Several years ago, life necessitated that I come down from the ziggurat. And, so I put down my books. Stopped traveling--even if just in my imagination. And, this went on for many years. Relentless work and practical daily life.
But then one day I met a man named Voltaire.
He said, "Some people think reality is the thing. But not me. I prefer reading."
It was like receiving an electric shock, and I was reminded of all the books just sitting there on my shelves. From these recollections about my forgotten books, my thoughts naturally turned to Borges' Library.
What is the library of all libraries, it represents the universe itself.
A great man of learning, Borges was not only the librarian of the National Library of Argentina but he was also the blind librarian who presided over the labyrinthine library in the Name of the Rose as well.
In a universe where books and reality overlap, Señor Borges was a busy man.
We are told that the Library of Babel contained not only every book in the world, but every possible book in the world. All published in identical print and bound in identical red jackets, the books were lined up on unending shelves in an unending progression of hexagonal galleries which were composed of floor to ceiling books. In addition to the bookshelves, each gallery had a small bathroom and closet (where one could sleep standing up, he explains→ see more).
Travelers wandered the galleries searching and reading; reading and searching. The problem is that because of the great glut of information all the books remain totally useless to the librarians; that is because, "a library containing all possible books, arranged at random, is equivalent (as a source of information) to a library containing zero books."
And yet I have hope.
For, indeed, I wander around that library all the time. Last night, groggily traipsing on one of the library's upper galleries a big heavy book fell from the top shelf and landed right on my head.
Opening the book, I turned to my favorite story of all: Averroes' Search. It is, I think, the most beautiful story in the world. Our man in Al-Andalus: Averroes-- he is so one-minded; so absorbed in his task of translating Aristotle into Arabic that he is annoyed recalling a dinner appointment he has that evening. A famous traveler, who claims to have traveled all the way to the Kingdom of Sin (known to us as China), had arrived in Cordova and was to dine in the home of Mr. Farach, the city's great scholar of the Koran. All Averroes wanted to do was work on his great task, however.
Working from a translation of a translation, Averroes' challenge was enormous. That evening, two words in particular were troubling him deeply. The words were tragedy and comedy.
In very much the same way as the Ottoman miniaturist, Master Effendi, who was struggling to understand the Renaissance paintings he had seen in Venice, Averroes had no way to understand the concepts of tragedy and comedy for they simply did not exist in his world. Multiple worlds imply multiple ontologies and epistemologies. That means, it wasn't just Averroes' problem, for no one in the entire world of Islam could fathom their meaning, as theater quite simply did not exist. Scouring the pages of the great philosophers of East and West, Averroes was at a loss to explain these concepts.
That is until he met that night at dinner the traveler back from Sin.
The three gentleman: a traveler, a Koranic scholar and the smartest man in the world, sat down to an evenings's meal. At first their conversation turned to the rose garden. Everyone knows this is my favorite scene in the story as I'm always trying to re-tell it. Farach, the traveler, notes that, "The learned Ibn Qutaiba describes an excellent variety of the perpetual rose, which is found in the gardens of Hindustan and whose petals, of a blood red, exhibit characters which read, 'There is no god but Allah, and Mohammed is his Prophet.'"
The traveler goes on to tell of something fantastic he saw in Sin Kalan (Canton):
One afternoon, the Moslem merchants of Sin Kalan took me to a house of painted wood where many people lived. It is impossible to describe the house , which was rather a single room, with rows of cabinets or balconies on top of each other. In these cavities there were people who were eating and drinking, and also on the floor and also on a terrace. The persons on this terrace were playing the drum and the lute, save for some fifteen or twenty (with crimson-color masks) who were praying, sing and conversing. They suffered prison, but no one could see the jail; they traveled on horseback, but no one could see the horse; the fought, but their swords were of reed; they died and then stood up again."
Do you get it?
Averroes and the Koranic scholar-- even the traveler who had seen it with his own eyes-- have no real way to comprehend the concept as in their world, theater and story-telling did not yet exist.
And we thought Heidegger's translator had problems? Indeed, the story does not have a happy ending.
Borges ends his story with the following words:
I remembered Averroes who, closed within the orb of Islam, could never know the meaning of the terms tragedy and comedy. I related his case; as I went along, I felt what that god mentioned by Burton must have felt when he tried to create a bull and created a buffalo instead. I felt that the work was mocking me. I felt that Averroes, wanting to imagine what a drama was without ever having suspected what a theater is, was no more absurd than I, wanting to imagine Averroes with no other sources than a few fragments from Renan, lane, and Asin Palacios.
I spent all night imagining them.
And there you have it: a woman who is imagining Borges, who is imagining Averroes, who is imagining Aristotle. Happy Birthday Señor Borges--is there anything you haven't read?
Picture: the Minaret of Samara; thought by some to be the ancient Library of Babel