Borges and the Library, by Alan Wall

Three themes recur constantly throughout the writing of Jorge Luis Borges: the labyrinth, the mirror and the library. All produce horror in varying degrees. The mirror ‘multiplies the number of mankind’, and is therefore to be deprecated, along with copulation. There is, as Borges puts it in ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’ ‘something monstrous about mirrors’. In a late story he has a woman he knows go insane because every time she looks in a mirror, she sees his face. By that stage, if he had looked in a mirror himself, he would have seen nothing at all: he was now blind. Labyrinths are those vast constructions we make so that we might hide either ourselves or others inside them. Shame and crime are never far away. The most famous labyrinth of all was constructed so that a queen’s disgrace could be concealed. Pasiphaë had so loved the bull that she’d had Daedalus make her a wooden heifer, into which she might be inserted, so that the beautiful white creature might cover her under camouflage of night. The product of this miscegenation was a therianthrope, half-man half-bull, called the Minotaur; not the son King Minos had originally hoped for. His bellowing had to be buried in a nightmarish construction of halls and corridors. Periodically, he had to be fed human flesh, which needed (as so often) to be young and unsullied. Borges insists that the constructed labyrinth is frequently surplus to requirements. As he puts it in ‘Ibn Hakam Al-Bokhari, Murdered in his Labyrinth’: ‘There’s no need to build a labyrinth when the entire universe is one. For the man who truly wants to hide himself, London is a much better labyrinth than a rooftop room to which every blessed hallway in a building leads.’ The entire universe is a labyrinth: this is the premise of modern physics. Our science is really Ariadne’s bobbined thread. We are trying to understand the darkness. How much of it is inside us and how much outside: that remains an open question. Daedalus used all his ingenuity to build the labyrinth; subsequently he had to use all his ingenuity to escape it, by inventing human flight. He lost his only son in the process.

And then there is the library. Now Borges had a professional interest in libraries. In 1955 he was appointed director of the Biblioteca Nacional, the National Library of Argentina. In one of its more whimsical synchronicities, fate also arranged to have Philip Larkin appointed University Librarian at Hull in the same year. So Borges lived in a library for much of his life, and his apartments were always, whatever else they might have been, miniature libraries. But the library outside his head was to be replaced during the years of his blindness by a library inside, which combined symmetry, infinity and terror in equal proportions.

In ‘The Library of Babel’ we are told that the universe is coterminous with the library, which means presumably that both are forms of labyrinth. And this library is indeed composed of ‘an indefinite, perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries’. And then we have this: ‘In the vestibule there is a mirror, which faithfully duplicates appearances.’ So all his thematic clusters are concentrated in this infinite and inexhaustible library, which we are told has existed eternally. Man is described as ‘the imperfect librarian’. The uneven letters written by the human hand are contrasted with the printed letters inside the book: ‘…neat, delicate, deep black, and inimitably symmetrical.’ The library and its contents represent that perfection which humanity can only read about. The invention of writing haunts these pages. Borges was fascinated by that near-miraculous device we call the alphabet. With twenty-three or twenty-six symbols, arbitrarily arranged, we can encompass all that is known in the universe. We might need to add the numerals 1-9, plus a zero. Now everything we might discover can be expressed through these circumscribed glyphs. As a process, it is indeed wondrous.

So Borges finds himself pondering the oddities of alphabetic classification upon which the library is founded. It is the same system which gives us the encyclopaedia, whose contiguous categories are, if we pause for a moment to consider the matter, surreal. The bizarre taxonomies which spring from alpha-sorting in any language is what fascinates Borges so much about John Wilkins, a seventeenth-century English scholar who became Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, under Cromwell, then went on to become Bishop of Chester after the Restoration. He was the first secretary of the Royal Society. He wrote a work which examined the possibility of life in the moon. In his An Essay towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language of 1668, he considers a universal language, whose premise is that all aspects of reality can be divided into entirely arbitrary categories. The only organizing principle permitted will be the roots of words. Now the Library of Babel in the story of that name in effect reverses Wilkins’s dream. All apparent arbitrariness is redeemed into ultimate meaning in the infinite resources of its bibliographic hermeneutics: ‘There is no combination of characters one can make – dhcmrlchtdj, for example – that the divine Library has not foreseen and that in one or more of its secret tongues does not hide a terrible significance. There is no syllable one can speak that is not filled with tenderness and terror, that is not, in one of those languages, the mighty name of a god.’    

The dream of printed works in which every syllable, every single mark, has a sacred significance, or a whole array of such significances, is an ancient one. The forty-nine levels of meaning ascribed to every line of scripture by the Kabbalists is one example. The practice of gematria is another; here numerical values are assigned to every word in the text. The question of the transmission of texts, their corruption, correction and loss, would appear to threaten such sublime readings. And here we come to another question: the seemingly infinite reproducibility of books. This is part of the theme of ‘The Library in Babel’. Books can appear to be identical, but there are often in fact the subtlest differences. ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbius Tertius’ begins with the discovery that a curious sect, vastly endowed with wealth, had managed to insert into an edition of The Anglo-American Cyclopedia of 1917 an entry on a country named Uqbar, a place mentioned in no other edition. Note the seeming arbitrariness of the interpolation: it is slotted in between the entries on Uppsala and that on Ural-Altaic Languages. Now Borges was writing this story between 1940 and (including its appendix) 1947. In 1942 he published his piece entitled ‘John Wilkins’ Analytical Language’. And how does that begin? ‘I see that the fourteenth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica has omitted the article on John Wilkins.’

Are we included or excluded from the book? The world exists in order to end up in a book; so said Mallarmé. ‘People say that life’s the thing; but I prefer reading.’ Thus Logan Pearsall Smith. And Yeats is surely not so far away, despite all his histrionics with swords, when he writes:

   A man in his own secret meditation
   Is lost amid the labyrinth that he has made
   In art or politics.

Is our name written in the book of life or not? Labyrinths, mirrors and books. There is a dreadful feculence to the infinite reproducibility of money, the coin bearing the leader’s head, so as to show that it represents the centre of the circle of the world. In comparison, Borges permits a rare redemptiveness to the infinite reproducibility of the book and the infinite dimensions of the library which contains it: they might just permit a glimpse of the truth in some far-off aspect of our journey, not yet even envisaged. The labyrinth is so vast. It is filled with books.


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