Jorge Luis Borges’s story “The Aleph” famously depicts a sphere, “two or three centimetres in diameter,” which simultaneously contains every point in space in the world. In the short story “The Tower”, by Christopher Laxer, which appears to be inspired by Borges’s “The Secret Miracle” (in which the condemned author Jaromir Hladik is granted a year by God to finish his masterpiece), Isaac Babel dreams, the night before his execution, words that are “incomprehensible, circular, perfect.” Babel’s “words” (to imagine two such words seems inconceivable) call to mind the Aleph of Borges’s story, as well as devices favoured by the Argentine, such as the sphere whose center is everywhere and circumference nowhere. But if “The Tower” is really influenced by Borges, then the words that Babel dreams hinge on a misinterpretation: Laxer’s belief that “perfection” is the desirable opposite of silence.
Something circular is “perfect” in the sense that it is comprised of one seamless edge. To think of a word in this way is to suggest that the word is total, comprehensive. This, in a curious way, is exactly the opposite of the Aleph: the Aleph contains all points in space, but it would be a mistake to interpret the Aleph as consisting of that space (for example: when the Aleph is destroyed, the world does not follow). Perfection is decidedly limited. The sphere whose centre is everywhere and circumference is nowhere is only “perfect” in the sense that it is inconceivable. Argentino uses the Aleph to compose several cantos of a long poem whose stated aim is to depict the entire world, but his poetry improves (it becomes less “cluttered”) once the Aleph is destroyed. Beatriz, in life indifferent to the attentions of the Borges in the story, is the object of a decades-spanning infatuation that heightens (because it is less personally embarrassing for Borges) after her death. Imperfect recollection makes Beatriz easier to love: even before her death Borges began cutting the pages of the books he gave her so that he wouldn’t have to see them lying around unopened when he visited. Years later, looking into a large portrait of Beatriz (which might as well be a mirror), Borges recites her name in a long incantation more flattering to his recall than to the woman: “Beatriz, Beatriz Elena, Beatriz Elena Viterbo, darling Beatriz, Beatriz now gone forever, it’s me, it’s Borges.”
Like Borges, who after viewing the Aleph begins to forget what he saw after a few sleepless nights, Babel has difficulty remembering the words from his dream. But, unlike that Borges, who is haunted by the horror of what he saw, Babel struggles to remember the words in his final moments before the firing squad, as if in doing so he might be redeemed. What Laxer misses in his reading of Borges (if it’s true that he is reading Borges) is that perfection is an aspect of forgetting. The words that Babel dreams could only be perfect in the sense that he has forgotten them: to be perfect in a circular, semantic, sense would mean that they would be not “incomprehensible” but, like the Aleph, horrifyingly comprehensible, overwhelming all possibility of meaning. It is difficult to imagine Babel easily forgetting these words.
In “The Tower”, Stalin’s secret police suspect that all words are “weak” and “equally guilty”; Babel dreams of words that in their perfection must be “strong.” Stalin knew that words are slippery, that they signify: this is their guilt. He instructed his writers to become “the engineers of human souls,” to write in a way that was as closed, concrete, and as didactic as possible in order to control literary meaning (of course, they didn’t really succeed). In response, Babel stopped writing, Yuri Olesha turned to his journal, and Alexei Tolstoy hid anti-Soviet criticisms in a celebrated book for children. Literature went underground. Much of what was sanctioned by Stalin’s censors was, as a result of stringent controls, awful. It seems a waste for Babel to spend his last moments dreaming of words whose potential is only to silence him, and all free literature, even more effectively.
Borges’s story is as much about memory as it is about signification; Laxer’s story is about literary silence. Though it contained all things, Borges suspects that the Aleph he viewed was false, and that the real Aleph is worshiped in the pillar of a mosque in Cairo, though he can no longer remember if he noticed it there while viewing the other Aleph. The words Babel cannot remember stand for his self-imposed silence in the extremely repressive post-Trotsky Soviet literary atmosphere. But a writer unable to write is not empty of meaning but pregnant with it, as evidenced even by Babel’s placement in “The Tower”’s narrative. Everything Babel wrote (or didn’t write) has consequence, resonance. Issac Babel’s forgetfulness in Laxer’s story is too commonplace: he is merely a symbol of that mild euphoria experienced by anyone who wakes up having dreamed a masterpiece. The real Isaac Babel was already redeemed: Stalin could not silence him.
“The Tower” is one of two first-place finishers in the 2012 Hart House Literary Contest, and published in the most recent edition of the Hart House Review (available throughout Canada and currently being serialized online).