Does Jorge Luis Borges’s “The Total Library” Spell the Death of God?

Of the notion of “the Total Library” (a library containing all possible combinations of letters, punctuation, and spacing), Jorge Luis Borges (in the first paragraph of his 1939 essay “The Total Library”) writes the following:

It’s a wonder how long it took mankind to think of the idea. . . . Democritus and Leucippus clearly prefigure it, but its belated inventor is Gustav Theodor Fechner [of Leipzig], and its first exponent, Kurd Lasswitz. . . . it is a typographical avatar of that doctrine of the Eternal Return . . .

The “doctrine of the Eternal Return” (the notion that, if you wait long enough, things are bound to repeat themselves) is most typically associated with Nietzsche, and it is given its most obvious expression today via the multiverse hypotheses of theoretical physicists like Stephen Hawking and Brian Greene.

And for Borges, Aristotle is also an important actor in bringing into the world the idea of the Total Library:

The oldest glimpse of it is in the first book of Aristotle’s Metaphysics. I speak of the passage that expounds the cosmogony of Leucippus: the formation of the world by the fortuitous conjunction of atoms. The writer observes that the atoms required by this hypothesis are homogeneous and that their differences derive from position, order, or form. To illustrate these distinctions, he adds: ‘A is different from N in form; AN from NA in order; Z from N in position.’ In the treatise De generatione et corruptione, he attempts to bring the variety of visible things into accord with the simplicity of the atoms, and he argues that a tragedy consists of the same elements as a comedy—that is, the twenty-four letters of the alphabet.

This observation that tragedy and comedy consist of the same initial matter (“twenty-four letters of the alphabet”), even as their variety of forms—their formations—wind their ways to different outcomes, is stunning. Perhaps Aristotle himself derived his distinction between the material and formal causes of things from thinking about the atomists: how the same material (such as wood) can evolve or be shaped into very different forms (a tree, a bush, a table, a fence, an infant’s crib, a door, a labyrinth, a cross, a pine cone).

Borges also sees intellectual opinion forking over the Total Library—with figures like Cicero and Pascal rejecting it, and Huxley and Lewis Carroll favoring it. He quotes Cicero as writing the following:

I do not marvel that there should be anyone who can persuade himself that certain solid and individual bodies are pulled along by the force of gravity, and that the fortuitous collision of those particles produces this beautiful world that we see. He who considers this possible will also be able to believe that if innumerable characters of gold, each representing one of the twenty-one letters of the alphabet, were thrown together onto the ground, they might produce the Annals of Ennius. I doubt whether chance could possibly create even a single verse to read.

But Borges himself sides with Huxley and Carrol against Cicero and Pascal concerning the plausibility of the Total Library, and concludes his essay thus:

One of the habits of the mind is the invention of horrible imaginings. The mind has invented Hell, it has invented predestination to Hell, it has imagined the Platonic ideas, the chimera, the sphinx, abnormal transformite numbers (whose parts are no smaller than the whole), masks, mirrors, operas, the teratalogical Trinity: the Father, the Son, and the unresolvable Ghost, articulated into a single organism. . . . I have tried to rescue from oblivion a subaltern horror: the vast, contradictory Library, whose vertical wilderness of books run the incessant risk of changing into others that affirm, deny, and confuse everything like a delirious god.

And Borges turned the idea of The Total Library into an unforgettable Kafkaesque short story, “The Library of Babel” (1941), the first sentence of which is the following:

The universe (which others call the Library) is composed of an indefinite, perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries.

The Total Library is where contemporary physics and atheism are headed; it is the “subaltern horror” that is fast replacing the terror of God in the human psyche: the Hell Mouth epiphany of a blind Moloch opening wide. This Moloch shows its fangs and molars dividing and tumbling matter, creating fresh combinations with each new revolve of the jaw, eating and ingesting all (including the creator God of monotheism himself) forever and ever, amen. Nothing escapes this Total Library, as John Updike anticipated back in 1985:

[O]ur century’s revelations of unthinkable largeness and unimaginable smallness, of abysmal stretches of geological time when we were nothing, of supernumerary galaxies and indeterminate subatomic behavior, of a kind of mad mathematical violence at the heart of matter have scorched us deeper than we know.

And the Total Library is where God may go to die because even Leibniz’s famous question—Why is there something when there might have been nothing?—has an answer within it, as the physicist Brian Greene notes (on page 295 of his extraordinary new book, The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos):

In the Ultimate Multiverse, a universe consisting of nothing does exist. As far as we can tell, nothingness is a perfectly logical possibility and so must be included in a multiverse that embraces all universes.

And Green reminds us that the Total Library needn’t just be thought of in alphabetic terms: it may be mathematically infinite as well:

It’s a version of Jorge Luis Borges’ story ‘La Biblioteca de Babel,’ in which the books of Babel are written in the language of mathematics, and so contain all possible sensible, non-self-contradictory strings of mathematical symbols.

And so there it is. No exit from Updike’s “mad mathematical violence.”

As cosmologist Bernard Carr once said:

If there is only one universe, you might have to have a fine-tuner. If you don’t want God, you’d better have a multiverse.

And it appears increasingly plausible that we may live in one. Borges called it the Total Library.

Pleasant dreams?

File:Goya - Caprichos (43) - Sleep of Reason.jpg

Source: Wikidpedia Commons.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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