Short Story – The Aleph by Jose Luis Borges

El Aleph

El Aleph

Borges’ is always writing about writing, no matter what else he writes about. I always thought of his stories as meta-fiction, in that they examined the process of writing itself along with the other topics he chose to examine for that particular story. In this sense, I can see how Borges gained such a towering reputation among other writers; he always seems to make lists of favorite writers by other writers, despite his fiction workload being far less prolific than many other influential  “writer’s writers”. 

The Aleph dances around several themes but tucked into the main narrative, Borges reveals his thoughts on writing. Borges mentions the writer Daneri, for whom “milky” is not enough and thus, he needs to use more exotic terms such as “lacteal” and the invented word “lactinacious”. This subtle criticism of the “thesaurus” style of writing, where the writer just looks up rare words for the sake of appearing well read as opposed to simply choosing the best word to accomplish the task, reveals Borges’ view on writers like Daneri.

With the titular topic, The Aleph, Borges focuses on experience through mysticism. The name Aleph is mystic in origin, being the first letter in the Kabbalistic alphabet and signifying the “godhead”. This foreshadows the mysticism that is present when Daneri discusses what he dubs the Aleph, a special point in space, in his basement where one can view all other points in space-time. But the way Borges describes this mystical event makes the reader think about how words cannot possibly capture the depth and breadth of a profound experience. Yet, to communicate, words and gestures are almost all we have. The Aleph digs to the fundamental core of what language is, an imperfect means of communicating experience which, many times, cannot be captured just in words alone.  This exposes why we use so many devices, simile and metaphor, analogies and abstractions, because we try to communicate things that are often difficult to communicate using our vocabulary literally. By choosing a mystical experience to convey this point, Borges goes beyond themes that most writers choose like love or revenge and reveals the core of what it means to be a writer: to put into words those experiences that defy reduction to the written word.

Read The Aleph