Babel: discovering layers of symbolism

Part of my thesis (read: idea/argument) for the development of my project is that ‘The Library of Babel’ by Borges requires such extensive knowledge of other texts to fully appreciate and understand it, that the text is prohibitive to readers who would benefit from understanding the story.

Lets start with ‘Babel’ – the word is not referred to in the rest of the story, and yet has pride of place in the title. What does it refer to?

The Tower of Babel

1 Now the whole world had one language and a common speech2 As people moved eastward,[a] they found a plain in Shinar[b] and settled there.

3 They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. 4 Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”

5 But the LORD came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. 6 The LORD said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. 7 Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”

8 So the LORD scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. 9That is why it was called Babel[c]because there the LORD confused the language of the whole world. From there the LORD scattered them over the face of the whole earth.

The Bible, Genesis 11:1-9 (my emphasis added)

Ironically in the story, the very thing that the people do to not ‘be scattered over the face of the whole earth’, leads to them being scattered over the whole earth.

The themes I think it pulls out in Borges’s story are –

  • the confusion of language and misunderstanding (the translators tell us ‘Babel sounds like the Hebrew for confused’),
  • the fruitlessness of man’s attempts to control/understand/shape the universe, and
  • the reference to the divine intervention/origin of the library,
  • the importance of language in our lives.
Any thoughts? Any key concepts and readings on the Tower of Babel I should do?
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