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[Eli Park Sorensen] The gigantic, confusing library of the universe

In the story “The Library of Babel” (1941), the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges imagines the universe as a gigantic library, consisting of an indefinite number of hexagonal rooms, each filled with rows of books. “Each book,” writes Borges, “is of four hundred and ten pages; each page, of forty lines, each line, of some eighty letters which are in black color.” Most of the text inside the books, however, consists of sequences of letters utterly incomprehensible and unreadable to the people inhabiting this mysterious library. Occasionally, some have made valuable discoveries of fragments of meaningful text; but “for every sensible line of straightforward statement, there are leagues of senseless cacophonies, verbal jumbles and incoherence.” 

Who created this library ― let alone authored the books ― no one knows. For a long time, the inhabitants believed that these enigmatic books were written in old, forgotten languages. But since some of the books consist of only one or two letters, the language theory is eventually rejected. Finally, a librarian makes the deduction that the library is total ― that everything which can possibly be expressed in any language at any time throughout history, every possible linguistic combination, is contained in these books. “Everything,” writes Borges; “the minutely detailed history of the future, the archangels’ autobiographies, the faithful catalogue 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” ― and so on.

Borges’ hilarious story illustrates an uncanny dimension of language; that our language has a limit, which in effect limits what we may say and think about the world. That is, language is essentially a vast, but finite, system of different signs and codes which in various combinations generate meanings, albeit not by referring to something outside the system, but rather from within the system itself ― between the different signs. Using a dictionary to understand the meaning of a particular word, for example, will lead to other words; these words, in turn, lead to new words, and so on. Somewhere between these words, meaning temporarily resides. However, the meaning ― of things, objects, phenomena ― is never permanently fixed, but constantly slides, or is deferred, along an interminable chain of signifiers.

In Borges’ story, the universe is conceived as one colossal text, the sum of all possible linguistic combinations and verbal structures. To destroy one book thus means very little, since an almost exact copy (differing only in a comma or a letter) exists somewhere else. The “book”-format creates the idea that it is possible to divide the monstrous text into smaller parts; that, out of this total sum of possible textual expressions, one may cut out a fragment and label it a “work,” for example a work that belongs to oneself. In other words, it creates the idea that one can become an author.

In the essay “From Work to Text” (1971), the French critic Roland Barthes argues that the work is an imaginary text that perceives itself as organic, whole ― an assemblage of words whose meanings are supposedly determined by the world, and intentionally selected by a subject, an author. “The author,” Barthes writes, “is reputed the father and the owner of his work: literary science therefore teaches respect for the manuscript and the author’s declared intentions, while society asserts the legality of the relation of author to work.” The work is thus an object, a property ― e.g. a book that we buy in the bookshop, or take out of the library.

By contrast, Barthes’ notion of the text involves an authorless assemblage of words, a text without fixed determinations, origins, demarcations; an orphan, or an illegitimate child with many, and hence no, fathers. The text is, as Barthes writes in “The Death of the Author” (1968), “a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centers of culture.” One becomes an author by wresting originality from language in order to make it one’s own; to claim ownership of a work. The text recognizes no such efforts; it recognizes only a world of quotes, perhaps quotes quoting other quotes. The text thus reverses the author-work relationship. In the text, it is the work that creates the author, not the other way around; I am not writing the text ― the text writes the I.

The uncanny implications of a text writing the I, rather than the other way around, haunt Borges’ story “The Library of Babel.” For if the library is indeed total, it means that it is impossible to write or say something which has not already been said or written before, including Borges’ “The Library of Babel,” false versions of this story, early versions, discarded versions, and so on. What we read ― e.g. Borges’ story, or this article ― is simply one combination of signs among a vast number of possible combinations. In the essay “The Total Library” (1939), Borges recounts the speculative theory of a dozen of monkeys randomly hitting the keys of a typewriter, producing ― sooner or later ― “all the books in the British Museum.” This is what Barthes’ notion of the text enables; that we, readers, identify a work, a book, whose author may turn out to be a monkey. Or a writing machine which, in following certain pre-programmed rules, is able to carve out a meaningful textual combination that takes on a life of its own, and which we would be unable to distinguish from those written by humans. The notion of the text even goes as far as to suggest that the “we” reading the text is also an effect of the text.

In the age of internet, Google, Wikipedia, digitalized archives, hyper-texts, e-books, automated spam, and computer-generated writing, the idea of identifying a future Shakespeare or the truth of one’s life within the gigantic text of total linguistic combinations has no doubt become a little less preposterous. For those less enthusiastic regarding such a prospect, Borges’ story about the total library provides comfort. When the people discover that the library they inhabit is total, they initially become extremely excited since it implies that somewhere, in some secret book, the true story of their lives, including the story of their deaths, is written down. However, the library is so immense, and the amounts of textual gibberish so grotesque, that no one finds anything meaningful. 

By Eli Park Sorensen

Eli Park Sorensen is an assistant professor in the College of Liberal Studies at Seoul National University. He specializes in comparative literature, postcolonial thought and cultural studies. ― Ed.