Thursday, August 28, 2008

Book Review: Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges

This book is a collection. First of short stories, second of essays, and finally of parables. I started with one of the stories which reside within this older, but still sound paperback. The story is called "The Library of Babel." It is, I confess, this decidedly dystopian thesis that gave me the impetus of my earlier post on a universal web-library encompassing all published works of past, present, or future.

The title of this story is self-explanatory. The library in this story is infinite. It contains all conceivable works of human and perhaps of divine endeavor. The first sentence begins thus: "The universe (which others call the Library)--." The narrator is a librarian of this library. He and the other librarians are unaware of this vast library's origin or purpose; and attempt to find it. Some see it as meaningless and commit suicide. Much of the story is devoted to the narrator hypothesizing about the library; its builders, its purpose, its extent. My favorite phrase in this story is perhaps the most commonplace; something that other writers would have used: "Light is provided by some spherical fruit which bear the name of lamps."

I concentrate on this story because it is the first I read; and because it characterizes (if anything can) the underlying thesis of this work. Though few of these works could coexist in some vast fictional universe, the narrator is usually Borges himself, when he is named at all, and channeling him when he is not. Man is battling against, and yet in synthesis with, God in these stories. The profound ones reach entirely beyond the usual scope of human endeavor. They are little gems, set in the stone crown of a tall and noble statue neglected by the ages. There, a Borges touch for you.

I highly recommend the whole book. With your permission, I will now excerpt in its entirety a short, Platonic parable included at the end of Labyrinths, entitled The Witness.

The Witness

In a stable which is almost in the shadow of a new stone church, a man with gray eyes and gray beard, lying amidst the odor of the animals, humbly seeks death as one would seek sleep. The day, faithful to vast and secret laws, is shifting and confusing the shadows inside the poor shelter; outside are the plowed fields and a ditch clogged with dead leaves and the tracks of a wolf in the black mud where the forests begin. The man sleeps and dreams, forgotten. He is awakened by the bells tolling the Angelus. In the kingdoms of England the ringing of the bells is now one of the customs of the evening, but this man, as a child, had seen the face of Woden, the divine horror and exultation, the crude wooden idol hung with Roman coins and heavy clothing, the sacrificing of horses, dogs, and prisoners. Before dawn he will die and with him will die, and never return, the last immediate images of these pagan rites; the world will be a little poorer when this Saxon has died.

Deeds which populate the dimensions of space and which read their end when someone dies may cause us wonderment, but one thing, or an infinite number of things, dies in every final agony, unless there is a universal memory as the theosophists have conjectured. In time there was a day that extinguished the last eyes to see Christ; the battle of Junin and the love of Helen died with the death of a man. What will die with me when I die, what pathetic of fragile form will the world lose? The voice of Macedonio Fernandez, the image of a red horse in the vacant lot at Serano and Charcas, a bar of sulphur in the drawer of a mahogany desk?

This story asks, as I have myself more than once, what we will lose when we will die. I have no answer yet; perhaps like Borges that story for me will end with a question mark. But perhaps everything will be lost, and then when the Son of Man descends to take his throne, and in the new Heaven and Earth, all memories of all people will be purified, solidified. Like a broken glass melted and blown into an infinite series of connected glasses, each reflecting, prism-like, the thoughts and memories of the others.

There are few connecting themes in Borges' book, but here they are: first, the labyrinth itself. Second, eternity and the eternal. Third, God. Fourth, Man. Fifth, Christ--one of his parables muses on the appearance of Christ; how "a Jew's profile in the subway is perhaps that of Christ; the hands giving us our change at the ticket window perhaps repeat those that were one day nailed to the cross by some soldiers." Sixth, things not as they seem. Seventh, the Rousseau's Noble Savage. Eighth, time as an illusion, ninth and finally, the traitor--one story is devoted to Judas Iscariot. One is devoted to Droctulft, a barbarian who in the end died defending a Roman city.

My favorite story in this collection is Theme of the Traitor and Hero. I will not attempt to summarize it; there are some things one must experience for oneself. I only encourage you to read it. As multi-layered and satisfying and breath-taking a story I have scarcely read; and keep in mind that it is not a Tolkien epic, but a four-page story.

Borges' stories are always concluded; if not satisfactorily. Mentally or physically, the story is completed; as opposed to, for example, Dickens' Great Expectations. In one story, for example, a Jew set to be executed by the Nazis is granted time by God to mentally complete his last play. For example, the narrator of The Library of Babel is overwhelmed and depressed by the seeming pointless chaos of the library, until:

Perhaps my old age and fearfulness deceive me, but I suspect that the human species--the unique species--is about to be extinguished, but the Library will endure: illuminated, solitary, infinite, perfectly motionless, equipped with precious volumes, useless, incorruptible, secret.

I have just written the word "infinite." I have not interpolated the adjective out of rhetorical habit; I say that it is not illogical to think that the world is infinite. Those who judge it to be limited postulate that in remote places the corridors and stairways and hexagons can conceivably come to an end--which is absurd. Those who imagine it to be without limit forget that the possible number of books does have such a limit. I venture to suggest this solution to the ancient problem: The Library is unlimited and cyclical. If an eternal traveler were to cross it in any direction, after centuries he would see that the same volumes were repeated in the same disorder (which, thus repeated, would be an order: the Order). My solitude is gladdened by this elegant hope.

Read it.


sweetggirl said...

It wounds like a very interesting book! But depressing....unfortunately I don't think I'll have the discipline to read it,lol.

Sola Gratia said...

That may very well be. I won't say it was easy to get through. But it was great!

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