The Library of Babel
My creative interpretation of Jorge Luis Borges' short story, The Library of Babel. What happens when one of the librarians actually finds the ultimate book? And what lies inside?...
With TJ Tulloch
Tags: library of babel short film books spaghetti western dead letters tj tulloch
Added: 2 years ago
["The Library of Babel" appears on screen, as several exterior shots of a library are shown, then cut to inside the building as a male librarian is standing at the end of a corridor holding an old book]
[cut to a slow motion shot of the man dropping the book, then the camera zooms in on the book as it sits on the floor and the pages slowly turn one by one]
[cut to more shots inside the library, then the camera stops at one bookshelf in particular, as a female hand from off camera reaches in and grabs an old copy of "Road to Survival" by William Vogt]
[cut to the unseen person placing the book down and opening it, then to another shot of the person frantically flipping through the pages until finally reaching a section of the book where a large square chunk of the pages have been cut out]
[the camera zooms in on the missing portion of the book, then the film is superimposed with a cartoon drawing of a circular line]
[the scene then changes to an animated chalk drawing on a black background, showing a large tower as the sun passes overhead, then the tower falls over in a cloud of dust]
[cut to a chalk drawing of a stick figure emerging from the ruins of the tower]
[cut to a chalk drawing of a door opening and a curtain being raised, with the words "welcome to life behind the curtain ... " written in cursive]
[the animation shows the eraser markings as the drawing disappears, leaving only the words "beyond the curtain ... " (and the "u" changes to an "e" to spell out "beyond the certain ... ")]
[cut to a chalk drawing of a stack of books, with the words "This is the book you've been seeking" (with "This is the book" all in uppercase, and "you've been seeking" written in cursive)]
[each part of the drawing slowly disappears, leaving only "the book", then the word "one" appears, and "book" is erased to leave only "the one" (with a circle drawn around it)]
[thought bubbles appear around the words "the one", each containing a single word (spelling out "that holds the secret")]
[the words are erased, replaced by the silhouette of a woman putting a finger to her lips, along with the word "Shhhhhhhhh" (with each "h" growing smaller and smaller until they appear as mere dots)]
[cut to a chalk drawing of the words "the secret that history repeats itself", then a "t" is added in front of "history", then the "s" is emphasized and splits in two (spelling out "this story")]
[cut to a chalk drawing of several squiggly lines which eventually form a type of maze, with "your here" written on one side and "X marks the spot" written on the other]
[dotted lines eventually appear to link the two points, then the middle of the maze is erased as the words "you wander this labyrinth" appear]
[the words "you wander" are erased, then "labyrinth" is replaced with "library"]
[cut to a chalk drawing of the globe spinning in orbit amongst the stars, with the words "of everything" written in uppercase letters]
[the globe suddenly changes to a hexagonal shape, then it is surrounded by other hexagons (filled with random images of stars and planets) to form a honeycomb pattern, with the words "everyone on the same fruitless journey"]
[part of the honeycomb pattern is erased, with the words "as every man before him" added in its place]
[three of the hexagons have their contents erased, each replaced with a single word to form the phrase "in the hive"]
[the entire image is erased, save for the phrase "in the hive", then a chalk drawing of bees are added next to the hexagons]
[the animation shows the eraser markings as the drawing disappears, then the words "there is no God" appears]
[the word "no" changes to "a" (to create the new phrase "there is a God"), then a "w" is added to "there" and "a" is erased (to create the new phrase "where is God")]
[a question mark is added to the end of the sentence, then the "a" returns and the words "where is" morph into "are you" (to create the new phrase "are you a God?"]
["God is in" replaces "are" and "a God?" disappears (to create the new phrase "God is in you"), then "no more" is added to the end (to create the new phrase "God is in you no more")]
[cut to a chalk drawing of the words "all true to someone" (with "all true" written in cursive and "to someone" all in uppercase), then all the words except "true" are erased and the "e" morphs into a "th"]
[the words "is cyclical" are added (to create the new phrase "truth is cyclical", as drawings of the sun and clouds are shown moving across the screen]
[cut to a chalk drawing of the words "what goes up" in uppercase letters, as the word "up" repeats and continually moves up the screen]
[cut to an exterior shot of a porch with picket railings, then back to the chalk drawing as the words change to "must come down" in uppercase letters (as the word "down" repeats and continually moves down the screen)]
[cut to a stylized shot of the librarian breaking the picket railings surrounding the porch, then to a closeup of the pieces lying on the floor]
[cut back to the chalkboard, as a drawing of the Eiffel Tower is shown falling over, then a stick figure appears with a word balloon that reads "Merde"]
[cut to a chalk drawing of the Leaning Tower of Pisa falling over, then a stick figure appears with a word balloon that reads "Merda"]
[cut to a chalk drawing of the Space Needle falling over, then a stick figure appears with a word balloon that reads "Shit"]
[cut to a chalk drawing of a pagoda falling over, then a stick figure appears with a word balloon that features Chinese characters]
[cut back to another stylized shot of the railing pieces lying on the floor, then back to the chalkboard, as the words "like you ... " appear]
[cut to a chalk drawing of the words "you got your wish", then cut to the words "the library has been justified" in uppercase letters]
[cut to a chalk drawing of the words "in one being", then the words "being" and "one" disappear and are replaced by "you" (to create the new phrase "in you")]
[cut to a chalk drawing of the words "as it is for every man just before he reaches death"]
[the scene fades to black, then is replaced by a chalk drawing of the word "curtains"]
[cut back to the chalk drawing of the door and curtain (only played in reverse), then back to the copy of "Road to Survival" as the camera slowly zooms out from the missing portion of the pages to reveal that the librarian is holding the book while lying unconcsious on the floor (his head propped up against the bookshelf)]
[cut to a closeup of the book, as the pages slowly turn and the book slams shut]
The Library of Babel
Created by Krysten Maier
The Dead Letters
"The Library of Babel" (Spanish: La biblioteca de Babel) is a short story by Argentine author and librarian Jorge Luis Borges (1899–1986), conceiving of a universe in the form of a vast library containing all possible 410-page books of a certain format.
The story was originally published in Spanish in Borges's 1941 collection of stories El Jardín de senderos que se bifurcan (The Garden of Forking Paths). That entire book was, in turn, included within his much-reprinted Ficciones (1944). Two English-language translations appeared approximately simultaneously in 1962, one by James E. Irby in a diverse collection of Borges's works titled Labyrinths and the other by Anthony Kerrigan as part of a collaborative translation of the entirety of Ficciones.
Borges's narrator describes how his universe consists of an enormous expanse of interlocking hexagonal rooms, each of which contains the bare necessities for human survival-and four walls of bookshelves. Though the order and content of the books is random and apparently completely meaningless, the inhabitants believe that the books contain every possible ordering of just a few basic characters (letters, spaces and punctuation marks). Though the majority of the books in this universe are pure gibberish, the library also must contain, somewhere, every coherent book ever written, or that might ever be written, and every possible permutation or slightly erroneous version of every one of those books. The narrator notes that the library must contain all useful information, including predictions of the future, biographies of any person, and translations of every book in all languages. Conversely, for many of the texts some language could be devised that would make it readable with any of a vast number of different contents.
Despite - indeed, because of - this glut of information, all books are totally useless to the reader, leaving the librarians in a state of suicidal despair. This leads some librarians to superstitions and cult-like behaviour, such as the "Purifiers", who arbitrarily destroy books they deem nonsense as they scour through the library seeking the "Crimson Hexagon" and its illustrated, magical books. Another is the belief that since all books exist in the library, somewhere one of the books must be a perfect index of the library's contents; some even believe that a messianic figure known as the "Man of the Book" has read it, and they travel through the library seeking him.
Jorge Luis Borges was an Argentinian writer, essayist, poet and translator. He was tremendously influential, writing intricate poems, short stories, and essays that instantiated concepts of dizzying power. His work embraced the "character of unreality in all literature."
THE LIBRARY OF BABEL
By this art you may contemplate the variations of the 23 letters...
The Anatomy of Melancholy, part 2, sect. II, mem. IV
The universe (which others call the Library) is composed of an indefinite and perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries, with vast air shafts between, surrounded by very low railings. From any of the hexagons one can see, interminably, the upper and lower floors. The distribution of the galleries is invariable. Twenty shelves, five long shelves per side, cover all the sides except two; their height, which is the distance from floor to ceiling, scarcely exceeds that of a normal bookcase. One of the free sides leads to a narrow hallway which opens onto another gallery, identical to the first and to all the rest. To the left and right of the hallway there are two very small closets. In the first, one may sleep standing up; in the other, satisfy one's faecal necessities. Also through here passes a spiral stairway, which sinks abysmally and soars upwards to remote distances. In the hallway there is a mirror which faithfully duplicates all appearances. Men usually infer from this mirror that the Library is not infinite (if it were, why this illusory duplication?); I prefer to dream that its polished surfaces represent and promise the infinite ... Light is provided by some spherical fruit which bear the name of lamps. There are two, transversally placed, in each hexagon. The light they emit is insufficient, incessant.
Like all men of the Library, I have traveled in my youth; I have wandered in search of a book, perhaps the catalogue of catalogues; now that my eyes can hardly decipher what I write, I am preparing to die just a few leagues from the hexagon in which I was born. Once I am dead, there will be no lack of pious hands to throw me over the railing; my grave will be the fathomless air; my body will sink endlessly and decay and dissolve in the wind generated by the fall, which is infinite. I say that the Library is unending. The idealists argue that the hexagonal rooms are a necessary form of absolute space or, at least, of our intuition of space. They reason that a triangular or pentagonal room is inconceivable. (The mystics claim that their ecstasy reveals to them a circular chamber containing a great circular book, whose spine is continuous and which follows the complete circle of the walls; but their testimony is suspect; their words, obscure. This cyclical book is God.) Let it suffice now for me to repeat the classic dictum: The Library is a sphere whose exact center is any one of its hexagons and whose circumference is inaccessible.
There are five shelves for each of the hexagon's walls; each shelf contains thirty-five books of uniform format; each book is of four hundred and ten pages; each page, of forty lines, each line, of some eighty letters which are black in color. There are also letters on the spine of each book; these letters do not indicate or prefigure what the pages will say. I know that this incoherence at one time seemed mysterious. Before summarizing the solution (whose discovery, in spite of its tragic projections, is perhaps the capital fact in history) I wish to recall a few axioms.
First: The Library exists ab aeterno. This truth, whose immediate corollary is the future eternity of the world, cannot be placed in doubt by any reasonable mind. Man, the imperfect librarian, may be the product of chance or of malevolent demiurgi; the universe, with its elegant endowment of shelves, of enigmatical volumes, of inexhaustible stairways for the traveler and latrines for the seated librarian, can only be the work of a god. To perceive the distance between the divine and the human, it is enough to compare these crude wavering symbols which my fallible hand scrawls on the cover of a book, with the organic letters inside: punctual, delicate, perfectly black, inimitably symmetrical.
Second: The orthographical symbols are twenty-five in number. (1) This finding made it possible, three hundred years ago, to formulate a general theory of the Library and solve satisfactorily the problem which no conjecture had deciphered: the formless and chaotic nature of almost all the books. One which my father saw in a hexagon on circuit fifteen ninety-four was made up of the letters MCV, perversely repeated from the first line to the last. Another (very much consulted in this area) is a mere labyrinth of letters, but the next-to-last page says Oh time thy pyramids. This much is already known: for every sensible line of straightforward statement, there are leagues of senseless cacophonies, verbal jumbles and incoherences. (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.)
For a long time it was believed that these impenetrable books corresponded to past or remote languages. It is true that the most ancient men, the first librarians, used a language quite different from the one we now speak; it is true that a few miles to the right the tongue is dialectical and that ninety floors farther up, it is incomprehensible. All this, I repeat, is true, but four hundred and ten pages of inalterable MCV's cannot correspond to any language, no matter how dialectical or rudimentary it may be. Some insinuated that each letter could influence the following one and that the value of MCV in the third line of page 71 was not the one the same series may have in another position on another page, but this vague thesis did not prevail. Others thought of cryptographs; generally, this conjecture has been accepted, though not in the sense in which it was formulated by its originators.
Five hundred years ago, the chief of an upper hexagon (2) came upon a book as confusing as the others, but which had nearly two pages of homogeneous lines. He showed his find to a wandering decoder who told him the lines were written in Portuguese; others said they were Yiddish. Within a century, the language was established: a Samoyedic Lithuanian dialect of Guarani, with classical Arabian inflections. The content was also deciphered: some notions of combinative analysis, illustrated with examples of variations with unlimited repetition. These examples made it possible for a librarian of genius to discover the fundamental law of the Library. This thinker observed that all the books, no matter how diverse they might be, are made up of the same elements: the space, the period, the comma, the twenty-two letters of the alphabet. He also alleged a fact which travelers have confirmed: In the vast Library there are no two identical books. From these two incontrovertible premises he deduced that the Library is total and that its shelves register all the possible combinations of the twenty-odd orthographical symbols (a number which, though extremely vast, is not infinite): Everything: the minutely detailed history of the future, the archangels' autobiographies, the faithful catalogues 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 commentary on 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.
When it was proclaimed that the Library contained all books, the first impression was one of extravagant happiness. All men felt themselves to be the masters of an intact and secret treasure. There was no personal or world problem whose eloquent solution did not exist in some hexagon. The universe was justified, the universe suddenly usurped the unlimited dimensions of hope. At that time a great deal was said about the Vindications: books of apology and prophecy which vindicated for all time the acts of every man in the universe and retained prodigious arcana for his future. Thousands of the greedy abandoned their sweet native hexagons and rushed up the stairways, urged on by the vain intention of finding their Vindication. These pilgrims disputed in the narrow corridors, proferred dark curses, strangled each other on the divine stairways, flung the deceptive books into the air shafts, met their death cast down in a similar fashion by the inhabitants of remote regions. Others went mad ... The Vindications exist (I have seen two which refer to persons of the future, to persons who are perhaps not imaginary) but the searchers did not remember that the possibility of a man's finding his Vindication, or some treacherous variation thereof, can be computed as zero.
At that time it was also hoped that a clarification of humanity's basic mysteries -- the origin of the Library and of time -- might be found. It is verisimilar that these grave mysteries could be explained in words: if the language of philosophers is not sufficient, the multiform Library will have produced the unprecedented language required, with its vocabularies and grammars. For four centuries now men have exhausted the hexagons ... There are official searchers, inquisitors. I have seen them in the performance of their function: they always arrive extremely tired from their journeys; they speak of a broken stairway which almost killed them; they talk with the librarian of galleries and stairs; sometimes they pick up the nearest volume and leaf through it, looking for infamous words. Obviously, no one expects to discover anything.
As was natural, this inordinate hope was followed by an excessive depression. The certitude that some shelf in some hexagon held precious books and that these precious books were inaccessible, seemed almost intolerable. A blasphemous sect suggested that the searches should cease and that all men should juggle letters and symbols until they constructed, by an improbable gift of chance, these canonical books. The authorities were obliged to issue severe orders. The sect disappeared, but in my childhood I have seen old men who, for long periods of time, would hide in the latrines with some metal disks in a forbidden dice cup and feebly mimic the divine disorder.
Others, inversely, believed that it was fundamental to eliminate useless works. They invaded the hexagons, showed credentials which were not always false, leafed through a volume with displeasure and condemned whole shelves: their hygienic, ascetic furor caused the senseless perdition of millions of books. Their name is execrated, but those who deplore the "treasures" destroyed by this frenzy neglect two notable facts. One: the Library is so enormous that any reduction of human origin is infinitesimal. The other: every copy is unique, irreplaceable, but (since the Library is total) there are always several hundred thousand imperfect facsimiles: works which differ only in a letter or a comma. Counter to general opinion, I venture to suppose that the consequences of the Purifiers' depredations have been exaggerated by the horror these fanatics produced. They were urged on by the delirium of trying to reach the books in the Crimson Hexagon: books whose format is smaller than usual, all-powerful, illustrated and magical.
We also know of another superstition of that time: that of the Man of the Book. On some shelf in some hexagon (men reasoned) there must exist a book which is the formula and perfect compendium of all the rest: some librarian has gone through it and he is analogous to a god. In the language of this zone vestiges of this remote functionary's cult still persist. Many wandered in search of Him. For a century they have exhausted in vain the most varied areas. How could one locate the venerated and secret hexagon which housed Him? Someone proposed a regressive method: To locate book A, consult first book B which indicates A's position; to locate book B, consult first a book C, and so on to infinity ... In adventures such as these, I have squandered and wasted my years. It does not seem unlikely to me that there is a total book on some shelf of the universe; (3) I pray to the unknown gods that a man -- just one, even though it were thousands of years ago! -- may have examined and read it. If honor and wisdom and happiness are not for me, let them be for others. 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. The impious maintain that nonsense is normal in the Library and that the reasonable (and even humble and pure coherence) is an almost miraculous exception. 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." These words, which not only denounce the disorder but exemplify it as well, notoriously prove their authors' abominable taste and desperate ignorance. 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. It is useless to observe that the best volume of the many hexagons under my administration is entitled The Combed Thunderclap and another The Plaster Cramp and another Axaxaxas mlö. These phrases, at first glance incoherent, can no doubt be justified in a cryptographical or allegorical manner; such a justification is verbal and, ex hypothesi, already figures in the Library. I cannot combine some characters
which the divine Library has not foreseen 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. To speak is to fall into tautology. This wordy and useless epistle already exists in one of the thirty volumes of the five shelves of one of the innumerable hexagons -- and its refutation as well. (An n number of possible languages use the same vocabulary; in some of them, the symbol library allows the correct definition a ubiquitous and lasting system of hexagonal galleries, but library is bread or pyramidor anything else, and these seven words which define it have another value. You who read me, are You sure of understanding my language?)
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 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 precious volumes, useless, incorruptible, secret.
I have just written the word "infinite." I have not interpolated this adjective out of rhetorical habit; I say that it is not illogical to think that the world is infinite. Those who judge it to be limited postulate that in remote places the corridors and stairways and hexagons can conceivably come to an end -- which is absurd. Those who imagine it to be without limit forget that the possible number of books does have such a limit. I venture to suggest this solution to the ancient problem: The Library is unlimited and cyclical. If an eternal traveler were to cross it in any direction, after centuries he would see that the same volumes were repeated in the same disorder (which, thus repeated, would be an order: the Order). My solitude is gladdened by this elegant hope.
Translated by J. E. I.
1 The original manuscript does not contain digits or capital letters. The punctuation has been limited to the comma and the period. These two signs, the space and the twenty-two letters of the alphabet are the twenty-five symbols considered sufficient by this unknown author. (Editor's note.)
2 Before, there was a man for every three hexagons. Suicide and pulmonary diseases have destroyed that proportion. A memory of unspeakable melancholy: at times I have traveled for many nights through corridors and along polished stairways without finding a single librarian.
3 I repeat: it suffices that a book be possible for it to exist. Only the impossible is excluded. For example: no book can be a ladder, although no doubt there are books which discuss and negate and demonstrate this possibility and others whose structure corresponds to that of a ladder.
4 Letizia Alvarez de Toledo has observed that this vast Library is useless: rigorously speaking, a single volume would be sufficient, a volume of ordinary format, printed in nine or ten point type, containing an infinite number if infinitely thin leaves. (In the early seventeenth century, Cavalieri said that all solid bodies are the superimposition of an infinite number of planes.) The handling of this silky vade mecum would not be convenient: each apparent page would unfold into other analogous ones; the inconceivable middle page would have no reverse.