The first narrative theme of Jose Luis Borges’ The Aleph (1949) concerns the protagonist’s grief over his unrequited love and death of Beatriz Viterbo. The fact that Borges’ fictionalizes the protagonist as “Borges” speaks to the multi-layered complexity of the story that is indicative of his writing style. Also indicative of his style is the prima facie unrelatedness of themes or stories within a story. For example, within the story of unrequited love and death in The Aleph, Borges develops the story of writers and their aesthetic differences along with the later story of the aleph itself, an object in space that contains all other points in space that allows simultaneous viewing of everything within. Seemingly distinct, the three stories are connected in a meaningful way. In the following, I will briefly analyze each of the three themes or stories within The Aleph. I will then show how each theme relates to, parallels, and informs the other. Lastly, I will argue that the three themes share problems of perception and show that Borges’ is claiming that true knowledge of the sublime, like death and art, is unreachable.
The story of unrequited love and the death of Beatriz begins with a commentary on the fleeting nature of memory and ends with a horrific vision in the aleph of Beatriz’s physical decay. Borges says, “… the vast, unceasing universe was already growing away from her and … the universe may change but I shall not, thought I with melancholy vanity.” This refers to Borges’ sad attempt to hold Beatriz as near in memory as he thought she was in life. It is sad because of the lengths he goes to keep the memory of her intact viz. befriending Daneri, a writer he despises, simply to have access to the house where Beatriz lived. It is the memory of Beatriz that drives the false relationship and humiliation of Daneri until the end. This is a metaphor for the false relationship and humiliation Borges’ feels over the memory of his lost love that he cannot relinquish. It is not until Borges sees Beatriz in the aleph that he lets go of her. It is not a coincidence that it is at the same time Daneri loses his house and the aleph. It is also not a coincidence that not letting go of Beatriz, Daneri losing the aleph, and the aleph itself are too much to endure or too far to reach without the loss of something else – identity. I will show that identity is also a thread that ties the three stories or themes together.
The story of writers and their aesthetic differences points to subjective nature of art. What is beheld in Daneri’s eyes as, “A stanza interesting from every point of view” , Borges beholds as, “…the poet’s work had not lain in the poetry, but in the invention of reasons for accounting the poetry admirable.” The striking difference between the two interpretations is what is important to note because it begs the question of which one of them is prideful or delusional or if it is an all-together different question of what art is in the first place. Borges paints the picture that Daneri is pompous and unskilled so when it is revealed that Daneri takes second place in the National Prize in literature, it speaks more to the subjective or inaccessible nature of art. The reader is somewhat confused because Borges is somewhat the hero in the story. Borges discusses Daneri’s award, however, with detached resignation. It is confusion and detached resignation that links the emotional state of the writer’s story with that of the story of unrequited love and death. Loss is confusing and acceptance of a loved one’s death is that of detached resignation. The aleph is also confusing and Borges’ response is detached when he lets it go because the aleph, like art and death, is overwhelming and a reminder of our lack of significance. To protect one’s identity against insignificance, one must keep the unreachable at a distance and resign, unconsciously or not, to this fact.
The story of the aleph, although more visual and fantastic, is easier to understand than the other two stories if one accepts the idea that it is actually a metaphor for the sublime. The words Borges uses such as “…dizzying spectacles … infinite … spider-web … labyrinth … secret, hypothetical object …” clearly points to classic definitions of the sublime. It is this object “… whose name has been usurped by men but which no man has ever truly looked: the inconceivable universe.” that conceptually links the three stories together. Those same words could arguably be used to describe death or art as it can be for the sublime. The distinction between the story of the aleph and the other two is the representative necessity of the aleph but then, that is the point. We cannot truly know death. We cannot truly know art. We cannot truly know the sublime. It is only through representations that can we conceptualize the unconceptualizable. This is why, according to Borges, the three concepts and the three stories are unreachable and always will be regardless of how much we may fool ourselves that it is within our reach.
The unconceptualizable nature of death, art, and the sublime is due to the limitations of human perception. In other words, the three stories and themes of Borges’ The Aleph share epistemological problems that our senses cannot resolve. We can approximate but never truly ascertain the nature of death, which is why we grieve so much and many times hang onto the memory of love lost. We may approximate but never truly ascertain the qualitative nature of art even though many argue it is firmly within the realm of the subjective. We may approximate the nature of the sublime but we are resigned to simply represent it through language and thought that may never be significant enough to truly understand. Borges’ protagonist is, in a way, sad and pathetic in his relationship with Beatriz and Daneri. His loss in the National Literature contest points to his failure in his art as well and that is the point. The character of Borges is us and we cannot presume, without risk of hubris, that we can achieve true knowledge of the sublime, art, death or we would be just as sad, just as pathetic but this is not a gloomy prospect. There is beauty in his vision of Beatriz as there is in his interpretation of art. There is beauty in the aleph as well but not knowledge and that is the thread between the stories that ties all the other threads together. We can appreciate beauty and the inconceivable without true knowledge of why it is beautiful.