The Library of Babel A to Z: A High Tech Approach to Borges’s Text and its Significance to Deconstructive Philosophy by Jarrod Waetjen
Ladies and Gentlemen, I bring you exciting news today! This very computer contains not only the perfect conference paper, but also the cure to any ailment and the answer to all of life’s questions. However, before I show you the key to all of your hopes and dreams, I would like to share with you the inspiration as well as the process of its conception.
This essay is based on Jorge Luis Borges’s short fiction, “The Library of Babel,” in which Borges describes an imaginary library that contains every possible combination of a book which is 410 pages in length; each page containing 40 lines; each line, 80 letters. The story itself is void of any significant story line, plot, or characters, though it could be argued that the narrator himself is enough to fill this role. Instead, Borges describes the consequences of this library, as well as possible reactions to its existence.
The significance of having such a library is greater than a collection of all of the world’s most important literary works that have been or will be written, translated into every conceivable language. It is even greater than the fact that every work has millions of duplicates with just one letter or word changed, perhaps creating a superior work. This library has within its walls the meaning of life as well as an entire book dedicated to teaching the meaning of life to each person in this room. Or as Borges wrote, “When it was proclaimed that the Library comprised all books, the first impression was one of extravagant joy. All men felt themselves lord of a secret, intact treasure. There was no personal or universal problem whose eloquent solution did not exist — in some hexagon. The universe was justified, the universe suddenly expanded to the limitless dimensions of hope.”
It should be obvious that this library could never exist due to the sheer enormity of not only the structure itself, but also the amount of materials and man-hours it would take to create the books. However, by utilizing the infinite area known as “cyber space”, as well as the indefatigable efforts of a computer, I have been able to simulate Borges’s library at http://www-rohan.sdsu.edu/~aortiz/babble.html
What you are looking at is a 10-letter simulation of the library. It would be just as easy to create a program that included all 410 pages, but for our purposes, ten spaces serves as a fine example. The program is a basic looping program that is the base of most computer viruses. As you can see, it acts in much the same way an odometer does as it completes a full cycle of the alphabet, A through Z, in one space before activating the next.
If you allow the above program to run unabated, eventually the answer to all of life’s problems will flash across the screen, translated into every language that has ever or will ever exist. However, it will take roughly 80,602 years to run through every possible combination for these 10 spaces alone. In order to run through every possible combination for the 410-page book described in the short story, it would take 10,574,982,400 years.
This begs the question; if we will never live to see the meaning of life, why bother building the program? Why simulate a library that Borges created in order to show the impossibility of finding truth. The answer is two fold. First, I initially built this program as a teaching aid. Students not steeped in math theory may not understand the enormity of the library; however, once placed into the familiar context of computers, it becomes much clearer. Second, it can be argued that within this short story, Borges is questioning the role of the artist in much the same way the postmodern critic is. Because Borges states that the library is a metaphor for the Universe, he is arguing that a human observer cannot find truth or value even if they should accidentally happen upon it. I hope also to use this program as a means of illustrating the consequences of such a belief.
Using this library as a metaphor for the Universe is a slight understatement. If such a library were to exist, there would be 271,312,000 (write this number on the board) different books resting on the shelves. To put this number in perspective, right now, scientists estimate that there are only 6077 atoms in the entire known Universe. Rather than attempting to wrap our brains around that one, I suggest we only work with the ten-space Library of Babel we have before us. With this new system, there are 2710 or 205,891,132,094,649 different combinations after all the meaning of life might very well only take 10 letters to explain! Ideally, we would be able to create a written copy of our library so that we may peruse it at our own leisure.
It should only take a few moments to realize the impossibility of printing out every combination of our library. With the number of characters being printed, even if you were to use a font so small as to render the text almost unreadable while utilizing both sides of each piece of paper, it would still require approximately 12,868,195,760 sheets of paper. That of course is more paper than our planet could ever hope to produce. Even if we could, after the program was finished, it would take another 8,000 years to print.
Computer memory seemed to be the next most logical choice, for it too seems almost infinite. However, it would take 2 petabytes of computer memory to store every combination. The only computer known to hold this much memory is the pentagon computer, which is rumored to be larger in size than the pentagon building itself. Most NASA supercomputers only have 3 terabytes (1,000 times smaller than what is required to hold our library.) If we wanted to use eleven characters instead of ten, it would require more computer memory than exists in every computer in the world. However, this is not a dead end, for computer science is making leaps in technology as they are now testing “living” protein hard drives that will dwarf the modern computers capacity for memory. One day, the entire Library of Babble might exist in an average super-computer. The benefits of this would be incredible, as the librarian would be able to run search engines and filter out books that aren’t entirely written in English, or scan for books that contain the word combination “this is the book that contains the meaning of life.”
However, with the limited technology at my disposal, the only feasible way of completing the project was to abandon storage altogether and simply run the looping program. Compared to the first two programs, I would argue that this one is closer to the Borges’s text, and in theory, no different than the Library of Babble itself.
Both the actual books and my program rely on a viewer observation. Thus, there is fundamentally no difference between a combination flashing across the screen unobserved, and a book that forever remains closed. The meaning of life may exist in an unopened book, as it also flashed across the screen for a fraction of a second. If we are not there to observe either, their existence is unhelpful. Moreover, the probability of the meaning of life being discovered by an observer who can decipher it in both cases are so close to zero that they are almost identical. In a sense, time becomes the library. Instead of finding a certain book in a certain hexagon, you will find that same book on your computer at a moment in time. If “The Library of Babel” is a metaphor for the universe, my computer makes use of that universe. Every word and equation that comprises everything we know will flash across the screen and will be stored either in the memory banks of a person or in that moment of time. Also, there is no scientific or effective way of approaching either; both represent the ultimate exercise in futility as every approach is random, and even if you happen upon something useful, there is no way of verifying its authenticity. Both are useless to the individual with the exception of the knowledge that the truth is written somewhere, and the comfort in knowing that it exists.
What makes this program superior to any of the other proposed is its very structure. One of the key points in the short story is that the Library is both finite and infinite at the same time. Borges wrote:
It is not illogical, I say, to think the world is infinite. Those who judge it to be limited, postulate that in remote places the corridors and stairs and hexagons could inconceivably cease – a manifest absurdity. Those who imagine it to be limitless forget that the possible number of books is limited. I dare insinuate the following solution to this ancient problem: The library is limitless and periodic. If an eternal voyager were to traverse in any direction, he would find, after many centuries, that the same volumes are repeated in the same disorder. (87)
If we were to have a stack of pages as a result of a printed attempt of the 10 Character Library of Babel, we could immediately find its end. The program would be finite, and thus violate a key principle. Conversely, my program is both periodic and infinite as there are a finite number of combinations, but once it reaches zzzzzzzzzz, it reverts back to its original form in order to repeat the entire cycle.
With a better understanding of the program as well as the Borges work, I would now like to explore the significance of this metaphor. Within the library are countless librarians whose sole job is to move from text to text to find books of “Value.” Borges writes specifically about one volume that maps out the library and serves as the key to the Universe:
We know, too, of another superstition of that time: the Man of the Book. In dome shelf of some hexagon, men reasoned, there must exist a book which is the cipher and perfect compendium of all the rest: some librarian has pursued it, and it is analogous to a god: Vestiges of the worship of that remote functionary still persist in the language of this zone […] I have squandered and consumed my years in adventure of this type. To me, it does not seem unlikely that on some shelf of the universe there lies a total book. I pray the unknown gods that some man- even if only one man, and though it have been 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. May heaven exist, though my place be in hell. Let me be outraged and annihilated, but may thy enormous Library be justified, for one instant, in one being.
Borges is stating that the work of the librarian, or the artist, would be justified if one of them could happen upon the truth. Of course this is somewhat of a sardonic point of view as the odds are infinitely small of anyone happening across them. Moreover, as the program demonstrates, if anyone should find the right book, there is no possible way that they would know it.
If there were one book that served as a key to the entire library, there would be millions of counterfeit editions and billions of books claiming to be the key, but containing nothing of consequence. The most experienced of librarians could hold the most important book in their hands and there would be no way of guaranteeing its authenticity.
With this in mind, the Library itself is of value, as it promises truth, but the individual writing acts within seem useless. Any attempt to interpret or privilege one book over another will only demonstrate the naivety of the reader. While there may be answers to our questions somewhere in the Universe, this text seems to suggest that we can be quite certain that an artist, scientist or philosopher will never discover it. Our language and means of understanding are entirely too primitive. As Friedrich Nietzsche wrote in his essay “On Truth and Lies in the Nonmoral Sense”:
It is this way with all of us concerning language: we believe that we know something about the things themselves when we speak of trees, colors, snow, and flowers; and yet we possess nothing but metaphors for things – metaphors which correspond in no way to the original entities… Thus the genesis of language does not proceed logically in any case, and all the material within which the man of truth, the scientist, and the philosopher later work and build, if not derived from never-never land, is at least not derived from the essence of things.
It is this line of thought that precedes the great deconstructionists such as Derrida who all attempt to argue that true meaning cannot be found through language. In essence, we can stop this program at any point and what lies on the screen is just as just as close to the truth as anything that follows. However, this program as well as Borges’s library seems to suggest something different. While the librarians may have no hope of finding value in the books, does that mean that it does not exist within the texts?
Allow me to move further into Nietzsche’s argument in order to make my point as he suggests that by creating a word such as leaf, a violent act has occurred as it excludes all variations not included in the definition of the word. He writes:
As certainly as no one leaf is exactly similar to any other, so certain is it that the idea “leaf” has been formed through an arbitrary omission of these individual differences, through a forgetting of the differentiating qualities, and this idea now awakens the notion that in nature there is, besides the leaves, a something called “the leaf,” perhaps a primal form according to which all leaves are woven, drawn, accurately measured, colored, crinkled, painted, but by unskilled hands so that no copy had turned out correct and trustworthy as a true copy of the primal form.
While the word leaf in its current form excludes the millions of varieties of leaves that do not fit its given definition, is it impossible that the library holds the most true and perfect definition of the word leaf; a definition that includes every variation of every variety of leaf found on earth? Should we argue that language cannot define reality when we have only been exposed to the tiniest fraction of its capabilities?
This question demonstrates the inherent value of the program you see before you. Only after you understand that the English alphabet is capable of producing more combinations than the Atom, or that with all of our advancement in technology, we do not have the capacity to house every combination of 10 letter phrases, can we answer the question of the value of our language. If language is truly nothing but a poor shadow of its subject, this program represents the future of critical essays. Is there any point in slaving over our word processors if the random combinations of letters flashing before you are just as valuable? Is there any point in teaching Shakespeare when the work of one monkey with a single typewriter is just as valuable?
Or we can look upon this program as a sign of hope. There will come a single moment in time where the perfect definition of a leaf will flash across the screen for a moment before it disappears for another 10 billion years. If it existed for a single moment in time, can we argue that it is impossible for the human mind, infinitely more complex than this program, to stumble upon it as well?
If anything, I hope this program represents all that we have yet to explore, and like the Narrator of Borges’s work, I would argue that millions of years worth of effort will be justified if one person can find the simplest truth in our own language.