(The only English word that might be enciphered in the famous, random series of letters cited by Jorge Luis Borges, who writes in "The Library of Babel": "I cannot combine some characters, dhcmrlchtdj, which the divine Library has not foreseen and which in one of its secret tongues do not contain a terrible meaning….")
Randomized literature has never enjoyed much prestige in the history of writing, despite the fact that many avant-garde writers have experimented with the use of aleatoric processes during the creation of poems. Critics often dismiss these works as too obdurate or too hermetic to warrant much consideration, and teachers often describe such poetry as "unteachable"—however, I am hoping to offer a few rambling thoughts on the subject in the following selection of posts….

Borges has imagined a hellish archive of books—a macrocosmic columbarium, whose infinite chambers provide an exhaustive repository for all the permutations and combinations of the alphabet. Inside this endless library (where a single, random volume might consist of nothing but the letters MCV, perversely reiterated on every page), nonsensical texts so drastically outnumber any intelligible books that a coherent phrase, like "O time thy pyramids," must seem tantamount to a wondrous mishap: "for one reasonable line […] there are leagues of insensate cacaphony"; hence, "[t]he impious assert that absurdities are the norm in the Library and that anything reasonable […] is an almost miraculous exception." Such an allegory inverts the dominant norms of semantic value in order to suggest that meaningful statements constitute only the tiniest, fractional subset of an even greater, linguistic matrix. Such a repressed nightmare already haunts the work of literary scholars, who confront the oppressive totality of literature with the nagging concern that each book might have arisen of its own accord, not from the expressed sentiment of a unique author, but from the automated procedure of a formal system—a fatal order, in which even the most unlikely sequence of letters, dhcmrlchtdj, might yet convey a message in the form of a portentous cryptogram….

Originally Published: January 14th, 2008

Christian Bök is the author of Crystallography (Coach House Press, 1994), a pataphysical encyclopedia nominated for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award, and of Eunoia (Coach House Books, 2001), a bestselling work of experimental literature, which has gone on to win the Griffin Prize for Poetic Excellence. Bök has created artificial...

  1. January 16, 2008
     Alicia (AE)

    Isn't "flarf" based on randomized language? And isn't it actually pretty trendy if not popular? Or am I off base here?