Thoughts/Borges/“The Library of Babel”

April 11, 2010 Comments Off on Thoughts/Borges/“The Library of Babel”


Borges’ “The Library of Babel” is not some clever puzzle like an Escher print, but a genuine enigma, beyond explanation or solution. A better representation might be Piranesi’s carceri — vast, dark prisons, seemingly endless, whose laws, whose systems, whose punishments are not articulated and probably are not known by those who wander through them, which may not even exist.  Borges’ Library is a vast construction, possibly infinite, of seemingly endless books that may not make any sense. Each cell in the Library is lit by two lamps; “The light they emit is insufficient, incessant.” Librarians have to sleep standing up.

Our existence is reduced to nearly nothing by the enormity of our containers.

Life is a torment of not seeing well, of not knowing.

That the universe is a library is not a bookish proposition. We are always one step removed from our feelings and our actions. Translating these into signs is our only way to see them again, trying to make sense of them our only way of comparing our experiences, of giving our lives direction — or of escaping the directions imposed by others. And only our words, the texts, will survive us. In Borges’ Library, however, we have to entertain the possibility that direction itself is some kind of misleading sign and we really have nowhere to go.

Correlations of the story with our world immediately come to mind. Think of all the competing systems put to text the last millennia, all the religions and philosophies and histories and manifestos and stumblings to science that clash and contradict, as well as the mis-histories and pseudo sciences and gossip columns and self-help advice and delirious ramblings, of all that has been written by the possibly inspired but also by quacks, by naive hopefuls and lunatics, and by subversives and reformers if clear distinction can be made here. Read all the debates over which system is correct, over who, in fact, is madly inspired or sanely crazy or simply woefully out of touch, then chart the violence these fights have caused. Try to find vindications and answers to the mysteries of life, as Borges’ librarians have, or follow the searches of others and see where these leave you.

Against these texts, put all those that have been banned or deemed outdated or blindly rejected or put aside for whatever other reason, or for the reason that we can no longer keep up with them. Add the impact of technology today, the texts it creates and passes, and against these those lost in the multitude of memory blocks of the vast servers around the world, our links to them nearly as overwhelming and chaotic as the texts themselves. In 2000, it was estimated that digital technology was processing between one and two exabytes a year. An exabyte is a billion gigabytes. My text here is about 8k. Someone do the math.

The number of possible texts, though an unthinkable number, is finite. The narrator himself finds comfort only in his speculation that the books on the shelves repeat themselves endlessly in the same chaotic order. Endless magnitude and arbitrary pattern have taken the place of revelation; his “solitude is gladdened by this elegant hope.”

The story, I suppose, does offer some hope — there are, after all, all these texts and their enormity inspires awe and promises vast possibilities. And maybe, brightly, it moves us to a measure of humility that might make us pause before we give ourselves to words too freely or ram them down others’ throats. As much, however, it leaves us with no small amount of fear from total uncertainty, from wholly being lost.

But to interpret “The Library of Babel,” to try to frame it from some critical perspective, or worse, draw a moral, is to fall into its infinite traps. There is nothing to support these in the Library — or everything and too much. Once inside the Library, interpretation flees and the interpreter has no escape.



See also Construction


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