"My solitude is gladdened by this elegant hope" an introduction from the Editor of "What is Humanities Research?"

person looking at the camera
September 6, 2023

Dear readers,

As with many things in my life, this column was partially inspired by aspects of my personal life, partially inspired by literature. And because this column is designated to highlighting the arts and humanities, I thought it would be fitting to begin by introducing the wonderful short story that partially inspired me in this process: “The Library of Babel” by Jorge Luis Borges. 

“The Library of Babel” is about a (possibly infinite) library, filled with 410-page books which make up every combination of letters in the universe. The story of your death is contained within this library—as well as an infinite (finite? is it possible to know?) number of fake stories of your death. Mostly, though, there are piles and piles of indecipherable accumulations of letters—as Borges calls them, “leagues of senseless cacophonies, verbal jumbles, and incoherences.”

It’s a strange thing, as a literature student, to be forced to acknowledge the fact that these things which I’ve largely based my life on—words—are meaningless without human knowledge to give them value. Sometimes this fact simmers in the background of my thoughts, but sometimes, especially lately, it’s at the forefront: I’m currently dedicating myself to something that will only ever have value if we, as human beings, choose to give it that value. And what happens when we don’t? 

Though I wish “The Library of Babel” could give me an easy answer to this, it doesn’t. Most of the story, in fact, is about how devastatingly futile it is to attempt to find ‘truth’ in the library. The narrator, close to death, admits that he can no longer even pray that he finds the book he’s longing for—he can only pray that it exists, and that somewhere, someday, someone might find it. “Let me be tortured and battered and annihilated,” he says, “but let there be one instant, one creature, wherein thy enormous Library may find its justification.” 

So one possible reading of the story would be that a search for meaning is ultimately pointless. But think about it this way: Borges could have written about an incomprehensibly vast anything and that analysis would have remained the same. He wrote, though, about a library, and his narrator was searching for a piece of writing. The narrator didn’t ultimately die in hopeless destitution; he died having created something—something significant and meaningful—to contribute to his library despite his dissatisfaction with it. 

In the arts and humanities, we believe in the importance of this search for meaning. Not every discipline goes about their search in the same way. An art major, for instance, may find a history major too logocentric; a philosophy major may think an English major isn’t grounded in the ‘reality’ of experience. But there is no way of searching that will ever be ultimately purposeless. When you’re open to learning, you will learn, and I sincerely hope that you find a way to contribute to your own version of the inescapable library Borges’ narrator found himself trapped in. 

It will likely be hard to stay grounded in Berkeley's rigorous, competitive environment. In your time at Berkeley, you will be studying human life from many angles, and you will probably never be quite sure which is the ‘right’ way to go about it. Though I can’t answer that, either, I will tell you something I’ve learned from my own search thus far: You will be studying human beings so closely that it might become easy to forget that you’re human, too. Leave space for your own humanity. It’s from that space that your best scholarship and ideas will come. 

As a student, as well as just a human being, I also encourage you to always notice (and attempt to keep track of) the things that move you. In my own life, I do this by copying quotes that touch me into a designated notebook. This didn’t feel so much like an “idea” for me as it did a necessity, or maybe even inevitability. The first book that made me feel the literal need to set my book down and copy a quote was Yann Martel’s Life of Pi

“If we, citizens, do not support our artists, we sacrifice our imagination on the altar of crude reality and we end up being nothing and having worthless dreams.” 

Studying what you’re passionate about will probably feel at times like it’s not leading to any significant progress. But, at least in my own experience, life would be completely unlivable if nobody upheld the standards presented by the arts and humanities. I hope to contribute what I can to that effort. And now let me give you something we worship within these departments—a question: What is the essence of what we call human “progress” anyways, if not the consistent, meticulous effort to make life more liveable? 

I understand the immense privilege it is to be able to study what one is passionate about. Not everyone is afforded the option to study a discipline that is (falsely) notorious for its lack of job security. That, actually, is one of the reasons I wanted to start this column. Through these extracts, I hope to make knowledge in the arts and humanities more accessible. 

I’ll leave you with the same words that Borges used to finish his story, because there’s nothing I could say that would be more perfectly articulated:

My solitude is gladdened by this elegant hope.

Thank you and I hope you enjoy, 

Lucille Lorenz
Comparative Literature ’26