Infinities upon Infinity: Reflections on Borges’ Library of Babel
The Myth of Babel
The Library of Babel is one of those seminal texts to which I must return regularly if I am to feel fully alive. Alongside works like Annie Dillard’s novella Holy the Form, this is art that is best read out loud and pondered, cherished—even venerated. For it informs us deeply of our distinctively human condition. It rips back the veil and exposes our woefully inadequate, time-bound conceptions of God (and God’s creation).
Borges’ story centers on a man who lives his entire life in a vast—perhaps endless—library. Although less macabre than the recent dystopian film The Platform, there is nonetheless a pervading sense of doom. Through seven dense pages of text, the narrator wrestles with the unknowability of his environment. He speaks of various cults, of cycles of optimism and pessimism, of purges and quests for knowledge, and of “The Book” that could explain it all. But most importantly, he tries to convey just how big this library is. To be found here are books containing:
All possible combinations of the twenty-two orthographic symbols (a number which, though unimaginably vast, is not infinite)—that is, all that is able to be expressed, in every language. All—the detailed history of the future, the autobiographies of the archangels, the faithful catalog of the Library, thousands and thousands of false catalogs, the proof of the falsity of those false catalogs, a proof of the falsity of the true catalog, the gnostic gospel of Basilides, the commentary upon that gospel, the commentary on the commentary on that gospel, the true story of your death, the translation of every book into every language, the interpolations of every book into all books, the treatise Bede could have written (but did not) on the mythology of the Saxon people, the lost books of Tacitus.
Borges cultivates a sense of awe in his readers, as we slowly realize the scale of his fictional library. Mathematicians have deduced that it would contain 251,312,000 books. The number of atoms in our entire universe is estimated to be between 1078 and 1082. This is an absolutely unfathomable quantity. But, the number of books the human mind can try to imagine, while reading Borges’ short story, is so many orders of magnitude larger (again, 251,312,000 books). If someone asked me to try and hold to mind all of the atoms in the universe (let alone the atoms in a few grains of sand), I would scoff at the impossibility. But reading this story, I was “duped” by Borges into thinking that I could grasp The Library. What does this say about human nature?
We so rarely pause to sit with doubt; to consider the vastness of our universe; to ponder the miracle of our consciousness. In order to restore a balanced approach to the pursuit of knowledge, we must first become acutely aware of its limits. Marcelo Gleiser (recipient of the 2019 Templeton Prize) challenged the academic community to “take a much humbler approach to knowledge, in the sense that if you look carefully at the way science works, you’ll see that yes, it is wonderful — magnificent! — but it has limits. And we have to understand and respect those limits.” Gleiser’s admonition speaks to the fact that an overly optimistic and unexamined empiricism holds sway in contemporary scientific discourse—or at least in popular conceptions of science and its purpose.
We need more stories like The Library of Babel. As I’ve written elsewhere: “It represents a profound failure of imagination that we tend to value the symbolic truth of myths only when they can be ‘confirmed’ by today’s preferred modes of knowing.” In these seven pages, Borges tells me more about who we are and about the unknowable cosmos we inhabit than could countless tomes of data collected from telescopes. And yet, Borges also helps me appreciate and contextualize that data, and has opened my mind to listening more deeply to new discoveries advanced by the scientific community. I’ve often advocated for all college students to take, at minimum, a “History of Science” course and a “History of Math” course. The Library of Babel touches upon both. It is the story of society and science in microcosm. It is also a succinct dismissal of the hubris that arises when we pretend we can grasp the infinite.
Let us not forget that we do not know our own universe. None of us chose to be here; we were thrust (oftentimes violently) into this environment. And in life we try our best to strike a truce between our ever-changing minds and bodies and the immutable laws or “rules” of this game that we bump up against from time to time. One of these rules is entropy. One of these rules is renewal. We understand only an iota of an iota about the workings of nature, and for all we can see the universe extends indefinitely. In our galaxy alone (and there are billions—yes, billions of galaxies), there are at least 200 billion stars. If you’re a visual learner, toy around with this scale and let it absolutely blow your mind. A similar exercise can be found here (it shows the mass of our galaxy). If Borges shows us the range of possible configurations for just twenty-two letters, how many possibilities upon possibilities would there be for every particle in our universe? Working with this kind of scale is, perhaps, the closest we can come to imagining infinity.
Trying grasp all of this is too much. Reason simply fails. God is the only Agent capable of arranging and governing all of those possibilities. Like those suffering in the face of brutality, Borges’ narrator cries out prayerfully: “Let me be tortured and battered and annihilated, but let there be one instant, one creature, wherein thy enormous Library may find its justification.”
Cover art by Érik Desmazières (1941).