The Library of Babel and the Anatomy of Melancholy

“By this art you may contemplate the variation of the twenty-three letters…”

Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy, II.II.IV (Borges 51)

The relevance of the quote opening Borges’ “The Library of Babel,” a passage from Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, has an initial obvious relevance to the text: in the great Library lies every possible variation of twenty-two letters and simple punctuation, left to be contemplated endlessly with only the hope of some glimmer of sense.  In the Library, scholars of the tomes exist in solitude, never described as leaving or even having much interest in leaving. Even contact with the other librarians is dwindling, as the population vanishes from suicide and disease. The study of the Library, the desperate hope to find some scrap of truth in chaos, consumes the mind.

This is the story of Robert Burton’s melancholy, communicated in the Anatomy, a quasi-bibliographic philosophical exercise written over the course of his life. The career scholar of the 1600’s devoted his life work to academia, to the study of theological and philosophical musings, questions with no answers. While he lived successfully, these pursuits left him empty, vocally depressed in his writings. The Anatomy was an attempt to interrogate the causes of melancholia and propose solutions. However, over time the text sprawled into six books, with changes found over many years from Burton’s writings after his death, a suspected suicide. The text itself vacillates between fairly standard philosophical treatises and at times awkward, deeply personal catalogs of hopes and fears. Burton, who could see in his studies such wonderful stories of loves and adventures, could neither love nor travel due to his profession. He more or less spent his life like a monk, penned up in a university trying to answer questions for a life he could not live.

The same fate awaits all who study the Library of Babel, who toil to find some answer in the “impenetrable books” (53), that there is nothing in the library save chaos and the solitude of the self. This is the melancholy of the scholar, one who pursues sense in the outside world without experiencing it. The scholar-narrator still hopes, prays to find an answer in those near-endless hexagons. He prays that there would be one librarian who has read a text that explains the Library itself. Alone in this space, chilled by nights in which there are no other scholars even to be found, he cannot even hope to find the answer himself and prays for others to find it. In his prayers to the God of the Library he pleads, “If honor and wisdom and happiness are not for me, let them be for others” (57), but in doing so commits the fallacy that Burton comes to understand: wisdom and happiness may be mutually exclusive. (there are tons and tons of different versions of this text, as Burton kept changing it in life and in death, so your best bet to find one you prefer is just to look up Anatomy of Melancholy in Google Books.


~ by benjyblanco on February 1, 2010.

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