Featured Image entitled Ascending and Descending by M.C. Escher
In his work The Postmodern Simon Malpas states that ‘For many people, the mere mention of the word ‘postmodernism’ brings immediately to mind ideas of fracturing, fragmentation, indeterminacy and plurality’ (2005: 5). While this is true enough, this notion of fragmentation is not always, necessarily, in the most literal of senses. Whereby postmodernism is instead installed with a self-consciousness that seeks to destabilise and fracture beliefs, codes and sign-systems that are held as ‘True’ in our modern society. It is, perhaps, in Baudrillard’s The Precision of Simulacra (1981) that the interrogation of images, signs and sign-systems is most closely engaged with. For it is within postmodernism, that ‘the distinction between what is real and what is simulated collapses: everything is a model or an image, all is surface without depth; this is hyperreal, as Baudrillard calls it’ (Barry, 2002: 89). Thus, it can be argued that Baudrillard’s concept of the hyperreal as ‘a real without origin or reality’ (1981: 1) can be utilised as a means of analysing Borges’ infinite, universal Library from his 1941 short story The Library of Babel. Within this framework, the notion of the Library as a simulacrum also simultaneously positions it as a metaphorical labyrinth, one which both narrator and reader must explore. It is through this exploration that the reader will come to interrogate and attempt to understand Borges universe and, possibly, their own.
It is in Baudrillard’s work Simulacra and Simulation that the sign-system of simulacrum is broken down into four stages that lead to hyperreality, which ‘is no longer of the order of appearances, but of simulation (1981: 6). The first stage is ‘the reflection of a profound reality’ where it is faithful signs and symbols such as maps, as Baudrillard aforementions (1981: 1), and paintings of realism, as Barry illustrates (2002: 87). In the second stage the sign ‘masks and denatures a profound reality’ (1981: 6), by offering an unfaithful and untrue copy it is also called ‘the order of maleficence’ (ibid). Following this, the third stage ‘masks an absence of a profound reality’ and ‘plays at being an appearance’ (ibid), for this Baudrillard cites Disneyland as ‘The imaginary Disneyland is neither true nor false’ (1981: 13). Finally the fourth stage, in which the sign has ‘no relation to any reality whatsoever: it is its own pure simulacrum’ (1981: 6), here originality has no conception and there is only the simulacrum. One such example of this stage, which highlights hyperreality, is René Magritte’s painting ‘The Treachery of Images’ which shows a pipe with “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” painted beneath, French for “This is not a pipe”. Michel Foucault even postulating the image of the pipe, before stating: ‘Nowhere is there a pipe’ (1982: 29). Thus, this ordered structure of simulacrum can be used as a frame analysis for the Library in Borges short story, where ‘The universe (which others call the Library) is composed of an indefinite, perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries. In the center of each gallery is a ventilation shaft, bounded by a low railing. From any hexagon one can see the floors above and below-one after another, endlessly.’ (1998: 112). It is these notions of the ‘indefinite’ and ‘infinite’ which can be argued to so intrinsically establish the image of the hexagonal galleries in the Library as the hyperreal. For by its very definition to be ‘infinite’ is to be ‘limitless or endless in space, extent, or size; impossible to measure of calculate’ (2010: 896). Within this limitlessness, where the hexagon galleries are endless in all possible directions the hyperreal is inaugurated as there is no original, no beginning or end to the galleries and the Library. It is perhaps through this hyperreality that Borges Library truly takes its form as a metaphorical labyrinth, for as Bloom explains ‘Labyrinths are emblems of ellipsis. Exists/entrances are left out’ (xvi-xvii).
When discussing the work of Borges, Butler correctly observes that ‘the word ‘labyrinth’ is undoubtedly the one with which he is most closely identified’ (2010: 16). This being because throughout his fiction Borges creates literary labyrinths, of which ‘frequently exist through the metaphors of “houses, cities, deserts, mirrors, photographs, and, of course, books and libraries”’ (Gray, 2009: 29-30). It can be argued that Borges chose these locations as they are not typically thought of as labyrinths, where a house, a city or a library exist in the reader’s day-to-day life as known spaces; something normally engaged with and thus unquestioned. These known spaces henceforth symbolise and are comprised of signs that the reader does not second guess, where further meaning is not attempted to be gathered as the language used to encode these signs ‘make a reality, they don’t just name things’ (Barry, 2002: 44). For example, a library building contains books which symbolise learning and knowledge and these meanings that are taken are ‘True’. Thus, by repositioning this space, and the signs it possesses, as a labyrinth Borges attempts to interrogate new meanings from his readers, as Psarra explains he ‘uses chaotic spaces composed of hexagon rooms […] in his speculations about knowledge and culture’ (2009: 68). In The Library of Babel, the books contained within the Library are described as ‘identical in format; each book contains four hundred ten pages; each page, forty lines; each line, approximately eighty black letters’ (Borges, 1998: 113). Within this labyrinth the books of the Library come to symbolise infinity, even though ‘all possible combinations […] (a number which, though unimaginably vast, is not infinite)’ (Borges, 1998: 115). This being for fact that the sheer number of books the Library can produce, to the human mind, is infinite because it is beyond humanity’s mental capabilities. Through this, Jameson’s belief that postmodernism favours image, surface and symbol is held true as Borges text encourages simulacrum and the encoding, questioning and creation of symbolism within the Library. Or, as Bloom quotes Vico, ‘we only know what we ourselves have made. If you inhabit a labyrinth, then you created it’ (2009: xvii).
In The Library of Babel Borges narrator states: ‘I declare that the Library is endless’ before continuing on to ‘repeat the old dictum: The Library is a sphere whose exact center is any hexagon and whose circumference is unattainable’ (112-3). The idea that the narrator presents the Library as ‘endless’ and ‘whose exact center is in any hexagon’ again seeks to reinforce the aforementioned argument that the Library is both a simulacrum and a labyrinth. A notion that can be founded in Baudrillard’s theory, where he asserts the hyperreal to be ‘not unreal, but a simulacrum, that is to say never exchanged for the real, but exchanged for itself, in an uninterrupted circuit without reference or circumference’ (1981: 5-6). It is the hexagon rooms in question which are what most effectively position the Library as a simulacrum and labyrinth, where the identical design makes it impossible to know which room, if any, is the original, or, in fact is any closer to the ‘end’ of the Library. As Borges details:
The arrangement of the galleries is always the same: Twenty bookshelves, five to each side, line four of the hexagon’s six sides; the height of the bookshelves, floor to ceiling, is hardly greater than the height of a normal librarian. One of the hexagon’s free sides opens onto a narrow sort of vestibule, which in turn opens onto another gallery, identical to the first-identical in fact to all. To the left and right of the vestibule are two tiny compartments. One is for sleeping, upright; the other, for satisfying one’s physical necessities. (Borges, 1998: 112).
However, within Baudrillard’s theory the hexagonal rooms of the library could also be considered to be a second stage simulacrum, as an unfaithful or untrue copy. This being for the fact that the books of the library are almost infinitely produced, in which each room contains different texts of ‘rational line or forthright statement’ and ‘leagues of senseless cacophony, verbal nonsense, and incoherency’ (Borges, 1998: 114). This idea that each hexagon room is not quite an exact copy is indeed much in line with Baudrillard’s theory of the untrue copy image. Something that Barry provides an example of where paintings may present a more romanticised image of a city than it truly has in real life (2002: 87-88). While this may seek to present the Library as a second stage simulacrum rather than a hyperreal, it instead can be hypothesised differently. Whereby, as the narrator states, ‘In all the Library, there are no two identical books’ (1998: 115) and thus because of the sheer, incomprehensible number of individual texts that are produced throughout the library it is impossible to create an exact copy of a hexagon room. Therefore, the contents of the bookshelves in each hexagon are effectively a null factor in the simulacrum, the hyperreal remains where the hexagon galleries, in their design, are each an identical copy, with no original whatsoever. It must be stated that within this image of endless hexagon shaped rooms is where, as aforementioned, the simulacrum becomes intrinsically part of Borges’ labyrinth: his ‘literature creates representations of space’ (Psarra, 2009: 85).
As has been discussed, Baudrillard ‘is associated with what is usually known as ‘the loss of the real’’ (Barry, 2002: 87), a concept that is summarised in which ‘in contemporary life the pervasive influence of images from film, TV, and advertising has led to a loss of the distinction between real and imagined, reality and illusion, surface and depth’ and the result is ‘a culture of ‘hyperreality’, in which distinction between these are eroded’ (ibid). This loss of the real is something that has been illustrated to be an intrinsic, and important, part of constructing Borges’ Library as a simulacrum and labyrinth. Or as Jameson asserts, a key feature of the postmodern is a ‘new depthlessness, which finds its prolongation both in contemporary “theory” and in a whole new culture of the image or the simulacrum’ (5). It must be interrogated, though, why does this simultaneous construction take place in Borges work? Published in 1941, Borges text appeared at a time where there was a huge increase mass media with the radio, camera, motion-picture projector and television all appearing within Borges’ lifetime. This was coupled with a rise in sensational, mass journalism ‘that focused on crimes of passion, freak accidents, bizarre divorce cases, and the private lives of movie personalities’ (Fellow, 2013: 209), films, television and radio capitalised on these images and reinforced them to the public. In such an era, Borges’ Library becomes a metaphor for the endlessness of images and information that the reader is presented with in their day-to-day life, a labyrinth almost that one must navigate to find the information they require. This being similar to the narration of the text, where being confronted with endless information is what the librarians must do on a daily basis. However, in the act of spending their lives searching for a particular text or Vindication, it inevitably sends the librarians insane (Borges, 1998: 115). Such insanity, it be argued, is a symptom of our postmodern condition where we live in the ‘culture of the image’ as Jameson stated, where the task of understanding and navigating the endlessness of the simulacrum in modern society is a heavy one. Thus Borges’ text forces the reader to acknowledge this challenge through infinite hexagon rooms and the inevitability of texts produced by the Library, in examining the reality of the librarians Borges encourages the reader to examine their own. Or, as Gray states the idea of a ‘constructedness of “reality” is arguably Borges’s most significant legacy. It is, at any rate, what identified him as a “postmodern” (2009: 32).
In conclusion, by applying Baudrillard’s theory to Borges’ The Library of Babel it can be demonstrated that the Library is both a simulacrum and a labyrinth. In the text the Library becomes an endless labyrinth of space, design, image and representation, where one ‘can hardly fail to notice the feeling of being lost into the labyrinths of his plots, puzzled by the conceptual symmetries that link characters and events as well as by the architectural symmetries in the places inhabited by his characters’ (Psarra, 2009: 68). This ‘feeling of being lost’ is much of what the reader must explore in Borges’s text by following the narrators musings on the endlessness of the Library as a space and simulacrum, here they will come to consider the endlessness of knowledge and image in their own reality, not just Borges. Or as Psarra asserts, the literary and the labyrinth both have a ‘representational function in their capacity to embody and reflect philosophical ideas. However, to confine architecture to the actuality of spatial construction […} be similar to reducing Borges’ fictions to storytelling or his fictional spaces to an actual image of labyrinths’ (2009: 86). This, Borges text speaks to postmodern culture where his literary labyrinths engage with the extent of the hyperreal in society. In an age of meme culture, repetitive symbolism and imagery in film and television it in no doubt that if The Library of Babel were to be written in 2016 it would likely set in a computer, rather than a Library.
WORD COUNT: 2198
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Bloom, H. (2009) The Labyrinth. Bloom’s Literary Criticism: New York.
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Butler, R. (2010) Borges’ Short Stories: A Reader’s Guide. Continuum Books: London.
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Fellow, A. (2013) American Media History. 3rd edn. Wadswoth Cengage Learning: Boston.
Gray, J. (2009) ‘Borges and the Legacy of ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’’, in Bloom, H (eds.) The Labyrinth. Bloom’s Literary Criticism: New York, pp. 27-36. .
Malpas, S (2005) The Postmodern. Routledge: Oxford.
Psarra, S. (2009) Architecture and Narrative: The Formation of Space and Cultural Meaning. Routledge: Oxford.
Stevenson, A. (2010) ‘Infinite’, Oxford English Dictionary. 3rd edn. Oxford University Press: Oxford, pp. 896.