Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index

Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius

"Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" is a short story by Jorge Luis Borges. The story is most noted as a parabolic discussion of Berkeleian idealism.

The story, relatively long for Borges, originally appeared in Spanish in the Argentine journal Sur, May 1940. (The "postscript" dated 1947 is intended to be anachronistic, set seven years in the future). The Spanish-language original was first 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 his much-reprinted Ficciones (1944). The first published English-language translation was by James E. Irby, in the April 1961 issue of New World Writing, included in 1962 as the first piece in a diverse collection of Borges works entitled Labyrinths. Almost simultaneously, and independently, the piece was translated by Alastair Reed as part of a collaborative translation of the entirety of Ficciones published in 1962. The Reed translation is reprinted in Borges, a Reader (1981, ISBN 0525466547). Quotations in this article follow that translation.

Warning: Wikipedia contains spoilers. The following summary is by no means complete - "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" is an intricately layered story - but it does give away plot twists.

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 Adolfo Bioy Casares; Silas Haslam, author of A general History of Labyrinths), but often attributes fictional aspects to them (Haslam's History of the Land Called Uqbar, 1874, is entirely imaginary).

Within the story, Borges explores philosophical questions, and presents an odd school of literary criticism, which abritrarily assumes that two works are by the same person and, based on that, deduces things about the imagined author. He also anticipates, in miniature, several key formal ideas that are later to be played out in the work of Vladimir Nabokov. At one point he has Bioy Casares proposing "writing a novel in the first person, using a narrator who omitted or corrupted what happened and who ran into various contradicions," which arguably anticipates the strategy of Nabokov's Lolita (1955) and precisely anticipates the strategy of his Pale Fire (1962). At the same time, Tlön anticipates the Terra of Nabokov's Ada, or Ardor (1969).

In "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius", Uqbar initially appears to be an undocumented region of Iraq or of Asia Minor, one of whose heresiarchs had declared the visible universe either an illusion or sophism, and that mirrors and procreation were abominable because they multiplied and disseminated that universe. Uqbar is mentioned only in the closing pages of a single volume of the Anglo-American Cyclopedia, "a literal if inadequate reprint of the Encyclopedia Britannica of 1902." These pages appear in some copies of the work, but not in others.

The fictional Borges in the story is led through a bibliographical maze attempting to verify the reality or unreality of Uqbar. He is particularly drawn to the statement 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 one Herbert Ashe leads to the discovery of a much more substantial related artifact (one of several increasingly more substantial and surprising artifacts that are to occur in the course of the story): an entire volume of what appears to be a complete encyclopedia about 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 the non-fictional Néstor Ibarra 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.

As the story develops, it emerges that Uqbar and Tlön are invented places, the work of a secret and benevolent society conceived in the early seventeenth century, and numbering George Berkeley among its members. 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 is no further trace of this society until, two centuries later, one of its disciples is Ezra Buckley, an eccentric Memphis, Tennessee millionaire who scoffs at the modest scale of the sect's undertaking. He proposes instead the invention of a planet, Tlön, and 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 "will have no truck with that impostor Jesus Christ" (and therefore none with Berkeley's God). The date of Buckley's involvement is 1824. The timing of events in Borges's story is approximately 1935-1947, when Buckley's encyclopedia is beginning not to be a secret, and is beginning, like a mirror, to disseminate its own universe.

The nature of the philosophy and the epistemology of Tlön - the central focus of the story - is something we glean only gradually. The people of the doubly imaginary Tlön - a fictional construct within a fictional story - perhaps appropriately deny the reality of the world, holding an extreme form of Berkeleian idealism. Their world is not understood "not as a concurrence of objects in space, but as a heterogeneous series of independent acts," with the consequence that one of the languages of Tlön - necessarily a conjectural language - is without nouns. As its central unit are "impersonal verbs qualified by monosyllabic suffixes or prefixes which have the force of adverbs." Borges offers us, for what would be our own "The moon rose above the water" a Tlönic equivalent: "Upward behind the onstreaming it mooned." 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 "airy-clear over dark-round" or "orange-faint-of-sky." We may say further, that because there are no nouns - or because nouns are composites of other parts of speech, and are subordinate to them - there can be no possibility of a priori deductive reasoning (and therefore no telos), and no possibility either of a posteriori inductive reasoning - which renders history void and ontology an alien concept. At this point we understand that we have entered into a Berkeleian idealism with one critical attenuation, i.e., Buckley's removal of the multiple and omnipresent percepts of a deity.

There would appear also to be an echo of phenomenology in that Tlön's one scientific discipline is psychology; this is a phenomenology which does not merely bracket off objective reality, but parcels it separately into all its successive moments. As in Borges's New refutation of time (1947), there is, as Emir Rodriguez Monegal and Alastair Reed comment in their notes to Borges, a Reader (p. 353), a "denial of space, time, and the individual I." Borges can be seen either as anticipating the extreme relativism that underlies some of postmodernism or simply as making a phenomenologist's slam at those who take metaphysical thinking seriously when he writes, "The metaphysicians of Tlön are not looking for truth or even an approximation to it: they are after a kind of amazement. The consider metaphysics a branch of fantastic literature."

Another theme of the story is the ability of ideas to influence reality. Borges stretches this non-theistic tree-falling-in-the-forest Berkeleian idealism toward its logical breaking point by imagining that, "Occasionally a few birds, a horse perhaps, have saved the ruins of an amphitheater". He also 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 the universe is, perhaps, consistent because that one person is consistent in his imagining. This is, effectively, a near-reconstruction of the Berkeleian God: perhaps not omnipresent, but bringing together all perceptions that do, indeed, occur.

While the fictional Borges and his academic colleagues pursue these interesting speculations, 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 anachronistic epilogue, set in 1947, Earth is in the process of becoming Tlön. The fictional Borges is appalled by this turn of events, which Monegal and Reed argue are to be read as a metaphor for the totalitarianism already sweeping across Europe with the Axis at the time of the story's writing.

External references