Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Historiography of Babel

When Borges’ Library of Babel is invoked, it is normally described synchronically, i.e., at one particular moment in time. Indeed, I suspect that our current understanding of the Library, or any understanding of the Library, depends on ignoring its diachronic aspect. When this is acknowledged we understand that we are dealing merely with the ravings of a madman. “The Library of Babel” is incomprehensible.

According to the narrator, there is no doubt that the Library has a history. He himself claims, for example, to have a biography. “I have travelled in my youth,” he tells us. “I am preparing to die.” And while the Library is said to exist eternally, it has a history of ancient and modern conflict and struggle. It has a social order. It has a notion of genius.

And yet it has no school. No hospital. No family dwellings. It has neither a legal system nor a prison industry. It has no seat of government.

As in our own Universe, however, the most significant events in the history of the Library seem to be quite recent: “a general theory of the Library” was developed three hundred years ago. Five hundred years ago a book was found that would later allow “a librarian of genius to discover the fundamental law of the Library.”

“For a long time it was believed that these impenetrable books belonged to past or remote languages. It is true that the most ancient men, the first librarians, made use of a language quite different from the one we speak today.”

The library itself does not change, yet its language does.

These apparently historical facts raise important questions of scholarship, journalism and documentation. Where, after all, is the living history of the library recorded? How were the various theories of the library communicated, discussed and discarded? Where are the newspapers and the scholarly journals? Where is the much more orderly catalogue of these writings, which have been produced, not by the original builders of the library, but by its melancholy librarians? Where, in the vast library, is there room for discourse?

The lack of answers to these questions suggests a very simple solution, which I have suggested in an earlier post. There is only one ‘gallery’ in the library. It may contain little more than a single book, a mirror and a deranged mind. These implements are sufficient to conjure up the infinite and incoherent fantasy of a total library.

1 comment:

Crafty Green Poet said...

It's a great story and I like your analysis of it!