Monday, June 6, 2011
"True to Translation"
My chapter thus far:
Jorge Luis Borges, an Argentine writer active during most of the 20th century, has been described as a writer who explored “the crannies of the human psyche, the fantastic within the apparently mundane” (Gargan). He is most well-known for his Ficciones, or Fictions, a group of short stories that raise the issues of the nature of reality, the nature of dreams, and the nature of the human heart. Borges, with his powerful dreams of the future, has been translated by many devotees from the original Spanish into English—but also, and with similar zeal, he has been translated into the visual arts. Exhibitions in museums from Brazil to London have featured work that is based on or related to his literature; more accessibly, interested and unprofessional artists the world over have made use the internet to post visual artwork based on his literary artwork.
Exploring Borges over the past month has been a sometimes alarming, always revelatory experience, one that has always been enhanced by my viewing of related artwork. One of my favorite stories of his is “The Library of Babel,” which describes a library the size of the universe with every permutation possible of the following format of book: “[E]ach book is of four hundred and ten pages; each page, of forty lines, each line, of some eighty letters which are black in color” (citation). The nearly innumerable books in this collection are arranged in honeycombed reading rooms which connect to each other endlessly; the universe is theorized to be circular (citation). In the story, an old man narrates the history of humankind in the library: At first, men were hopeful to find meaning in the written works, even a Chief Librarian (or God). Then, as people realized that there was no inherent meaning in the Library besides its orderliness, they began to despair. Teams of men would ransack reading rooms, discarding books that seemed to lack meaning; ultimately, suicide rates mount and the narrator writes, “I suspect the human species—the unique species—is about to be extinguished” (citation). Endless information leads to nihilism.
Many artists online have created artwork based on “The Library of Babel.” There are computer-generated images which precisely and impressively detail Borges’ described honeycombing reading rooms; there are paintings and sketches of library-planets based on Borges’ concept; there are drawings of men searching endless bookshelves. In short, there is a world of artwork based on this short story. However, I believe that in addition to these illustrations, accompanying artwork that does not depict but instead complements this story can be used to more fully understand it. I would like here to distinguish between illustration and conceptually “illuminating” artwork: Illustration is art that is meant to depict the story directly, while illuminating artwork is art that is not based on the story but that can be used to explain or enhance comprehension of the story.
For instance, Allene Parker has argued that M. C. Escher’s art is directly comparable to Borges’ writing, because both deal with the concept of the labyrinth: a maze in which there is only one entrance which also serves as the exit (Parker, 12). Borges writes intellectual riddles that wind around and around; Escher creates visual paradoxes. In “The Library of Babel,” Borges writes, “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)” (citation). This statement takes several readings to decode; in essence, Borges is saying that despite the randomness of the library, its circular nature creates a sense of eternity, and also of order. Allene M. Parker, in the Rocky Mountain Review of Literature, has said that this is directly comparable to Escher’s print, “Ascending and Descending,” wherein monks simultaneously climb and descend an impossible staircase. There is no end, or “solution”; rather, where there is no order, the circular nature of the stairway creates a sense of eternity and of order (Parker, 18).
Borges’ short story leaves it up to the reader to decide whether the nihilistic inhabitants of the library have given up on finding meaning too soon; Escher’s print suggests that perhaps there truly is no meaning in the conceptual labyrinth, only movement. In essence, Escher creates an argument that can be applied to Borges’ story: movement in the labyrinth is meaningless. While this may not be the meaning that Borges would like us to arrive at, it is one worth consideration. Escher’s work interprets Borges’ work.
To be continued—I want to use either the work of Hieronymus Bosch or Salvador Dali to interpret the nihilism of “The Library of Babel”