The Music of the Aleph:
Paul Auster and Jorge Luis Borges in Concert
Myriam Muriel Mercader Varela
Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia, Spain
A devoted reader of Jorge Luis Borges, I could not have felt more bewildered the first time I read Paul Auster. Every page brought with it inexorable Borgesian echoes and while going through The New York Trilogy, noting all the correspondences which, as if pushed by a stubborn tide, always linked back to Borges, it became more and more obvious that both authors had been amazed by the same matters and that their commitment as writers had taken them to share the same passion for literature and the same need to disentangle "the same set of questions, the same human dilemmas" (The Red Notebook 123). So, discovering and enjoying one author necessarily involved deepening in the other in such a way that by doing so the reader became certain she was following some secret labyrinthine pattern which turned out to be an Aleph.
Let us say, then, a first word on the Aleph. It is the name of a book of fantastic stories — El Aleph — Borges wrote in 1949 as well as the name of one of the stories in the collection; it is the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet and the name of the smallest transfinite number where the whole is not bigger than the part. Yes, it is a magical figure that can encompass the whole of the world. What is more, it is the image of Borges's and Auster's common literary universe: a multidimensional conception of universe that comprehends the real and the fictional world altogether, where characters bounce off from one book to enter another — at times just as mere testimonies of themselves as in the case of a lost passport or the name of a taxi driver. In this common universe boundaries between writer and characters are blurred and past, present and future fused. It is a "rhizomatic" universe (to use Deleuze and Guattari's terminology) containing many other in a mise-en-abîme structure typically characterized by an indeterminacy of the relationships among its multiple narrative planes, which are made to intersect and merge at various points throughout the narrative without any apparent respect for logic or spatiotemporal coherence but which ultimately conforms the structure of the real universe as M-Theory is proving it to be. Connectedness then, not only occurs within Auster's own novels or Borges's stories, it occurs inside the two writers' common literary labyrinth. What is more, it applies to all that surrounds them and us; their intuitive idea of space/time abounding in many dimensions is, in the end, not just fiction but quasi real, precisely what M-Theory tells us about.
So, secondly let us say a word on M-Theory. Nobody seems to know what the M of M-Theory stands for; maybe it stands for Music, not only recalling Paul Auster's fourth novel The Music of Chance or the humming of Borges's Aleph: "su atareado rumor" ("El Aleph" 124) [its busy hum],1 but, also the music of the cosmos. Scientists have come to the conclusion that all is made of music or vibrating strings much smaller than the known atoms, neutrons, electrons and quarks. As Brian Greene explains in his The Elegant Universe: in the 1980s String Theory had postulated that the ultimate constituents of matter — better expressed as energy — are infinite one-dimensional strings that vibrate in a space made of many dimensions: the three we traditionally use in geometry, time, and six more — what came to ten dimensions — the other six folded or rolled into tiny spheres of about 10-33 centimetres long. The theory was a success because it could explain the puzzles about gravity that had driven Einstein mad. But, mathematicians soon found out that there were five different versions of this magic formula postulated by String Theory. There could not be five versions of the unique theory of the universe, so enthusiasm died out. Later in 1995 Professor Eduard Witten — he is bound to be the Einstein of the twenty-first century — was able to unify all five theories in one by adding one more dimension. He called his theory: M-Theory. Now it seems to have been mathematically proved that we live in eleven dimensions: the four we can sense and seven more. The accepted thesis is that before the Big-Bang the eleven spatial dimensions had been all the same but, while the universe expanded only three of them expanded with it. The other seven remained rolled, trapped in compact geometries, comprised in space and would constitute directions that have not yet been explored. This theory would perfectly explain at a time both Relativity Theory and Quantum Theory, making them compatible while until now they were not. It would also allow the passage from one dimension to the other by means of the only particle that is not tied up to our four dimensions and that is called Graviton. A priori, it all might be considered science fiction or Borgesian fiction; nevertheless, it is not, and any time now we could be hearing what Richard Burton and Borges told us could be heard inside an Egyptian column or even that "music of chance" Auster is almost mesmerized by since, the parallelism between what M-Theory tells us about the universe and the writers' common labyrinth is extraordinary. The reader may consider any of Borges's tales as could be: "The Library of Babel," "The Garden of Forking Paths" or "The Book of Sand" to visualize something very similar to what M-Theory proposes. This space/time embraces Paul Auster's characters as well and makes them feel at home because they can persist on their movement in all existing dimensions, disappearing from one book and appearing in the other as in a magic show — or could we say a cyber-show?
One of the most characteristic features of both Auster's and Borges's writing is that they are always present; their own lives are somehow filtered through their work. Borges is almost always the main character in his stories and Auster does not merely make use of biographical sketches but of his own name and that of his wife and children. All of his novels are tinted by his self. In City of Glass (first novel in The New York Trilogy) Quinn pretends to be a private eye called Paul Auster and has a wife named Siri. Peter Aaron's wife in Leviathan is called Iris (just a rearrangement of letters). Orr, the main character in Oracle Night lives, like Auster, in a brownstone in Brooklyn and we can even read on the back cover of a copy of Leviathan that the protagonist is misnamed as Paul Aaron instead of Peter Aaron. Borges and Auster's game extends itself out of the mere pages of their books to contaminate reality and makes it a point to place a joke on what Roland Barthes took so much trouble to make out a case for. The authors, no doubt, enjoy the liveliest of lives.
If we plunge into this co-inhabited Aleph we will realize that given the time to dwell in an idea or thought long enough — speed sometimes makes it impossible — we will immediately be taken from Borges to Auster and from Auster back to Borges: Babel, New York, Hawthorne, Leviathan, Leibniz, ursprache, El Quijote, secret codes, embedded worlds, films, dreams, chance, Poe, One Thousand and One Nights, mirrors, memory, chaos, eternity, cipher, chance, walls, cards, the unifying principle or the cracking of the Universe's code. Their deep study, however, surpasses this article and is subject for other ones. Nonetheless, we hope to calm the reader's curiosity and achieve some elucidation though the task may not be an easy one because writing is merely sequential as both Auster and Borges have acknowledged: "everything that happens in it [memory] is simultaneous. But writing is sequential, it unfolds over time" (The Art of Hunger 277); "lo que vieron mis ojos fue simultáneo: lo que transcribiré sucesivo, pues el lenguaje también lo es" ("El Aleph" 121) [What my eyes saw was simultaneous, what I will transcribe successive, as language itself].
Let's start then surfing this fantastic web-like labyrinth at the node that corresponds to Paul Auster's autobiographical first book The Invention of Solitude which begins with an event at once commonplace and unique but, above all, very difficult to transmit in its exact dimension: the sudden death of his father "in the best of health, not even old, with no history of illness" (5). Their relationship had not been the closest a father and son could have had and was actually ruled by absence when Sam Auster was living. Paul Auster will try, at a time, to cope with the sudden definite absence of his father and to recover him even in a way he had never had him. The consideration of what has survived in Auster's memory, his "portrait of an invisible man" (31), occupies the first half of the book while the second will focus on memory and time, two of Borges's own tokens as well.
There is a fundamental structure which both Auster and Borges follow in their stories and that has been very well expressed by Mary Lusky Friedman though only referring to Borges's stories and that I propose to enhance to comprehend Auster's as well:
If such a Borgesian paradigm does exist, [it] tells the following story: A mishap sets in motion a protagonist, who responds to the calamity by setting out on a journey. In the course of this journey Borges' hero travels through surroundings that are progressively more impoverished and irreal until at last he arrives at a structure that walls him in. Immured there, he is privy to a marvelous but blighting experience, an experience that blasts his selfhood and annihilates him. (6)
But by far the most common form the initial mishap takes — as Friedman points out — is the death of a character that can happen at the beginning of the story or that has occurred before the actual narration begins, as in the case of "El Aleph" or in the case of Auster's autobiographical novel and most of rest: The Music of Chance (death of the father), Moon Palace (death of the mother and uncle), The Book of Illusions (death of family), The New York Trilogy (death of family), Oracle Night (accident and almost death and miraculous "rebirth" of the writer protagonist) or even his latest novel The Brooklyn Follies (death of the sister and terrible disease of the protagonist). Just to name some other of Borges's tales let's recall "Emma Zunz," for example, where the character of the same name receives word at the beginning of the tale that her father has killed himself, and the rest of the tale describes her complex reaction to the news; it is also the case of Viktor Runeberg's murder which inspires his fellow spy to conceive the bizarre crime that unfolds in "The Garden of Forking Paths."
Another shared figure is the use of enumerations. Borges's best is the one he uses to describe the Aleph which includes not less than thirty-seven images. Below is an example of Auster's:
A hastily scrawled telephone number on the back of a business card that read: H. Limeburg-Garbage Cans of All Descriptions. Photographs of my parent's honeymoon in Niagara Falls, 1946: my mother sitting nervously on top of a bull for one of those funny shots that are never funny and a sudden sense of how unreal the world has always been, even in its prehistory. A drawer full of hammers, nails and more than twenty screwdrivers ... the monogrammed toothbrush that had once belonged to my mother and which had not been touched or looked at for more than fifteen years. The list is inexhaustible. (The Invention 11)
Yes, the list is inexhaustible, and as Borges puts it, precisely what attracts us of enumerations is that they insinuate eternity.
Friedman's paradigm of Borges's stories tells about the journey of the hero until he is immured to experience what will "blast his selfhood." This is precisely what happens in "El Aleph" when Daneri (Beatriz's cousin) one day calls Borges to tell him Beatriz's house, which Borges had continued to visit periodically after Beatriz's death, is going to be demolished and with it Daneri's Aleph — a secret he had kept since childhood: "el lugar donde están, sin confundirse, todos los lugares del orbe, vistos desde todos los ángulos" (119) [the place where all places of the world are and can be simultaneously seen from all angles without confusion]. Daneri is using his secret to be able to write a poem which will allow him to tell the whole of the Earth in its entirety. Borges goes to Beatriz's house to witness the existence of such an extraordinary object, and his journey starts when Daneri describes the way to the Aleph which, as it happens with Auster's journeys, is very well mapped — Borges follows the instructions: "Ya sabes, el decúbito dorsal es indispensable. También lo son la oscuridad, la inmovilidad, cierta acomodación ocular. Te acuestas en el piso de baldosas y fijas los ojos en el decimonono escalón de la pertinente escalera" (120) [You'll have to lie flat on your back. Total darkness, total immobility, and a certain ocular adjustment will also be necessary. From the floor, you must focus your eyes on the nineteenth step].
The mapping of the journey is also present in Auster's novels. It is the case of The Music of Chance, when Nashe is on his way to the house owned by Flower and Stone where they will eventually encounter an Aleph in the form of a model of the world that is being built by Stone: "Pozzi kept referring to the directions he had scribbled down ... a covered bridge, a blue mailbox, a grey stone with a black circle painted on it. After a while it began to feel as if they were travelling through a maze" (64). The model called "The City of the World" conforms another mise-en-abîme structure containing itself once and again since: "I'm thinking about doing a separate model of this room ... a second city to fit inside the room within the room" (80). It is of course one of Auster's own Alephs as can be hinted from Flower's words: "Everything in it happens at once ... it's an autobiography but in another way it's what you might call an utopia — a place where the past and future come together" (79). In this novel Auster's character Nashe (also the name of the writer of Auster's favourite novel The Unfortunate Traveler) starts his journey after the death of his father and his abandonment by his wife (which in Auster's novels is always a death-motif) and will finally be trapped within a wall to be built by himself. Nashe, during this hard-working stage building the wall, will gradually recognize that by following the appealing rhythms of chance of his initial wanderings throughout the country he has landed in a rigidly determined system where he even goes so far as to imagine that he was already living inside the model. Flower and Stone would look down on him then, and he would suddenly be able to see himself through their eyes. Nevertheless, Nashe is eventually able to regain the zero state he most desires, and be free from any preoccupation. "He was back to zero again, and now those things were gone. For even the smallest zero was a great hole of nothingness, a circle large enough to contain the world" (155). It is, no doubt, an Aleph image and the wall can be read as the wall in Friedman's paradigm and its final "blast of selfhood." But it is also the sum of other walls: the wall built on stage in Auster's early play, the wall which recurs as an image in Auster's poetry or even the wall of Auster's film Lulu on the Bridge. The first title Auster had for this novel was The Mysterious Barricades, also the title of a musical piece by Couperin which Nashe (and Auster) is especially fond of. This same musical piece appears as well in his novel Oracle Night, contributing to knit up Auster's own labyrinth. Walls are also important in a similar way in Auster's In the Country of Last Things. The Sea Wall Project — a nonsensical building of a wall to prevent people to get in or go out of this nightmarish Country of Last Things — will last more than fifty years and will also prevent people from glancing at the infinite sea. Sight must be constricted in order to constrict thought. The wall symbolizes separation, slavery and shortness of sight as it also does in the non-fiction world. And here the node in the web we are surfing links with "walls and books" or better still: the burning of libraries, which we find are key matters in the development of Auster's characters. Anna Blume in In the Country will have to shelter in a library where she also encounters love. But Anna and her lover cannot escape the walls of the library unless they want to risk their lives in the dangerous outside world. Paradoxically they will have to burn the books which are the pretext to maintain the library upright to keep warm during the cruel winter, and when the books are burnt up the walls will not shelter them anymore. Borges, as could not be otherwise, has a story that hovers on the same idea. It is called: "La muralla y los libros" [The Wall and the Books] where he suggests elaborate and contradictory explanations of the two vast undertakings of emperor Shih Huang Ti: the building of the almost infinite Chinese Wall and the burning of all the books that had been written before his time. If the emperor started both projects simultaneously, that is, the walling in of space and the incinerating of the past (very much what Nashe does in The Music) his reasons could have been twofold: to delimit the world so that things may have the names that befitted them, or to put a magic barrier to halt death. If the acts were not simultaneous, since one is creative and the other destructive they may have been made to secretly nullify each other. The same sense of creative and destructive drives; of walls creating slavery and freedom, of the burning of libraries being an incriminatory and a liberating impulse at the same time, appears in Auster. Here are Anna Blume's words on her thoughts about having had to burn books to be warm:
The curious thing about it was that I never felt any regrets. To be honest, I actually think I enjoyed throwing those books into the flames. Perhaps it released some secret anger in me; perhaps it was simply recognition of the fact that it did not matter what happened to them. The world they belonged to was finished. (116)
By the way, Marco Fogg in Moon Palace will also have to get rid of his books to be able to subsist. A contradictory feeling concerning walls is also found in a parallel way in the last pages of "La casa de Asterión" [The House of Asterion] by Borges and The Music by Auster. Borges, let's recall, surrounds the Minotaur of "The House of Asterion" by fourteen or infinite (because fourteen, he tells us, symbolises infinite) open doors. Nevertheless, the monster is a prisoner of his destiny and will escape it only after death. The same could be said of Nashe and Pozzi in The Music. Pozzi dies (or that is what is hinted in the novel) trying to escape from the wall he is building while Nashe — like the Minotaur — begins to feel with time that there are open doors around him, that the building of the wall liberates him. The last scene of the novel leaves us with the image of Nashe — just after exhausting his confinement — at the point of crashing his car in the dark night into "a Cyclops star hurtling straight for his eyes" (216). Nashe gives himself up to this "monster" and does not defend himself, on the contrary: "There was no time to stop, no time to prevent what was going to happen, and so instead of slamming his foot on the brakes, he pressed down even harder on the gas" (216-17). It is this way that he encounters his freedom, his redemption. The parallelism with Borges's Minotaur is but striking. When Teseo comes to kill the Minotaur he finds the monster prepared to confront his redemption embodied in the man or monster to free him from those walls: "Ojalá me lleve a un lugar con menos galerías y menos puertas" ("La casa de Asterión" 54) [I hope he takes me to a place with less corridors and doors]. The story finishes with Teseo's comment on the crucial moment: "¿Lo creerás Ariadna? — dijo Teseo — el Minotauro apenas se defendió" (ibid.) [Will you believe it Ariadna? — Teseo said — the Minotaur hardly defended himself].
We should not leave the node about walls before pointing out that when Nashe first learns about Flower and Stone's intention to build a wall with the remains of a British castle, he sighs: "a wailing wall" (The Music 86). This is one of the many connections to Borges's interests. Borges, though not of Jewish origin had repeatedly confessed to be an admirer of the Jewish culture. Here we find one of the many connections to Solomon's Temple (the Wailing Wall is said to be part of the Second Temple built on top of Solomon's after its destruction). Of course Paul Auster is of Jewish origin and Solomon is recurrent in his work as we will further appreciate. Finally we must acknowledge that the wall, wailing or not, is what a labyrinth is made of and the material for most of Borges's stories.
In The Music Nashe will also be following Friedman's pattern when he chooses the destination for his red car "carefully charting his course" (13) with the help of a road atlas. Nashe follows a system, an order, though later he will acknowledge that "the places had no meaning in themselves" (30). This is the same pattern followed in City of Glass by Stillman Sr. through the labyrinth that constitutes the streets of New York and that ultimately Quinn believes to decipher with a street map and his transcription into his red notebook as letters that read "Tower of Babel" — though he can't really be sure because the letters are drawn by the steps of a man: "True, he had created letters by the movement of his steps, but they had not been written down. It was like drawing a picture in the air with your finger. The image vanishes as you are making it" (71). It recalls Borges's labyrinth and his games at being lost in cities; it is also his order in chaos and vice-versa. In an interview with María Esther Vázquez, Borges explains how he used to play to get lost with his parents in Adrogué:
Era un pueblo laberíntico. Había breaks en la estación. A veces, en algunas noches de verano (ya Norah se había casado) salíamos mi padre, mi madre y yo a perdernos. Al principio nos costaba un poco de trabajo, pero luego nos perfeccionamos tanto que nos perdíamos enseguida. (46)
It was a labyrinthine village. There were breaks in the station. Sometimes, on summer nights, (Norah had already married) my father, my mother and I would set off to lose ourselves. At the beginning it was quite difficult, but then we perfected so much that we got lost very soon.
The reader can sense the same secret cosmos in both authors, and feel the "gnostic joy" (Moon Palace 33) of finding out the "secret correspondences" (32) and still: 'It's mind over matter, Fogg. We've finally done it! We've cracked the secret of the universe!" (213). Whenever we surf Auster's and Borges's work we feel we are cracking the code of their secret universe, of our own universe, of the Universe. Their secret correspondences take us from one word to the other, one step after the other as Paul Auster masterfully put it:
But just as one step will inevitably lead to the next step, so it is that one thought inevitably follows from the previous thought, ... a network of paths begins to be drawn, as in the image of the human bloodstream (heart, arteries, veins, capillaries), or as in the image of a map (of city streets, for example, preferably a large city, or even of roads, as in the gas station maps of roads that stretch, bisect, and meander across a continent). (The Invention 122)
In his account of what he saw in the basement of "El Aleph," Borges writes very similar ideas. Image number thirty-two, as the reader might remember, tells us: "Vi la circulación de mi oscura sangre" (122) [I saw my own dark bloodstream] and number thirty-six "Vi mi cara y mis víceras" (122) [I saw my own face and my bowels] and still in number thirty-seven "el inconfundible universo" (122) [the unmistakable universe]. So here again the journey takes us to the image of ourselves, our bloodstream and the image of our face as in Borges poem "La suma," where a man decides to draw on an endless, white wall the whole world (walls again); he finishes the picture at the exact instant of his death to discover that those joyful lines drew the image of his own face — once more an Aleph. It is amazing but Auster has a very similar poem in one of his collections:
In the face of the wall
he divines the monstrous
sum of particulars,
It is nothing.
And it is all that he is.
(5, Disappearances 83)
It is worth commenting at this point that one of the two epigraphs to "El Aleph" (the other is from Shakespeare) is from Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes; it is obvious that Auster had the same book in mind when he wrote his own Leviathan (1992) which, of course, is also the name of the book Benjamin Sacks (one of the characters) is writing and again the name of the protagonist's (Peter Aaron) book.
We will need to jump from the epigraph to the postscript of "El Aleph" where Borges tells why he thinks Daneri gave this particular name to what Beatriz's basement concealed. By means of his recurrent enumerations, he explains that for the Kabala the word Aleph meant the En Soph, the unlimited and pure Divinity; it also has the form of a man that pointed the earth and the sky to indicate that one is the mirror image and map of the other; for Mengenlehre it is the symbol of transfinite numbers in which the whole is not bigger than one of its parts. These concepts obviously recall Quantum mechanics and M-Theory and also appear in other of Borges's works especially in "The Library of Babel." Borges eventually comes to the conclusion that it could all have been an invention; it could have really been a false Aleph. He gives the reasons for his statement and it is interesting to quote them here:
Doy mis razones. Hacia 1867 el capitán Burton ejerció en el Brasil el cargo de cónsul Británico; en julio de 1942, Pedro Henríquez Ureña descubrió en una biblioteca de Santos un manuscrito suyo que versaba sobre el espejo que atribuye el Oriente a Iskandar Zu al-Kar-mayn, o Alejandro Bicorne de Macedonia. En su cristal se reflejaba el universo entero. Burton menciona otros artilugios congéneres - la séptuple copa de Kai Josrú, el espejo que Tarik Benzeyad encontró en una torre (Mil y Una Noches, 272), el espejo que Luciano de Samosata pudo examinar en la luna (Historia Verdadera, I, 26), la lanza especular que el primer libro del Satyricon de Capella atribuye a Júpiter, el espejo universal de Merlín, 'redondo y hueco y semejante a un mundo de vidrio' (The Faerie Queen, III, 2, 19) - y añade estas curiosas palabras 'Pero las anteriores (además del defecto de no existir) son meros instrumentos de óptica. Los fieles que concurren a la mezquita de Amr, en El Cairo, saben muy bien que el universo está en el interior de una de las columnas de piedra que rodean el patio central […] Nadie, claro está, puede verlo, pero quienes acercan el oído a la superficie, declaran percibir, al poco tiempo, un atareado rumor.... (124)
Here are my reasons. Around 1867, Captain Burton held the post of British Consul in Brazil. In July, 1942, Pedro Henríquez Ureña came across a manuscript of Burton's, in a library at Santos, dealing with the mirror which the Oriental world attributes to Iskander Zu al-Karnayn, or Alexander Bicornis of Macedonia. In its crystal the whole world was reflected. Burton mentions other similar devices -- the sevenfold cup of Kai Kosru; the mirror that Tariq ibn-Ziyad found in a tower (Thousand and One Nights, 272); the mirror that Lucian of Samosata examined on the moon (True History, I, 26); the mirrorlike spear that the first book of Capella's Satyricon attributes; Merlin's universal mirror, which was "round and hollow... and seemed a world of glass" (The Faerie Queene, III, 2, 19) -- and adds this curious statement: "But the aforesaid objects (besides the disadvantage of not existing) are mere optical instruments. The Faithful who gather at the mosque of Amr, in Cairo, are acquainted with the fact that the entire universe lies inside one of the stone pillars that ring its central court... No one, of course, can actually see it, but those who lay an ear against the surface tell that after some short while they perceive its busy hum.
There is much to comment on in this extract. Burton, to start with, is one of the first translators of The Arabian Nights, the man who in the 1850s had seen the black stone of Mecca and thought it was a stone from outer space; the one who also translated Kama Sutra, Ananga-Ranga and The Perfumed Garden. Burton tells us about the mirror Tarik Benzeyad found in a tower and that is told in the night 272 of The Arabian Nights (Alf Laylah wa Laylah translated by himself as The One Thousand Nights and a Night). The Arabian Nights, the book that embodies all the books, is one of Auster's and Borges' main tokens because the idea of embedded stories - all of the same extension - is again the same idea of the Aleph, where all is condensed occupying the same incommensurable point, where not only space is irrelevant but also time. In "Los traductores de las 1001 Noches," Borges comments on the stories: "Un arduo y claro verso de Tennyson parece definirlos [an arduous and clear verse by Tennyson seems to define them]: Laborious orient ivory, sphere in sphere" (390). We are once more confronted to the Aleph in Tennyson's verse and to Pascal's sphere (the same idea of embedded universes); another time the node links in this incommensurable hypertext to a node connected to Paul Auster's The Invention but, this time to its second part called "The Book of Memory":
The Invention of Solitude. Or stories of life and death.
The story begins with the end. Speak or die. And for as long as you go on speaking, you will not die. The story begins with death. King Shebriyar has been cuckolded: 'and they ceased not from kissing and clipping and clicketing and carousing.' […] [Shehrzad] begins her story, and what she tells is a story about story telling, a story within which are several stories, each one, in itself, about story telling. (149 - 150)
Auster goes on to refer to the same ideas that haunt Borges and that have been noted above in Borges's essay: "[E]ach movement engenders a word, or a series of words; each word triggers off another word […] there is no fixed center to any of this ('a universe where the center is everywhere, the circumference nowhere')" (164). It is depicting Pascal's sphere but, it is also depicting Deleuze and Guattari's rhizomatic space and Borges's Aleph.
"El signo," a story Borges wrote in collaboration with Bioy Cásares, tells about Wenceslao, a condemned publisher who is sentenced to prison for publishing pornographic books and put in cell number 272. We are back to that node that takes to The Arabian Nights and to its translator Richard Burton since the pornographic books Wenceslao publishes are precisely those Burton translated: Kamma-Sutra/ Anangaranga, and The Perfumed Garden. It also links to the mirror Tarik Benzeyad found in a tower (The Arabian Nights 272) of the postscript to "El Aleph" since that is the number of the cell he is put into. "El signo" ends with an hallucination by Wenceslao imagining all types of food falling from the sky: "ríos de caldos se cruzaban, todo el poniente era risotto, sin embargo al sur ya se consolidaba la albóndiga, el dulce de zapallo y la leche asada" (141) [Rivers of stew crossed the east, risotto covered the west while in the south meatballs, pumpkin jam and grilled milk were consolidating themselves]. It is again a long list of food, an enumeration that hits eternity, until Wenceslao dies and "su espíritu recto pudo subir al firmamento, donde sin duda lo acompañan ahora todas esas minutas y postres" (142) [His righteous spirit ascended to heaven where no doubt it is now in the company of all of those snacks and desserts]. One may find it very weird and unique, but it is not since Paul Auster, once more, depicted a very similar vision within In the Country, when Ana Blume learns about the practices conceived by the people that are trapped in this prison land and almost starving to death because of the lack of food. One of these practices consists of imagining all types of food, and by so doing feel fed:
Often you will overhear a group of people describing a meal in meticulous detail, beginning with the soups and appetizers and slowly working their way to dessert, dwelling on each savour and spice, on all the various aromas and flavours, concentrating now on the method of preparation, now on the effect of food itself, from the first twinge of taste on the tongue to the gradually under expanding sense of peace as the food travels down the throat and arrives to the belly. (10)
It is time to link from our node about cell/night 272 to another of Borges's stories which was inspired by it: "La cámara de las estatuas" in Historia universal de la infamia, under the uncanny general title of "Etcétera." Here he explains a variation of the same story 272 of The Arabian Nights and tells about the fifth chamber where the circular mirror constructed by King Solomon was found and where "el que se miraba en su luna veía las caras de sus padres y de sus hijos desde el primer Adán hasta los que oirán la Trompeta" (300) [He who looked at himself in its glass could see the faces of his parents and that of his children from the first Adam to the ones who will hear the trumpet]. Solomon again, and this time the node takes us to Moon Palace by Paul Auster. "Solomon" Barber appears here as if out of Borges's mirror of the fifth chamber because in his face we can see the face of Marco Fogg's father (he is, in fact, Marco's father though Marco will not know it until late in the book when he looks at the mirror and realizes that Solomon's face resembles his face); it is also Effing's face because Effing, we will find out, is really Solomon Barber's father. We are here confronted with Solomon's mirror which reflects generations.
In Plato's Phaedrus the place of the father, the origin of logos is occupied by "the sun-god, Ammon-Ra" whose name actually means "hidden sun." In Moon Palace, we encounter the father figure represented in terms of a "hidden sun:" Marco's father Sol (short for Solomon) and which Sol learns:
[I]t was an old word for sun, and not longer after that he discovered it was also the French word for ground […] it intrigued him that he could both be the sun and the earth at the same time, and for several years he took it to mean that he alone was able to encompass the whole contradictions of the universe. (251)
It seems we have found in Sol not only a "hidden sun" but a "hidden Aleph" - as hidden is Solomon's mirror in Borges's Chamber of the Statues. Solomon Barber is not only missing in the picture of the family triad (his son did not know who he was or neither did Solomon know his own father), he is also "hidden" from representation in the text for a long time: As a name, belonging to the son of Barber/Effing, Solomon Barber appears at about the beginning of the last third of the novel (Moon Palace 192); in persona he appears even later, about half-way through the last third (235), and the revelation of his parentage to Marco Fogg is deferred almost until the end. Fifteen pages before the end, Marco, in a simultaneous "movement," knows and - accidentally - kills his father. Finally, Solomon Barber actually hides himself not only behind a "badge of eccentricity as the 'Man Who Wore Hats'" (243), but more important, he tries "to make himself invisible in the massiveness of his own flesh" (242). Since Sol, the father/sun, is missing from Marco's life-text, he actually grows up under the aegis of the "moon," also in terms of the moon as a symbol of the female principle. Marco's life seems to be dominated by the signifier "moon" and all its various associations, culminating in the neon sign of a Chinese restaurant in front of his apartment, called Moon Palace, the very signifier that gives name to the novel. Incidentally, moon means luna in Spanish which is another word for mirror, and we know how significant mirrors are both for Borges and Auster. In the same way, in his novel Oracle Night the emphasis will be on another signifier "paper" and we will encounter Paper Palace as the name of the stationary shop where he will buy his blue notebook (in Oracle Night his notebook is blue, while in City of Glass and in The Red Notebook it is red). As it happens with all of Paul Auster, it is uncanny to read in his novel Moon Palace that the night Marco saw the sign he felt it as an oracle, of course a premonition of the novel Oracle Night to be written many years after. Borges has a book of poetry called Luna de enfrente [The Moon in Front] and Marco sees the sign of the restaurant with that same name in front of his flat. If that should not be enough, the writer in Leviathan has written a novel called Luna. The maze keeps building itself up endlessly and the reader may start to feel the vertigo of being lost, but we shall make an effort and keep on.
Professor Solomon Barber, "The Man Who Wore Hats," appears as well In the Country where Boris Stepanovich - an eccentric Russian character - wears different hats and gives them the names of the people who used to wear them. One of those hats is called Professor Solomon. Boris drives the car which will eventually drive them to freedom away from that apocalyptic land. Boris Stepanovich is as well a driver in Oracle Night, not driving the red 1965 Pontiac this time though, as it is driven by the Chinese stationary shop owner (here the owner and not the restaurant is Chinese), but a taxi which will also liberate the characters of the novel, from the labyrinthine New York City: "By the time the cab turned left on Chambers Street and started to approach the bridge, every ramp was clogged with traffic, and we could hardly advance at all. Our driver, whose name was Boris Stepanovich, muttered curses to himself in Russian" (Oracle Night 48).
One could take resemblances even further and find that this maze started - of all the streets in New York City - when they turned left on Chambers Street (the Chamber of the Statues in The Arabian Nights), but let's notice that in both novels language is very relevant for the character named Boris Stepanovich: "'What means that?' […] Grace let out a small laugh when she heard the malapropism" (Oracle Night 49). Or in In the Country:
He was fond of obscure pronouncements and elliptical allusions… you soon got lost trying to understand him. […] [H]e used language as an instrument of locomotion - constantly on the move, darting and feinting, circling, disappearing, suddenly appearing again in a different spot. At one time or another, he told me so many stories about himself, presented so many conflicting accounts of his life that I gave up trying to believe anything. (146)
Boris Stepanovich is another storyteller, and his maze-like stories will enchant Anna Blume, but at the same time he warns her: "You must understand that it's all an illusion, my dear" (In the Country 154). The reader may think we have jumped to The Book of Illusions (2002), but Auster had not written the novel yet.
In an interview with Santiago del Rey for Quimera, Auster himself explained the existence of his characters in different universes at the same time when he was asked about the appearance of Quinn's passport (from City of Glass) in In the Country, or about allusions to Ana Blume in Moon Palace. He reasoned that his characters "are connected in some imaginary universe. What is more, I try to connect all of my books and this is a way to make it" (Quimera 109, 26).
So, Professor Solomon is one of Boris' hats but, we immediately realize it links with Borges's Aleph, with The Arabian Nights, with Auster's diverse novels and why not, as a "telling name" or a pun - so dear to both our authors - Sol Barber might also hint at Gödel's "theorem of incompleteness." Axioms of "complete systems" are either inconsistent or undecidable by way of the Russell antinomy, better known as the "paradox of the sole barber." There was in a village only one barber, who only would shave people who did not shave themselves. What about the barber himself? If he shaves himself, he's not allowed to shave himself. And if he does not shave himself, he's allowed to shave himself. Again we are confronted with paradox and mathematics. Professor Sol Barber discovers himself while in the role of a barber, when one day he shaves his head: "[H]e calmly picked up a razor and shaved off what was left. The result of this experiment was far more impressive than he would have thought. He possessed a great stone of a head, Barber found, a mythological head" (Moon Palace 243) (My emphasis).The description of Barber's head is worth another stop in our trip to consider it with attention because it is bound to embody another inextricable mystery. Auster himself in Pen America, 1.1 (Winter 2000) in an homage article on Borges (practically the only time he writes on Borges) and which he very symptomatically titled "1001 Laughs," writes:
Back in the thirties, Borges worked for an Argentinean women's magazine called El Hogar - a magazine of middle-class attitudes and presumptions, roughly similar to Redbook in America today. I hadn't known about these pieces until a few days ago, when I started reading Selected Non-Fictions, the wonderful volume that Viking has published. Borges's prose is nutty and funny and unexpected at almost every turn. Here's an example, from a portrait of Theodore Dreiser, the American writer: Dreiser's head is an arduous, monumental head, geological in character, a head of the afflicted Prometheus bound to the Caucasus, and which, across the inexorable centuries, has become ingrained with the Caucasus and now has a fundamental component of rock that is pained by life. (90) (My emphasis)
If Auster had not read Borges description until 2000, it is really amazing he used almost the same words in 1989 when Moon Palace was written. It demonstrates how their works constitute a real uncanny labyrinth and it may prove why first Borges and later Harold Bloom very pertinently spoke about authors creating their forerunners and their anxiety of influence. Finally, one of Borges's detectives - Isidro Parodi - who is also kept in prison but in this case in cell 273 is a former barber now turned into detective solving cases in jail ("Un modelo para la muerte"), a barber of course, like the barber in night 273 in The Arabian Nights.
An identical figure and murmuring to that of an Aleph - of different voices in different languages - can be heard in the film Lulu on the Bridge, written and directed by Paul Auster, when Izzy opens a box full of small strips of shredded newspaper to find a piece of stone of a wall - a bit of late-twentieth-century detritus - which makes them "blue in the face" (the name of another of Auster's films) and connects them to themselves and to the world. Auster's Aleph, moreover, rhymes: it is Music. Of course, we would all hear its "busy hum" if we were able to conceive the "unconceivable universe" and realize it is also made of Language. Auster tells us about its "great Babble of tongues buzzing and battling in the world outside" (The Invention 160) and he makes the effort to put into words that the power of rhyming words is a magic way of connecting all the things of the world with its sounds:
At the heart of each language there is a network of rhymes, assonances, and overlapping meanings, and each of these occurrences functions as a kind of bridge that joins opposite and contrasting aspects of the world with each other. Language, then, not simply as a list of separate things to be added up and whose sum total is equal to the world. Rather, language, as it is laid out in the dictionary: an infinitely complex organism, all of whose elements - cells and sinews, corpuscles and bones, digits and fluids - are present in the world simultaneously, none of which can exist on its own. […] Language, then, as a monadology, to echo the term used by Leibniz. (The Invention 160)
Yet, Auster invites us to follow him further: not only words have music and are able to rhyme, events also rhyme, creating that "music of chance" always present in his works. Coincidence and chance bring events together and make them rhyme and this magic is also part of this unconceivable universe we are forever trying to understand:
The rhyme they [the events] create when looked at together alters the reality of each. Just as two physical objects, when brought into proximity of each other, give off electromagnetic forces that not only effect the molecular structure of each but the space between them as well, altering, as it were, the very environment, so it is that two (or more) rhyming events set up a connection in the world, adding one more synapse to be routed through the vast plenum of experience. (The Invention 161)
Borges was marvelled by the Aleph he saw in a dark basement, but he could not explain it; it is difficult to explain the inexplicable and one may feel just the need to have faith in an order: "Nuestro hermoso deber es imaginar que hay un laberinto y un hilo." ("El hilo de la fábula" 61) [Our beautiful duty is to believe there are a labyrinth and a thread]. It may also be that Borges knew Paul Auster would create his forerunner while healing his anxiety and finish the task. It is as if Borges heard the marvellous music of the Aleph and Auster felt the impulse to put it into words, explaining how events rhyme, how wonderfully chance works, how magically the coincidence element appears though, of course, at times he cannot avoid exclaiming with Effing: "Ha! As if there's any such thing as a coincidence" (Moon Palace 196).
||All translations of Borges' extracts are by the author of this article.|
Auster, Paul. "1001 Laughs." Pen American 1.1 (2000): 90-93.
- - - . Disappearances: Selected Poems. New York: The Overlook Press, 1988.
- - - . In the Country of the Last Things. New York: Penguin Books, 1988.
- - - . Leviathan. New York: Penguin Group, 1993.
- - - . Moon Palace. New York: Penguin Group, 1989.
- - - . Oracle Night. New York: Henry Holt and Company LLC, 2003.
- - - . The Art of Hunger. New York: Penguin Group, 1997.
- - - . The Book of Illusions. New York: Henry Holt and Company LLC, 2002.
- - - . The Invention of Solitude. London: Faber & Faber Ltd., 1992.
- - - . The Music of Chance. New York: Penguin Group, 1990.
- - - . The New York Trilogy. London: Faber and Faber, 1992.
- - - . The Red Notebook and Other Writings. London: Faber & Faber, 1995.
Borges, Jorge Luis. "El Aleph." Prosa Completa. Vol. 2. Barcelona: Bruguera,
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- - - . "La casa de Asterión." Prosa Completa. Vol. 2. Barcelona: Bruguera, 1980.
- - - . "La muralla y los libros." Prosa Completa. Vol. 2. Barcelona: Bruguera,
- - - . "Los traductores de las 1001 Noches." Prosa Completa. Vol. 1. Barcelona:
Bruguera, 1980. 371-392.
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Barcelona: Emecé, 2001.
Del Rey, Santiago. "Al compás de un ritmo pendular." Quimera 109 (1992): 22-
Friedman, Mary Lusky. The Emperor's Kites: A Morphology of Borges' Tales.
Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1987.
Greene, Brian. The Elegant Universe. New York: Vintage Books, 2000.
Vázquez, María Esther. Borges, sus días y su tiempo. Buenos Aires: J. Vergara
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