Bear with me for a while.
Imagine you wake up in a library. By all accounts, it appears to be a regular, non-descript, conventional library. Excepting the fact that this particular library is composed not of rooms but rather hexagonal galleries bounded by a railing with a ventilation shaft in the centre, restricted by a low railing. Of the six walls enclosing you, four are home to shelves not quite taller than the average man. Each shelf contains rows upon rows of seemingly identical books. Two passages lead out of the room while in the corner; a spiral staircase extends upwards through a cavity in the ceiling above while, simultaneously, descending downstairs through an opening in the floor.
Dazed and confused you walk through the passage to the adjacent room only to find that it is in no way dissimilar from the one you just fled. You gaze above the ceiling through the casement. Then below through the cavity on the floor. Endless rooms extend through infinity. Gazing down the central ventilation shaft is akin to standing in a hexagonal gallery where, both the ceiling and the floor are composed of mirrors. Gazing downwards appears to show you the reflection of your gallery repeated ad infinitum (minus your peeking head, of course).
However, this is no illusory reflection, no.
Each seeming reflection is an observable, tangible, and accessible reality. Every single hexagonal cell below you and the ones above, seemingly stretching to infinity are, to put it bluntly, real.
Bewildered beyond reason, you walk gingerly towards the shelves. Choosing a book among the many similar volumes, you open it to find that it is filled with unintelligible strings of disparate characters. Line after line, page after page, volume after volume. Perplexed, you notice a small plaque beside the shelf. It says-
“This library contains the sum of all knowledge.
It contains all that was ever written.
All that will ever be written.
For, it contains all that can be written”
Welcome to the library of babel. Imagined by Jorge Luis Borges, the library has continued to baffle and bewilder generations of academics. The idea, while seemingly simple enough to understand, proves to be a maze of paradoxes. The underlying concept is deceivingly simple: the library is home to a multitude of books containing exactly 410 pages, each of those books contains a random arrangement of 22 alphabets along with spaces, periods, and commas, the library contains all possible permutations of these characters in books spread randomly throughout and, most importantly, no two books are similar to each other. Each is a distinct volume with no copies in the entire universe- For the library is the universe- All that ever was, all that is, and all that ever will be. These books are stored in a universe composed of an endless series of hexagonal galleries like the one mentioned above. This library-or, universe- is indefinitely, perhaps infinitely, vast. Borges explained it quite succinctly-
“The Library is a sphere whose centre is any-therefore, every- hexagon and whose circumference is unattainable”
This premise leads to a multitude of conclusions. The first of which is that the library contains everything. From the useless,- endless series of disparate characters filling volume after volume that make no sense to the observer- to the mundane,- every grocery list you’ve ever written, the answer to question fifty-three of your English textbook, those embarrassing messages you sent to that lady or man ( Don’t worry. It’s highly unlikely those will ever be discovered). From every work of literature ever created- Shakespeare’s entire oeuvre, Austen’s complete works, that novel you bought ages ago but have never got around to reading, and the Man Booker winner of 2053- to the downright fantastical- your entire history from the moment you were born, in fact, the history and future of every man who has ever lived, detailed instructions for creating the cure for cancer, to the answer to the age-old question- “ What the fuck is wrong with America?”- The library contains everything…… and nothing. For while we are sure certain that the library holds the answer to everything, the sheer volume of it and the magnitude of absolute garbage in it gives us pause.
However, this hypothetical library raises questions that perplex us. We can be assured that somewhere within the multitude of tomes within our library, there is a book which details my entire life truthfully. When I was born. What my interests were. What I loved to eat. Whom I will fall in love with. When I shall breathe my last. All mysteries answered by the dispassionate tone of chance itself. Yet, there is a caveat; for the single volume that tells my true story, there are millions that tell only lies. In one, I might have blond hair and be an exceptional singer; in the other, the only child of 19th-century aristocrats who died in a revolution. Another would tell me that I will go on to become the president of the galactic federation in the year five thousand and fifty-nine. While these possibilities seem implausible enough to reject outright, the real danger is the false future that might just be possible. If a book detailed all my life to this point truthfully but said that I was destined to die alone or that I would go on to become a celebrated general or that I would become a menial clerk spending his life among numerous files in an endless cycle of misery, should I consider that divine destiny? Or merely one of many paths that I can choose by virtue of my own actions? Do the books even contain prophecies or merely all possibilities and all outcomes?
On a broader lens, let us consider the works of art within the library. We know for certain that every work of literature ever created is within the library. That means that, somewhere within there, is a completely faultless reproduction of “Romeo and Juliet.” But there’s also a version where neither of the lovers dies. There’s also the version where the only difference is that Romeo is called Rameez and Juliet, Jameela. Do we consider “Rameez and Jameela” to be as great a work as Romeo and Juliet? What if there’s a version called “ Sdrfrx and Gjdsiyhs”?
And can we even pronounce any of these works to be “art”? As far as we know, this library was created by divine chance and chance alone. All it contains are the possible arrangement of the alphabets scattered randomly. However, no work of literature can be defined as “an arrangement of characters in a pattern.” All literature is born of intent; the intent to describe, to inform, to convince, amuse, or to influence. Removing the intent from the work removes the very basis of its importance itself. In fact, to the residents of this library, the letters you wrote to your beloved might be art because they resonate with their desire to acquire an unattainable object forever removed from their grasp. But, if this library and all that it contains is just random arrangement of characters by some higher being, how is a book containing a random string of unintelligible gibberish any different from, say, Oliver Twist?
Earlier within this essay, I made the hasty mistake of referring to the books containing seemingly disparate strings of characters as useless. In hindsight, that was erroneous. We are aware that the Library contains all possible arrangements of the alphabet. It stands to reason that some of those arrangements will form, say, the roman transcriptions of the entire works of Ghalib (kaave kaave sakht jaani haye tanhaai na puuch…), or the collected verses of Faiz (Har haqeeqat majaaz hojaye…), or indeed, the novels of Bano Qudsia. To an exclusively English speaker, these strings of characters may seem to make utterly no sense whatsoever and would be rejected outright as being complete nonsense. However, as we can see, these strings not only make sense, they carry within a deeper meaning accessible only to those aware of the language. Thus, is it reasonable to outrightly dismiss some books containing seemingly unrelated, nonsensical strings of characters? For all we know, it might be detailing the instructions for the cure for cancer in Swahili, Welsh, Malay, or even perhaps, an as yet undiscovered language.
This brings us to the concept of language itself. Let us consider the word “library”. To those of us familiar with the English lexicon, it immediately conjures an image of a grand, ornate building containing a certain number of books, accessible to those desiring guidance. Yet, the word “library” itself is in no way unique; it is a seven-letter permutation of a total of 26 alphabets- one, from an immense assortment possible. It is only through sustained conditioning and centuries of frequent use and development that the word library has been ingrained in our memory. How do we know the Library’s residents know of this word? Some of you might say, “ Why! The way everyone learns words! Through a dictionary, of course!” As we are about to see, this leads to an entirely new set of problems. We can say, with complete assurance that The Library has absolutely acceptable dictionaries. Well, because it has everything. There would, however, also be a dictionary where the word library is taken to represent a “four-legged mammal that is reared primarily for meat and milk” or a dictionary where a library, as we know it, is represented by the word- cfrtrsk. In the absence of any reputed source or precedent, how can we reject cfrtfsk in favour of library? Mathematically, both are valid seven-letter permutations of the 26 alphabets. By which criteria must we pronounce one to be superior over the other?
In fact, what is a word? How do we assign meaning to a seemingly random string of characters? Generally, through repeated usage and time. Because the word library itself has no connection to its physical manifestation except the one conceived and sustained by us. Really, the word library is no closer to an actual library than a sketch of an apple is an actual apple. The existence and significance of the former is subject to its association with the latter. Therein lies the answer; that all words are abstractions of a tangible, observable, palpable experience. Even punctuation represents pauses, delays…-sudden jerks- “verbatim quotes”, and stops. Thus, to me at least, all language is the creation, expression and propagation of abstractions along with defining relations between said abstractions.
For instance, let us consider an expression currently prevalent in popular discourse-Black Lives Matter. For the African-American, that expression is not 16 disparate characters; it is the abstraction of the generational trauma of slavery, an abstraction of lifetimes upon lifetimes of discrimination. An abstraction of generations upon generations of loss, an abstraction of a system that relegated them to a sub-human status, an abstraction of the desire to succeed, to live and breathe freely. In the world of Borges’ Library, where, presumably, neither slavery nor racial discrimination exists, the expression above would cease to hold weight. The impact of the expression is a direct result of the brutal circumstances that led to its creation and widespread acceptance. It also implies that our understanding of language and words is undeniably moulded by our environment. From a sociological perspective, it gives a reason why certain groups tend to ignore certain realities- Let me emphasize that this is, in no whatsoever, meant to diminish or excuse deliberate, sustained ignorance, malice and false notions of superiority- because their environment renders them incapable of understanding the abstractions a word represents. Only a man that has experienced how hunger gnaws at one from the inside can appreciate the gravity of the word, starvation.
By this time, some of you should be thinking whether the library also contains the text that I am writing and you are reading right now. The answer is- an unequivocal affirmative. Since it contains all possible arrangements of the alphabet, it undeniably contains this text too somewhere within its walls. In fact, every word I write henceforth is present in a book securely placed within a shelf somewhere within that expanse. Some of the more mathematically inclined among you might even question whether the number of books within the library is infinite. The answer to that question would be yes-and-no. the number of books within that library is so unimaginably massive that it might as well be infinity but the rules of mathematics dictate that the possible permutations of the alphabet- no matter how immense- must inevitably be finite. I shall venture deeper into the mathematics of the library in a later post. Those of you intrigued enough would do well to give it a read.
In fact, a virtual library of babel has been created online. It, too, contains all possible permutations of the alphabet accessible via the miracle of technology. I am attaching the link- https://libraryofbabel.info/ -Please give it a view, search your own name. Who knows what prospect you might find?
I am grateful to Ted Ed for introducing me to the genius of Jorge Luis Borges. For more about the man, watch this video-https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mJeLGd3JV2I.
It is strangely rather fitting, isn’t it? That a man who could not view base reality was able to perceive the complexities of the infinite? Here’s to the blind man who found the multitudes of the universe in the alphabet.
To see a World in a Grain of Sand;
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand;
And Eternity in an hour.