Monday, May 16, 2011

Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius

My personal philosophy on reading Borges: If you want to have the socks blown off your mind, start at the beginning and read forwards. If you want to understand what he's writing, start at the end (where he usually puts his punch lines) and read backwards. This philosophy holds pretty well for Borges' short story Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.

Read beginning to end, the story is about a man who discovers obscure references to the land of Uqbar (said to be in Asia Minor) in a copy of Encyclopedia Britannica. The encyclopedia turns out to be a falsification, but the man is enchanted with the idea of this land. In the encyclopedia article, the area of Tlon (a sort of subdivision of Uqbar) is mentioned.

Through the course of the story, the man starts to see more references to Uqbar, but even more to Tlon, which takes on a larger meaning to him. The "subdivision" of Tlon is referred to in other ways in other encyclopedias the man finds, and ultimately Tlon becomes a whole planet in his mind.

The story involves a secret society, called Orbis Tertius (which means Third World, I believe). This society is discovered to be the author of the encyclopedia of Tlon; apparently, for centuries the society had been creating this fictitious world, which includes its own language and epistemologies and sciences.

The ultimate idea of this short story is that mankind, like God, is capable of creating reality. In Borges' story, objects from the world of Tlon (which is admittedly nothing more than an idea in the minds of brilliant and secretive people) begin showing up in the "real" world, our world. Perhaps more significantly, the ideas of Tlon, their language, and their beliefs about the nature of reality begin to be adopted into "our" schools and belief systems. By the end of the story, the speaker worries that all of reality will give way to the pretend reality of Tlon. He writes:

"Almost immediately, reality yielded on more than one account. The truth is that it longed to yield. Ten years ago an symmetry with a semblance of order--dialectical materialism, anti-Semitism, Nazism--was sufficient to entrance the minds of men. How could one do other than submit to Tlon, to the minute and vast evidence of an orderly planet?" (Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, postscript).

Yes, Borges is delicious...but he also weighs heavily in my internal debate of which way is the best to interpret literature. For instance, I had a certain understanding of this short story the first time I read it, and then my understanding changed the second time I read it. When I consulted my first source (Wikipedia, of course), my understanding changed again, simply because the source gave a good outline of the plot summary and mentioned the name of Berkeley.

Why is this significant?
1) The plot of this book is convoluted enough to require three or four readings (or a good plot summary).
2) The name Berkeley is mentioned only once, as far as I can find, in this short story. However, when Wikipedia brought the name up, I instantly understood the story on a new and more profound level, perhaps one which is more in alignment with what Borges intended the story to read on. Berkeley was a an 18th Century philosopher who proposed that all humans are nothing more than the dreams of God.

More to follow...


  1. Please don't think my comment is too off-topic. I love how excited you are about Borges, but I think that this post brings up a question of audience. (Granted I wasn't in class on Friday, so you might have already discussed this--apologies if this is the case.)

    In an ordinary English class, I would never have read this post. You and maybe the professor would have been basically the only one to see it under normal circumstances. And usually for papers like this, you assume when you're writing that the reader if familiar with Borges's work so you can cover more ground with fewer wasted words. But I'm reading this right now, and I haven't read Borges. I'm intrigued by hearing about his stories, but I almost have no idea what you're talking about.

    I don't think that should necessarily change how you write, but it might be something to consider. Thanks for your post and your enthusiasm.

  2. Oh sorry I just didn't have time to finish this blog post...hopefully when I finish it up it will make more sense :)

  3. So I decided that maybe trying to give a plot summary was not the best idea...the plot is pretty darn complicated, and I'm not sure that it's even possible to effectively summarize. That may be part of why this post is so difficult to understand :) Here's my attempt to give a better, clearer plot summary...but again, I'm afraid it may be a lost cause...

    Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius:
    A man reads an encyclopedia. The encyclopedia talks about a fantastical world called Tlon. Tlon actually turns out to be made up. The people who made up the world (and wrote the encyclopedia article) call themselves Orbis Tertius. Orbis Tertius turns out to be a centuries-old secret society dedicated to making up lots and lots of stories and encyclopedia articles about Tlon. (They're just trying to prove that mankind is as good as God at making up "reality.") Eventually most people in the world find out about these stories and encyclopedia articles. They read them and think that the stories are real. Because they start believing that they're real, they start acting like make-believe Tlon people are supposed to act, and the real world changes to be the world of Tlon. Weird things about reality change--for instance, things start existing only because people want them to exist.

    Ok. I'm not sure if that helped AT ALL but...I don't think I can do better than that. If you're interested, I highly recommend reading the story :) Good luck, haha

  4. im struggling trying to write an 8 page analysis on this short story....helppppp pleaseeee. Outline or something ?

  5. this is full of bullshit. I can't believe they make us read this crap in philosophy class for a biology major student who is taking this class as a compulsory liberal course. the irony there is no liberty in any of the liberal courses, you must take them, and shut up or else you can't graduate and get you bachelor of biology

  6. this is full of bullshit. I can't believe they make us read this crap in philosophy class for a biology major student who is taking this class as a compulsory liberal course. the irony there is no liberty in any of the liberal courses, you must take them, and shut up or else you can't graduate and get you bachelor of biology

  7. learnermind, you should be grateful that they make you read Borges rather than Dostoievsky :D

  8. I appreciate your blog. Succinct and readable. The writing carries your own voice, without those of famous names. I am not that familiar with Borges. Your blog made me intrigued.