Saturday, May 12, 2007

The Orientation of Babel

I am beginning to think the Librarian is deranged. Not only does he construe what must be a tower as a sphere, he claims also that "a few miles to the right the tongue is dialectical and ninety floors farther up, it is incomprehensible."

At first I let this draw my tower hypothesis into question, suggesting as it does a vast horizontal distribution of hexagons, but then I realized that it is nonsense to talk of "a few miles to right". To the right of what?

Even compass directions would be hard to imagine in this "universe".

In Borges's "The Secret Miracle", Jaromir Hladik's play The Enemies (or Vindication of Eternity) is set in a library and "the drama never [takes] place; it is the circular delirium that Kubin lives and relives endlessly."

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

The Floor Plan of Babel

[Update: Jamie Zawinsky has great post on this theme in which he rejects my proposal that assumes that Borges knew what he was doing and had a clear image in mind. I think he meant us to suspect that the librarian is deranged, of course. HT, Carey Dunne.]

[Update 2: It's good to know one is not alone. Jonathan Basile has been puzzled too.]

Any ass can assimilate the main points of Tolstoy's attitude toward adultery but in order to enjoy Tolstoy's art the good reader must wish to visualize, for instance, the arrangement of a railway carriage on the Moscow-Petersburg night train as it was a hundred years ago. Here diagrams are most helpful.

Vladimir Nabokov
Interview in Vogue, 1969

To clarify the ideas in my previous post, I have produced the following floor plan.

I have decided to render Borges's "gabinetes" as "cabinets", not "closets", i.e., as fixtures rather than rooms, and I have installed bookshelves as furniture. Both may of course be more "built in" without changing the main point. Keep in mind that this is one of very, very many floors in what therefore comes to look like a tower. I lean to the interpretation that it would not be infinitely tall, but I sometimes indulge in the "elegant hope" that it is a giant ring suspended in space, so that if you ascend the staircase long enough, you arrive back where you started. The gravity of this situation, as it were, would be a mystery.

I have no idea where the Librarian gets the idea that the Library might be "a sphere whose exact centre is any one of its hexagons and whose circumference is inaccessible." Then again, I am also not convinced that the principle that determines the contents of the library is fully known, i.e., I am not sure that "the Library is total". I believe these two issues help us to refute the Librarian's speculative "dream that [the mirror in the hallway] represents and promises the infinite."

Monday, May 07, 2007

The Architects (Translators) of Babel

[Updated on 8 May 2007]

I recently reread Borges's "The Library of Babel" and realized that the physical layout of the library is unclear, at least to me.

The universe (which others call the Library) is composed of an indefinite and perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries, with vast air shafts between [en el medio], surrounded by very low railings. From any of the hexagons one can see, interminably, the upper and lower floors. The distribution of the galleries is invariable. Twenty shelves, five long shelves per side, cover all the sides except two; their height, which is the distance from floor to ceiling, scarcely exceeds that of a normal bookcase. One of the free sides leads to a narrow hallway which opens onto another gallery, identical to the first and to all the rest. To the left and right of the hallway there are two very small closets. In the first, one may sleep standing up; in the other, satisfy one's fecal necessities. Also through here passes a spiral stairway, which sinks abysmally and soars upwards to remote distances. In the hallway there is a mirror which faithfully duplicates all appearances. Men usually infer from this mirror that the Library is not infinite (if it were, why this illusory duplication?); I prefer to dream that its polished surfaces represent and promise the infinite ... Light is provided by some spherical fruits which bear the name of lamps. There are two, transversally placed, in each hexagon. The light they emit is insufficient, incessant.

That is James Irby's translation. Anthony Kerrigan, to my mind more plausibly, puts the ventilation shafts "in the middle [en el medio]" of the hexagons, not between them. What I hadn't noticed until now is that the galleries seem to be connected by the stairwell, two-by-two: each gallery is connected to only one other gallery, i.e., only "one of the free sides ... opens onto another gallery". This would apply also to this other gallery, which thus opens onto the first. These two galleries are connected to the others only by means of the stairs. That is, the Library is a tower.

Given the height of such a tower, however, it would be impossible to "see ... the upper and lower floors". This leads me to think that this, too, is an error in the translation. Borges had written, "Desde cualquier hexágono se ven los pisos inferiores y superiores: interminablemente." Though I have no independent understanding of Spanish, I think his meaning would be better captured by, "From any hexagon the floors above and below [i.e., the superior and inferior floors] can be seen: interminably."

Andy Wilkins seems to agree with me about this point, though not the previous one. Kerrigan, it seems to me, botches this point completely by rendering "y" as "or" rather than "and", which my Spanish-English dictionary, in any case, does not license. That is, Kerrigan is suggesting a very finite height for the Libary so that from any gallery one can see either the top or the ground floor.

If anyone has any thoughts, I'm all ears.

[Continued here.]

Friday, May 04, 2007


"When I began my earlier book to talk about the 'world' (and not about this tree or table)..."

Ludwig Wittgenstein
(Redacted from the Remarks on Frazer's Golden Bough)

A reader of this blog emailed me about a quote I had posted from Borges's "An Investigation of the Word", one of his "disowned" early works. While I can see why he might have thought it was unsuccessful, I like the approach he takes. "What is the psychological process whereby we understand a sentence?" asks Borges. And his approach to answering it is to analyse a single sentence from the Quixote ("In a place in La Mancha, whose name I do not wish to recall ...") word for word in order to locate "the content its words yield to the reader". It is a naive approach, but one I have great respect for. There is too much philosophy of language that produces apparently sophisticated theories without providing a single detailed application, a single complete analysis.

I called my PhD dissertation Likeness and wanted to call the follow up Composure, but I think both words subscribe to a vain philosophical profundity. (That probably won't stop me in the end, of course.) I'm now thinking of calling it Roundness. In it, I want to provide a full answer to the question, "What is the experience of the roundness of a plate?" We are all capable of having this experience; but in what does it consist?

Composure and likeness are, I think, part of what Wittgenstein called the illusory "super-order of super-concepts". That is, one imagines that the task of philosophy is not to analyse specific compositions or specific likenesses but to provide a theory of composition and likeness "as such". But if these theories are to mean anything to us they must usefully guide our practical investigations (note that Borges and Wittgenstein used the same word). "If the words, 'language', 'experience', 'world', have a use, it must be as humble a one as that of the words 'table', 'lamp', 'door'." (PI§97) It is in the spirit of that humility that I want to write my first real book.