As I started reading Borges's "La biblioteca de Babel," I realized that I've been running across references to this short story for years, although now, typically, I can't put my finger on any specific text to prove my point. It's not surprising, though, that writers would find the central conceit of "La biblioteca" compelling: the narrator of the story, now an old man, describes the historical, political, and religious trajectory of the universe in which he lives: an interminable, possibly infinite library (one of the key philosophical debates in this universe, as in ours, is whether or not the Library has any outer edge) composed of endless identical hexagonal rooms, all full of books. The books are also identical from the outside, but inside contain all possible permutations of all possible ideas and non-ideas, in all possible languages:
De esas premisas incontrovertibles dedujo que la Biblioteca es total y que sus anaqueles registran todas las posibles combinaciones de los veintitantos símbolos ortográficos (número, aunque vastísimo, no infinito) o sea todo lo que es dable expresar: en todos los idiomas. Todo: la historia minuciosa del porvenir, las autobiografías de los arcángelos, el catálogo fiel de la Biblioteca, miles y miles de catálogos falsos, la demostración de la falacia de esos catálogos, la demonstración de la falacia del catálogo verdadero...
[From these incontrovertible premises he deduced that the Library is all-encompassing, and that its shelves contain all possible combinations of the twenty-some orthographic symbols (a number which, although vast, is not infinite), in other words everything it is possible to express, in all languages. Everything: the meticulous history of the future, autobiographies of the archangels, the catalog of the Library, thousands and thousands of false catalogs, the proof of the falsity of these catalogs, the proof of the falsity of the true catalog...]
Yet again I am in love with Borges's incredible clever playfulness here. He's excellent at taking an idea (say, the meta notion that the library would contain its own catalog) and running with it to delightful heights: not only that it would also contain huge numbers of wrong catalogs, or that one could also find the proof of the wrongness of those catalogs, but that there would also exist the false proof of the falsity of the true catalog. Brilliant stuff. I hope he had as much fun writing this stuff as I have reading it; it seems as though the exercise of such a brain would be a never-ending delight.
Not that the story itself depicts unmitigated joy. On the contrary, the supposed completeness of the Library becomes a tremendous burden for its inhabitants. The knowledge that all possible thoughts have already been expressed, all possible combinations of ideas already extant, lead many people into despondency; the narrator relates that the suicide rate rises every year. Not only is it impossible to write anything new, to add to the body of writing already ensconced in the Library, but since the books in the Library are either not organized in any particular order, or organized in an order that the inhabitants don't understand, there's no way to locate a particular book one might be searching for. To know simultaneously that every possible book exists, and yet that it's extremely unlikely to happen upon any particular one, drives many Library inhabitants mad:
En aquel tiempo se habló mucho de las Vindicaciones: libros de apología y de profecía, que para siempre vindicaban los actos de cada hombre del universo y guardaban arcanos prodigiosos para su porvenir. Miles de codiciosos abandonaron el dulce hexágono natal y se lanzaron escaleras arriba, urgidos por el vano propósito de encontrar su Vindicación. Esos peregrinos disputaban en los corredores estrechos, proferían oscuras maldiciones, se estrangulaban en las escaleras divinas, arrojaban los libros engañosos al fondo de los túneles, morían despeñados por los hombres de regiones remotas.
[At that time there was much talk of the Vindications: books of of apology and prophecy that vindicated for all time the acts of each man in the universe, and harbored profound secrets for his future. Thousands of covetous people abandoned the sweet hexagons of their birth and launched themselves up stairs, urged on by the vain prospect of finding their Vindication. These pilgrims fought in the narrow corridors, hurled dark curses, strangled each other on the divine staircases, threw deceitful books to the bottoms of the shafts, were killed by men in remote areas.
Surely some of the violence and desperation these wanderers display comes from the knowledge that, although their true Vindications may exist (however unlikely they are to actually find them in a library of essentially identical volumes), they are equally likely to come across a FALSE version of their own Vindication, or a version that is partially true and partially false, or a book that does the opposite of the one they're looking for, condemning all the actions they've ever taken instead of excusing them. In an atmosphere in which any possible combination of ideas, words and letters is available, Borges seems to argue, actual meaning is reduced to almost nothing: in order to perceive meaning, our options must be limited. The presence of something in a book in the Library means nothing about whether it's true or false—if, indeed, "true" and "false" even retain any meaning in such an environment. The blind quest of the Vindication seekers tries to overlook the impossibility of recognizing the truth of their actual Vindications, even if they were so lucky as to find them, in the midst of so many proofs and counter-proofs. There is even, Borges goes on, the difficulty of never being sure we are speaking the same language, with all permutations of possible languages represented:
Un número n de languajes posibles usa el mismo vocabulario; en algunos, el símbolo biblioteca admite la correcta definición ubiquo y perdurable sistema de galerías hexagonales, pero biblioteca es pan o pirámide o cualquier otra cosa, y las siete palabras que la definen tienen otro valor. Tú, que me lees, ¿estás seguro de entender mi lenguaje?
[A number n of possible languages use the same vocaulary; in some, the signifier library corresponds to the correct definition ubiquitous and everlasting network of hexagonal galleries, but library is bread or pyramid or some other thing, and the seven words of the definition have another meaning. You, reader, are you sure of understanding my language?]
I continue to have a rollicking good time with Borges, despite finding this story a bit more challenging than "Pierre Menard." More than anything, I'm in awe of the man's mental agility and delight in ideas—the two things that prevented the darkness of this story from getting to me in the slightest.