The Alchemical Man and the Book of Imaginary Beings.

//Frederick Kiesler and Jorge Luis Borges.


prologue – The Uroboros

“To us the ocean is a sea or a system of seas, to the Greeks it was a simple circular river that ringed the land mass. All streams flowed from it and it had neither outlets nor sources.

It was also a god or a Titan, perhaps the most ancient of all Titans, since Sleep in Book XIV of the Iliad calls it the source from whom the gods are sprung.

In Hesiods’s Theogony , it is the father of all the world’s rivers – three thousand in number – the leading of which are the Alpheus and the Nile.”

(Jorge Luis Borges, the Book of Imaginary Beings[1])

Heraclites had said that in the circumference the beginning and the end are a single point. A third-century Greek amulet illustrates this endlessness: the serpent that bites its own tail, that begins at the end of its tail. Uroboros (Greek for ‘the one that devours its tail’ ) is the name of this creature which became the symbol adopted by the alchemists in the Middle Ages. A world circling serpent can be found in Jung’s Psychologie und Alchemie  (the Uroboros interpretated as having an archetypical significance to the human psyche) or in Norse cosmology, it represents cyclicality, the eternal return, something constantly re-creating itself, represents things perceived as cycles that begin anew as soon as they end. The Uroboros has been used in alchemical illustrations, where it symbolizes the circular nature of the alchemist’s opus. [2]

From the alchemist formula of spheres and human psyche and endlessness and outlets and sources, from cosmology and return and constant re-creation appear like in developing bath the names and works of Jorge Luis Borges and Frederick Kiesler, with just one thing in common, one overlap – the search for the endless, endlessness, continuity, continuum, for the point that contains all other points in universe, the Aleph, the microcosm of all the alchemists and Kabbalists, our true proverbial friend, the multum in parvo.

Borges, from Buenos Aires, the New World, who moved to the Old World and died in Geneva, Kiesler, from the Old World, from Vienna (although born in Czernowitz, Ukraine), moved to New York and never returned, Borges, who lived with his mother, single, until very old days, Kiesler, whose mother had died on giving birth, Borges, from established family of military and lawyers, Kiesler, from whose family there was only a cousin left after the destruction of the Second World War, Borges, who had difficulties with women on intimate plane, Kiesler, whose wife was his soul mate and guardian angel, Borges, traveller of the world before taking the job as a librarian, Kiesler, the connoisseur of famine – the common ground for them, except the obsession with their one idea of a lifetime and indifference for commercial values was that endlessness, the continuity, the Uroboros, as well the Aleph, the mystical Aleph.

I realized it the moment I entered the Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem (on a Saturday of Yum Kippur, just days after the last war between Israel and Lebanon, being the only foreigner / tourist / visitor in the city both festive and reserved), the dark entrance led me to an even darker cave that culminated with the double shell of a dome, a vessel, a jar (“The entrance is severe in appearance, vertical, high and narrow. It looks as if it was dug into the plain white wall and gives one the feeling of entering a cave tomb or a secret temple”, Frederick Kiesler has said, and “The hope was to have something miraculous in the sense of surprise, like entering a beautiful garden that you have never seen before, and could have never known in advance, the trouble with most architecture is that we know all in advance”).

Entering that cave shrine where the scrolls of the Dead Sea are kept reminded me of the story of El Aleph, by Borges, where the staircase led to a dark cellar where there was Aleph – the one point that contains all points, which in its turn reminded me the Endless House of Kiesler, as well the labyrinth of Minotaurus (labyrinth when well drawn is endless, itself the house built in a way people could get lost in). That ressemblance gave me vertigo and it reminded me as well of the Phoenix, of Haniel, Kafziel, Azriel, and Aniel, even the Golem, even the robot of the Karel Čapek‘s R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), reminded me of a book ‘inspired by infinite wisdom, where nothing can be left to chance, not even the number of words it contains or the order of the letters – this is what the Kabbalists thought when devoting themselves to the task of counting, combining and permutating the letters of the Scriptures, fired by a desire to penetrate the secrets of god’, reminded of Dante saying that every passage of the Bible has a fourfold meaning  – the literal, the allegorical, the moral, and the spiritual (Johannes Scouts Erigena had already said that the meanings of the Scriptures are infinite, like the hues in a peacock’s tail). [3]

That vertigo resulted in this attempt to intertwine the Endless Cave in Jerusalem and the Aleph in the cellar of the suburb of  Buenos Aires, the Shrine of the Book and the Library of Babel, the Robot and the Golem, the Endless House, the clarity of spheroid form with the internal complexity of the cave and The Library of Babel, the deciphering of scrolls of the Dead Sea and the wondering decoder in search of the catalogue of the catalogues, the vision machine and the mise en abyme, Kiesler and Borges.

The Aleph

The founder of set theory Georg Cantor, German Russian mathematician discovered that some infinities are bigger than others and that the infinite sets can have different cardinalities, to distinguish them he used the Hebrew letter aleph (). The aleph numbers are a sequence of numbers used to represent the cardinality (or size) of infinite sets, the number of whole numbers is aleph null, the number of irrational numbers, aleph one.

(These aleph numbers posed new problems and one of it, the hypothesis of continuum, that turned out to be neither provable nor disprovable within the existing foundations of mathematics, drove Cantor to series of breakdowns and delusions and finally to madness, many others who have pursued it have also gone mad. Aleph has also engaged the Pythagoreans and Jewish numerology found in Kabala to describe the attributes of one infinite god where aleph represents the infinite nature and the oneness of the god.)

Aleph is also the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, a letter that initiates the alphabet and all other letters, the symbol in which enumeration begins, it is a numerical and literal beginning.

For the Jews aleph represents as well the number one but most of all an anterior letter, anterior to the articulation of the letters themselves, the beginning prior to the commencement and to the creation by the word.

In the story of Borges aleph is one of the points in space that contains all other points, the only place on earth where all places are: seen from every angle, each standing clear, without any confusion or blending. Aleph was in the cellar of suburban house in Buenos Aires and to see it one needs to dive down into the cellar, to lie flat on back. Total darkness, total immobility, and a certain ocular adjustment will also be necessary. but “If all places in the universe are in the aleph, then all stars all lamps all sources of light are in it too”.


Borges writes:

“…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…/


/…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…. / [4]

Aleph is all the places of the world, seen from all angles; it is the point that includes all the times and all the spaces of the universe, an abstract and at the same time concrete sphere where they are contained. It cannot be grasped through ‘normal’ perception because it encloses infinity but anyone who gazes into it can see everything in the universe from every angle simultaneously, without distortion, overlapping or confusion. As such it is a model, a primary structure, unfolded into infinity, in a circular choreography of fiction and reality.

Like a well drawn labyrinth is endless, the notion of endless circularity is present in labyrinths as well in mirrors and in dreams that include other dreams or the dreamer, what Borges saw in aleph were a sets of images that  alternated between microcosmic and macrocosmic, infinite and infinitesimal: ‘labyrinth’, ‘mirrors’, ‘eyes’, ‘a cobweb’, ‘a pyramid’, ‘multitudes of America’, ‘unending eyes’, until it sees the reader, the seer is caught up at the breakdown of the boundaries between the seer and the seen.


The Alchemy

While Borges wrote abut magical beings Kiesler attempted to design a magical being, magical architecture, architecture which takes root in totality of the human being and not only in the parts of that being, blessed or accursed, he attempted to design a house that was an organism, a living creature, not an arrangement of dead material.

Kiesler found inspiration in the intimidation that all things are one, that a world is infinitely remaid and reconstructed, that a world is capable of infinite transmutation. He searched for continuity, no, he was passionately obsessed with it, with endlessness, with endless calculation, with what the endless form could be, what the endless house could be.

(Endless form as a system with variables on play, where is no zero any longer, where there is no point in space against which the others are calculated, instead there is a position of numerical value in reference to variables that can never be calculated completely.) [5]

The endless house was not a real building but rather a vision in the mind of Kiesler that continued to the very end of his life in seek of the radically new synthesis of form and content. That seek was as endless as the endless house itself, following a long process and never being fulfilled, models, sketches, sculptures, drawings, plans, photographs, shows, exhibitions, installations, manifestos, theoretical dissertations, poetic texts, diaries, backgrounds, mosaics, galaxies, intense analysis, theater work, uninterrupted, obsessive, all feeding the complex aspects of the form of the endless house – the coordination of heterogeneous elements, forces, tensions in an endless spatial continuum.

(As this totalizing vision was isolated to him, that he could not share his experience neither could it be represented precisely because it transcedens and encompasses all human experience and he feared like Borges in his story Aleph after seeing it that his transcription will be an imperfect second degree rendering of something fundamentally indescribable and as like Borges unable to transcribe what he saw Kiesler attempts nonetheless to communicate the sensation he experienced, although already Wittgenstein has said that there are things that cannot be put into words, they make themselves manifest, they  a r e  what is mystical).

He produced series of drawings of labyrinthine caves in search for total vision, he attempted to coordinate all dimensions and levels in what he called continuity and correlation (the global concept of the endless house rests on the correalist theory – as a science that embraces man and his environment as a global system of complex reciporal relationships (including scientific intelligence and elements from magic and mythology)).

The continuum he was after, the spatial continuum of a holistic world model was to be found in a seminal cell of the endless house, nucleus of possibilities, of new possibilities for life. The Endless House, where all ends meet, and meet continuously, coordinates the constraints and the physical, mental, social, mystical, and magical energies and engines, it mixes quasi scientific theories (biotechnique) and the theories of surrealism.

In 1931 appears the Nucleus House, 1933 the Space House – he introduces a spheroid matrix, flattened sphere with the section of sphere and of ellipse, the basic shape originates from Endless Theater in 1925, all in order to create unitary monumental space with surfaces that are boundaries that form a transition and a continuum, in order to transform the Space House into the Endless House, into sloping floors continuous with curving walls, irregular openings, fluidly merging volumes, ambiguity between inside and outside, rejection of rationalist geometries in favor of biologism or organicism,  closer to surrealists than modernists.

Through Universal Theater, Space House into Endless House the spheroid of the self-supporting shell goes through many metamorphosis and transformations in search for biomorphic forms (Kiesler calling it cells, organs, embryos and wombs). As everything, all elements, are interrelated according to his correlation theory, the function of the Endless House is to ‘shelter the continuous mutations of the life-force’.

The Endless House according to Kiesler was to allow an individual to withdraw into the prenatal state softly shaped uterus like interior and feel the awareness of belonging to a space centre and the ever present cosmic forces which feed us continuously without end.

It becomes then, enriched by symbolic connotations and with concept of magical architecture, the piece of alchemy, including the concept of the Endless House as a cosmos shaped by men, and ends with identification of the interior space of the Endless House with a cave.

Endless house as a complex set of interrelationships became a living creature with its mythical and magical conceptions, for Kiesler the Endless House is a living organism not just an arrangement of dead material, it lives as a whole and as its details. The house is the skin of the human body.


(According to Borges’ Book of Imaginary Beings’ the Kabbalists would have approved this view as one of the secrets they sought in Bible was how to create living beings:

‘It was said of demons that they could make large and bulky creatures like the camel, but were incapable of creating anything delicate or frail, golem was the name given to the man created by the combinations of letters, the word means literally the shapeless or lifeless clod.’

And ‘Eleazar of Worms’ has preserved the secret formula for making a golem. The procedures involved cover some twenty-three folio columns and require knowledge of the alphabets of the 221 gates, which must be recited over each of the golems organs. The word emet which means truth should be marked on its forehead, to destroy the creature, the first letter must be obliterated, forming the word met, whose meaning is death. [6] (Emet (אמת, “truth” in the Hebrew, by erasing the first letter aleph in Emet to form Met (מת, “dead” in Hebrew, when the aleph letter א is cancelled) the Golem could be deactivated.)


The Endless House as Aleph is means, is an instrument with which to view and then to transcribe the world into, it is not merely an apparatus through which to obtain a view of the world in its entirety, it is not a medium of representing the world, the Endless House and the aleph is a world in its own right.

The Endless House as Aleph is a complete microcosm of the universe that contains it and that in turn contains, a vessel, a womb, The Endless House is the innumerable mirrors that are themselves fragmentary analogies for the aleph.

‘He saw aleph within the world and the world within aleph’ .

Magic Library


Although the Endless House can be seen as not a real building but a vision in the mind that it in its turn opens new and uncertain visions, vistas, views, that transcend all known algorithms, as an optical device, vision machine, Kiesler’s own cell; cellar, cave, vessel, Minotaur’s labyrinth, the container that is contained, the aleph.

With it as both an ouvrage d’art and d’oeuvre d’art and living organism Kiesler deciphered and decoded the universe into his Endless House, into his own vision machine, optical device, his totalitarian tool, tools that better focuses this world or piece of magic through which he could make paradise return to earth :

Schopenhauer, in his book Will in Nature, writes (Chapter 7): “On page 325 of the first volume of his Zauberbibliothec  [Magic Library], Horst summarizes the teachings of the mystic Jane Lead in this way:  whoever who possesses magical powers can, at will, master and change the mineral, vegetable and  animal kingdoms; consequently, a few magicians, working in agreement, could make this world of ours return to the state of paradise.’ [7]

[1] Borges, Jorge Luis with Margarita Guerrero. The Book of Imaginary Beings (Vintage, 2002), 150

[2] Borges, Jorge Luis with Margarita Guerrero. The Book of Imaginary Beings (Vintage, 2002), 150 -151

[3] Borges, Jorge Luis with Margarita Guerrero. The Book of Imaginary Beings (Vintage, 2002), 71-73

[4] Borges, Jorge Luis. The  Aleph and Other Stories (Penguin Classics, 2004)

[5] Greg Lynn In Frederick J.Kiesler: Endless Surface (MAK Center for Art and Architecture, Los Angeles, 2001, Editor Dieter Bogner, Peter Noever), 69

[6] Borges, Jorge Luis with Margarita Guerrero. The Book of Imaginary Beings (Vintage, 2002), 71-73

[7] Borges, Jorge Luis with Margarita Guerrero. The Book of Imaginary Beings (Vintage, 2002), 72

Columbia University GSAPP Spring 2009 // 12 Dialogical / Poetic Strategies //Yehuda Safran