Overweening Generalist

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Books, Borges, and The Library of Babel

I recently read yet once again Borges's very short story, "The Library of Babel," mostly for its invocation of an ineffable infinitude. The first time I read this story it knocked me on my ass, and it haunted my daydreams. Imagine a library that contained every book ever written, every book that would ever be written, in every language, including a book that was your autobiography, a book that would vindicate our lives, that probably many books were written in code, and if you could just learn how to crack it, things would come together, yet no one has ever been able to decipher any codes; a book that was the key to all the other books, and a legend of a Librarian who knew this book...but almost all of the books are filled with gibberish, random letters thrown together, and presumably innumerable copies of Don Quixote, every one with one letter or punctuation mark different from the others...and there is no order...

I find that I think of this library quite often, and if enough time has passed between one reading of the piece (it seems more like a piece than a "story" to me), then my imagination has glommed onto one or two ideas in the piece at the expense of others, or I find, upon a new reading, that my memory, probably influenced by the vertiginous aspect of the piece, has invented something new that's not really in the piece, but seems plausibly aligned with its spirit.

                                     Escher, of course. I see Borges's Library here, too.

The Wikipedia article on Borges's piece links the original idea of the stupendously massive number of possibilities of books to 13th century philosopher-magician-mystic Ramon Llull's imaginary device, called now a "Lullian Circle" that could generate a near-infinity of possibilities. The metaphor of the library has proven absurdly fecund, and I've stopped keeping notes whenever this monstrous library is used by a contemporary writer to get a point across. I think some of us are enchanted-unto-haunted by the notion of infinity.

The Wiki article links to ideas from Kant, kabbalah, and Quine. The philosopher Daniel Dennett is mentioned also, with regard to DNA permutations and what was/is possible; if you read Dennett's book Darwin's Dangerous Idea and the "Library of Mendel" you get an insight into the dizzying possibilities of the mathematics of genetic mutation. Similarly, Robert Sapolsky used Borges in discussing the idea of biological convergence in The Trouble With Testosterone. In Richard Preston's book Panic In Level 4 there's a story - true! "non-fiction" - of two Russian brothers, the Chudnovskis, both mathematicians, whose driving ambition is to use as many computers as they can to carry out pi  to...just an absurd number of places, really. And Preston invokes Borges's idea: what if, somewhere in the vast depths of the seemingly random pi, there's suddenly a mathematically-proven explosion of non-randomness? Getting involved in infinity seems to attract the weird ones. Show of hands? (Or does infinity's clutches render one, over time, less sane?)

One of my favorite books to pick off the shelf in my quite-finite library is Randall Collins's The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change, which runs to nearly 1100 pages. It's an astonishing work; get your hands on it, if only for half an hour someday. Collins writes about present-day intellectual life and says:

"The totality of knowledge today resembles Jorge Luis Borges's circular library, with endless volumes on endless shelves, and inhabitants searching for the master catalogue buried among them written in a code no one can understand. But we can also think of it as a magic place of adventurously winding corridors with treasures in every room. It suffers only from surfeit, since new and greater treasures are always to be found. Borges's image has the alienated tone characteristic of modern intellectuals, but the underlying problem is the inchoate democracy of it all, the lack of a master key." (pp.41-42)

Supposedly Gertrude Stein once said something like, "There ain't no answer. There never was an answer. There ain't never gonna be an answer. That's the answer." This lack of a key seems to me the key, the answer to the riddle of this particular sphinx. We will make and construct, like a teeming mass of bricoleurs, our knowledge. Has fantastical knowledge already appeared and been criminally neglected, for whatever reason? I suspect it has. We must expect such things, however sad.

A funny thing about Borges: it seems the sufis have been claiming him since the 1960s as one of their own. A well-stocked library will yield multiple titles that link him with sufis. Which I accept on the face if it. I've read a couple of those books. But then, I accept sufis indiscriminately. Philip K. Dick was said to have been reading Borges at the end of his life, according to PKD acolyte Gregg Rickman, in his Philip K. Dick: In His Own Words. Erik Davis, in my eyes one of our three best writers on contemporary esotericism, or as he calls it, "occulture," has argued that magical realism - commonly linked with names like Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Isabel Allende, had as its forerunners Borges and H.P. Lovecraft. (See Book of Lies, edited by Richard Metzger, p.139)

For fellow Robert Anton Wilson scholars, he named Borges as an influential "experimental modern" writer, along with Joyce and Faulkner, in an interview with Charles Platt in 1983 or so. In a letter to his friend Kurt Smith, RAW compares Borges to Wilde and Yeats. (!) In his book Chaos and Beyond, he mentions Borges as "avante garde" along with Joyce and William S. Burroughs. In an issue of his magazine Trajectories RAW lumps Borges in with a large cast of guerrilla ontologists, tricksters, postmodernists and others he calls "codologists."

Hakim Bey, AKA Peter Lamborn Wilson, definitely a sufi of some sort, writes in Immediatism, "Books? Books as media transmit only words - no sounds, sights, smells or feels, all of which are left up to the reader's imagination. Fine...But there's nothing 'democratic' about books. The author/publisher produces, you consume. Books appeal to 'imaginative' people, perhaps, but all their imaginal activity really amounts to passivity, sitting alone with a book, letting someone else tell the story. The magic of books has something sinister about it, as in Borges's Library. The Church's idea of a list of damnable books probably didn't go far enough - for in a sense, all books are damned. The eros of the text is a perversion -- albeit, nevertheless, one to which we are addicted, & in no hurry to kick."(pp.34-35)

This nails me pretty well, and links with a long line of drug-like-addled, Lotus-Eating book-readers, intoxicated by the text, at times finding what we so laffingly call "real life" a tad wanting, when it comes to the worlds in books, our habitations of, as Hamlet said when asked what he was reading, words, words, words...

Well, I had wanted to write about a number of things having to do with books - as my title says - and yet I've been carried away by Borges and his damned infinitude. In one of my all-time favorite books on reading, Alberto Manguel's A History of Reading, he talks of his time spent reading aloud to blind Borges, and that reading aloud changes a text one has already read, but reading aloud to a guy like Borges, who chose the text, was another thing entirely. "Reading out loud to the blind old man was a curious experience because, even though I felt, with some effort, in control of the tone and pace of the reading, it was nevertheless Borges, the listener, who became the master of the text. I was the driver, but the landscape, the unfurling space, belonged to the one being driven, for whom there was no other responsibility than that of apprehending the country outside the windows. Borges chose the book, Borges stopped me or asked me to continue, Borges interrupted to comment, Borges allowed the words to come to him. I was invisible." (pp.18-19)

Manguel says while reading, he was constantly reminded of other texts to compare the current one with, or to note the similarity of emotions evoked by this text and that one. He quotes another Argentinian writer, Ezequiel Martinez Estrada, who says, "There are those who, while reading a book, recall, compare, conjure up emotions from other, previous readings. This is one of the most delicate forms of adultery." Manguel then notes that Borges did not believe in systematic bibliographies, and encouraged this sort of adulterous reading.

                                 Holland House, West London, after a Nazi bombing, 1940
                                 I've always loved this picture. Stout chaps, those! Stiff 
                                  upper lip and all that doncha know? Wot? Stoic as all hell!


Royal Academy of Reality 1132 said...

I first encountered Borges in Paris in 1985 at an art show on the top floor of the Pompidou Center. It had giant ashtrays and samples of various scents like bananas and a room with music videos (ZZ Top, Duran Duran, etc.) and various literary quotes, including Borges, etc. A few weeks later in Vienna I bought one of his books at an English language bookstore. (In between I had visited Ingolstadt, Bavaria, on July 23.)

I found Borges a little condescending when writing about Lovecraft.

I like how in mathematics they use Hebrew letters for the various cardinalities of infinity. An infinite number of numbers exist between one and zero, but the set of real numbers contains infinitely more numbers, a different cardenality of infinity.

At the end of his life, people read aloud to Robert Anton Wilson The Cantos, Finnegans Wake, his own books, my book, etc. He said I got it about 90% right.

I think our culture does seem in a hurry to kick the book habit. It seems in a bit of hurry about sombunall processes.

Great blog post, as usual.

Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

Always love your posts about books of reading.

Apropos of nothing in particular that you actually wrote, I've always liked writer Gene Wolfe's claim that readers are the master group in literature, not the writers. I also like Wolfe's comment that a critical mass of good readers is absolutely necessary.

michael said...

@1132: I haven't seen where Borges writes about HPL.

Cantor's infinite sets seem really trippy to me. A couple years ago I read a pretty good short book by a prolific writer on science and math: The Mystery of the Aleph: Mathematics, the Kabbalah and Infinity, by Amir D. Aczel.

@Tom: I find Wolfe's idea totally fascinating, because it so upends my ordinary structures of thinking about writing, production, publishing, and audiences. Thanks for this!

Psuke said...

Borges and PKD are two writers whose short stories I read to gluttony when I find I need a "change of mind". After a certain point I can almost feel my brain re-wiring like a scene in Dark City.

I find it interesting how certain authors riding (writing?) along a similar thread seem to dislike each other...PKD and Stanislaw Lem, and (so it seems) Borges and HPL, and I wonder where that comes from? Not nearly enough data, but it's interesting to muse on.

michael said...

I think the reason why I return to certain writers over and over is mainly because, when I read them, I feel my perspectives shift, parameters and ratios alter, synapses reach out to others and dendrifyingly connect with other circuits, etc. How common is this quest to get a nervous system overhaul from the "simple" act of reading, I wonder? Does anyone cop this level of buzz from a Tweet?

Lem championed PKD to European writers in the mid-1970s. Any reasons PKD may have fell out of favor with Lem would probably have to do with Lem's intellectual grounding in hard-core science?

Then there's the writer who perceives another writer as infringing on their mental territory, which implies a siphoning off of the ideal audience. Borges wrote a short story "There Are More Things" which was infl by HPL, also circa the time Lem wrote about PKD as a visionary among charlatans. Borges thought HPL inadvertently fell into a sort of epigone of Poe, which I just find perplexing. Borges seems to admire HPL while wanting to keep him at a distance.

I too find it interesting to muse on this stuff, but as secondary (or tertiary) to your own unique negotiations of the texts and how they intertwingle in your views and imaginings.