Borges, Xul Solar, and the occult.
This story is an excerpt from To the Country, a new iBook album by The Size Queens featuring fiction by Joy Williams, Rick Moody, and more.
Lot 51, “The Aleph” by Alejandro Xul Solar, oil, minerals and metals on canvas, 32″ x 44.25″, 1930.
Xul Solar first painted the Aleph in 1930, but years were to pass before he and his friend J. L. Borges were able to make full use of its divinatory properties, even though it was clear from the moment the work was finished that the quasi-reptilian figure filling the image’s First Door, known to the two as Platon, was able to move freely about the canvas according to his own purposes (his skin in motion acquiring bluish-silvery reflected tints that faded in repose.) Experiments demonstrated that the viewer’s affinity with Platon and certain other figures in the composition resulted in an increased ability to understand and speak foreign languages (“babelismo”); subsequently other correspondences were revealed. Borges, whose middle finger Platon learned to reach out and grasp in a papery but very tight clutch, drawing a little more blood each time, was to prove the image’s most successful interpreter. Such was the lure of the mental enhancement thereby produced that Borges never failed to offer his hand to the painting, which was hidden in the dark recesses of Solar’s attic chambers, whenever the opportunity arose. In time the author’s left middle fingernail split in two with a thick dark pointed scar in its center. And as his inward sight grew keener, Borges’s physical vision commenced to fail: another price he gladly paid.
Solar made three more attempts to depict the Aleph. The second of the four (1931–33, tempera on wood panel, 112.5 x 78 cm) proved to offer the richest “prepotencies” as the visions came to be called. Impulsively, Solar gave the painting to Borges at the end of a somewhat maudlin and vinous evening full of French poetry and games of panjedrez, all of which Borges lost, just before the sun rose on a fragrant Buenos Aires bower in November of 1936. Solar’s diaries and sketchbooks reveal a keen regret over having made this gift, but being a proud man as well as a kind one, he never asked for its return.
Oblique references to the occult experiments of Borges and Solar abound in the works of the former. Solar is even mentioned by name in the story “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” which is a somewhat indirect but vivid and forceful examination of the intelligence produced by experimentation with the Aleph, and Solar did in fact translate one of the languages of the Southern Hemisphere of Tlön, as described therein.
In 2003, Alan White, Mark Hopkins Professor of Philosophy at Williams College, published his impressive discovery of the “source” of the titular Uqbar in the 1917 Anglo-American Encyclopedia, a fifty-volume bootleg of the 1902 Encyclopedia Britannica.
Its volume 46 is labeled “Tot-Ups” rather than “Tor-Ups”, but also […] like its counterpart Cyclopaedia, it concludes with an article on Upsala ending on page 917, and its volume 47, like that of the Cyclopaedia, begins with one on Ural-Altaic languages. That the Anglo-American Encyclopedia contains more volumes than did the tenth edition of the Britannica does not—pace Fishburn and Hughes—rule out the possibility of its being an exact copy, for the simple reason that its volumes contain fewer pages: its volume 46, for example, contains numbered pages 497–917, whereas volume 23 of the tenth (and ninth) edition of the Britannica, “T-Ups”, is numbered 1–860. The break between Volume 47 and Volume 48 of the Anglo-American interrupts not only an article—that on the wave theory of light—but even a sentence.
Nevertheless, the Anglo-American Encyclopedia is not a literal copy of the Britannica’s tenth edition. The latter consists of the 24 volumes of the ninth edition, plus an 11-volume supplement; it thus covers the span from A through Z twice … whereas the Anglo-American moves from A through Z in a single series. Moreover, from Volume 46 of the Anglo-American, the correspondence is not directly to the tenth Britannica edition. The relevant volume unique to that edition is 33, which ends with page 945, covers Str-Zwo, and includes, following its article on Upsala (pp. 608–609), one on the Ural Mountains and one on Uralsk, but none on Ural-Altaic Languages. […]
I conclude that Borges did own the Anglo-American Encyclopedia, and that he did consult its 46th and 47th volumes: for him to have hit by chance upon its 917 pages, or upon its volume break between “Upsala” and “Ural-Altaic Languages” would be—as his Lönnrot might note, at this point—not only uninteresting, but also virtually impossible.*
That Borges’s sublime fantastications had their origins in a direct experience of second sight will not, perhaps, come as much of a surprise to certain of his admirers. Prof. White’s paper suffers from an altogether pardonable ignorance of the facts, for it seems certain that he will never have considered even the barest possibility that “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” is closer to reportage than to “fiction.” He justly points out that earlier researchers, bereft as they were of anything resembling WorldCat or Google, could be forgiven for their ignorance of the Anglo-American Encyclopedia—just as Prof. White, too, can be forgiven for not knowing that Borges and Solar had no need whatsoever of that curious book in order to reach Uqbar, in imagination or otherwise.
Llego a mi centro,
a mi álgebra y mi clave,
a mi espejo.
Pronto sabré quién soy.
… I reach my center,
My algebra and my key,
Soon I shall know who I am.
J. L. Borges, Elogio de la sombra
Maria Bustillos is the author of Dorkismo: The Macho of the Dork.
*Alan White, “An Appalling or Banal Reality,” in Variaciones Borges, A Journal of Philosophy, Semiotics and Literature edited by the J. L. Borges Center for Studies and Documentation, University of Aarhus—Denmark 15/2003