Wednesday, December 12, 2007

infinite research

I've been assigned an essay on the "infinite library," based on an answer to an interview question I was given at the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council. So I'm rereading Borges's story, "The Library of Babel," and lo and behold, last night very serendipitously found a book on Étienne-Louis Boullée, the pre- and during French Revolution architect, who almost designed the Bibliothèque Nationale, or national library for France. Here's his design for the library, which like many of his designs, is classicism on an impossible scale.

Anyway, the book. I found it last night in the rare book room of the Strand, which itself is almost an infinite library--this quality of infiniteness granted by the complete hodge-podgery of its selection. Ashbery leans against an 1880s tome on quiltmaking (well, not quite--the A Nest of Ninnies was leaning against something completely discordant, but it I don't remember what it was. Something like quiltmaking.); Walter Mosley printer proofs against the Japanese Country House, and so on and so on. And then there are long, long shelves with books that "have not been priced yet" and probably never will. I sat with my son Ismael in a huge old leather chair and let my eyes run over the shelves as I fed him: shiny spines next to leather, beat-up paperbacks next to boxed oversized art books, and perched on piles of "not priced yet" goodies, some tiny book, I recall on typesetting (should've taken it...). Oh, but I'm digressing--back to the book on Boullée! It's by one Helen Rosenau and the text is impressively uninspired, dull almost to the same degree that Boullée's designs were gasp-inspiring. I had been hoping for some sort of context, in how his designs, severe and classical and above all, gargantuan, fit into the time of the Revolution, mais non, rien, nothing, except translations of his own writings (and yes, gorgeous reproductions of his designs, of which I'm still not sure how many made it into actuality).

Here's a couple of excerpts:

Inside the city
The interior walls of the city are decorated differently and lead one to suppose the presence of a double wall. I consider that such multiple defenses not only make the city appear unassailable, but also give variety to my subject.

Gates of fortified cities
My various city gates consist of walls flanked by Towers. The basement of one of them is made of supplies of Cannon Balls under Trophies made of the arms of Giant warriors. The arch, or rather the archivolts, are made of gun barrels.

And here I was wondering how his work fit into his times. Seems like his work would fit well into our times as well. Or all urban times, perhaps.

In the meantime, on discussing the infinite library essay with Andres Clerici, Andres sent me some intriguing links on Borges-related authors, such as Oliverio Girondo and the aforementioned Xul Solar. Andres also mentions Cortazar's story, "La Casa Tomada," and his book "bestiario," "a great book from 1951." Andres also says Borges was good friends with Adolfo Bioy Casares, whose novel Morel's Invention was recently (relatively at least, for translations--2003) translated and published by New York Review of Books Classics.

What do these authors have to do, actually, with an infinite library? Well, that's the point. In order to research an essay on an infinite library, one has to cast out in all directions, almost randomly, in order to approximate that sense of infinity. How can one humanly support such infinite research? A: With either great enjoyment or great stress, especially since the essay is due in about two weeks.

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