Borges, Jorge Luis Entries

La biblioteca de Babel


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.

Pierre Menard: autor del Quijote


In the grand tradition of Emily forgetting to announce things ahead of time, I've forgotten to announce that my non-structured book group is doing a little extra project this month: based on posts by me and Frances, interest from Claire and Sarah, and organizational go-to-it-iveness of Richard, for the next three weeks we'll be reading short stories by Jorge Luis Borges and posting about them on Fridays. (I apologize for being so godawful at posting these announcements—I guess I'm just busy reading!) Our schedule is as follows:

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

Richard and I will be reading these in Spanish (oh, my creaky Spanish! but I've been surprised how good my comprehension remains), everyone else in English. They can all be found in Ficciones and in Penguin's Collected Stories. On the 28th we'll be posting on Sarah's monthly pick, Margo Lanagan's novel Tender Morsels. All of which is to say: it's already time for our first story! Please do join us for any or all of the above dates.


As soon as I re-acclimatized to Spanish and got into the swing of "Pierre Menard," I knew that I've waited far too long to start reading Borges; this story is absolutely delightful. Told from the perspective of a petty, possibly-unreliable academic (the voice strongly reminded me of Nabokov's Charles Kinbote from Pale Fire; I'm assuming Borges was a strong influence), it takes the form of a faux journal article singing the praises of fellow academic Pierre Menard, an early twentieth-century Frenchman whose "visible" work consists of a few sonnets and articles on French Symbolist poets. The narrator argues that Menard's real contribution to literature, however, is that he has produced several chapters of Don Quijote, line-by-line identical with the original work, yet not copied—originating with Menard despite coinciding exactly with the analogous chapters of Cervantes.

The conceit is hilarious and, of course, ridiculous, but Borges uses it to bring up so many interesting questions of context and perspective, especially considering the story's brevity. The narrator argues, for example, that Menard's Quijote fragments are richer, more nuanced than Cervantes', despite being identical to them: Cervantes, he says, was simply writing in the style of his own time, whereas Menard makes a conscious decision to compose in an archaic Spanish which is even more alien to him because of his French origin. Not only that, but Menard's passages take on new meanings in light of the myriad advances in psychological and historical thought in the intervening centuries. (Please forgive my rough translation abilities.)

"Atribuer a Louis Ferdinand Céline o a James Joyce la Imitación de Cristo ¿no es una suficiente renovación de esos tenues avisos espirituales?"

[Isn't the act of attributing the Imitation of Christ to Louis Ferdinand Céline or James Joyce, a sufficient renewal of those faded spiritual warnings?]

One must admit he has a point. I now wish I had thought to consider Céline as a possible author when I was reading fragments of The Imitation of Christ last year. It would definitely have made things more interesting.

"Pierre Menard" is full of clever riffs Borges plays on his main theme. I loved the moment when the narrator admits that Menard's supposed aesthetic and "voice," so different from those of Cervantes, now influences the way he reads the ENTIRETY of Cervantes's novel, even the chapters that Menard never re-wrote.

¿Confesaré que suelo imaginar que la terminó y que leo el Quijote—todo el Quijote—como si lo hubiera pensado Menard? Noches pasadas, al hojear el capítulo XXVI—no ensayado nunca por él—reconocí el estilo de nuestro amigo y como su voz en esta frase exceptional: las ninfas de las ríos, la dolorosa y húmida Eco.

[Shall I admit I am in the habit of imagining that he finished it? And that I read Quijote—all of Quijote—as if Menard had thought of it? In nights past, leafing through Chapter XXVI—not attempted by him at all—I recognized our friend's style and his voice in this exceptional phrase: the nymphs of the rivers, the melancholy and humid (?) Eco.]

The idea that one could detect Menard's authorial voice in a text word-by-word identical to Cervantes's: how ridiculous is it? Certainly something of the man is detectable simply in his decision to re-write Quijote word for word, not to mention his inexplicable ABILITY to do so. But in the words themselves? Why not, if he did not copy from Cervantes's text but worked toward a replication of it through his own efforts? Another of my favorite moments was when the narrator claims to find in Menard's Quijote a palimpsest through which he sees, not Cervantes's work as one might expect, but the PREVIOUS works of Menard himself!

He reflexionado que es lícito ver en el Quijote «final» una especie de palimpsesto, en el que deben traslucirse los rastros—tenues pero no indescifrables—de la «previa» escritura de nuestro amigo. Desgraciadamente, sólo un segundo Pierre Menard, invirtiendo el trabajo del anterior, podría exhumar y resucitar esas Troyas...

[I have reflected that it is possible to see in the "final" Quijote a type of palimpsest, in which the traces of our friend's earlier writings—faint but not indecipherable—still show through. Unfortunately, only a second Pierre Menard, reversing the work of the former, could exhume and resuscitate these Troys...]

Aaaand, my brain just broke. But in a way I really like. I'm very much looking forward to "The Library of Babel" a week from today; thanks, friends!

Essay Mondays: Borges


(Each week I read four essays from Philip Lopate's anthology The Art of the Personal Essay, and write about the one I find the most compelling.)

Jorge Luis Borges has a reputation for being a very reference-heavy writer, a member of the literati who gleaned his inspiration more from other books than from real life. It's interesting, therefore, that as I was enjoying my first taste of his work—in the form of his essay "Blindness"—my chief delights were not so much dependent on his ideas or craftsmanship, but on the connections I was able to find with my own reading life. Not that Borges's craftsmanship isn't lovely. But "Blindness" is a casual essay, a lightly reworked lecture on the subject of the author's own blindness and a more general overview of literary blindness through history. Its tone is conversational, slightly digressive, and it doesn't have the carefully controlled and shepherded form that I often admire in essays written to be read. It does have some interesting observations on the reality of being blind, as in this passage:

One of the colors that the blind—or at least this blind man—do not see is black; another is red. Le rouge et le noir are the colors denied us. I, who was accustomed to sleeping in total darkness, was bothered for a long time at having to sleep in this world of mist, in the greenish or bluish mist, vaguely luminous, which is the world of the blind. I wanted to lie down in darkness. The world of the blind is not the night that people imagine.

I can't help but wonder whether José Saramago read this essay before or during the composition of his own Blindness, the 1995 novel about an epidemic in which the sufferers can only see a glaring white at all times. Borges's description of being bothered by the lack of darkness when attempting to sleep, is closely mirrored by a number of scenes in Saramago's book, although Borges's luminous blue-green mist sounds more calming than Saramago's characters' intense white blaze. There is the same sense of surprise, however, at the loss of the darkness, and how disconcerting that can be, despite the common fear of the dark.

Borges goes on to discuss his reactions to the onset of his blindness; he argues that, as much as it seemed at the time to be a terrible loss, it allowed him to gain a number of things as well: he was motivated, for example, to learn the Anglo-Saxon language after losing his sight.

What always happens, when one studies a language, happened. Each of the words stood out as though it had been carved, as though it were a talisman. For that reason the poems of a foreign language have a prestige they do not enjoy in their own language, for one hears, one sees, each one of the words individually. We think of the beauty, of the power, or simply of the strangeness of them.

This is such a beautiful observation, and one to which I very strongly relate. I'm currently making my way through Emile Zola's Germinal in the original French, and am having exactly the reading experience Borges describes here: noticing the individual words, the mouth-feel and texture of them, their repetitions and significances, so much more clearly than I would in an English text. I love his description of each word standing out "as though it had been carved," because individual words in a language one is studying do have this very tactile quality—not that English words have lost their tactile quality; heaven forbid that should ever happen. But usually I am only aware of the individual words in English now and then, when a particular word choice seems apt, awkward, or intriguing. Much of the time, the language is a transparent medium through which the meaning is communicated. In French, though, each word still retains a solidity, a "thing-ness," as if, as Borges says, it were a talisman, as if one could run one's hands through the reservoir of all these tiny, textural word-objects like one would through a bag of marbles or a sack of dry beans. L'accrochage. Écraser. Les betteraves. And so on. One doesn't even need to understand their meaning to appreciate their slippery, rippling texture.

I think, more than his ostensible messages that every loss is also a gain and that being blind can actually be a benefit to artists of certain types (musicians and poets especially, since they are better able to focus their musical/poetic ear), what struck me about Borges is his deep love of language and of reading. And I wondered why I've been semi-avoiding Borges for so long. I've heard rumors that he can be overly erudite and bookish, but come on now (you must all be saying by now), I love bookish and erudite authors! I love books that dwell in the land of other books, and other art. I love Proust, and Bolaño, and Woolf, and although the jury's still somewhat out on Auster, his discussions of literature were definitely my favorite parts of his Manhattan Trilogy. So what am I waiting for?

A writer lives. The task of being a poet is not completed at a fixed schedule. No one is a poet from eight to twelve and from two to six. Whoever is a poet is one always, and continually assaulted by poetry. I suppose a painter feels that colors and shapes are besieging him. Or a musician feels that the strange world of sounds—the strangest world of art—is always seeking him out, that there are melodies and dissonances looking for him. For the task of an artist, blindness is not a total misfortune. It may be an instrument.

(As an aside, the above made me giggle as I thought of my own craft: the designer of clothing does indeed feel continually assaulted by cuts and colors, as the poet by poetry. I often find myself distracted in social settings as I try mentally to deconstruct a knitted cable in a sweater someone is wearing, or as my mind reconstructs the shapes of the sewn flat pieces that likely went into my friend's blouse. I suppose all art forms pursue their practitioners, don't they?)

Next week: A four-way fight between Herbert Butler, E.M. Cioran, Roland Barthes, and Natalia Ginzburg.


Badge photo courtesy of Liz West:

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link to Wolves 2011 reading list
link to more disgust bibliography