Continuing my endeavour to get everything that has appeared in print online, this is my In Short column for Vector 282, Summer 2016:
Mirrors and copulation are abominable, for they multiply the number of mankind. (68)
The map is the territory. That was the theme of my last column, about Dave Hutchinson’s “On the Windsor Branch”, but it is a theme that runs through practically everything that Jorge Luis Borges wrote. The memory of “Funes the Memorious” maps everything he has ever experienced in such detail that there is no practical distinction between memory and reality. The map of Don Quixote devised by Pierre Menard is indistinguishable from the territory of the original novel by Cervantes. The map of the crimes in “Death and the Compass” is also the solution to the crimes, just as, in “The Garden of Forking Paths”, the scene of the story provides the map that will determine the outcome of a World War I battle. But nowhere is this interplay between map and territory more thoroughly and inventively worked out than in what is perhaps the greatest of Borges’s ficciones: “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”.
For a start, the map to the story that is the title is misleading, for we first encounter not Tlön but Uqbar.
Or to be more precise, what we first encounter is a mirror that “troubled the far end of a hallway” (68). An interesting word: “troubled”; mirrors and mirrorings crop up repeatedly in Borges’s fiction, serving in their reflections and duplications much the same function as his most characteristic image, the labyrinth. And labyrinths are troubling, standing for the disturbed and disordered nature of the human mind. What this troubling mirror tells us is that what we are about to see is a reflection of reality rather than reality itself, a map rather than the territory; and, being troubled, most likely a distorted reflection at that.
But in fact Borges goes out of his way to convince us that this is reality. The country house in which this opening scene takes place is very carefully located in Ramos Mejía, once a rich, largely English, suburb of Buenos Aires, exactly where one would expect to find such a house, such a mirror, and of course a copy of The Anglo-American Cyclopaedia (a fictitious work, though there was an American Cyclopaedia). And Borges’s companion on this evening is Adolfo Bioy Casares, who was his life-long friend and frequent collaborator. Indeed, the characters who are referenced throughout the story – Carlos Mastronardi, Néstor Ibarra, Ezequiel Martínez Estrada, Drieu La Rochelle, Alfonso Reyes, Xul Solar and Enrique Amorim – are all real people who were friends of Borges. The relationships drawn between them in the story maps the actual territory of their genuine relationships. This, Borges seems to be telling us, is territory not map.
Thus, when the troubling mirror prompts Bioy to quote an aphorism from Uqbar, that mirrors are abominable “for they multiply the number of mankind” (68), we are naturally inclined to believe him (in the original Spanish, Bioy’s statement is given in English, with a Spanish translation, to give it greater verisimilitude). It does, after all, sound like exactly the sort of saying that would appeal to both men, and indeed Borges had already made the same point in an earlier story, “Hakim, the Masked Dyer of Merv”, in which he suggested that Earth is an error and “Mirrors and paternity are abominable because they multiply and affirm it” (43). (Though in this instance we might think that what is truly abominable about this mirror is that it multiplies realities.) Unfortunately, there seems to be no provenance for the quote; Bioy says he found it in Volume XLVI of the Cyclopaedia, but when they check the copy of the Cyclopaedia in the house there is no entry on Uqbar, nor does it appear in any of the atlases that Borges consults. This difficulty in finding any reference to Uqbar, of course, makes it all the more convincing when Bioy turns up a day or so later with his own copy of the volume. It turns out that this copy has four extra pages, which contain an article on Uqbar, and the article “seemed quite plausible, very much in keeping with the general tone of the work, even (naturally) somewhat boring” (69). Of course it’s boring, it’s an encyclopedia entry, so it would seem unconvincing if it was anything other than boring.
Except that the entry is vague and ambiguous, but again there are odd convincing details. There’s reference to a history of Uqbar by Silas Haslam who, so a footnote informs us, wrote A General History of Labyrinths, a real book published in 1888 and originally illustrated by Haslam’s wife, Anna. And the earliest book about Uqbar is ascribed to Johannes Valentinus Andreä, who wrote one of the early utopias, Description of the Republic of Christianopolis, and, perhaps more tellingly, wrote The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosencreutz which eventually gave rise to rosicrucianism. Uqbar may be uncertainly located in space (there seems to be a map but no territory), but it is fairly firmly located in time.
We can infer that the first part of the story takes place around 1935. As the second part opens it is two years later; an English railway engineer and old if not particularly close friend of the Borges family has died, and among his effects, Jorge Luis Borges comes across “A First Encyclopædia of Tlön. Vol. XI. Hlaer to Jangr” (71).
Tlön had made a tangential appearance earlier when we learned that all the literature of Uqbar was fantasy set in “the two imaginary realms of Mle’khnas and Tlön” (70), but now that imaginary land would appear to be the subject of a multi-volume encyclopaedia. The unreal is reaching out into the real. And it is worth noting, briefly, how much of this story is dependent upon encyclopaedias, those authorities of cultural and material reality. By approaching Uqbar and Tlön by way of encyclopaedias, they are immediately granted substance: I have never heard of Uqbar, but it is in an encyclopaedia so it must be my ignorance that is at fault. Because an encyclopaedia embodies a systematic account of everything, “its architectures and its playing cards, the horror of its mythologies and the murmur of its tongues, its emperors and its seas, its minerals and its birds and fishes, its algebra and its fire, its theological and metaphysical controversies” (71-2). The very all-encompassing character of an encyclopaedia betokens reality.
And against the all-encompassing nature of an encyclopaedia is set the all-encompassing nature of the inventors of Tlön (for it is never doubted by anyone, other than perhaps the reader, that Tlön is an invention), which it is determined must be “a secret society of astronomers, biologists, engineers, metaphysicians, poets, chemists, algebrists (sic), moralists, painters, geometers …” (72). Such a vast conspiracy, we might assume, could not possibly be secret, but it seems easier to assume the secret society than to accept the reality of Tlön.
Yet it is the reality, or perhaps unreality, of Tlön that is at issue in this part of the story. Idealism is the only philosophy possibly because of the way the languages are constructed. In the southern hemisphere, for instance, the language is composed of verbs but not nouns; thus a phrase such as “The moon rose above the river” would translate as “Upward, behind the onstreaming it mooned” (73). As we’ve already seen, the encyclopaedic uncertainty of Uqbar meant that that country seemed to have time but not space, and that is even more true of Tlön whose language of verbs means that the world is “successive, temporal, but not spatial” (73). Meanwhile, in the northern hemisphere the primary unit of the language is the adjective, so that instead of objects there are concatenations of attributes. This is again a language that denies space since there can be no continuity of extent, only a succession of sense impressions that may change from one moment to the next. Since anything can be named by this means, “no one believes in the reality expressed” (73) by any string of adjectives, it is a world of continuity but not of solidity, the universe is no more than “a series of mental processes that occur not in space but rather successively, in time” (73). Although some of the more eccentric philosophers have formulated a doctrine of materialism, “generally with less clarity than zeal” (75), the very language of Tlön resists formulating the notion of continuity in time, so that materialism cannot even be fully or comprehensibly expressed.
This denial of substance, in which all that is material melts away, means that there can be no science in Tlön, but there are countless competing philosophies because “metaphysics is a branch of the literature of fantasy” (74). (Uqbar is not mentioned here, in fact it is almost entirely absent from the discussion of Tlön, but in this aside we are reminded that all of Uqbar’s literature was also fantasy. Fantasy is therefore being established as the key element in the thought and the creativity of both Uqbar and Tlön, which encourages us to read the fantasy that is “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” as a map of real territory.) But if there is no science, there is psychology – “the classical culture of Tlön is composed of a single discipline – psychology – to which all others are subordinate” (73) – and the school of thought that is most widely held maintains that “there is but a single subject; that indivisible subject is every being in the universe, and the beings of the universe are the organs and masks of the deity” (76). In other words, everyone and every thing is an aspect of, or a portion of, God. Typically, Borges quotes both Bertrand Russell and Schopenhauer (perhaps slightly misleadingly) to support this notion.
Such thoroughgoing idealism, we are told, “could hardly have failed to influence reality” (77), for instance allowing objects to be conjured into existence simply by the belief that they should exist. This “has been of invaluable aid to archaeologists, making it possible not only to interrogate but even to modify the past, which is now no less plastic, no less malleable than the future” (77-8). Thus not only is space insubstantial, but so is time: the map, the encyclopedias in which this information is laid out, is thus more real than the territory.
“Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” was first published in the May 1940 issue of the literary magazine Sur, where so many of Borges’s early ficciones appeared. But the story concludes with a postscript that deliberately undermines everything we have read so far, and in fact changes the story from being a fantasy to being science fiction. As Emir Rodriguez Monegal puts it: “The postscript gives the game away because it is dated 1947 and reads: ‘I reproduce the preceding article just as it appeared in number 68 of Sur – jade green covers, May 1940’ … [but] … the reader of Sur had in his hands that jade green issue and … he was unmistakeably reading it in May 1940 and not in 1947” (Monegal, 332).
(Parenthetically, that first sentence of the postscript seems to have varied. Andrew Hurley’s translation, in Collected Fictions, reads: “I reproduce the article above exactly as it appeared in the Anthology of Fantastic Literature (1940) …” (78), as does the Anthony Kerrigan translation in Ficciones and the James E. Irby translation in Labyrinths. Presumably the reprint in Antología de la Literatura Fantástica (The Book of Fantasy) edited by Borges, Silvina Ocampo and Bioy Casares, was the approved text.)
Just as Tlön made a ghostly appearance in the midst of the description of Uqbar, so Orbis Tertius had received a passing but unexplained mention in the second section when we learn that the encyclopaedia of Tlön bears “on the first page and again on the onionskin page that covered one of the color illustrations … a blue oval with this inscription: Orbis Tertius” (71). We hear nothing more of this “third world” until the postscript, when we are introduced to a “secret benevolent society” (78) that was formed sometime in the seventeenth century, in either Lucerne or London, and including among its members George Berkeley, Bishop of Cloyne and the philosopher who introduced the doctrine known first as “immaterialism”, later as idealism, which denied the existence of material objects, claiming that everything is made up of sense perceptions in the mind of the observer. (Borges notes that, for Hume, Berkeley’s arguments “admit not the slightest refutation … [but] … inspire not the slightest conviction” (72), but inexplicably omits the famous anecdote in which Dr Johnson kicked a stone and declared: “Thus I refute Berkeley!”) Thus we have a secret society, one of whose founding members was responsible for the very philosophy that Tlön apparently makes concrete, and the society takes as its mission “to invent a country” (78). By the early part of the 19th century that mission had grown into the creation of the 40-volume First Encyclopædia of Tlön, “the grandest work of letters ever undertaken by humankind” (79).
The Encyclopædia is the map, but the map starts to turn into the territory. In among a crate of crockery sent from Europe a princess finds a compass marked with letters from one of the languages of Tlön: “the first intrusion of the fantastic world of Tlön into the real world” (80). Some months later, Borges found among the coins dropped by a dead gaucho a small, incredibly heavy cone “made of a metal not of this world … [which is] … an image of the deity in certain Tlönian religions” (80). Finally, when a complete set of the Encyclopædia is discovered, “reality ‘caved in’ at more than one point. The truth is, it wanted to cave in” (81). It is no accident that the story, written at the beginning of the 1940s, looking out upon a world with Stalinism and Nazism, with a massive war starting to roll across Europe, should present a world ready to fall for a new certainty, a different way of shaping reality. It is not necessarily a better way, as Borges warns: “Spellbound by Tlön’s rigor, humanity has forgotten, and continues to forget, that it is the rigor of chess masters, not of angels” (81).
“Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” is a thought experiment about a thought experiment, a map that becomes the territory. It is also a warning that confusion between map and territory is where the terror lies.
Quotations taken from “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” by Jorge Luis Borges (translated by Andrew Hurley) in Collected Fictions, London, Allen Lane, 1998, pp68-81.
“Hakim, the Masked Dyer of Merv” by Jorge Luis Borges (translated by Andrew Hurley) in Collected Fictions, London, Allen Lane, 1998, pp40-44.
Jorge Luis Borges: A Literary Biography by Emir Rodriguez Monegal, New York, Paragon House, 1988.