In his work Champion of a Cause: Essays and Addresses on Librarianship Archibald MacLeish, poet and former Librarian of Congress, writes of two types of books: the physical book and the intellectual book. To MacLeish the physical book ‘is never more than an ingenious cipher by which the intellectual book is communicated from one mind to another, and the intellectual book is always a structure in the imagination’ (MacLeish cited in Basbanes 2003: 6). So if it is indeed possible to speak of a physical book and an intellectual book, then one could say that it is equally possible to speak of a physical library and an intellectual library. And if the intellectual book is a structure in the imagination, then the intellectual library must be something of an imaginary super structure.

So what can be said of this imaginary superstructure? What are its dimensions? What is its history? Of what is it composed? Who is responsible for its development? Have artists, writers and thinkers tried to represent it? And if they have, then from where have they drawn their inspiration? Through an analysis of the later works of French philosopher Gaston Bachelard, the poetic works of William Blake and a selection of artistic representations, this paper will explore some visions of what an intellectual library might be like.

Jorge Luis Borges, who imagined one of the most famous imaginary libraries, wrote somewhere that certain images seem to go naturally together in the imagination, and he goes on to speculate that the image of the labyrinth would not be complete without the image of a minotaur to inhabit it. I would like to propose another imaginative marriage of images: one that has been particularly fertile in this information age. I am speaking of the marriage of the tower of Babel with the idea of a universal library.

To trace the history of this union, I’m going to return to the 16th century to revisit a fresco which stands in the Vatican Library and which was executed between 1585-90 under the direction of Giovanni Guerra and Cesare Nebbia (Gauvin 2003: 30). In Bibliotheca Babylonica the interior of the library of Babylon is in the foreground,


1. Giovanni Guerra and Cesare Nebbia, Bibliotheca Babylonica, 1585-90

and standing clearly separate, and at a distance, is the familiar conical shape of the tower of Babel. However, over the centuries, the library and the tower have been drawing ever closer together.

In the 16th century, the tower of Babel was a popular biblical motif, and one artist whose use of it was particularly controversial was Pieter Bruegel’s. In Bruegel’s version of the tower, however, the setting is no longer ancient Babylon; Bruegel’s tower stands in Antwerp, which at the time was the new mercantile capital of the Europe.

2. Pieter Bruegel, The Tower of Babel, c. 1563

Bruegel actually produced several versions of the tower of Babel. Two have survived, and of these the first, and more well known, is bright and optimistic, whereas the second, which appears to be at a more advanced stage of construction, is darker and more foreboding.

3. Pieter Bruegel, The “Little” Tower of Babel, c.1563

Almost four centuries later, in 1941, Jorge Luis Borges would publish a short story calledThe Library of Babel. However, Borges’s library, being infinite, doesn’t resemble the Biblical tower, or any artist’s depictions of it. But in the 1990s a Parisian etcher would finally marry the idea of a conical tower with the concept of a vast library. Eric Desmazières’ Piranesian etchings, inspired by Borges’s ‘Library of Babel’, clearly borrow from earlier images of the Tower of Babel.

4. Erik Desmazières, La Tour de Babel ou l’entrée de la Bibliothèque, 1998

Perhaps it was inevitable that one day this marriage of the library to the tower would appeal to an adventurous architect, and a similar structure would find itself built and functioning as a library. And so it was that in 1995 the Moshe Safdie designed Vancouver Public Library was completed.


5. The Moshe Safdie Hypermedia Archive, Model of the Vancouver Public Library, 1995

6. The Moshe Safdie Hypermedia Archive, The Vancouver Public Library, 1995

So what does all this tell us? What can we deduce from this flury of literary, artistic and architectural activity? Perhaps, we can say that the concept of a universal language has given way, over time, to the concept of a universal library. But this vision and this activity doesn’t come without forebodings. Take for instance this contemporary representation of the conical tower.

7. Geoff La Gerche, Tower of Babel, 2005

But putting apocalyptic images aside for the moment, these conical library towers work hard to animate the receptive imagination, and if you were to cast your mind around for ready associations, it wouldn’t be long before you alighted upon the image of a spiralling shell. It is at this point that contemplating a chapter on shells which appears in The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard becomes particularly germane.

In this chapter, Bachelard proposes a phenomenological contemplation ‘of the inhabited shell’, and to this end, he uses the works of poets and writers to recapture ‘the original amazement of a naïve observer’ of shells (Bachelard 1994: 107). One of the first poets Bachelard calls upon in his phenomenological contemplation of shells is Paul Valéry, in whose essay ‘Les coquillages’ the following passage appears:

A crystal, a flower or a shell stands out from the usual disorder that characterizes most perceptible things. They are privileged forms that are more intelligible for the eye, even though more mysterious for the mind (Valery cited in Bachelard 1994: 106)

Shells are, indeed, privileged forms, and in contemplating them it occurs to Valéry that ‘a shell carved by a man would be obtained from the outside, through a series of enumerable acts that would bear the mark of touched-up beauty; whereas “the mollusk exudes its shell” … , it lets the building material “seep through”’ it (Valéry cited in Bachelard 1994: 106).

Returning to the notion of an intellectual library, we must concede that although the physical library might be ‘obtained from the outside, through a series of enumerable acts’ the imagined intellectual material, of which the intellectual library is composed, is interior and could be said to seep through us until it is eventually, shall we say, exuded in the form of texts, images or other creative acts.

In addition to this contemplation of shell production, it doesn’t escape Bachelard that after having been produced, the shell’s form encourages, in man, thoughts of security and repose. For what is a shell but a perfectly formed and completely natural dwelling place. It is a house, and as Bachelard writes elsewhere: ‘If I were asked to name the chief benefit of the house, I should say: the house shelters daydreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace.’ (Bachelard 1994: 6) And in as much as this can be said of the physical library, it can equally, and perhaps even more accurately, in a phenomenological sense, be said of the intellectual library. For do we not inhabit out thoughts, our reveries and our dreams? The following lines by the poet Vincent Monteiro conjure an image which resembles an intellectual library. He writes:

We build within ourselves stone
On stone a vast haunted castle
(Monteiro cited in Bachelard 1994: 50)

Like shells, physical and intellectual libraries are refuges ‘in which life is concentrated, prepared and transformed’ (Bachelard: 1994: 120) As Bachelard writes elsewhere:

A creature that hides and “withdraws into its shell,” is preparing a “way out.” … If we remain at the heart of the image under construction, we have the impression that, by staying in the motionlessness of the shell, the creature is preparing temporal explosions, not to say whirlwinds, of being. (Bachelard 1994: 111)

These conical shaped libraries are the result of artists and writers dreaming. And spiral shells are something upon which the human imagination has been at work for millennia, and nature’s dreaming, as it is wont to do, has informed the dreams of man. But what is it in these shell-shaped libraries that the human imagination is trying to say? For hundreds of years at least the image of the conical tower has been associated with a lie, and that lie is the lie of unity, or perhaps I should say uniformity. ‘Now the whole world had one language and a common speech’, the author of the Biblical story announces. And this uniformity leads to a pride so great that the society collapses. Perhaps it was this same unity that Nietzsche was raging against when, in Twilight of the Idols, he wrote that the senses ‘do not lie … What we make of their testimony, that alone introduces lies; for example, the lie of unity, the lie of thinghood, of substance, of permanence. “Reason” is the cause of our falsification of the testimony of our senses’ (Nietzsche 1976: 480).

Perhaps it is the same lie, this lie of uniformity, that the French sociologist Jean Baudrillard alludes to when, in an essay entitled ‘The final solution: cloning beyond the human and inhuman’, he writes of the human race as being unable to brave its own diversity, its own complexity, its own radical difference’ (Baudrillard 2000: 15). And this inability he links to a vast artificial human enterprise:

a project to reconstruct a homogeneous and uniformly consistent universe–an artificial continuum this time–that unfolds within a technological and mechanical medium, extending over our vast information network, where we are in the process of building a perfect clone, an identical copy of our world, a virtual artefact that opens up the prospect of endless reproduction. (Baudrillard 2000: 8)

Baudrillard goes on to write that the prospect of endless reproduction calls to mind the endless reproduction of cancerous cells, thus intimately linking endless reproduction with imminent death. Then, interrogating the notion of cloning man genetically and cloning the world technologically, he fears a loss of both the human and the inhuman. ‘The specificity of the inhuman’, he writes, ‘– and that within human beings that is inhuman – is being threatened by the hegemony of the human, according to its definition as thoroughly modern, thoroughly rational, and thoroughly Western in character. The impulse to annex nature, animals, other races and cultures – to put them universally under jurisdiction – is in effect everywhere. Everything is assigned a place within an evolutionist and hegemonic anthropology, in a veritable triumph of uniform thought’, of what Baudrillard terms ‘monothought’ (Baudrillard 2000: 23-24).

In this annexation of what is deemed to be inhuman and this erection of a vast ‘modern’, ‘rational’, ‘Western’, ‘universal’ and ‘democratic’ structure it is easy for our thoughts to return to the image of a conical library tower: a form associated with this lie of unity, via the Babel myth, and a form which could be said to have the appearance of being a privileged form, but which upon closer contemplation is seen to bear the mark of touched up beauty. It will also not escape the observant viewer of such images that when compared with a shell the conical tower is in fact proceeding in the opposite direction, in winding its way by slow degrees towards a point rather than spiralling outwards as a shell does in order to accommodate the fragile, soft, growing life form of which it is a part. What the conical library tower is asking its intellectual inhabitant to do is to spiral back up inside itself and to ignore that fact that it may have grown, a request as rational as asking a tree to crawl back inside it’s seed. And so this lie of unity begins by annexing, under the guise of being rational, all the while asking us to perform irrational intellectual manoeuvres in order to cultivate monothought, endless replication and ultimately death.

So confronted with this lie at the heart of the library how should we proceed? How can we get beyond it? The work of the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard and the English engraver and poet William Blake can help us to imagine a library beyond this lie of unity. In Gaston Bachelard’s monumental study of how the imagination works the intellectual life is given weight, texture and substance, within an ever expanding phenomenological project, and in Blake’s Golgonooza, an imagined city composed of creative acts which appears in his prophetic books, we can also see the outline of an open expanding intellectual structure. To briefly describe the contours of this open and tactile intellectual library, I’d like to begin in 1938, the year in which Gaston Bachelard’s thinking took an unexpected turn. For it was in 1938 that Bachelard published a book which represented a departure from the works he had previously produced.

Etienne Gilson, a colleague of Bachelard, was to describe that turning point in the following way: ‘As a young philosopher, Bachelard had devoted his attention to problems raised by the nature of scientific knowledge, especially in physics. It was as a specialist in the philosophy of science that he first made himself known and established his reputation.’ He had, according to Gilson, already written thirteen volumes on the subject and was likely’, he observes, ‘to write a dozen or more books on the same subject. But things were not to be that way. Bachelard fired his first warning shot when [in 1938] he unexpectedly published a book curiously entitled The Psychoanalyses of Fire.’ Gilson writes that he distinctly remembers his own reaction to it.

What are they going to say? … After appointing a man to teach the philosophy of science and seeing him successfully do so for a number of years, we don’t like to learn that he has suddenly turned his interest to a psychoanalyses of the most unorthodox sort, since what then was being psychoanalysed was not even people, but an element. (Gilson in Bachelard 1994: xii)

Another commentator has written that the publication of La Psychanalyse de Feu caused a mild furore in France. ‘His work on fire, however,’ the writer continues, ‘forged a new direction. Eight subsequent volumes by this compelling thinker pursued the epistemological question: How does the imagination work?’ Over the years, Bachelard was to published other books in the same vein: Lautréamont in 1939, Water and Dreamsin 1942, Air and Dreams in 1943, Earth and Reveries of Will in 1948, and The Poetics of Space in 1958 to name a few.

It may be difficult to ascertain exactly why it was that this philosopher of science decided, mid-way through his career, to turn his attention to the workings of the imagination, but what we can be certain of is that embarking upon this epistemological journey into the imagination would involve turning his back upon a whole past of critical thinking. For it would involve him employing Husserl’s method of phenomenological reduction, which boils down to a philosophical suspension of disbelief. Husserl asks us to put aside for a moment the fact that we exist physically in a spatio-temporal fact-world (Husserl in Kockelmans 1967: 78) so that, freeing ourselves from theory, it becomes possible to describe reality exactly as it is experienced. And a comprehensive phenomenological description of the world as it is experienced, free from all theories, is the phenomenological project Husserl proposes.

It was in 1931 that Husserl outlined his theory of phenomenological reduction. Later, in the same decade, Gaston Bachelard would embark on the first of his phenomenological excursions into the world of poetry in order to see, hear, smell and touch the human imagination, with a view to coming to an understanding of how the imagination works? Phenomenology is a philosophy based on direct experience of what we perceive with our five senses, but our direct experience itself is a matter of how this sensory information is unified by the mind. This internal direct experience is what phenomenology is interested in, and it is also what poets attempt to communicate. Bachelard’s work on the four elements of earth, water, air and fire go a long way towards developing an understanding of how this internal world operates. Through an examination, or rather an experiencing, of poetic images, Bachelard illustrates the degree to which, when in dream and reverie, we ‘live from tactile images’ (Bachelard 2004: 201); tactile images of earth, water, air and fire ‘attach us to an eternal childhood’, i.e. to an eternal childhood of direct experience. And the more accurately a poet can revive this direct experience with a poetic image the more poetically authentic his work will be and the more useful it will be as a phenomenological artefact. Which is why a poets manipulation of these elements can resonate so deeply. And so in Air and Dreams Bachelard would write:

STUDIES OF THE IMAGINATION , like many enquiries into psychological problems, are confused by the deceptive light of etymology. We always think of the imagination as the faculty that forms images. On the contrary, itdeforms what we perceive; it is, above all, the faculty that frees us from immediate images and changes them. If there is no change, or unexpected fusion of images, there is no imagination; there is no imaginative act. If the image that is present does not make us think of one that is absent, if an image does not determine an abundance–an explosion–of unusual images, then there is no imagination. There is only perception, the memory of a perception, a familiar memory, an habitual way of viewing form and colour. The basic word in the lexicon of the imagination is not image, but imaginary. The value of an image is measured by the extent of its imaginary aura. Thanks to the imaginary, imagination is essentially open and elusive. It is the human psyche’s experience of openness and novelty. More than any other power, it is what distinguishes the human psyche. As William Blake puts it: “The imagination is not a State: it is the Human Existence itself. (Bachelard 1988: 1)

Bachelard, like Husserl, came to see ‘the imagination as the essential factor in the revealing of the essences of things’ (Kockelmans 1967: 82), and this conclusion brought them both in line with what Blake had always maintained.

In the foreword to a translated edition of Bachelard’s Water and Dreams, Joanne H. Stroud laments the fact that Gaston Bachelard, ‘such a creative mind and prolific writer, so well known in France, has remained in relative obscurity in the English-speaking world’ (Stroud in Bachelard 1983: vii). And perhaps this could account for the fact that his works have not, as far as I’m award, been considered in relation to the works of William Blake.

So having followed the lie of unity through to it’s apocalyptic conclusion, and having sketched the outline of Husserl’s theory of phenomenological reduction and seen how it affects our notion of imagination let us consider in more detail the ways in which both Blake and Bachelard envisaged what we could call an intellectual library.

Bachelard, being the great reader and lover of poetry that he was, often referred to libraries in his work, but the type of library that Bachelard describes does not conform to the contracting, annexing, excluding library of monothought the effective representation of which is the conical library tower. The following passage from The Poetics of Reveriegoes some way towards describing the type of intellectual library Bachelard would have us aspiring to create.

How can we enter the poetisphere of our time? An era of free imagination has just begun. From everywhere, images invade the air, go from one world to another, and call both ears and eyes to enlarge dreams. Poets abound, the great and the small, the famous and the obscure, those who love and those who dazzle. … Poetic ages unite in a living memory. The new age awakens the old. The old age comes to live again in the new. Poetry is never as unified as when it diversifies.
What benefits new books bring us! I would like a basket full of books telling the youth of images which fall from heaven for me every day. This desire is natural. This prodigy is easy. For, up there, in heaven, isn’t paradise an immense library? (Bachelard 2004: 25)

Rather than an intellectual library of contraction, annexation and exclusion, Bachelard’s intellectual library, which he initially calls a ‘poetisphere’, operates within an era of ‘free imagination’ in which images invade the air, poets abound, memory is living, the old and the new enliven each other, and the only unity is the extent of poetic diversification. In another passage of the same work he extends the dimensionality of this intellectual realm.

Reading is a dimension of the modern psychism, a dimension which transposes psychic phenomena already transposed by writing. Written language must be considered as a particular psychic reality. … Besides, in writing, the author has already performed a transposition. He would not say what he has written. He has entered–his protests are in vain here–the realm of the written psychism. (Bachelard 2004: 24)

Therefore we could say that reading and writing allow us to enter this ‘written psychism’ , this intellectual library, where direct experiences can be recreated and reformed/deformed through poetic images. And rather than encouraging or enforcing mindless reproduction in support of a unity based on abstract reason, Bachelard’s realm encourages endless description of our intimate engagement with the physical based on our inner experience. So how does this compare with Blake’s vision of an unseen intellectual structure?

I might begin by observing that one of the ways in which Blake’s philosophies run parallel to Bachelard’s is in their emphasis on the physical. ‘Renew these runid souls of men / through earth, sea, air and fire’ (Blake 2004: 332) Tharmas proclaims in The Four Zoas, Blake’s unfinished epic. And, of course, as I have already mentioned, these are the elements that Bachelard went such a long way towards describing (or rather he described the effect these elements have had on the open and receptive human imagination). The literary critic Northrop Frye has described The Four Zoas as ‘the greatest abortive masterpiece in English literature’, and he goes on to write that ‘Anyone who cares about either poetry or painting must see in its unfinished state a major cultural disaster’ (Frye 1972: 269). So what is this abortive masterpiece and how can it help us to envisage an intellectual library beyond the lie of unity?

The Four Zoas, Frye informs us, is projected as a dream of the giant Albion – the spiritual form of Blake’s own public (Frye 1972: 364) – and in this dream a cyclic vision of life from the Fall to the Last Judgement unfolds (Frye 1972: 269-270). The dream is divided into nine nights, and it is the seventh night, of which there are two parts, that is of interest to us here. In ‘Night the Seventh’ two vast structures are erected; ‘Night the Seventh [a]’ sees Los, the eternal prophet, erecting Golgonooza, which is a vast city of art; and ‘Night the Seventh [b]’ sees the erection of Urizen’s Temple of secrecy and death. In ‘Night the Seventh [a]’ of The Four Zoas, the erection of Golgonooza is described thus:

… Los performed
Wonders of labour
They Builded Golgonooza Los labouring [inspired] builded pillars high
And Domes terrific in the nether heavens for beneath
Was opened new heavens & a new Earth beneath &
Threefold within the brain within the heart within the
A Threefold Atmosphere Sublime continuous from
Urthonas world
But yet having a limit Twofold named Satan and Adam (Blake 2004: 388)

It is perhaps worth mentioning here that our discussion of an intellectual library must in essence be a discussion of an internal library, a library that we come to know through introspection, and it appears to be what Los is erecting in this passage, for ‘pillars high/And Domes terrific in the nether heavens for beneath/Was opened new heavens & a new Earth beneath &/within’. In explanation Northrop Frye describes Golgonooza in the following way:

All imaginative and creative acts, being eternal, go to build up a permanent structure, which Blake calls Golgonooza, above time, and, when this structure is finished, nature, its scaffolding, will be knocked away and man will live in it. Golgonooza will then be the city of God, the New Jerusalem which is the total form of all human culture and civilization. Nothing that the heroes, martyrs, prophets and poets of the past have done for it has been wasted; no anonymous and unrecognised contribution to it has been overlooked. In it conserved all the good man has done, and in it is completed all that he hoped and intended to do. And the artist who uses the same energy and genius as Homer and Isaiah had will find that he not only lives in the same palace of art as Homer and Isaiah, but lives in it at the same time. (Frye 1972: 91)

Unfortunately, I am unqualified to comment on the theological content of these passages, but what interests me about them is their attempt to describe what sounds very much like a collective intellectual library. I do, however, have to part company with Frye in his assertion that such a structure could be destined for some kind of totality, as totality suggests an ending in stasis, which is where the lie of unity inevitable takes us. By way of contrast, it is interesting to see how Blake describes the erection of Urizen’s temple:

First Trades & Commerce ships & armed vessels he [Urizen] builded laborious
To swim the deep & on the Land children are sold to
Of dire necessity still laboring day and night till all
Their life extinct they took the spectre form in dark
And slaves in myriads in ship loads burden the hoarse
sounding deep
Rattling with clanking chains the Universal Empire
And he commanded his Sons found a Center in the
And Urizen laid the first Stone & all his myriads
Builded a temple in the image of the human heart
And in the inner part of the Temple wondrous
They formed the Secret place reversing all the order of
That whosoever entered into the temple might not
The hidden wonders allegoric of the Generations
Of secret lust when hid in chambers dark the nightly
Plays in Disguise in whispered hymn & mumbling prayer
The priests
He ordained & Priestesses clothd in disguises beastial
Inspiring secrecy & lamps they bore intoxicating fumes
Roll round the Temple & they took the sun that glowd
oer Los
And with immense machines down rolling. the terrific
Compell’d. The sun reddning like a fierce lion in his
Descended to the sound of instruments that drownd the
Of the hoarse wheels & the terrific howlings of wild
That dragd the wheels of the Suns chariot & they put
the Sun
Into the temple of Urizen to give light to the Abyss
To light the War by day to hide his secret beams by
For he divided day & night in different orderd
The day for war the night for secret religion in his
temple (Blake 2004: 394-395)

David Whitmarsh, in his line by line textual analysis and critical commentary of The Four Zoas, observes that ‘the events of Night the Seventh (a) stand in an ‘inverse’ relationship to the events of Night the Seventh (b) … The two versions of Night the Seventh … should therefore be thought of as complementary’ (Whitmarsh 2007). Seen in this way, i.e. as occurring concurrently, or rather as being two sides of the one coin, we are reminded of Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience, which can also be described as representing two complementary components of a larger whole. But can this be said of the conical library tower, and if so, then what is the conical tower’s flip side, its mirror image, its inversion? It seems to have taken a long time for world literature to articulate an inversion for the conical tower, although parallel images abound, and it is perhaps not surprising that the person responsible for it was one of the greatest figures in modern literature. It was Franz Kafka who concisely revealed the flip side of the conical tower, and he executed this swift reversal in two neat proverbs:

The Tower of Babel
If it had been possible to build the tower of Babel without ascending it, the work would have been permitted.

The Pit of Babel
What are you building?
— I want to dig a subterannean passage. Some progress must be made. My station up there is much too high.
We are digging the pit of Babel. (Kafka 2007)

Interestingly, these towers of Babel, which are so easy to imagine as libraries, the inverse image of which – provided by Kafka – is a pit (an absence), remind us of other couplings of contrary images, for example Dante’s Hell and his Mount Purgatory, but being inversions of each other these images also fit perfectly into one another; in these tower/pit, mountain/abyss, penis/vagina systems one component is so much a part of the other that to see them as separate can be dangerous. And perhaps this is what both Blake and Bachelard worked so hard to articulate. To see the world as infinite and holy through an improvement of sensual enjoyment (Blake 1991: 52) as Blake would advise or to embark upon a project of infinite poetic description of the material elements as Bachelard did, both of these approaches advocate bringing the material world back into the intellectual library by intensely and intimately experiencing the physical world, not in a narrow sexual sense, but in an all embracing explosion of what Blake would call Poetic Genius. Perhaps Bachelard was commenting on this when he wrote that:

Poetry demands a prelude of silence. The poetic moment possesses metaphysical perspective. We have here neither the spirited masculine time that thrusts forward and overcomes, nor the gentle submissive time that weeps and regrets, but the androgynous moment. The mystery of poetry is androgynous. (Bachelard in Stroud 2007)

It is within this poetic moment that we are reminded of our humanity, it is within this poetic moment our psyches are made fertile, and it is this poetic moment that will ultimately allow us to collectively brave our own diversity. In this poetic and androgenous moment, the imagination, which Blake and Bachelard both believed to be the key to revealing the essence of things, is at once free and intimately associated not with abstract reason but with the way we consciously experience the world. Pausing for breath in this moment between imagination and matter, or rather positioning ourselves somewhere within them both, will lead us to question the veracity of Descartes’ famous pronouncement: ‘I think therefore I am’. It will become more accurate for us to say: I imagine therefore I am. Although it is, nonetheless, tempting to see these statements as both contrary and complementary: the tower and pit existing concurrently and, in the words of Bachelard, ‘each one working for their mutual deepening’ (Bachelard 1994: 5).


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