“Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”:
“Fictional Universes and their effects on Reality”:
“Intersections” by Anila Quayyum Agha. Contemporary artist.
►About Jorge Luis Borges, author of “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”:
Jorge Luis Borges (1899/1986).
Jorge Luis Borges (1899/1986) was an Argentine writer, acclaimed in many other countries.
“Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” originally appeared in Spanish in “Sur magazine” in may 1940. It was then published in book form in “Antología de la Literatura Fantástica” (december 1940), then in Borges’s 1941 collection “El Jardín de Senderos que se Bifurcan” (“The Garden of Forking Paths”). That entire book was, in turn, included within “Ficciones” (1944).
►“Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”: Synopsis. Structure. Points of View (POVs):
Synopsis: The narrator (Borges) randomly comes across an article about a region called Uqbar. He then finds an Encyclopedia about Tlön (a country in Uqbar). The enigmatic story reveals that Tlön and Ubqar are fictitious places, invented by a secret society called Orbis Tertius.
Structure, and Points of View (POVs): The story is divided into three parts.
The Points of Views in “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius are basically two.
First Person, when the actions of the story are filtered through the observations of one character. Present in the first section, as a protagonist.
►”Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”:
Detailed summary and analysis by sections:
1) ♠In the first section, the narrator and his friend and writer, Adolfo Bioy Casares, discuss a hypothetical “novel in the first person, whose narrator would omit or disfigure the facts and indulge in various contradictions” (Page 1, according to University of Yale´s transcript).
The mirror in the hallway reminds Bioy Casares of an article in The Anglo-American Cyclopaedia about a country named Uqbar.
Casares then quotes a saying he remembers from a heresiarch of Uqbar: “Mirrors and copulation are abominable, for they multiply the number of mankind”. (Page 1, according to University of Yale´s transcript).
Borges asks him where he had found that quote. Casares believed that Uqbar, along with the quotation, was catalogued in The Anglo-American Cyclopaedia. Borges also has that same book in his place, but oddly it does not mention Uqbar, so he asks Bioy for further details. The following day, Bioy Casares brings him a copy containing the entry on Uqbar, with the quotation he had paraphrased.
There is something very interesting when it comes to the narrative structure here. It all starts with the apocryphal quotation, a sort of riddle that leads to an enlargement occurring in a staggered form: From the discovery of the text, to the imaginary country called Uqbar (vaguely situated in Asia, according to the article in The Anglo-American Cyclopaedia) and then to Tlön (one of the two regions of Uqbar, alongside Mlejnas).
2) ♠The second section describes the narrator’s discovery of a volume of the Encyclopedia of Tlön, left behind in a bar by an Englishman, Herbert Ashe. This happens in 1937, meaning two years after Bioy Casares and Borges´ first knowledge of Uqbar and Tlön. Ashe´s manuscript was the eleventh volume of a complete Encyclopedia surveying the imaginary city of Tlön.
The volume has on its first page a stamped blue oval inscribed “Orbis Tertius” (“third orb,” in Latin).
According to Borges, this encyclopedia entails a methodical and orderly infinitesimal plan, devised by a sect.
Borges describes some of the characteristics and features of Tlön and its people, based on the volume of the Encyclopedia he had found.
We can summarize some of the main points as:
-Tlön is divided in two hemispheres. In none of these hemispheres, nouns are included in their languages.
-People of this imaginary planet are “idealist” and do not believe in the material, objective existence of their surroundings.
-The world itself is understood as a series of mental processes lacking temporal duration. The lack of spatial relations across time lead to a distorted conception of identity.
The philosopher Berkeley is mentioned by Borges as a referent in Tlön. Of course, not in practical way but more as Borges´interpretation. Bishop George Berkeley (18th century) was an Irish philosopher whose primary achievement was the advancement of a theory he called “immaterialism” or “subjective idealism”. This theory denies the existence of material substance and instead contends that objects are only ideas in the minds of perceiver and, as a result, cannot exist without being perceived.
Berkeley believed God to be present as an immediate cause of all our experiences.
Here is Berkeley’s proof of the existence of God: “Whatever power I may have over my own thoughts, I find the ideas actually perceived by Sense have not a like dependence on my will. When in broad daylight I open my eyes, it is not in my power to choose whether I shall see or no, or to determine what particular objects shall present themselves to my view; and so likewise as to the hearing and other senses; the ideas imprinted on them are not creatures of my will. There is therefore some other Will or Spirit that produces them”. (Berkeley. Principles #29).
Inhabitants of the imaginary Tlön hold an extreme form of George Berkeley’s subjective idealism, denying the reality of the world.
Their world is seen not as a concurrence of objects in space, but as a heterogeneous series of independent acts.
Borges says: “The nations of this planet are congenitally idealist. Their language and the derivations of their language – religion, letters, metaphysics – all presuppose idealism. The world for them is not a concourse of objects in space; it is a heterogeneous series of independent acts. It is successive and temporal, not spatial”. (Page 7, according to University of Yale´s transcript).
But 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.
The idea of eternal present appears in the second section.
Aristotle (384 /322) .
Borges mentions: “One of the schools of Tlön goes so far as to negate time: it reasons that the present is indefinite, that the future has no reality other than as a present memory” (Page 8, according to University of Yale´s transcript).
The idea of time as Indefinite Present could be linked to Aristotle. Aristotle argues that the essence of time is the now, to nun.
The “now” is given simultaneously as that which is no longer and as that which is not yet. Aristotle defines time as “a number of change in respect of the before and after”. As time implies a sense of a before and after, for Aristotle time is the coming-to-be and passing-away of nows moving in an irreversible, lineal way.
The First Encyclopedia of Tlön makes reference to two types of special objects: hronirs and urs.
Hronirs are lost objects that could be found, or better said “produced” by people or animals. They entail a sort of duplication, being somehow clones or copies of the original object.
But, Borges suggests that a copy of another hronir would be deficient: “Curiously, the hronir of second and third degree – the hronir derived from another hron, those derived from the hron of a hron – exaggerate the aberrations of the initial one”. (Page 12, according to University of Yale´s transcript).
Furthermore, Borges states that according to an experiment done with Tlön inmates: “expectation and anxiety can be inhibitory (when it comes to produce the secondary objects)” (Page 11, according to University of Yale´s transcript).
He also says that the reverse can occur: “Things became duplicated in Tlön; they also tend to become effaced and lose their details when they are forgotten. A classic example is the doorway which survived so long it was visited by a beggar and disappeared at his death” (Page 12 , according to University of Yale´s transcript).
Finally, Borges also mentions a different type of secondary objects: Urs. “An ur is the object produced through suggestion, educed by hope”. (Page 12 , according to University of Yale´s transcript).
Walter Benjamin (1892/1940).
The description of Hronirs, and especially how the copies might be defective could be linked to Walter Benjamin´s idea of “loss of the aura”. In his essay, “The Work of Art In The Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, Benjamin-one of the most well-known members of the Frankfurt School describes the so-called “loss of the aura”, in the context of mechanical reproduction of art. The aura represents the originality and authenticity of a work of art that has not been reproduced. In the age of mechanical reproduction, mass consumption is the cause of the loss of the aura, and, therefore, the loss of a singular authority within the work of art itself. However, for Walter Benjamin, a distance from the aura is a good thing. The loss of the aura has the potential to open up the politicization of art, whether or not that opening is detrimental or beneficial is yet to be determined.
Maps of Eastern & Western Hemispheres by N.C. Wyeth for National Geographic, 1928
“The garden of earthly delights” (detail) by Hieronymus Bosch. 16 th century.
“Study For Stars” by M. C. Escher. 1948.
“B.A.” by Borges´friend Xul Solar (1929).
3) ♠Third and last section (Postcript): The postscript reveals that Tlön and Ubqar are fictitious places, invented by a secret society called Orbis Tertius. This society worked for three hundred years and came up with the imaginary lands Uqbar and Tlön.
In his postcript, Borges notes several “intrusions” of Tlön into the real world, the most notable being the 1942 discovery of a Tlönian artifact in the hand of a dying man: a small metal cone of unknown material which was inexplicably heavy.
Borges says that all forty volumes of the Encyclopedia of Tlön were discovered and published in a library in Memphis. The material then became 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 already gradually disintegrating and transforming into Tlön. Besides, every domain of human knowledge has been rewritten to accommodate the truths of Tlön, and Borges expects the process to continue in the future.
La Salle des planetes, by Erik Desmazieres, for “The Library of Babel” by Jorge Luis Borges
“The Ladder of Divine Ascent”, late 12th century icon at Saint Catherine’s Monastery, Mount Sinai.
“Ascent of the Blessed” by Hieronymus Bosch, after 1490.
►“Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”: Final Thoughts:
Based on a very complex temporal structure, this short story consists of three parts and two moments of enunciation. That is, the first part introduces Uqbar; the second presents Tlön; and the third, Orbis Tertius.
Also, the first two parts were, according to the fiction itself, written in 1940, while the third was written in 1947.
However as previously mentioned, this short story was first published in 1940.
The passage of time has diluted the effect that Borges sought and, instead, has favored the erroneous assumption that he added the postscript at the historical, “actual” date of 1947.
The three stages of the same plan are revealed through two texts: The Anglo-American Cyclopaedia entails the discovery of Uqbar. The First Encyclopaedia of Tlön, leads to know about the fantastic planet called Tlön, while the letter addressed to Herbert Ashe, explains plans and contingencies of the society Orbis Tertius. These three texts are either copies, or give birth of them.
The Anglo-American Cyclopaedia is a Fallacious copy of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Besides, the literalness of The Anglo-American Cyclopaedia is a hoax, as only in one volume of three the characters managed to find the article on Uqbar.
In this same line of analysis, although the narrator refers to the original text of the eleventh volume of A First Encyclopaedia of Tlön, in the postscript a second version of that encyclopedia is mentioned.
This newest version also distorts its original. At least as far as the eleventh volume concerns. The volumen that the narrator found in 1937 is modified in the version exhumed in 1944. The modifications refer to certain “incredible features”, such as the curious objects that duplicate in Tlön, the hrönir.
Finally, the Postcript suggests that the letter addressed to Herbert Ashe might have been reproduced in order to publicize the existence of Tlön and its imminent invasion of Reality. The narrator (Borges himself) is included in this work, summarizing the content of the letter.
In his dialogue Phaedo, Plato defends the world of the archetypes (Ideas/Forms) by comparing it with the sensible world. While the Idea or archetype contains within itself an absolute and immutable value, the sensible copy reproduces this value in a partial, nether degree.
In “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” the Platonic attitude of disdain towards copies is enunciated from the beginning, with the imprecise quote that Bioy Casares mentions and which Borges attunes, later on.
Back to the quote, not only mirrors and copulation multiply and spread the universe. It seems that texts also do. In this sense, multiplication tends to alter the reproduced texts (simplifying them or modifying them). However, when it comes to the subsequent development of the encyclopedias in this story, one could conclude that the copies might “improve” the respective originals.
The mirror in Borges appears as a sort of unifying element between Reality and Fantasy. The perfect symbiosis between the real and the Fictional world ultimately demarcates the limits of the mirror.
In the case of Tlön, the narrative is constructed as a mirror. The image reflected is a “distorted and parodied” image of our own Culture.
Tlön is presented before hand as unreal, to finally persuade us that fictional planet is our world.
The resource used in this story is to render unlikely any event of reality. We could conclude that mental facts have woven a warp of such real consistency that it reaches the “real” world, introducing doubts to the reader.
On the Left: Hyperbolic tessellation: Circle Limit III, by M. C. Escher. 1959. On the right: Butterfly by M. C. Escher. 1960´s.
This short story has both detective novel and dystopian novel elements.
In the first sense, the crime here described is the proliferation of fiction in the world of the narrator.
Or, said in other words, the death of reality due to the effects caused by the multiplication of Tlön:
“The contact and the habit of Tlön have disintegrated this world. Enchanted by its rigor, humanity forgets over and again that it is a rigor of chess masters, not of angels. Already the schools have been invaded by the (conjectural) “primitive language” of Tlön; already the teaching of its harmonious history (filled with moving episodes) has wiped out the one which governed in my childhood; already a fictitious past occupies in our memories the place of another, a past of which we know nothing with certainty – not even a that it is false…. If our forecasts are not in error, a hundred years from now someone will discover the hundred volumes of the Second Encyclopedia of Tlön. Then English and French and mere Spanish will disappear from the globe. The world will be Tlön“. (Page 16, according to University of Yale´s transcript).
Speculation is necessary here. For fiction to affect reality until it is annihilated, as happens when Tlön -as invention- influences reality, certain coherence is required. That is why, as we have seen, Borges´jigsaws, characters and researches are purely intellectual. Being these strategic elements of the genre available, a “real” world (the narrator’s) is constructed, as opposed to the “unreal” world of Tlön (which, however, is also made up of ideas). This is what allows Reality to be annihilated by Fiction.
As to the Dystopian factor, it is worth highlighting that the secret society Orbis Tertius had planned a textual conspiracy, directed to operate through a series of speeches and aiming to subjugate humanity. Subjugation subtly occurs Language, implying a perversion of rhetoric.
Taking this interpretation further, the disappearance of “English, French and Spanish” could allude to the Third Reich project of destroying the heterogeneity of civilization in favor of the predominance of a superior “race”.
Finally, the Dystopian element is surreptitiously expressed in the use of language (Otherwise, and also, as a resource of Power).
The story begins with a memory of Bioy Casares extracted from an apocryphal book. It ends with a destructive invasion of the real world by “objects” (which are nothing else but ideas) from a false world, published by an apocryphal book: the First Encyclopaedia of Tlön.
In fine, the story as a whole seems to contain an otherwise positive warning, about the limitations of language.
Language, without more reference than itself, can not allow us to distinguish between the apocryphal and the authentic, between what is false and what is true.🔚
➰☑️ “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”:
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