Reflecting on a lifetime wasted traversing an infinite library filled with incomprehensible texts, the unnamed narrator of Jorge Luis Borges’s “The Library of Babel” muses over the idea of a book that would have made all the others make sense, “a great circular book … whose spine is continuous. … This cyclical book,” the narrator declares, “is God.” Like God, the pages of this book would be inaccessible to earthly eyes—a continuous spine effects materially what God declares of himself scripturally, the first being the last and the beginning the end. The Book of Alpha and Omega, being everything, each sacred letter and leaf containing and contained by all the others, would remain inscrutable to us whose senses (and reading methods) unfold via the linear progression of profane time. That book would be a circle, or more likely a sphere. We wouldn’t even be able to open it.
“So do you think he’s going to do that bleeding-heart, post-Marxist, identitarian thing?”
I had no clue what my colleague was talking about. But where now I can laugh at that sneering non-question, back then it was emblematic of my experience of graduate education. That is, it was crushingly alienating. For a year I had been floundering in an opaque and horizonless ocean of –isms and –ians, trying to learn the rudiments of a code in which my peers appeared to have long been initiated but which I had so far struggled to pick up. Of course, I knew what a bleeding heart was, I knew what Marxism was and even a bit about what it meant to be post-Marxist, and “identitarian” I’d encountered enough to be able to suss out in context. But that “thing,” that supposedly instantly-identifiable, how-could-you-not-recognize-it “thing” that those sappy post-Marxist identity-reductionists do when offered lecterns and and audiences—I had no idea what that was. Many of my peers appeared to speak near-exclusively in this brogue, in which ideas, people, and texts were all immanently reducible to soundbites and summary designations subject to a recombinant grammar we all seemed to understand when salted with enough snark. So when I told my colleague I was going that evening to attend a talk by a particular scholar and he asked me that question I did what I usually did back then and said something like, “Yeah, probably. You know how they are.” Now I need to learn to forgive myself for that.
The Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein also lamented the impossibility of a spherical book, though out of decidedly less otherworldly concerns. He thought his theory of film could only really be understood by way of a text in which various essays are perceived “all at the same time, simultaneously. … Such a synchronic manner of circulation and mutual penetration of the essays can be carried out only in the form … of a sphere. But unfortunately,” Eisenstein concludes, “books are not written as spheres.”
At least not here, not now—in the parallel universe of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, the books of the Tralfamadorian aliens who perceive the dimension of time in its plenitude equally partake, when reading, of an experience not dissimilar to that which Eisenstein desires: “little things” composed of “brief clumps of symbols separated by stars,” the Tralfamadorians read the pages of their books
all at once, not one after the other. There isn’t any particular relationship between all the messages, except that the author has chosen them carefully, so that, when seen all at once, they produce an image of life that is beautiful and surprising and deep. There is no beginning, no middle, no end, no suspense, no moral, no causes, no effects. What we love in our books are the depths of many marvelous moments seen all at one time.
In contrast to that dizzying vision, we earthlings find ourselves in a position like that of the human Billy Pilgrim, who the Tralfamadorians hold in an interstellar zoo exhibit. Those who visit Billy’s cage
couldn’t imagine what time looked like to him. Billy had given up on explaining that.
The guide outside had to explain as best he could. The guide invited the crowd to imagine that they were looking across a desert at a mountain range on a day that was twinkling bright and clear. They could look at a peak or a bird or a cloud, at a stone right in front of them, or even down into a canyon behind them. But among them was this poor Earthling, and his head was encased in a steel sphere which he could never take off. There was only one eyehole through which he could look, and welded to that eyehole were six feet of pipe.
This was only the beginning of Billy’s miseries in the metaphor. He was also strapped to a steel lattice which was bolted to a flatcar on rails, and there was no way he could turn his head or touch the pipe. The far end of the pipe rested on a bi-pod which was also bolted to the flatcar. All Billy could see was the dot at the end of the pipe. He didn’t know he was on a flatcar, didn’t even know there was anything peculiar about his situation.
The flatcar sometimes crept, sometimes went extremely fast, often stopped—went uphill, downhill, around curves, along straightaways. Whatever poor Billy saw through the pipe, he had no choice but to say to himself, “That’s life.”
The first thing I wish I had learned earlier is that the focus was no longer on learning things. The main point was learning how to perform knowledge about things I’d already learned and especially how to perform knowledge about things of which I had little or no knowledge at all. Even the new things I did learn only mattered to the extent that I could demonstrate to a colleague or superior that I could say a thing or two, precisely, about them, could footnote other intelligent people who could talk about those things, and could cut those things into pieces bite-sized enough to feed the undergrads who some of my colleagues and most of my superiors thought needed things cut up for and spoon-fed to them. Grad school, it turned out, was about learning the trade shorthand, getting a feel for the flux of academic fashion, and knowing how to play smartest-little-boy/girl in the classroom and Q&A line. This was all supposed to be part and parcel of what it was all about at the end of the day: getting a job in the humanities, which, as everybody with a job in the humanities will enthusiastically tell you, is impossible to get.
Now I think it’s ironic that I only really came to terms how little learning I was supposed to be doing when discussing my surprise at how enjoyable and insightful I found some of Franco Moretti’s work. As the scholarly whipping-boy du jour, Moretti’s heuristic of so-called “distant reading,” and the broader “digital humanities” for which he is supposedly the foremost evangelist had been slapped with enough –isms needed to make him the seminar-room bête noire of my first year (reductionist and essentialist, in particular, come to mind). Given what I’d read, I didn’t think the labels were exactly undeserved, and I still think that vivisecting texts to extract isolable data points by the hundreds and feeding them through algorithms as a method of humanist scholarship probably deserves all the suspicion it gets, however cool the graphs, maps, and charts produced thereby may turn out. But in pointing out that Moretti at least had a refreshing approach and style despite what I’d heard said about him in one of my first classes at grad school, however, made me into the resident digitalist, someone who had thrown his lot in with the big-data goons dead set on eroding any qualitative approach to literature and—especially—someone who didn’t read closely and didn’t think students should be taught to read closely. What frustrated me more than the summary pigeon-holing, though, was that none of it pertained to the reading we were supposed to have done. For all the flak he got, in the texts we read Moretti never really proselytized for the gospel of the digital humanities, never denigrated what close reading methods could afford, and (most importantly) tended to admit when he was wrong and needed to improve. That last was what I really appreciated, as starting my graduate career felt like being encouraged more than anything to choose what epistemological hill I was willing to die on and, well, figuring out how to die on it. Moretti’s experimental strategy of reading texts where collaboration, fallibility, and suppleness in theoretical approach were encouraged, and especially where the answers didn’t seem to be already given at the outset, was refreshing in the context of a first-year seminar room filled with twenty-three-year-olds who were already curating personal webpages detailing their exact research periods and fields, their specific interventions in contemporary scholarship, their situations in (or more stylishly, outside) the sundry histories of their disciplines… Franco Moretti, for all his shortcomings, at least admitted that he has a lot to learn, and especially a lot to read. And that fucking guy has tenure.
What I thought it came down to at the time was how some valiant defenders of the sanctity of the text and the holy path of minutely attentive scholarship, when put in a room together, didn’t seem to care much about the details of the text we were supposed to be discussing. Instead the point seemed to be to find the quickest way to reduce what we thought we already knew about that text to a few –ists that justified throwing it out the window and moving on. That’s when I started to learn that grad school was about learning how to not read—that is, in a sense, how to perform to the people around you that you are the one with the least to read and, even better, the least to learn. My first year was largely characterized by trying to come to terms with the bizarre alchemy whereby some texts outside the tacit sense of academic fashionability were, in the words of one of my classmates, “politically unnecessary” to consider seriously, worthy only of being encountered (in the words of another classmate) “through osmosis.” Most of those colleagues are teaching now, and sometimes I wonder what they would say if their own students said those kinds of things to explain why they hadn’t done their reading.
That we cannot perceive time synchronically explains why we do not often consider the implications were we able to; we are trained to think, and read, in segments rather than circles—and well, “that’s life.” But let’s return to earth and, specifically, the problem of the spherical book for a moment. For what Borges, Eisenstein, and Vonnegut all point to in their respective ways is a problem of space and time. The spatial and temporal dimensions of the (earth-)bound book appear at first relatively clear: there’s a front and back cover, and we dedicate a certain number of hours a day (or week or month) to metabolizing all the stuff that’s in between those covers before putting it all on a shelf to gather dust while we, if we feel like it, read a different book. But here I’m using the helpful heuristic of “metabolism” in part because of the term’s ability to expand this somewhat limited vision of bookish spacetime. For one of the words medieval monks used to describe the process of textual scholarship was ruminatio, as they considered books spiritual and intellectual nourishment meant to be delectated and digested—metabolized—slowly, often repeatedly and in groups, over exceedingly long periods of time. Like eating, reading a book was supposed to change both subject and object, sustaining and expanding the capacities of the reader while bringing out the nourishing subtleties of the text. Often after many years of ruminating on the textual cud morsels would come together in illuminating constellations—thus the profusion of biblical exegeses, glosses, and “keys” relating old and new testament passages to one another and drawing out (“exegesis” coming from the Greek ἐξηγητής, meaning “to draw out”) the mystical unity of divine revelation. Whole tomes were dedicated to scholarly marginalia that referred the reader to this or that concordant term, verse, or theme as one metabolized scripture. One author calls the greatest of these works, the Glossa Ordinaria, “medieval hypertext,” as it allowed readers to rapidly access various discontinuous but related portions of scripture not dissimilarly to how a hyperlink today allows us to shift between various discontinuous but related webpages. Premodern scholars and scribes were in fact profoundly “digital” readers—to borrow the voguish term of today—in the sense that their own digits, or otherwise prosthetic bookmark-fingers, are often represented as buried deep in the foredges of their texts, ready to flip between concordances like so many browser tabs. The medieval student thus learned to attune their reading methods to traverse the space and time of texts such that the formal spatio-temporal limits of the bound(ed) book began to appear not sharper, but blurrier to the trained eye.
Of course I don’t mean to say that this is some kind of discrete development, limited to the classrooms of the past few years and the students I shared those rooms with. That resembles (too closely for me) that absurd tradition whereby every generation is subject to its progenitor’s proclamation that it has strayed from the path, that the young have abandoned the profound mysteries of the ancients for the sophistry of their contemporaries. At one point it was said that writing down philosophy would make us forget how to really do it, and much later some considered that the profusion of newspapers and journals would eventually make the reading of books obsolete—now to some, the popularity of the 150-character-and-under format makes it seem small wonder that today’s scholars-in-training look for the quickest ways to summarize and keep scrolling. Worse than having to hear this shit is when young people themselves echo it.
These kinds of millennials-are-killing-X arguments, of course, invariably serve to obscure the economic and social conditions that have actually brought us to this point: in higher education, the corporatist model whereby undergrads are customers and grads cheap (or often unpaid) labor combined with the decades-long contraction of the available job market for young people and diminishing support for anything not encompassed by the STEM acronym has led to the ballooning of an itinerant early-career humanist precariat. This is not a new argument, I admit, but what I seldom see represented is how it all effects graduate culture from the inside. In brief and broad strokes: from the moment we enter our first year of graduate study, we are inundated with the need to “professionalize” as quickly and as intransigently as possible. This, though few want to say it, means putting a stop to our education proper and starting to act like we already know what we’re doing, or better, that we already have known what we’ve been doing for ages—the kind of confidence that takes, when filtered through the angst of very intelligent, wildly insecure, and often quite awkward young scholars, doesn’t make for collegial conviviality. It makes for schoolyard pecking-orders. More often than not those are established by how quickly and devastatingly you can give off the sense that the ideas, people, and texts on the way between your first year of graduate education and the tenure track are wasting your time.
A later work of biblical exegesis, the Clavis Apocalyptica by Joseph Mede (translated into English by order of the Long Parliament in 1643 as the Key to the Revelation) takes a page from the tradition typified in the Glossa Ordinaria, representing in a fold-out diagram the seven seals of the Apocalyptic Document as so many bookmarks that join various ages/chapters of scriptural history once all have been laid bare in their plenitude at the end of time and/or the book of Revelation. It is telling that the sealed version of the Document takes the form of a scroll, which is a textual form in which each point can only be seen in succession—rapid “flipping” between discontinuous points being at best extremely difficult when reading a scroll—while the open version is a codex, a textual form particularly suited to connecting various previously unconnected points after the reader has endured the hard work of reading the whole thing through. Unfastened in the latter depiction, the seven seals transubstantiate into bookmarks (digits?) that, like the medieval scholar’s fingers, allow the text’s would-be reader to traverse rather than hold closed the pages of the holy text.
Mede’s “Apocalyptic Type,” in which the volumen and codex are represented as both successive and intertwined, similarly takes shape on the whole in lines and circles, segments and continuities: as a linear timeline bounded by a circle in which smaller circles connect the diverse events of secular history, the whole thing comes together to create the effect of a concordant landscape that both moves through and synthesizes the human and divine comedies. While our eyes move along the dual “rails” at the center of the diagram, we can nonetheless traverse the mountain range of eternal space and time, looking at a peak or a bird or a cloud, at a stone right in front of us, or even down into a canyon behind us, as it were. As a visual synthesis of Revelation and the Key Mede offers for understanding it, this diagram represents, according to Steven Goldsmith,
a wholesale spatialization of the text that invites one, with all the force of a supernatural vision, to comprehend the apocalypse all at once, as if one could bypass the temporal process of reading. To unfold the diagram is to unseal the Lamb’s book of visions all over again, to see Revelation itself instantly laid bare, and, like John before him, Mede can stand back in awe and say “behold!”
However, Mede’s diagram, while hinting toward the idea that “one could bypass the temporal process of reading,” is actually dependent on that process. Exegesis, according to Mede and the tradition out of which his work arises, does not distill a text’s “bullet-points” so that you need not read the whole thing, but rather refines its source material to render that material yet richer, extending the reader’s interpretive field beyond the apparent formal limits of the bound book. The point is to unroll the scroll line by line and to access the hypertextual codex only at the very end, then, perhaps, to read the book over with one’s fingers buried in the fore-edge like Caravaggio’s Saint Jerome. Only after all that can you presume to stand back with Mede and say, “behold!”
Mede in this way enjoins his reader to undergo the labor necessary to understand his Key as well as the scripture it aims to draw out and synthesize, and only once you have studied the mysteries of Revelation long and carefully enough can the Key clue you into its internal, dynamic synchronicity. Through reading—or rather, ruminating—time folds into space, and space reveals its movement through time in its plenitude. Thus what we have is a circular or, better, spherical way of reading, and not a circular/spherical text. For Mede and the exegetical tradition, scripture is in some sense a cosmic pedagogy centered on the chiasmus of metonym and metaphor, and learning to read therefore means learning to read in circles as well as in lines, blurring the formal limits of the book in one’s hands rather than demanding that that book itself take on some kind of impossible, godlike structure that does all the work for you. (In keeping with our biblical theme: “Neither shall they say lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the Kingdom of God is within you.”) In a way, Mede aims to enact in his exegesis the movement of the fall and the redemption: God’s plan and even God himself are only actualized through the struggle of secular history and the labor to which creation was condemned upon expulsion from Paradise. God has to undertake the work of death—called by Hegel “the task which demands the greatest strength to fulfill”—and, so it’s said, come back. Kairos transects chronos: eternity, as William Blake puts it, is in love with the productions of time, and each moment, as Walter Benjamin elsewhere puts it, becomes a straight gate through which the messiah might enter.
Now, the second thing I wish I had learned is that alienation, however paradoxically, loves company. For every –ism and –ian there is someone, maybe sitting next to you, willing to do the work of actually uncovering what (if anything) lies behind it—the trouble, of course, is to find that person. For my part I had the immense good fortune to fall more or less ass-backwards after a year of struggle into a whole community of people who were also tired of not reading and who were okay with approaching our job training without making it a performance of expertise we didn’t have. We wanted to slow down, despite the increasingly frenzied injunctions to speed up—after all, we figured, everyone was always telling us that we were not going to get jobs anyway. Perhaps it’s in this way that the rat race naturally generates its own equal and opposite reaction.
At the time it might have been much more simple: for me, it was at least partially about reflecting on that question: “So do you think he’s going to do that bleeding-heart, post-Marxist, identitarian thing?” and asking, “What the fuck do you actually mean?” It did take me a while to figure out how to ask something like that. Admitting you don’t feel at home is not exactly easy among a group of people who are very good at seeming comfortable. But that struggle, I found, was necessary. For me it was another element of the dialectic of grad school: only when the blind abstractions of seemingly self-assured scholastic nonsense had been pushed into the abyss at their own core were my comrades and I able to articulate the desire that had led us to humanist scholarship in the first place—the desire, precisely, to see something afresh and be moved outside the limits we thought bounded us, which is the necessary condition for learning anything at all. In an important sense this meant learning again how to be confused, how to recognize that a person, idea, or text can be infinitely more complicated than whatever fashionable –ist or –ian is attached to it in order to make it digestible for classroom discussion. In an ironically overused formulation—one which the very colleague whose question prompted these reflections on another occasion actually made fun of me for using—this meant, when reading, that we had to try to attend to the world that might hide in a grain of sand and the eternity that might unfold in an hour.
To finally come to it, what we figured that we had to do was—simply—read a fucking book.
NB: The medieval scholar Mary Carruthers, following Martianus Capella, reminds us of the often forgotten commonplace that circles, in premodern Christendom, represented spheres, and that the sphere “contains all figures within itself.” Mede’s circle and the dual lines bisecting it can in this view figure as a globe whose equator, when the whole thing is rotated vertically by ninety degrees, becomes another circle.
So, we formed a reading group. Though at the time it was more or less by chance, now it appears oddly fateful that one of the –ians we wanted to investigate and dissemble was “Hegelian.” For Hegel, of course, was the “mystical shell” out of which the “rational kernel” of Marx’s historical materialism grew—The Phenomenology of Spirit, in Hegel’s own idiom, was supposed to have been sublated by Capital, in which the dialectic that had been formerly “standing on its head” was set aright. Those soundbites, taken from the 1873 afterword of Capital, were trotted out any time Hegel’s name was brought up (or Marx’s, for that matter). That 1873 afterword took the place of the words it was supposed to come after—instead of reading Hegel or Marx, we busy scholars only had to parrot a couple sentences distilling the gist of each, and we could give off the sense that we knew something about idealist and materialist dialectic. So telling people we planned to read the Phenomenology in its entirety was often met with the question, “Why?” and in at least one case, the statement, “Nobody does that.” Not being too sure about our own project, we were heartened by the work’s preface, which seemed to get at precisely the problem we wanted to address: in it Hegel writes, as if to a mid-2010s grad school seminar room,
The more conventional opinion gets fixated on the antithesis of truth and falsity, the more it tends to expect a given philosophical system to be either accepted or contradicted; and hence it only finds acceptance or contradiction. … The bud disappears in the bursting-forth of the blossom, and one might say that the former is refuted by the latter; similarly, when the fruit appears, the blossom is shown up in its turn as a false manifestation of the plant, and the fruit now emerges as the truth of it instead. These forms are not just distinguished from one another, they also supplant one another as mutually incompatible. Yet at the same time their fluid nature makes them moments of an organic unity in which they not only do not conflict, but in which each is as necessary as the other; and this mutual necessity alone constitutes the life of the whole. But he who rejects a philosophical system (i.e. the new philosopher [or graduate student]) does not usually comprehend what he is doing in this way; and he who grasps the contradiction between them (i.e. the historian of philosophy [or graduate student writing a seminar paper]) does not, as a general rule, know how to free it from its one-sidedness, or maintain it in its freedom by recognizing the reciprocally necessary moments that take shape as a conflict and seeming incompatibility.
More generally, what Hegel seemed to be describing at the outset was the absurdity of trying to conjure up a bullet-point summation of a work (his own as much as those preceding and following him) in which the point is to labor through its various evolutions and, at the end, recognize how each successive moment—in and through its apparent contradiction with the one preceding it—was necessarily constitutive of a dynamic whole. After months of reading our faintly malodorous, faded-yellow, paperbound editions of the Phenomenology of Spirit as translated by A.V. Miller, the work’s final section—recapitulating its first, as we had come to expect—made sense, if not as ontology, then at least as epistemology, as a lapidary statement on the practice of reading we had made it a mission to pursue:
This substance is now manifest; it is the depth of Spirit that is certain of itself, which does not allow the principle of each individual moment to become isolated and to make itself a totality within itself; on the contrary, gathering and holding together all these moments within itself, it advances within this total wealth of its actual Spirit, and all its particular moments take and receive in common into themselves the like determinateness of the whole. … Thus while the previous single series in its advance marked the retrogressive steps in it by nodes, but continued itself again from them in a single line, it is now, as it were, broken at these nodes, at these universal moments, and falls apart into so many lines which, gathered up into a single bundle, at the same time combine symmetrically so that the similar differences in which each particular moment took shape within itself meet together.
It might seem silly, but I’m reminded of the books of the Tralfamadorian aliens in Slaughterhouse Five, in which readers can see every moment at once. Except here, for Hegel, that synchronic vision is infinitely more profound for having been lingered over in each of its diachronic moments. Eternity is pregnant with singularity; the concrete universal is waiting not in some other world or in the crimson triangle of the Library of Babel, but in the course of reading a (fucking) book.
While Mede distanced himself from the headier theologico-political conflicts of his day, the sentiment at the core of the proliferation of polemics in early seventeenth-century England contending that any careful reader of the Bible was capable of understanding its mystic unity certainly filtered into the construction of Mede’s Key. While still centered on the authority of scripture, that is, the Key wrests the privileged capacity to access revelation from the institutional mediation of the church and places the reader at the center of scriptural, and therefore universal, interpretation. His diagram is a map, or even a globe, constituting the crux of the Key and guiding readers whose eyes and hands are ready for the work of revelation—elsewhere he calls it an “Apocalyptic compasse,” a “square and plumb-rule,” which allows the reader to move through both heavenly and earthly spacetime.
Mede thus introduces his diagram with the following invocation:
Reader; behold here is the order, and course of all the prophecies in Revelation, according to the things therein to be done in this figure drawn before thine eye, to be viewed at once; which I have framed by the exact rule of the synchronisms already demonstrated for mine own, and (if thou please) for thy use, Lord open the eyes of the understanding of either of us, that we may behold his marvellous workes. Amen.
Books aren’t written in spheres, to reiterate Eisenstein. And the divine book of Borges’s Library of Babel doesn’t appear likely to materialize and enfold all creation into an immanence whose center is everywhere and diameter nowhere. But with the right pair of eyes, the right set of tools, and a text rich enough, a book can possibly be read as a sphere; perhaps it is this syzygy of eyes, tools, and texts that demands further reflection.
Cory Austin Knudson is a graduate student in Comparative Literature and Literary The- ory at the University of Pennsylvania. For him this mostly means writing about porn, Nietzsche, and climate change, and trying to prove how intimately related those three really are.