The Library of Babel

Funny how, passing through the prism of time, literature becomes the image of life.  Here is a summary of what I remember of “The Library of Babel” (Borges) — in an enormous library is contained a very large, finite (or perhaps infinite) number of 400 page books on whose pages are printed all the possible combinations of the typographical symbols of human language.  Most of the pages are utter nonsense.  The human population exists inside this labyrinth of a library.  For lack of anything else to do, we tend to and peruse the books.  The existence of human society centers around the contents of the library.  Mythologies arise about knowledge and God and chance, all revolving around the contents of the books.  By definition, the most fundamental truths about human existence, and the universe, are each contained (completely randomly) by some page in the library.  Also by definition, the intricate detail of each person’s life is written out, somewhere in the library.  You know the story of your life exists, that your very future is written somewhere — but finding it is hopeless.  In fact, days can pass without your reading anything that makes sense, such is the difficulty of finding information in this massive library of data.

That last sentence is really all I am going for.  This came to me as I was browsing through my corpulent iTunes music library and finding, one after the other, songs I have forgotten about for weeks on end.  I wonder how many times that music would have fit my momentary predilections better than the tune which I as a matter of fact found?  And there are so many ways we try to figure randomness into our modern lives.

***

Today I enjoyed a tour of the houses of Parliament at Westminster.  The richness of the ceremony in this building, and this government, stands in absolute contrast with the drab architecture and mannerisms of the city.  The queen, for example, is not allowed inside the House of Commons, in representation of the hard-fought freedom policymakers enjoy to debate and vote on laws out of the presence of the monarch.  When the queen gives her speech in the House of Lords chamber every year, she needs to summon the MPs from the House of Commons chambers.  She can’t go herself, so she sends a messenger.  When this messenger reaches the House of Commons chambers, though, the MPs slam the door shut on him — again, representing their right to reject the presence of the monarch in their chambers.  The messenger bangs on the tall doors with a staff; in response the MPs look through the peep-window and question him.  Finally, they all come out and follow the messenger to the House of Lords chambers.

Eager to balance these quaint, archaic niceties with flourishing displays of democratic modernity, our guide promptly informed us that the transcript of every word of debate and conversation inside the House of Lords and House of Commons chambers is word processed and made available online within twenty-four hours.

***

Almost at random, I remembered an excerpt from The Prince, perhaps about Philip of Macedon. It went something like this — the best generals appear to have flashes of tactical brilliance.  In fact, they are constantly trying out tactical ideas.  A cartographer once led Philip of Macedon on a tour of the virgin green hills in the countryside.  “See how beautiful these hills are,” he said. “See how green the grass is, and see that winding river.”

“How steep do you think that hill over there is?” replied Philip.  “Do you think an army could effectively charge forces defending the hill?”  He then turned to each direction, discussing with the guide the best ways to attack and defend each area, gesturing at imaginary soldiers swarming the rolling hills.

***

I only have seven days left on this strange continent…the urge to reminisce is almost too strong, when there are still one hundred seventy hours left, and beyond that, something stretches as far as the horizon of the ocean.

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