Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Haber/Babel

At the New York Sun, Alberto Manguel has a nice piece about a new book on the mathematics of Borges's Library of Babel:
In 1967, Borges told the French critic Georges Charbonnier that he had kept two ideas in mind when writing "The Library of Babel." The first was a commonplace, an exposition of the combinatory art that has enthralled mathematicians from Archimedes onward, and a conceit amusingly described by Lewis Carroll in "Sylvie and Bruno": that since the number of words in any given language is finite, their possible combinations — i.e., books — are finite also, and that therefore, in the near future, writers will no longer ask, "What book shall I write?" but, "Which book shall I write?"

Borges confessed that, beyond this abstract idea, he was also describing the troubling feeling of being lost in the universe, and of not being able to understand it. "In my story," he told Charbonnier, "there is an intellectual component, and another, of greater importance, I think, that has to do with my sense of loneliness, anguish, uselessness, and of the mysterious nature of the universe, of time, and more importantly, of ourselves. Or rather, of myself."

2 comments:

  1. I once touched that manuscript...at Lame Duck Books in Cambridge, Mass. I don't recall (in my dumbfounded state) Haber/Babel but I'll never forget feeling of shock and awe when the clerk said he had something to show me (after we chatted for some time about Borges) and returned from a back room with the manuscript. I could hardly believe the precision of the handwriting. The whole experience made me half-wonder if a translucent Borges was, a la Obi Wan Kenobi, somehow watching, because my visit to the bookstore was absolutely unplanned. ...And now if only someone would write a book about "The Writing of the God" and tell me how many jaguars does it take to breed the jaguar-spot text of creation and/or destruction! Thanks for the link!

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