Arts, Literary Essay, Literature, Metaphysics, Philosophy
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The Concept of God: Jorge Luis Borges & The Aleph

photo of Jorge Luis Borges

What is God? A physical Being that knows all? A mental or spiritual “space” of pure understanding? Jorge Luis Borges spent his life exploring these thorny metaphysical questions, and never with more probing insight and wit than in his famous story “The Aleph.” In the following essay, Karen Warinsky examines how Borges’s story uses the Kabbalistic concept of the Aleph—the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet that Kabbalists believe opens a window into the relationship between God and His creation—both to admire and to mock those like himself who seek to comprehend what is incomprehensible, ie. a total vision of the nature of the cosmos. Pictured above: Jorge Luis Borges at his office, Argentine National Library, 1973. Image credit: Levan Ramishvili

Argentinian author and philosopher Jorge Luis Borges examined why people hold certain beliefs, how those beliefs effect life choices, and how, occasionally, those tightly held and committed stances can be quite humorous. Borges found it funny that individuals and cultures can proclaim they know the truth about life, when he saw from his own observations, and from his study of science and metaphysics, that more theory than proof exists in the world.

Borges’s 1949 story “The Aleph” shows his ability to tackle the thorniest of philosophical and scientific concepts with a writing style designed to get a laugh from his readers. Each year on the anniversary of the death of a woman he once loved, the narrator goes to her cousin’s house for a drink; this visit evolves into a yearly dinner in the dead woman’s honor. Slowly the narrator becomes friends of a sort with Carlos Argentino Daneri, the woman’s cousin. The narrator finds a poem Daneri is writing to be repellent: “He read me many other stanzas, each of which also won his own approval and elicited his lengthy explications. There was nothing remarkable about them . . . Application, resignation, and chance had gone into the writing”1Borges, Jorge Luis.  “The Aleph” and Other Stories: 1933-1969.  Ed. and Trans. Norman Thomas Di Giovanni.  New York: Dutton, 1978. (“The Aleph” 19).

Instead of finding innovation in Daneri’s poem, the narrator thinks, “Daneri’s real work lay not in the poetry but in his invention of reasons why the poetry should be admired” (“The Aleph” 19). Borges blasts the pomposity of those writers and thinkers who claim they have hit upon the truth about a particular subject and who believe they have the talent to pass along their understanding to others. The Borges character in “The Aleph” delivers a critique of such egotists:

He read me certain long-winded passages . . . and . . . praised a word of his own coining, the color “celestewhite,” which he felt “actually suggests the sky,” . . . But these sprawling, lifeless hexameters lacked even the relative excitement of the so-called Augural Canto (“The Aleph” 20).

One day Daneri calls the narrator in a panic after learning his ancestral home will be torn down to make way for the expansion of an adjacent bar. He is mortified. Daneri tells the narrator he loves the home and cannot finish his poem without it, because the cellar contains something essential. It contains an Aleph.

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Aleph is the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Like other pre-mathematical languages, the letters stand in as numbers. This practice eventually led to numerological thinking that, practiced among Kabbalists, came to be known as gematria. Simply put, “Gematria is the calculation of the numerical equivalence of letters, words, or phrases . . . [to gain] insight into . . . the interrelationship between words and ideas.”2Gal Einai Institute, 2000-2005. “Numerology-Gematria,” from the teachings of Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburg.  <>. But on a deeper level, the study of gematria is actually an attempt to address the question of the relationship between God and creation.

Information taken from the lectures and writings of Rabbi Harav Yitzchak Ginsburgh on the website Inner Dimension states that gematria and the Kabbalah (the so-called “hidden” knowledge in the Torah), seek to find answers to whether God is “the underlying force behind everything.”

Borges was a student of gematria, and here he plays a bit with the significance of the Aleph. Daneri uses the Aleph to describe a point in space that contains all other points.  Borges’s trademark irony is apparent when he has Daneri explain the Aleph to the narrator:

“It’s in the cellar under the dining room,” he went on, so overcome by his worries now that he forgot to be pompous. “It’s mine—mine. I discovered it when I was a child, all by myself. The cellar stairway is so steep that my aunt and uncle forbade my using it, but I’d heard someone say there was a world down there. I found out later they meant an old-fashioned globe of the world, but at the time I thought they were referring to the world itself. One day when no one was home I started down in secret, but I stumbled and fell. When I opened my eyes, I saw the Aleph.”

“The Aleph?” I repeated.

“Yes, the only place on earth where all places are—seen from every angle, each standing clear, without any confusion or blending. I kept the discovery to myself and went back every chance I got. As a child, I did not foresee that this privilege was granted to me so that later I could write this poem . . .”

I tried to reason with him. “But isn’t the cellar very dark?” I said.

“Truth cannot penetrate a closed mind. If all places in the universe are in the Aleph, then all stars, all lamps, all sources of light are in it, too.”

“You wait there. I’ll be right over to see it” (“The Aleph” 23-24).

Though the narrator has no real interest in helping Daneri finish his mammoth poem, the idea of looking at such a metaphysical wonder—a point where all places can be seen from every angle with complete clarity—is too compelling to resist, and he runs over to see it.   

Epigraph to the story "The Aleph" by Jorge Luis Borges
The first epigraph of Borges’s story “The Aleph” comes from the titular character in Hamlet as he’s slowly going mad. The epigraph, then, seems to be poking fun at the crazy idea that through the ‘nutshell’ of the Aleph one can acquire the ‘infinite’ knowledge attributed to God.

While Borges mocks both science and literature in “The Aleph,” he was also a serious student of these subjects, as well as of metaphysics and religion. Toward the end of his life, he lectured on a diversity of subjects from gematria and the Kabbalah to Buddhism and reincarnation. Nevertheless, Borges’s innate skepticism and deeply humorous way of looking at life color nearly all his writing.

In his book, Humor in Borges, René de Costa explains that Borges leads to the cosmic only after a comic episode: Daneri “telephones Borges, and we discover that the basis of his poem on ‘the entire universe’ is none other than ‘a trip around his room,’ in reality the basement, from which he views the universe through an ‘aleph’”3De Costa, René. Humor in Borges. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 2000. (de Costa 30). (Significantly, according to de Costa, the story’s narrator is a parody of Borges himself (de Costa 27).)

The comedy continues, and “we have a kind of reversal, with Borges acting the compliant part of the clown’s dumb sidekick, docilely carrying through the absurd instructions of Daneri” (de Costa 30). “As with Franz Kafka, there is a flip-side to [Borges’s] most serious writing,” de Costa adds, for “terms like ‘Borgesian’ and ‘Kafkaesque’ are often used to describe almost any baffling mix of the normal and the strange” (de Costa 7).

In her essay “Jorge Luis Borges, Existentialist: ‘The Aleph’ and the Relativity of Human Perception,” Mary McBride describes “The Aleph” as a “concept story” that expresses a main concern of human analysis—“the relativity of human perception, the inadequacy of man’s reason to explain the enigma of the universe”4McBride, Mary. “Jorge Luis Borges, Existentialist: ‘The Aleph’ and the Relativity of Human Perception.” Studies in Short Fiction 2 (1977): 401-03. (McBride 401). McBride states that in this story Borges “illustrates the existentialistic assumption that existence has no meaning for a human being except for the meaning created by that individual’s experience” (McBride 401).

When the narrator sees the Aleph, Borges switches the tone of the story to one of wonder in contemplation of the potential of omniscience:

I saw the teeming sea, I saw daybreak and nightfall, I saw the multitudes of America, I saw a silvery cobweb in the center of a black pyramid, I saw a ruptured labyrinth (it was London); I saw, close up, unending eyes watching themselves in me as in a mirror, I saw all the mirrors on earth and none of them reflected me; . . . I saw my empty bedroom . . . I saw the survivors of a battle sending out picture postcards . . . I saw the rotted dust and bones that had once deliciously been Beatriz Viterbo; I saw the circulation of my own dark blood; I saw the coupling of love and the modification of death; I saw the Aleph from every point and angle, and in the Aleph I saw the earth; I saw my own face and my own bowels; I saw your face; and I felt dizzy and wept, for my eyes had seen that secret and conjectured object whose name is common to all men but which no man has looked upon—the unimaginable universe (“The Aleph” 27-28).

The term Kabbalah has become the main descriptive of Jewish esoteric knowledge and practices and roughly translates to “receiving” or “that which is received.”

Borges’s idea of a unified place where all things could be discerned at once comes in part from his knowledge of gematria, and he lectured on this and on the Kabbalah in Buenos Aires in 1977. The term Kabbalah has become the main descriptive of Jewish esoteric knowledge and practices and roughly translates to “receiving” or “that which is received.” The Kabbalah is meant to provide spiritual vehicles that help bring humanity closer to God. Its studies and practices are meant to help humanity approach higher insight into God’s creation.5“Kabbalah.” The New Encyclopaedia Britannica. Micropaedia Ready Reference, 15th ed. 2002.

To Borges, however, the Kabbalists were unsuccessful insofar as they were not, in fact, in possession of the Truth and perfect vision. To Borges, the more fundamental theme at play was humanity’s often inept and sometimes humorous attempts at understanding the workings of the universe.

In a lecture of his from 1977, Borges tackled the subject, explaining that the Kabbalists were influenced by the Gnostics and that in order to link everything to the Hebrew tradition, they invented this strange system of deciphering letters.6Borges, Jorge Luis. Seven Nights. Transl. Eliot Weinberger. New York: New Directions, 1980. He stated, “The cosmic system of the Kabbalah may be described like this: In the beginning there is a Being analogous to the God of Spinoza, except that the God of Spinoza is infinitely rich”  (Borges 100). “The en sof, {the most fundamental emanation of God} in contrast, is infinitely poor, for of that Being we cannot say that He exists, for if we say that He exists then we must also say that stars exist, men exist, ants exist.  How can we put them all in the same category?  No, that primordial Being does not exist” (Borges 100).

Kabbalists believe, according to Borges, that it cannot be said that God thinks, because thinking is a logical process, moving from a premise to a conclusion. Likewise it cannot be said that He wants, because to want something is to feel the lack of something. “Besides, if the en sof is infinite, how can He want something else? And what other thing could He create except another infinite Being which would become confused with Himself? However, since the creation of the world is unfortunately necessary, we have ten emanations, the Sefirot, which emerge from Him but come after Him” (Borges 100).

Sefirot, or Tree of Life
According to the late Kabbalah scholar Z’ev ben Shimon Halevi, the Sefirot, or Tree of Life, reflects the Kabbalistic notion that “a human being is a miniature version of the primordial Adam, who is the model of all that exists. Thus, each individual like a hologram, is a microcosm of the whole Universe.” Each of us, in other words, contains all the knowledge of the Aleph “within the deeper parts of the psyche . . . even as the body possesses an inherent knowledge gained over millions of years of physical evolution.”

Though he states many times in his lectures that it is challenging to attempt an understanding of the concept of God, what God is and what God wants, Borges made it a part of his life’s work to try and do just that. If God is a being that knows all, or a place of pure understanding, Borges may have entertained the idea that an Aleph could be real.

A commentary Borges wrote on “The Aleph” gives us his definition of this concept: “What eternity is to time, the Aleph is to space. In eternity, all time—past, present, and future—coexists simultaneously. In the Aleph, the sum total of the spatial universe is to be found in a tiny shining sphere barely over an inch across” (“The Aleph” and Other Stories 263).

Charming how Borges the humorist, while ridiculing Denari and intellectuals like him who believe they have resolved some abstruse cosmic enigma, also includes himself among those deserving of ridicule. God and the universe are unknowable, he seems to conclude, yet the human thirst for discovering them is unquenchable. At the meta-narrative level, Borges shimmers, makes of himself a foil, highlighting the universal human folly of metaphysical speculation. The protagonist of “The Aleph” believes he has discovered a universal, timeless, divine mystery in a lightless, airless, subterranean location. It seems we are to infer that the only means of transcendence—of elevation out of the perpetual condition of ignorance—is humor, especially turned toward oneself. His sardonic, self-deprecating wit is essential, then, to understanding the ethics of “The Aleph.” It’s a tale simultaneously of celebration and condemnation, of our troubled relationship with knowledge: it’s a tale of the insatiable human desire to conceive of the inconceivable, to shine a light where only darkness can exist.

Karen Warinsky is a poet based in Connecticut. Her poem, “Roodhouse,” was long-listed in the 2011 Montreal International Poetry Prize.  Two years later she was named a finalist in the same contest with her poem, “Legacy,” and those top 50 entries were published in The Global Poetry Anthology by Véhicule Press in 2013. Since then she has had many poems published, including two in the 2017 anthology Nuclear Impact: Broken Atoms in Our Hands (Shabda Press, 2017); two in the Mizmor Anthology (Poetica Publishing, 2019); and other poems in a variety of literary journals.  Her first collection of verse, Gold in Autumn, came out in 2020 and she has a new book, Sunrise Ruby (both published by Human Error Publishing) coming out this spring.  The books are available from Barnes & Noble or by contacting the author @KWarinsky on Twitter or on Facebook.

1 Comment

  1. So much to love in this piece! Drawing the correlation between the Gnostics and the Kabbalists puts things in the right perspective. The fact that the Aleph is both awe inspiring and unobtainable as evidenced through his use of parody is pure genius.

    What a great summing up: “It’s a tale simultaneously of celebration and condemnation, of our troubled relationship with knowledge: it’s a tale of the insatiable human desire to conceive of the inconceivable, to shine a light where only darkness can exist.”

    Now I want to read the story! I love that you wove his humor through this piece. Truly exceptional.

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