“A Mere Labyrinth of Letters”: Preoccupations of Librarianship and Epistemological Conjecturing in Borges’ “The Library of Babel”

An illustration of the Library of Babel by Erik Desmazieres 
Librarians share two major philosophical preoccupations:

  1. The idea of a total library
  2. The futility of such a library.

Librarians are “total” in their desire for a perfect, or a complete library, but, unfortunately, the totalitarian nature of librarians has fossilized the notion that if it isn’t in the library then it doesn’t exist. The "if it is not in the records it does not exist" idea is as old as recorded history. The promise of complete, total, accessible knowledge (the first preoccupation) is shadowed by the librarian's futile wading through miles and miles of totality (the hell) to search and find that one piece of totality that one is looking. The total nature of the catalog is supposed to mirror precisely what is on the shelf. But the maddening job of the cataloger is to constantly check the catalog against what is on the shelf and fix any errors; this process has the hope of finish but is bound to be endlessly nonfinished. Librarians spend hours cleaning records, assigning call numbers, shelving books in an endless cycle of return. This nature of librarianship is actually not only the preoccupations of Library Science but of Western Philosophy in general.  Ever since the philosopher Thales posited that there must be something material that underlies all existence — we will forgive him for positing water — philosophers have searched for a univocity, or an absolute to explain that which undergirds reality. Of course, the philosophical search comes short. There is a futility in this search (think of Adam futile search to name all animals or Aristotle's futile search to give names to everything) although it does not cancel out the desire to search. That, my dear, is the paradox of the quest.

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Based on these two axioms of librarianship, neurosis and the epistemological model of Western Philosophy, I argue that Jorge Luis Borges’ short story “The Library of Babel” shares these same preoccupations, not just as representable of a librarian’s mindset, but also as a mark of Western Philosophy.  For Borges, the library is both a blessed and a cursed place, a storehouse of knowledge, on the one hand, and also a hellish place where the human pursuit for knowledge degrades into nonsensical gibberish.  What I will attempt to do in this paper is to show how this preoccupation with the pursuit of total knowledge and the futility inevitably inherent in such a search is symbolized by the precepts of library science and Western Philosophy.

Borges as Librarian
Borges was a professional librarian at two different junctures in his life.  During, what he said, was nine years of “solid unhappiness” Borges worked at a small municipal library in Buenos Aires (Christ 5).  He hated the job.  He was assigned as a cataloger.  So, he knew firsthand the futility of the painstaking travail of placing books into assigned categories and the pleasure of somehow reaching a high-level mastery of order!  At first, he energetically cataloged as many books as he could, but the library had such meager holdings, that his coworkers told him to curb his enthusiasm lest he force them to lose their job.  The library was staffed by fifty people when it could easily have been managed by fifteen.  Borges would work for one hour at the Miguel Cané library and spend the rest of the day reading and writing.  If it were sunny, he would retreat to the roof for escape.  He was disgusted by the vapid relationships with his colleagues who were more interested in gambling and boasting of their violent and sexual exploits than in the integrity and advancement of the library’s aim (Williamson 231).  He was relieved of his post as assistant librarian at the Miguel Cané branch because, purportedly, of his outspokenness against the dictator of Argentina, Juan Peron and was named National Poultry Inspector as a punishment (Christ 5).   Later, with the overthrow of the “Peronist regime,” he was named the director of the National Library in Buenos Aires (Borges 254).

Outline of the “Library of Babel”   
So, keeping in mind the two philosophical preoccupations of librarianship and Borges’ own librarian life, as both a haven and a cross, it is not too hard to imagine “The Library of Babel” as originating from Borges’ own personal relationship to library science as a kind of hellish experience.

In the story, first published in 1941 in Ficciones, the possibility of a “total library” is presented.1  In Borges’ story, he imagines the universe as a library that contains all possibilities of human knowledge.  He imagines a series of seemingly infinite rows of hexagonal cells, “an indefinite and perhaps an infinite number of hexagonal galleries … which open onto another gallery, identical to the first and to all the rest” (51).  The honeycomb of cells contain stacks of books, twenty shelves apiece and each stack contains thirty-five books, and after that, another series of book-filled cells, and so on, forever.  But even with all of this, as one critic noted, there is nothing substantive, only artifice (Stark 22).  Curiously enough, this infinite array of cubiculi are replete with toilets and a librarian, replete with artifice. But some of the cells are empty.  The librarian has vanished.  Other cells are damaged, for example, a broken stairwell, causing danger to a passerby wishing to peer into the stacks.  Vast air shafts separate the galleries.  Outside of the Library and surrounding this infinite set of galleries is a vast nothingness, an endless free-fall into “fathomless air” (52).  The story is told by one of the librarians of Babel, in his old age and near death.

The librarian narrator mentions that the Library contains every book that could be conceivably written.  The library is built on two axioms: 1.) that it dates from the beginning of time and 2.) it contains every conceivable combination of these orthographical symbols: the space, the comma and the twenty-two letters of the alphabet — “a mere labyrinth of letters” (53).  By abiding by these rules the library, therefore, contains in its books a labyrinth — not only by its architectural structure — but within and between its pages.  Borges’ library can be imagined either as a physical library, or it can be thought of like a book with infinitely thin pages that contain endless combinations of language (58).

The library, then, becomes a metonym for the universe.  The implication is, that we — like the imperfect Librarian himself, are the imperfect librarians searching out the answers to life’s queries.  What begins as a utopia for the imperfect librarian-seeker, the search for knowledge in a universe that purports to hold the secrets to its origins, turns into “an inordinate hope [followed] by an excessive depression” (55).  The librarian telling the story confides to the reader the irrepressible desire of many previous librarians’ futile search to find knowledge in its totality.

The realization of the imperfect librarian is that this search for knowledge, for perfect knowledge, does not create a utopia.  In fact, the Library of Babel is a paradox.  Our search for the book of books is an agonizing journey of anguishing impossibility (Borges xix).  Even though human beings are the center of their own universes, that their hexagons are the exact center of all existence — in this sphere called the cosmos — we humans cannot access the circumference; for the circle’s circumference is fearfully inaccessible (Stark 34).2  All knowledge is within reach but at the same time unreachable.  Every conceivable piece of news can be filled up in a glorious amount of pages, but how can we actually read all the thoughts?  We know there are limits to the sphere of existence but we do not know the radius or which point on the map we are situated.  We hold within ourselves all knowledge, all variations of knowledge but we cannot communicate with other human beings, nor can we actually correlate our supposed knowledge-truths to a dangerous form, the absolute.

By crafting a cosmology of the universe with the use of a metonym, the library as a universe, Borges crafts the paradoxical metaphysics of the world that we human beings inhabit. Even though one would think that the possibility of all the eloquent solutions to the world’s problems would make people happy, the inverse seems to be true (Borges 55).  Would not the knowledge, the answer, to the problem of world poverty incite people to correct the problem?  Doesn’t the notion that there is a solution out there — in the vast library of space — to the AIDS epidemic, to genocide, to rogue nations, to ethical dilemmas that leave us perplexed and morally ambiguous and without answers?

The epistemological set-up of Western thought leads one to believe that the pursuit of reasonable answers to difficult questions should, in fact, lead meritable results and that there is a possibility to access all knowledge. The logic of the perfect library is built upon the premise that if one has all knowledge in its totality, everything from the structure of the atom to the secrets of avatars — and everything in between — then when we have this knowledge, we will have reached the knowledge of a god.  The idealist would think one could solve any ethical, theological, moral, metaphysical, biological or autobiographical problem in such a library.  The problem is where to start.  The library is vast, row upon row of endless shelves of books.  The logic of searching out the one book — be it the catalogue of catalogues, or the dictionary of angels — is, as Borge’s satirically puts it, “to locate book A, consult first a book B which indicates A’s position; to locate book B, consult first a book C, and so on to infinity …” (56).  This is where the search becomes daunting and overwhelming — and absurd.  It is like walking into a major research library with a topic in mind and discovering upon entering the building the varied and multiple collections of books and materials that the library holds.  It dizzies the human brain to begin to think of the vastness of the universe, no less, the knowledge of the universe, which is only a small part of the universe’s infinite vastness.  Thinking all that can be known of the universe and pairing that idea with the enormity of the universe itself, the effect is both astonishing and humbling.  At once the mind is confronted with numerous possibilities and at the same time, the mind is diminished to a level of total solipsism in the face of such endless knowledge.  The idealist hope that personal or world problems would be found in an elegant solution in one of the library’s hexagons is dashed (55).

In the face of this nauseam of knowledge, some of the librarians, have been hooked on finding this knowledge, despite the futility.  They were either fixed that the certitude of a book containing the theory of everything was too intolerable and set out destroying books (55) or their delirium was so great to find the hexagon filled with magical, all-powerful tomes, that their minds became intoxicated with the fantasy (56). The possibility of attaining this knowledge becomes a fantasy because the possibility of what we can know and the desire to stretch the limits of knowledge as far as it can reach is built upon the epistemological premise that we have the capacity to unlock the secrets of the gods.  It is built upon the premise that the world and the cosmos are reasonable and able to be understood.3  But this is only possible if the world is built upon a principle of sufficient reason.  The idea goes that everything in the universe is understandable by reasonable means.  If this is the case, the argument goes, then we can be sure to unravel the mysteries of the universe.  This is the basis for the idea of a perfect library.  The perfect library notion has fueled fantasies of a search for the philosopher’s stone, the alchemist’s dream of an element that can transform into any other element, namely gold.  It is the dream of the scientist, like Einstein or Hawking, to devise a universal theory of everything.  It dates back to Aristotle’s notion that knowledge could be categorized into nice hierarchical tiers.  It is the Cartesian notion that the thinking person, armed with clear and distinct ideas, can wrap up questions of the existence of God, the creation of the world, the role of humanity, thousands and thousands of years of imponderables, with the sword of thought.   For Borges, Patrons search the shelves; some going from one hexagon to another, in pursuit of the book that will answer the riddle to all the problems of the universe.  Some kill one another in the pursuit of a book that will vindicate their claims — be it war or their own lives — with the intention of finding the sweet hexagon of their dreams (55).  The library — if it contains all possible knowledge — the holy grail of books is the key to the researcher’s dreams.  The book that deciphers all other books is the skeleton key.  This is the futile quest that fuels the human thirst for knowledge.  We are like the imperfect librarians who built a tower (the library/knowledge) to reach the heavens (god/truth).

The Tower of Babel in the Book of Genesis
Babel is the ancient city recorded in the Hebrew Bible, in the book of Genesis.  The story tells of a mythic time when all peoples spoke one language.  The people of Babel considered themselves better than the gods.  Their hubris was so strong that they commissioned a tower to reach to heaven.  When Yahweh, the Hebrew God, learned of this project to build a building to heaven, he punished the people’s hubris by confounding them with different languages so that they could not understand one another.  In their confusion, the Tower of Babel project failed and with it the advent of diversity in culture and language.

The myth of Babel is a myth of origins that attempts to explain the dispersal and the division of humanity by language and to show how humanity devolved from a community of one language to a world of incommensurable languages.  The Babel myth mirrors Borges’ total library for it describes the thirst for man to know and how man’s very thirst for knowledge leads him down a path of confusion.  Just as the desire to construct a tower to heaven is confounded by the creation of many tongues, so does the quest for total knowledge breaks down into futility.  God’s creation of languages is not so much punishment on the people for their hubris — for didn’t Adam and Eve already suffer punishment for the rest of us? — but rather symbolic of humanity’s futile search.  The collapse of the tower, as told in alternate versions of the story, also illustrates this breaking of knowledge brought on by the quest to obtain this epistemological totality.

The quest for heaven, as in the biblical quest, or the quest for totality in Borges’ library is a desire to restore a unity that has somehow been lost to us.    What we find — instead of total knowledge is a “breaking of the vessels.”  The spiritual notion of “breaking of the vessels” is first found in the kabbalistic text, the Zohar, of the book of Splendor, but it is expanded upon in the writings of Gershom Scholem, a kabbala scholar.  He talks about the withdrawal of God into his own being as leaving apart of the divine being in exile, namely, humanity.  These shards of God’s essence, “the broken vessels” are left for us to attempt to put back together again, what is called the Tikkun, “the re-establishment of the harmonious condition of the world” (Scholem MIJ 13).  The fracture of the bowls of God is strewn throughout a cosmos in need of restoration.  Because of this everything is in need of restoration, of Tikkun, everything is broken.  The denizens of Babel, in their brokenness, could not reach heaven, so their quest broke apart, literally, into pieces.  The library or the notion of absolute knowledge imposed by librarians is a wish or a desire for absolute or total knowledge that disregards the reality that we are, as Borges puts it, “imperfect librarians.”

Borges imagines the universe in terms of a series of broken vessels.  No one piece, although together an essence of the divine, gives the full picture.  In this universe the search for any kind of knowledge that is certain — or perfect — leads only into an infinite regression back in on itself, hence the solipsistic  Those who conceive of the world as holding a secret book of books are only following a labyrinth that coils back in on itself, into a kind of solipsism.  This mere labyrinth is a maze of letters, some that make sense, others that make sense for some other mythical people, and perhaps some that make sense for the reader.  The vast expanse of corrupt knowledge is only dotted with bright, certain facsimiles of authentic knowledge.  The solipsism that such a search engenders is perhaps sickening and depressing.  The Western Philosophical idealism of reason is shattered as well as the illusion that the library holds the key to man’s search for truth.  This is why the narrator, in perhaps the most intimate and personal part of the story talks about his life as a futile search and his desire for nothingness.  “Like all men of the Library, I have traveled in my youth; I have wandered in search of a book, perhaps the catalog of catalogs; now that I can hardly decipher what I write, I am preparing to die …” (52).  Borges’ idea is that the pursuit of knowledge that is total is ultimately futile because it presupposes an immensity of the human mind that does not exist. “The Library is so enormous that any reduction of human origin is infinitesimal” (56).  Thus, we are doomed to desire knowledge in its totality, cursed to constantly come up short in its pursuance.

Labyrinths as Library as Knowledge
The word “Labyrinths” is a library-esque word.  It is the product of the broken vessels and the inverse of the Tikkun.  It connotes this haphazard search that libraries seem to exude by their very architectural existence.  The word conjures in the mind, being lost in the stacks.  The idea is that, like Daedalus and the maze he built to hold the Minotaur, once you start, there is no getting out of the maze, unless you mark your path.  Libraries are labyrinths because they have irregular twists and turns.  It’s easy to get lost.  The corridors and cubbies of a library lead the journeyer into directions not intended.  How many times have you stumbled upon a forgotten place in an old, ancient library?  It is like revisiting a memory long forgotten, dusted off and brought back to mind.

The library as labyrinth can be the frustration a researcher gets when she cannot — despite her accurate and precise researching ability — find what she is searching.  At that point, the labyrinth ceases to be serendipitous and the library is like that memory which is unable to be conjured.  It’s like standing between two stacks of books on the fifth floor, with a call number in your hand, not knowing where to turn next, hoping (but it seems implausible) that the one book you’re searching for — the book that will tie your paper with a bow into a nice logical knot — is lost.  The deeper into the bowels of the library you go, the deeper and more mysterious the labyrinth becomes.  The labyrinth that we create, is “a labyrinth devised by men, a labyrinth destined to be deciphered by men” (Borges 18).

In an almost librarian-esque style, written in the subjunctive mood, the narrator invokes a prayer in the last paragraphs of the story, “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” (57).  Despite the brokenness of humanity’s search, despite the apparent insanity of searching for Tikkun, or the restoration to the Divine being, Borges seems to suggest a subjunctive.  “Let heaven exist, though my place be in hell.”  In other words, Borges is saying, let the quest continue, even though it is imperfect.  Let the searcher be annihilated, let the librarian be destroyed, but for just one instant let there by a manifestation of the justification of the search.  The certitude that everything has been written down is the same certitude that turns us into phantoms (Borges 58).  What the library does is convince us of a certitude — that knowledge is accessible — without revealing the imperfection of the knowledge itself.  The labyrinth, in its own serpentine way, has an order to it — it is not a restored order, but it has an order.  What restores the search, what prevents the search for knowledge from becoming a completely vacuous search, is that there is a strange order within the disorder of our brokenness.  This is the image that Borges leaves us at the end of the story, an image of the Library of Babel, the imperfect universe from the point of view of eternity, where the infinity of the library is seen as coming back to meet itself in a circle, repeated again in the same disorder.  The Order of the disorder is not a resolution or a restoration of the Tikkun, but rather a source of consolation, an “elegant hope” (59).


(1.) Borges wrote an earlier essay in 1939, “The Total Library,” which describes in essay form the same preoccupations as the “Library of Babel.”
(2.) Borges’s universe is like Leibniz’s monad. For Leibniz, there are worlds - self-enclosed - that contain all knowledge and space and time, but these monads (as he calls them) are windowless, incommensurably unable to communicate with the other monads that stretch out in all directions.
(3.) We can thank Leibniz, again, here for positing the idea “principle of sufficient reason” that states that everything that happens in the universe happens for a reason and this reason is discoverable by human intelligence and logic.
(4.) In an online essay posted on Daylight Atheism's website, “How Big is the Library of Babel?” the author uses math to calculate how many books the library of babel would have and calculates the number to be. more than the number of atoms in the known universe. The number of books in the “The Library of Babel” is also discussed in Daniel Dennet's book, Darwin's Dangerous Idea (107-113).

Works Cited:
Alazraki, Jaime.  Jorge Luis Borges.  New York: Columbia University Press, 1971.
Barenchea, Ana Maria.  Borges: The Labyrinth Maker.  Ed. and trans. by Robert Lima.  New York: New York University Press, 1965.
Borges, Jorge Luis.  Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings.  New Directions, 1962,         1964.
Bell-Villada, Gene H.  Borges and His Fiction: A Guide to His Mind and Art.  Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1971.
Christ, Ronald, interviewer.  “Jorge Luis Borges.”  The Paris Review: Latin American Writers at         Work.  George Plimpton, editor.  New York: The Modern Library, 2003.  3-46.  
Cohen, J.M.  Jorge Luis Borges.  Edinburgh, England: Croythorn House, 1974.
    Guibert, Rita.  Seven Voices: Seven Latin American Writers Talk to Rita Guibert.  New York: Vintage Books, 1972.
Hofstadter, Douglas R, Composer, and Arranger.  The Mind’s I: Fantasies and Reflections on Self and Soul.  New York: Basic Books, 1981.
Lasswitz, Kurd. 
Scholem, Gershom.  Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism.  New York: Schocken Books, 1946,
    1954, 1974.
Scholem, Gershom.  The Messianic Idea in Judaism.  New York: Schocken Books, 1971.
Scholem, Gershom.  On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism.  New York: Schocken Books, 1965. 
Stark, John O.  The Literature of Exhaustion: Borges, Nabokov, and Barth.  Durham, N.C.: Duke     University Press, 1974.
Williamson, Edwin.  Borges: A Life.  New York: Penguin Books, 2004.

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