Jorge Luis Borges' birthday was yesterday. By way of my own celebration, I read his short story again, The Library of Babel, and happened upon a sentence that struck me strangely. Perhaps illustrative of the author's profundity, I wondered by whose hand the 'punctual, delicate, perfectly black, inimitably symmetrical' letters were written, and as a corollary, which letters (the author's or the book writer's) were subscribed to those descriptors. In English, the sentence reads:

"To perceive the distance between the divine and the human, it is enough to compare these crude wavering symbols which my fallible hand scrawls on the cover of a book, with the organic letters inside: punctual, delicate, perfectly black, inimitably symmetrical."

In the Spanish:

"Para percibir la distancia que hay entre lo divino y lo humano, basta comparar estos rudos símbolos trémulos que mi falible mano garabatea en la tapa de un libro, con las letras orgánicas del interior: puntuales, delicadas, negrísimas, inimitablemente simétricas."

In other English translations, sometimes the colon is replaced by an em dash.

In a first reading, the colon seems to indicate that which follows will be an explanation or is illustrative of the first independent clause (as colons do), that the organic letters inside were punctual, delicate, perfectly black and inimitably symmetrical. In my reading of Borges' short story for surely not enough times, I wondered if I misconstrued the sentence or if perhaps Borges was playing, or neither of course. Let me rewrite that sentence to have a different word order:

"To perceive the distance between the divine and the human, it is enough to compare these crude wavering symbols which my fallible hand scrawls on the cover of a book: punctual, delicate, perfectly black, inimitably symmetrical--with the organic letters inside."

The words 'organic' and the phrase ' inimitably symmetrical' posed these questions: 1) does organic include the possibility of being inimitably symmetrical (impossible to copy or imitate), 2) if the librarians did eventually imitate the letters (that the author has his storyteller say does in fact happen later in the story), why not their form of symmetry? Why then the use of the phrase 'crude wavering symbols'? Does the symmetry of the letter forms represent a scientific/spiritual secret as yet unrevealed?

My conjecture is that the reader could come to the conclusion I suggest from those questions. It is possible that the letters inside the books of unknown writers could be the 'organic', and the 'crude wavering symbols' of the story itself as our elderly librarian writes it are those that are punctual, delicate, perfectly black and impossible to be imitated. The librarian thinks of his life, his work and his place in the library as subordinate, lesser than that of the one(s) who wrote the books, who might be also who built the library. We ask ourselves whether he could recognize his own divinity, his capacity. Could he perceive that what he had done there in that moment of writing was the better of what was just some natural order that he (and others like him) perceived incorrectly as 'God'?

If my conjecture about to which letters the list of descriptors might apply, then I suggest also the following conjecture--the librarian storyteller could have been the Bookman/Man of the Book--that one librarian famously believed to have found the key to the library (its catalog). It is possible that the librarian didn't know it. It is also possible that the indefinite nature of the library was purely an ongoing record still being written, organically as life and ideas sprung forth and turned back to ash. Perhaps there was no God of the Library, just books being written as time passed, indefinitely as part of a natural scientific phenomenon. The order imposed on the library was one of natural cause/effect and the logic of the librarians thereafter.

Quite Literally Yours,

The Librarian

Comment