The narrator begins paying regular calls on Beatriz Viterbo’s family, every year on the anniversary of her death. As a consequence, he develops a complicated and not entirely amicable relationship with her cousin, a man named Carlos Argentino Daneri, who lives in the family home. The narrator is a literary man, and Daneri also has literary aspirations. Eventually Daneri lets on that he's working on this epic poem—one that is going to, according to him, describe everything in the world, almost like a catalog of the universe. One day, Daneri invites the narrator over to see something, a secret he’s been concealing in the house for his whole life. A “discovery,” he calls it.
He brings the narrator down into the cellar of his house, and gives him a cloth—a kind of folded sack to kneel on, to protect his knees—and tells him to look up at a certain spot, a kind of window he can look into if his head is at just the right level. There’s a deliberate invocation of that moment in Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado,” where the narrator briefly wonders if Carlos has lost his mind, and has brought him down into the basement to kill him.
But when he opens his eyes, suddenly, he sees the Aleph.
An Aleph (which is the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet) turns out to be a point from which you can see every point in the universe, from every possible point of view. Borges uses the word “universe,” but what’s revealed here is not a Carl Sagan thing, with billions of stars—it’s a more local version of the universe, what we would probably call “the world.” Yet it's still infinite, nonetheless. The narrator admits he lacks the words to describe what he saw:
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.
I love the way he sets this up. Because this is impossible, right? There’s no way to convey the experience of seeing the entire world from every possible point of view, all at the same time, without any of those views overlapping. You can’t do it in the space of a paragraph, or the space of a story, or of a novel, or of an entire book, or an entire library of books. So the way he handles it is by acknowledging the impossibility at the beginning—which is a really useful strategy for a writer, something I definitely learned from studying the story. Before you’ve even seen anything, Borges discreetly lowers your expectations.
Then, having lowered your expectations, he presents you with this long, miraculous paragraph, one of the most stunning passages I’ve ever read. It starts this way:
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…
It’s just a list, this paragraph; the listiness of it is far from being concealed. Borges goes right ahead repeating those two words, “I saw”—I saw this, I saw that, on and on. But somehow that repetition gives the passage this incredible incantatory power, managing to convey a kind of infinitude. It casts this magical spell, and it convinces you.