Sunday, March 23, 2008

LabInhab Issue 2: The Library in the Labyrinth

All right! The internet came through for me again with three more terrific labyrinth stories, and once again they arguably share at least one other theme: Libraries in the Labyrinth. Combining these two great flavors probably seems like a natural idea, since LabInhab patron saint Jorge Luis Borges wrote about them both, often at the same time. So what do these two themes have to do with one another?

When I think of characters trapped in the labyrinth of a library, the first one to come to mind isn’t from Borges. It’s the Reverend Edward Casaubon, the old, dusty love interest from George Eliot’s Middlemarch, who the heroine mistakes for the next Milton. His thing is that he wants to compose a “Key to All Mythologies,” a book to prove Jesus equals Osiris equals Vishnu etc., unifying all human spirituality into one big scheme with Christianity at the center and basically proving the existence of God. Naturally, Casaubon buries himself up to his eyebrows in what amounts to a pile of cross-referenced index cards, and dies of old age with his great work hardly begun. Neil James Hudson brings us a similar character with his Curator in The History Eaters, who stores the entire records of the history of Earth on a space station that was once as well-organized as the Dewey Decimal System, but is now breaking down into unshapely miscellany.

It’s one of those universal stories, you see. A well-meaning wannabe polymath tries to lay out all the world’s data in some kind of universal monument to human knowledge, but he inevitably ends up wandering lost in his creation until he dies. There’s just too much knowledge to get a handle on in one lifetime (since I’ve got cross-references on the brain anyway, see also Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, and its librarian “Jorge of Burgos”).

But maybe by harnessing the work of hundreds of researchers, rather than working alone, it would be possible to achieve total knowledge? That’s the approach of the sorcerer in Daniel Ausema’s The Canyon of Babel, who (spoiler alert) discovers that an abandoned canyon is a library of multilingual echoes. He impresses every left-handed man, woman and child he can find into service cataloguing these echoes in the hopes of finding one in the “Language of Wisdom,” the language so perfect that knowledge of any one word would imply the whole language, and some metaphysical secrets besides. I guess if Reverend Casaubon had written his Key to all Mythologies in the Language of Wisdom, he could have fit it on the back of a postcard.

The tragedy of these quixotic archivists is their dawning realization that there’s no organizing principle, no grand unified theory tying all their knowledge together. When we meet the Curator in The History Eaters, he’s well on his way to that understanding, but it’s only Judith, the Librarian from Subodhana Wijeyeratne’s The Sentinel Gate, who has given up the notion of enlightenment and found a way to go on, writing in the sand in forgotten languages but sweeping her work away before it can be read. Maybe she understands her actions as a way of preserving the skills of literacy for future generations without fostering the illusion that writing is itself a means to lasting knowledge, and without adding more needless complexity to the labyrinth where she lives. But one thing Judith can’t preserve for posterity is her sad knowledge that there’s nothing to be found out in the maze. Despite Judith’s warnings, the young hero of the story is driven to journey out and read the gnomic inscriptions on the labyrinth walls for himself. Maybe that’s for the best.

Who’s to say Judith didn’t miss something?

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