Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Libraries of Faerie, Babel, and Urth

There was a time, perhaps ten or fifteen years ago, when I often read George MacDonald. The strain of gnostic mysticism that runs through nineteenth-century arts and letters appealed to me in his novels. Phantastes was, of course, my favorite, but I read Lilith several times as well. It's an interesting point that each of these novels—written at different stages of MacDonald's life—contain a large library with occult contents, secret rooms, and ill-defined boundaries, a library in which the protagonist finds himself as an alien in a wilderness. Here Anodos describes the Palace of Faerie:
The library was a mighty hall, lighted from the roof, which was formed of something like glass, vaulted over in a single piece, and stained throughout with a great mysterious picture in gorgeous colouring. The walls were lined from floor to roof with books and books: most of them in ancient bindings, but some in strange new fashions which I had never seen, and which, were I to make the attempt, I could ill describe… Over some parts of the library, descended curtains of silk of various dyes, none of which I ever saw lifted while I was there; and I felt somehow that it would be presumptuous in me to venture to look within them.
And Mr. Vane here describes the library bequeathed to him at the beginning of Lilith:
The library, although duly considered in many alterations of the house and additions to it, had nevertheless, like an encroaching state, absorbed one room after another until it occupied the greater part of the ground floor. Its chief room was large, and the walls of it were covered with books almost to the ceiling; the rooms into which it overflowed were of various sizes and shapes, and communicated in modes as various—by doors, by open arches, by short passages, by steps up and steps down.
Or again, later:
I saw no raven, but the librarian—the same slender elderly man, in a rusty black coat, large in the body and long in the tails. I had seen only his back before; now for the first time I saw his face. It was so thin that it showed the shape of the bones under it, suggesting the skulls his last-claimed profession must have made him familiar with. But in truth I had never before seen a face so alive, or a look so keen or so friendly as that in his pale blue eyes, which yet had a haze about them as if they had done much weeping.
     "You knew I was not a raven!" he said with a smile.
     "I knew you were Mr. Raven," I replied; "but somehow I thought you a bird too!"
     "What made you think me a bird?"
     "You looked a raven, and I saw you dig worms out of the earth with your beak."
     "And then?"
     "Toss them in the air."
     "And then?"
     "They grew butterflies, and flew away."
     "Did you ever see a raven do that? I told you I was a sexton!"
     "Does a sexton toss worms in the air, and turn them into butterflies?"
     "I never saw one do it!"
     "You saw me do it!—But I am still librarian in your house, for I never was dismissed, and never gave up the office. Now I am librarian here as well."
     "But you have just told me you were sexton here!"
     "So I am. It is much the same profession. Except you are a true sexton, books are but dead bodies to you, and a library nothing but a catacomb!"
Someone (Lewis, I suppose) says somewhere that MacDonald once worked in the library of a certain estate, and that this experience doubtless colored his stories. Certainly I can understand its making a strong impression on him. There's something almost numinous about a large, empty library. To me it's akin to the fear described by Pascal in the quote on my sidebar, though why this is I'm not certain. Perhaps it's because libraries approach the mysteries of blank infinity with their iterative Chinese-box structure and seemingly interminable strings of characters.

Borges gives greatest expression to this spectral fear in his short story "The Library of Babel." Whatever he may have meant by the fable—I tread diffidently here—it captures the unsettling, nightmarish quality of rows upon rows upon rows of books.
The universe (which others call the Library) is composed of an indefinite and perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries, with vast air shafts between, surrounded by very low railings. From any of the hexagons one can see, interminably, the upper and lower floors. The distribution of the galleries is invariable.
Each book in the Library consists of 410 pages with 40 lines on each page and 80 characters on each line; there are 25 characters in all, including 22 letters, the period, the comma, and the space. It is claimed that the Library contains every possible combination of letters without repetition. There are thus only finitely many rooms. However, adapting a line from Pascal, the narrator states:
The Library is a sphere whose exact center is any one of the hexagons and whose circumference is inaccessible.
This would seem to indicate a peculiar topology. The narrator expresses the opinion that the Library simply repeats. (This, however, is impossible, unless one of the rooms is different from the others. For each cell contains 20 shelves with 35 books per shelf, so that there are 22 × 52 × 7 books per cell, whereas the total number of possible combinations is 52,624,000, into which 22 × 52 × 7 is not divisible. Perhaps the spine characters introduce the necessary factors?) If the Library does repeat in a consistent way, then a horizontal slice would be an orientable surface, possibly of extremely high genus.

The weight and pregnant hush of libraries is handled more affectively in Wolfe's Shadow of the Torturer, when Severian descends to the stacks to find Master Ultan, the blind curator.
"We have books here bound in the hides of echidnes, krakens, and beasts so long extinct that those whose studies they are, are for the most part of the opinion that no brace of them survives unfossilized. We have books bound wholly in metals of unknown alloy, and books whose bindings are covered with thickset gems. We have books cased in perfumed woods shipped across the inconceivable gulf between creations—books doubly precious because no one on Urth can read them.
     "We have books whose papers are matted of plants from which spring curious alkaloids, so that the reader, in turning their pages, is taken unaware by bizarre fantasies and chimeric dreams. Books whose pages are not paper at all, but delicate wafers of white jade, ivory, and shell; books too whose leaves are the desiccated leaves of unknown plants. Books we have also that are not books at all to the eye: scrolls and tablets and recordings on a hundred different substances. There is a cube of crystal here—though I can no longer tell you where—no larger than the ball of your thumb that contains more books than the library itself does."
Here the library is invested with the impossible weight of ages that lie heaped upon Urth in those latter days, as the sun cools and dims.

I still have somewhat to say concerning libraries—chiefly of an autobiographical nature—but this is getting to be a long post, so I'll save it for the next. Why am I writing about all this, you ask, dear reader? Because it helps me organize my thoughts, and because the subject interests me. So, onward ho.

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