Jorge Luis Borges and the Vindications

A short fiction by Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges  called ‘The Library of Babel’ uses the word ‘vindication’ in such a way that merits further discussion. (It would perhaps be more accurate to say that Borges’ translator, in this instance, James E. Irby uses the word in an interesting way).

‘The Library of Babel’ describes an infinite library. There are an infinite number of books that print every possible combination of twenty-five “orthographical symbols.” Namely, the alphabet, a space, a comma and a full stop. The Library is populated by automata without definitive gender, living in a state of monkish aestheticism. The dry, reserved tone of the fiction only contributes to this sparsity of a response in the face of infinitude.

It can be difficult to engage with this narrator and these ‘characters’ because of arid quality the prose has, but as this analysis will show, they do engage in a number of identifiably human behaviours. That is to say, the most fundamental human impulse, the determination to create meaning and order out of such an immeasurable amount of information that it can be said to amount to a conceptual nothingness. Throughout the fiction, the narrator tells us of various sects that have existed within the library who all formulate different, but decidedly reverential strategies in order to grasp this amount of text.

One group, called the Purifiers, declare entire shelves impure or blasphemous, and destroy them. Object fetishists who prefer ‘real books’ and shun e-books may blanch at such a manoeuvre, but as the narrator reminds us: “the Library is so enormous that any reduction of human origin is infinitesimal…every copy is unique, irreplaceable, but (since the Library is total) there are always several hundred thousand imperfect facsimiles: works which differ only in a letter or a comma.”

Some modes of veneration go out of style, some sooner than others. One cult opts for a religion of chance to determine the sacred texts, desperate to find a point of departure or standard to compare the rest of the vast collection to. The narrator recalls seeing one of these enactors of the old faith: “in my childhood I have seen old men who, for long periods of time, would hide in the latrines with some metal disks in a forbidden dice cup and feebly mimic the divine disorder.”

It is with the use of the word ‘vindication’ that this fiction takes on its particularly haunting quality. If every possible combination of these twenty-five symbols appears in each book’s neatly formatted “four hundred and ten pages; each page, of forty lines,” an idea takes root for another group, the searchers, that there exists Vindications: “books of apology and prophecy which vindicated for all time the acts of every man in  the universe and retained prodigious arcana for his future.” This narrator is blessed/cursed with old age and permitted to see these interpretative strategies for what they are, passing fads that become schemas to help the existentially confused deal with infinite meaninglessness and reminds the reader that though the Vindications do exist, “the searchers did not remember that the possibility of a man’s finding his Vindication, or some treacherous variation thereof, can be computed as zero.”

This is possibly one of the most haunting lines I have yet come across in all the books that I’ve read as it posits the existence of the Vindications and, because of how infinity ‘works,’ one could be misled by the infinite number of personal Vindications with significant misprisions and erroneous information. Furthermore, it presents  me with the question as to, if I was faced with this library, would I be brave enough to not look at any of them, knowing how fruitless the search for my Vindication would be?

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