From Updike's essay on Borges' "The Library of Babel" in Picked-Up Pieces:
"This kind of comedy and desperation, these themes of vindication and unattainability, suggest Kafka. But The Castle is a more human work, more personal and neurotic; the fantastic realities of Kafka's fiction are projections of the narrator-hero's anxieties, and have no communion, no interlocking structure, without him. 'The Library of Babel' instead has an adamant solidity. Built of mathematics and science, it will certainly survive the weary voice describing it, and outlast all its librarians, already decimated, we learn in a footnote, by 'suicide and pulmonary disease.' We move, with Borges, beyond psychology, beyond the human, and confront, in his work, the world atomised and vacant. Perhaps not since Lucretius has a poet so definitely felt men as incidents in space.
What are we to make of him? The economy of his prose, the tact of his imagery, the courage of his thought are there to be admired and emulated. In resounding the note of the marvellous last struck in English by Wells and Chesterton, in permitted infinity to enter and distort his imagination, he has lifted fiction away from that flat earth where most of our novels and short stories still take place. Yet discouragingly large areas of truth seem excluded from his vision. Though the population of the Library somehow replenishes itself, and 'fecal necessities' are provided for, neither food nor fornication is mentioned - and in truth they are not generally seen in libraries. I feel in Borges a curious implication: the unrealities of physical science and the senseless repetitions of history have made the world outside the library an uninhabitable vacuum. Litereature - that European empire augmented with translations from remote kingdoms - is now the only world capable of housing and sustaining new litereature. Is this too curious? Did not Eliot recommend forty years ago, in reviewing Ulysses, that new novels be retellings of old myths? Is not the greatest of modern novels, Remembrance of Things Past, about its own inspiration? Have not many books already been written from within Homer and the Bible? Did not Cervantes write from within Airosto and Shakespeare from within Holinshed? Borges, by predilection and by program, carries these inklings towards a logical extreme: the view of books as, in sum, an alternate creation, vast, accessible, highly colored, rich in arcana, possibly sacred. Just as physical man, in his cities, has manufactured an environment whose scope and challenge and hostitility eclipse that of the natural world, so literate man has heaped up a counterfeit unvierse capable of supporting life. Certainly the traditional novel as a transparent imitation of human circumstances has 'a distracted or tired air.' Ironic and blasphemous as Borges' hidden message may seem, the texture and method of his creations, though strictly inimitable, answer to a deep need in contemporary fiction - the need to confess the fact of artifice."
Because Updike mentions Lucretius there – and because the notion of "men as incidents in space" comes up a lot at the moment – I thought I should read a bit of De Rerum Natura. This passage (from an old prose translation by Cyril Bailey) is delightful:
"Herein there is left a slight chance of hiding from justice, which Anaxagoras grasps for himself, to hold that all things are mingled, though in hiding, in all things, but that one thing comes out clear, whereof there are most parts mingled in, stationed more ready to view and in the forefront. But this is very far banished from true reasoning. For it were right then that corn also, when crushed by the threatening strength of rock, should often give out some sign of blood, or one of those things which are nourished in our body, and that when we rub it with stone on stone, gore should ooze forth. In the same way it were fitting that blades of grass too and willow-plants should often give out sweet drops with a savour like the richness of the milk of fleecy beasts, and that often when sods of earth are crumbled, kinds of grasses and corn and leave should be seen, hiding in tiny form, scattered about among the earthy, lastly that ash and smoke should be seen in logs, when there were broken off, and tiny flames in hiding. But since facts clearly show that none of these things come to pass, you may be sure that things are not so mingled in other things, but that seeds common to many things lie mingled and hidden in things in many ways."
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