# Epistemania

/I remember sitting in eleventh grade English class one morning, second period after a late night flipping burgers at work, half-asleep with my head against the wall, discussing poetry. This would have been American literature, and I have no idea what poem we were discussing, but at one point my teacher asked what the meaning of the poem was, and I, in full 16-year-old jackassery, said something like, "Who cares? Maybe he didn't mean anything. Maybe he just wrote it."

"Nice attitude, Kevin."

Yeah, well, I *was* 16. But I think we can sometimes be guilty of "beating it with a hose to find out what it really means" (as former poet laureate Billy Collins put it). And as we delved further into Borges this past week I began to wonder if we weren't doing just that. I love Borges and his application of mathematics, but after a few hours of unraveling his use of the infinite many of us had a glazed look. You know that 1,000 yard stare you get after flying from Seoul to Atlanta? Not quite that bad, but close enough.

So, let's talk a bit more about *The Library of Babel*, and then maybe a little about *The Aleph*, and then move on to other things. Putting aside the structure of the Library, which we never did settle on, and the number of distinct books in it, which is easy to calculate but impossible to comprehend, it remains to ask what it all means. Even then, it is easy to get lost in infinite mathematical loops. For example, there is talk of *The Book*, a catalog of all the books in the Library. Let's denote this book by \({\mathbb B}\). Here's a question: is \({\mathbb B}\) listed in \({\mathbb B}\)? If \({\mathbb B}\) is a complete catalog of the books, and if \({\mathbb B}\) is in the library, then it must be listed in it. But there are too many books in the Library to be listed in a single book; that is, even if each book were represented by a single character in \({\mathbb B}\), it would follow that \({\mathbb B}\) must be broken into almost as many volumes as there are books in the library. Meaning, almost every book in the library is part of *The Book*, and so what's the point of \({\mathbb B}\)? This smacks of Russell's Paradox, which led to the development of the set of axioms we now use for standard set theory.

So maybe \({\mathbb B}\) isn't in the Library, but then who can access it? The first sentence tells us that the Library is the Universe, so is \({\mathbb B}\) God? Can we ever find it? How would we know? At this point I'm reminded of the following passage from Kafka's *Great Wall of China*:

I will take Franz's advice and stop thinking about \({\mathbb B}\). One final remark about *The Library of Babel*: we really only need one book. In fact, we only need this blog post, for it is every possible book in *some* language. We may not know these languages because no one speaks them, but in some strange tongue this blog post is *Moby-Dick*, and in another it is *The Hunt for Red October*. So perhaps we should give up our epistemania and simply take things for what they are.

As for *The Aleph*, the other Borges story we discussed, we see the same theme: infinite regress as a subject of confusion. The Aleph is a point in a Buenos Aires basement that contains all other points in the universe. But then it also contains The Aleph which contains the universe which contains The Aleph which contains... You get it. For me this story is more one of melancholy: the narrator (whose name is Borges) was in love with Beatriz, who died, and the narrative is more a reflection on how his memory of her is fading. Personally, I think Beatriz is The Aleph. Haven't we all seen the whole universe in another? Isn't that the hope, anyway? Melancholy gives way to hope gives way to melancholy gives way to...