“In the hallway there is a mirror which faithfully duplicates all appearances”: the author invites us to consider the implications of this mirror, from which “men usually infer . . . that the Library is not infinite (if it really were, why this illusory duplication)?” One is perhaps on safer ground in observing that the Library is itself an only superficially faithful duplication of the actual world, traces of which are occasionally visible in the story. Like the image in a mirror, a two-dimensional projection of three-dimensional objects, the Library is curiously flat; the hexagons, interconnected by hallways on opposite sides and staircases up and down, all occupy the same plane. The author calls the two inadequate lamps found in every hexagon “spherical fruit”—but where would he have seen anything like an apple tree? (Here there is also the echo of a book--the Book: these artificial lights are dim reflections of the Trees of Knowledge and Life, whose fruit seduced human beings with the promise of godhood.) Now an old man, he explains that his corpse, thrown over the railing by “pious hands,” will “sink endlessly and decay and dissolve in the wind generated by the fall”: somehow there is atmosphere and gravity in these infinite spaces, as on Earth. He compares the shelves of the Library to “a normal bookcase,” as though some other, everyday lifeworld were the measure of the one and only universe of the Library. His handwriting crudely reproduces the “organic letters” of the books; more mysteriously, these “punctual, delicate, perfectly black, inimitably symmetrical” letters are said to imitate “the twenty-five natural symbols.” (One is reminded that the Greek words grammata and syllabai mean “letters” and “syllables,” but also “elements” and “compounds.”) Finally, it cannot escape notice that the mirrors in the hallways linking the hexagons reduplicate the librarians as well as their surroundings—that they literally see themselves in the Library. It was Hegel who observed that the scientific theoretician who attempts to penetrate the veil of appearances, positing laws, forces, and elementary forms of matter and motion, enters an “inverted world” of hypothetical objects in which he encounters only his own thoughts.
In brief, Borges allows us to see that the Library is the literary image of a historically particular intellectual construction that imperfectly reflects and significantly distorts the reality it is supposed to describe. That construction was inaugurated by the founders of modern science, who believed, with Galileo, that the book of nature was written in the language of mathematics, and who sought knowledge that, in Descartes’ optimistic and ambitious phrase, would make human beings “the masters and possessors of nature.” The modern project of “practical philosophy” does not conform to, or even recognize, the natural order Aristotle so prudently attended to, much less the scala naturae, or Ladder of Being, of the medieval Christians. It seeks to replace the biblical Logos with another sort of logic: to begin not from the old, creative Word of God, but from the new, analytic and synthetic word of man. Borges’s author insists that “no book can be a ladder,” but the books of the moderns are nothing if not the mechanism by which man would storm the heavens.
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