J.S. Bach – Crab Canon on a Möbius Strip

The Genius of J.S. Bach’s “Crab Canon” Visualized on a Möbius Strip

This is one of the reasons I prefer Bach to all other great composers. Pure ingeniousness.


“The Bet” — Anton Chekhov


“The Bet” by Anton Chekhov


It was a dark autumn night. The old banker was pacing from corner to corner of his study, recalling to his mind the party he gave in the autumn fifteen years before. There were many clever people at the party and much interesting conversation. They talked among other things of capital punishment. The guests, among them not a few scholars and journalists, for the most part disapproved of capital punishment. They found it obsolete as a means of punishment, unfitted to a Christian State and immoral. Some of them thought that capital punishment should be replaced universally by life-imprisonment.

“I don’t agree with you,” said the host. “I myself have experienced neither capital punishment nor life-imprisonment, but if one may judge a priori, then in my opinion capital punishment is more moral and more humane than imprisonment. Execution kills instantly, life-imprisonment kills by…

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I don’t remember where I was when John Kennedy was shot.

I don’t remember where I was when Robert Kennedy was shot.

I don’t remember where I was when Edward Kennedy heroically swam away from the dead body of Mary Jo Kopechne.

I remember being held up by my father to watch the funeral procession of Queen Mary go past.

I remember standing in the Finchley Road to watch Diana Spencer’s hearse go by and wondering if the driver was allowed to use his windscreen wipers to sweep away the flowers that were constantly being thrown on to it.

I remember my mother wearing a cream dress with a black satin rose on the shoulder to Grandpa’s cremation, and not being able to decide if it was defiantly stylish or a little bit naff.

I remember going to Mark Boxer’s funeral and spending a lot of time trying to work out the date of the church. I remember feeling triumphant when I came home, checked it in Pevsner and found I was only two years out.

I remember going to Ian Hamilton’s funeral and trying to work out how many of the women present had had an affair with him.

I remember grief not behaving in the way it was supposed to.

I remember two members of the school rugby team I played in dying while still in the sixth form, one in a car accident, one supposedly by his own hand after getting a girl pregnant; both of them were called Smith.

I remember my schoolfriend Alex Brilliant, who was much better than me at English, whom I lost touch with after he went to Cambridge, and whose parallel existence, presumably in one of the liberal professions, I occasionally went on imagining for the next twenty-five years. I remember not knowing how to think about the matter when I learnt that he had killed himself almost half a lifetime back.

I remember Christopher J Dixon, the English master who taught us both and left to take up a post at Eton, and who killed himself there in a drink-and-pills pact with his wife.

I remember that most of the funerals I have attended have been of men.

Though I remember going to Arthur and Cynthia Koestler’s joint funeral at Mortlake Crematorium, and how, after the matching coffins had been brought in, the undertaker solemnly propped up on top of each a hand-lettered cardboard sign, one reading ‘Arthur’, the other ‘Cynthia’, just so we knew who we were looking at.

And I remember the vicar at Dodie Smith’s funeral unsuccessfully trying to win over the congregation with the line, ‘I do myself have some connection with show business – I once shared a house with Cliff Richard.’

I also remember the wreath sent by the British Dalmatian Society, and being disappointed that it was not black and white.

I remember looking down at the hole into which they had lowered Terence Kilmartin and realizing it had been dug to an extra depth so that his widow could at some future time be buried on top of him.

I remember thinking, that is a very long way down.

I remember the awful fake look on a friend’s face that day, and my realisation that he was ‘doing grief’.

I remember the apocalyptic storm which broke as I was driving back from the funeral.

I remember the friend with the fake look not coming on with the rest of us from church to cemetery, and me rebuking him with, ‘You’ve got to see them into the ground.’

I remember being surprised when Ian Hamilton, after a church service, was driven away for cremation rather than being buried in the graveyard outside. I remember thinking: crematorium, cremation; church, burial – isn’t that how it goes? When I asked someone about this, I was told, ‘Ian had a horror of being buried alive’. And I remember thinking: As opposed to a horror of being screwed into a wooden box for three days and then burnt alive?

I remember not going to my grandmother’s funeral because I simply couldn’t be arsed.

I remember George Brassens songs in which grief provokes lust, and the black-veiled widow is consoled by her dead husband’s best mate; but cannot adduce any evidence of this myself.
I remember Iris Murdoch novels – or, perhaps, television adaptations of them – or, more likely, a single TV adaptation of one of them – in which a funeral is a nexus of infighting and intrigue, enough to launch a novel on its course; but I cannot adduce any evidence of this either.

I remember when mourners first began to wear ‘smart casual’, their summer suits and open-necked shirts implying that they were too deep in grief to bow to the stifling conventions of mourning; further, that the departed would not just understand, but appreciate how cool they were being. I remember thinking this a kind of vanity. But since I do not remember ever seeing dress specifications on a funeral invitation, perhaps they were right, and grieving just as much as the conventionally clad.

I remember noticing for the first time, at Ian Hamilton’s funeral, that the pallbearers, after the service was over, turned the coffin round – like a locomotive on a turntable – before heading back down the aisle, so that the dead are indeed carried out feet first.

I remember saying to Russell Davies, as Ian’s coffin passed us, ‘Why do the pallbearers always look like minor criminals?’, and him replying, ‘Because they are.’

I remember people deciding, at a certain point in their lives, not to go to any more of the funerals which increasingly fill the diaries of those growing older.

I remember Dodie Smith staying at home even for her husband’s funeral; not from lack of love – though perhaps from a sense of disappointment that he had let her down by dying first. I remember her explaining to me, ‘They came and took him away,’ as if I might otherwise suspect he was still in the house.

I remember ‘Singing in the Rain’ being played at John Coleman’s funeral as the coffin slid away between those sinister doors, and how it was unaccountably cut off with about an eighth of its length still to go. I remember wondering if we were being told our crem-time was up.

I remember Alan Brien spraying spittle and sausage roll over me at the subsequent wake at The Old Bull & Bush, and telling me how he was supposed not to be a very nice man, but giving me an example to prove otherwise.

I remember not having raised the question in the first place.

I remember the vicar who took Ian Hamilton’s funeral saying that The Times had that morning published a ‘fulsome’ obituary of him.

I remember thinking that Ian wouldn’t have liked that misuse.

I don’t remember thinking that, were he still alive in his coffin and fearing live burial, catachresis would have been the least of his concerns.

I remember the self-help booklet they handed out at my mother’s cremation, answering all those questions a mourner might reasonably be expected to ask. I remember thinking that it would have saved me embarrassment, five years earlier, when I had asked the crematorium director at my father’s funeral if we could take the ashes away with us, and him explaining, with euphemisms, that burnt corpses took a long time to cool down.

I remember disputing the bill with the undertaker who arranged my mother’s funeral; not just because he charged ten per cent more than he said he would, but because that’s what she would have wanted me to do.

I remember thinking the usual things about whether you really got the ashes you were meant to.

I remember my father in a heavy wooden casket and my mother in a plastic screw-top jar.

I remember taking them to France by Eurostar for scattering, though only one of them had the necessary ‘out of England’ certificate. Being illicitly exported after death was probably the only time my father broke the law.

And I remember that none of these ceremonies, secular or religious, church or crematorium, friend or family, solemn or celebratory, well- or ill-dressed, brought the slightest consolation, expiation, or even explanation.


Futility and its remedies


Trying to write an equestrian article for Sports Illustrated, Kurt Vonnegut stared at the blank page all day before typing, “The horse jumped over the fucking fence.” He then left the offices of the magazine and never came back.

“For years I was tormented by the thought” Kafka wrote in an undelivered letter, “that this giant man, my father, could almost without reason come to me in the night, and lift me out of bed, and leave me on the balcony.” Kafka believed his domineering father saw him as nothing, vermin, a worthless insect. Rather than dispute this view, the writer instead took on the identity of one Gregor Samsa and then took to his bed.

Occasionally, when he received visitors, Samuel Beckett would take great care not to turn the lights on in his Parisian apartment. As the sun set and night began to fill the room, Beckett, a…

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The Attic by Danilo Kis

The Attic by Danilo Kis

Back at the time I think I first met her, I was feverishly demanding answers from life, and so I was completely caught up in myself—that is, caught up in the vital issues of existence.

Here are some of the questions to which I was seeking answers:
—the issue of the organic exchange of matter and
—the issue of nourishment
—life on other planets and
—out in space
—the age of the earth
—the difference between culture and civilization
—the race issue
—apoliticism or engagement
—kindness or heedlessness
—Superman or Everyman
—idealism or materialism
—Don Quixote or Sancho Panza
—Hamlet or Don Juan
—pessimism or optimism
—death or suicide
and so on and so forth.

These problems and a dozen more like them stood before me like an army of moody and taciturn sphinxes. And so, right when I had reached issue number nine—the issue of nourishment—after having solved the first eight problems in one fashion or another, the last addition to the list turned up: the question of love . . .

Broken down into its component parts, this issue had—in a concrete case—the following determinants:

Question: What color are her eyes?

Hypotheses: Green, blue, blue-green, the color of ripe olives, aquamarine, like the evening skies over the Adriatic, over Madagascar, over Odessa, over Celebes; like the sea at Brač, at the Cape of Good Hope, etc.

Question: The color of her hair?

Hypotheses: Brown, blonde, like fairy hair, hair like the Lady of the Lake’s, the color of mellow moonlight, of pure sunny flax, of a sunny day . . .

Her voice?

The voice of a silver harp, of a viola with a mute, of a Renaissance lute, the voice of a Swedish guitar with thirteen strings, of Gothic organs or a miniature harpsichord, of a violin staccato or a guitar arpeggio in a minor key.

Her hands, her caresses?

Her kisses?

Breasts, thighs, hips?


So, this is how she came striding up to me, with this precious baroque burden, with the gait of a tame beast of prey and the wind in her hair.

It was like this:

It was right when I—along with Billy Wiseass—wanted to dedicate myself to philosophy, and we had without much effort just arrived at that famous ninth problem, when he proposed that we skip it, since it was pretty vulgar and of no interest to real philosophers, and instead dedicate ourselves to astronomy and begin that whole business about the stars and planets.

Naturally I agreed.

To this end we sold all our things (that is to say, his coat and mine, and several books that we had wrung out like lemons and thus could have tossed into schoolhouse urinals anyway) and moved into a mansarda, a small attic loft on the outskirts of the city. There we gaped at the stars day after day, or rather night after night, and discovered several galaxies we had never before heard about or seen. We christened one star from the constellation of Orion “Undiscovered Love,” and a second one “Billy Wiseass,” and a third star we christened with my name (let’s let that stay a little secret), and a fourth we named in a straightforward and pretty vulgar manner: Hunger.

In this way we justified our inconsistency and our return to the grand and unworthy question bearing the cabalistic number 9.

“Allow me,” I said, “to introduce my friend to you: Billy Wiseass.”

“Oh,” she remarked. “You must surely be a philosopher.”

“No,” I said. “He’s an astronomer.”

“Yes,” Billy Wiseass said, “and he’s a—”

“—globetrotter,” I interrupted, aiming for his rawest nerve. (I’ve never liked to bare my true nature in public.)

“Oh,” she replied and her eyes skimmed across a cloud.

“Yes,” I said. “I’ve just returned from the Cape of Good Hope by way of the Côte d’Azur.”

“Lucky you!” she said.

“Lucky us?” I asked.

“Lucky us,” said Billy Wiseass.


The autumn of the year 7464 (according to the Byzantine calendar) was foggy and wet, yet the foliage turned yellow and dried up overnight, so that one morning I was astonished to discover that the branches were as naked as pipes. All of this occurred so unexpectedly!

“So what’s your name, actually?” she asked the next day. “I assume it’s not ‘Cape of Good Hope.’”

“Orphée,” I said. “Orpheus.”

Billy Consummate Liar confirmed it:

“Look here, Magdalena,” he said. “Why shouldn’t you be called Eurydice? He undoubtedly meant to suggest that next . . . Right, Orpheus?”

“Of course,” I said. “That goes without saying. If you have no objection.”

“Oh,” she said. “How strange you are!”

Then, a surprise attack:

“So where’s your guitar, Orpheus?”

“In the attic,” I said.

“Which attic?” she asked.

“We live there because of its proximity to the stars. You understand. We will rename ‘Hunger’ . . . ‘Eurydice.’ Do you like that idea?”

“I don’t get it,” she said.

“In order for one star at least to bear your name.”

“My name isn’t Magdalena.”

“Who said anything about Magdalena? I said ‘Eurydice.’”

“Oh,” she said. “I don’t care. But I would like to see this star.”

“Certainly,” I said. “We will select a star that is worthy of your name.”


The next day I led her up the dark wooden stairs to the attic. I had already chased Billy Wiseass out, and I explained away his absence by expressing my amazement that he wasn’t around.

“That’s not nice of him,” I said.

“It’s not,” she agreed.

“Maybe he left to go to the observatory,” I said in his defense.

“But where is your guitar?” she asked, casting a glance around the room.

The room resembled the hold of one of those small sailboats pitching back and forth on the high seas, lost in the dark of night. On the walls the dampness had sketched out wondrous designs of the flora and fauna that bloom and thrive only in dreams. On the ceiling was a depiction of the birth of the world from the embrace of dewy sleep and tentative wakefulness, while in the four corners stood symbolic illustrations of the four continents: the African summer, the Asian spring, the snows of America, European autumn.

Mastodons and reptiles grazed on the walls, and hummingbirds plucked thick mucus from the eyelashes of a woolly mammoth. Flocks of wild doves (the last examples of which were to be found in this attic) and cranes and swallows covered the walls, forming an enormous wedge in the shape of the numeral 1, thereby providing an illustration of biblical brotherhood and the mythical marvel of friendship: And the swallow will build its nest in the ear of the mastodon, and the hummingbird will comb the leopard’s mane with its silvery beak, and the woodpecker will clean the teeth of the crocodiles of Niagara and the Holy Nile. (The Gospel according to Billy Wiseass, translated into Mansardic from the Galactic and rendered in verse by –——, known as Orphée or Orpheus.) […]

“It isn’t actually a guitar,” I said.

“It’s not a guitar?”

“It’s a Renaissance lute,” I said. “You’re probably wondering . . .”

“Oh!” she said, alarmed. “Something is crawling up my leg.”

“It’s nothing,” I said. “A mouse, for sure.”

“A mouse?!”

“Well, what else could it be? The snake’s already asleep.”

“Oh, God!”

“It’s over there, under the bell-jar by the books. We extracted all the poison from it. I brought it back from Ceylon,” I noted with pride.

“And what do you want with a snake?” she asked.

“Are you familiar with the legend of Orpheus? Of course you must know it.”

“He tamed wild animals with his songs,” she said, trembling.

I continued:

The boulders opened their portals before him, and the Andes and Cordilleras bent their ears to hear.

“So where is this thing of yours, this . . . Renaissance guitar?”

“Lute,” I corrected her.

“Okay, then. Lute.”

Then I opened the rusty little door for cleaning soot out of the stove, and a swarm of squeaking mice and rats came hurtling out.

She leapt onto the bed.

“Now, Eurydice, you are going to hear the song of Orpheus,” I said and struck up a tender arpeggio in a minor key.

I sang softly:

A rose petal your pillow will be,
and tulips your footsteps will mourn.

She sat with her legs folded beneath her and watched me—with fright or with amazement, I don’t know.

Then she said: “Look! Look!”

“Eurydice,” I said with pathos in my voice. “You can stretch out your legs.”

She was staring, dumbfounded, at the little iron door. With the dignity and discipline of ants or worker bees, a column of cockroaches was climbing up the wall toward the opening. They waited for the last mouse tail to be yanked in before continuing.

When the final bug had made its way up the wall, I clapped the iron door shut with my foot and started singing:

A rose petal your pillow will be,
and tulips your footsteps will mourn.

“Not now,” she said. “Not now, please.”

Translated by John K. Cox

Danilo Kiš was born in the Vojvodina, the great crossroads of Mitteleuropa, in 1935. After his father, a Hungarian Jew, died in Auschwitz, his remaining family took refuge in Hungary and returned to Montenegro after the war. Kiš struggled to publish in Titoist Yugoslavia and eventually moved to Paris, where he died in 1989. Eight of his books are now available in English, with introductions by a striking line-up: William Vollman, Aleksandar Hemon, and Adam Thirlwell, as well as Brodsky.


– See more at: http://littlestarjournal.com/blog/2012/07/the-attic-by-danilo-kis/#sthash.msMSdePf.dpuf

Marina Abramovic. An artist’s life Manifesto



1. An artist’s conduct in his life: 

– An artist should not lie to himself or others 
– An artist should not steal ideas from other artists 
– An artist should not compromise for themselves or in regards to the art market 
– An artist should not kill other human beings 
– An artist should not make themselves into an idol 
– An artist should not make themselves into an idol 
– An artist should not make themselves into an idol 

2. An artist’s relation to his love life: 

– An artist should avoid falling in love with another artist 
– An artist should avoid falling in love with another artist 
– An artist should avoid falling in love with another artist 

3. An artist’s relation to the erotic: 

– An artist should develop an erotic point of view on the world 
– An artist should be erotic 
– An artist should be erotic 
– An artist should be erotic 

4. An artist’s relation to suffering: 

– An artist should suffer 
– From the suffering comes the best work 
– Suffering brings transformation 
– Through the suffering an artist transcends their spirit 
– Through the suffering an artist transcends their spirit 
– Through the suffering an artist transcends their spirit 

5. An artist’s relation to depression:
– An artist should not be depressed 
– Depression is a disease and should be cured 
– Depression is not productive for an artist
– Depression is not productive for an artist 
– Depression is not productive for an artist 

6. An artist’s relation to suicide: 

– Suicide is a crime against life 
– An artist should not commit suicide 
– An artist should not commit suicide 
– An artist should not commit suicide 

7. An artist’s relation to inspiration: 

– An artist should look deep inside themselves for inspiration 
– The deeper they look inside themselves, the more universal they become 
– The artist is universe 
– The artist is universe 
– The artist is universe 

8. An artist’s relation to self-control: 

– The artist should not have self-c ontrol about his life 
– The artist should have total self-control about his work 
– The artist should not have self-control about his life 
– The artist should have total self-control about his work 

9. An artist’s relation with transparency: 

– The artist should give and receive at the same time 
– Transparency means receptive 
– Transparency means to give 
– Transparency means to receive 
– Transparency means receptive 
– Transparency means to give 
– Transparency means to receive 
– Transparency means receptive 
– Transparency means to give 
– Transparency means to receive 

10. An artist’s relation to symbols: 

– An artist creates his own symbols 
– Symbols are an artist’s language 
– The language must then be translated 
– Sometimes it is difficult to find the key 
– Sometimes it is difficult to find the key 
– Sometimes it is difficult to find the key

11. An artist’s relation to silence: 

– An artist has to understand silence 
– An artist has to create a space for silence to enter his work 
– Silence is like an island in the middle of a turbulent ocean 
– Silence is like an island in the middle of a turbulent ocean 
– Silence is like an island in the middle of a turbulent ocean 

12. An artist’s relation to solitude: 

– An artist must make time for the long periods of solitude 
– Solitude is extremely important 
– Away from home 
– Away from the studio 
– Away from family
– Away from friends 
– An artist should stay for long periods of time at waterfalls 
– An artist should stay for long periods of time at exploding volcanoes 
– An artist should stay for long periods of time looking at the fast running rivers 
– An artist should stay for long periods of time looking at the horizon where the ocean and sky meet 
– An artist should stay for long periods of time looking at the stars in the night sky 

13. An artist’s conduct in relation to work: 

– An artist should avoid going to the studio every day
– An artist should not treat his work schedule as a bank employee does 
– An artist should explore life and work only when an idea comes to him in a dream or during the day as a vision that arises as a surprise 
– An artist should not repeat himself 
– An artist should not overproduce 
– An artist should avoid his own art pollution 
– An artist should avoid his own art pollution 
– An artist should avoid his own art pollution 

14. An artist’s possessions: 

– Buddhist monks advise that it is best to have nine possessions in their life: 
1 robe for the summer 
1 robe for the winter 
1 pair of shoes 
1 begging bowl for food 
1 mosquito net 
1 prayer book 
1 umbrella 
1 mat to sleep on 
1 pair of glasses if needed 
– An artist should decide for himself the minimum personal possessions they should have 
– An artist should have more and more of less and less 
– An artist should have more and more of less and less 
– An artist should have more and more of less and less

15. A list of an artist’s friends: 

– An artist should have friends that lift their spirits 
– An artist should have friends that lift their spirits 
– An artist should have friends that lift their spirits 

16. A list of an artist’s enemies: 

– Enemies are very important 
– The Dalai Lama has said that it is easy to have compassion with friends but much more difficult to have compassion with enemies 
– An artist has to learn to forgive 
– An artist has to learn to forgive 
– An artist has to learn to forgive 

17. Different death scenarios: 

– An artist has to be aware of his own mortality 
– For an artist, it is not only important how he lives his life but also how he dies 
– An artist should look at the symbols of his work for the signs of different death scenarios 
– An artist should die consciously without fear 
– An artist should die consciously without fear 
– An artist should die consciously without fear 

18. Different funeral scenarios: 

– An artist should give instructions before the funeral so that everything is done the way he wants it 
– The funeral is the artist’s last art piece before leaving 
– The funeral is the artist’s last art piece before leaving 
– The funeral is the artist’s last art piece before leaving

In August 2012, Marina Abramovic appeared in the Antony and the Johnsons video for “Cut the World,” directed by Nabil Elderkin and acted by Willem Dafoe and Carice van Houten. The video is about women taking the world back from men.

The Aleph by Jorge Luis Borges


O God! I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a King of infinite space… 
Hamlet, II, 2

But they will teach us that Eternity is the Standing still of the Present Time, a Nunc-stans (as the schools call it); which neither they, nor any else understand, no more than they would a Hic-stans for an Infinite greatness of Place. 
Leviathan, IV, 46

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 sidewalk billboards around Constitution Plaza were advertising some new brand or other of American cigarettes. The fact pained me, for I realised that the wide and ceaseless universe was already slipping away from her and that this slight change was the first of an endless series. The universe may change but not me, I thought with a certain sad vanity. I knew that at times my fruitless devotion had annoyed her; now that she was dead, I could devote myself to her memory, without hope but also without humiliation. I recalled that the thirtieth of April was her birthday; on that day to visit her house on Garay Street and pay my respects to her father and to Carlos Argentino Daneri, her first cousin, would be an irreproachable and perhaps unavoidable act of politeness. Once again I would wait in the twilight of the small, cluttered drawing room, once again I would study the details of her many photographs: Beatriz Viterbo in profile and in full colour; Beatriz wearing a mask, during the Carnival of 1921; Beatriz at her First Communion; Beatriz on the day of her wedding to Roberto Alessandri; Beatriz soon after her divorce, at a luncheon at the Turf Club; Beatriz at a seaside resort in Quilmes with Delia San Marco Porcel and Carlos Argentino; Beatriz with the Pekingese lapdog given her by Villegas Haedo; Beatriz, front and three-quarter views, smiling, hand on her chin… I would not be forced, as in the past, to justify my presence with modest offerings of books — books whose pages I finally learned to cut beforehand, so as not to find out, months later, that they lay around unopened.

Beatriz Viterbo died in 1929. From that time on, I never let a thirtieth of April go by without a visit to her house. I used to make my appearance at seven-fifteen sharp and stay on for some twenty-five minutes. Each year, I arrived a little later and stay a little longer. In 1933, a torrential downpour coming to my aid, they were obliged to ask me for dinner. Naturally, I took advantage of that lucky precedent. In 1934, I arrived, just after eight, with one of those large Santa Fe sugared cakes, and quite matter-of-factly I stayed to dinner. It was in this way, on these melancholy and vainly erotic anniversaries, that I came into the gradual confidences of Carlos Argentino Daneri.

Beatriz had been tall, frail, slightly stooped; in her walk there was (if the oxymoron may be allowed) a kind of uncertain grace, a hint of expectancy. Carlos Argentino was pink-faced, overweight, gray-haired, fine-featured. He held a minor position in an unreadable library out on the edge of the Southside of Buenos Aires. He was authoritarian but also unimpressive. Until only recently, he took advantage of his nights and holidays to stay at home. At a remove of two generations, the Italian “S” and demonstrative Italian gestures still survived in him. His mental activity was continuous, deeply felt, far-ranging, and — all in all — meaningless. He dealt in pointless analogies and in trivial scruples. He had (as did Beatriz) large, beautiful, finely shaped hands. For several months he seemed to be obsessed with Paul Fort — less with his ballads than with the idea of a towering reputation. “He is the Prince of poets,” Daneri would repeat fatuously. “You will belittle him in vain — but no, not even the most venomous of your shafts will graze him.”

On the thirtieth of April, 1941, along with the sugared cake I allowed myself to add a bottle of Argentine cognac. Carlos Argentino tasted it, pronounced it “interesting,” and, after a few drinks, launched into a glorification of modern man.

“I view him,” he said with a certain unaccountable excitement, “in his inner sanctum, as though in his castle tower, supplied with telephones, telegraphs, phonographs, wireless sets, motion-picture screens, slide projectors, glossaries, timetables, handbooks, bulletins…”

He remarked that for a man so equipped, actual travel was superfluous. Our twentieth century had inverted the story of Mohammed and the mountain; nowadays, the mountain came to the modern Mohammed.

So foolish did his ideas seem to me, so pompous and so drawn out his exposition, that I linked them at once to literature and asked him why he didn’t write them down. As might be foreseen, he answered that he had already done so — that these ideas, and others no less striking, had found their place in the Proem, or Augural Canto, or, more simply, the Prologue Canto of the poem on which he hd been working for many years now, alone, without publicity, with fanfare, supported only by those twin staffs universally known as work and solitude. First, he said, he opened the floodgates of his fancy; then, taking up hand tools, he resorted to the file. The poem was entitled The Earth; it consisted of a description of the planet, and, of course, lacked no amount of picturesque digressions and bold apostrophes.

I asked him to read me a passage, if only a short one. He opened a drawer of his writing table, drew out a thick stack of papers — sheets of a large pad imprinted with the letterhead of the Juan Crisóstomo Lafinur Library — and, with ringing satisfaction, declaimed:


Mine eyes, as did the Greek’s, have known men’s 
towns and fame, 
The works, the days in light that fades to amber; 
I do not change a fact or falsify a name — 
The voyage I set down is… autour de ma chambre.

“From any angle, a greatly interesting stanza,” he said, giving his verdict. “The opening line wins the applause of the professor, the academician, and the Hellenist — to say nothing of the would-be scholar, a considerable sector of the public. The second flows from Homer to Hesiod (generous homage, at the very outset, to the father of didactic poetry), not without rejuvenating a process whose roots go back to Scripture — enumeration, congeries, conglomeration. The third — baroque? decadent? example of the cult of pure form? — consists of two equal hemistichs. The fourth, frankly bilingual, assures me the unstinted backing of all minds sensitive to the pleasures of sheer fun. I should, in all fairness, speak of the novel rhyme in lines two and four, and of the erudition that allows me — without a hint of pedantry! — to cram into four lines three learned allusions covering thirty centuries packed with literature — first to the Odyssey, second to Works and Days, and third to the immortal bagatelle bequathed us by the frolicking pen of the Savoyard, Xavier de Maistre. Once more I’ve come to realise that modern art demands the balm of laughter, the scherzo. Decidedly, Goldoni holds the stage!”

He read me many other stanzas, each of which also won his own approval and elicited his lengthy explications. There was nothing remarkable about them. I did not even find them any worse than the first one. Application, resignation, and chance had gone into the writing; I saw, however, that Daneri’s real work lay not in the poetry but in his invention of reasons why the poetry should be admired. Of course, this second phase of his effort modified the writing in his eyes, though not in the eyes of others. Daneri’s style of delivery was extravagant, but the deadly drone of his metric regularity tended to tone down and to dull that extravagance.

[Among my memories are also some lines of a satire in which he lashed out unsparingly at bad poets. After accusing them of dressing their poems in the warlike armour of erudition, and of flapping in vain their unavailing wings, he concluded with this verse: 

But they forget, alas, one foremost fact — BEAUTY!

Only the fear of creating an army of implacable and powerful enemies dissuaded him (he told me) from fearlessly publishing this poem.]

Only once in my life have I had occasion to look into the fifteen thousand alexandrines of the Polyolbion, that topographical epic in which Michael Drayton recorded the flora, fauna, hydrography, orography, military and monastic history of England. I am sure, however, that this limited but bulky production is less boring than Carlos Argentino’s similar vast undertaking. Daneri had in mind to set to verse the entire face of the planet, and, by 1941, had already dispatched a number of acres of the State of Queensland, nearly a mile of the course run by the River Ob, a gasworks to the north of Veracruz, the leading shops in the Buenos Aires parish of Concepción, the villa of Mariana Cambaceres de Alvear in the Belgrano section of the Argentine capital, and a Turkish baths establishment not far from the well-known Brighton Aquarium. He read me certain long-winded passages from his Australian section, and at one point praised a word of his own coining, the colour “celestewhite,” which he felt “actually suggests the sky, an element of utmost importance in the landscape of the Down Under.” But these sprawling, lifeless hexameters lacked even the relative excitement of the so-called Augural Canto. Along about midnight, I left.

Two Sundays later, Daneri rang me up — perhaps for the first time in his life. He suggested we get together at four o’clock “for cocktails in the salon-bar next door, which the forward-looking Zunino and Zungri — my landlords, as you doubtless recall — are throwing open to the public. It’s a place you’ll really want to get to know.”

More in resignation than in pleasure, I accepted. Once there, it was hard to find a table. The “salon-bar,” ruthlessly modern, was only barely less ugly than what I had excepted; at the nearby tables, the excited customers spoke breathlessly of the sums Zunino and Zungri had invested in furnishings without a second thought to cost. Carlos Argentino pretended to be astonished by some feature or other of the lighting arrangement (with which, I felt, he was already familiar), and he said to me with a certain severity, “Grudgingly, you’ll have to admit to the fact that these premises hold their own with many others far more in the public eye.”

He then reread me four or five different fragments of the poem. He had revised them following his pet principle of verbal ostentation: where at first “blue” had been good enough, he now wallowed in “azures,” “ceruleans,” and “ultramarines.” The word “milky” was too easy for him; in the course of an impassioned description of a shed where wool was washed, he chose such words as “lacteal,” “lactescent,” and even made one up — “lactinacious.” After that, straight out, he condemned our modern mania for having books prefaced, “a practice already held up to scorn by the Prince of Wits in his own grafeful preface to the Quixote.” He admitted, however, that for the opening of his new work an attention-getting foreword might prove valuable — “an accolade signed by a literary hand of renown.” He next went on to say that he considered publishing the initial cantos of his poem. I then began to understand the unexpected telephone call; Daneri was going to ask me to contribute a foreword to his pedantic hodgepodge. My fear turned out unfounded; Carlos Argentino remarked, with admiration and envy, that surely he could not be far wrong in qualifying with the ephitet “solid” the prestige enjoyed in every circle by Álvaro Melián Lafinur, a man of letters, who would, if I insisted on it, be only too glad to dash off some charming opening words to the poem. In order to avoid ignominy and failure, he suggested I make myself spokesman for two of the book’s undeniable virtues — formal perfection and scientific rigour — “inasmuch as this wide garden of metaphors, of figures of speech, of elegances, is inhospitable to the least detail not strictly upholding of truth.” He added that Beatriz had always been taken with Álvaro.

I agreed — agreed profusely — and explained for the sake of credibility that I would not speak to Álvaro the next day, Monday, but would wait until Thursday, when we got together for the informal dinner that follows every meeting of the Writers’ Club. (No such dinners are ever held, but it is an established fact that the meetings do take place on Thursdays, a point which Carlos Argentino Daneri could verify in the daily papers, and which lent a certain reality to my promise.) Half in prophecy, half in cunning, I said that before taking up the question of a preface I would outline the unusual plan of the work. We then said goodbye.

Turning the corner of Bernardo de Irigoyen, I reviewed as impartially as possible the alternatives before me. They were: a) to speak to Álvaro, telling him the first cousin of Beatriz’ (the explanatory euphemism would allow me to mention her name) had concocted a poem that seemed to draw out into infinity the possibilities of cacophony and chaos: b) not to say a word to Álvaro. I clearly foresaw that my indolence would opt for b.

But first thing Friday morning, I began worrying about the telephone. It offended me that that device, which had once produced the irrecoverable voice of Beatriz, could now sink so low as to become a mere receptacle for the futile and perhaps angry remonstrances of that deluded Carlos Argentino Daneri. Luckily, nothing happened — except the inevitable spite touched off in me by this man, who had asked me to fulfill a delicate mission for him and then had let me drop.

Gradually, the phone came to lose its terrors, but one day toward the end of October it rang, and Carlos Argentino was on the line. He was deeply disturbed, so much so that at the outset I did not recognise his voice. Sadly but angrily he stammered that the now unrestrainable Zunino and Zungri, under the pretext of enlarging their already outsized “salon-bar,” were about to take over and tear down this house.

“My home, my ancestral home, my old and inveterate Garay Street home!” he kept repeating, seeming to forget his woe in the music of his words.

It was not hard for me to share his distress. After the age of fifty, all change becomes a hateful symbol of the passing of time. Besides, the scheme concerned a house that for me would always stand for Beatriz. I tried explaining this delicate scruple of regret, but Daneri seemed not to hear me. He said that if Zunino and Zungri persisted in this outrage, Doctor Zunni, his lawyer, would sue ipso facto and make them pay some fifty thousand dollars in damages.

Zunni’s name impressed me; his firm, although at the unlikely address of Caseros and Tacuarí, was nonetheless known as an old and reliable one. I asked him whether Zunni had already been hired for the case. Daneri said he would phone him that very afternoon. He hesitated, then with that level, impersonal voice we reserve for confiding something intimate, he said that to finish the poem he could not get along without the house because down in the cellar there was an Aleph. He explained that an Aleph is one of the points in space that contains all other points.

“It’s in the cellar under the dining room,” he went on, so overcome by his worries now that he forgot to be pompous. “It’s mine — mine. I discovered it when I was a child, all by myself. The cellar stairway is so steep that my aunt and uncle forbade my using it, but I’d heard someone say there was a world down there. I found out later they meant an old-fashioned globe of the world, but at the time I thought they were referring to the world itself. One day when no one was home I started down in secret, but I stumbled and fell. When I opened my eyes, I saw the Aleph.”

“The Aleph?” I repeated.

“Yes, the only place on earth where all places are — seen from every angle, each standing clear, without any confusion or blending. I kept the discovery to myself and went back every chance I got. As a child, I did not foresee that this privilege was granted me so that later I could write the poem. Zunino and Zungri will not strip me of what’s mine — no, and a thousand times no! Legal code in hand, Doctor Zunni will prove that my Aleph is inalienable.”

I tried to reason with him. “But isn’t the cellar very dark?” I said.

“Truth cannot penetrate a closed mind. If all places in the universe are in the Aleph, then all stars, all lamps, all sources of light are in it, too.”

“You wait there. I’ll be right over to see it.”

I hung before he could say no. The full knowledge of a fact sometimes enables you to see all at once many supporting but previously unsuspected things. It amazed me not to have suspected until that moment that Carlos Argentino was a madman. As were all the Viterbos, when you came down to it. Beatriz (I myself often say it) was a woman, a child, with almost uncanny powers of clairvoyance, but forgetfulness, distractions, contempt, and a streak of cruelty were also in her, and perhaps these called for a pathological explanation. Carlos Argentino’s madness filled me with spiteful elation. Deep down, we had always detested each other.

On Garay Street, the maid asked me kindly to wait. The master was, as usual, in the cellar developing pictures. On the unplayed piano, beside a large vase that held no flowers, smiled (more timeless than belonging to the past) the large photograph of Beatriz, in gaudy colours. Nobody could see us; in a seizure of tenderness, I drew close to the portrait and said to it, “Beatriz, Beatriz Elena, Beatriz Elena Viterbo, darling Beatriz, Beatriz now gone forever, it’s me, it’s Borges.”

Moments later, Carlos came in. He spoke dryly. I could see he was thinking of nothing else but the loss of the Aleph.

“First a glass of pseudo-cognac,” he ordered, “and then down you dive into the cellar. Let me warn you, 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. Once I leave you, I’ll lower the trapdoor and you’ll be quite alone. You needn’t fear the rodents very much — though I know you will. In a minute or two, you’ll see the Aleph — the microcosm of the alchemists and Kabbalists, our true proverbial friend, the multum in parvo!

Once we were in the dining room, he added, “Of course, if you don’t see it, your incapacity will not invalidate what I have experienced. Now, down you go. In a short while you can babble with all of Beatriz’ images.”

Tired of his inane words, I quickly made my way. The cellar, barely wider than the stairway itself, was something of a pit. My eyes searched the dark, looking in vain for the globe Carlos Argentino had spoken of. Some cases of empty bottles and some canvas sacks cluttered one corner. Carlos picked up a sack, folded it in two, and at a fixed spot spread it out.

“As a pillow,” he said, “this is quite threadbare, but if it’s padded even a half-inch higher, you won’t see a thing, and there you’ll lie, feeling ashamed and ridiculous. All right now, sprawl that hulk of yours there on the floor and count off nineteen steps.”

I went through with his absurd requirements, and at last he went away. The trapdoor was carefully shut. The blackness, in spite of a chink that I later made out, seemed to me absolute. For the first time, I realised the danger I was in: I’d let myself be locked in a cellar by a lunatic, after gulping down a glassful of poison! I knew that back of Carlos’ transparent boasting lay a deep fear that I might not see the promised wonder. To keep his madness undetected, to keep from admitting he was mad, Carlos had to kill me. I felt a shock of panic, which I tried to pin to my uncomfortable position and not to the effect of a drug. I shut my eyes — I opened them. Then I saw the Aleph.

I arrive now at the ineffable core of my story. And here begins my despair as a writer. All language is a set of symbols whose use among its speakers assumes a shared past. How, then, can I translate into words the limitless Aleph, which my floundering mind can scarcely encompass? Mystics, faced with the same problem, fall back on symbols: to signify the godhead, one Persian speaks of a bird that somehow is all birds; Alanus de Insulis, of a sphere whose center is everywhere and circumference is nowhere; Ezekiel, of a four-faced angel who at one and the same time moves east and west, north and south. (Not in vain do I recall these inconceivable analogies; they bear some relation to the Aleph.) Perhaps the gods might grant me a similar metaphor, but then this account would become contaminated by literature, by fiction. Really, what I want to do is impossible, for any listing of an endless series is doomed to be infinitesimal. In that single gigantic instant I saw millions of acts both delightful and awful; not one of them occupied the same point in space, without overlapping or transparency. What my eyes beheld was simultaneous, but what I shall now write down will be successive, because language is successive. Nonetheless, I’ll try to recollect what I can.

On the back part of the step, toward the right, I saw a small iridescent sphere of almost unbearable brilliance. At first I thought it was revolving; then I realised that this movement was an illusion created by the dizzying world it bounded. The Aleph’s diameter was probably little more than an inch, but all space was there, actual and undiminished. Each thing (a mirror’s face, let us say) was infinite things, since I distinctly saw it from every angle of the universe. I saw the teeming sea; I saw daybreak and nightfall; I saw the multitudes of America; I saw a silvery cobweb in the center of a black pyramid; I saw a splintered labyrinth (it was London); I saw, close up, unending eyes watching themselves in me as in a mirror; I saw all the mirrors on earth and none of them reflected me; I saw in a backyard of Soler Street the same tiles that thirty years before I’d seen in the entrance of a house in Fray Bentos; I saw bunches of grapes, snow, tobacco, lodes of metal, steam; I saw convex equatorial deserts and each one of their grains of sand; I saw a woman in Inverness whom I shall never forget; I saw her tangled hair, her tall figure, I saw the cancer in her breast; I saw a ring of baked mud in a sidewalk, where before there had been a tree; I saw a summer house in Adrogué and a copy of the first English translation of Pliny — Philemon Holland’s — and all at the same time saw each letter on each page (as a boy, I used to marvel that the letters in a closed book did not get scrambled and lost overnight); I saw a sunset in Querétaro that seemed to reflect the colour of a rose in Bengal; 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; I saw the delicate bone structure of a hand; I saw the survivors of a battle sending out picture postcards; I saw in a showcase in Mirzapur a pack of Spanish playing cards; I saw the slanting shadows of ferns on a greenhouse floor; I saw tigers, pistons, bison, tides, and armies; I saw all the ants on the planet; I saw a Persian astrolabe; I saw in the drawer of a writing table (and the handwriting made me tremble) unbelievable, obscene, detailed letters, which Beatriz had written to Carlos Argentino; I saw a monument I worshipped in the Chacarita cemetery; I saw the rotted dust and bones that had once deliciously been Beatriz Viterbo; I saw the circulation of my own dark blood; I saw the coupling of love and the modification of death; I saw the Aleph from every point and angle, and in the Aleph I saw the earth and in the earth 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.

I felt infinite wonder, infinite pity.

“Feeling pretty cockeyed, are you, after so much spying into places where you have no business?” said a hated and jovial voice. “Even if you were to rack your brains, you couldn’t pay me back in a hundred years for this revelation. One hell of an observatory, eh, Borges?”

Carlos Argentino’s feet were planted on the topmost step. In the sudden dim light, I managed to pick myself up and utter, “One hell of a — yes, one hell of a.”

The matter-of-factness of my voice surprised me. Anxiously, Carlos Argentino went on.

“Did you see everything — really clear, in colours?”

At that moment I found my revenge. Kindly, openly pitying him, distraught, evasive, I thanked Carlos Argentino Daneri for the hospitality of his cellar and urged him to make the most of the demolition to get away from the pernicious metropolis, which spares no one — believe me, I told him, no one! Quietly and forcefully, I refused to discuss the Aleph. On saying goodbye, I embraced him and repeated that the country, that fresh air and quiet were the great physicians.

Out on the street, going down the stairways inside Constitution Station, riding the subway, every one of the faces seemed familiar to me. I was afraid that not a single thing on earth would ever again surprise me; I was afraid I would never again be free of all I had seen. Happily, after a few sleepless nights, I was visited once more by oblivion. 

Postscript of March first, 1943 — Some six months after the pulling down of a certain building on Garay Street, Procrustes & Co., the publishers, not put off by the considerable length of Daneri’s poem, brought out a selection of its “Argentine sections”. It is redundant now to repeat what happened. Carlos Argentino Daneri won the Second National Prize for Literature. [“I received your pained congratulations,” he wrote me. “You rage, my poor friend, with envy, but you must confess — even if it chokes you! — that this time I have crowned my cap with the reddest of feathers; my turban with the most caliph of rubies.”] First Prize went to Dr. Aita; Third Prize, to Dr. Mario Bonfanti. Unbelievably, my own book The Sharper’s Cards did not get a single vote. Once again dullness and envy had their triumph! It’s been some time now that I’ve been trying to see Daneri; the gossip is that a second selection of the poem is about to be published. His felicitous pen (no longer cluttered by the Aleph) has now set itself the task of writing an epic on our national hero, General San Martín.

I want to add two final observations: one, on the nature of the Aleph; the other, on its name. As is well known, the Aleph is the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Its use for the strange sphere in my story may not be accidental. For the Kabbala, the letter stands for the En Soph, the pure and boundless godhead; it is also said that it takes the shape of a man pointing to both heaven and earth, in order to show that the lower world is the map and mirror of the higher; for Cantor’s Mengenlehre, it is the symbol of transfinite numbers, of which any part is as great as the whole. I would like to know whether Carlos Argentino chose that name or whether he read it — applied to another point where all points converge – – in one of the numberless texts that the Aleph in his cellar revealed to him. Incredible as it may seem, I believe that the Aleph of Garay Street was a false Aleph.

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 seem’d a world of glas” (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… The mosque dates from the seventh century; the pillars come from other temples of pre-Islamic religions, since, as ibn-Khaldun has written: ‘In nations founded by nomads, the aid of foreigners is essential in all concerning masonry.'”

Does this Aleph exist in the heart of a stone? Did I see it there in the cellar when I saw all things, and have I now forgotten it? Our minds are porous and forgetfulness seeps in; I myself am distorting and losing, under the wearing away of the years, the face of Beatriz. 

El Aleph, 1945. Translation by Norman Thomas Di Giovanni in collaboration with the author.