Borges's Most Borgesian Opening Sentence

October 12, 2018

On the burning February morning Beatriz Viterbo died, after braving an agony that never for a single moment gave way to self-pity or fear, I noticed that the billboards around Constitution Plaza were advertising some new brand or other of American cigarettes. The fact pained me, for I realized that the wide and ceaseless universe was already slipping away from her and that this slight change was the first of an endless series.

That’s the first sentence of “The Aleph.” (Though Norman Thomas Di Giovanni translates it as two sentences, Borges wrote it as one. 1) It exemplifies one of Borges’s favorite devices: the linking of a mundane detail with its vast metaphysical consequences.

He does this time and time again—“The Aleph” is unique only in employing the device in its very first sentence. Here it is in “The Zahir”:

Tennyson said that if we could but understand a single flower, we might know who we are and what the world is. Perhaps he was trying to say that there is nothing, however humble, that does not imply the history of the world and its infinite concatenation of causes and effects. Perhaps he was trying to say that the visible world can be seen entire in every image, just as Schopenhauer tells us that the Will expresses itself entire in every person.

And again, elsewhere in “The Zahir”:

The thought struck me that there is no coin that is not the symbol of all the coins that shine endlessly down through history and fable. I thought of Charon’s obolus; the alms that Belisarius went about begging for; Judas’s thirty pieces of silver; the drachmas of the courtesan Läis; the ancient coin proferred by one of the Ephesian sleepers; the bright coins of the wizard in the 1001 Nights, which turned into disks of paper; Isaac Laquedem’s inexhaustible denarius; the sixty thousand coins, one for every line of an epic, which Firdusi returned to a king because they were silver and not gold; the gold doubloon nailed by Ahab to the mast; Leopold Bloom’s unrelenting florin; the gold louis that betrayed the fleeing Louis XVI near Varennes. As though in a dream, the thought that in any coin one may read those famous connotations seemed to me of vast, though inexplicable, importance. … I reflected that there is nothing less material than money, since any coin (a twenty-centavo piece, for instance) is, in truth, a repertory of possible futures. “Money is abstract,” I said over and over; “money is future tense.” It can be an evening just outside the city, or Brahms, or maps, or chess, or coffee, or the words of Epictetus, which teach the contempt of gold.

Here it is in “The Witness”:

One thing, or an infinite number of things, dies with every man’s or woman’s death, unless the universe itself has a memory, as the theosophists have suggested. In the course of time there was one day that closed the last eyes that looked on Christ; the Battle of Junín and the love of Helen died with the death of one man. What will die with me the day I die? What pathetic or frail image will be lost to the world? The voice of Macedonio Fernandez, the image of a bay horse in a vacant lot on the corner of Sarrano and Charcas, a bar of sulfur in the drawer of a mahogany desk?

Here it is, similarly, in “Paradiso, XXXI, 108”:

Diodorus Siculus relates the story of a god that is cut into pieces and scattered over the earth. Which of us, walking through the twilight or retracing some day in our past, has not felt that we have lost some infinite thing? Mankind has lost a face, an irrecoverable face… A profile in the subway might be the profile of Christ; the hands that return change at a ticket booth may mirror those that the soldiers nailed one day to the cross. Some feature of the crucified face may lurk in every mirror; perhaps the face died, faded away, so that God might be all faces. Who knows but that tonight we may see it in the labyrinths of dream, and not know tomorrow that we saw it.

And here it is again in “The Wall and the Books”:

Music, states of happiness, mythology, faces belabored by time, certain twilights, all want to tell us something, or have told us something we shouldn’t have lost, or are about to tell us something; this imminence of a revelation as yet unproduced is, perhaps, the essence of beauty.

A beautiful world, Borges’s. Like Spinoza’s universe (like Schopenhauer’s Will), it presents itself entire in every one of its details.

In “The Enigma of Edward Fitzgerald,” Borges writes, of the circumstances surrounding the composition of a poem, “the case invites speculation of a metaphysical nature.” You have to chuckle. For Borges, is there any conceivable situation—however banal—of which that statement is not true?

  1. La candente mañana de febrero en que Beatriz Viterbo murió, después de una imperiosa agonía que no se rebajó un solo instante ni al sentimentalismo ni al miedo, noté que las carteleras de fierro de la Plaza Constitución habían renovado no sé qué aviso de cigarrillos rubios; el hecho me dolió, pues comprendí que el incesante y vasto universo ya se apartaba de ella y que ese cambio era el primero de una serie infinita.