Monday, May 16, 2011

Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius (continued)

Summary of last blog:

Borges' short story "Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" is about a make-believe world that starts making inroads into reality. For instance, the strange objects made of materials not found on Earth (but which are found on the planet Tlon) start showing up on Earth. Also, people on Earth start speaking the language of Tlon, and they also start believing the same things that make-believe people on make-believe Tlon believe. It alarms the speaker of the story that these things are happening. He blames it on the general willingness of humans to believe in anything that seems orderly.

In my last blog, I also mentioned a particular philosopher whose ideas have particular bearing on this story. To continue:

There is one tiny reference to George Berkeley in this story, but it is a pertinent reference, and it really helped me understand the work as a whole. George Berkeley was an (real-life) 18th Century philosopher who came up with something called subjective idealism, and it relates strongly to the story.

Basically Berkeley's idea was that nothing actually exists on its own; it only exists if it is perceived. For instance, I'm typing on my laptop right now. But if I take my hands off the keyboard and look away from it, it stops existing for a moment, or at least as long as I'm not feeling it/seeing it/perceiving it. When I look back or put my hands on it again, of if I am perceiving it somehow, it exists again. Berkeley's idea is that things only exist in the minds of the beholders.

This presents a pretty big problem: Are we actually existing? According to Berkeley, the answer is yes--but only because God is thinking about us. We are like dreams in God's mind. When/if He wakes up, we will stop existing, at least until the next time that He dreams about us or thinks about us or perceives us in some way. (It's kind of cool to think about, like Inception or Matrix or something.)

In "Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius," the pretend world of Tlon exists in this way. For instance, in Tlon, a certain area of old, decaying ruins ceases to exist when the only man who ever visited the area anymore dies. Also, if people on Tlon think hard enough about a certain object that they want to find--for instance, buried treasure--the object will come into existence, purely because it was thought about. (These objects are called hronir.)

The story leaves the reader with the idea that real life works like that too, not just the pretend world of Tlon--that is, if people think about something hard enough and want it to be real badly enough, it will come into existence. The idea of Tlon itself is evidence of this. Because the secret society of Orbis Tertius spends so much time creating the world of Tlon, writing fictitious encyclopedias about it and making up its pretend language and creating enormous works of literature concerning Tlon, it becomes real to those creators. In fact, it's not only real in their minds--in inexplicable ways, the world of Tlon begins to merge with reality, and reality morphs into the reality of Tlon. People other than the obsessed members of Orbis Tertius begin to see evidence of Tlon in reality; they find objects that come from the world of Tlon; they begin to have the same belief systems as are practiced on Tlon, etc.

The compelling message of "Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" is that the power of the mind is greater than the power of what we perceive to be "reality."


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