Saturday, June 10, 2017

“The Library of Babel” by Jorge Luis Borges

by Jorge Luis Borges

By this art you may contemplate the variations of the 23 letters...
The Anatomy of Melancholy, part 2, sect. II, mem. IV

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 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 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 from 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 ecstasy reveals to them a circular chamber containing a great circular book, whose spine
is continuous and which follows the complete circle of the walls; but their testimony is
suspect; their words, obscure. This cyclical book is God.) Let it suffice now for me to repeat
the classic dictum: The Library is a sphere whose exact center is any one of its hexagons and
whose circumference is inaccessible.

There are five shelves for each of the hexagon's walls; each shelf contains thirty-five books of
uniform format; each book is of four hundred and ten pages; each page, of forty lines, each
line, of some eighty letters which are black in color. There are also letters on the spine of each
book; these letters do not indicate or prefigure what the pages will say. I know that this
incoherence at one time seemed mysterious. Before summarizing the solution (whose
discovery, in spite of its tragic projections, is perhaps the capital fact in history) I wish to
recall a few axioms.

First: The Library exists ab aeterno. This truth, whose immediate corollary is the future
eternity of the world, cannot be placed in doubt by any reasonable mind. Man, the imperfect
librarian, may be the product of chance or of malevolent demiurgi; the universe, with its
elegant endowment of shelves, of enigmatical volumes, of inexhaustible stairways for the
traveler and latrines for the seated librarian, can only be the work of a god. To perceive the
distance between the divine and the human, it is enough to compare these crude wavering
symbols which my fallible hand scrawls on the cover of a book, with the organic letters inside:

punctual, delicate, perfectly black, inimitably symmetrical... read the full parable: