I was hoping to do just three entries on Borges, but my comments on his essays and poems will have to wait until tomorrow. Today I want to focus on my favorite two short stories of Borges, which are: The Aleph and The Zahir:
In The Aleph, Carlos Argentino believes that a magical object is located in his basement. He convinces his friend Borges to go and see for himself. Before sending him down, Argentino tells him, according to the translation: “If you don’t see it, that doesn’t invalidate anything I’ve told you.” I, however, prefer Borges’ original Spanish rendering, which better connotes Argentino’s sense of insecure superiority: “Claro esta que si no lo ves, tu incapacidad no invalida mi testimonio” –or— “Of course, if you don’t see it, your ineptitude/incapacity does not invalidate my testimony/what I say.” Argentino makes another pre-emptive strike for the sake of ego-protection when he feels the need to add… “Truth will not penetrate a recalcitrant understanding.” Ah yes… as always, to occupy the higher ground without actually elevating one’s self, others must be knocked down.
I’ve known many a true believer in causes both religious and secular who assumes that those who disagree with him are obviously his intellectually or spiritual inferior. Psychologically, this is a defensive technique to protect one’s beliefs and/or fantasies from crumbling.
Arriving in the pitch-black basement, the door closes above him, and Borges waits for the appearance of the magical object which his friend Argentino has labeled the “Aleph.” While waiting, Borges has an epiphany: he realizes that his friend is insane. “Sometimes learning a fact is enough to make an entire series of corroborating details, previously unrecognized, fall into place; I was amazed that I hadn’t realized until that moment that Carlos Argention was a madman,” adding that his friend’s “madness filled me with malign happiness; deep down, we had always detested one another.”
But then Borges recognizes the danger he has put himself in: “I had allowed myself to be locked underground by a madman,” and that “in order to protect his delirium, in order to hide his madness from himself, he had to kill me.”
At this point, the tale is reminiscent of a good Poe story. But then, Borges notices, between the steps, “a small iridescent sphere of almost unbearable brightness.” The Aleph actually exists! It is less than three centimeters wide and yet contains “without admixture or confusion, all the places of the world, seen from every angle.”
Yet when he emerges from the basement, Borges implies to his friend that he saw nothing unusual down there, considering it a “revenge” to plant a seed of doubt in Argentino’s mind. Why this petty act of revenge? The character Borges, though outwardly dismissive of his friend’s writing ability, perhaps secretly envies his friend’s talent, or at least his friend’s self-confidence as a writer.
Speaking of writing talent, one of the things I liked about The Aleph was Borges’ remarks concerning literature. Listening to his friend Argentino rattle on in a philosophizing tone, Borges grows irritated with the writerly pose:
“So witless did these ideas strike me, so sweeping and pompous in the way they were expressed, I associated them immediately with literature. Why, I asked him, didn’t he write these ideas down? Predictably, he replied that he already had.”
Later, though speaking disparagingly of his friend’s work ethic, I think Borges nevertheless gives some good advice on how the craft of writing is best pursued: “Leaning always on those twin staffs, Work and Solitude. First he would open the floodgates of the imagination, then repair to the polishing wheel.”
And, I think Borges states what is obvious to us writers when he says: “I come now to the ineffable center of my tale; it is here that a writer’s hopelessness begins.” An author often begins a tale knowing either the beginning or the end. The middle of the story is the hardest part to construct. It is also where one’s initial enthusiasm and confidence can begin to break down.
In The Zahir, Borges receives, in his change from buying some orange brandy, a coin called “the Zahir.” The Zahir is an object which possesses “the terrible virtue of being unforgettable, and whose image finally drives people mad.” The Zahir can take many forms, even creatures it seems, but in any given moment, there is always one, and only one, Zahir in the world. Borges tells us that in Arabic, Zahir means notorious or visible. “In this sense,” he says, “it is one of the ninety-nine names of God.”
As his mind is absorbed more and more by the Zahir coin, Borges finds that “whatever is not the Zahir appears before me in a faded, far-off form.” He begins deep ruminations upon the power and beauty of money. “A coin symbolizes our free will,” he thinks. “Money is future time” and “a repertory of possible futures.”
He then thinks how each coin is a symbol for every coin, and begins meditating upon the famous coins of history: the thirty pieces of silver paid to Judas; the coins placed with the dead to pay their fare to Charon so that he will take them to the Underworld; the gold piece nailed by Ahab to the mast for the first sailor who spots Moby Dick; the coins tossed to the hero-turned-beggar Belisarius, blinded by the emperor Justinian; the coins containing the image of King Louis XVI which proved his undoing when he was fleeing revolutionary France because they made him recognizable to even the peasants; the single coin earned by the aged prostitute Lais for her services after having earned, in her great days as a famous and beautiful young courtesan, as much as a 1,000 drachmas a visit.
Perhaps the deepest lure of the Zahir is that its power over us relieves us of responsibility for our own actions and mistakes. Borges feels a great “relief in knowing that I was not to blame for my misfortune.”
By the end of the story, Borges can say with tranquility, “others will dream that I am mad. I will dream of the Zahir.”
There are also two stories within the story of The Zahir, which I will not go into deeply, but want to mention. The first concerns a woman named Teodelina Villar who seeks “the Absolute in the momentary.” She is a slave to fashion, but Borges considers her devotion in the same vein as “an adept of Confucius or of the Talmud” since she, too, “sought irreproachable correctness in every act.” He actually considers her belief system the sternest of all since it did not depend on unchanging credos, “but rather on the chance code of Paris or Hollywood.”
The second vignette contained within the encompassing story of The Zahir, is one that the story’s protagonist tells us he has written. It is a fantasy tale about the serpent Fafnir and the Nibelung treasure that he hoards—but in this version, the story is told sympathetically from the perspective of Fafnir, who is merely endeavoring to protect the world by not allowing the infinite treasure to come under the control of “the insane greed of humankind.”
Last note: the author tells us he refers to gold in his story as the “serpent’s bed”— oh true, so true.
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More on Borges from Hammering Shield: