My roommate and I were discussing the ups and downs of seminars the other day and I joked that if I ever go back to school, I’m going to make sure that in every class and every discussion, no matter what the subject is, I mention “The Library of Babel”. Somebody has to do this, and as it is I’ve got a problem with taking myself too seriously.
It really is a story I find myself coming back to fairly often and I wouldn’t be surprised if some people find a whiff of crankiness about it. The story describes a library of hexagonal rooms containing every possible book, meaning all combinations (most of them gibberish) of a certain number of specified letters. Such a library can easily be calculated to be larger than our universe. It is also inhabited by people known as Librarians. When I first sat down to write a short post, just an introduction or an advertisement of my interest, I soon found myself in difficulties. I find the library and the hopes and sufferings of its inhabitants enormously seductive. I’m drawn to just dream about the books that are there and also to try to pick apart and analyze the notion of such a library.
As for books, I suppose everyone would have personal favorites (please share in the comments). Under the right circumstances, I’d love sneer, “The refutation of your argument exists in the Library of Babel.” Then there are the lost and unwritten books: Borges mentions Aeschylus’ Egyptians; I would like to run across the second and third volumes of The Brothers Karamazov, and of course the book on comedy from Aristotle’s Poetics. Borges alludes to a wilder dream of more metaphysical import: The Vindications, books of wisdom that would explain and justify an individual’s place in the cosmos. That possibility sent the Librarians into ecstasies and the search plunged them into suicidal despair.
But of the urge to fantasize and the urge to pick apart fantasies, which is stronger? There are issues beyond the sheer improbability of ever coming across a sensible page. Consider the size of the books, and the claim that the Library contains everything that can be expressed. The library is large, but is there any real difference between one that contains every million-odd character book and one that contains every ten-thousand character essay? Every fourteen line poem? Obviously, to contain any very large narrative, multiple volumes would be needed, and then the judgment of the reader would also be needed to distinguish which is the correct successor. Even a computer keyboard can be considered a Library of Babel for one character books, but the proportion of judgment required by the reader is then very high. Have I really just gone to this trouble to discover that books need to have context and readers should be discerning?
Borges knows all this of course. In the essay “The Total Library” he insists more clearly on the vanity of this dream, calling up the image of a “delirious god” in words very similar to those put in the mouth of a heretic in the Library of Babel. He calls it a “horror”, and in another essay, “Catalogue of the Exhibition Books from Spain”, the master of infinity and the labyrinth admits to having always pictured heaven as a library “fit for a man” and containing “not too many” books.
I am tempted to say that the most interesting question about the Library of Babel is which books it does not contain. I do not believe that the Vindications necessarily exist (Irredeemable crimes are at least theological possibilities, if not a theological commonplace, yes?); I also think that many books we might think are less fantastical also do not exist. I’ve had the sense many times that a book I read was not quite the one I wanted to read, and it finally occurred to me to wonder whether the experience I desired was even possible. The intelligible printed word may be too rigorous for many notions. What is quite conceivable to us in some unclear way may be quite inconsistent with what we regard as obvious truths, or even with itself. This state of affairs seems unexceptionable in mathematics: I doubt that mathematicians would search the Library for a proof of the parallel postulate. On the other hand, it seems incongruous or intolerable when it is applied to philosophy and literature, but I wonder if it is nonetheless necessary.
As I suggested above, Borges’ view of the Library is not a cheerful one, but I don’t think he would go quite as far as I do in doubting the scope of the Library. Despite everything, he seems to insist, both in “The Library of Babel” and in “The Total Library”, on the possibility of meaningful and wondrous texts among the “millions of meaningless cacophonies”. I don’t know what gives him the confidence, but the allure of the result is undeniable.