- March 28, 2011
In “The Library of Babel,” Jorge Luis Borges imagines a gargantuan Library in which are shelved books that together exhaust all possible combinations of letters. Obviously, “[f]or every rational line or forthright statement there are leagues of senseless cacophony, verbal nonsense, and incoherency.” One book simply repeats the letters “MCV” over and over and over while another is gibberish except for the line “O Time thy pyramids.” But since the books exhaust all possible verbal representations, on some shelf in the “unimaginably vast” Library sits your own correct biography, including your death. Unfortunately, the “perhaps infinite” Library also contains a nearly infinite number of slightly or grossly corrupt biographies, and you could never know the difference even should you be so fantastically lucky to find one, a probability that “can be calculated to be zero.” Blogging this past year, I’ve come to feel like one of Borges’ los hombres de la Biblioteca. When I post something on a site that allows them, I receive comments, but often on some other composition, no longer what I had written but slightly or grossly false having been filtered through the hermeneutic apparatus of the commenter. As I read them, like Prufrock, I sigh,
That is not what I meant at all.
That is not it, at all.
A word or phrase is plucked from my essay and with it a commenter embroiders a fabulous if irrelevant tapestry. Or a commenter assumes I have implied something veiled that he alone can perceive. Or a commenter misreads (overlooking “a single letter” sends some readers into a parallel universe). Once there, the commenter soapboxes, snarks, pontificates, rants, or vogues, using the post as an occasion for remixing my words into something uncannily familiar but unquestionably or bizarrely different. It was Karl Popper who said ". . . it is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood . . . .”
When RCA’s mascot dog Nipper heard “his master’s voice” from the trumpet of an Edison-Bell gramophone, he cocked his head in a bemused “huh?” And I hear you, my misreaders, though I sometimes tilt my head like Nipper and wonder, “How did you get that?” and “Where did I say that?” and “What are you talking about?” As Borges’ narrating hombre asks, “You who read me—are you certain you understand my language?” Blog commenters never doubt that they understand the blogger’s language (even better than the blogger). Blog posts and comment threads seem to me like volumes added to what will become a Library of Babel. The signal-to-noise ratio changes constantly and noise is winning. Today, the Internet frequently seems best at producing and disseminating misinformation (which becomes permanent and searchable). Borges’ notes that “infidels” believe the Library of Babel (like entropy or the Internet) may really be a monstrous temple of dreck since its endless collections "affirm all things, deny all things, and confound and confuse all things, like some mad, hallucinating deity.”