Are Man-Made Stories More Seductive Than Reality? "Tlon Uqbar Orbis Tertius" - A Short Story by Jorge Borges

Tlon Uqbar Orbis Tertius

This is a short story by Jorge Luis Borges, the Argentinian writer. In the story of Tlon, there is a secret society of scholars (first founded by George Berkeley) who set out to create their own lost land in which Berkeley's Idealism is lived out. They spend centuries on this work of fiction, adding the finest details as to how this pantheistic idealism works. The thing is though, that they don't pass it off as fiction, but with the help of a rich millionaire, they pass it off as a lost land and history. As humanity begins to discover these "lost works" they cannot help but be taken ahold by it. 

Setting Up the Story

The short story begins at a late night dinner between two friends discussing literature. They are debating over whether a novel written in the first person in which the writer obscures facts and realities would be an abomination or a successful novel. (A hint is given here which works on a few different levels as this story is written in such a way and also is a story about the philosophy of George Berkeley which is, of course, related to this idea) The narrator's friend makes an off comment about the nature of mirrors as he glances in one down the hallway. 1 "... mirrors and copulation are abominable, because they increase the number of men." 2 When asked where the quote was from, the friend says that it was from a leader in the land of Uqbar, a place he read about in an encyclopedia. They find a copy of that encyclopedia in the house they are staying in and try to find the entry on "Uqbar," but to no avail. It's not in there. 3

Later on the friend calls the narrator and says that he found the encyclopedia with the entry on Uqbar, and the full quote said by the leader was actually, 4 "Copulation and mirrors are abominable ... For one of those gnostics, the visible universe was an illusion or (more precisely) a sophism. Mirrors and fatherhood are abominable because they multiply and disseminate that universe." 5 The narrator asks to see the article and they compare their encyclopedias. They find that they are the same exact encyclopedia and edition, except his friend's has four extra pages about Uqbar. 6 The description of its physical location was quite vague, though claimed to have existed on an island where religious believers had fled for refuge in the 13th Century. There among their artifacts could be found their "stone mirrors," not reflective ones. Their literature was one which was only set in fictional lands, Mlejnas and Tlon. The entry in the encyclopedia referenced four works for its information on Uqbar, though the men had only heard of one of those works. They unsuccessfully found any other information on Uqbar, or in any of the other encyclopedias. 7

A family friend of the narrator is introduced and a brief history of their interactions is given. Apparently this family friend was an engineer and had spent time trying to convert number systems such that the number 12 and 60 could both be written as the number 10, though this was more of a secretive work of the man. The man later died and the narrator come upon one of the man's books. 8 Upon opening the book he sees that it is an encyclopedia about the land of Tlon from Uqbar. Inside it was inscribed with the seal, "the third world," or "Orbis Tertius." The encyclopedia gave much insight into the land of Tlon. Apparently it was the 11th volume, being a middle book in the series, but no others had been located. Some speculated that this land was the invention of a group of scholars, and the original encyclopedia they had found was simply a pirated and edited version. 9 "Who are the inventors of Tlon? The plural is inevitable, because the hypothesis of a lone inventor - an infinite Leibniz laboring away darkly and modestly- has been unanimously discounted. It is conjectured that this brave new world is the work of a secret society of astronomers, biologists, engineers, metaphysicians, poets, chemists, algebraists, moralists, painters, geometers... directed by an obscure man of genius." 10

The World of Tlon

The narrator then expounds on the nature of the understanding of the universe in Tlon. First and foremost it is clear that their conception of reality is that of an Idealist, more specifically the Idealism of George Berkeley. Thus, in Tlon they do not believe in the material and spatial existence of things, only a successive chain of non physical actions of minds. Their language reflects this as well as they have no nouns, only adverbs and adjectives which describe perceptions, but do not imply substantial existence. 11 "They do not say 'moon,' but rather 'round airy-light on dark'...". Likewise their poetry is one of phenomenological style in that they are not bound by the concreteness of nouns, rather they can put together an infinite complexity of conscious perceptions and phenomena. Psychology is their highest discipline, and philosophy is as such the association of ideas together which make up reality, not a reality-in-itself. This also invalidates the scientific process, as how could the present tell you about the future if there is no things in themselves, only ideas and perceptions linked together in their order of experience? 12 

There is no logical reasoning or philosophy in Tlon, as again there can never be known things-in-themselves, nor any true system which explains all of one's perceptions. Metaphysics to these inhabitants is nothing more than trying to create fantastical to entertain. Indeed, there are as many philosophies as there are people or perceptions. For example, some hold that time itself doesn't exist, as the present seems indefinable in nature, the past just a memory in the present, and the future simply a hope in the present. Others that life is simply the unfolding of a memory which has already taken place. Even among the wild speculations, none go so far as to speculate the extremeness of "Materialism." 13 Though there are some who have tried to move towards this idea, their paradoxes rivaling that of the Ancient Greek Zeno. In the paradox there are nine coins lost on Wednesday, and they are not all found until Friday, but in different places. They ask if it could be that all the coins continued in existence even through the time when they were not being perceived? 14 

"The language of Tlon resists the formulation of this paradox; most people did not even understand it. The defenders of common sense at first did no more than negate the veracity of the anecdote. They repeated that it was a verbal fallacy, based on the rash application of two neologisms not authorized by usage and alien to all rigorous thought: the verbs "find" and "lose," which beg the question, because they presuppose the identity of the first and of the last nine coins. They recalled that all nouns (man, coin, Thursday, Wednesday, rain) have only a metaphorical value. They denounced the treacherous circumstance "somewhat rusted by Wednesday's rain," which presupposes what is trying to be demonstrated: the persistence of the four coins from Tuesday to Thursday. They explained that equality is one thing and identity another, and formulated a kind of reductio ad absurdum ..." 15

As a resolution to the paradox, one person posited that all beings are really expressions of the divine mind, thus giving coherence to the possibility of science, a common world between people, and a reason for religious worship. Math in Tlon, though, is quite strange as both geometry and arithmetic are expressions of the changing perceptions of man, rather than points, lines, and definite numbers of quantity. 16 They explain the common results of mathematics to the pantheistic idealism which underlies reality. There is but one subject and knower which all perceptions are grounded in. Likewise with literature, there are no authors or plagiarism, because there is only one author. Things get even weirder in Tlon, though. For if people believe to be remembering a forgotten perception of something, the thing can be brought forth back into reality, and even duplicated by the number of those remembering. 17 Thus the "past" has become as malleable by human perception as the future has. Reality itself, to stay consistent, has to be perceived. 18 "A classic example is the doorway which survived so long as it was visited by a beggar and disappeared at his death. At times some birds, a horse, have saved the ruins of an amphitheater." 19 

Towards the end of the story we get more information about how Tlon was formed. In the 17th Century there was a group of scholars who set out to secretly write about this imaginary land (including that of George Berkeley), and as each scholar was dying they appointed one to take their place. Over centuries the land of Tlon took shape. In the 1800's the secret community brought it to a rich man in the Americas. This man offered to leave them his fortune if they agreed to indulge his atheism and nihilism, and to expand its scope, creating a universe of Tlon that made no mention of Jesus Christ. 20 "... he wanted to demonstrate to this nonexistent God that mortal man was capable of conceiving a world." 21 This new universe would be called "Orbis Tertius." 22 Then they set out to mysteriously disseminate relics and tales of Tlon to the world. 23 As the world began to unearth these artifacts and to put together the pieces, the unifying, though imaginary, reality of Tlon swept the minds of men. These were the same minds who just before this were swept into the order and totalitarian logic of "dialectical materialist, anti-Semitism, and Nazism." 24 These simplifications of reality, providing cheap order and direction, are man's seductress. The world of Tlon begins to replace the real world and history of reality. 25

"The contact and the habit of Tlon 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 Tlon; 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 that it is false. Numismatology, pharmacology and archaeology have been reformed. I understand that biology and mathematics also await their avatars . . . A scattered dynasty of solitary men has changed the face of the world. Their task continues. If our forecasts are not in error, a hundred years from now someone will discover the hundred volumes of the Second Encyclopedia of Tlon. Then English and French and mere Spanish will disappear from the globe." 26

Personal Reflection

So I know Berkeley's idealism sounds pretty far out there, and I think the same as well. But then I think of the fact that perception has some role in quantum mechanics in that when conscious perception happens to a quantum potential it actualizes into this or that particular actuality. Now maybe this is just a misunderstanding because we don't fully understand the quantum world yet? Or maybe not... I don't really know what to think of this, and I am not a scientist so I don't know enough about it to speculate. But certainly that is interesting, and just weird. Another think that stuck out to me was the ending. He presents this idea that these secret scholars end up taking control of the popular mind of man when this secret world of Tlon is discovered and deciphered. In a lot of ways I think that he is correct in that more than physical weapons rule the world, ideas proceed those weapons. Ideas seem to me to be the most powerful weapon that human beings have. There are these dead philosophers from hundreds of years ago, yet their writings are driving the psyche of humanity today to act this way or that way. 

Which brings me to my next thought. Borges seemed to suggest at the end that Tlon became so popular (he compares it to the spread of Nazism or Marxism) because its such a simple version of reality for humans to cling to. Reality itself seems much to disorderly, but the well thought out world of Tlon is a refuge from reality. So much so that they replaced their own history and languages and culture with that of Tlon's. This seems to be an insight into human nature. We have a tendency to latch onto simplistic narratives that tell us what to do, instead of taking the pains of truly searching and confronting reality to find truth. I'm not necessarily sure why Borges includes the detail about the millionaire, who sponsors the spreading of Tlon, being a nihilist and atheist, specifically singling out Jesus as not having any part of Tlon? Then, again, maybe Borges is pointing out that the totalitarian narratives that ravaged the 20th Century (including his Argentina with how many Nazis fled there) were atheistic in nature, trying to put man in God's place. 


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