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Book: Aleph and Other stories

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This ranks as one of my all-time favorite readings. As it is difficult for one person to give a more praise than that to this collection of fantastical, philosophical, theological, and historical short stories, I will be brief and state that quotes are in the extended, though they inherently spoil the short stories, especially the stories that are less than a page.

The Immortal

I emerged onto a kind of small plaza -- a courtyard might better describe it. It was surrounded by a single building, of irregular angles and varying heights. It was to this heterogeneous building that the many cupolas and columns belonged. More than any other feature of that incredible monument, I was arrested by the great antiquity of its construction. I felt that it had existed before humankind, before the world itself. Its patent antiquity (though somehow terrible to the yes) seemed to accord with the labor of immortal artificers. Cautiously at first, with indifference as time went on, desperately toward the end, I wandered the staircases and inlaid floors of that labyrinthine palace. (I discovered afterward that the width and height of the treads on the staircases were not constant; it was this that explained the extraordinary weariness I felt.) This palace is the work of the gods, was my first thought. I explored the uninhabited spaces, and I corrected myself: The gods that built this place have died. Then I reflected upon it peculiarities, and told myself: The gods that built this place were mad. said this, I know, in a tone of incomprehensible reproof that verged upon remorse -- with more intellectual horror than sensory fear. The impression of great antiquity was joined by others: the impression of endlessness, the sensation of oppressiveness and horror, the sensation of complex irrationality. I had made my way through a dark maze, but it was the bright City of the Immortals tht terrified and repelled me. A maze is a house built purposely to confuse men; it architecture, prodigal in symmetries, is made to serve that purpose. In the palace that I imperfectly explored, the architecture had no purpose. There were corridors that led nowhere, unreachably high windows, grandly dramatic doors that opened onto monklike cells or empty shafts, incredible upside-down staircases with upside-down treads and balustrades. Other staircases, clinging airily to the side of a monumental wall, petered out after two or three landings, in the high gloom of the cupolas, arriving nowhere. I cannot say whether these are literal examples I have given; I do know that for many years they plagued my troubled dreams I can no loner know whether any given feature is a faithful transcription of reality or one of the shapes unleashed by my nights. This City, I thought, is so horrific that its mere existence, the mere fact of its having endured -- even in the middle of a secret desert -- pollutes the past and the future and somehow compromises the stars. So long as this City endures, no one in the world can every by happy or courageous. I do not want to describe it; a chaos of heterogeneous worlds, the body of a tiger or a bull pullulating with teeth, organs, and heads monstrously yoked together yet hating each other -- those might, perhaps, be approximate images.

p. 11

I recalled that it is generally believed among the Ethiopians that monkeys deliberately do not speak, so that they will not be forced to work; I attributed Argos' silence to distrust or fear. From that vivid picture I passed on to others, even more extravagant. I reflected that Argos and I lived our lives in separate universes; I reflected that our perceptions were identical but that Argos combined them differently than I, constructed from them different objects; I reflected that perhaps for him there were no objects, but rather a constant, dizzying play of swift impressions. I imagined a world without memory, without time; I toyed with the possibility of a language that had no nouns, a language of impersonal verbs or indeclinable adjectives.


He [Homer] lived for a century in the City of the Immortals, and when it was destroyed it was he who counseled that this other one be built. We should not be surprised by that -- it is rumored that after singing of the war of Ilion, he sang of the war between the frogs and rats. he was alike a god who created first the Cosmos, and then Chaos.

p. 13

There is nothing very remarkable about being immortal; with the exception of mankind, all creatures are immortal, for they know nothing of death. what is divine, terrible, and incomprehensible is to know oneself immortal. I have noticed that in spite of religion, the conviction as to one's own immortality is extraordinarily rare. Jews, Christians, and Muslims all profess belief in immortality, but the veneration paid to the first century of life is proof that they truly believe on in those hundred years, for they destine all the rest, throughout eternity, to rewarding or punishing what one did when alive.


Taught by centuries of living, the republic of immortal men had achieved a perfection of tolerance, almost of disdain. They knew that over an infinitely long span of time, all things happen to all men. As reward for this past and future virtues, every man merited every kindness -- yet also every betrayal, as reward for his past and future iniquities.


No one is someone; a single immortal man is all men. Like Cornelius Agrippa, I am god, hero, philosopher, demon, and world -- which is a long-winded way of saying that I am not.

p. 15

Among the corollaries to the doctrine that there is no thing that is not counterbalanced by another, there is one that has little theoretical importance but that caused us, at the beginning or end of the tenth century, to scatter over the face of the earth. It may be summarized in these words: There is a river whose waters give immortality; somewhere there must be another river whose waters take it away. The number of rivers is not infinite; an immortal traveler wandering the world will someday have drunk from them all.

p. 15

Death (or reference to death) makes men precious and pathetic; their ghostliness is touching; any act they perform may be their last; there is no face that is not on the verge of blurring and fading away like the faces in a dream. Everything in the world of mortals has the value of the irrecoverable and contingent. Among the Immortals, on the other hand, every act (every thought) is the echo of others that preceded it in the past, with no visible beginning, and the faithful presage of others that will repeat it in the future, ad vertiginem There is nothing that is not as thought lost between indefatigable mirrors. Nothing can occur but once, nothing is preciously in peril of being lost. The elegiac, the somber, the ceremonial are not modes the Immortals hold in reverence.

The Theologians

p. 34

The end of the story can only be told in metaphors, since it takes place in the kingdom of heaven, where time does not exist. One might say that Aurelian spoke with God and found that God takes so little interest in religious differencese that He took him for John of Pannonia. That, however, would be to impute confusion to the divine intelligence. It is more correct to say that in paradise, Aurelian discovered that in the eys of the unfathomable deity, he and John of Pannonia (the orthodox and the heretic, the abominator and the abomnated, the accuser and the victim) were a single person.

Story of the Warrior and the Captive Maiden

A Biography of Tadeo Isidoro Cruz

p. 43

As Cruz was fighting in the darkness (as his boy was fighting in the darkness), he began to understand. He realized that one destiny is no better than the next and that eery man must acept th destiny he bears inside himself.

Emma Zunz

p. 47

The most solemn of events are outside time -- whether because in the most solemn of events the immediate past is severed, as it were, from the future or because the elements that compose those events seem not to be consecutive.

The House of Asterion

Story of the Minotaur

The Other Death

Redeeming past cowardice

Deutsches Requiem

Fall of Nazi Germany, from a Nazi perspective. The silver lining of causing violence to be put down with violence.

Averroes' Search

The Zahir

p. 85

In Arabic, "zahir" means visible, manifest, evident; in that sense, it is one of the ninety-nine names of God; in Muslim countries, the masses use the word for "beings or things which have the terrible power to be unforgettable, and whose image eventually drives people mad." Its first undisputed witness was the Persian polymath and dervish Lutf Ali Azur; in the corroborative pages of the biographical encyclopedia title Temple of Fire, Ali Azur relates that in a certain school in Shirax there was a copper astrolabe "constructed in such a way that any man that looked upon it but once could think of nothing else, so that the king commanded that it be thrown into the deepest depths of the sea, in order that men might not forget the universe." Meadows Taylor's account is somewhat more extensive; the author served the Nazim of Hyderabad and composed the famous novel Confessions of a Thug. In 1832, on the outskirts of Bhuj, Taylor heard the following uncommon expression used to signify madness or saintliness: "Verily he has looked upon the tiger." He was told that the reference was to a magic tiger that was the perdition of all who saw it, even from a great distance, for never afterward could a person stop thinking about it. Someone mentioned that one of those stricken people had fled to Mysore, where he had pointed the image of the tiger in a palace. Years later, Taylor visited the prisons of that district; in the jail at Nighur, the governor showed him a cell whose floor, walls, and vaulted ceiling were covered by a drawing (in barbaric colors that time, before obliterating, had refined) of an infinite tiger. It was a tiger composed of many tigers, in the most dizzying of ways; it was crisscrossed with tigers, striped with tigers, and contained seas and Himalayas and armies that resembled other tigers.

The Writing of the God

Ibn-Hakam al-Bokhari, Murdered in His Labyrinth

p. 102

Dunraven, who had read a great many detective novels, thought that the solution of a mystery was always a good deal less intersting than the mystery itself; the mystery had a touch of the supernatural and even the divine about it, while the solution was a sleight of hand.

The Wait

Waiting to be killed.

The Man on the Threshold


"The accused man accepted the judge," was the reply. "Perhaps he realized that given the fate that awaited the conspirators if they should set him free, it was only from a madman that he might hope for anything but a sentence of death."

The Aleph

p. 129

I come now to the ineffable center of my tale; it is here that a writer's hopelessness begins. Every language is an alphabet of symbols the employment of which assumes a past shared by it interlocutors. How can one transmit to ohers the infinite Aleph, which my timorous memory can scarcely contain? In a similar situation, mystics have employed a wealth of emblems: to signify the deity, a Persian mystic speaks of a bird that somehow is all birds; Alain de Lille speaks of a sphere whose center is everywhere and circumference nowhere; Ezekiel, of an angel with four faces, facing eath and west, north and south at once.

A Dialog About a Dialog

p. 144

He assured me that the death of the body is altogether insignificant, and that dying has to be the most unimportant thing that can happen to a man. I was playing with Macedonio's pocketknife, opening and closing it. A nearby accordian was infinitely dispatching La Comparsita, that dismaying trifle that so many people like because it's been misrepresented to them as being old... I suggested to Macedonio that we kill ourselves, so we might have our discussion without all that racket.

Argumentum Ornithologicum

p. 148

I close my eyes and see a flock of birds. The vision lasts a second or perhaps less; I am not sure how many birds I saw. Was the number of birds definite or indefinite? The problem involes the existence of God. If God exists, the number is definite, because God knows how many birds I saw. If God does not exist, the number is indefinite, because no one can have counted...

The Captive

This quote reminds me of my Military Generic entry

p. 149

I would like to know what he felt in that moment of vertigo when past and present intermingled; I would like to know whether the lost son was reborn and died in that ecstatic moment, and whether he ever managed to recognize, even as little as a baby or a dog might, his parents and the house.

Delia Elena San Marco

p. 153

To say good-bye is to deny separation; it is to say Today we play at going our own ways, but we'll see each other tomorrow. Men invented farewells because they somehow knew themselves to be immortal, even while seeing themselves as contingent and ephemeral.

A Dialog Between Dead Men

p. 156

"Stones want to go on being stones, too, forever and ever," Quiroga replied. "And for centuries they are stones -- until they crumble into dust."

The Witness

p. 161

Things, events, that occupy space yet come to an end when someone dies may make us stop in wonder -- and yet 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 theosophists have suggested. In the course of time there was one day that closed the last eyes that had looked on Christ; the Battle of Junin and the love of Helen died with the death of one man.

Parable of Cervantes and the Quixote

p. 166

For in the beginning of literature there is myth, as there is also in the end of it.

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