By this art you may contemplate the variations of the 23 letters...
The Anatomy of Melancholy, part 2, sect. II, mem. IV
The universe (which others call the Library) is composed of an indefinite and perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries,
with vast air shafts between, surrounded by very low railings. From any of the hexagons one can see, interminably, the upper
and lower floors. The distribution of the galleries is invariable. Twenty shelves, five long shelves per side, cover all the sides
except two; their height, which is the distance from floor to ceiling, scarcely exceeds that of a normal bookcase. One of the free
sides leads to a narrow hallway which opens onto another gallery, identical to the first and to all the rest. To the left and right of
the hallway there are two very small closets. In the first, one may sleep standing up; in the other, satisfy one's fecal necessities.
Also through here passes a spiral stairway, which sinks abysmally and soars upwards to remote distances. In the hallway there
is a mirror which faithfully duplicates all appearances. Men usually infer from this mirror that the Library is not infinite (if it were,
why this illusory duplication?); I prefer to dream that its polished surfaces represent and promise the infinite ... Light is provided
by some spherical fruit which bear the name of lamps. There are two, transversally placed, in each hexagon. The light they emit
is insufficient, incessant.
Like all men of the Library, I have traveled in my youth; I have wandered in search of a book, perhaps the catalogue of
catalogues; now that my eyes can hardly decipher what I write, I am preparing to die just a few leagues from the hexagon in
which I was born. Once I am dead, there will be no lack of pious hands to throw me over the railing; my grave will be the
fathomless air; my body will sink endlessly and decay and dissolve in the wind generated by the fall, which is infinite. I say that
the Library is unending. The idealists argue that the hexagonal rooms are a necessary from of absolute space or, at least, of our
intuition of space. They reason that a triangular or pentagonal room is inconceivable. (The mystics claim that their ecstasy
reveals to them a circular chamber containing a great circular book, whose spine is continuous and which follows the complete
circle of the walls; but their testimony is suspect; their words, obscure. This cyclical book is God.) Let it suffice now for me to
repeat the classic dictum: The Library is a sphere whose exact center is any one of its hexagons and whose
circumference is inaccessible.
There are five shelves for each of the hexagon's walls; each shelf contains thirty-five books of uniform format; each book is of
four hundred and ten pages; each page, of forty lines, each line, of some eighty letters which are black in color. There are also
letters on the spine of each book; these letters do not indicate or prefigure what the pages will say. I know that this incoherence
at one time seemed mysterious. Before summarizing the solution (whose discovery, in spite of its tragic projections, is perhaps
the capital fact in history) I wish to recall a few axioms.
First: The Library exists ab aeterno. This truth, whose immediate corollary is the future eternity of the world, cannot be placed
in doubt by any reasonable mind. Man, the imperfect librarian, may be the product of chance or of malevolent demiurgi; the
universe, with its elegant endowment of shelves, of enigmatical volumes, of inexhaustible stairways for the traveler and latrines
for the seated librarian, can only be the work of a god. To perceive the distance between the divine and the human, it is enough
to compare these crude wavering symbols which my fallible hand scrawls on the cover of a book, with the organic letters
inside: punctual, delicate, perfectly black, inimitably symmetrical.
Second: The orthographical symbols are twenty-five in number. (1) This finding made it possible, three hundred years ago,
to formulate a general theory of the Library and solve satisfactorily the problem which no conjecture had deciphered: the
formless and chaotic nature of almost all the books. One which my father saw in a hexagon on circuit fifteen ninety-four was
made up of the letters MCV, perversely repeated from the first line to the last. Another (very much consulted in this area) is a
mere labyrinth of letters, but the next-to-last page says Oh time thy pyramids. This much is already known: for every sensible
line of straightforward statement, there are leagues of senseless cacophonies, verbal jumbles and incoherences. (I know of an
uncouth region whose librarians repudiate the vain and superstitious custom of finding a meaning in books and equate it with
that of finding a meaning in dreams or in the chaotic lines of one's palm ... They admit that the inventors of this writing imitated
the twenty-five natural symbols, but maintain that this application is accidental and that the books signify nothing in themselves.
This dictum, we shall see, is not entirely fallacious.)
For a long time it was believed that these impenetrable books corresponded to past or remote languages. It is true that the
most ancient men, the first librarians, used a language quite different from the one we now speak; it is true that a few miles to
the right the tongue is dialectical and that ninety floors farther up, it is incomprehensible. All this, I repeat, is true, but four
hundred and ten pages of inalterable MCV's cannot correspond to any language, no matter how dialectical or rudimentary it
may be. Some insinuated that each letter could influence the following one and that the value of MCV in the third line of page
71 was not the one the same series may have in another position on another page, but this vague thesis did not prevail. Others
thought of cryptographs; generally, this conjecture has been accepted, though not in the sense in which it was formulated by its
Five hundred years ago, the chief of an upper hexagon (2) came upon a book as confusing as the others, but which had nearly
two pages of homogeneous lines. He showed his find to a wandering decoder who told him the lines were written in
Portuguese; others said they were Yiddish. Within a century, the language was established: a Samoyedic Lithuanian dialect of
Guarani, with classical Arabian inflections. The content was also deciphered: some notions of combinative analysis, illustrated
with examples of variations with unlimited repetition. These examples made it possible for a librarian of genius to discover the
fundamental law of the Library. This thinker observed that all the books, no matter how diverse they might be, are made up of
the same elements: the space, the period, the comma, the twenty-two letters of the alphabet. He also alleged a fact which
travelers have confirmed: In the vast Library there are no two identical books. From these two incontrovertible premises he
deduced that the Library is total and that its shelves register all the possible combinations of the twenty-odd orthographical
symbols (a number which, though extremely vast, is not infinite): Everything: the minutely detailed history of the future, the
archangels' autobiographies, the faithful catalogues of the Library, thousands and thousands of false catalogues, the
demonstration of the fallacy of those catalogues, the demonstration of the fallacy of the true catalogue, the Gnostic gospel of
Basilides, the commentary on that gospel, the commentary on the commentary on that gospel, the true story of your death, the
translation of every book in all languages, the interpolations of every book in all books.
When it was proclaimed that the Library contained all books, the first impression was one of extravagant happiness. All men
felt themselves to be the masters of an intact and secret treasure. There was no personal or world problem whose eloquent
solution did not exist in some hexagon. The universe was justified, the universe suddenly usurped the unlimited dimensions of
hope. At that time a great deal was said about the Vindications: books of apology and prophecy which vindicated for all time
the acts of every man in the universe and retained prodigious arcana for his future. Thousands of the greedy abandoned their
sweet native hexagons and rushed up the stairways, urged on by the vain intention of finding their Vindication. These pilgrims
disputed in the narrow corridors, proferred dark curses, strangled each other on the divine stairways, flung the deceptive books
into the air shafts, met their death cast down in a similar fashion by the inhabitants of remote regions. Others went mad ... The
Vindications exist (I have seen two which refer to persons of the future, to persons who are perhaps not imaginary) but the
searchers did not remember that the possibility of a man's finding his Vindication, or some treacherous variation thereof, can be
computed as zero.
At that time it was also hoped that a clarification of humanity's basic mysteries -- the origin of the Library and of time -- might
be found. It is verisimilar that these grave mysteries could be explained in words: if the language of philosophers is not sufficient,
the multiform Library will have produced the unprecedented language required, with its vocabularies and grammars. For four
centuries now men have exhausted the hexagons ... There are official searchers, inquisitors. I have seen them in the
performance of their function: they always arrive extremely tired from their journeys; they speak of a broken stairway which
almost killed them; they talk with the librarian of galleries and stairs; sometimes they pick up the nearest volume and leaf
through it, looking for infamous words. Obviously, no one expects to discover anything.
As was natural, this inordinate hope was followed by an excessive depression. The certitude that some shelf in some hexagon
held precious books and that these precious books were inaccessible, seemed almost intolerable. A blasphemous sect
suggested that the searches should cease and that all men should juggle letters and symbols until they constructed, by an
improbable gift of chance, these canonical books. The authorities were obliged to issue severe orders. The sect disappeared,
but in my childhood I have seen old men who, for long periods of time, would hide in the latrines with some metal disks in a
forbidden dice cup and feebly mimic the divine disorder.
Others, inversely, believed that it was fundamental to eliminate useless works. They invaded the hexagons, showed credentials
which were not always false, leafed through a volume with displeasure and condemned whole shelves: their hygienic, ascetic
furor caused the senseless perdition of millions of books. Their name is execrated, but those who deplore the ``treasures''
destroyed by this frenzy neglect two notable facts. One: the Library is so enormous that any reduction of human origin is
infinitesimal. The other: every copy is unique, irreplaceable, but (since the Library is total) there are always several hundred
thousand imperfect facsimiles: works which differ only in a letter or a comma. Counter to general opinion, I venture to suppose
that the consequences of the Purifiers' depredations have been exaggerated by the horror these fanatics produced. They were
urged on by the delirium of trying to reach the books in the Crimson Hexagon: books whose format is smaller than usual,
all-powerful, illustrated and magical.
We also know of another superstition of that time: that of the Man of the Book. On some shelf in some hexagon (men
reasoned) there must exist a book which is the formula and perfect compendium of all the rest: some librarian has gone
through it and he is analogous to a god. In the language of this zone vestiges of this remote functionary's cult still persist. Many
wandered in search of Him. For a century they have exhausted in vain the most varied areas. How could one locate the
venerated and secret hexagon which housed Him? Someone proposed a regressive method: To locate book A, consult first
book B which indicates A's position; to locate book B, consult first a book C, and so on to infinity ... In adventures such as
these, I have squandered and wasted my years. It does not seem unlikely to me that there is a total book on some shelf of the
universe; (3) I pray to the unknown gods that a man -- just one, even though it were thousands of years ago! -- may have
examined and read it. If honor and wisdom and happiness are not for me, let them be for others. Let heaven exist, though my
place be in hell. Let me be outraged and annihilated, but for one instant, in one being, let Your enormous Library be justified.
The impious maintain that nonsense is normal in the Library and that the reasonable (and even humble and pure coherence) is
an almost miraculous exception. They speak (I know) of the ``feverish Library whose chance volumes are constantly in danger
of changing into others and affirm, negate and confuse everything like a delirious divinity.'' These words, which not only
denounce the disorder but exemplify it as well, notoriously prove their authors' abominable taste and desperate ignorance. In
truth, the Library includes all verbal structures, all variations permitted by the twenty-five orthographical symbols, but not a
single example of absolute nonsense. It is useless to observe that the best volume of the many hexagons under my
administration is entitled The Combed Thunderclap and another The Plaster Cramp and another Axaxaxas mlö. These
phrases, at first glance incoherent, can no doubt be justified in a cryptographical or allegorical manner; such a justification is
verbal and, ex hypothesi, already figures in the Library. I cannot combine some characters
The methodical task of writing distracts me from the present state of men. The certitude that everything has been written
negates us or turns us into phantoms. I know of districts in which the young men prostrate themselves before books and kiss
their pages in a barbarous manner, but they do not know how to decipher a single letter. Epidemics, heretical conflicts,
peregrinations which inevitably degenerate into banditry, have decimated the population. I believe I have mentioned suicides,
more and more frequent with the years. Perhaps my old age and fearfulness deceive me, but I suspect that the human species
-- the unique species -- is about to be extinguished, but the Library will endure: illuminated, solitary, infinite, perfectly
motionless, equipped with precious volumes, useless, incorruptible, secret.
I have just written the word ``infinite.'' I have not interpolated this adjective out of rhetorical habit; I say that it is not illogical to
think that the world is infinite. Those who judge it to be limited postulate that in remote places the corridors and stairways and
hexagons can conceivably come to an end -- which is absurd. Those who imagine it to be without limit forget that the possible
number of books does have such a limit. I venture to suggest this solution to the ancient problem: The Library is unlimited
and cyclical. 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). My solitude is gladdened by this elegant
Translated by J. E. I.