Book of Babel

When I was very small I decided one day to write something on the wall with a marker pen. I cannot remember what it was but I do remember thinking that I had expressed an original idea.

Some time later I decided that it was impossible to express any original idea because there was likely no such thing as an original expression. Anything that can be said in any language has probably already been said by someone somewhere somewhen. Language limits thought; we can’t think what we cannot say, and even if we could there would be no point because there’s no way to communicate what we patently can’t. I learnt later that this was similar to what some structuralists were saying about epistemology. My original idea about reality being constructed by language was not, in fact, original.

This reminds me of the story by Borges about the Library of Babel, which is really the whole universe consisting entirely of interlocking hexagonal rooms, each of which contains four shelves of books. People live in it, die in it, etc. (Umberto Eco made use of this idea in his book The Name of the Rose, and you can see it in the movie adaptation starring Sean Connery. Hellboy was in it too.)

The books in Borges’ Library contain every possible permutation of a series of basic characters, and hence the sum of books contains a lot of nonsense, as well as at least one readable book and very possibly all readable books ever written, or ever will be written. He then goes on to build a very crafty story about how some librarians have gone puritanical and move around destroying books they deem nonsense, while others believe that, among all these possible books, there must be at least one complete and coherent catalogue of all the coherent books in the Library. They also believe that someone has already read this (the Man of The Book) and they go about looking for him.

Later, Willard Quine pooped the party and said that the Library wasn’t actually infinite because there will come a time when everything that can be written has been written. Worse, he then proceeded to create the Library by reducing it to basic binary terms: two sheets of paper, on one a dot, on the other a dash. With these two sheets anyone could now create any number of Morse permutations and thereby replicate the contents of the Library. This is what happens when logicians tell stories.

In my work (and therefore a very large part of my life) I have come across, used, depended on and lived by various kinds of dictionary, lexicon and concordance. Each of these represents to me a mini-Babel Library containing anything that can be said, has been said, and might be said in that language. It is a silly idea because people invent new words every day—this is true for the majority of my work, but not in my private time when I deal with dead or dead-ish languages.

Consider the Classical Arabic word مَأْبُور, which E.V. Lane gives as “A dog that has had a needle given him, to eat, in bread: and, with ة‎, applied to a sheep or goat (شــاة‎) that has eaten a needle in its fodder, and in whose inside it has stuck fast; in consequence of which the animal eats nothing, or, if it eat, the eating does it no good.” It applies metaphorically to people who are easily deceived. Poor animals, but I like this as an example of dictionaries being elemental accounts, still very much alive, of how people perceive the world, then, now, or always, that is not reducible to 1s and 0s, dots and dashes.

NB, Lane’s is a notoriously expensive lexicon, but you can now have it free here in djvu (for which you need to download a reader separately). You can get it in pdf elsewhere too.

Sometimes I think that when we learn something new, we don’t really learn it so much as uncover something that has been occulted. This implies that everything was revealed at some point in the past. Other times I think it is the other way around, and that we are born into darkness and must daily fight to establish, and re-establish meaning.

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