Thursday, April 7, 2011

Borges, Library of Babel 2

Ready for my nine o’clock suduku, settling in the lecture hall, friends to the right and left in their own worlds: one checking her hand mirror for make-up touches, one sipping her mocha, and one shuffling through last class’ notes. Flipping through the latest addition, skipping past the vast articles of men crashing through windows, women smashing into walls, students planting trees in Asia, and a reprint of Jorge Luis Borges’s The Library of Babylon. The article appeared on the third page placed inside a box in the upper left hand corner, farthest away from the corner’s edge, the picture an insert halfway down mid-text, on the right hand side. I would have missed the article entirely if it hadn’t been right across from the suduku.

I recall Borges and his ideals for the infinite universe. In the Library of Babylon he uses a library, a continuous succession of hexagonal rooms connected by spiraling stairs, in order to illustrate the infinite space of existence. The library itself is the universe, the everlasting chain of rooms containing the books—the objects—within the universe. Everything has its place, everything is accounted for, every variation is has its place and is accounted for. This universe, his universe, is ever continuous and containing every distortion of every possible being, action, and thought possible, there are no two identical books and only the impossible are excluded (114). Each hexagonal room in this library has identical features and “each wall of each hexagon is furnished with five bookshelves; each bookshelf holds thirty-two books identical in format; each book contains four hundred ten pages…” (113). The order of the universe is simplified into a single architecture which Zhirov, in a later article, compares to the modern date information website of Wikipedia (Zhirov, 2010). Wikipedia, the online library of every object and item available to mankind, has countless entries of data for the even the minutest of details. The online version of the library is similar in the contents of information to the Library Borges describes. Both include countless, infinite, texts of every aspect of the universe, both have different mutations of the same object. In a similar vein, Bruce compares Borges’ library to the world wide web, not to a specific website (1999). The totality of information available on the entirety of the internet greatly surpasses that of Wikipedia, especially since Wikipedia is merely one site on the web. This greatly illustrates the extent of material Borges’ suggests is in the universe, in the library, he describes. The amount is infinite, and no one man could possibly consume more than a negligible about of information available. Of course Wikipedia wasn’t a as popular in Bruce’s world as it is in Zhirov’s, but we’ll not get into that right now. The point is, Borges’ library is infinite, and in his reprinted article of the library, the containing knowledge and structure of the universe is plainly displayed for readers of both Borges and the Pitt News.

As his text appeared however, was misleading. Explaining Borges’ view of the infinite universe as metaphorically illustrated through a library (the article included a finite picture of a library space not unlike the hexagonal library as described by Borges). The discord arose when the text of Library of Babylon ended, but Borges’ words did not. The last sentence of his piece was cut in the newspaper reprint. These last words of Borges (“If an eternal traveler should journey in any direction, he would find after untold centuries that the same volumes are repeated in the same disorder…”) confound the previous argument that Borges has made in the previous pages (118). If the library circles back on itself, there would appear to be two and three and four copies of this book, the same book, if one were to travel through infinity multiple times. His entire illusion of infinite space has been shattered at this moment where infinite simply means forever a cyclical finite. In response to Bruce and Zhirov, this seems an impossibly task, going through every Wiki article or every website, but there is still only a finite number of articles, a finite number of sites. In theory it is possible, so then there really is no infinite if it were possible to completely double back on oneself and come upon the same texts. A library cannot be both infinite and finite at the same time, for the two are direct opposites and saying it can be so is a blatant contradiction, which Borges’ does.

The Pitt News chose not to include this last page. Readers would not appreciate the contradiction within the literature. Little contradiction is ever included in any article, this probably being the first time that Borges was ever included at all. The other articles in the Pitt News were easy, simple reads. I can understand students planting trees in Asia (“Students in the environmental club currently embark on a three-week visit in order to plant trees in Asia”); I can understand the incoming freshmen’s expectations of greek life (“Incoming freshmen and transfer students should expect to hear about the greek life at Pitt”). Nothing too difficult, nothing too dense. These were entirely politically correct and could no way be misrepresented to inflict harm on any reader or any subjective judgment about the groups that were written about. Also these articles are probably missing mortal facts, important pieces; these other articles in the Pitt News speak little truth. Just the same as how Borges’ article is missing the last sentence.

Borges tells the truth through his representations on other aspects of life. In other works he creates characters with lives that are like parables for readers to learn lessons. In The Library of Babel he explains through his library metaphor. In every case there is a second and sometimes third story that is beyond the literal one. In his other stories, such as Tlon, Ugbar, Orbis Terius, he introduces false texts and comments on them. In this particular piece the text found is a whole new universe, not unlike the universe we currently live in. The only difference is the way in which this universe is presented. In one version there are no nouns in this universe and solely the speakers have to rely on adjectives or adverbs to describe objects, explain life, converse (73). Borges incorporates these false texts in order to comment on our true universe, get the readers to see new perspectives and understand their own faults. In the universe he describes there is little room for bias. In describing the moon rising above the river (bias thoughts on mood and river), one would say, “Upward, behind the onstreaming it mooned” (73). Without the nouns there are no preexisting biases in our minds to picture it incorrectly. If the truth, his version of the truth, were told outright, there is much room for argument, much room for initial denial. People cannot handle new ideas outright. Thus Borges hides this truth in layers of text that tell stories so readers are only vaguely aware of the new truth that they are ingesting.

This is also why the Pitt News chose not to include the last page of The Library of Babel, why in the freshman expectancy article the author chose to say one should not expect not to hear about greek life, where the author means ‘greek life is a big part of your freshman year at Pitt.” This front page news article includes a politically corrected version of what incoming freshman will expect to face upon entering the university. Such things include: fraternity parties, clearly intoxicated people walking the streets of South Oakland, students passed out on the towers lobby bathroom floor, and many a girl walking back in the morning hours holding their high heels in hand. Of course the article could never explicitly state any of the aforementioned events and sticks to vague descriptions and warnings (“Make sure to be back in the dorms at a reasonable hour, completely sober, and never stop in the towers bathroom”). In order to fully comprehend the meaning of this statement however, freshmen must stumble upon the intoxicated students passed out on bathroom floors, must take the walk of shame back the morning after. All is lost to those whom don’t ever experience it, either first hand or vicariously. So such direct advice is easier to digest not only by incoming freshman, but by any reader of the Pitt News.

Similar instances occur in the other articles as well; I noticed as I proceeded to read them all. The students planting trees in Asia are very well rounded; they care about the environment; they care about our future; they enjoyed seeing other aspects of the world. What this article doesn’t mention is the political implications of American students planting trees in Asia. But the Pitt News is politically correct, is never contradictory or even arguable.

And since Borges last words contradict the entirety of his short Library of Babel, the Pitt News could not incorporate it either. Readers previously unfamiliar with Borges would never suspect the discord, never suspect further illumination of truth. But I didn’t bring this up to any of the girls in my row, who by now were solely engrossed in note-taking. I think I finished the suduku by the end of the class.

Bruce, B. (1999). Digital content: The Babel of cyberspace. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 42(7), 558. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.

Zhirov, A. O., Zhirov, O. V., & Shepelyansky, D. L. (2010). Two-dimensional ranking of Wikipedia articles. European Physical Journal B -- Condensed Matter, 77, 523-531. doi:10.1140/epjb/e2010-10500-7

1 comment:

  1. This is an excellent revision of an excellent draft.

    I'm tempted to simply say a single contradictory sentence, then stop. Sadly, the correct contradictory sentence won't come to me, so I'll be more conventional.

    The thing I was most worried about with this story/essay was that in revising it, and making it more specific, you'd ruin at least some of the weird Borges-ness of it. Thankfully, you fully avoided that.

    In fact, you kept the original weirdness, while clarifying it, which was very Borges of you - he's very good at both explaining and not explaining. So now we understand a character in a setting (Suduku is perfect here!) who is making a particular criticism of the Pitt News, maybe as a way of questioning Pitt in general, while celebrating Borges (more or less uncritically, but that's fine - you're being Borges here, more than interrogating him) for his ability to encompass and contain contradictions which we generally fail to encompass. Borges, incidentally, was 100% of the book nerd that he presents himself as being - but he knew how to use a knife in a fight. A perfect contradiction.

    Anyway, I loved the wikipedia/web material - that's an ideal, focused application of research in an unconventional way. I'd argue, incidentally, that this is a good description of the web - I see it as endlessly reproducing itself, more than it makes anything really authentically *new* (my recent encounter with a plagiarized wikipedia article is a great illustration of that).

    So you started out with something good, made it much better, and wrote a good story which is also a good essay. Could I ask for more?