Encyclopedias of Everything, Part 2
Taking inventory is not only an act of organization, but an acquisition. Listing the multiplicity of things in the world makes them our own, and we own the list as well. Taken to its extreme such a project naturally presents logistical problems. Where do we draw the line? At what point do we abandon our efforts to catalog the world and just hold up the world itself? A complete encyclopedia of everything would have to be a book precisely the size of the universe.
Jorge Luis Borges
Jorge Borges, the Argentinean story writer, poet, and scholar, addressed this problem in his brilliant, strange, and wickedly playful story, “The Aleph.” The Aleph is a tiny point of space in the cellar of a house owned by an ostentatious poet named Carlos Argentino Daneri who is writing an epic poem in which he plans to encompass everything in the world. The source of his inspiration is the Aleph, an iridescent sphere measuring about an inch in diameter, that Daneri discovers hovering beneath the stairs in the cellar of his family’s house. He gradually realizes that this tiny ball of light contains all space and time as well as every object in the universe and every event that has occurred and will occur. It is infinity in a nutshell. (The famous lines from Hamlet are the story’s epigraph: “Oh God! I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a King of infinite space…”)
The narrator is an acquaintance of Daneri’s named “Borges” who finally convinces the poet to show him the source of his inspiration. When he is led into the cellar and confronts the Aleph hovering in the darkness, he looks deeply into it. To his astonishment he sees, “the teeming sea…daybreak and nightfall…the multitudes of America… a silvery cobweb in the center of a black pyramid…a splintered labyrinth (it was London)…bunches of grapes, snow, tobacco, lodes of metal, steam…convex equatorial deserts and each of their grains of sand…a woman in Inverness whom I shall never forget; I saw her tangled hair, her tall figure, the cancer in her breast…a summer house in Adrogue and a copy of the first English translation of Pliny… I saw my empty bedroom; I saw in a closet in Alkmaar a terrestrial globe between two mirrors that multiplied it endlessly; I saw horses with flowing manes on a shore of the Caspian Sea at dawn…the delicate bone structure of a hand…the survivors of a battle sending out picture postcards…the slanting shadows of ferns on a greenhouse floor…tigers, pistons, bison, tides, and armies…all the ants on the planet…a Persian astrolabe… the Aleph and in the Aleph 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.”
That the only book “Borges” noticed was Pliny’s is fitting, since Pliny undertook his monumental Natural History with the intention of fitting between its covers everything that was known about the world in first century Rome. Thus it is a kind of Aleph itself…