Study Guide

The Library of Babel Religion

By Jorge Luis Borges


(Mystics claim that their ecstasies reveal to them a circular book with a continuous spine that goes completely around the walls. But their testimony is suspect, their words obscure. That cyclical book is God.) (2)

We love how this story provides tiny little snapshots of the philosophy of lots of different religions. Exhibit A: mysticism. The mystics seek truth through really intense personal experiences called ecstasies, and then have a hard time explaining their visions to other people.

Man, the imperfect librarian, may be the work of chance or of malevolent demiurges; the universe, with its elegant appointments – its bookshelves, its enigmatic books, its indefatigable staircases for the traveler, and its water closets for the seated librarian – can only be the handiwork of a god. (4)

The narrator's approach to religion is much more abstract and intellectual than that of the mystics. The world is so perfect, he argues, that there's no way a human being could have designed it. It's so logical!

There are official searchers, the "inquisitors"...once in a while, they take up the nearest book and leaf through it, searching for disgraceful or dishonorable words. Clearly, no one expects to discover anything. (9)

Whoa there... an Inquisition? (How unexpected!) Borges is taking another chapter from our religious history and squeezing it into his story. It's like he's saying: "Hey, people are the same in every universe. They do crazy stuff."

One blasphemous sect proposed that the searches be discontinued and that all men shuffle letters and symbols until those canonical books, through some improbable stroke of chance, had been constructed. The authorities were forced to issue strict orders. The sect disappeared, but in my childhood I have seen old men who for long periods of time would hide in the latrines with metal disks and a forbidden dice cup, feebly mimicking the divine disorder. (10)

See how Borges keeps using religious vocabulary to describe the different philosophies of the librarians? This group is considered a "blasphemous sect." In order to have blasphemy, you have to have something to blaspheme against. In other words, you need to have one point of view that many people defend as the only correct truth (that's called orthodoxy). So there must be some kind of organized religion in the Library.

Others...thought the first thing to do was eliminate all worthless books...It is to their hygienic, ascetic rage that we lay the senseless loss of millions of volumes. (11)

This should sound familiar. Our own history is full of people who have burned books because they disagreed with what was written in them.

Despite general opinion, I daresay that the consequences of the depredations committed by the Purifiers have been exaggerated by the horror those same fanatics inspired. They were spurred on by the holy zeal to reach...the books of the Crimson Hexagon – books smaller than natural books, books omnipotent, illustrated, and magical. (11)

The Purifiers are a good Borgesian example of what can happen when members of a religion get carried away by intolerance for anything that doesn't fit with their ideas.

We also have knowledge of another superstition from that period: belief in what was termed the Book-Man. On some shelf in some hexagon, it was argued, there must exist a book that is the cipher and perfect compendium <em>of all other books</em>, and some librarian must have examined that book; this librarian is analogous to a god. (12)

Here Borges borrows another idea from the history of religion. One man learns the truth about the nature of the universe and thus becomes a subject of worship – sound familiar? Buddhism began when a man named Siddhartha Gautama attained enlightenment. He later became the Buddha, a figure that millions of people around the world would pray to and adore.

In the language of this zone there are still vestiges of the sect that worshipped that distant librarian. Many have gone in search of Him. (12)

Notice how the librarian capitalizes the word "Him" when referring to the Book-Man. It implies a certain reverence, and lets us know that the librarian might have a personal attachment to this particular religious idea.

I pray to the unknown gods that some man – even a single man, tens of centuries ago – has perused and read that 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. (12)

Towards the end of his manuscript, the narrator reveals his most personal desires in the form of a prayer. Notice how he drops his logical, more distanced style? If the logical argument for the existence of the Book-Man that we quoted earlier is an example of the narrator's reason, this prayer is an example of his faith.

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