The Library Of Babel - In HypertextSaturday, November 06, 2010
Three Versions of Judas
There seemed a certainty in degradation.
Seven Pillars of Wisdom, CIII
In Asia Minor or in Alexandria, in the second century of our faith, when Basilides disseminated the idea that the cosmos was the reckless or evil improvisation of deficient angels, Nils Runeberg would have directed, with singular intellectual passion, one of the Gnostic conventicles. Dante would have assigned him, perhaps, a fiery grave; his name would extend the list of lesser heresiarchs, along with Satornilus and Carpocrates, some fragments of his preachings, embellished with invective, would survive in the apocryphal Liber adversus omnes haereses or would have perished when the burning of a monastery library devoured the last copy of the Syntagma. Instead God afforded Runeberg the twentieth century and the university town of Lund. There in 1904, he published the first edition of Kristus och Judas and, in 1909 his major book, Den hemlige Fralsaren. (Of the latter there is a German translation, made in 1912 by Emil Schering; it is called Der heimliche Heilland.)
Jorge Luís Borges translated by James E. Irby
The above is the first paragraph from Borges’story, Three Versions of Judas. Next to my bedroom night table I have a copy of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary which I use to consult words, place names for which I have no understanding or the names of people I have never heard of. Many of my contemporaries would say I am out to lunch and that I should get modern. They would advise that I purchase a Kindle or an iPad. They would recommend I download Borges’ Ficciones and then I would be able to look it all up since both the Kindle and the iPad have hypertext possibilities. I doubt that my Canadian Oxford would have been much of help with the Borges first page paragraph.
Few might know that almost all the articles in the on line New York Times (the exception seems to be those that have been recently uploaded) have a feature in which if you double-click or select any word you get a little question mark bubble. If you click on the bubble you will be taken on to a site where you will be given a definition and explanation.
And then I re-read the “The Library of Babel” a few nights ago and which could be the image of our universe, as infinite and always starting again. The books of this library are unintelligible, in which the letters are thrown into the pot by chance or perversely repeated. Sometimes in this labyrinth of letters a reasonable sentence can be found.
The universe (which others call the Library) is composed of an indefinite and perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries, with vast air shafts between, 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 free sides leads to a narrow hallway which opens onto another gallery, identical to the first and all the rest. To the left and to the right of the hallway there are two 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 really were, why this illusory duplication? ); I prefer to dream that its polished surfaces represent and promise the infinite…Light is provided by some spherical fruit which bear the name of lamps. There are two, transversally placed, in each hexagon. The light they emit is insufficient, incessant. Like all men of the Library, I have traveled in my youth; I have wandered in search of a book, perhaps the catalogue of catalogues; now that my eyes can hardly decipher what I write, I am preparing to die just a few leagues from the hexagon in which I was born. Once I am dead, there will be no lack of pious hands to throw me over the railing; my grave will be the fathomless air; my body will sink endlessly and decay and dissolve in the wind generated by the fall, which is infinite. I say that the Library is unending. The idealists argue that the hexagonal rooms are a necessary form of absolute space or, at least, of our intuition of space. They reason that a triangular or pentagonal room is inconceivable. (The mystics claim that their ecstacy reveals to them a circular chamber containing a great circular book, whose spine is is continuous and which follows the complete circle of the walls; but their testimony is suspect; their words, obscure. This cyclical book is God.) The Library is a sphere whose exact center is any one of the hexagons and whose circumference is inaccessible…
I have just written the word “infinite”. I have not interpolaed this adjective out of rhetorical habit; I say that it is not illogical to think that the world is infinite. Those who judge it to be limited postulate that in remote places the corridors and stairways and hexagons can conceivably come to an end – which is absurd. Those who imagine it to be without limit forget that the possible number of books does have such a limit. I venture to suggest this solution to the ancient problem. The Library is unlimited and cyclical. If an eternal traveler were to cross in any direction, after centuries he would say that the same volumes were repeated in the same disorder (which, thus repeated, would be an order: the Order). My solitude is gladdened by this elegant hope.
Jorge Luís Borges, The Library of Babel, translated by James E. Irby
The Library of Babel ends with a footnote written by the narrator or another librarian, which refers to yet another librarian, Letizia Alvarez de Toledo. Those who read Borges know that footnotes and editor’s notes are always from Borges himself:
Letizia Alvarez de Toledo has observed that this vast Library is useless: rigorously speaking, a single volume would be sufficient, a volume of ordinary format, printed in nine or ten point type, containing an infinite number of infinitely thin leaves. (In the early seventeenth century, Cavalieri said that all solid bodies are the superimposition of an infinite number of planes.) The handling of this silky
vade mecum would not be convenient: each apparent page would unfold into other analogous ones; the inconceivable middle page would have no reverse.
What is astounding about Borges is that the man did all his research by sifting through books in countless (but definitely not infinite) libraries. Most of the names in Borges stories are of people, unlikely as that might seem, who really existed. Cavalieri was an Italian mathematician who preceded both Leibnitz and Newton in figuring out what would in the end be infinitesimal and integral calculus. This poor blogger, who did learn the calculus, can attest that the idea of the one book with infinite amount of pages is pure calculus and that is how in the calculus we calculate the volume of an object. We pick a plane and then “move it up and down” through the whole parameters of the shape in question to arrive at that total volume.
If Borges were to be alive today (and not blind) and if he were to Google himself and go to the Wikipedia he would then find that right here is that infinite hexagon Library. He would jump from one hypertext to another. He might rest and sleep standing up or go to another room to satisfy his fecal necessities. Borges would never end reading about Borges. Or as Borges himself might have put it, “Which is the real Borges, this one who is reading about Borges or the one that this Borges is reading about?”
In an imperfect world, the imperfect world of the 21st Century I might read the first page of Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers and never get past, “A young man was standing at the main gate, a young man of striking appearance. He was eighteen years of age, tall and lanky, dressed in a blue wollen doublet, faded and threadbare..." To read but to never finish The Three Musketeers, to never get to the siege of Maastricht, that would be truly hell. Or would it?