Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius
|"Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius"|
|Author||Jorge Luis Borges|
|Publication date||May 1940|
|Published in English||1961|
"Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" is a short story by the 20th century Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges. The story was first published in the Argentine journal Sur, May 1940. The "postscript" dated 1947 is intended to be anachronistic, set seven years in the future. The first English-language translation of the story was published in 1961.
In the story, an encyclopedia article about a mysterious country called Uqbar is the first indication of a massive conspiracy of intellectuals to imagine (and thereby create) a world known as Tlön. Relatively long for Borges (approximately 5,600 words), the story is a work of speculative fiction. One of the major themes of "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" is that ideas ultimately manifest themselves in the physical world and the story is generally viewed as a parabolic discussion of Berkeleyan idealism — and to some degree as a protest against totalitarianism.
Although the story is quite short, it makes allusions to many leading intellectual figures both in Argentina and in the world at large, and takes up a number of themes more typical of a novel of ideas. Most of the ideas engaged are in the areas of language, epistemology, and literary criticism.
In "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius", an encyclopedia article about a mysterious country called Uqbar is the first indication of a massive conspiracy of intellectuals to imagine (and thereby create) a world: Tlön, a fabled world or region with its own physical and metaphysical laws in which the epics and legends of Uqbar literature are set. In the course of the story, the narrator encounters increasingly substantive artifacts of Tlön; by the end of the story, Earth is becoming Tlön.
The story unfolds as a first-person narrative by a fictive version of Borges himself. Events and facts are revealed roughly in the order that the narrator becomes aware of them, or becomes aware of their relevance. The bulk of the story is from the point of view of 1940, the year the story was written and published. A postscript is from the point of view of the same narrator, anachronistically writing in 1947. The timing of events in Borges's first-person story is approximately from 1935 to 1947; the plot concerns events going back as far as the early 17th century and culminating in 1947.
In the story, Uqbar initially appears to be an obscure region of Iraq or of Asia Minor. In casual conversation with Borges, Bioy Casares recalls that a heresiarch (leader of a heretical sect) in Uqbar had declared that "mirrors and copulation are abominable, since they both multiply the numbers of men." Borges, impressed with the "memorable" sentence, asks for its source. Bioy Casares refers him to an encyclopedia article on Uqbar in the Anglo-American Cyclopaedia, described as "a literal if inadequate reprint of the Encyclopædia Britannica of 1902." It emerges that Uqbar is mentioned only in the closing pages of a single volume of the Anglo-American Cyclopaedia, and that the pages describing Uqbar appear in some copies of the work, but not in others.
Borges, the narrator, is led through a bibliographical maze attempting to verify the reality or unreality of Uqbar. He is particularly drawn to a statement in the encyclopedia article that "...the literature of Uqbar... never referred to reality, but to the two imaginary regions of Mlejnas and Tlön."
A brief and naturalistic aside about Borges's father's friend Herbert Ashe leads to the story of Borges inheriting a much more substantial related artifact (one of several increasingly substantial and surprising artifacts that are to appear in the course of the story): the apparent eleventh volume of an encyclopedia devoted to Tlön. The volume has, in two places, "a blue oval stamp with the inscription: Orbis Tertius."
At this point, the story of Tlön, Uqbar, and Orbis Tertius expands beyond the circle of Borges and his immediate friends and acquaintances, as scholars such as Ezequiel Martínez Estrada discuss whether this volume could have been written in isolation or whether it necessarily implies the existence of a complete encyclopedia about Tlön. The proposal emerges to attempt to reconstruct the entire history, culture, and even languages of that world.
This leads to an extended discussion of the languages, the philosophy and, in particular, the epistemology of Tlön, which forms the central focus of the story. Appropriately, the people of the imaginary Tlön — a fictional construct within a fictional story — hold an extreme form of Berkeleyan idealism, denying the reality of the world. Their world is understood "not as a concurrence of objects in space, but as a heterogeneous series of independent acts." One of the imagined languages of Tlön lacks nouns. Its central units are "impersonal verbs qualified by monosyllabic suffixes or prefixes which have the force of adverbs." Borges lists a Tlönic equivalent of "The moon rose above the water": hlör u fang axaxaxas mlö, meaning literally "Upward behind the onstreaming it mooned". (Andrew Hurley, one of Borges's translators, wrote a fiction in which he says that the words "axaxaxas mlö" "can only be pronounced as the author's cruel, mocking laughter".) In another language of Tlön, "the basic unit is not the verb, but the monosyllabic adjective," which, in combinations of two or more, are noun-forming: "moon" becomes "round airy-light on dark" or "pale-orange-of-the-sky."
In a world where there are no nouns — or where nouns are composites of other parts of speech, created and discarded according to a whim — and no things, most of Western philosophy becomes impossible. Without nouns about which to state propositions, there can be no a priori deductive reasoning from first principles. Without history, there can be no teleology (showing a divine purpose playing itself out in the world). If there can be no such thing as observing the same object at different times, there is no possibility of a posteriori inductive reasoning (generalizing from experience). Ontology — the philosophy of what it means to be — is an alien concept. 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. This infinitely mutable world is tempting to a playful intellect, and its "transparent tigers and ... towers of blood" appeal to baser minds, but a Tlönic world view requires denying most of what would normally be considered common sense reality.
In the anachronistic postscript, the narrator and the world have learned, through the emergence of a letter, that Uqbar and Tlön are invented places, the work of a "benevolent secret society" conceived in the early 17th century, and numbering Berkeley among its members. (Although the society is part of Borges's fiction, Berkeley and other named members are real historical figures.) The narrator learns that as the society's work began, it became clear that a single generation wasn't sufficient to articulate the entire country of Uqbar. Each master therefore agreed to elect a disciple who would carry on his work and also perpetuate this hereditary arrangement. However, there was no further trace of this society until, two centuries later, one of its disciples was the fictional Ezra Buckley. Buckley was an eccentric Memphis, Tennessee millionaire who scoffed at the modest scale of the sect's undertaking. He proposed instead the invention of a planet, Tlön, with certain provisos: that the project be kept secret, that an encyclopedia of the imaginary planet of Tlön be written, and that the whole scheme "have no truck with that impostor Jesus Christ" (and therefore none with Berkeley's God). The date of Buckley's involvement is 1824. In the early 1940s — still in the future at the time Borges wrote the story — the Tlönic project has ceased to be a secret, and is beginning to disseminate its own universe. Beginning "about 1942", in what at first appears a magical turn, objects from Tlön begin to appear in the real world. While we are later led to see them as forgeries, they still must be the projects of a secret science and technology. Once the full, forty-volume First Encyclopaedia of Tlön is found in Memphis, the idea of Tlön begins unstoppably to take over and eradicate the existing cultures of the real world.
(As an aside, the eleventh volume of this full encyclopedia is not quite the same as the earlier, isolated eleventh volume: it lacks such "improbable features" as "the multiplying of the hrönir." "It is probable," writes Borges, "that these erasures were in keeping with the plan of projecting a world which would not be too incompatible with the real world." Material reality may be subject to reshaping by ideas, but apparently it is not entirely without resistance).
"Orbis Tertius" is the provisional name of a revision—a more detailed edition—of the forty-volume encyclopedia, being created by the "benevolent secret society" in one of the languages of Tlön.
While the fictional Borges and his academic colleagues pursue their interesting speculations about the epistemology, language, and literature of Tlön, the rest of the world gradually learns about the project and begins to adopt the Tlönic culture, an extreme case of ideas affecting reality. In the epilogue set in 1947, Earth is in the process of becoming Tlön. The fictional Borges is appalled by this turn of events, an element in the story that critics Emir Rodríguez Monegal and Alastair Reid argue is to be read as a metaphor for the totalitarianism already sweeping across Europe at the time of the story's writing. Their remark seems only a small extrapolation from a passage toward the end of the story:
Ten years ago, any symmetrical system whatsoever which gave the appearance of order — dialectical materialism, anti-Semitism, Nazism—was enough to fascinate men. Why not fall under the spell of Tlön and submit to the minute and vast evidence of an ordered planet? Useless to reply that reality, too is ordered."
As the story ends, Borges is focused on an obsession of his own: a translation of Sir Thomas Browne's Urn Burial into Spanish. Arguably it is no more important than Tlön, but it is at least of this world.
Through the vehicle of fantasy or speculative fiction, this story playfully explores several philosophical questions and themes. These include, above all, an effort by Borges to imagine a world (Tlön) where the 18th century philosophical idealism of George Berkeley is viewed as common sense and "the doctrine of materialism" is considered a heresy, a scandal, and a paradox. Through describing the languages of Tlön, the story also plays with the epistemological question of how language influences what thoughts are possible. The story also contains several metaphors for the way ideas influence reality. This last theme is first explored cleverly, by way of describing physical objects being willed into existence by the force of imagination, but later turns darker, as fascination with the idea of Tlön begins to distract people from paying adequate attention to the reality of Earth.
Much of the story engages with the philosophical idealism of George Berkeley, who questioned whether it is possible to say that a thing exists if it is not being perceived. (Berkeley, a philosopher and, later, a bishop in the Protestant Church of Ireland, resolved that question to his own satisfaction by saying that the omnipresent perception of God ensures that objects continue to exist outside of personal or human perception.) Berkeley's philosophy privileges perceptions over any notion of the "thing in itself." Immanuel Kant accused Berkeley of going so far as to deny objective reality.
In the imagined world of Tlön, an exaggerated Berkeleyan idealism without God passes for common sense. The Tlönian recognizes perceptions as primary and denies the existence of any underlying reality. At the end of the main portion of the story, immediately before the postscript, Borges stretches this toward its logical breaking point by imagining that, "Occasionally a few birds, a horse perhaps, have saved the ruins of an amphitheater" by continuing to perceive it. Besides commenting on Berkeley's philosophy, this and other aspects of Borges's story can be taken as a commentary on the ability of ideas to influence reality. For example, in Tlön there are objects known as hrönir that arise when two different people find the "same" lost object in different places.
Borges imagines a Tlönite working his way out of the problem of solipsism by reasoning that if all people are actually aspects of one being, then perhaps the universe is consistent because that one being is consistent in his imagining. This is, effectively, a near-reconstruction of the Berkeleyan God: perhaps not omnipresent, but bringing together all perceptions that do, indeed, occur.
This story is not the only place where Borges engages with Berkeleyan idealism. In the world of Tlön, as in Borges's essay New refutation of time (1947), there is (as Emir Rodríguez Monegal and Alastair Reid comment) a "denial of space, time, and the individual I." This worldview does not merely "bracket off" objective reality, but also parcels it separately into all its successive moments. Even the continuity of the individual self is open to question.
When Borges writes "The metaphysicians of Tlön are not looking for truth or even an approximation to it: they are after a kind of amazement. They consider metaphysics a branch of fantastic literature," he can be seen either as anticipating the extreme relativism that underlies some postmodernism or simply as taking a swipe at those who take metaphysics too seriously.
In the context of the imagined world of Tlön, Borges describes a school of literary criticism that arbitrarily assumes that two works are by the same person and, based on that, deduces things about the imagined author. This is similar to the ending of "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote", in which Borges's narrator suggests that a new perspective can be opened by treating a book as though it were written by a different author.
Like many of Borges's works, the story challenges the boundaries between fiction and non-fiction. It mentions several quite real historical human beings (himself, his friend Bioy Casares, Thomas de Quincey, et al.) but often attributes fictional aspects to them; the story also contains many fictional characters and others whose factuality may be open to question.
"Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" also engages a number of other related themes. The story begins and ends with issues of reflection, replication, and reproduction — both perfect and imperfect — and the related issue of the power of language and ideas to make or remake the world.
At the start of the story, we have an "unnerving" and "grotesque" mirror reflecting the room, a "literal if inadequate" (and presumably plagiarized) reproduction of the Encyclopædia Britannica, an apt misquotation by Bioy Casares, and the issue of whether one should be able to trust whether the various copies of a single book will have the same content. At the end Borges is working on a "tentative translation" of an English-language work into Spanish, while the power of the ideas of "a scattered dynasty of solitaries" remakes the world in the image of Tlön.
Along the way we have stone mirrors; the idea of reconstructing an entire encyclopedia of an imaginary world based on a single volume; the analogy of that encyclopedia to a "cosmos" governed by "strict laws"; a worldview in which our normal notions of "thing" are rejected, but "ideal objects abound, invoked and dissolved momentarily, according to poetic necessity"; the universe conceived as "the handwriting of a minor god to communicate with a demon" or a "code system… in which not all symbols have meaning"; hrönir, duplicates of objects called into existence by ignorance or hope, and where "those of the eleventh degree have a purity of form that the originals do not possess"; and Ezra Buckley's wish "to demonstrate to a nonexistent God that mortal men were capable of conceiving a world."
Borges also mentions in passing the duodecimal system (as well as others), but never elaborates on the fact that this is inherently a refutation of the changeability of things due to nomenclature - a number may be renamed under a different counting schema, but the underlying value will always remain the same.
Fact and fiction
It is by no means simple to sort out fact and fiction within this story. The picture is further complicated by the fact that other authors (both in print and on the web) have chosen to join Borges in his game and write about one or another fictional aspect of this story either as if it were non-fiction or in a manner that could potentially confuse the unwary reader. Two online examples are the Italian-language website "La Biblioteca di Uqbar", which treats Tlön itself as duly fictional, but writes as if the fictional Silas Haslam's entirely imaginary History of the Land Called Uqbar was a real work; and a fictional entry about Uqbar, which stood unchallenged for some time on Wikipedia.
As a result, simply finding a reference to a person or place from "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" in a context seemingly unrelated to Borges's story is not enough to be confident that the person or place is real. See, for example, the discussion below of the character Silas Haslam.
There in fact exists an Anglo-American Encyclopedia, which is a plagiarism, differently paginated, of the tenth edition of the Encyclopedia, and in which the 46th volume is TOT-UPS, ending on p. 917 with Upsala, and followed by Ural–Altaic in the next volume; Uqbar would fall in between. In the 11th edition of the Britannica, Borges's favorite, there is an article in between these on "Ur"; which may, in some sense, therefore be Uqbar. Different articles in the 11th edition mention that Ur, as the name of a city, means simply "the city", and that Ur is also the aurochs, or the evil god of the Mandaeans. Borges may be punning on the sense of "primaeval" here with his repeated use of Ursprache, or on the story's own definition of "ur" in one of Tlön's languages as "a thing produced by suggestion, an object elicited by hope".
Levels of reality
There are several levels of reality (or unreality) in the story:
- Most (but not all) of the people mentioned in the story are real, but the events in which they are involved are mostly fictional, as are some of the works attributed to them. This is discussed in detail in the section below on real and fictional people.
- The main portion of the story is a fiction set in a naturalistic world; in the postscript, magical elements have entered the narrator's world. The main portion could certainly be seen as a false document; the postscript dissolves the illusion.
- The land of Uqbar is fictional from the point of view of the world of the story. The supposed Anglo-American Cyclopaedia article on Uqbar proves, within the story, to be a fictitious entry.
- Mlejnas, and Tlön as it is first introduced, are fictional from the point of view of Uqbar. In the course of the story, Tlön becomes more and more "real": first it moves from being a fiction of Uqbar to being a fiction of the narrator's own naturalistic world, then it begins (first as idea and then physically) taking over that world, to the point of finally threatening to annihilate normal reality.
Real and fictional places
Although the culture of Uqbar described by Borges is fictional, there are two real places with similar names. These are:
- The medieval city of ‘Ukbarâ on the left bank of the Tigris between Samarra and Baghdad in what is now Iraq. This city was home to the great Islamic grammarian, philologist, and religious scholar Al-‘Ukbarî (ca. 1143–1219) — who was blind, like Borges's father and like Borges himself was later to become — and to two notable early Jewish/Karaite "heresiarchs" (see above), leaders of Karaite movements opposed to Anan ben David, Ishmael al-Ukbari and Meshwi al-Ukbari, mentioned in the Jewish Encyclopedia of 1901–1906.
- ‘Uqbâr in the Atlas Mountains of Algeria; the minarets of the latter's area might relate to the "obelisks" of Uqbar in the story.
"Orbis Tertius", Latin for "third world", "third circle", or "third territory" does not appear to be a geographic reference, nor does there seem to be any relation to the third circle of Dante's hell, which was reserved for gluttons. One possible interpretation is that it is a reference to the Earth's orbit around the Sun, which is third after Mercury and Venus.
Tsai Khaldun is undoubtedly a tribute to the great historian Ibn Khaldun, who lived in Andalusia for a while; his history focuses on North Africa and was probably a major source for Borges. Additionally, "khaldun" is Mongolian for "mountain", while "tsai" in Mandarin Chinese is "cabbage" or "green and leafy".
Other places named in the story — Khorasan, Armenia, and Erzerum in the Middle East, and various locations in Europe and the Americas — are real. The Axa Delta, mentioned in the same context as Tsai Khaldun, appears to be fictional.
Real and fictional people
Listed here in order of their appearance in the story:
- Adolfo Bioy Casares — non-fictional, Argentine fiction-writer, a friend and frequent collaborator of Borges.
- Smerdis — The story refers in passing to "the impostor, Smerdis the Magician". After the death of the actual Smerdis (son of Cyrus the Great of Persia) a Magian priest named Gaumata successfully impersonated him for several months and ruled in his stead.
- Justus Perthes — non-fictional, 18th century founder of a German publishing firm that bears his name; undoubtedly, the story is accurate in implying the firm's atlases do not mention Uqbar.
- Carl Ritter — one of the founders of modern geography. In the story, Borges notes the absence of any mention of Uqbar in Ritter's cartographic index Erdkunde. (In the story, only the surname is given.)
- Bernard Quaritch — An actual nineteenth-century bookseller in London. The bookstore bearing his name still survives. In the story, his catalogues include Silas Haslam's History of the Land Called Uqbar.
- Silas Haslam — Entirely fictional, but based on Borges´ English ancestors. "Haslam" was Borges's paternal grandmother's maiden name. In the story, besides the 1874 History of the Land Called Uqbar, a footnote informs us that Haslam is also the author of A General History of Labyrinths (labyrinths as well as playfully fake literary references are a recurring theme in Borges's work). Silas Haslam is an entirely fictional character. However, Haslam's "General History of Labyrinths" has been cited twice in reputable, peer-reviewed scientific literature: in "Complexity of two-dimensional patterns", by Kristian Lindgren, Christopher Moore, and Mats Nordahl (published in the June 1998 edition of the Journal of Statistical Physics) and "Order parameter equations for front transitions: Nonuniformly curved fronts," by A. Hagberg and E. Meron (published in the November 15, 1998 issue of Physica D).
- Johannes Valentinus Andreä — German theologian, and the real author of Chymische Hochzeit Christiani Rosencreutz anno 1459 (Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz), one of the three founding works of the Rosicrucians, but not of the Lesbare und lesenswerthe Bemerkungen über das Land Ukkbar in Klein-Asien (Readable and worthwhile remarks about the country of Ukkbar in Asia Minor) attributed to him in this story.
- Thomas De Quincey — best known for his autobiographical works Confessions of an English Opium-Eater and Lake Reminiscences. Mentioned in passing in the story (by his surname) for his ostensible (not independently verified) mention of Andreä.
- Carlos Mastronardi — Argentine writer, member of the Martín Fierro group (also known as Florida group), and a close friend of Borges. In the story, he finds a copy of the Anglo-American Cyclopaedia that omits the Uqbar pages.
- Herbert Ashe — presumably fictional, based on one or more of Borges's father's English friends. He shares with Xul Solar (see below) an interest in the duodecimal numeral system.
- Néstor Ibarra, Ezequiel Martínez Estrada, and (Pierre) Drieu La Rochelle — all historical, described in the story as engaged in a dispute over whether the discovery of A First Encyclopaedia of Tlön. Volume XI. Hlaer to Jangr implies the existence of the other volumes to which it makes references. Ibarra was a noted Argentinian poet (and Borges's translator into French); Estrada, an Argentinian, was the author of, among other works, Muerte y transfiguración de Martín Fierro ("Death and Transfiguration of Martín Fierro"), a major commentary on Argentina's most famous nineteenth century literary work. Drieu La Rochelle, who was to commit suicide after becoming infamous for his collaboration with the Nazis during the Occupation of France, was one of the few foreign contributors to Sur, Victoria Ocampo's Argentine journal to which Borges was a regular contributor.
- Alfonso Reyes — Mexican diplomat who served for a time in Argentina. In the story, he proposes to recreate the missing volumes of A First Encyclopaedia of Tlön.
- The philosopher Leibniz is mentioned in passing, and Hume is mentioned for finding Berkeley "unanswerable but thoroughly unconvincing."
- Bishop George Berkeley, a driving engine of the story, was the founder of the modern school of philosophical idealism.
- Xul Solar — adopted name of Oscar Agustín Alejandro Schulz Solari, Argentine watercolorist, esotericist, and (presumably most relevant here) inventor of imaginary languages. In the real world a close associate of Borges and a member of the Florida group; in the story, he skillfully translates one of the languages of the Southern Hemisphere of Tlön.
- Alexius Meinong — Austrian psychologist and philosopher, who wrote Gegenstandstheorie ("The theory of objects"), where he wrote at length about the notion of objects that exist only in our minds. He is referred to by his surname in the story; his theories are alluded to by way of explaining the languages of the Northern Hemisphere of Tlön. Presumably, Borges is acknowledging where he got the idea for this imaginary family of languages.
- Bertrand Russell — British philosopher. In a footnote, the story refers (accurately) to his conjecture that (in Borges's words) "our planet was created a few moments ago, and provided with a humanity which 'remembers' an illusory past."
- Baruch Spinoza — Dutch / Portuguese Jewish philosopher, referred to in the story by his surname, and accurately paraphrased: "Spinoza attributes to his inexhaustible divinity the attributes of extension and of thought."
- Similarly, the story's use of the German-language phrase Philosophie des Als Ob presumably refers to philosopher Hans Vaihinger, whose book of this name (first edition: 1911) puts forward the notion that some human concepts are simply useful fictions.
- The ancient Greek philosopher Zeno is accurately alluded to in the story for his paradoxes denying the possibility of motion, based on the indivisibility of time.
- The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, as with Meinong, is acknowledged, in this case for his Parerga und Paralipomena, which Borges (apparently falsely) claims parallels a Tlönist "idealist pantheism". This is the really the Absolute Idealism of Schopenhauer's despised rival, Hegel, which was derived from Spinoza's pantheism. Schopenhauer does not assert that there is only one subject and that this one subject is every being in the universe; on the contrary, he asserts that each individual observing animal is a unique subject, having its own point of view of the objects that it experiences. Presumably Borges's related remark about preserving a psychological basis for the sciences is something of a joke on preserving a scientific basis for psychology.
- William Shakespeare presumably needs no explanation. Merely alluded to in the story, without fictional embellishment.
- Gunnar Erfjord is presumably not a real person. The name is a combination of Gunnar Lange and Berta Erfjord, parents of Argentine author Norah Lange, another member of the Martín Fierro group. At the beginning of the postscript to the story, a letter from Gunnar Erfjord clears up the mystery of the "benevolent secret society" that devised Tlön. He is presumably also the "Norwegian in Rio Grande do Sul" mentioned early in the story.
- Charles Howard Hinton was an eccentric British mathematician, associated with the theosophists; Borges later edited and wrote a prologue for a translation of Hinton's "scientific romances", and also alludes to him in the story "There are More Things", in the Book of Sand (1975). In "Tlön...", the letter from Gunnar Erfjord is found "in a volume of Hinton", presumably invoked for his interest in extra dimensions and parallel worlds.
- George Dalgarno, seventeenth-century Scottish intellectual with an interest in linguistics, and inventor of a language for deaf mutes. He is alluded to by his last name as an early member (along with Berkeley) of the fictional secret society that sets in motion the story of the doubly fictional Uqbar (and the triply fictional Tlön).
- Ezra Buckley, the eccentric American benefactor who expands the scale of the Uqbarist enterprise to a full Tlönist encyclopedic undertaking, is entirely fictional. It has been conjectured that there is an allusion to Ezra Pound.
- María Lidia Lloveras — Argentine, married into an old French noble family, making her Princess Faucigny Lucinge. She lived in Buenos Aires and was a friend of Borges. In the story, under her royal title, she stumbles across one of the first objects from Tlön to appear in our world.
- Enrique AmorimUruguayan novelist. In the story, along with Borges, he witnesses the Tlönic coins that have fallen from the pocket of a dead man.
- Francisco de Quevedo — Baroque Spanish poet and picaresque novelist, is alluded to here simply for his writing style.
- Thomas Browne, seventeenth-century English physician and essayist, is indeed the author of Urn Burial, which at the end of the story the fictional Borges is translating, though without intent to publish.
Context in Borges's life and works
"Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" formed part of a 1941 collection of stories called El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan ("The Garden of Forking Paths").
At the time he wrote "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" in early 1940, Borges was little known outside of Argentina. He was working in a local public library in Buenos Aires, and had a certain local fame as a translator of works from English, French and German, and as an avant garde poet and essayist (having published regularly in widely read Argentinian periodicals such as El Hogar, as well as in many smaller magazines, such as Victoria Ocampo's Sur, where "Tlön..." was originally published). In the previous two years he had been through a great deal: his father had died in 1938, and on Christmas Eve 1938, Borges himself had suffered a severe head wound in an accident; during treatment for that wound, he nearly died of a blood infection.
For some time before his father's death and his own accident, Borges had been drifting toward writing fiction. His Historia universal de la infamia (Universal History of Infamy), published in 1935, used a baroque writing style and the techniques of fiction to tell the stories of seven historical rogues. These ranged from "El espantoso redentor Lazarus Morell" ("The Dread Redeemer Lazarus Morell") — who promised liberty to slaves in the American South, but brought them only death — to "El incivil maestro de ceremonias Kotsuké no Suké" ("The Insulting Master of Etiquette Kôtsuké no Suké"), the story of the central figure in the Japanese Tale of the 47 Ronin, also known as Kira Kozuke-no-Suke Yoshinaka. Borges had also written a number of clever literary forgeries disguised as translations from authors such as Emanuel Swedenborg or from Don Juan Manuel's Tales of Count Lucanor. Recovering from his head wound and infection, Borges decided it was time to turn to the writing of fiction as such.
Several of these fictions, notably "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" and "Pierre Menard, autor del Quijote" ("Pierre Menard, Author of The Quixote", published ten months earlier in Sur, and also included in El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan), could only have been written by an experienced essayist. Both of these works apply Borges's essayistic style to largely imaginary subject matter. His massive erudition is as evident in these fictions as in any non-fictional essay in his body of works.
Buenos Aires was, at this time, a thriving intellectual center. While Europe was immersed in World War II, Argentina, and Buenos Aires in particular, flourished intellectually and artistically. (This situation was to change during the presidency of Juan Perón and the subsequent military governments, where many of Argentina's leading intellectuals went into exile, something that Borges and most of his circle did not contemplate.)
Borges's first volume of fiction failed to garner the literary prizes many in his circle expected for it. Victoria Ocampo dedicated a large portion of the July 1941 issue of Sur to a "Reparation for Borges"; numerous leading writers and critics from Argentina and throughout the Spanish-speaking world contributed writings to the project, which probably brought his work as much attention as a prize would have.
Over the next few decades "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" and Borges's other fiction from this period formed a key part of the body of work that put Latin America on the international literary map. Borges was to become more widely known throughout the world as a writer of extremely original short stories than as a poet and essayist.
"Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" originally appeared in Spanish in Sur in 1940. The Spanish-language original was then published in book form 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), a much-reprinted book (15 editions in Argentina by 1971).
The first published English-language translation was by James E. Irby. It appeared in the April 1961 issue of New World Writing. The following year, Irby's translation was included as the first piece in a diverse collection of Borges works entitled Labyrinths. Almost simultaneously, and independently, the piece was translated by Alastair Reid; Reid's version was published in 1962 as part of a collaborative English-language translation of the entirety of Ficciones. The Reid translation is reprinted in Borges, a Reader (1981, ISBN 0-525-47654-7), p. 111–122. Quotations and page references in this article follow that translation.
"Tlön..." has inspired a number of real-world projects:
- "Small Demons", a website that "obsessively maps out cultural allusions found in books", was inspired by Borges, according to CEO Valla Vakili: "The inspiration for the name comes from the Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges, specifically a passage in his short story “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.” Borges writes, “The history of the universe… is the handwriting produced by a Minor god in order to communicate with a Demon.” I read that as, the history of the universe is all the stories ever told. Minor gods are the storytellers who rule the worlds of their stories. And the Demon is the force that drives the need for stories, the place where author and reader meet. I took “Minor” and “Demon” and from there, Small Demons."
- "Prisoners of Uqbaristan", a short story by Chris Nakashima-Brown in which Borges himself appears, is heavily influenced by the philosophy of Tlön.
- Codex Seraphinianus, a mock encyclopedia by Luigi Serafini, describes a surreal world entirely in drawings, an invented alphabet, and a so-far undeciphered language.
- Ummo, a hoax of more than one thousand pages of pictures and text in letter form, describes an extraterrestrial civilization and its contact with Earth. UFO researcher Jacques Vallée has specifically likened Ummo to "Tlön, Uqbar ...".
- The Borges story directly inspired Grant Morrison's creation of the cancerous and fictional city of Orqwith in the DC Comics series Doom Patrol. In the comic book storyline, a group of intellectuals uses a tactile, braille-like language to create a black book describing the city of Orqwith. As people on different planets encounter the book, it infects their worlds, overcoming them in the way a malignant tumor would. Thus different sections of the planets are sliced off, only to be replaced with Orqwith.
- Tlön: A Misty Story (also spelled without the umlaut) is a 1999 Dutch point-and-click adventure game in which Tlön is an alternate realm. Due to a bug, the player can never get to Tlön, so the game is impossible to complete. In this way, the Tlön of the game resembles the Tlön of Borges in that neither really exists.
Several other projects have names derived from the story:
- Axaxaxas mlö is the title of a fictional book mentioned in another Borges short story, "The Library of Babel".
- hlör u fang axaxaxas mlö, taken from the example of the Tlön language described in the story, is the title of a chamber music piece for clarinet, violin, cello, and piano by Colombian composer Diego Vega, which won the 2004 Colombian National Prize for Music Composition, awarded by the Colombian Ministry of Culture.
- Tlön Uqbar, named after the Borges story, is a joint project of French industrial bands Internal Fusion and Désaccord Majeur. Their album La Bola Perdida was released in 1999 by the Dutch label Staalplaat.
- Uqbar, named in honor of Borges's story, is a browser/reader for Project Gutenberg etexts, in pre-alpha as of 2006[update].
- Uqbar is the name of an instance of the encyclopedia-building game Lexicon, based on Borges's work.
- Uqbar is the name of a planet in the game Mass Effect.
Trumpeter Nils Petter Molvær released the album "Khmer" on ECM in 1998 which includes the track "Tlön."
- "Tlön...", p.112
- "Tlön...", p.113
- "Tlön...", p.114
- "Tlön…", p.115
- Andrew Hurley, The Zahir and I, The Garden of Forking Paths, part of TheModernWorld.com. Accessed 3 August 2006.
- "Tlön…", p.120
- "Tlön…", p.121
- "Tlön…", p.347–8
- "Tlön…", p.121–2
- Denis Dutton et al., "'Merely a Man of Letters': Jorge Luis Borges: an interview", Philosophy and Literature 1 (1977): 337-41. Online on Denis Dutton's site. Accessed online 2010-04-24. In the interview, Dutton refers to Tlön as "A world in which Berkeley is common sense instead of Descartes". Borges concurs.
- "Tlön...", p.117
- "Tlön…", p.119
- Monegal and Reed, notes to Borges, a Reader, p. 353.
- "Tlön…", p.116
- "Tlön…", p. 111–2.
- "Tlön…", p. 122.
- "Tlön…", p. 117
- La Biblioteca di Uqbar
- La Biblioteca di Uqbar accessed 3 August 2006.
- Uqbar Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, (version of December 2, 2003).
- Conjecture due to Alan White, "An Appalling or Banal Reality" Variaciones Borges 15, 47-91. p. 52. Also,White's web site, un itled, accessed 3 August 2006. The Tenth Edition of the Britannica in fact has two alphabets of articles (one a reprint of the Ninth Edition, the other a supplement); the Anglo-American Encyclopedia merged these into one alphabet. One of the two parts of the Britannica also breaks at UPS. The other meanings of UR are not additional articles in the 11th, but they can be found in the index.
- Singer, Isidore and Broydé, Isaac, Meshwi al-‘Ukbari, Jewish Encyclopedia, 1901–1906. Accessed online 9 September 2006.
- "Guía de lectura…"
- Bernard Quaritch, Antiquarian bookseller, official site. Accessed 14 November 2006.
- Guía de lectura de Ficciones, de Jorge Luis Borges on the site of Universidade Federal de Santa Caterina (Brazil), accessed 3 August 2006.
- Lindgren, Moore, Nordahl, Complexity of Two-Dimensional Patterns (2000). Citation list and access to article in various formats at CiteSeer accessed 3 August 2006. Hagberg and Meron's citation is from the Institute for Scientific Information's Web of Science(link) (university subscription necessary), which notes both the Lindgren et al. citation and that of Hagberg and Meron in Physica D (Nov 15 1998, pg. 460–473). Accessed September 9, 2006.
- The Analysis of Mind, 1921, p. 159, cited in "Guía de lectura…"
- Fredrik Wandrup, Vår mann i Latin-Amerika, Dagbladet (Norway), 7 October 1999. Accessed 3 August 2006.
- "Tlön…", p. 119–20
- "BookForum". April 2, 2012.
- "Small Demons".
- Oliver, Danielle. "Storyverser".
- Strange Horizons Fiction: Prisoners of Uqbaristan, by Chris Nakashima-Brown
- Vallee, Jacques. Revelations: Alien Contact and Human Deception. (1992, Souvenir Press, ISBN 0-285-63073-3, pages 111-113)
- Printer Forums[dead link]
- Diego Vega, Hlör u fang axaxaxas mlö for clarinet, violin, cello, and piano, accessed online 24 August 2011.
- (Spanish) La gran noche de la cultura colombiana, 2004, Colombian Ministry of Culture, accessed via Internet Archive 24 August 2011.
- SourceForge's Project Uqbar page, accessed online 14 November 2006.
- Rodríguez Monegal, Emir, and Alastair Reid (eds.). Borges, a Reader. New York: Dutton, 1981. ISBN 0-525-47654-7.
- Beatriz Sarlo's Borges: a Writer on the Edge provides an analysis of the story and a detailed reconstruction of its (often implicit) plot. However, Sarlo wrongly claims (in Chapter 5) that the historical figure of John Wilkins is an "invented character of one of Borges['s] essays".
- (Spanish) Guía de lectura de Ficciones, de Jorge Luis Borges, Centro de Comunicação e Expressão, Universidade Federal de Santa Catarina, Brazil. The list of real and fictional people above draws heavily on this Spanish-language reader's guide. (Accessed 26 November 2006.)
- Andrew Hurley, "The Zahir and I", a fictional lecture delivered at the "Borges, Time, and the Millennium" conference, New York City, December 13, 1999. (Accessed 4 July 2006.)
- Bernard Quaritch company website. (Accessed 4 July 2006.)
- (Spanish) La alquimia del verbo: 'Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius' de J.L. Borges y la Sociedad de la Rosa-Cruz. Article by Santiago Juan Navarro about Borges' story and the Rosicrucians. Published in Hispanófila 120 (1997): 67-80.
- "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" is mentioned in a comparison of fictional languages from science-fiction stories at The Darmok Dictionary.