Wandering the Library: an investigation of books and performance

“like all men of the library, I have traveled in my youth; I have wandered in search of a book, perhaps the catalog of catalogs; 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.” Borges, The Library of Babel

When I first moved back to Los Angeles 2 years ago , I started investigating knowledge, the quest/ need for knowledge and the importance/ lack of importance in obtaining it. I read Borges’ Labyrinths, a theme he has carried throughout his work, not only in this book, and found a story that resonated completely with me: The Library of Babel. For reasons I will leave unexplained, the project flitted away like a leaf in the wind, but have just started picking it up again and thought I would share some thoughts/ ramblings.

This library contains an infinite amount of books in an infinite amount of hexagonal rooms, with the infinite combination of words/ typing per book. Supposedly there is coherency in the language of these books, if only one can find the right book, that makes sense. And so endless men search for the meaning amongst the gibberish. (for a more complete synopsis see here)
The infinite labyrinth conjured up notions of the minotaur, of the Greek myth. Although the story of its birth is interesting (the Minotaur was called into being by Minos and meant to be offered as a sacrifice to Poseidon, but deeming it too beautiful he refused to sacrifice it, as a punishment Poseidon made the minotaur into a monster- that Minos wife then fell in love with), as the notion of ‘the other’, the minotaur is more interesting to me. A tutor once told me the minotaur represented fear. I wanted to take that one step further and connect the minotaur to the fear of looking directly into oneself, and battling with the darker side of oneself, the existence of which was self-created, but meant to destroyed.

“When, in the very heart of the labyrinth and at the very moment of the confrontation, Theseus suddenly saw his own inverted image rise before him, represented by the Other, he had to acknowledge it and find a way of seeing it in a favourable light. It is impossible to destroy an image and impossible to kill the Minotaur. At the very most we can sacrifice it, in other words transform it, or else it ‘completes’ us”

Excerpted from a longer essay in Companion to Literary Myths, Heroes and Archetypes. Ed. Pierre Brunel. Trans. Wendy Allatson, Judith Hayward, and Trista Selous. London: Routledge, 1996. Copyright © 1996 by Routledge.
(http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/m_r/rukeyser/minotaur.htm)

The idea of escape from the labyrinth by reading the very books that lined its walls also appeals to me. Why look inside yourself when you can search for outside knowledge to block holes in yourself? If it’s possible the solution can be found in looking outward rather than inward, is that a better solution, or avoidance (bearing in mind Jung started to go crazy by looking into himself for too long). There is also a notion of escape through knowledge, burying oneself in books, also escape into the fantasy of books, something that has manifested itself in our society not only though the endless knowledge available on the internet (knowledge) but also in gaming (fantasy).

“Borges confessed that, beyond this abstract idea, he was also describing the troubling feeling of being lost in the universe, and of not being able to understand it. “In my story,” […], “there is an intellectual component, and another, of greater importance, I think, that has to do with my sense of loneliness, anguish, uselessness, and of the mysterious nature of the universe, of time, and more importantly, of ourselves. Or rather, of myself.”
(http://www.nysun.com/arts/a-universe-of-books-borgess-library-of-babel/86435/)

I couldn’t help thinking of The Castle by Kafka, while reading, although more of an allegory of all the bureaucracy it takes to get to God/ salvation, the struggle through the labyrinth surrounding the castle , the endless quest to getting to a nucleus that may not be worth it, resonated with my atheist sensibilities, and conjured the idea of an endless quest for knowledge that may or may not lead to enlightenment.

Without helping it the images of the library within the film Mirror Mask, of books having a life of their own and flying away also came to me.

So anyway, the notions and ideas brought about by these books/ images and surrounding analysis, has made me want to create a piece of theatre again, grappling with some of these themes, and as I keep wandering by the Acres of Books, a total library in itself, and sadly now a derelict bookstore, with scores of dying books scattered throughout, I can’t help but want to explore the idea of The Total Library, perhaps in that building.

“Through the years, a man peoples a space with images of provinces, kingdoms, mountains, bays, ships, islands, fishes, rooms, tools, stars, horses and people. Shortly before his death, he discovers that the patient labyrinth of lines traces the image of his own face.” Borges

Some images that have been inspiring me, on the same themes:

Originally Published on the Blog ‘Claires Closet’  www.clairetownsend.wordpress.com

About CT

Claire Townsend is a freelance costume designer/maker and theatre practitioner.
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