The Nature of Memory In his parable ‘‘The Witness,’’ Borges imagines the last man to have witnessed pagan rituals dying in Anglo-Saxon England and remarks, ‘‘with him will die, and never return, the last immediate images of these pagan rites.’’ Because of this, ‘‘the world will be a little poorer,’’ since it will have lost its last link to a vanished historical era. Borges then wonders what images will die with him.
Similarly, ‘‘The Aleph’’ examines the fragile and faulty nature of memory. The story opens with Borges revealing his admiration of Beatriz Viterbo’s never allowing her final agonies to ‘‘give way to self-pity or fear’’; this admiration, however, is then seasoned by melancholy when he notices a new billboard advertising a brand of American cigarettes. While this detail may initially strike the reader as trivial, it helps Borges illustrate the subtle ways in which one’s world is always changing and, by extension, the idea that when one dies, the memory of the world at that particular point in time will die as well. ‘‘This slight change,’’ Borges knows, ‘‘was the first of an endless series’’— eventually, the last person to have seen Beatriz will die and, as Borges reasons in ‘‘The Witness,’’ the world will be ‘‘a little poorer.’’ At the end of the story, Borges acknowledges this sad fact by describing our minds as ‘‘porous’’ and admitting that he is ‘‘distorting and losing, under the wearing away of the years, the face of Beatriz.’’ While a reader can empathize with the narrator’s despair of using his ‘‘floundering mind’’ to recall what he saw in the Aleph, the story also reminds the reader that the effort to truly and accurately remember something as meaningful as the face of a loved one is doomed to fail because of the effects of time on human memory. Thus the reader is told that in the Aleph, Borges ‘‘saw the rotted dust and bones that had once deliciously been Beatriz Viterbo.’’
The Literary Problem of Infinity
Much of Borges’s power as a writer comes from his having read so much for so many years. In his essay ‘‘The Fearful Sphere of Pascal,’’ he examines the historical notion that God is a sphere whose center is everywhere and circumference is nowhere. In his own words, ‘‘if the future and the past are inﬁnite, there cannot really be a when,’’ and ‘‘if every being is equidistant from the inﬁnite and inﬁnitesimal, neither can there be a where.’’ By this logic (he concludes), ‘‘No one exists on a certain day, in a certain place.’’ The difﬁculty in writing about such an idea is that language cannot hope to replicate the concept in words, for if a character really could see an Aleph, how could he or she hope to convey the sensation of seeing it to a reader or even to himself or herself?
Borges approaches this problem by ﬁrst having his narrator apologize for being unable to ‘‘translate into words the limitless Aleph.’’ Because all language is ‘‘a set of symbols’’ that can only be understood sequentially, any attempt to replicate the experience of seeing every point in the universe at once is doomed to fail. His apology fresh in the reader’s mind, Borges then offers a limited but selective catalog of some of the things he saw in the Aleph. To suggest the totality of what he saw, Borges includes images relating to nature (‘‘the teeming sea,’’ ‘‘tides,’’ ‘‘deserts,’’ ‘‘shadows of ferns on a greenhouse ﬂoor,’’ ‘‘bunches of grapes, snow, tobacco’’), animal life (‘‘horses with ﬂowing manes,’’ ‘‘tigers,’’ ‘‘bison,’’ ‘‘all the ants on the planet’’), history (‘‘a copy of the ﬁrst English translation of Pliny’’), geography (‘‘a terrestrial globe’’), astronomy (‘‘a Persian astrolabe’’), biology (‘‘the delicate bone structure of a hand,’’ ‘‘my own bowels’’), as well as a number of speciﬁc place names (America, London, Soler Street, Queretaro, Bengal, Fray Bentos, Inverness, Adrogue, Alkmaar, the Caspian Sea, Mirzapur, the Chacarita cemetery) to suggest the breadth of the Alpeh’s contents. While the description of what he saw in the Aleph takes up only a fraction of the story, it does give the reader a sense of the sheer inconceivability of inﬁnity. ‘‘In the Aleph I saw the earth and in the earth the Aleph,’’ Borges explains; if this language strikes a reader as vague or elusive, it is only because language is not up to the task of replicating inﬁnity on the printed page.
David Galens – Short Stories for Students_ Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories (Volume 17)-Gale (2003)