Issues in Philosophy Excerpt from Tar for Mortar: The Library of Babel and the Dream...

Excerpt from Tar for Mortar: The Library of Babel and the Dream of Totality

The following is an excerpt from Tar for Mortar: The Library of Babel and the Dream of Totality, just released by punctum books. It has been slightly adapted to stand alone.


Jorge Luis Borges’ “The Library of Babel” imagines a universal library containing every possible permutation of letters, every book that ever has been or could be, drowned out by endless pages unintelligible in any known language. Borges, with his typical erudition, traced the idea back to Ancient Greek atomist philosophers (whose theories are subtly referenced in the story). The atomists imagined the basic substances of the universe to be a small set of indivisible particles, whose permutations made up the visible world and its properties. Aristotle, who of course was invested in finding intentional teleology at work in nature, thought he could prove the absurdity of this idea by comparing it to language, whose basic elements are the letters; it is no more likely, he wrote, than composing The Iliad by shuffling letters at random. We may be justified if our anxiety persists in the face of this argument. The intelligent versus the atomistic universe, the masterpiece composed by a master versus the algorithmic, combinatoric creation—one of these may be infinitely more likely, but there is not a single mark by which we can tell the difference between them.

The atomists also carry the paradoxical distinction of inventing the idea of eternal return (Borges referred to his library as a “typographical avatar” of the latter (“Total Library” 214)). Given a finite set of atoms and an infinite length of time, all the permutations of those elements would be exhausted. In a universe of purely mechanical causality (without free will or divine intervention), these permutations would follow a certain course and then repeat that order necessarily and unendingly. Many of Nietzsche’s references to the Eternal Return explicitly describe this atomist version; in aphorism 1066 of The Will to Power, he even writes of “a certain definite number of centers of force” whose combinations allow for the eternal return (549). A “center of force” may be a more dynamic representation of the atom, but it preserves the basic atomist algorithm.

Nietzsche also taught us, however, to question the reality of the logical and metaphysical categories on which such a model is premised, such as cause and effect, substance and accident, being and identity. What happens if we cannot say that an atom is, cannot equate it with the “same” atom a moment before or after, cannot even construct a stable notion of before or after because there is no causal bond between one moment and the next, or one moment’s substances and the next? The eternal return of the same is then not a recapitulation of history, coming about in the fullness of time, but the re-iteration at every moment of the infinite play of forces without identity or temporal continuity. Not despite, but because of this immanent repetition, a form of novelty becomes possible, as Nietzsche describes in aphorism 617: “Instead of ‘cause and effect’ the mutual struggle of that which becomes, often with the absorption of one’s opponent; the number of becoming elements not constant (331). The “becoming elements” here can only be the “centers of force” from the other fragment—their number is no longer definite. Novelty becomes possible once the instability of repetition is subjected to the difference-from-self of perspectivality, whose ignorance is a form of creativity. The very contradictions in Nietzsche’s presentation of this “doctrine” are themselves the model of an inventive Will to Power, stamping “on becoming the character of being” by means of its very disregard for truth or logical consistency (330).

Despite the complexity of Nietzsche’s writing on the subject, Borges attributes unambiguously to his predecessor the atomistic form of the eternal return, criticizes this view, then posits a version that is closer to the one I would ascribe to Nietzsche. It’s not at all the case that Borges is a careless reader, and, given his habit of blending truth and fiction, one can never discredit the possibility that he has played a game with us, perhaps pretending to supersede Nietzsche to let his Will to Power as Will to Art forge a seeming novelty out of the eternal return of the same. Ultimately, we can find a similar expression of the impossibility of novelty at every moment in Borges, coupled with a similar contradiction focused on the divisibility or indivisibility of the atom. Again, our task will be the interpretation of a text at odds with itself.

Borges’ explicit writing about Nietzsche and eternal return comes in two essays included in Historia de la eternidad, “The Doctrine of Cycles” and “Circular Time.” The former offers an interesting demystification of the origin story Nietzsche offered for his central doctrine. In Ecce Homo, Nietzsche claims the inspiration for Thus Spoke Zarathustra (and much else besides) struck him while passing a pyramidal boulder by the Lake of Silvaplana, which he jotted down on a page signed with the phrase “6,000 feet beyond men and time” (119). But Nietzsche was a classicist and couldn’t possibly have been ignorant of the atomist tradition from which his idea originated or returned. Regardless, Borges in this essay attributes a rigorously atomist form of the eternal return to Nietzsche and claims to refute the latter by invoking the principle of uncountable infinity from Cantor’s set theory—that is, the infinite divisibility of time and space, and thus the impossibility of the atom.

Though such a criticism should eliminate the possibility of repetition, Borges ends by upping the ante of eternal return: “If Zarathustra’s hypothesis is accepted, I do not understand how two identical processes keep from agglomerating into one. Is mere succession, verified by no one, enough?” (122). Such a question is much closer to Borges’ typical mode of investigation than the mathematical and scientific invocations he relies on to refute Nietzsche in the rest of the essay. The idea that all experience reduces itself to a single basic form, as well as all art and all time, repeats so often throughout his work (often in identical words and passages) that he could only have chuckled to himself every time he allowed it to return. “I tend to return eternally to the Eternal Return,” he acknowledges in the first words of “Circular Time,” and even this witticism appeared two years earlier in “The Total Library.” In the conclusion to “Circular Time,” Borges considers the principle that “universal history is the history of a single man” and concludes that “the number of human perceptions, emotions, thoughts, and vicissitudes is limited, and that before dying we will exhaust them all” (228). The patriarchal language in this formulation (“de un solo hombre”) is perhaps symptomatic of the abstraction necessary to make such a claim—it may be that gender difference, among others, prevents the formation of such a universal representative.

This immanent version of the eternal return has its textual avatar as well. In addition to his many comments about the single destiny of “man,” Borges is also led by his skepticism and idealism (denying the appearance of difference and reducing it to the unity of an idea) to treat all authorship as a unitary act, writing the same book endlessly. In a poem depicting the burning of the Library of Alexandria, “Alexandria, 641 A.D.” its persona, the Islamic general Omar, whom Borges tells us in a note is “a projection of the author” (Noche 203, my translation), affirms the eternal return: “The vigils of humanity engendered / the infinite books. If not a single one / of that plenitude remained / They would be engendered anew, each leaf and each line” (Noche 167, my translation). The narrator of “The Library of Babel” offered us references to both forms of eternal return as well. His final affirmation of the infinity of the library is a traditionally atomist version. He offers as premises the infinity of space (i.e. of hexagonal rooms with shelves of books) and the finite number of possible texts, and posits with his typical dogmatism: The Library is unlimited and Cyclical(Borges, Babel” 58). His conclusion is a faithful rendering of the relation of chance and necessity in atomist thought: “If an eternal traveler were to cross it in any direction, after centuries he would see that the same volumes were repeated in the same disorder (which, thus repeated, would be an order: the Order)” (Borges, Babel” 58). The eternal return we identified as Nietzsche’s, and which Borges’ idealism approaches, also has its parallel in the cabbalistic text described by the narrator: “These phrases, at first glance incoherent, can no doubt be justified in a cryptographical or allegorical manner […] 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” (Borges, Babel 57). We are again in a position where we can learn from Borges’ narrator, despite his ideology. If the number of possible languages bestowing a potential meaning on anything resembling a phrase is nonfinite, and if a cryptographic formula is possible by which any phrase, page, or book could be transformed into any other, and if the literal meaning (as though this distinction were secure) of that ciphered or deciphered text could be transformed metaphorically or allegorically into any possible meaning, then it appears as though every text is capable of every possible meaning. Like the world of formless and identity-less forces that repeats at every moment, we have in this case the eternal return of the same text, one admitting all possible meanings and interpretations and constantly transforming into every other text with indifference.

Just as Nietzsche before him, Borges presents the experience of a finite creature as a contradiction to the premises of any eternal return. In “For Bernard Shaw,” Borges considers in unison the thinking machine of Ramon Llull, which combined subject and predicates combinatorially, J. S. Mill’s fear that we would run out of novel musical compositions, and Lasswitz’s “chaotic library.” In typical fashion, Borges suggests that each of these ideas, including the universal library that formed the subject of one of his most haunting fictions, “may make us laugh” (Inquisitions 163). Beyond the dismissive tone, we also find his most profound criticism of these fears of exhaustibility: “Literature is not exhaustible, for the sufficient and simple reason that a single book is not” (164). We have returned to the property of difference-from-self, which guarantees that the purported atoms of a textual eternal return will in fact be divisible. He defines a book as “the dialogue with the reader” and asserts that “That dialogue is infinite” (163). Our finite, fallible knowledge guarantees something like novelty, as impossibility of the saturation of context or meaning.

The universal library is itself the locus of this dialectic. Its every instantiation has a precursor, to the point where we located its essence in iterability, a property residing in the essence of language and existing before the letter. Nonetheless, a pure repetition without difference is never possible, as Borges reminds us when he says, in Leibnizian fashion, that two events without difference would be indistinguishable. Thus, every instantiation of the library brings something like novelty with it, precisely because it fails to realize the totality or universality of its ideal. While Borges’ librarians searched for the justification of their existence and arcana for the future and found mostly lines resembling surrealist juxtapositions, the visitors to are just as likely to search for internet memes or ASCII art. The infinite dialogue continues.

Both Nietzsche and Borges show a sly self-assurance when expressing themselves by means of contradiction, drawing power from both sides of the polemic they straddle. In Nietzsche, this tendency shows an affirmation in the face of the impossibility of totality, which can neither be reduced to the forgetting of Being nor embedded in a unitary history and project of metaphysics issued forth from Being itself. Borges’ elusive acknowledgement of his own openness to contradiction is spoken in the voice of an artist and philosopher; he calls it his “tendency […] to evaluate religious or philosophical ideas on the basis of their aesthetic worth and even for what is singular and marvelous about them. Perhaps this is an indication of a basic skepticism [escepticismo esencial]” (Inquisitions, 189).

The divisibility of the atom is the possibility of something like novelty, even in a pre-fabricated universe like that of Borges’ librarians, which has no essential difference from our own. If there is always discovery in invention, as our creations always conform to the forms of possible knowledge and expression, there is still an invention in discovery, as even our greatest efforts toward fidelity rely on the unstable and never self-identical atom. Borges and Nietzsche opt for one of the possible modes of expression of this conflict, the affirmation that hides and elides a negation.


Borges, Jorge Luis. Circular Time. 1941. Trans. Esther Allen. The Total Library: Non-fiction 1922-1986. Ed. Eliot Weinberger. London: Penguin, 1999. 225-28. Print.

—. “The Doctrine of Cycles.” 1936. Trans. Esther Allen. The Total Library: Non-fiction 1922-1986. Ed. Eliot Weinberger. London: Penguin, 1999. 115-22. Print.

—. Historia De La Noche.Obras Completas. Vol. II. Barcelona: Emecé, 1989. 165-203. Print.

—. “The Library of Babel.” Trans. James East Irby. Labyrinths: Selected Stories & Other Writings. New York: New Directions Pub., 1964. 51-58. Print.

. Other Inquisitions: 1937-1952. Trans. Ruth L. C. Simms. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1965. Print.

—. “The Total Library.” The Total Library: Non-fiction 1922-1986. Ed. Eliot Weinberger. Trans. Eliot Weinberger. London: Penguin, 1999. 214-16. Print.

Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm. The Will to Power. Ed. Walter Arnold Kaufmann. Trans. R. J. Hollingdale. New York: Random House, 1967. Print.


Jonathan Basile (@jonotrainEB/ is a Ph.D. Student in Emory’s Comparative Literature program, and the creator of an online universal library, His first book, Tar for Mortar: The Library of Babel and the Dream of Totality, is forthcoming from punctum books. His non-fiction has been published in The Paris Review Daily, Guernica, and Electric Literature, and his fiction has been published in minor literature[s] and Litro. Of course, it’s also available in the universal library, if you know where to look.


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