This morning I am sitting in the Birmingham Central Library, surrounded by books. As you come up, by the escalator, to the second floor you see ahead of you, a circular atrium that towers above you and that is open to a magnificent light coming from the sky. There are circular rows and rows of shelves with multi couloured spines of the innumerable books lining the shelves. It is a wonderful, thrilling sight for anyone who loves books. The atmosphere took me straight back to Jorge Luis Borges’ short piece ‘The Library of Babel.
Borges was a librarian, a man who spent his life surrounded by books and also a scholar in the deepest possible sense of the word. Someone whose interest in books was clearly manifest in his preoccupation with arcane facts, with concepts, with both the illuminating and illusory aspects of knowledge. You could say that obscurantism, that sickness of the false prophet was one of his most abiding object of forensic inquisition. And for a man of letters he was also full of suspicion for the superficiality and pomposity of great learning.
Borges’s library was composed of ‘an indefinite number of hexagonal galleries…From any of the hexagons one can see, interminably, the upper and lower floors’. Merely contemplating this structure, the vastness of the space induces a vertiginous nausea. It is as if somehow the infinity of space, of the multiverse itself was to be captured in words and our place in it rendered apparent- mere cosmic dust without mass or even density in a horizon that is mindless. And Borges’ Library is the multiverse, its corridors, shelves, manuscripts, the texts are the unimaginable tracts of solar flares, quantum invisibility of strings and wormholes, and the daring infernoes of dark, impenetrable matter. And, the scholars, who are they? What are they in these analogical structures that we inhabit but do not see?
The stairways of this library sink and soar abysmally. The library is unending and there is, according to the mystics, a circular room containing a great circular book whose spine is continuous and which follows the exact circle of the walls. You can see why coming into the Birmingham lCentral Library this morning took me straight to Borges. And, then there’s the exquisite description: ‘The Library is a sphere whose exact centre is anyone of its hexagons and whose circumference is inaccessible ‘.
One of the interesting notions that Borges lights on is about meaning and meaninglessness in books:
I know of an uncouth region whose librarians repudiate the vain and superstitious custom of finding a meaning in books and equate it with that of finding a meaning in dreams or in the chaotic lines of one’s palm…They admit that the inventors of this writing imitated the twenty-five natural symbols, but maintain that this application is accidental and that the books signify nothing in themselves. This dictum, we shall see, is not entirely fallacious ‘.
I should say that this gentle undermining of my extreme valorisation of both the written word and books was necessary; I found that Borges’ dictum acted to inoculate against my vulnerability to the sickness of paganism, of book worship. Thankfully, I’m now partially immune but remain attentive to relapses of the unquenchable fever to take possession of a book, to flick the pages, to seek some meaning in what is formless and obscure, and sink into thought, stupendous, stuporous thought without any discernible benefit.
In what ought to have been a utopia, the idea that the Library contained all books, the initial euphoria that ‘All men were masters of an intact and secret treasure’ turned to ‘excessive depression’ once it became clear that the most precious books were inaccessible. There was also the notion that ‘the Man of the Book’ existed who had created a perfect compendium of all the rest of the books and that he was analogous to a god. Well, the search for him was in vain. This innate desire for a guru, a well spring of or fountain of knowledge, one who has ultimate wisdom that we can rely upon is, of course, a vain hope, but nonetheless we still desire such a One.
I think that Borges’ own fear is also one that I share:
The methodical task of writing distracts me from the present state of men. The certitude that everything has been written negates us or turns us into phantoms. I know of districts in which the young men prostrate themselves before books and kiss their pages in a barbarous manner, but they do not know how to decipher a single letter. Epidemics, heretical conflicts, peregrinations which inevitably degenerate into banditry, have decimated the population. I believe I have mentioned the suicides, more and more frequent with the years. Perhaps my old age and fearfulness deceive me, but I suspect that the human species – the unique species – is about to be extinguished, but the Library will endure: illuminated , solitary, infinite, perfectly motionless, equipped with previous volumes, useless, incorruptible, secret.
Finally, ‘The Library is unlimited and cyclical ‘.
Photos by Jan Oyebode