2011-2012 i.e. Winner: “The impact of tangible evidence” by Rebecca Eskildsen
The impact of tangible evidence
“What greater superstition is there than the mumbo-jumbo of believing in reality?” –The Lady’s Not for Burning, Christopher Fry
“What man of us has never felt, walking through the twilight or writing down a date from his past, that he has lost something infinite?” –Paradiso, XXXI, 108, Jorge Luis Borges
Seeing is believing. Most people consider that cliché to be true. In a scientific world, empirical reasoning is often more convincing than theoretical or magical reasoning and even psychological disorders are understood only if they come from a clear succession of events or interactions. Gabriel García Márquez’s “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” and Jorge Luis Borges’ “The Aleph,” both exhibit various degrees of tangible magical evidence. Although great influence on a character is generally considered the result of a tangible occurrence, I argue that when dealing with magical realism, intangible aspects in a character’s life have a more powerful impact than tangible ones.
First, the tangible aspects within the two stories must be defined. Webster’s Dictionary defines tangible as being “definite or concrete; capable of being realized” (Morehead 667). Márquez describes the angel with such synesthetic imagery that the reader can picture the angel as seen by Pelayo and Elisenda, with rumpled, dirty wings that are crawling with bugs. The angel is nearly bald and toothless (Márquez 348). Márquez’s angel is a supreme example of the contradiction inherent in magical realism. Considering the typical image of an angel as a heavenly creature, the embodiment of perfection, this angel, while still a magical being, is realistic because of the description of his appearance. Because of his vivid imagery, Márquez eliminates all possibility that the angel is a mere hallucination or dream to the villagers in the story, and thus the angel is tangible. On the other hand, Borges’ Aleph is considerably more intangible in contrast to the angel. As a point that is not seen, but rather is apparently perceived within the imagination, the Aleph is not concrete enough to be fully tangible. Although Carlos Argentino Daneri believes the Aleph exists in his basement, and tries to bring the character Borges to it, there is no physical manifestation of its being. However, Borges does make a valiant attempt to understand the Aleph, which is the realization aspect of the definition, bringing up the question whether the Aleph is even capable of being realized. It appears that while it might be possible to realize the Aleph within the mind, it is not possible to then express that understanding, which will be explained in more detail later on. With the angel defined as tangible and the Aleph as intangible, the affects of tangibility on the surrounding characters can be examined.
A marked difference exists between the impact of the magical presence on Borges the character versus on Pelayo and Elisenda. Upon encountering the angel, the presence of his wings baffles them, causing them simply to ignore the wings entirely and come to the mundane conclusion—due to his accent—that he must be a lost sailor. Whether their ignorance of angels is due to simplicity or to incomprehension of what they believe illogical is unclear. Either way, they are hardly affected by the manifestation of magic in the form of an angel, despite the tangible evidence in their backyard. In contrast, Borges does not attribute the Aleph to anything physical and yet he analyzes it as if he did have tangible evidence. Despite its intangible nature, the Aleph left the character Borges with more memories and information than he could handle. Overwhelmed, he entered into a state similar to post traumatic stress disorder:
In the street, on the Constitución stairs, in the subway, all the faces struck me as familiar. I feared that not a single thing was left to cause me surprise; I was afraid I would never be quit of the impression that I had ‘returned.’ Happily, at the end of a few nights of insomnia, forgetfulness worked in me again. (Borges 243)
The most prominent effects of the Aleph, in other words, grip him with fear at the prospect of having to hold in his memory every face and every name, the image of every place and work of art, the ideas of every man and their consequences. This fear is born out of intangible images within his mind, but it is no less powerful than the fear of being permanently blinded by looking into the too bright sun. The Aleph has a numbing affect on its victims, temporarily paralyzing their minds.
Language is also a tangible translation of the more powerful and chaotic thoughts that we wish to express. In his article, “Magical Strategies: The Supplement of Realism,” Scott Simpkins claims that language attempts to bridge the chasm between reality and realism, especially magical realism, and that it comes close, but it can never truly express the tiny nuances of reality in a satisfactory way. The most vital shortcoming of language is that it is linear and finite. Borges points to this problem as the character tries to express his experience with the Aleph. Everything he saw within the Aleph was seen within a moment, but the language he must use is only capable of linear expression. The best attempt language can make to fathom the Aleph’s simultaneity is with the transferred epithet claiming that Borges saw everything within a “gigantic instant” (Borges 242). Only through magical realism can one person perceive as many times and places at one time as Borges the character did, looking into the Aleph. Language in reality cannot describe more than one experience at a time, which is where the bridge of language between reality and realism crashes down in failure. Putting a thought or experience into words makes it a concrete, tangible thing. Yet the Aleph should perhaps never be locked down with words because that defeats the purpose of its being, which is too vast and elaborate for any single library, let alone a few short paragraphs.
In the short term, both the angel and the Aleph have a positive impact on the other characters in the story, but by the time the Aleph is removed from the lives of Daneri and Borges, and the angel finally flies away from Pelayo and Elisenda, all have sustained various degrees of mental trauma. In a burst of ingenuity, Elisenda decides to charge outsiders admission to enter her yard to catch a glimpse of the angel living in her chicken coop. Pilgrims, curious or desperate, coming from everywhere in the world made the family rich for a chance to look at or perhaps touch or speak to the angel for a moment (Márquez 350). Yet the positive effects grow stale, and the angel eventually causes more stress for the couple than perhaps the money he brought in was worth. Because he seemed to appear everywhere at once and did not have his own finite point in space—quite different from the Aleph—“the exasperated and unhinged Elisenda shouted that it was awful living in that hell full of angels” (Márquez 352). For Pelayo and his wife, the relief of the angel’s absence is immediate upon his departure, showing how easily this tangible magic can release its hold on its victims.
Similarly, the Aleph inspires Daneri to write his epic poem, and in his own mind this is a beneficial effect. In the short term, it is indeed beneficial, allowing him to put on paper as much about the world he sees through the Aleph as possible. Unfortunately, what he wrote was too jumbled due to the infinite nature of the Aleph, and could not be captured well enough by finite language to convince anyone to publish his poem. Daneri had a deep set psychological attachment to the Aleph, believing that he could not write without it, and he was frightened by the prospect of its loss, showing how deeply ingrained this intangible magic was in his life. Yet as soon as it was removed from his life, he managed to collect his thoughts in a coherent way and his poem was published. In order for his thoughts to become coherent on paper, he needed to be able to forget the insignificant details presented to him by the Aleph, rather than creating a tangible document of every incoherent experience. Borges, on the other hand, did not have time to adjust to the blinding quality of the Aleph, leaving his own mind, and by extension his work, suffering from a type of flash blindness. It takes him only about three days to recover in his short term memory, but at least six months to recover his entire mind, and his work is not presented with any awards as long as his mind is still flash blinded by the Aleph.
Open-endedness is a common aspect of magical realism. Close examinations of the characters in both “The Aleph” and “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” shows all of them to be merely static characters: none of them develop from their original state. Additionally, they distinctly lack communication about the aspects of magical realism in their lives (Simpkins 143). If all the characters are static, then one must conclude that the important aspects of the stories are the magical manifestations within them. Therefore, in “The Aleph,” the long winded recount of Beatriz Viterbo is considerably less important than the history of Alephs that Borges researches in his post script. Unlike the Aleph in Daneri’s basement, most others referenced in historical texts are within tangible objects such as a goblet, a spear, several mirrors, and the stone columns around a courtyard in the Mosque of Amr. Therefore there is not much of a conclusion at the end of Borges’ story, as the history of the Aleph is an old and varying story, and cannot possibly be finished just because Borges ended his own short story. Similarly, although many might consider Márquez’s story to be finished on its last page, since the characters are static, it may be argued that the story is not about their visit from the angel. Rather it is about the brief years of the angel’s life in which he lived in Pelayo’s chicken coop. Even if the evidence of the angel’s existence is tangible, the cause for his visit is not because his motivation for arriving where and how he did cannot be fully understood by a reader of Márquez’s story. The angel’s story did not end with Márquez’s story, nor was there a clear reason for him to leave at that point other than that it was perhaps time for the angel’s life to be continued elsewhere. In discussing characteristics of narration, Simpkins quotes Márquez’s statement that “realism … [is] a kind of premeditated literature that offers too static and exclusive a vision of reality. However good or bad they may be, they are books which finish on the last page” (Simpkins 143). Stories which employ magical realism need not end and so circumvent the common insistence that the story begins at the beginning and that the end clarifies a moral undertone instead of ending abruptly without closure. The stories about the angel and the Aleph, framed by the people who briefly encounter them but without much closure, are both examples of magical realism due to the lack of a tangible beginning and end.
Magical realism challenges the idea that only aspects that are visually and physically solid are damaging to the psyche. After comparing the effects of Márquez’s angel to the effects of Borges’ Aleph, I conclude that tangibility has little importance in exerting power over one’s mental well being. In fact, it may even be suggested that the more tangible the magical manifestation, the less intimidating it is. The angel did not frighten Pelayo and Elisenda as long as he was completely tangible. Once he began appearing everywhere in the house at once, as though he had no one physical being, his hosts’ nerves were stretched thin. The Aleph’s intangibility, as previously state, left the character Borges suffering a type of post traumatic stress disorder, terrified that he would never again be able to forget anything. He was no longer able to express his thoughts in a coherent manner, as language was too finite and tangible to express the infinite and intangible experiences of the Aleph. If the Aleph had been something solid Borges could run from, it likely would not have frightened him to such an extent. As it was, he leapt at the chance for Daneri’s house to be torn down and the Aleph with it. Finally, the chapter in the lives of the angel and the Aleph close with their removal from the lives of the characters, ending Borges and Márquez’s stories, but leaving the stories of these magical beings open-ended and unfinished.
Borges, Jorge Luis. “The Aleph.” The Riverside Anthology of Literature. Douglas Hunt. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1991. 234-245. Print.
Márquez, Gabriel García. “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings.” The Riverside Anthology of Literature. Douglas Hunt. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1991. 348-353. Print.
Morehead, Albert and Loy Morehead, ed. The New American Webster Dictionary. 3rd ed. New York: Penguin Putnam Inc., 1995. Print.
Simpkins, Scott. “Magical Strategies: The Supplement of Realism.” Twentieth Century Literature 34.2 (1988): 140-154. JSTOR. Web. 28 Oct. 2011.
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