Enculturation, Vol. 3, No. 2, Fall 2001
Bodying Forth the Impossible: Metamorphosis, Mortality, and Aesthetics in the Works of Jorge Luis Borges
The hypothetical works of art and literature that Jorge Luis Borges imagines and invents in his writings embody that which cannot be expressed in ordinary, constative, successive language. Borges's words constantly gesture toward something they can never reach, but attempt nonetheless to illuminate: those aspects of experience that lie beyond language and representation. In this respect, Borges aims to show rather than to say, signaling that which he recognizes as inarticulable. Through an examination of various metamorphoses of texts and language into objects or bodies, as well as an exploration of the underlying yet pervasive theme of mortality accompanying this transformation, the significance of embodiment emerges within Borges's work as a way of giving shape to abstract ideas.
"The Aleph" and the mise en abīme
Borges often juxtaposes language and vision through a mise-en-abīme structure in which his text incorporates a replica of itself in a condensed form. In order for a work to be able to contain itself, or to purport to contain itself, it must first transform itself from a linguistic event into an object. This transformation varies, but often entails the concretization of the contained work through transformation into an object within the text or through naming games. In "The Aleph," for example, the name of the text is also the name of a magical object, and this game of homonymy recurs on various levels throughout the story. The Aleph is not only the title of Borges's text but also the name of the miraculous object, and of the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet.  The doubling of texts, objects and names creates a simulacrum subverting the relationship between model and copy as well as between word and object. The text concretizes or incarnates itself through this displacement of its name, creating and interiorizing a metaphor or symbol for itself. In "The Aleph," the invention of the fantastic objectthe iridescent sphere in which all things can be seen simultaneously at every pointcompensates for the text's failure to overcome the successiveness of language.
In order to reproduce itself, the text informed by a mise-en-abīme structure displaces or transforms itself. Self-replication without such a transformation or change or scale would result in something like Josiah Royce's hypothetical map coextensive with the territory it purports to represent, which Borges cites in "Partial Enchantments of the Quixote." The replication through transformation from a successive or metonymic form into a symbolic or metaphorical version of itself creates the possibility of a synecdochic relation between container and contained, the whole and the part. In "The Aleph," however, this analogy is over-determined, because the Aleph as object and the Aleph as text share not only formal similarities, but also the very same name.
Given its theme of containment, the story "The Aleph" exemplifies the synecdochic move underlying the en abīme structure. Carlos Argentino Daneri wishes to write a poem that will contain the entire planet, and his hubris ends in caricature and insanity. Borges too wishes to record the experience of having gazed into the "Aleph," but understands the futility of such an aspiration. Instead, he recreates the experience by simulating the mise-en-abīme structure, the containment of the container within the contained, and by declaring that he saw within the Aleph not only himself, but the Aleph and even the reader. Asserting that he saw both himself and the Aleph in the Aleph, Borges creates one mise-en-abīme; but his assertion that he saw the reader in the Aleph extends the structure even further and collapses the boundaries defining the text.
Borges discusses at length the implications of such structures in "Partial Enchantments of the Quixote," where he describes the disquieting experience of watching "The Murder of Gonzago" in Hamlet, or of reading Don Quixote as Cervantes "fus[es] the objective and the subjective, the world of the reader and the world of the book" (233). These moments contaminate the reader with Don Quixote's confusion between fiction and reality, revealing the ease with which such confusion emerges. Borges writes that
Borges notes three analogous instances of the mise-en-abīme: the Ramayana, 1001 Nights, and Josiah Royce's map-within-a-map. In each case, the work seems to contain itself in miniature. This containment of the whole within itself creates the potential for a loop of infinite recursion, opening up a vacuum or a sort of black hole that destroys the integrity of textual boundaries. Borges concludes his inquiry in "Partial Magic of the Quixote" by asking a question and proposing an answer:
Borges applies these devices in his own fictions in order to provoke corresponding reactions within his readers. In stories such as "The Aleph" and "The Garden of Forking Paths," Borges transforms the text into an object so that it can contain itself, thereby striking a balance between the evocation of infinity and the perfection of aesthetic form.
Within concrete or visual mise-en-abīme such as 'Chinese boxes' or Matreshka (Russian) dolls, the process of miniaturization allows the contained to be placed within the container; the suggested repetition of isomorphic form is sufficient to create a mise-en-abīme structure. Embedding an entire narrative, word by word, within itself, or a sentence within a sentence would entail infinite recursion and incomprehensibility. The mise-en-abīme structure, rather than extending the text infinitely, creates a vertical relationship between the text and the object (or text) within it that represents it. Even if this relationship is between one text and another, the second text is usually either a) reduced in scope, as in "The Murder of Gonzago," b) of a different genre, or c) referred to not in its textuality, but rather in its status as an object, as a book.  In each situation, a transformation must take place so that the text may contain itself and yet maintain a certain aesthetic form. For such a narrative structure to be pleasurable for the reader, it must have that economy of form exemplified by Borges's fictions. Thus, the transformation of text into object evokes infinite recursion while still maintaining aesthetic form.