet. He also realizes that he lacks the writing talent to write a biography of Shakespeare, or of himself. The gist of transmuting thought and experience into literature remains a mystery, and the presence of Shakespeare becomes a curse not a joy. The narrator becomes unfocused, and with time the burden of two memories is too much.

"Blue Tigers": This is one of Borges' last stories, and it recapitulates almost off of his constant themes, but rather than being stale, it is exceptional. The contrast between common superstition (the blue tiger) and this far more disturbing phenomenon (blue tigers) is brilliant. The overworked Borgesian theme of metaphysical anxiety linked to a talismanic object, transgression of the order of things, and an intolerable violation of rationality, is fabulized in a novel fashion. What an excellent way for the master to wrap up his career.

"The Aleph" is another story of a dangerous talismanic object. This story involves death, poetry, and the Aleph—"one of the points in space that contain all points." The narrator gets to see the Aleph in the corner of a basement, and thus gets to see all the places in the world at once, which, until forgetfulness once again sets in, causes him to be indifferent to all further environmental stimuli.


However, this story introduces other elements that make it much more puzzling.


New elements and puzzles in “The Aleph”:


  1. Daneri, first cousin of deceased Beatriz (fictional Borges’ lover): what Daneri represents & the triangulation of these relationships
  2. literary ambition, public recognition & fame (in addition to familiar theme of the relationship of literature & experience)
  3. the relationship of Borges (as character-narrator) & Daneri to the Aleph
  4. the post-Aleph experience
  5. the possibility of multiple false Alephs.


Here is an attempt to diagram the essential elements of the story.




Beatriz Viterbo                                               Borges (narrator, writer) ↔ Aleph                                  

(born 30 April, died 1929, Borges’ lover;

perceptive but distracted & cruel)




Carlos Argentino Daneri (first cousin of Beatriz, librarian, pedantic poet, encyclopedic knowledge, loves the modern, loves the house).




Combinatorially mechanical,     ↔ experience (subterranean)     language, literature

no sense of wonder                                                                             (sequential, public, social)




Borges (as character: writer)         literary ambition & recognition (public, social)




competition / tension  (Borges / Daneri)




1921: Carnaval: Beatriz wears mask


1929: death of Beatriz


Borges’ annual visits: 30 April (Beatriz’ birthday)

1933: invited to dinner at Beatriz’ house

1934: invited self to dinner

1941: “treated” to Carlos Argentino Daneri’s pedantic conversation & poetry


2 Sundays later: Daneri asks favor.


1941, October: Encounter with the Aleph


1942 (probably): publication of Daneri's "Argentine sections"


1942, July: discovery of manuscript containing reports of Aleph-like objects


1943, 1 March: Postscript


From Puzzles to Questions

1. How does Borges the writer handle the ineffability of experience?

2. Is the ineffability of ordinary experience comparable to the the experience of the Aleph?

3. What is Daneri missing in what he thinks are his perfectly constructed (and encyclopedic) poetry?

4. Does this relate to Borges' writings on ars combinatoria (Llull, Wilkins, etc.)?

5. How does the experience of literature compare to the experience of life? With Borges (as character/narrator?) With Daneri?

6. Why is Daneri so blasé and matter-of-fact about what others would consider a transcendent experience via the Aleph?

7. How does the Aleph experience change Borges?

8. How does the Aleph and the loss of the Aleph affect Daneri's writing?

9. What is the relation between private experience and public life, e.g. as a writer, in the public use of language?

10. Why does Borges the character/narrator feel discomfort in discussing the Aleph experience with Daneri?

11. Why does Daneri receive the success and public recognition that Borges the character/narrator craves?

12. How does the relationship of the literary person to the public relate to the subterranean experience of the Aleph?

13. Is there an analogy between Beatrice/Dante and Beatriz/Daneri?

14. How does Beatriz as an idealized object of memory compare to what we can ascertain about the real Beatriz?

15. What is the role of forgetfulness in this story?

16. What are the implications of the existence of multiple or false Alephs?

More to come, post-discussion.

Jorge Luis Borges: Selected Study Materials on the Web
(including all the following links)

On “The Congress” by Jorge Luis Borges: Observations and Questions
by Ralph Dumain

"The Congress" by Jorge Luis Borges

"Spinoza" poem by Jorge Luis Borges

Hajkoj kaj Tankaoj de Jorge Luis Borges, tradukis Carlos A. Castrillón [in Esperanto]

La Biblioteko de Babelo de Jorge Luis Borges, tradukis Gulio Cappa [in Esperanto]

Borges blog entries [start in old blog]

Borges Revisited (14) [in new blog]

A Taxonomy of Surreal Taxonomists by Prentiss Riddle

The Cyclical Night: Irony in James Joyce and Jorge Luis Borges by L. A. Murrilo

Philosophical and Universal Languages, 1600-1800, and Related Themes: Selected Bibliography


The Aleph
(‘El Aleph’, 1945, by Jorge Luis Borges, translated by Norman Thomas Di Giovanni

The Aleph (short story) - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

United Infinity: Borges & The Aleph (2009)
by Zachary McCune

Hopelessness and Potency: Borges' "El Aleph"
by Santiago Colas

Bodying Forth the Impossible: Metamorphosis, Mortality, and Aesthetics in the Works of Jorge Luis Borges
by Heather Lisa Dubnick

'The Analytical Language of John Wilkins' (originally 'El idioma analítico de John Wilkins' ) by Jorge Luis Borges
Translated by Lilia Graciela Vázquez
   Translated by Will Fitzgerald
    Spanish original & English translation

An Eternal Engine by Wayne Clements
[on Llull, Swift, Borges, & computer-generated writing]

Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Recognition - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Jorge Luis Borges - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Borges: Garden of Forking Paths

Borges Center

Borges en Esperanto [blogo Ĝirafo]

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Uploaded 27 July 2010
Updated 29 & 31 July 2010

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