labyrinths: suggestions from others

My tutor sent me these links:

“Borges essays, while short, can be baroque affairs. They are the mark of a “delirious archivist,” as Umberto Eco called him, of a man who lives amidst legions of chattering books. He constructs his essays like a vast puzzle, piling quip upon quote, leading you ever deeper into a thicket of metaphors. Occasionally, they are almost formless, as if their writer has been so carried away by the force of his reading that he has forgotten the point he set out to make. Yet, a careful reading will always reveal the fragile thread between each idea, the links that made Borges not only a consummate reader and thinker but a peerless writer.” NANDINI RAMACHANDRAN

A friend reminded me of the labyrinths in Alice in Wonderland

And also the maze in the fourth Harry Potter book, The Goblet of Fire:

I also watched Bowie’s 1986 ‘The Labyrinth’ on Friday – which probably deserves more than a passing reference, but I’m a bit busy, as its assessment submission day for task 2 of 3.

With less than subtle references to Escher in creating an incomprehensible reality.. While I was on vimeo I also found this, a typographic treatment of a quote from the Borges story, The Aleph.


representing unimaginable things: Chris Jordan

Chris Jordan, an American artist/photographer uses interesting scalable photographs to represent the huge numbers of disposable items in his ‘Running the Numbers’ series on consumption and the statistics behind it. The photograph above represents the 1.4 million  paper bags used in American supermarkets every hour.

Below is ‘insatiable’ – “Depicts 48,000 plastic spoons, equal to the number of gallons of oil consumed around the world every second.” Chris’ work aims to represent ‘global phenomena’ on a scale that will challenge us and illuminate the things we otherwise couldn’t see – the unimaginable (Jordan, C. 2009).

I’m considering the methods he used and the effects he creates to see how I might also communicate what seems incomprehensible.


hexagons: why?

I suppose, dear blog reader, that you might be wondering why hexagons are so prevalent in The Library of Babel. I am still curious myself. They are the building blocks for the whole library, the construction of the universe. Perhaps because they tesselate endlessly, perhaps for no other reason than a random choice. The ‘galleries’ of the Library, containing all of the books in the universe, are hexagonal in shape:

“The universe (which others call the Library) is composed of an indefinite and perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries, with vast air shafts between, surrounded by very low railings. From any of the hexagons one can see, interminably, the upper and lower floors. The distribution of the galleries is invariable. Twenty shelves, five long shelves per side, cover all the sides except two; their height, which is the distance from floor to ceiling, scarcely exceeds that of a normal bookcase. One of the free sides leads to a narrow hallway which opens onto another gallery, identical to the first and to all the rest. To the left and right of the hallway there are two very small closets. In the first, one may sleep standing up; in the other, satisfy one’s fecal necessities. Also through here passes a spiral stairway, which sinks abysmally and soars upwards to remote distances.”

-Jorge Luis Borges

Imagining what shape this library must take is quite mind boggling, and seemingly impossible, or unimaginable (hence the title of my project: the infinite unimaginable). Some however – architects, engineers, mathematicians (Hayes 2009), those unable to leave enigmas unexplored – have devoted time to figuring out the structure, and even, indeed, the air circulation and location of load bearing pillars!


Within the Library, there is talk of a “the books in the Crimson Hexagon: books whose format is smaller than usual, all-powerful, illustrated and magical…” Borges’ ‘universe library’ is interesting in its absolute confusion. I was musing yesterday on the title’s inclusion of ‘Babel’ and yet the fact is that the word cannot be found anywhere within the story… In another short story, Borges’ protagonist asks:

In a riddle whose answer is time, what word is prohibited?’

-The Garden of Forking Paths, Borges. JL

In a story about _____________ what word is prohibited? The library contains all the books and languages and stories about the whole universe – if anything can be said or imagined, it is and must be contained in the library. And yet there is a stark lack of literary content – no quotes from books save to point out the impervious nature of the letters (or orthographic symbols) contained within. The letters and books appear to obstruct meaning, rather than communicate it. (Is the story about Babel? language? stories?…). As Lisa Block de Behar points out, perhaps the significant literary lack of the library can be justified in a similar way. Borges seems more concerned with the architecture and structure of the library than the books it contains.

by Karl Kempf

The origin of the library is unknown, as is its creator, as is the purpose of the ‘librarians’ existence (Piper, P. 2001). How can the author speak of hope? Is this the allusion to the human condition, scattered at Babel and unable to understand the universe we live in, language obscuring rather than revealing “humanities basic mysteries – the origin of the Library and of time” (Borges, 1959).


Block de Behar, L. 2001, The Place of the Library, Latin American Literary Review, Jul-Dec 2001, 29:58,  pp. 55-72.

Hayes, B. Books-A-Million (‘The Unimaginable Mathematics of Borges’ Library of Babel’), American Scientist, 97:1, Jan-Feb 2009, p.78-79, book review.

Piper, P. 2001, ‘For Jorge Luis Borges, Paradise Was Not a Garden but a Library’, American Libraries, August 2001, pp.56-58.



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?