REVIEW: a random dispersal of dust (mutely understood) (2011)

*** First appeared in The Blue Notebook: Issue 10. April 2011 ***

In his 1941 short story The Library of Babel, Jorge Luis Borges creates a universe that is one vast sprawling library “composed of an indefinite, perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries.” Within each of these galleries are an exact number of bookshelves (20) holding an exact number of identically formatted books (32), themselves containing 410 pages with 40 lines per page and “approximately 80 black letters” per line. The Library and the books held within it contain every single possible combination of 25 orthographic symbols (the 22 letters of the alphabet, the comma and the period). In short, everything that has ever, or ever will, exist, happen or be thought, is held within the Library; written in every language known, unknown or unknowable, in obscure code, or as “formless and chaotic” gibberish. “For every rational line or forthright statement there are leagues of senseless cacophony, verbal nonsense, and incoherency.” Also, the Library contains
everything false, everything that never has existed, happened, or been thought, and everything that never will. “In order for a book to exist, it is sufficient that it be possible.”

The detailed schematic that Borges draws betrays the scientific leaning ingrained in his writing. Despite envisaging a universe whose power is held in literature (and that wonderfully unscientific folly: nonsense), it is literature limited by numbers and systems, by whatever mathematical equation it is which produces the finite number of books possible as its solution. Borges’ library is what cosmologists would call ‘finite but unbounded’ (that is: of a certain size, but without borders or end): “The Library is unlimited but periodic. If an eternal traveller should journey in any direction, he would find after centuries that the same volumes are repeated in the same disorder – which repeated becomes order.” It is this scientific, often cosmic, quantity that comes to fore in Sean Kaye & Jenny West’s new work: a random dispersal of dust (mutely understood); a book printed in an edition of 500, which acts as a translation of the Borges tale.

I have chosen the word translation as that seems most fitting, but many others are needed to fully explain the artistic gesture of the work. Kaye & West have re-written The Library of Babel as its inversion, as an indirect opposite. So the disciplined order of the Library is replaced by A Random Dispersal of Dust, and the librarians, regulators, custodians of this order, have become vacuum cleaners. The books are now specks, and the letters molecules. Most tellingly perhaps, writing is turned to sculpture. What was certain in the original is now variable, shifting or removed: “A Random Dispersal of Dust is a restless configuration whose approximate outer edge is every absent amorphous form and whose centre is attainable.” The clarity of voice in Borges’ prose is replaced by a buzz of narrative activity and a complex medley of tenses. a random dispersal of dust is not fully intelligible for the whole of its length and while it is never unreadable, some sections are confoundingly cryptic and suitably Babelian. The overall effect is one of a reverse movement: Borges’ library zooming continually outward while Kaye & West’s dust is almost falling in on itself: all numbers have become minus numbers at this subatomic level. Dust is an appropriate inversion of the Library; the universal and the molecular offer a visual and conceptual likeness and quantum mechanics is, after all, a branch of astrophysics. If The Library of Babel is unfathomable in its magnitude, a random dispersal of dust is equally unfathomable in its minutiae. Continuing this line, it can be said Kaye & West have produced the Library’s antiparticle: “a rare form of subatomic matter that is a mirror image of normal matter. The antiparticle corresponding to an elementary particle has the same mass as the particle but is opposite in all other properties.”

William Burroughs, the half-eaten laureate of the nomadic imagination, once made claim that the ‘cut-up’ novel was the writing art-form’s attempt to compete with the aesthetic dynamism of collage painting. The cut-up technique sees a traditionally coherent and formal text, chopped into pieces of different size and then reconfigured aleatorically to form a new text, often more nonsensical than the original but still constructed from the exact same parts; any intentional meaning now warped and secluded. Kaye & West have not left so much up to chance, but the results of their labour resemble collage and abstraction: layers of shapes, places, histories, facts and agendas, personalities and turns of phrase, appear scattered and then reformed into coherent coagulations. Where the language and grammar may fluctuate and occasionally test the reader’s logic, the mood of the piece remains steady throughout. Perhaps because there is a source text to provide a prominent structure, Kaye & West’s work never loses its way, never ambles too far into obscurity.

It helps that the conclusions the artists have reached in regard to what amounts to the ‘opposite’ or ‘reverse’ of the original story are, at the very least, reasonably logical: men changes to women; Man to God; solitude to fellowship; the future to the past. Sometimes the opposite phrase results in a meaning strangely adjacent to its original: an increasing number of suicides is turned into a fewer number of births; the writing of the word ‘infinite’ is instead the crossing out of the word ‘finite’. As a double negative becomes a positive, these actions and their reverse are conceptually, but not physically, alike. In this way, the new text flits between direct opposition and elaborate distortion of the original, weaving itself like a vine through trellis, sometimes snapping the support, sometimes mimicking its shape.

Kaye & West originally hoped to print the Borges story in the same volume as their own, with the two texts running concurrently on opposite pages. This would certainly have highlighted their interrelationship and made referring between the two far easier. Greater attention would be given to the numerous ingenious and genuinely poetic twists of language that occur throughout the piece: the Anatomy of Melancholy becomes the “Architecture of Euphoria”; pilgrimages become “strolls in the park that may evolve into summer fetes”; epidemics become “slow courtships”; mirrors – “minute casts which faithfully duplicate the debris”. Having the two texts side by side might also have made reading the work more fluid and given context to some of its more obfuscate sections. But the Borges estate did not agree to license the original and seeing how the work is now, with Juan Cruz’s well-written preface still mooring it to the Library, that format would have been needlessly prescriptive, cornering the work as a linguistic exercise rather than a text in its own right.

The printing of the book was set by hand and the formatting is somewhat unusual. It is about the size of a school exercise book, but the margins of the text are smaller, more the size of an average pulp paperback, and it is set toward the lower right hand corner of the page. The text becomes a block, framed above and to its left by an inch or two of empty white space. This not only parades a craftsmanship that digital printing does not (the work
is a lovely object), but also suggests another book within this one, one of significance but unseen and in hiding. There is a dust cover also (pun perhaps intended), of semi-transparent paper, coloured a rich vibrant orange. It recalls, to this viewer at least, the orange of a vagrant sun, the sun that brokers day and seals night, the temporal referential sun without which the passage of time would not be so clear. It is too, the orange of campfire confluence and lamplit perusals: a colour with such multiplicity of apt metaphorical purpose that it could, perhaps, cover all the books inside Borges’ Library of Babel. Indeed, as the artists themselves point out and Cruz acknowledges in the preface, a random dispersal of dust must already be sat, quiescent on a bookshelf someplace inside the Library; and what a startlingly articulate and stimulating discovery it would be in that setting, as it is in any.

a random dispersal of dust (mutely understood) is available from Wild Pansy Press