Thursday, March 24, 2011

Borges prompt 1

*I think it’s important to preface my story with a statement of my intent in writing it. In class the other week we were discussing the idea of order and disorder in Borges work. Borges insinuates that the universe is largely random and unorganized. I disagree with this and I think his own writings prove my point. It’s a bit cerebral to think about but in the story of The Library of Babel Borges creates a world of seeming disorder in which books, likewise, fill shelves in no discernable order many of which are filled with what looks like gibberish. In the world that Borges creates, however, it is entirely possible for a book to exist that reveals a pattern in this disorder. Even simpler yet, there may be a book that reveals the locations of the broadest categories: mathematics, sciences, history, etc. These book locations could then lead to even more specific categories on the subjects until every subject is completely documented. Even simpler this “master catalogue” could have directions to a book which gives the “answer” to the universe in such basic terms that any layman could understand it. The point is, when Borges constructs a universe that is infinite there are infinite possibilities.
I don’t think that the collection of books is completely random however. True if one were to set, say, a computer program so that it arranged letters randomly for an infinite amount of time everything possibly conceivable would be written down, eventually. This includes every novel, every history, and even the structure of the universe itself. Be that as it may, the odds of finding one of these books would be infinitely improbable while simultaneously being infinitely probable. It’s a concept which hopefully does not hold true in our own universe (the universe is not infinite, nor can matter itself be infinite), yet operating under this premise it seems unlikely that one would find a book, let alone an entire sentence in this sort of library. People in The Library of Babel, however, do find such books so I think something (Borges moving the plot along more than likely) is making this happen. All this being said it is possible for an individual to stumble upon a book which could outline how to meet one’s soul-mate, or cook the best cake, etc, etc.

One day a purifier was rummaging through a stack of books all containing the letter ‘A’ with differing placements of ampersands. After picking up another such book this purifier happened to flip to a random page with discernable text. It stated that the next book that man picked up would be the answer to all his questions. He did not believe what he read until he pulled a random book from another floor of the library the next day and written over and over again was the phrase: ‘ask a question.’ He humored the book and asked it a simple math mathematical equation. The next book he pulled had the answer written in various ways throughout its pages. He did this over and over again. Regardless of where he pulled a book from the correct answer to his question was always written.
He asked the library questions of increasing difficulty. He asked questions about historical figures of the past. Some things he could confirm. Others he asked merely out of pleasure. There came a time that he decided to put his gift to use. He asked the library questions about illnesses that afflicted his fellow man. The library gave him cures for whatever he described. Once, in a display of arrogance he decided to keep asking varying questions but only pull from a line of books arranged in the same row. They all still had the correct answers. There came a time when he began to ask questions about his existence. Why he had been selected. He asked why he was. Why anything was. The answers he received did not make sense to him. The question on everyone’s mind was how the library worked. He asked. The answer he got was too complicated for even the wisest to interpret.
After the books he pulled had made him a considerable amount of money there was a rumor that someone else too shared a similar gift. A younger woman noticed that any question in her head was answered by a book she touched. Her fame grew as steadily as his did. Over time people began to realize that the woman and the man did not get the same answer for the same questions from the library. One day it was decided that the two should meet and ask the library which person was correct. When they did so the library told each person that the other was the one who held the answers. Each asked the library if it ever lied to the people. Each book read no over and over.


  1. So I read your story, then went back and read your preamble and then read the story again. You're right it does need explaining, because i wasn't sure of the point you were trying to make. I like the contradiction at the end, it is very Borges-y, but the lesson/point is unclear. Are you trying to say that no one holds power? No one is the same? no one has all the answers?
    as for the forward, I believe that you explain your ideas well outside of your story, but in a Borgesian style writing, the explanation should be clear in your actual text. So you believe that infinite does exist, while Borges said it did but proves otherwise. So if you are trying to say that...say the opposite maybe? say the world is finite and then prove that its not, contradict yourself..
    uhm so definitely expand on your story, and in such a way that a precursor to your story is not needed. I am still not sure what your point or lesson is so I'm unsure as to how to incorporate it into this idea.

  2. In my other class we're spending a lot of time and effort talking about parables - this is a moment when I wish I could fuse the discussions going on in both classes, because I think both would be productive for the other.

    Anyway, I find your preamble to be interesting, and your parable to be at least somewhat provocative. I do think that the preamble avoids a central difficulty in Borges (see the paragraph, just a few paragraphs from the end, about the nature of language, and the problem of whether one can know that one is *actually* reading in the language in which a book was written): the problem I'm talking about is the nature of language, or of codes. Just because we read, and *think* we understand, does not mean that we have any kind of final or definitive understanding: in fact, our seeming understanding can be purely erroneous.

    One reason I'm expressing interest in rather than skepticism of your work, though, is that you seem to be engaged with the problem of error at the end of your parable - but you seem to be proposing that contradictions are not necessarily erroneous.

    I agree with Katie that ideally the story/parable itself should render the preamble unnecessary; I understand that the point you're working towards is a demonstration of, or advocacy for, the idea of an orderly universe. Katie doesn't get it, and I get it more from the preamble than the parable itself.

    How to fix that?

    I think that a good, and very Borgesian, way to move in the direction of clarity would be to to have the characters ask the library/book *precise* questions. We could make sense of the library and its relationship to the question of an ordered or disordered universe, maybe, if we knew the actual questions being asked, and if we could evaluate them.

    Parable are poisoned by vagueness. You want mystery, but mystery is often better obtained through precision than through vagueness, which can simply make the reader rebel.

    Just to be clear: I see a lot of promise here, but I do agree with Katie that you need to make the story do the work, and more than the work, which you currently need the preamble to do.