What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done;
there is nothing new under the sun.
Ecclesiastes 1:9, circa 450-180 BCE
I cannot combine some characters — dhcmrlchtdj — which the divine Library has not foreseen and which in one of its secret tongues do not contain a terrible meaning. No one can articulate a syllable which is not filled with tenderness and fear, which is not, in one of these languages, the powerful name of a god.
The Library of Babel, by Jorge Luis Borges
Imagine the far, far, far future. A time when perhaps even accounts of a time when humans were better at chess than computers have been forgotten. On this astral horizon, floating over a landscape silvered with a new perpetual sunset, two people recline across from one another. Their couches are plush, magenta, of a fabric not yet in existence. In the air between them sits a square of checked cardboard tightly bound in linen, fraying at the corners, a deep channel running down its center. The brittle lightness of the plastic pieces pleases the players; they find it amusing that their ancestors once took pains to manufacture objects of a less than consequential heft.
One white, one black: they play. Although there is no height to which they can aspire in the playing of chess (the solution of the game was a matter of calculation that, beyond their heads, was nevertheless not beyond the machines they and their ancestors have made), they play. They play in obscurity, pushing themselves mentally and artistically down paths that a million times before have been blazed, de-thicketed, paved over, and mapped.
Will this happen? Or will chess succumb to its own limits and become a relic of culture? And if it does change from an active phenomenon that people engage in to a defunct piece of history, what will be the difference between chess and all the other limited systems of expression and experience created by humans? Couldn’t they too fall in on themselves, victims of their own finitude?
This question isn’t as abstract as it seems. And it’s not about chess.
Recently, I tripped and fell into a website that made me question the purpose of writing. Like, at all. Period. I thought about the site instead of sleeping, I browsed it instead of working, I paused on public stairways, eyes gone glassy, struck by a thought that might help me come to terms with its meaning.
That website is libraryofbabel.info.
You know the Borges story, right? The one about the library that has not only every book in existence, but every possible book? Every possible arrangement of letters that can be combined in 410 pages between two covers? It’s a beautiful story. It fires the loins of the mind. I’ve loved it since I first read it in college.
This website, by means of ingenious programming, makes of Borges’ fiction a digital reality. I don’t pretend to understand it fully, but after playing around with the site and reading around the web about how it works, I’m convinced that it does. Work, I mean. Meaning that every possible text is there for the finding:
…any text you find in any location of the library will be in the same place in perpetuity. We do not simply generate and store books as they are requested – in fact, the storage demands would make that impossible. Every possible permutation of letters is accessible at this very moment in one of the library’s books, only awaiting its discovery.
Approaching my keyboard with fear and incredulity that first day I discovered the site, I navigated to the search function and typed in a poem I was working on at the time. I was presented with a perplexing arrangement of links and thumbnail images of text. I clicked on the first one. My poem was there, bracketed by a nonsense string of letters, and when I went back to click on the second link, my poem was in the library again, lost in a sea of real English words whose collection together seemed meaningless, and then I went down the list of links and it was in the library again, and again, and again and again and again. Somewhere in the library is a copy of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban except my poem is the title. Somewhere in the library is a cookbook where the first letter of each recipe, when taken out and arranged in order, creates my poem. Somewhere in the library is a copy of the Bible except the death and resurrection of Christ are replaced with my poem.
This put some kind of old-fashioned terror in me. All I want to do is write and get published. I work hard at it. When I close my eyes at night, the fact that I have written that day is the fact that grants me peace. I know that I have justified my existence by my labor, whether the fruit of it is yet worthy or not. If everything that I have still to write in my hopefully Methuselahen life—every inspired image, breathing character, and honed sentence (and let’s not kid ourselves: every flabby paragraph and novel without a spark, too)—has already been written, then the sentiment from Ecclesiastes isn’t just emotionally true. For me, it’s literally true. It’s all already done.
In face of the existence of libraryofbabel.info, is there a purpose anymore to writing? We’ve arrived at the chess question, and this scares me, because I’m of the opinion that chess is dead as a worthy pursuit for humans, given that it boils down to a game of memorization, which algorithm-processing machines are far better at. Has libraryofbabel.info revealed writing to be just a game of arranging letters, a rapid-fire cascade of language in such quantity that all individual quirk and quality is not only possible but actual? For a couple days I thought, well, maybe.
But then I thought again about the Borges story. There was something about it…were things really changed now that its idea wasn’t just an idea, but an actuality? Is the idea that all books could have already been written different from a website where you can find all possible books? Is the idea that all possible sentences could have been written, all possible letters arranged in all possible orders, different from the idea that it’s all there anyway, that all valence of expression is contained within the very shapes and rules of language? Because it is there. It’s there in the same way it always was: we are delimited in our communication by the structure, character, and punctuation of our language. In theory, everything our language could say has already been encoded in it.
Libraryofbabel.info draws this theory into a higher resolution, but it doesn’t create a new existential crisis for writing, because it remains a theory. The sheer quantity of “all possible” texts that one can sift through on the site makes the theory impossible to fully test. You can really find words on the page, and according to the algorithm behind it all, you can really find that short story you are about to write already done, on the screen. Of course, because of the staggering amount of possibilities in the language (including all the nonsensical ones), the chances of hitting browse and stumbling upon your own works, or anyone’s, or anything approaching any sort of sense at all, are, for all practical purposes, zero. Borges foresaw this in his story. Even if you were to spend all waking hours for the rest of the sun’s life browsing the library’s pages, this would remain true.
So, yes: it’s all already done. But the only way anyone is going to find it and read it and have an experience with it is if a writer goes into the mines of themselves, if they become a librarian of Babel and bring the words to the surface. If you care to read professional writers talking about themselves and their work, you’ll hear many of them say something about how they don’t feel that they are the originators of their work at all, but more like excavators, more like they find the words, dust them off, and catalog them for posterity. A metaphor, to be sure, but also—and I’m not being mystical here, the website shows us this—quite based in reality.
Everything that could be written, has been written. It’s just a matter of finding it. One could also say: everything that could be done has been done. It’s just a matter of doing it.