Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius  

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"The metaphysicians of Tlön do not seek for the truth or even for verisimilitude, but rather for the astounding. They judge that metaphysics is a branch of fantastic literature." --"Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" by Borges


"In "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" (1940) Borges playfully explores the imaginary world Tlön where the 18th century philosophical subjective idealism of George Berkeley is viewed as common sense and "the doctrine of materialism" is considered a heresy, a scandal, and a paradox." --Sholem Stein

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Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius is a short story by the 20th century Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges. The story was first published in the Argentine journal Sur, May 1940. The "postscript" dated 1947 is intended to be anachronistic, set seven years in the future. The first English-language translation of the story was published in 1961.

In the story, an encyclopedia article about a mysterious country called Uqbar is the first indication of Orbis Tertius, a massive conspiracy of intellectuals to imagine (and thereby create) a world: Tlön. Relatively long for Borges (approximately 5600 words), the story is a work of speculative fiction. One of the major themes of "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" is that ideas ultimately manifest themselves in the physical world and the story is generally viewed as a parabolic discussion of Berkeleian idealism — and to some degree as a protest against totalitarianism.

"Tlön, Uqbar..." has the structure of a detective fiction set in a world going mad. Although the story is quite short, it makes allusions to many leading intellectual figures both in Argentina and in the world at large, and takes up a number of themes more typical of a novel of ideas. Most of the ideas engaged are in the areas of language, epistemology, and literary criticism.

Contents

Summary

The story unfolds as a first-person narrative and contains many references (see below) to real people, places, literary works and philosophical concepts, besides some fictional or ambiguous ones. It is divided into two parts and a postscript. Events and facts are revealed roughly in the order that the narrator becomes aware of them or their relevance. The timing of events in Borges's story is approximately from 1935 to 1947; the plot concerns events going back as far as the early 17th century and culminating in the postscript, set in 1947.

Part one

Borges and his friend and collaborator, Adolfo Bioy Casares, are developing their next book in a country house near Buenos Aires, in 1940. In an observation, Bioy quotes that "mirrors and copulation are abominable because they increase the number of men" from a heresiarch of a land named Uqbar. Borges, impressed with the "memorable" sentence, asks for its source. Bioy replies that he had read it in the chapter about Uqbar of the Anglo-American Cyclopaedia, "a literal if inadequate reprint" of the 1902 edition of Encyclopædia Britannica. They check the book and are unable to find the said chapter, to Bioy's surprise. The two then search for the name 'Uqbar' in numerous atlases and other encyclopedias, trying different alternative name forms, to no avail.

The following day, Bioy tells Borges he has found the chapter they were looking for in a different reprint of the same encyclopedia. The chapter, although brief and full of names unfamiliar to Borges and Bioy, entices their curiosity. It describes Uqbar as an obscure region, located in Iraq or Asia Minor, with an all-fantastic literature taking place in the mythical worlds of Mlejnas and Tlön. Afterwards, they keep searching for Uqbar in other sources, but are unable to find any mention.

Part two

The engineer Herbert Ashe, an English friend of Borges' father with a peculiar interest in duodecimals, dies of an aneurysm rupture. Borges inherits a packet containing a book, which was left by Ashe in a pub. That book is revealed to be the eleventh volume of an English-language encyclopedia entirely devoted to Tlön, one of the worlds in which Uqbar's legends are set. The book contains two oval blue stamps with the words Orbis Tertius inscribed in blue. From that point, as Borges reads the tome, part two comprehensively describes and discuss Tlön's culture, history, languages and philosophy.

The people of the imaginary Tlön hold an extreme form of Berkeley's subjective idealism, denying the reality of the world. Their world is understood "not as a concurrence of objects in space, but as a heterogeneous series of independent acts." One of the imagined language families of Tlön lacks nouns, being centered instead in impersonal verbs qualified by monosyllabic adverbial affixes. Borges lists a Tlönic equivalent of "The moon rose above the water": hlör u fang axaxaxas mlö, meaning literally "upward behind the onstreaming it mooned". (Andrew Hurley, one of Borges' translators, wrote a fiction in which he says that the words "axaxaxas mlö" "can only be pronounced as the author's cruel, mocking laughter".) In another language family of Tlön, "the basic unit is not the verb, but the monosyllabic adjective", which in combinations of two or more forms nouns: "moon" becomes "round airy-light on dark" or "pale-orange-of-the-sky".

In a world where there are no nouns—or where nouns are composites of other parts of speech, created and discarded according to a whim—and no things, most of Western philosophy becomes impossible. Without nouns about which to state propositions, there can be no a priori deductive reasoning from first principles. Without history, there can be no teleology (showing a divine purpose playing itself out in the world). If there can be no such thing as observing the same object at different times, there is no possibility of a posteriori inductive reasoning (generalizing from experience). Ontology—the philosophy of what it means to be—is an alien concept. Tlön is a world of Berkeleyan idealism with one critical omission: it lacks the omnipresent, perceiving deity on whom Berkeley relied as a point of view demanding an internally consistent world. This infinitely mutable world is tempting to a playful intellect, and its "transparent tigers and ... towers of blood" appeal to baser minds, but a Tlönic world view requires denying most of what would normally be considered common sense reality.

Postscript

In the anachronistic postscript set in 1947, Borges remembers events that occurred in the last years.

In 1941, the world and the narrator have learned, through the emergence of a letter, the nature of Uqbar and Tlön. It goes that a "benevolent secret society" was formed "one night in Lucerne or in London", in the 17th century, and had Berkeley among its members. That group, a society of intellectuals named Orbis Tertius, studied "hermetic studies, philanthropy and the cabala" (an allusion to societies such as the Bavarian Illuminati, the Freemasons and the Rosicrucians), but its main purpose was to create a country: Uqbar. It gradually became clear that such work would have to be carried by numerous generations, so each master agreed to elect a disciple who would carry on his work to perpetuate an hereditary arrangement. The society is eventually persecuted, but reemerges in the United States in the following century. The American "eccentric" millionaire Ezra Buckley, one of the members of the restored sect, finds its undertaking too modest, proposing that their creation be of an entire world instead of just a country. He also adds that an entire encyclopedia about this world—named Tlön—must be written and that the whole scheme "have no truck with that impostor Jesus Christ" (and therefore none with Berkeley's God). The new Orbis Tertius, composed of three hundred collaborators, proceeds to conclude the final volume of the First Encyclopedia of Tlön.

By 1942, Tlönian objects began to inexplicably appear in the real world. One of the first instances in which this occurs is when Princess Faucigny Lucinge received, via mail, a vibrating compass with a Tlönian scripture. Another instance is witnessed by Borges himself: a drunk man, shortly after dying, dropped coins among which a small but extremely heavy shining metal cone appeared. It is suggested that these occurrences may have been forgeries, but yet products of a secret science and technology.

By 1944, all forty volumes of the First Encyclopedia of Tlön have been discovered and published in a library in Memphis. The material becomes accessible worldwide and immensely influential on Earth's culture, science and languages. By the time Borges concludes the story, presumably in 1947, the world is gradually becoming Tlön. Borges then turns to an obsession of his own: a translation of Sir Thomas Browne's Urn Burial into Spanish.

Major themes

Philosophical themes

Through the vehicle of fantasy or speculative fiction, this story playfully explores several philosophical questions and themes. These include, above all, an effort by Borges to imagine a world (Tlön) where the 18th century philosophical subjective idealism of George Berkeley is viewed as common sense and "the doctrine of materialism" is considered a heresy, a scandal, and a paradox. Through describing the languages of Tlön, the story also plays with the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis—the epistemological question of how language influences what thoughts are possible. The story also contains several metaphors for the way ideas influence reality. This last theme is first explored cleverly, by way of describing physical objects being willed into existence by the force of imagination, but later turns darker, as fascination with the idea of Tlön begins to distract people from paying adequate attention to the reality of Earth.

Much of the story engages with the philosophical idealism of George Berkeley, who questioned whether it is possible to say that a thing exists if it is not being perceived. (Berkeley, a philosopher and, later, a bishop in the Protestant Church of Ireland, resolved that question to his own satisfaction by saying that the omnipresent perception of God ensures that objects continue to exist outside of personal or human perception.) Berkeley's philosophy privileges perceptions over any notion of the "thing in itself." Immanuel Kant accused Berkeley of going so far as to deny objective reality.

In the imagined world of Tlön, an exaggerated Berkeleyan idealism without God passes for common sense. The Tlönian recognizes perceptions as primary and denies the existence of any underlying reality. At the end of the main portion of the story, immediately before the postscript, Borges stretches this toward its logical breaking point by imagining that, "Occasionally a few birds, a horse perhaps, have saved the ruins of an amphitheater" by continuing to perceive it. Besides commenting on Berkeley's philosophy, this and other aspects of Borges's story can be taken as a commentary on the ability of ideas to influence reality. For example, in Tlön there are objects known as hrönir that arise when two different people find the "same" lost object in different places.

Borges imagines a Tlönite working his way out of the problem of solipsism by reasoning that if all people are actually aspects of one being, then perhaps the universe is consistent because that one being is consistent in his imagining. This is, effectively, a near-reconstruction of the Berkeleyan God: perhaps not omnipresent, but bringing together all perceptions that do, indeed, occur.

This story is not the only place where Borges engages with Berkeleyan idealism. In the world of Tlön, as in Borges's essay New refutation of time (1947), there is (as Emir Rodríguez Monegal and Alastair Reid comment) a "denial of space, time, and the individual I." This worldview does not merely "bracket off" objective reality, but also parcels it separately into all its successive moments. Even the continuity of the individual self is open to question.

When Borges writes "The metaphysicians of Tlön are not looking for truth or even an approximation to it: they are after a kind of amazement. They consider metaphysics a branch of fantastic literature," he can be seen either as anticipating the extreme relativism that underlies some postmodernism or simply as taking a swipe at those who take metaphysics too seriously.

Literary themes

In the context of the imagined world of Tlön, Borges describes a school of literary criticism that arbitrarily assumes that two works are by the same person and, based on that, deduces things about the imagined author. This is similar to the ending of "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote", in which Borges's narrator suggests that a new perspective can be opened by treating a book as though it were written by a different author.

The story also plays with the theme of the love of books in general, and of encyclopedias and atlases in particular—books that are each themselves, in some sense, a world.

Like many of Borges's works, the story challenges the boundaries between fiction and non-fiction. It mentions several quite real historical human beings (himself, his friend Bioy Casares, Thomas de Quincey, et al.) but often attributes fictional aspects to them; the story also contains many fictional characters and others whose factuality may be open to question.

Other themes

"Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" also engages a number of other related themes. The story begins and ends with issues of reflection, replication, and reproduction—both perfect and imperfect—and the related issue of the power of language and ideas to make or remake the world.

At the start of the story, we have an "unnerving" and "grotesque" mirror reflecting the room, a "literal if inadequate" (and presumably plagiarized) reproduction of the Encyclopædia Britannica, an apt misquotation by Bioy Casares, and the issue of whether one should be able to trust whether the various copies of a single book will have the same content.

Along the way we have stone mirrors; the idea of reconstructing an entire encyclopedia of an imaginary world based on a single volume; the analogy of that encyclopedia to a "cosmos" governed by "strict laws"; a worldview in which our normal notions of "thing" are rejected, but "ideal objects abound, invoked and dissolved momentarily, according to poetic necessity"; the universe conceived as "the handwriting of a minor god to communicate with a demon" or a "code system... in which not all symbols have meaning"; hrönir, duplicates of objects called into existence by ignorance or hope, and where "those of the eleventh degree have a purity of form that the originals do not possess"; and Ezra Buckley's wish "to demonstrate to a nonexistent God that mortal men were capable of conceiving a world."

Borges also mentions in passing the duodecimal system (as well as others), but never elaborates on the fact that this is inherently a refutation of the changeability of things due to nomenclature—a number may be renamed under a different counting schema, but the underlying value will always remain the same.


References

See also




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