A Subaltern Horror

By Garrett Rowlan

Borges' "The Library at Babel" is a story that encompasses a world. The world that is a library, a library that is a universe broken into endless hexagons connected by stairs and hallways. It's unlike any library that has ever existed, a library of the mind, a virtual library, and as such the source of imaginative illustration. I've encountered pictures of its hexagonal galleries and infinite air shafts on Web sites, and recently the story was re-published in hardcover with engravings by Erik Desmazieres, who gave the Library's interior a spooky look that I associate with the interiors of Ridley Scott's 1979 science-fiction film Alien. Many, of course, would choose to interpret the story in a more philosophical manner. Certainly a case can be made to see the story as a parable about man's search for God, or man's essential ignorance of the world, or of the chaos of the universe.
While I acknowledge the story's visual and philosophical qualities, it has a personal connection. It evokes what I would call the large-library experience. Borges' nameless librarian, an administrator of some minor sort -- if the library is infinite, all administrators are minor -- recollects, "Like all men of the library, I have traveled in my youth, I have wandered in search of a book." Reading this, I think of my own rambles through stacks and shelves both as a student and an unattached "scholar." I've wandered through libraries looking for or just at books, feeling their collective weight, reading titles, puzzling at the cipher of numbers and letters by which they are classified. I have been lost in corridors of books like one drifting through the pinched streets of some foreign town, though indeed these rambles have taken part in and around my home town of Los Angeles. (Though I have strolled through university libraries in such exotic locales as Tempe and Bakersfield.)
Books as realia have been part of this attraction. Strolling between shelves of bound volumes I feel I'm pressed between the scales of some vast and dormant beast. Opened, each book presents a small bracket of hard space and distilled experience that, when joined in imagination with other books, create the sensation of time congealed. Books in vast quantities form a reality greater than the sum of their parts. Unlike museums, whether of science or art, that enfold me in a history of eras and schools and "movements," large libraries point beyond their realia. They go from the tangible to the intangible, from the temporal to the timeless, from the momentary to the eternal. Masses of books suggest the infinite.
As do their arrangement. Tomes facing tomes in extended procession give an impressionistic representation of infinity. Walking down some long parallel row of titles, I pass time and space compressed. I'm reminded of the vanishing point in a sketch, or the broken lines that divide a two-lane highway. I think of the scene toward the end of Stanley Kubrick's 2001, A Space Odyssey, when Astronaut Frank Bowman (Keir Dullea) races into the infinite past rows of parallel, luminous lines. Each walk down a long library corridor is a stroll in another dimension. Parallel lines point beyond themselves. In fact I have a photograph snapped at the UCLA Young Research Library that shows this archetypal grid, looking down the aisle between two high rows of books.
If they end in facing a window, the sky's the limit, particularly if I'm standing on the fifth floor of UCLA's Research Library, staring at the top of academic buildings, Westwood skyscrapers, and the distant blue sky tinted by the ocean. The world, seen from this perspective, is an extension of the library, parallel shelves becoming parallel streets becoming parallel worlds.
Worlds without and worlds within. Here at the UCLA Young Research Library it's quiet between academic quarters. On the fifth floor I face five shelves of books devoted to Borges. Some are in English. Others represent a Babel of scholarship: German, French, Italian, and of course Spanish books are all present. I leaf through and replace tomes. Each exerts its particular aroma, astringent and bracing, an after-shave of the mind. Occasionally, footsteps resound and echo, though the high shelves block my vision. I cannot see who is nearing or drawing away, I can only infer their motion by the Doppler shift of feet on vinyl. Later, my eyes swimming from the print -- Borges' librarian complains about his failing vision -- I decide to walk, stroll from floor to floor on the libraries' five levels. I spot a person here and there caught in a meditative stance between shelves or sitting in reverie at a corral. Mostly there is emptiness. "I have traveled," says Borges' librarian in a footnote, "for many nights through corridors and along polished stairways without finding a single librarian."
It's a desolate sentence, referring to the suicides and disease that have carried off so many of the inhabitants in the Library of Babel. (Though the library will remain, a church without a clergy.) Yet I find an oddly spiritual side to that sentence. What is it about empty spaces in large institutions that evoke divinity? I have stood in quiet corridors in libraries, corporations, and in the blank midnight spaces of the military-industrial complex. I've found corners where large computers ruminate in their enclosed world and the electric lights seem disconnected from any earthly source, and I've wondered if I were having a religious experience or the inverse of one. Was I feeling the nearness or absence of God? Large libraries confound this spiritual desolation by their size. In an essay entitled "The Total Library" written around the same time as "The Library of Babel," Borges says, "I have tried to rescue from oblivion a subaltern horror: the vast, contradictory library, whose vertical wilderness of books runs the incessant risk of changing into others that affirm, deny, and confuse everything like a delirious God."
Indeed, that "wilderness of books" has grown since the late thirties when Borges conceived his ultimate library. In his story, a near infinity of books was reached by having almost-identical copies of books printed, each differing only minimally from others. Since that time, the explosion of research in various fields has led to an exponential increased in books published. These days, Borges' library wouldn't need this endless duplication, just the sub-divisions of science and industry and literature would produce a dizzying number of tomes. The wanderer in this library would be overwhelmed not only by the size of God's creation, but dwarfed by the mass of accumulated knowledge. Wandering through UCLA's Research Library (one of nine libraries on campus), I see books in languages whose titles I cannot discern, others in English that strike me as recondite. While to me these books conjure the "impenetrable volumes" spoken of in the story, they add at the same time to human knowledge, and the gallery they occupy is just as important as any other. There is no hierarchy of knowledge. "The Library is sphere whose exact center is any one of its hexagons and whose circumference is inaccessible," Borges writes.
It sounds like a description of God, who may be absent or distant in Borges' library. Yet it's a place whose physical immensity evokes an unreality, and perhaps a spirituality. I think of Melville's Captain Ahab, watching a coffin being made, saying to himself, Oh! How immaterial are all materials! What things real are there, but imponderable thoughts! He could have been speaking of Borges' library. It too is a real thing that evokes imponderable thoughts. When the material and immaterial are so closely joined, where is death's sting? "Once I am dead," says Borges' unnamed narrator, "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."
The idea of sinking dissolution has a seductive appeal. To fall endlessly amid books, one's body decaying to nothing in the air, seems better than a simple earthbound burial. (Though of course drifting bodies may be a distraction to some scholar engaged in private lucubration.) It is dying into the infinite, conjoined to a scholar's vision of eternal life. In this conception, one is not the reader but the object read. Dissolving, one is like some text, parsed and examined in the eyes of God, until at last reduced to vapors in the eternal eye.


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