The dizzying possibilities of Borges’ The Library of Babel

I repeat: it suffices that a book be possible for it to exist.”

From a small corridor a cloaked figure emerges. Raising his gaze, he glances around the hexagonal room into which he’s entered. On each wall, a bookcase, extending from floor to ceiling. On each bookcase five shelves, and on each shelf 35 books of 410 pages.

Two lamps bathe the shelves in a soft glow, and amongst the books the solitary figure walks. Reaching to a shelf, he retrieves a volume and opens a page. On the page there are 40 lines of uniform black letters, with 80 characters to a line. From under heavy eyelids he scans the page, which reads:

dhcmrlchtd j.gjns.fklgn fgpoqwmfgbvsdf,pwruhgdfas dg.sopqdifgnvs dnojarglrhbnlmnpaehtn,rgnjgs ignfkgfdsgf.fdgd.gdo g…nkjbakurak,j,nnvkaruhlokq wppeorju,mbncv ,awelkbjc,smdboah lknl,nvamnergf.,ebiqg iohnvoajnlfd.sdgs.owiu

Page after page, infinite strings of black characters continue in mocking succession, their meanings (if any) a mystery to both the dreary librarian and all who have came before him.

Every book in the room yields the same disheartening results. His hope grows faint with each volume returned to the shelf. The answers to his longings, the solutions to the puzzles of his existence, lay undiscovered on an unknown shelf of the divine Library. The hour of his vindication may never come after all.

Into a nearby corridor he walks, and out the other side he emerges again into a hexagonal room. On each wall, five shelves. On each self, 35 uniform volumes.

The melancholic wanderer in the passage above is a librarian of the infinite Library of Babel, as conceived of by the great 20th century Argentinian author of fantastic literature Jorge Luis Borges.

The Library of Babel is a short and mesmerizing piece of philosophical fiction, an allegorical tale of the nature of the universe itself. Reading it for the first time, I was filled with a sense of cosmic possibility and fascination, much like I feel when reading the work of H.P. Lovecraft. Borges is uncanny is his ability to evoke feelings of awe, gradually revealing the universe to be more interesting and complex than you had previously imagined, full of mysteries, riddles, and labyrinths of fractal, infinite meanings.

In the opening paragraph of the story, Borges describes the Library as composed of an indefinite and perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries, with vast air shafts between, surrounded by very low railings.”

Each gallery is connected to another by a narrow hallway that contains a spiral staircase to the floors above and below and a mirror, a quintessentially Borgesian symbol of the infinite.

Long ago, the librarians discovered that the content of the books was mostly chaotic and meaningless combinations of 25 symbols. Borges writes that for every sensible line of straightforward statement, there are leagues of senseless cacophonies, verbal jumbles and incoherences”. Given the infinity of the Library and the additional discovery that there are no two identical books, it’s concluded that hidden in the Library, all that it’s possible to express is written:

Everything: 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, the Gnostic gospel of Basilides, the commentary on that gospel, the true story of your death, the translation of every book in all languages, the interpolations of every book in all books.

The possibilities contained within the library are dizzying. Written somewhere are the answers to questions one wouldn’t even know how to ask. The certitude that these books exist, contrasted with the near impossibility of ever finding them amidst the sea of nonsense proves enough to drive some mad.

Borges wrote The Library of Babel decades before the age of modern computing. One of the first thoughts to cross my mind while reading the story was the possibility of creating the Library using computers. Like millions of monkeys sitting at typewriters, randomly punching keys until one eventually produces a Shakespeare play, a computer generating volumes from the Library would have the same result.

Is this possible? I quickly discovered that it had already been tried. Inspired by the universal Library, Jonathan Basile created thelibraryofbabel.info, a website dedicated to reproducing and publishing combinations of the 25 characters. Although not literally infinite, it’s nevertheless fun to search through the huge number digital books to see what you can find.

The magic of The Library of Babel lies in the realization that the Library is a clever allegory for the universe itself. Borges says as much in the first paragraph, but the profundity sinks in as one continues to read and think.

The universe we inhabit is composed of a finite set of material building blocks. The Library is composed of it’s 25 characters. Our universe, like the Library, is difficult to make sense of. Many of us spend years searching for answers that we feel are out there, somewhere, beyond our reach. And like the Library, people’s interpretations of the universe are infinitely varied. In the Library, some librarians argue that finding meaning in the texts at all is mere superstition:

They speak (I know) of the feverish Library whose chance volumes are constantly in danger of changing into others and affirm, negate and confuse everything like a delirious divinity.”

This is a common pessimistic philosophy of life in our universe, one that we are all sympathetic to at times. We feel buffeted by forces beyond our control, caught in the flux of time and matter, and unable to find the signal in the noise. It’s discouraging and hard to understand.

Yet others disagree with this interpretation, like the narrator, who states that:

In truth, the Library includes all verbal structures, all variations permitted by the twenty-five orthographical symbols, but not a single example of absolute nonsense.

They reason:

I cannot combine some characters


which the divine Library has not forseen and which in one of its secret tongues do not contain a terrible meaning. No one can articulate a syllable which is not filled with tenderness and fear, which is not, in one of these languages, the powerful name of a god

In other words, meaning, or meanings, are abundant in the Library, however obfuscated they may be. The infinite combinatorial possibilities of the Library do not allow for meaninglessness. The librarians are able to know the truth of this by pure deduction. We are not so fortunate in our universe, yet many feel this abundance of meaning all around them. Perhaps the infinity of out universe and the possibilities that result from it’s infinity likewise do not allow for meaninglessness. The human mind contains multitudes.

The Library is unlimited and cyclical” writes Borges in the closing paragraph. A fitting conclusion, echoing Nietzsche’s idea of eternal recurrence.

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