Published in 1941 in a collection of fictions called The Garden of Forking Paths, Borges lays out a universe that is an enormous (perhaps never-ending) library. The people or “librarians” that live in this universe ask many questions that we ourselves ask about our own existences.
They realize that “the” truth must be out there, as their library contains every possible book that could be made. Their reasoning is that one of these books must contain all possible truths: “There was no personal problem, no world problem, whose eloquent solution did not exist—somewhere in some hexagon” (115). And so, they wonder what the truth is, and some even go out and explore the library to find this one book that contains all truth. No one ever finds it, however.
They also wonder about their own truths, and some search out The Vindications, which contains future prophecy about each individual’s life. No one finds their Vindication, some die while searching, others have gone insane. The librarians also have speculations as to how their library formed, and search the books for answers, though, after four centuries of searching, “clearly, no one expects to discover anything” (116).
Clearly, the Librarians are us. They wonder about themselves and about truth, and come up with different explanations to answer these questions. The narrator of the story is a man who has searched the library for answers all his life, and is now dying and writing the story. He wants there to be a truth, an order. He writes: "I pray to the unknown gods that some man—even a single man, tens of centuries ago—has perused and read the book. If the honor and wisdom and joy of such a reading are not to be my own, then let them be for others. Let heaven exist, though my own place be in hell. Let me be tortured and battered and annihilated, but let there be one instant, one creature, wherein thy enormous Library may find its justification" (117).
The narrator does not care if he himself will not ever know the truth, just as long as there is “a” truth, as long as someone else has or will find it, so that the library will find “justification.” This echoes one of Thomas Hardy’s poems, Hap, which was written in 1891. The speaker of the poem also wants there to be an ultimate truth. The speaker wishes for a god, even if the god is vengeful. He would even endure suffering inflicted by this god: “Then would I bear it, clench myself and die…Half-eased in that a Powerfuller than I/ Had willed and meted me the tears I shed.” But the speaker must admit “But not so.” There is no god, vengeful or no.
The narrator in The Library of Babel explains that there must be an order: “If an eternal traveler should journey in any direction, he would find after untold centuries that the same volumes are repeated in the same disorder—which, repeated, becomes order: the Order. My solitude is cheered by that elegant hope” (118). He will settle for “an” order, any order. He does not even hope, now, for a benevolent god, or even a specific purpose, only just an order.
Many can relate to this. Many of us want, and some believe, that there is “a” truth. We look for order in a chaotic world. Borges story echoes this existential theme: searching for truth, but never finding it, wanting an order in a world that seems to have no order or no purpose at all.
As Dennis Vannatta writes in Reference Guide to Short Fiction:
He [Borges], his narrator, and the librarians who haunt their carrels are concerned with the most fundamental questions: Where are we? Why are we here? What is here? How do we know what we know? As is always the case with Borges, by the end we are no more—indeed, far less—certain than we were at the beginning. The reason for the uncertainty is the nature of the library (universe). The vast majority of the books contain what appears to be gibberish, or at least languages unknown to the librarians. The occasional recognizable phrases—‘Oh time thy pyramids’ (translated by James E. Irby)—are generally as inegmatic as life. The only thing certain about the exceedingly rare books (frequently fragments) written in a recognizable tongue is that somewhere in the universal library is another that contains the first's refutation. Where, then, is truth, certainty? Nowhere in the Library of Babel.
Vannata points out that there is no certainty in Borges universe. Because the library contains every possible book, any "truth" found in one book will certainly be refuted in another book somewhere in the Library. The narrator is aware of this ever present uncertainty. At one point in the story, he addresses the reader directly: "You who read me--are you certain you understand my language?" (118) The Library of Babel emphasizes questioning, and not ever being able to answer these questions definitively. All that the librarians can be certain of are their existences. This is existential.
Andrew Hurley. Trans. Jorge Luis Borges: Collected Fictions. New York: Penguin Putnam Inc. 1998.
Vannatta, Dennis. "The Library of Babel: Overview." Reference Guide to Short Fiction. Ed. Noelle Watson. Detroit: St. James Press, 1994. Literature Resource Center. Web. 13 Feb. 2010.