Saturday, 2 August 2014

Reveries of libraries, the eighth : BORGESIAN PARADOXES

Philip Harvey
Notionally, the vision of a Borgesian library that contains every known book is a worthy spectacle to express the human mind. Libraries very obviously materialise at least two realities of the human mind: the ability to put thoughts out there in words and the ability to collect those myriad thoughts into a close space. Even if we now see the same vain objective being chased in digital archives everywhere, the idea of such an end being reached in book form has a kind of 20th century charm. Such a library would have its glorious mornings and rapt afternoons, its nights of deep reverie.

Notionally, at least, the vision of a Borgesian library containing every known book is a worthy spectacle. Realistically, it is a kind of Hell. Those miles of aisles, those storeys of labyrinths leading to further subject mazes, inspires nausea rather than awe to the new arrival. That every thought ever transferred from one nerve node to another in the course of human history could find their way into a bound volume in a single library is a stupefying vision, a painful and incomprehensible translation of the existence of homo sapiens upon this one blue planet of the solar system. It is an impossibility, and fortunately so. We crave relief, silence, something else. We ask the librarian if it is possible to step outside for lunch. The researchers in such a library have a laughably short lifetime in which to come to terms with the hand-exhausting cutting of pages, never mind the reading of the contents within. For every new insight in these copious encyclopaedias of individual experience the readers must overlook or endure any amount of superfluous daily mental twaddle. Eons of it. The desire to forget becomes greater than the desire to learn something new. Readers begin to see the value of the proverb, the haiku, the aphorism, anything that may summarise effectively the ocean of tireless, tiresome story inside the Borgesian complete compendium of all knowledge. Even apparent parables (we hope) about libraries containing every known book are preferable to the library itself. Leave me alone with a parable, please. Let me figure it out!

Jorge Luis Borges himself said a library was his idea of Paradise. Maybe this makes sense while we see him as a lover of civilised conversation in a country of absurd vulgarity and mistaken materialism. Perhaps the idea he had in mind, behind his blind eyes, was actually small-scale, a library of everything he personally could manage or wish to have accessible. Most readers appreciate such innocent ideals, we would all like to have to hand exactly the book we needed next in our imaginary travels through the world of our own experience. A library of every known book required for our personal needs is a library we secretly carry in our pack of expectations. We know this from experience, each time we approach a library with our bundle of reading hopes. We relate to the words and images of our own lifetime.

This must have been more than a reverie for him as Borges means it to be where he feels most at home and most alive, all the time. Jorge Luis Borges moves away from the world of nature into a world that surrounds him on all sides with manufactured print. The disjunction is almost complete between our own existence, sent bawling into this world at birth. and the sepulchral finality of everyone’s published experiences. This omni-library seems unfathomably not paradisal, unless we interpret Borges’ Paradise as a simple recognition of where he himself, he alone in fact, found himself most at peace with life, alone amid the books, during days when he needed no other distraction. Let us leave him there, happy in his own space, outside time. 

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