Friday, May 14, 2010

People of the Books

Last week my relationship with Jorge Luis Borges underwent a dramatic improvement thanks to our supplemental reading assignment. Now let's see if the momentum has continued.

"The Library of Babel" tells of an unnamed first-person narrator who lives in a massive Library. It is composed of hexagonal galleries beyond number, linked by bottomless staircases and reflected into infinity by endless hallways lined with mirrors. Technically speaking, it's the universe, but Borges chooses the metaphor of the Library to organize the vastness of the heavens into a recognizable format. The sheer volume of human knowledge already compiled on religion, metaphysics, philosophy, mathematics, and science, in addition to all that remains undiscovered, is enough to overwhelm the individual mind. To comprehend this enormous amount of STUFF requires an intellect of no less than godlike proportions. We mortals simply lack the psychological capability to process the universe as raw data.

The image of the Library is also the springboard for Borges's exploration of language as the means by which information is discovered, recorded, and disseminated. Some of the books in the Library appear to be pure gibberish. If any words can be deciphered at all, they are meaningless phrases such as "the plaster cramp" and "the combed thunderclap." One tome consists entirely of the letters MCV in various combinations. Yet, as the narrator notes, the number of characters utilized is always limited to the period, the comma, the space, and twenty-two letters of the Latin alphabet. It has been determined that the Library is actually finite in area, as it contains no more than the total number of books needed to record every possible sequence of these twenty-five orthographical symbols. Each volume is 410 pages with 40 lines each, composed of 80 letters each.

As such, the Library contains some 25(410x40x80) = 251,312,000 books. That's more books than our real universe has atoms.

If the sum total of all possible knowledge is expressed through language, and all possible languages are expressed through all possible arrangements of a small number of symbols, then it can be said that all languages lead back to the same source. Says the narrator,
I cannot combine some characters
which the divine Library has not foreseen and which in one of its secret tongues do not contain some terrible meaning. No one can articulate a syllable which is not filled with tenderness and fear, which is not, in one of these languages, the powerful name of a god. To speak is to fall into tautology. . . (An n number of possible languages use the same vocabulary; in some of them, the symbol library allows the correct definition a ubiquitous and lasting system of hexagonal galleries, but library is bread or pyramid or anything else, and these seven words which define it have another value. You who read me, are You sure of understanding my language?)
I saw this as an argument in favor of pluralism. Borges's metaphor portrays religious leaders, sects, and zealots as librarians and library patrons who ransack through card catalogs and throw "heretical" books down the air shafts. The realization that the Library contains all Truths for all humans of all time, but said Truths remain lost in gibberish or the very immensity of the Library, drives some people to madness or suicide. To spend one's life obsessively searching for a specific, pre-ordained bit information in an infinite sea of information is ultimately tragic and absurd. All books - that is all faiths and modes of believing - are but different facets of the primordial Truth. We are in no position to squeeze the universe into one iron mold.

To be God is not to allow for one Truth and condemn all others as falsehoods (by destroying their books), but to know how all Truths fit together.
We also know of another superstition of that time: that of the Man of the Book. On some shelf in some hexagon (men reasoned) there must exist a book which is the formula and perfect compendium of all the rest: some librarian has gone through it and he is analogous to a god. . . Many have wandered in search of Him. For a century they exhausted in vain the most varied areas. . . In adventures such as these I have squandered and wasted my years. It does not seem unlikely to me that there is a total book on some shelf of the universe; I pray to the unknown gods that a man - just one, even though it were thousands of years ago! - may have examined and read it. If honor and wisdom and happiness are not for me, let them be for others. Let heaven exist, though my place be in hell. Let me be outraged and annihilated, but for one instant, in one being, let Your enormous Library be justified.
Like the Library it speaks of, Borges's little story is open to multiple interpretations from myriad different angles (i.e. mathematical, philosophical). I've only just scratched the surface. You can even make the case that the Library can be likened to the Internet as a immeasurable storehouse of information that exists in another realm (cyberspace) without physical form. (So it's transcendent, then? No wonder William Gibson likes this guy!) But of course, that's an anachronistic perspective that Borges could not have thought of, which brings us back to the questions raised in "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote."

But above all, I saw "The Library of Babel" as an affirmation of the human drive for knowledge and understanding. By presenting the universe as a Library, and the Truths as language - that is, as recognizable forms - Borges posits that it is technically possible for humans to glimpse divinity if we search long and hard enough. "The Library of Babel" opposes narrow-minded dogma, celebrates diversity, and binds intellect and spirituality. I'm impressed. Borges and I are on good terms now. Finally!

To fully appreciate what Borges has done with "The Library of Babel," check out this amazing article, including the comments, which get us into parallel universes.

And also: a virtual Library of Babel for English and French!

The Non-Structured Book Club is reading three short pieces by Borges for the month of May. Our schedule is as follows:

May 7: "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote"
May 14: "The Library of Babel"
May 21: "The South"

This week's participants were:



Richard said...

E.L. Fay, I like what you say about the message being an affirmation here (i.e. the "human drive for knowledge and understanding" being saluted as a good thing). While I don't see "The Library of Babel" in quite the same way as far as the message I took away from it, I like how Borges' text (itself edited by a person different from the narrator) offers up multiple reading possibilities just like the true and false books that riddle the fictional Library. An interesting work.

Emily said...

I don't really see the human drive for knowledge being saluted as a positive thing, either, although the particular setup of the Library (infinite texts, but not organized or searchable in any way, and much more false knowledge than "true") makes me wonder whether, in a functional way, it really does contain any knowledge at all. I saw Borges's argument as one for making one's own meaning where one finds oneself, rather than obsessively seeking after the pre-written "truth" that may or may not be applicable and is probably not find-able in any case (sort of your pluralism argument, but maybe more like collective individualism, or something). I like your interpretation of the Man of the Book section, that to be God is to see how all Truths fit together, but it was kind of sad & frustrating that the narrator had such a need for a human to read the uber-book in order for the library to be "justified." I mean, it's the universe where you live. It's justified if you live meaningfully and well there, in my opinion. I don't know if I'm still analyzing Borges at this point, or just spewing my own thoughts. :-)

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I would agree with you up to the last paragraph in which you state "But above all, I saw "The Library of Babel" as an affirmation of the human drive for knowledge and understanding." It sounded to me more like the need to understand was driving everybody batty. And also, I guess I would agree with Emily that, after The Librarian admits that no one truth is hegemonic over any other, why's he then hoping for an uber-truth? Well, okay, rhetorical - I guess most of us secretly hope for an uber truth, even atheists and those who live in the moment.

As an amusing aside, as I was reading your review, instead of "Borges and I are on good terms now," I read it as "Bongs and I are on good terms now." And that just might provide the key to a true understand of his library! :--)

JoAnn said...

It's been interesting to read a couple of the posts on Borges today. I'd like to try his work... when I can get over my feelings of intimidation.

Frances said...

I also did not see "an affirmation of the human drive for knowledge and understanding." Curiously enough, my reading of Snow Crash has provided an interesting perspective on this short piece. Both contain mathematical approaches to the organization or disorganization of knowledge, both contain libraries as vessels but the library of Snow Crash is similar to the internet in that it is constantly being written by its users, constantly growing. Both this evolving source and the static collection in Borges are unreliable sources of information. One's ability to discriminate between sources depends upon native ability and resources. Maybe I should write about the two together for Sunday Salon tomorrow? Hmm. Agree with all other points of this post though.

Eileen said...

I guess I'm in the minority here. Looking at all the other posts and comments, I am definitely seeing this story totally differently than everyone else. Maybe I should re-read this?

For me, the possibility that divine Truth was definitely out there, and recorded on a physical object using symbols we can understand as language (and maybe decode?), felt optimistic. Even though some people go crazy looking for it, I thought that was because they were too single-minded or too intent on finding the Truth as they thought it should be. Am I making sense? That it's out there and there's the possibility that they'll find it eventually.

nicole said...

On whether the human drive for knowledge is being shown as positive...

Hmm. One issue for me with this story is that I see it as such a close analogue for the real world. The vast, overwhelming majority of the books in the library are nonsense, and the librarians are "doomed" to look through them searching for meaning anyway, because of that unavoidable human drive. I don't see it as either negative or positive, but just presented as-is, which is also how reality is. Impossible amounts of incomprehensible information, and we're going to keep searching through it for those few meaningful (if they even are!) phrases, because we just are.

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