viernes, 14 de mayo de 2010

La biblioteca de Babel

"The Library of Babel" ["La biblioteca de Babel"]
by Jorge Luis Borges [translated from the Spanish by James E. Irby]
Argentina, 1942

"If you look at theology or philosophy as fantastic literature, you'll see that they are much more ambitious than poetry."  --Borges in an interview from 1984

I guess I should start by admitting that I tend to prefer humorous Borges to cosmological Borges.  I'm also not that big a fan of "The Library of Babel" from an entertainment standpoint.  For me, the payoff is much more on the conceptual side of things if that makes any sense.  To help explain all this, I should note that this story (for me, one of the most enigmatic and challenging of all Borges' signature pieces) is striking for the amount of cosmic angst and striving for the infinite contained within its slender confines.  An unnamed narrator begins by telling us that the universe is a Library "composed of an indefinite and perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries" filled with every type of book imaginable (51).  While describing his vaguely otherworldly surroundings with an almost mathematical precision, the narrator also owns up to the difficulties faced by "man, the imperfect librarian" (52) in his attempts to impose order on this chaos of bookly and geometrical riches.  We learn, for example, that the Library houses both magical texts that can predict the future and explain the past and any number of false texts written to counter such prophetic revelations.  Not surprisingly given the title of the work, there are kabbalistic digressions on the value of letters and numbers and the spaces between characters in written languages.  To avoid leaving you with a banal summary of what's a very abstruse tale, I'll get ready to close by saying that the narrator's allusions to seekers and suicides hints at a Tarkovsky-like sense of metaphysical disquiet that hovers over the search for truth and meaning within the Library's archives.  To add to the sense that something just isn't quite right, it also becomes apparent that the "editor" responsible for the footnotes isn't the same person as the one who's been narrating the tale.  What kind of a text are we reading anyway?  And how old is it?  While "The Library of Babel" is way less than a fave for me as a diversion, I think I appreciate its speculative side more the more I think of Borges approaching mathematics, philosophy, and theology as so many branches of the fantastic literature family tree.  Now there's a concept I can wrap my mind around!
  • Borges, Jorge Luis.  "La biblioteca de Babel".  Narraciones.  Madrid: Cátedra, 2002, 105-114.
  • Borges, Jorge Luis [translated by James E. Irby].  "The Library of Babel."  Labyrinths: Selected Stories & Other Writings.  New York: New Directions, 2007, 51-58.
Alberto Manguel has a fine piece on "The Library of Babel" hereHe's also way less conflicted about the story than I am.

22 comentarios:

  1. I posted my review today also. I *did* however include a banal summary solely of course so I could serve as a foil for more erudite extrapolations, and well, banal summaries are my forte. I believe I also used "angst" and "abstruse" (or similar) but ah, "kabbalistic digressions" and "metaphysical disquiet" - excellent!

  2. Combed Clap of Thunder and The Plaster Cramp aren't funny? "Obviously, no one expects to discover anything"? I find "The Library of Babel" almost as funny as "Pierre Menard."

    But to me, "Pierre Menard" is profound, cosmological, while many readers, on this pass, seem to think it's kind of silly.

    In "Pierre Menard," it's authorship that extends to infinity, at least in the reader's imagination. In "The Library of Babel," the author is dead, or God, or both.

  3. *Jill: "Banal summaries are my forte," excellent! Thanks for participating this week and for mentioning Borges' background as a librarian, which is of course somewhat germane to the tale in question. :D

    *Amateur Reader: Combed Clap of Thunder and The Plaster Cramp aren't very funny actually, no! However, you're right that there's humor in "The Library of Babel" here and there. For me, though, whatever humor there is to be found is decidedly subordinate to the sense of frustration: the anxiety of knowing that truth is within your reach but unable to be found due to the multiplication of non-truthful texts; the references to substantial losses among the hexagon librarian corps; the suicides and the book inquisitions, etc. Funny but not so funny on a cosmological level. I completely agree with you that "Pierre Menard" is profound (and funny), but "The Library of Babel" is just, uh, profound to me. Nothing wrong with that. P.S. Won't speak for the "many readers" of "Pierre Menard" that you mention, but my sense was that most of last week's group saw the "Pierre Menard" conceit as silly rather than the story itself. Which is a big difference from what you imply here, of course. Did you feel that "Pierre Menard" got slighted by the group in some way?

  4. Slighted, no. But to me, the conceit of "Pierre Menard" is itself profound. Isn't that the cosmological part. I've been accused, on another blog, of contributing to the decline of civilization with this idea, so I'm likely wrong.

    I was shorthanding about the humor. The Plaster Cramp may not be funny in and of itself. But how about the anxious attempt to find meaning in that title? That's what I find pretty rich. Maybe it's worth saying that I find Kafka, for example, and Beckett absolutely hilarious. Frustration and anxiety are prime sources of humor.

  5. I had quite a different, more cheery interpretation than you did. Although now that I think of it, something about the Library is rather hellish. Spending all you life in one big library where all the coherent books are buried in mounds and mounds of babel? Yikes. But of course, that's also taking the story too literally.

  6. I thought this story was loads of fun & very funny in a dark, absurdist way I really liked. But I think that if Borges's style weren't such sheer delight for me - so effervescent, yet so meticulous (I can almost feel the man stretching his brain and chortling with satisfaction) - I would have left the story with a more somber feeling.

    Also: I think I felt more frustration about the fact that the Library inhabitants were overcome by the urge to search for these apocryphal books of "truth," than about their inability to find them. I mean, what good would it do even if they COULD find them? What does "truth" even mean when your reality does not extend beyond the Library and there are plenty of books that contradict the supposed true one? Better to just ignore the potential existence of Books of Truth, as far as I'm concerned. Maybe it's just my agnosticism coming out. :-)

  7. Emily's point (and post) is reminiscent of the classic Liar's Paradox; i.e., the statement "This sentence is false." (If "This sentence is false" is true, then it is false, which would in turn mean that it is actually true, but this would mean that it is false, etc.) I think thinking like this can not only make you crazy, but definitely give you a case of plaster cramps.

  8. Emily, if that's "just" your agnosticism, then I'm badly misreading this story. But note, then, that the proof of the existence of God, or of something, may then be the library itself, not its contents.

    E.L. - I thought about mentioning this at your blog. It's not some of the books that are gibberish - it's almost all of them. Thus the treasured status of "O Time your pyramids" and so on. What if it's not random?

  9. *Amateur Reader: Fair enough about "Pierre Menard." And very interesting points you make in response to Emily and E.L. Fay! I was just giving you a hard time about your "Library of Babel" humor examples, though--I knew you were shorthanding. Other than that, must get to Beckett one of these days (you, Emily, and a friend from work have all convinced me).

    *E.L. Fay: So many ways to approach this story (and Borges in general). I think Borges' point about the "good" and "useless" books in the Library is all too literal from a reader's perspective: how do we decide what to read in life given our almost unlimited reading choices and yet limited time? Like Pierre Menard said, "I should only have to be immortal..."

    *Emily: I already mentioned this over on your blog, but I like how Borges' style lightens an otherwise somber sort of story for you. That makes me think that there's something of a middle ground between what Amateur Reader and I were discussing earlier. As for the hunt for the books of "truth," isn't that something we're already doing as readers anyway? Not necessarily in a religious sense but looking for those books that might change our lives in some small way? And you're sure you wouldn't want to read a "magical" book if you had the chance? I sure would!

    *Jill: Love the Liar's Paradox and your tie-in with Borges! However, I'm starting to get a headache from trying to process all this again...

  10. Oh, I definitely do/would want to read magic books! I just don't think there's only one magic/uber book out there, or The One Book that will provide the magic key. I think, you know, we make our own magic in relationship with the books, which is what the narrator seems to be missing. It comes from within, not from without. All these people are questing after answers provided by someone else, whereas even if they find The Book, they probably won't be able to recognize it...I'd prefer to just lounge around in the hexagons nearby and read the books that happen to make sense to me! Whether they're true or not...meh. :-)

  11. (Definitely saw Pierre Menard as so much more funnier than this, but NOT silly!) I still found hints of humor here in Babel, but as you so very well point out, the sense of frustration overpowers somewhat, but not necessarily buries it.

    The seeking for truth isn't necessarily limited to religion or faith. Why do we read as much as we do? I doubt it's exclusively for relaxation/entertainment/fun.

  12. Why do we read as much as we do?

    The heart of the story, or one chamber of the heart. If we're just killing time before our inevitable expiry, that's easier to understand, although boring. But otherwise, we are looking for -what?

    The author of Ecclesiastes hovers over this story - "of making may books, there is no end"? Borges takes Ecclesiastes literally, and adds "reading" to "making."

    Come to think of it, the making of books may have ended in "The Library of Babel," or not - perhaps no more books are being created, or perhaps they do not already exist but are being created just ahead of their readers. A sequel is in order - "The Publisher of Babel."

  13. This week's story is a puzzle to me. So I viewed it as such. Also saw it as speculative fiction, as well as a thought experiment. Now that you mention horror, this reminds me of a scary movie called "Cube."

  14. AR, hm.. thanks for pointing out the connection to Ecclesiastes. I definitely see it. Which is exactly what I mean.. we don't really know what we're seeking but the need is there, whether for knowledge about some tiny thing or something more profound. We are always seeking, though answers often do not come. To stop seeking is, really, to stop thinking. I don't think man is capable of suppressing the urge to go deeper or higher. The author of Ecclesiastes pines over existence or the probable meaningless of it because of innate, unexplainable need.

  15. And clearly one of your points here is that we do not know what we seek from these "slender confines." The story of the library becomes a library itself in a way in which we question and seek to no avail. What is real? What has meaning? Signified? Signifier? He is fucking with all of us and it's kind of funny.

  16. *Emily: "We make our own magic in relationship with the books, which is what the narrator seems to be missing." OK, good point there. At least it helps me to reconcile the narrator's occasional oracle-like pronouncements and high SAT score mathematical aptitude with what seem to me like the more padded room aspects of his philosophical ruminations!

    *Claire: "The seeking for truth isn't necessarily limited to religion or faith. Why do we read as much as we do?" Exactly! Of course, this is just the sort of thing that makes the tiny little details in "The Library of Babel" (the fact that the footnote maker isn't the same as the narrator, for example) so transgressive. Still wouldn't call this a fave read in terms of my reading enjoyment of it, but I'm appreciating it more and more for its artistic and philosophical dimensions for sure!

    *Amateur Reader: I like your "The Publisher of Babel" idea! And the Ecclesiastes reference that you make and that Claire follows up on is a super interesting one given the biblical overtones of the story of Babel itself. Also, thanks for playing designated hitter for us (not posting but making frequent swings from the comments box) during these last two weeks with Borges!

    *Rise: I don't generally care for the term "speculative fiction" (note to E.L. Fay: that's just a label that sci-fi geeks apply to themselves when they want to put on airs!), but I totally agree that "The Library of Babel" definitely fits that and the thought experiment categories 100%. Am unaware of Cube but this story reminded me of various aspects of Tarkovsky's Solaris and Stalker in miniaturized form.

    *Frances: As has happened before, I wish you had been around when I was struggling with my post--so well put there! As for Borges fucking with us, I loved Manguel's anecdote that a lot of the numerical figures used in "The Library of Babel," far from having any mathematical or mystical import, really only had to do with the address of the tiny neighborhood library where Borges was so miserable at the time of the writing of this story. Ha ha, maybe we shouldn't read too much into what's going on here after all for crying out loud! Excellent discussion this week everybody, thanks!

  17. Rather late with my 2 cents, but re-reading your post today made me go way out on a limb and wonder about that editor of the story. Is he in the Library, going over a text he's found in his hexagon? Does the Library still exist? Did the Library ever exist? Is the story just the obtuse ramblings of a mad old man...??


  18. Quite late myself this week, but finally posted.

    Your point about anxiety surprised me a bit; despite what would superficially seem perhaps anxiety-inducing, I got much more of a sense of acceptance out of the story. The narrator seemed quite willing to wander the library wherever his travels might take him: "If honor and wisdom and happiness are not for me, let them be for others." I am totally unwilling to say I understand anything about Borges's cosmology or philosophy yet, but lines like that make me feel very comfortable.

  19. *Sarah: I don't want to hammer the point into the ground, but exactly, those are all good questions! We don't really know, do we?

    *Nicole: Those angst and anxiety comments have less to do with the narrator, who does seem rather a peaceful and accepting sort all in all, and more to do with the stories having to do with seekers and suicides and the apparent futility of ever being able to finding those magical texts. Perhaps melancholic is a better adjective for the tone of this whole thing (given Borges' confessed state of mind while writing it and the Anatomy of Melancholy quotation at the beginning), but I'm not entirely sure. This story frustrates me in some ways. I do think the footnotes in the story tend to argue against a purely breezy or optimistic reading of the tale, though...although I read somewhere that The Anatomy of Melancholy itself isn't as dour as its title. So who knows!

  20. Granted that I'm not to be trusted on this, but The Anatomy of Melancholy, read in the proper spirit, is a scream.

  21. *Amateur Reader: I actually saw something like that somewhere else, so you'll get a free pass on that this time around! Of course, I'd never heard of it before Borges mentioned it.

  22. On what you called the "almost mathematical precision" of this short story: