The universe (which others call the library)

By Shirley Neuman
Shirley Neuman is dean of UBC's Faculty of Arts. She gave the following remarks recently at the opening of the Walter C. Koerner Library.

Some of you will recognize in my title the opening words of Jorge Luis Borges' short story, "The Library of Babel." The universe of Borges' fiction is no edifice of concrete and glass like the new Koerner which we are celebrating, its shelves deployed in orderly rows, individual carrels each with its own computer connection for the aspiring PhD candidates who were perhaps imagined as its ideal users.

Borges' universe-cum-library consists of identical hexagonal rooms. From each of these hexagons, one can see, "interminably," the hexagons above and below. Four sides of each hexagon hold five rows each of identical bookshelves. One side is bounded by a low railing overlooking an airshaft; dead librarians are thrown over the railing into an "infinite" fall that proves that the library/universe is unending. The sixth side of the hexagon opens onto a modest hall, which leads transversely to other hexagons, and vertically by means of a spiral staircase to hexagons above and below. On either side of the hall, we are told, are two small closets, one that enables a reader to sleep standing upright, the other a latrine.

The universe that Borges' fictional librarian describes is an architecture of infinite regression and infinite duplication, populated by books and other librarians. It is a place of dreams and danger: a place of futile quests "in search of a book, perhaps the catalogue of catalogues;" a place of ferocious debates in which, "for every sensible line of straightforward statement, there are leagues of senseless cacophonies, verbal jumbles and incoherences; it is a place of "extravagant happiness."

The library, Borges' narrator informs us, is analogous to early theologians' definitions of God: it "is a sphere whose exact centre is any one of its hexagons and whose circumference is inaccessible." Librarians may be the product of chance or of malevolent demiurgi," but "the universe, with its elegant endowment of shelves, of enigmatical volumes, of inexhaustible stairways for the traveller and latrines for the seated librarian, can only be the work of god."

The library is a place of orderly disorder, disorderly order. One of its axioms is that "the orthographical symbols are 25 in number," an orderly principle if there ever was one, into which more orderly disorder is introduced by an epigram to the short story from Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy which alludes to an alphabet of 23 letters, and, in my reading, by the fact that I am citing from a translation into English with its 26 letters. We may not know how to read it, our Borgesian librarian suggests, but there is no nonsense in the library: "I cannot," he says, "combine some characters which the divine Library has not foreseen and which in one of its secret tongues do not contain a terrible meaning. No one can articulate a syllable which is not filled with tenderness and fear, which is not, in one of these languages, the powerful name of a god." The library, in short, is a universe, in the root sense of that word, to be whole, entire.

"The Library is total ... Everything: the minutely detailed history of the future, the archangels' autobiographies, the faithful catalogue of the library, thousands and thousands of false catalogues, the demonstration of the fallacy of those catalogues...the true story of your death, the translation of every book in all languages, the interpolations of every book in all books."

The universe, Borges' extravagantly developed metaphor tells us, is a library. With the rigorous reasoning of grammar as our guide, we can turn this sentence around across the copulative verb, "is." The library is the universe, whole and entire. Which is to say that our world is what is known about it. Our world is the physical and social, the spiritual and intellectual phenomena we observe and describe, even when we cannot explain them; it is our representations of those phenomena; and it is our attempts to interpret them, to theorize them, to give them meaning. Whether we are medical practitioners or foresters, agriculturalists or lawyers; whether we are businessmen or teachers, engineers or botanists; whether we are mathematicians or geomorphologists, dramaturges or economists; whether we are art historians or psychologists, theologians or social workers; whether we are writers or sociologists, musicians or the architect of a new building called the library, the library is our history, our source, our wholeness. It is the repository of what in the past we thought we knew, of what we thought about it and of what we imagine we know now; of our ideals and aspirations for the future. It holds the data we call facts, and the meanings we have given those facts, as well as imaginings that have nothing to do with what we call facts and everything to do with the truths of the human spirit. The library is a building of many self-contradictory sorts: foundation for the scholarly edifice we erect above it, it is also that edifice; structure we renovate and add on to through new discovery, new interpretation, new creations of the imagination, it is also our renovations and additions.

Encoded somewhere in the library, waiting for us to decipher it, Borges argues, is all we know and all we need to know. The library is our universe, our university, and it is the measure of our minds, our lives. In its labyrinths we may get irrevocably lost or we may spend our lives sitting on the latrine bent over a single book; we may be led up its spiral staircases to infinity or plunge over its low railings to "decay and dissolve in the wind generated by the fall." Whether its holdings are bound in precious leather and illuminated in red and blue and gold, or whether they include videos, microforms, and computerized databanks matters not at all to the meaning of the library.

Should the "human species... be extinguished," as Borges' fictional librarian argues it is about to be, "the Library," he further insists, "will endure: illuminated, solitary, infinite, perfectly motionless, equipped with precious volumes, useless, incorruptible, secret." The library will retain the root meaning of universe: to be entire, whole. But should the library be lost, then a part of our knowledge of the world goes, and with that knowledge the world it signifies disappears: the universe is no longer whole, entire. The library (which some call the universe and others the university).