Tower of Babel (1563) by Pieter Brueghel the Elder (1526/1530-1569)
Alberto Manguel reflects on art as a witness to the human desire to be infinite and eternal
There is a story by Julio Cortázar, in one of his last collections, that tells of a woman who stops by chance in a dusty provincial hamlet and, to kill time, enters an exhibition of paintings. They are depictions of interiors, empty rooms represented in great detail, but as she wanders through the gallery, it becomes clear to her that the images have shifted, that none of the painted scenes remain static. The silhouette of a man appears in one, a female profile in another; a hazy garden is seen through a distant window. Puzzled or afraid, the woman leaves the gallery and drives away. Hours later, as she approaches her hometown, she finds herself suddenly facing the house in the painting. She gets out of the car, walks in, finds the depicted rooms and sits down at the table she has dreadfully recognized. The observed has become the observer. Between the representations of art and those of reality there are no limits, except the ones established by our uneasy conventions.
The great iconoclastic interdictions throughout history speak powerfully of these hazy borders, but this uncertainty is not restricted to the visual arts. Sometime in the eighteenth century, the Hasidic scholar Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev was asked why each of the treatises that compose the Babylonian Talmud mysteriously lacked an initial page. “Because,” the rabbi answered, “however many pages the studious man reads, he must never forget that he has not yet reached the very first page.” Less cautious, less admonitory, less despairing, every reader knows that the same is true of the last page as well. A book, for its elected reader, may come to an end, but in fact there is no proper final page, since the unravelled story and the characters brought to life will continue their telling long after the volume has been closed. Lacking a first and a last page, the book no doubt exists as a material object in a certain point of time and space, but the words within, without a beginning and without an end, are everywhere and always, blending into the world we live in. The notion of the world as book and the book as world make explicit the book’s (and the world’s) paradoxical quality. There is always a reader, a witness to our existence.
This exorbitant existence of books is shared by libraries, the imaginary places built to hold them. Imaginary, because they hold our imagination, but imaginary also because a library exists always in potentia, not merely as a construction of stone and wood, metal and glass, but as a possibility of knowledge that extends beyond its own space (every library proves itself too small for its contents) and its time (no library is rooted in the present but flows constantly from our common past into our common future). No library is ever unoccupied.
Books and libraries are imbued by two founding myths, known under the names of Babel and Alexandria. The first, erected to reach the forbidden heavens, rose from our ambition to conquer space, an ambition punished by the plurality of tongues that even today lays daily obstacles against our attempts at making ourselves known to one another. The second, built to assemble, from all over the world, what those tongues had tried to record, sprang from our hope to vanquish time, and ended in a fire—which, according to a legend today disproved, consumed all the painfully acquired volumes. The Tower of Babel in space and the Library of Alexandria in time are the twin symbols of these ambitions: to be ever and omnipresent.
The story of Babel, in the eleventh chapter of Genesis, tells how, after the Flood, the survivors decided to build a tower that would reach into the skies, and that God sent his angels to destroy it, so that humankind would not aspire to almighty powers. Notably, God’s punishment entailed the loss of memory of the common tongue; this quality of forgetfulness, according to medieval commentators, imbued the very ruins of the place and, even today, it is said that whoever passes by the site of Babel forgets all he knows, even that one has been there. The Tower’s shape, however, has come down to us—or at least what we believe to be its shape: that of the spiral Tower of Samara, immortalized by Breughel and many others. We think we know what Babel, which never existed, may have looked like: so powerful is our conviction that nothing in the universe goes unobserved.
Marks on the page, drawn or written, try to restore to the vanished Library and to the abolished Tower the qualities these edifices strove for: eternity and infinity. The imprecisions of one and the frustrations of the other become, in the unconscious echoes of writers and artists, aleatory, irrelevant. What takes the place of these imperfections is the absolute assurance of these writers’ and artists’ own existence, and of ours. Babel and Alexandria taught us that our daily landscapes are sadly subject to the hesitations of time, the variance of customs, the blind brutality of history. Proudly bereft of a first page and boasting of no conclusion, our geographies affirm for its casual explorers a tangible, rich world of open labyrinths and secret vistas that, in spite of cautionary legends and ambitious dreams of power, rejoices unceasingly in the truth of its own invention.
Reflecting on these things, I came upon a poem by Jaime Gil de Biedma, one of the best Spanish writers of his generation (he died in 1990). Here, summed up in one instance, was the experience I was trying to understand. I translated the poem into English.
Eyes of a lonely and astonished boy Whom I surprised in the pine copse watching us Close to the Faculty of Humanities More than eleven years ago, As I was about to draw away, Still light-headed by the spit and the sand, After thrashing about, both of us half-dressed, Happy as animals. How odd that your memory, With such intense symbolic concentration Remains coupled to that moment of My first experience of requited love. Sometimes I ask myself what has become of you, And if now on nights next to a body The distant scene comes back to you And once again you peek at our embraces. That is how, from a time long passed away, Like an odd disconnected shout The image of your eyes returns to me, As an expression of my own desire.