Jorge Luis Borges

"Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius"

The first short story contained within Borges’ Ficciones, "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" is one of the most peculiar tales I have ever encountered in 20th century literature. It transcends classification. Is it magical realism? Is it science fiction? —It is included in certain sci-fi anthologies after all— Is it a philosophical study? My only conclusion is that it is all of these. This short story could probably function well as an assigned text in a philosophy course, specifically a course that surveys Baruch Spinoza, Arthur Schopenhauer, David Hume and George Berkeley. It is also a kind of meta-fiction in which Borges is a character in his own story. His own fictional constructions intrude upon reality and he himself investigates them.

Part I begins with Borges and his friend, Bioy Cesares, discussing mirrors and the latter quotes a passage from an Anglo-American Cyclopaedia entry about a nation called Uqbar: Mirrors and copulation are abominable for they multiply the number of mankind. Borges asks Cesares to prove the existence of this entry but Cesares is unable to find the entry in the Cyclopaedia at hand. Cesares finds the passage in his own personal Cyclopaedia and he and Borges study it thoroughly. They learn of the geography of Uqbar and that its literature consists only of fantasy, primarily tales of two imaginary realms, Mle’khnas and Tlön.

In Part II, Borges reflects on his friendship with one Herbert Ashe, an engineer for the Southern Railway Line, a man “afflicted with unreality”. A few days before Ashe dies of an aneurysm, he receives a leather-bound volume of A First Encyclopaedia of Tlön. Vol XI. Hlaer to Jangr, one of its pages stamped with the seal of Orbis Tertius. Here Borges relates to us the nature of Tlön, an unknown planet.

Tlön’s conception of the universe is an idealistic one. It is a philosophical experiment in which George Berkeley’s statement “to be is to be perceived” is not conjecture but fact.

Hume declared for all time that while Berkeley’s arguments admit not to the slightest refutation, they inspire not the slightest conviction. That pronouncement is true with respect to the earth, entirely false with respect to Tlön

The world of Tlön is not spatial , it is temporal . Whereas our conception of the universe is a combination of space and time, the people of Tlön experience these as separate and unrelated.

For the people of Tlön, the world is not an amalgam of objects in space; it is a heterogeneous series of independent acts —the world is successive, temporal, but not spatial.

The proto-language (ursprache) of Tlön’s southern hemisphere has no nouns in its vocabulary. The primary unit of the language are verbs modified by mono-syllabic suffixes or prefixes. The example given of this by Borges is that there is no noun in Tlönian for “moon”, rather a verb that would translate in english to “moonate” or “enmoon”. To say “the moon rose above the river”, Tlönians would say, “upward behind the onstreaming it mooned”, or “hlör u fang axaxaxas mlö”. Tlonians of the northern hemisphere construct what earthlings would call nouns by stringing together mono-syllabic adjectives. The example Borges gives for “moon” is: “aerial-bright above dark-round".

—As I’m writing this I'm wondering how I might say “the book is sitting on the green desk” in Tlonian of the Southern Hemisphere. I came up with “onto elevating engreened surfacing it booked”. Or “the glass reflected the light”, “englassed, lighting reflected”.—

The literature of Tlön is based upon the idea of a single subject and there is no such thing as plagiarism because all books are by the same author who remains “timeless and anonymous”. Philosophical texts contain the thesis and antithesis of their arguments. All fiction has the same plot with every possible outcome. Borges also describes the geometry of Tlön, its classical culture, its heresies.

Seeing as Idealism posits that the world (our world) is mind-dependent, that the world exists because it is being perceived by mind, some “places” and “things” on Tlön simply cease to exist if the person or animal that frequents them dies. Some objects duplicate if they are forgotten and then rediscovered but the discoverer doesn’t tell anyone. The duplicated objects are referred to as hrönir and they are “slightly longer” than the original object.

So what is Orbis Tertius ? All that Borges relates to us about Uqbar and Tlön come from Encyclopaedias and the surveyors of the illusory Tlön and the writers of its Encyclopaedia are the “nebulous” society Orbis Tertius. Borges speculates that this “secret society” is composed of “astronomers, biologists, engineers, metaphysicians, poets, chemists, algebrists, moralists, painters, geometers…”

There is a postscript marked 1947 and Borges describes his encounter with an object that has intruded upon our world from the world of Tlön. A small cone of unknown metal that falls from a young man’s pocket. A little boy tries to pick it up but it's too heavy and Borges briefly holds it in the palm of his hand where it becomes unbearable and leaves an indentation. In the end Borges implies that the introduction of Tlönian objects into our world is the sign of a plan to overwrite the laws of our reality and supplant it with those of Tlön’s.

What Borges has accomplished in only 14 pages is utterly baffling. It is a labyrinthine story that can be revisited numerous times and still be puzzled over.

Alex Duncan
Kansas City, MO
Monday April 19, 2021