The Lost Volumes from the Infinite Library:
An Ode to Fire and Flames

— Ana Helena Arévalo

This article was published in the 4th issue of U&K Magazine in September 2019.

“Time is the substance from which I am made. Time is a river, which carries me along, but I am the river;
it is a tiger that devours me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire that consumes me, but I am the fire”
— Jorge Luis Borges

When Borges first conceived his Total Library, he described an ever-expanding space that contained all books. He portrayed it thoroughly recounting each hexagonal room, and everything that these rooms encompassed: from the number of bookcases and shelves, to the number of books per shelf, the number of pages per book, the number of lines per page, and the number of words per line. He outlined the logical limits and possibilities of the library, while simultaneously embracing the fact that there were certain truths that, due to their intrinsic nature, could not be fully grasped by mankind. The library has a place for any book that can sufficiently be conceived or imagined. The library, however does not house the impossible.

The library is in itself a question of science, of culture, and of language, all at once; an open inquiry into origin and end, and of existence overall. The library acts almost as a vessel of systematic order and classification, by containing what otherwise would remain in divine disorder. The dimension(s) of the library cannot be determined, and the number of books it holds cannot be predicted. Two facts are clear, nonetheless: firstly, that the library contains every single volume that has ever been conceived –including every book that has been lost, damaged, or destroyed–, and secondly, that human existence is understood merely as a book in this library, and that for said reason, the rise and fall of mankind will not, in any way, affect the innate course
of the library itself.[1]

The understanding of culture and civilization comes in terms of the Total reading of a Book – a flawed, damaged, disrupted, imperfect book that is. A book whose foundational premise is mediated by that of the histories of fire and flames; of cycles of construction and dissolution. A book which does not attempt to exist ab æterno, but rather a book whose ending has already been written, and which is understood in terms of everything and anything that has superseded these cycles of destruction: we are not the things that have survived, but rather that which has not yet been forgotten.

Because the course of culture and civilization is thus understood as the reading of a Book, then all the instances in which this reading is somewhat distorted, diluted, obscured, or effaced in any way come as lacunae;[2] as inevitable instances in space and time that challenge the reading of a specific portion of the book, rather than the reading of the book as a whole. If we consider civilization as the sum of all the material culture and knowledge that has ever been produced –which does not necessarily have to have survived to this day in their complete tangible forms, but also as fragments, relics, and ruins, or simply as memories or thoughts– what would happen if everything that defines and comprises civilization as we know it were to collapse into flames?

The [very much human] fascination with fire lies in its paradoxically binary essence: it is both origin and end, construction and dissolution, continuity and conclusion, consonance and dissonance. It is an agent of transformation; a means of cyclical change. A double-edged entity; a tool and a weapon. It is as much of a tangible force as it is a metaphorical impulse. It has become a pivotal element in the understanding of civilization, as mankind’s ability to control fire goes hand in hand with questions of power and progress. The constructive/destructive aspect of fire is inevitably linked to these notions of control, which is at the service of whoever chooses to utilize it as a weapon or a tool.

For centuries there have been kings and emperors, dictators and tyrants who have chosen to create/destroy[3] with fire. This systematic creation/destruction often derived from larger imperatives, most of which were connected to the assimilation and dissemination of the absolute understanding of the course of history. In many ways, there was a –conscious or subconscious– desire to influence and/or control the way the Book was to be read, but also to participate in the formulation of the content of the Book itself. A quintessential illustration of this desire is that of the reign of Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of unified China, who by self-proclaiming as the first, aimed not necessarily to rewrite history, but rather to have history begin during his reign. He commanded one of the greatest mass-destructions of religious, literary, and academic texts, all of which were burned, as well as the persecution and execution of scholars and thinkers. Concurrently, he ordered the creation of monuments –among which was the fortification of a wall that would later grow to be the Great Wall– that would ultimately denominate him as the predecessor of all.

The ability to influence, mediate, and dictate the course of history –the reading of the Book– is directly connected to the control of knowledge and culture, as holding all the information in the world would come as a means of Total power. The most predominant example is the Library of Alexandria, which was originally conceived as a repository of all knowledge. The library was part of the Museion, an architectural complex dedicated to the nine muses, which was built under the reign of Ptolemy II Philadelphius around 285–246 BC. The library was speculated to hold over 300,000 papyrus scrolls, which today would be the equivalent of approximately 100,000 books. At some point in time it was considered to be the core of civilization. The destruction and decay of the Museion came over time, and it is not yet possible to pinpoint exactly when or how the library was destroyed, although it is estimated that the library was burned accidentally in 48 BC by Julius Cæsar during the civil war.

Nevertheless, the desire-now-turned-obsession to conceive and construct a Total Library[4] grew exponentially as empires expanded and new continents were discovered. This obsession was closely linked to efforts of finding order in our world of chaos, but also as conquering-collecting became interchangeable activities pivotal of the ruling systematic culture of the past. Cristóbal Colón [Christopher Columbus] worked at the service of the Spanish crown, which ultimately attempted to create a universal [Spanish] empire; while his illegitimate son, Hernando, dedicated his life to the creation of a universal library, which was to be at the disposition of said universal empire. Hernando Colón attempted to gather and collect every book ever published, of every subject, in every language; something that was logically and practically impossible, by all means; however, he did come around to collect over 20,000 volumes in a time when printed matter had just beginning to boom. Colón quickly concluded that having a universal library was of no use if there were no order or systems in place, as things would simply get lost and become obsolete. He proceeded to hire scholars –the readers– to read every volume in the collection and to write abstracts about each one of them. These abstracts would then be gathered, arranged, and documented in a larger tome –the universal Catalogue, if you may–, which was titled The Book of Epitomes.Collections as such, which can be considered as the early forms of the contemporary repository as we know it, became their own microcosms –the mirrors and shadows of civilization– and so by being able to govern and regulate the systems of organization and classification, the person who ruled the greatest collections was then able to control these universalreadings and narratives.

These artifact-based replicas of the universe transcended from being merely hidden rooms, to grand museums, libraries, archives, and universities –repositories of order, progress, and truth–, most of which have been considered as miniature versions of the Total Library. Nonetheless, in order for something to characterize as Total it must then be infinite, absolute, and all-encompassing; and if anything, all the many bonfires of history have proven that human existence is everything but Total, as so many of these microcosms have blazed into flames, and with them any evidence of order, progress, and truth.

So is the case of the Museu Nacional do Brazil in Rio de Janeiro, the largest scientific and ethnographic museum in Latin-America, where over 20 million artifacts from its collection and more than 470,000 volumes from its library were charcoaled and reduced to merely ashes and dust due to an unforgiving fire in September 2018. The museum was home to one of the most comprehensive collections in the world, which was not only pivotal to Brazilian heritage, but universal culture overall. This tremendous loss, however, does not only come in terms of countable tangible matter, as the Museu Nacional was the only institution to house a variety of rare artifacts and significant research belonging to pre-colonial indigenous tribes now known to be extinct, as well as forensic evidence and studies of endangered local ecosystems. Everything that was ever known about these cultures –audio recordings of their extinct languages, volumes of their systems of writing and traditions, cultural relics and religious icons– vanished in an instance, and with them the testimony that these individuals ever wandered the earth in the first place.

There has been a growing effort of reconstructing this collection somehow,[5] specifically through the use of already-existing (and continuously-expanding) digital archives and online databases, as well as the creation of alternative ones. Cultural institutions and repositories in the Global South diverge radically from that of the institutions of the North in a myriad ways, but most predominantly in that the latter are able to partake in the booming digitization economy more actively and recurrently than the former. Cases such as the online database of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, an open-source digital archive that includes hundred of thousands of high-res images of artworks, artifacts, and printed matter, contrast drastically with instances such as the Museu Nacional’s Google Arts and Culture profile, which contains 164 objects from a collection surpassing the millions. Very much like the Museion in Alexandria and Colón’s Universal Library, the Information Age demands the systematic conservation, preservation, and now, digitization of all knowledge and culture as a means of both survival and resistance, which simply reinforces the fact infinite information equals Total power.

The history of civilization is then mediated by all the relics, fragments, and ruins that continue in time, equally as much so as by the lacunae, voids, and dust that resulted from cyclical encounters with fire and flames. The quest for the creation and completion of a Total collection is inherent in our human condition, and so we are bound to blindly chase the impossibility of this desire in perpetuity. We are everything that exists in the pages of the Book: from the printed words that solemnly stand still in these crumbling pages to the empty spaces were words have seized to exist, and which now appear as desolate spectrums.

Ana Helena Arévalo is an art historian, writer, and editorial designer currently living and working in London. Her research-driven practice touches upon a wide range of themes, often meeting at the intersection(s) between museology and the Curatorial, cultural criticism and speculative fiction, and editorial design and publishing.

In 2017, she obtained a BFA in Art History, Theory, and Criticism from Paris College of Art, and she recently completed a MA in Graphic Communication Design at Central Saint Martins.

[1] “[…] the library is so huge that any reduction by human hands must be infinitesimal. […]
each book is total, there are several hundred thousand facsimiles – books that differ by no
more than a single letter, or a comma.”

[2] Lacuna / noun / (pl. lacunae)
- an unfilled space or interval; a gap
- a missing portion in a book or manuscript.

[3] In the context of this essay creation/destruction are joined by a / in reference to the fact that often the creation of the new results in the dilution of the obsolete, and likewise, the destruction of the established results in the foundation of the contemporary. Creation/destruction is a cyclical process, in which one feeds the other; a process that is continuous and unavoidable.

[4] The word Library is used in its most open of definitions, left ultimately to the reader’s discretion. I, myself, imagine the definition of Library aligned closer to that of the repository –as a space which contains things–, which consequently can be also considered as the universe itself.

[5] #museunacionalvive