Monday, October 24, 2016

The Library of Babel, 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.

Second: The orthographical symbols are twenty-five in number. (1) This finding made it
possible, three hundred years ago, to formulate a general theory of the Library and solve
satisfactorily the problem which no conjecture had deciphered: the formless and chaotic
nature of almost all the books. One which my father saw in a hexagon on circuit fifteen
ninety-four was made up of the letters MCV, perversely repeated from the first line to the
last. Another (very much consulted in this area) is a mere labyrinth of letters, but the next-tolast
page says Oh time thy pyramids. This much is already known: for every sensible line of
straightforward statement, there are leagues of senseless cacophonies, verbal jumbles and
incoherences. (I know of an uncouth region whose librarians repudiate the vain and
superstitious custom of finding a meaning in books and equate it with that of finding a
meaning in dreams or in the chaotic lines of one's palm ... They admit that the inventors of
this writing imitated the twenty-five natural symbols, but maintain that this application is
accidental and that the books signify nothing in themselves. This dictum, we shall see, is not
entirely fallacious.)

For a long time it was believed that these impenetrable books corresponded to past or remote
languages. It is true that the most ancient men, the first librarians, used a language quite
different from the one we now speak; it is true that a few miles to the right the tongue is
dialectical and that ninety floors farther up, it is incomprehensible. All this, I repeat, is true,
but four hundred and ten pages of inalterable MCV's cannot correspond to any language, no
matter how dialectical or rudimentary it may be. Some insinuated that each letter could
influence the following one and that the value of MCV in the third line of page 71 was not the
one the same series may have in another position on another page, but this vague thesis did
not prevail. Others thought of cryptographs; generally, this conjecture has been accepted,
though not in the sense in which it was formulated by its originators.

Five hundred years ago, the chief of an upper hexagon (2) came upon a book as confusing as
the others, but which had nearly two pages of homogeneous lines. He showed his find to a
wandering decoder who told him the lines were written in Portuguese; others said they were
Yiddish. Within a century, the language was established: a Samoyedic Lithuanian dialect of
Guarani, with classical Arabian inflections. The content was also deciphered: some notions of
combinative analysis, illustrated with examples of variations with unlimited repetition. These
examples made it possible for a librarian of genius to discover the fundamental law of the Library. This thinker observed that all the books, no matter how diverse they might be, are
made up of the same elements: the space, the period, the comma, the twenty-two letters of
the alphabet. He also alleged a fact which travelers have confirmed: In the vast Library there
are no two identical books. From these two incontrovertible premises he deduced that the
Library is total and that its shelves register all the possible combinations of the twenty-odd
orthographical symbols (a number which, though extremely vast, is not infinite): Everything:
the minutely detailed history of the future, the archangels' autobiographies, the faithful
catalogues of the Library, thousands and thousands of false catalogues, the demonstration of
the fallacy of those catalogues, the demonstration of the fallacy of the true catalogue, the
Gnostic gospel of Basilides, the commentary on that gospel, the commentary on the
commentary on that gospel, the true story of your death, the translation of every book in all
languages, the interpolations of every book in all books.

When it was proclaimed that the Library contained all books, the first impression was one of
extravagant happiness. All men felt themselves to be the masters of an intact and secret
treasure. There was no personal or world problem whose eloquent solution did not exist in
some hexagon. The universe was justified, the universe suddenly usurped the unlimited
dimensions of hope. At that time a great deal was said about the Vindications: books of
apology and prophecy which vindicated for all time the acts of every man in the universe and
retained prodigious arcana for his future. Thousands of the greedy abandoned their sweet
native hexagons and rushed up the stairways, urged on by the vain intention of finding their
Vindication. These pilgrims disputed in the narrow corridors, proferred dark curses,
strangled each other on the divine stairways, flung the deceptive books into the air shafts, met
their death cast down in a similar fashion by the inhabitants of remote regions. Others went
mad ... The Vindications exist (I have seen two which refer to persons of the future, to
persons who are perhaps not imaginary) but the searchers did not remember that the
possibility of a man's finding his Vindication, or some treacherous variation thereof, can be
computed as zero.

At that time it was also hoped that a clarification of humanity's basic mysteries -- the origin of
the Library and of time -- might be found. It is verisimilar that these grave mysteries could be
explained in words: if the language of philosophers is not sufficient, the multiform Library
will have produced the unprecedented language required, with its vocabularies and
grammars. For four centuries now men have exhausted the hexagons ... There are official
searchers, inquisitors. I have seen them in the performance of their function: they always
arrive extremely tired from their journeys; they speak of a broken stairway which almost
killed them; they talk with the librarian of galleries and stairs; sometimes they pick up the
nearest volume and leaf through it, looking for infamous words. Obviously, no one expects to
discover anything.

As was natural, this inordinate hope was followed by an excessive depression. The certitude
that some shelf in some hexagon held precious books and that these precious books were
inaccessible, seemed almost intolerable. A blasphemous sect suggested that the searches should cease and that all men should juggle letters and symbols until they constructed, by an
improbable gift of chance, these canonical books. The authorities were obliged to issue severe
orders. The sect disappeared, but in my childhood I have seen old men who, for long periods
of time, would hide in the latrines with some metal disks in a forbidden dice cup and feebly
mimic the divine disorder.

Others, inversely, believed that it was fundamental to eliminate useless works. They invaded
the hexagons, showed credentials which were not always false, leafed through a volume with
displeasure and condemned whole shelves: their hygienic, ascetic furor caused the senseless
perdition of millions of books. Their name is execrated, but those who deplore the
``treasures'' destroyed by this frenzy neglect two notable facts. One: the Library is so
enormous that any reduction of human origin is infinitesimal. The other: every copy is
unique, irreplaceable, but (since the Library is total) there are always several hundred
thousand imperfect facsimiles: works which differ only in a letter or a comma. Counter to
general opinion, I venture to suppose that the consequences of the Purifiers' depredations
have been exaggerated by the horror these fanatics produced. They were urged on by the
delirium of trying to reach the books in the Crimson Hexagon: books whose format is smaller
than usual, all-powerful, illustrated and magical.

We also know of another superstition of that time: that of the Man of the Book. On some
shelf in some hexagon (men reasoned) there must exist a book which is the formula and
perfect compendium of all the rest: some librarian has gone through it and he is analogous to
a god. In the language of this zone vestiges of this remote functionary's cult still persist. Many
wandered in search of Him. For a century they have exhausted in vain the most varied areas.
How could one locate the venerated and secret hexagon which housed Him? Someone
proposed a regressive method: To locate book A, consult first book B which indicates A's
position; to locate book B, consult first a book C, and so on to infinity ... In adventures such as
these, I have squandered and wasted my years. It does not seem unlikely to me that there is a
total book on some shelf of the universe; (3) I pray to the unknown gods that a man -- just
one, even though it were thousands of years ago! -- may have examined and read it. If honor
and wisdom and happiness are not for me, let them be for others. Let heaven exist, though my
place be in hell. Let me be outraged and annihilated, but for one instant, in one being, let
Your enormous Library be justified. The impious maintain that nonsense is normal in the
Library and that the reasonable (and even humble and pure coherence) is an almost
miraculous exception. They speak (I know) of the ``feverish Library whose chance volumes
are constantly in danger of changing into others and affirm, negate and confuse everything
like a delirious divinity.'' These words, which not only denounce the disorder but exemplify it
as well, notoriously prove their authors' abominable taste and desperate ignorance. In truth,
the Library includes all verbal structures, all variations permitted by the twenty-five
orthographical symbols, but not a single example of absolute nonsense. It is useless to observe
that the best volume of the many hexagons under my administration is entitled The Combed
Thunderclap and another The Plaster Cramp and another Axaxaxas mlö. These phrases, at
first glance incoherent, can no doubt be justified in a cryptographical or allegorical manner; such a justification is verbal and, ex hypothesi, already figures in the Library. I cannot
combine some characters

d h c m rl c h t d j

which the divine Library has not foreseen and which in one of its secret tongues do not
contain a terrible meaning. No one can articulate a syllable which is not filled with tenderness
and fear, which is not, in one of these languages, the powerful name of a god. To speak is to
fall into tautology. This wordy and useless epistle already exists in one of the thirty volumes of
the five shelves of one of the innumerable hexagons -- and its refutation as well. (An n
number of possible languages use the same vocabulary; in some of them, the symbol library
allows the correct definition a ubiquitous and lasting system of hexagonal galleries, but library
is bread or pyramid or anything else, and these seven words which define it have another
value. You who read me, are You sure of understanding my language?)

The methodical task of writing distracts me from the present state of men. The certitude that
everything has been written negates us or turns us into phantoms. I know of districts in which
the young men prostrate themselves before books and kiss their pages in a barbarous manner,
but they do not know how to decipher a single letter. Epidemics, heretical conflicts,
peregrinations which inevitably degenerate into banditry, have decimated the population. I
believe I have mentioned suicides, more and more frequent with the years. Perhaps my old
age and fearfulness deceive me, but I suspect that the human species -- the unique species --
is about to be extinguished, but the Library will endure: illuminated, solitary, infinite,
perfectly motionless, equipped with precious volumes, useless, incorruptible, secret.
I have just written the word ``infinite.'' I have not interpolated 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 it in any direction, after centuries he would see 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. (4)

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