:: Article

The Worst of Architects: Reconsidering Borges’ “Library of Babel”

By Daniel Elkind.

Jonathan Basile, Tar for Mortar (punctum books, 2018)

In their introduction to The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick, editors Jonathan Lethem and Pamela Jackson attempt to arrive at what they think the American science fiction author was ultimately doing across the more than seven thousand pages of his ‘exegesis,’ asking: “What saves the universe from running in useless circles until it drops? What separates the living spark of meaning from the ‘inferior bulk’ of chaos and noise? Does the universe evolve or devolve? If the system is closed, then where does ‘the new’ originate?”[1] It is often taken for granted that invention lies at the heart of creative endeavor. But what is invention, exactly?

Marx made the distinction clear in the first volume of Capital (1867), juxtaposing the “labor” of bees with human labor:

We ascribe to labor a form, which belongs exclusively to humanity. A spider conducts operations which resemble those of a weaver, and a bee would put many a human architect to shame by the construction of its honeycomb cells. But what at the outset distinguishes the worst of architects from the best of bees is that the architect builds the cell in his mind before he constructs it in wax.[2]

Marx knew his Kant, particularly that subsection of the Critique of Judgment (1790) titled “On Art in General,” in which Kant writes:

By right we should not call anything art except a production through freedom, i.e., through a power of choice that bases its acts on reason. For though we like to call the product that bees make (the regularly constructed honeycombs) a work of art, we do so only by virtue of an analogy with art; for as soon as we recall that their labor is not based on any rational deliberation on their part, we say at once that the product is a product of their nature (namely, of instinct), and it is only to their creator that we ascribe it as art.[3]

Both, in turn, might be said to be responding to The Fable of the Bees: or Private Vices, Public Benefits (1732) by Bernard Mandeville. And Descartes’ automata. And Francis Bacon’s anthropocentrism. And Montaigne’s essay, An Apology for Raymond Sebond.

And so on and so forth, back into the (un)lettered past.


The honeycomb is a central motif in Tar for Mortar: “The Library of Babel” and the Dream of Totality, Jonathan Basile’s thought-provoking new meditation on the classic Borges short story, wherein endlessly repeating hexagons constitute the basic architectural units of a universal library, the cells in which all possible books are shelved—including this one. Products of pure permutation, articulated in the abstract logic of formal systems in which the names of things are arbitrarily assigned, these books are “a reminder of the indifference of all expression” to such quaint priorities as personal intention or private meaning: a kind of blasphemy aimed at a gospel of originality that prefers the worst of architects to the best of bees. “It was self-evident to the librarians in the Library of Babel,” writes Basile, “that they could never create an original work; instead they hoped to discover the truth in the prefabricated texts they considered divine.”[4]

The Greeks called this atomism. For the Kabbalists it was the Aleph-Bet, the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet—including five so-called final forms—endowed with numerical significance, whose recombination creates the appearance of the endless variety of our universe. Borges, whose speculative fictions often invoked the Kabbalah and who, in Basile’s memorable description “went on to become the third blind head librarian of the National Library of Buenos Aires,”[5] seems to challenge Kant’s conception of human nature by imagining even the most literate human beings as drones navigating a hive without end — its cells filled with books rather than honey.

Unlike the original story of the Tower in the book of Genesis, “La biblioteca de Babel,” first published in 1941 (English translations did not appear until 1962), is not an etiological myth or merely a parody of one. In thrall to an inverted messianism, these librarians, like the monoglot engineers who attempted to storm heaven with little more than bricks and tar, seek a particular place: the precise spot on the exact shelf of the one hexagon in which the ideal symbolic sequence resides. This being Borges, however, things are not quite what they seem. Readers are seduced by what they see as the biographical symmetries between author and narrator, tending to take the latter’s claims about the Library at face value, all while following a breadcrumb trail that inevitably leads to contradictions and nested ironies. “The question of Babel,” writes Basile, “both as tower and as library, is precisely one of totality or unity—is it possible for humanity to share a common language?”[6] Can the shards ever be made whole? This is where the latter part of the subtitle comes in.

Borges delighted in contradictions, especially those “true contradictions” that are said to exist beyond formal logic with its stable binary true/false. He was the type to answer a question with a question, a riddle with another riddle, exploring the uncanny ability of contradictions to undermine authority—as if seeking, at times, to liberate language from the scribe. In “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” he proposed a scenario in which Cervantes was no longer the sole author of the tilting-at-windmills tale. In “Kafka and His Precursors” (1951), he begins by reeling off a shortlist of potential literary ancestors, then interrupts the neat genealogy he’s constructed: “Kafka’s idiosyncrasy is present in each of those writings, to a greater or lesser degree, but if Kafka had not written, we would not perceive it; that is to say, it would not exist.” And, more memorably: “The fact is that each writer creates his precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as well as it will modify the future.”[7] One is hardly even related to oneself.

This combinatoric approach is seductive from a number of angles. If, as we have been assured, the brain is merely a meatspace computer and the internet a vast, digital Alexandria that aspires to contain whatever one might conceivably seek out, then wouldn’t it make sense to share the burden of analysis—and, increasingly, invention—with networked machines? Basile is a member of the BABEL Working Group, a “non-hierarchical scholarly collective,” and the creator of libraryofbabel.info, which “currently contains every possible page of 3,200 characters, using a character set of the twenty-six lower case letters, space, comma, and period.”[8] (Several potential floor plans contributed by users of the site are reproduced in the book.) Rather than putting writers out of business, however, the virtual Babel, like the one on which it is based, fails by design. Articles, like the one on Slate.com—Jorge Luis Borges’ “Library of Babel” Is Now a Real Website. Borges Would Be Alarmed—which took the virtual library literally, ended up missing the point altogether. Though many have tried, any attempt at constructing a universal language like Esperanto or the one featured in Borges’ essay “John Wilkins’ Analytical Language” can serve as a demonstration of the ultimate futility of trying to approximate that ur-tongue.

A library in which enlightenment comes secondhand and human intelligence is reduced to fruitless browsing conveys some sense of what it’s like to search for certainty and absolute truth in a probabilistic universe, where the probable and impossible exist along a common continuum. As in many of Borges’ stories, the protagonists of “The Library of Babel” are haunted by knowledge; information forms a mental labyrinth from which they find it increasingly difficult to escape. And yet the point of atomism was to free human beings from meddling Olympians and to encourage them to be as shameless as nature. “Nature,” according to Lucretius, “is free and uncontrolled by proud masters (dominis superbis) and runs the universe by herself without the aid of gods who pass their unruffled lives, their placid aeon, in calm and peace!”[9] Were it to exist, a library of all possible expression would pose about as much of a threat to human invention as a xylotheque to a forest.


            Postcript: On June 7, 2018, the New York Times published the latest in bee research under the headline “Do Bees Know Nothing?” The article summarized a new paper in the journal Science purporting to show that, according to one of the authors, bees “‘understood that zero was a number lower than one and part of a sequence of numbers’”:

But they weren’t thinking the way we think, consciously, right?  “I certainly wouldn’t use the word consciousness,” in relation to bees, Dr. Dyer said.  But, “the evidence is consistent with high-level cognitive abilities.”

David Anderson, a fruit fly researcher at Caltech, was more cautious:

“It is difficult to know what such a task ‘means’ for the bees,” he wrote in an email, “from a ‘conceptual’ standpoint, because we do not understand the strategy that the bees’ brains are using to solve the problem.”

No one is arguing yet that insects are self-conscious, but it is not inconceivable that in the near future the honeybee, too, will be considered capable of art and Kant’s division—what Basile calls “the deconstruction of the distinction between invention and discovery”—will further erode from this direction. In the meantime, works that have their genesis in collaborative intellectual projects like Tar for Mortar—made possible by the radical open-access publisher punctum books—offer a possible way out of the information labyrinth in which we find ourselves. Forget the (at least) 104677 volumes. To discover the other wanderers, each of us must take a chisel to the hexagonal walls of our bookish tombs.*

(*Chisel not included.)

[1] Lethem and Jackson, eds. The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011), p. xx.
[2] Marx, Karl. Capital I (Penguin, 1976), p. 284.
[3] Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Judgment trans. Werner S. Pluhar (Cambridge: Hackett, 1987), p. 170.
[4] Basile, Jonathan. Tar for Mortar (Punctum, 2018), p. 17-18.
[5] ibid p. 44.
[6] ibid p. 59.
[7] Borges, Jorge Luis. “Kafka and His Precursors” in Other Inquisitions, 1937-1952 trans. Eliot Weinberger (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2000 [1952]).
[8] Tar for Mortar p. 65.
[9] De rerum natura 2.1090-4.


Daniel Elkind is a writer and translator living in San Francisco.


First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, October 8th, 2018.