A short story by Jorge Luis Borges.

The story is based upon the same idea as The NodeShell World Fiction Project. A group of shadowy conspirators decide to make up an entire country by writing bogus entries in an encyclopedia, thinking it a high joke. As they continue to embellish on the mythical culture of Tlon, they derive much enjoyment out of watching credulous academics and geographers refer to Tlon as though it were fact, without blinking an eye.

That is, until knowledge of Tlon starts to enter popular culture. And then more stories of Tlon appear -- tourist guides, anthropology studies things which were never written by the conspirators.

And then real Tlon currency is found...

An interesting theory proposed by Umberto Eco speculates that the short story by Borges is itself a diversionary tactic to make any copies of the Encyclopaedia of Tlön seem the work of a Borges imitator and consequentially perceived as fiction. Naturally, to refute this theory is to become contaminated with unreality.

The story draws heavily on the history of the Rosicrucian Order (or Brotherhood, or Society), in which both Borges and Umberto Eco show a repeated interest in their writings.

In brief, the history of the Rosy Cross started with an anonymous pamphlet, appearing out of nowhere towards the end of the Renaissance and calling for spiritual regeneration, political house cleaning, redistribution of wealth and above all complete and utter anonimity and secrecy on the part of its members. For a good summary of that and subsequent publications see the excellent node on the subject.

It was claimed at the time, and is pretty much accepted as fact today, that the whole Rosicrucian thing was an elaborate prank. Nevertheless the two original pamphlets led to a deluge of supportive publication, outraged criticism and any amount of speculation re who these people were and how they were going to bring about the social revolutions they were preaching from the shadows of anonimity. Very much in the same way that Tlon transmogrified from a joke to a popular "fact", so the Rosicrucian Order became the conspiracy theory that wouldn't die - traces of it are claimed to be found in modern day Masonry and shades of it can certainly be seen in the myth of the Illuminati. Borges is essentially parodying the human capacity for believing the unbelievable, as long as it makes sense. Paradox? Borges...

Dan Brown is heavily, if probably unknowingly, indebted to this rather fogeyish little scholarly joke: after the phenomenal success of The Da Vinci Code, he could not resist the temptation to cite his inspirations as "factual sources", thereby giving rise - and credence - to a whole industry dedicated to retroactively "proving" the sources right, thereby justifying the factual integrity of a work of fiction. Remarkable.

Borges toys with the idea of a tongue-in-cheek academic conspiracy involving the creation of a non-factual encyclopedia. The fictional realms of Tlön, Uqbar and Orbis Tertius supposedly only exist within the volumes of this text, however, evidence slowly surfaces that this may not be the case. Borges raises questions about the nature of the creative act: can imagination, to some extent, manifest reality?

This peculiar unreality was further explored by writer Mark Danielewski. His recent novel House of Leaves applies Borges' idea of invented, non-existant references, and is chock full of imaginary yet convincing footnotes. Danielewski's admiration of Borges is beyond doubt, as he literally has written the blind Argentinian into his novel, much like Umberto Eco did in The Name of the Rose.

What happens when reality becomes fiction? (Or was it the other way around?)

Summary

Adolfo Bioy Casares and Borges discuss their next book. Bioy quotes a heresiarch from Uqbar («los espejos y la cópula son abominables porque multiplican el número de los hombres»1) and Borges asks for the source. Despite having access to The Anglo-American Cyclopaedia, they are unable to find the article of said country2.

Later, Bioy finds the source in his own reprint of the encyclopaedia. Both writers study the tome and find out that this one contains 4 additional pages—not found on any other edition—dedicated entirely to Uqbar. This renews their appetite for knowledge and…

In vain we exhausted atlases, catalogues, geographical societies’ yearbooks, memories of travelers and historians. No one had ever been to Uqbar.

Two years later, Borges inherits a book from Herbert Ashe, a friend of his. The book is the eleventh tome of «A First Encycloaedia of Tlön», which ends up being another geographical mystery, defying all external references, but rich in descriptons and analysis of Tlön’s primordial languages and philosophy. JLB and his friends conclude that Tlön must be an invention of several people:

…the apparent contradicions of the Eleventh Tome are the cornerstone of the proof of the existence of others…

Seven years later, writes his memories on how the mystery of Tlön was uncovered: In the early XVII century, a «secret and benevolent» society decides to invent a whole country (Uqbar). Two centuries later, the society reemerges in America, but this time its millionaire patron proposes to create a whole world and to keep the whole thing secret.

However, a compass and a sacred symbol perfectly matching descriptions from Tlön appear in the real world. Then, an entire copy in 40 volumes of «A First Encyclopaedia…» is discovered in Memphis. Soon, the world is taken over and looks more and more like Tlön every day:

Almost immediately, reality yielded in more than one place. The truth is that it yearned to. (…) Tlön might be a labyrinth, but it’s a labyrinth made by men, a labyrinth destined to be solved by men. (…) If our predictions are correct, 100 years from today someone will discover the hundred tomes of Tlön’s second encyclopaedia. Then the English, French and Spanish languages will disappear from the planet. The world will be Tlön.

Andy’s commentary

I’m not any kind of expert in literature, I just enjoy reading some of it.

«Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius» is to me a story about writing in the broadest sense of the word. Every writer, every filmmaker, every child dreams of another world and in doing so creates it, full of any and all details necessary for it to exist. Just like Toy Story shows us, it’s possible to have an evil Potato-man and his guardian Tyrannosaurus rex facing off against a cowboy and his slinky dog. For many, this demiurgic act ceases when mom announces «dinner is ready» or by crumpling a piece of paper and trying to score a 3-pointer on the trash can.

For more serious pursuits, the act of worldbuilding may seem intimidating: how is it possible to re-create a world, a universe similar to ours with all of its details? The newbie writer may easily fall into this trap wishing to fill every nook and cranny with descriptions of every language, every animal, every culture and every person on this nascent world. Trying to create a world in full detail is an exercise in futility. Even in real life we’re not sure where the detail ends, if ever.

But nevertheless, many fall into this trap and some never recover. The description of their imagined world soon fills notebook upon notebook, before a single word of the actual story is committed to paper. This attempt to achieve the full creative power of god engulfs the mind of this poor sod and becomes, in a way, his full reality. The world becomes Tlön.

I have some acquaintances that have been trapped in this mental cage for years, believing that any world less detailed than Arda will ultimately be a failure. The writings derived from this line of reasoning are not only dry but also an (often unintended) insult to the reader. A good writer should remember that readers are people too, with their own pool of knowledge, intelligence and feelings. Human brains are able to fill in details of pretty much anything3. Take, for example, Edgar Allan Poe’s «The Black Cat» (spoilers ahead). Can you remember the awful place where the narrator finds the second cat? Can you picture the low lights, the awful alcoholic stench, the dangerous inebriated men chatting in hushed tones? Well, let’s see what is actually written:

One night as I sat, half stupified, in a den of more than infamy, my attention was suddenly drawn to some black object, reposing upon the head of one of the immense hogsheads of Gin, or of Rum, which constituted the chief furniture of the apartment.

That’s it. The rest of the book describes nothing else about the place. In spite of this, we’re able to get the full picture, our mind fills in the rest.

«Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius» is, then, a cautionary tale of just how far can you get with fiction. Left unchecked, this delusion consumes reality and replaces it completely, to the point of replacing past, present and future. Just because something doesn’t exist in «the real world» doesn’t mean it’s not something real.


Also on Jorge Luis Borges’ «Ficciones»

  1. «El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan»
    1. Prologue
    2. «Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius»
    3. «Pierre Menard, autor del Quixote» («Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote»)
    4. «Las ruinas circulares» («The Circular Ruins»)
    5. «La lotería en Babilonia» («The Lottery in Babylon»)
    6. «Examen de la obra de Herbert Quain» («An examination of the Work of Herbert Quain»)
    7. «La Biblioteca de Babel» («The Library of Babel»)
    8. «El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan» («The Garden of Forking Paths»)
  2. «Artificios»
    1. Prologue
    2. «Funes el memorioso» («Funes the Memorious»)
    3. «La forma de la espada» («The Form of the Sword»)
    4. «Tema del traidor y del héroe» («Theme of the Traitor and the Hero»)
    5. «La muerte y la brújula» («Death and the Compass»)
    6. «El milagro secreto» («The Secret Miracle»)
    7. «Tres versiones de Judas» («Three Versions of Judas»)
    8. «El fin» («The End»)
    9. «La secta del Fénix» («The Sect of the Phoenix»)
    10. «El Sur» («The South»)

Notes

This writeup is based on the Kindle edition of «Ficciones». As such, it doesn’t contain «El acercamiento a Almotásim» («The Approach to Al-Mu’tasim»). Most of the translations are mine, given that I only have access to the original Spanish version.

Format
Kindle ebook
File size
779 KB
Pages
560
Publisher
LUMEN (May 6, 2011)
Sold by
Penguin Random House Grupo Editorial SAU
Language
Spanish
ASIN
B0062Y7C18

  1. «mirrors and copulation are abominable because they increase the number of men».↩︎

  2. The last article of volume XLVI is Uppsala. The first article in volume XLVII is Ural-Altaic Languages.↩︎

  3. Brains are amazing at creating detail where none exist, even to a fault. Although this is a subject for another time, this ability to create meaningful ideas from incomplete information may even lead to unhappiness. See the third of The Four Agreements: Don’t make assumptions.↩︎

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