A paper about Jorge Luis Borges’ “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” by Berny Tan

Recently, Berny Tan completed an independent study with Janice Ahn, who teaches the first-year VCS courses Reading, Thinking, Writing I and II. As part of her work with Janice, Berny wrote a paper analyzing the role of collective memory in Jorge Luis Borges’ short story “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.” Janice forwarded it to me a few days ago, and we both thought it would make a great addition to the blog. Here it is.

Forged and Deciphered Memory

A Discussion of Jorge Luis Borges’ “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”

From an early age, we are taught that a well-written fictional text is one that offers us only words, but yet, through the combination of mere words, allows us to form mental images that constitute our interpretation of the world that the text describes. In some way or another, readers hold this concept to be the fundamental benchmark of a good story. While the reader may not always measure a text by the quality of imagery that it sustains, he or she almost always expects and desires an immersive and thought-provoking experience from any such text – that is, the text should provide the reader with something beyond itself. But this does not only result from an inspired arrangement of the building blocks of whichever language one happens to prefer. It also relies upon each reader’s repository of images, ideas, experiences, and knowledge – one’s personal and shared memories – to form the basis of one’s own literary imagination that in turn informs our understanding of the text. An author of fiction understands that he or she cannot possibly describe every aspect of every scene with only words, and there is no need to do so. The reader, given enough triggers based on a collective memory, is able to connect with the text and furnish it with its unwritten details.

Collective memory has thus been woven into the mechanics of fiction since before humans could write. The oral transmission of a story like Homer’s Iliad would surely have failed to survive till this day without first being sustained, not just by numerous storytellers’ memorization of the text, but also by the Ancient Greek audience’s collective memory of its martial content. What is so spellbinding, then, about Borges’ short stories – especially “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” which appears in 1941’s Fictions – is that he constructs entire narratives based on the subversion of collective memory, while operating within its structures. His is a surrealism that could only be successful if built upon an intense realism, using the reader’s preconceived images, ideas, experiences, and knowledge as the foundation for furnishing him or her, not with the shocking, but with something inherently unsettling and unexpected. In “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” this constitutes the point of departure for a deeper, more comprehensive exploration of memory constructs.

The first of the reader’s memories Borges’ relies upon, only to subvert soon after, is the knowledge of the division between fiction and non-fiction, which has been developed through years of exposure to the written word and its many forms. It can be viewed as a kind of ‘contextual memory,’ in that it establishes the circumstances that allow each reader to fully understand the work. Borges cloaks his fictions in non-fiction by writing what would otherwise appear to be overt fabrications in an essayistic, matter-of-fact style befitting a journalist or biographer. He builds an illusion cloaked in terms that are so familiar to us based on our memories of very specific types of texts, but he unsettles us by lifting these memories and placing them within an entirely opposite context. “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” is the account of the events surrounding an imaginary encyclopedia that discusses an imaginary place constructed over centuries by an imaginary society, but it curiously intermingles with real people, real books, real philosophers and their philosophies. Furthermore, one is confronted by the tone and writing style of a persona to which this entire affair has happened and who believes it to be completely and utterly true. As a result, Borges convinces the reader that the account of the events is not imaginary, even as the events themselves seem to prove otherwise. This contributes to a sense of displacement; one is caught between the belief that one traditionally invests in newspaper reports (or indeed, the Encyclopaedia Britannica), and the suspension of disbelief that one slips into when reading a fantasy novel. Borges’ own constructed literary limbo could not exist without the author tapping into the archetypes embedded within a collective memory that provides each reader with the context with which to approach the written word.

The story begins with certain information that would usually be understood to be indicators of fact – a citation of the place and year that The Anglo-American Cyclopaedia was published, and the exact volume in which the entry of Uqbar appears; Bioy Casares, mentioned in the second paragraph, is a great friend of Borges in reality as well as in fiction. And, while Borges subsequently does not deny that Tlön is an invention, he affirms the supposed reality of its invention by a “secret society” that appears to have incorporated or reacted to the philosophies of David Hume and George Berkeley, and goes on to describe this place that he knows does not exist as if he was writing an anthropological or historical survey rather than perpetuating its mythology. He discusses features of their language as an academic would describe an obscure tribe that he or she has been studying, noting on page 73 that “there are no nouns in the conjectural Ursprache of Tlön,” and even provides an example of this language (“hlör u fang axaxaxas mlö”, meaning “Upward, behind the onstreaming it mooned”). As such, one fiction has been created within another, but both layers of fiction have been written in a style that suggests fact.

In doing so, Borges has created a lie that admits a partial falseness, allowing it to become much more convincing than an absolute truth that we would naturally treat with skepticism. He has even written the story as ‘himself’, which would ordinarily imply truthfulness, but in this case becomes yet another vehicle for the half-lie. One is more inclined to trust an author that speaks as himself than a narrator that the author has imagined, and yet fictional Borges is clearly relating a fantastical story. He is at once a reliable and an unreliable narrator. This is all perplexing to the reader, who begins to question if what he or she is reading is truly fiction, when it so consistently recalls the norms of non-fiction. What is even more unsettling is that Borges anticipates this effect by drawing a subtle parallel between the reader’s experience and fictional Borges’ attitude towards the Tlönist encyclopedia, writing as if describing the reader’s reaction to his own story: “I now held in my hands a vast and systematic fragment of the entire history of an unknown planet… all joined, articulated, coherent, and with no visible doctrinal purpose or hint of parody” (71-72). At this point in the text, the extent to which Borges will describe the history of this unknown planet has not yet been revealed, but this quote will come to be an accurate description of the reader’s relationship to “Tlön,” except that the author of the “vast and systematic fragment” is not a “secret society” but Borges himself.

Thus, in describing the Encyclopaedia of Tlön and his persona’s reactions to it, he also describes his own methodology, which is a methodology of memory construction. It is not so much a straightforward imagining of a situation (i.e. the basic form of fiction), but specifically a fabrication constructed from a convincing recollection. This technique underlies many of his stories, and it could not possibly survive without the aforementioned contextual memory of the reader. Contextual memory roots the material of the story in reality, or at least in the region of common knowledge, which renders the story simultaneously conceivable and suspect. It just so happens that in this story more than in most of his other stories, fictional Borges reveals the author’s methodology of memory construction by discussing the Encyclopaedia with an approach that is similar to how a reader would approach Borges’ text. The description of fictional Borges’ relationship to the mythology of Tlön (and the events surrounding its invention) parallels the reader’s relationship to “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.” The author is completely conscious that he is creating this parallel and is deliberate in revealing this consciousness, because it illustrates something about the structures of memory to the reader, and also perhaps serves as a kind of literary self-awareness and self-deconstruction. In the foreword for his 1969 collection In Praise of Darkness, Borges writes about how he often “[feigns] a slight uncertainty, since even though reality is precise, memory isn’t.” This is a candid admission of his own experimentation with the structures of memory, and how one can write not only as if one is recalling, but also as if one is recalling the truth with all the “uncertainty” of remembrance. Twenty-eight years prior, he had begun “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” with a recollection of a recollection of a saying originating from Uqbar. It is not a coincidence that at this point in the story Borges and Bioy Casares happened to be debating “the way one might go about composing a first-person novel whose narrator would omit or distort things and engage in all sorts of contradictions, so that a few of the book’s readers—a very few—might divine the horrifying or banal truth.” This is to some degree an illustration of the half-lie structure of the story, although at this early point in the text, what he has omitted or distorted remains to be seen.

A few sentences in the story are potentially self-referential. One wonders if the statement that the Encyclopaedia has been created by “astronomers, biologists, engineers, metaphysicians, poets, alchemists, algebrists, moralists, painters, geometers,…, guided and directed by some shadowy man of genius” (72) is a reference to Borges’ own role as that genius who has gathered fragments from the world’s greatest intellectuals to create this short story (to his credit, any suggestion of narcissism here is tempered by his constant admission of ignorance and the diminutive nature of the story in comparison with all the volumes of the hypothetical Encyclopaedia). In a more direct example, he writes on page 69, “[T]he rest seemed quite plausible, very much in keeping with the general tone of the work, even (naturally) somewhat boring. Rereading it, however, we discovered that the rigorous writing was underlain by a basic vagueness.” [Emphasis mine] This perfectly describes Borges’ writing style – one that is believable and yet detached and ambiguous, or perhaps believable because it is detached and ambiguous, for one is inclined to accept the written word of someone who simultaneously asserts precise facts while admitting the gaps in his knowledge. The unreliable narrator is more reliable when he surrenders the failings of his memory, as he does in section II when he adopts a stream of consciousness style of writing while recalling bits and pieces of unrelated information regarding Herbert Ashe. Borges jumps from a description of his “rectangular beard that had once been red” to Ashe’s relationship with his father to their discussion of the duodecimal system. The fact that he can easily switch between detached and personal styles suggests that the inclusion of self-referential statements can be seen as a tongue-in-cheek act on the part of the author, amusing a reader who has returned to the story and discovered the presence of Borges the author among the words of the fictional Borges. Furthermore, they disclose the depth of the author’s understanding of the process of remembrance and the criteria to be fulfilled when recreating it in words.

Ironically, it is only through his description of Tlön that Borges can directly discuss structures of memory rather than simply hinting at it. In relating the issue of time within Tlönist “systems of thought,” he formulates a number of seemingly alternative structures of memory embedded within a fictional landscape, making these theories more palatable to the reader. The reader is comforted by the implausibility of alternative interpretations of memory because they are rooted in fiction; this makes us less inclined to reject these hypotheses for their “falseness.” Nevertheless, what emerges is that the theories and beliefs of these different systems are in fact detached observations of different aspects of our understanding of memory. He talks of a school of thought that “[denies] the existence of time; it argues…that the past has no reality except as present recollection,” which actually points out the immaterial nature of remembrance. A footnote indicates that this thought exists in our world too; he cites Bertrand Russell’s The Analysis of Mind, which “posits that the world was only created moments ago, filled with human beings that “remember” an illusory past” (this is also an appropriate description of Tlön). He also mentions a theory that “our life is but the crepuscular memory…doubtlessly distorted and mutilated, of an irrecoverable process,” succinctly illustrating the oftentimes corrupting influence of selective memory. All readers have doubtlessly experienced the manipulation of their own memories by their desire to be blind to certain occurrences and to see that which did not actually happen. Whether they recognize these as descriptions of their own mental processes – the “horrifying or banal truth” – is another matter.

At some point, one realizes that to discuss memory within the context of Tlön is actually to discuss isolated structures of memory within a much larger constructed memory. The invention of Tlön can be seen as less a latent analysis of remembrance and more an understanding of how mythology, history and the overall study of humanity inform our collective memory. The constructed memory thus exists in three forms. First, Borges’ account of Tlön has the air of the myth because it is literally otherworldly and therefore inaccessible, much like one might view the realm of Mount Olympus within Greek mythology. Although specifically invented by man for man, one can recognize the importance of an extensive mythology in informing a civilization’s collective memory, as it did in the form of the pagan religious beliefs of Ancient Greece. In fact, the continued existence of Greek mythology in our time bears testament to mythology’s enduring nature within an overarching human consciousness.

Second, in formulating the language, cultural practices, elaborate scholastic traditions, and philosophical conflicts of Tlön, Borges is in fact constructing the entire memory of this planet in the form of a rich, believable history. A specific example of this is the sophism of regarding the existence of nine copper coins that were lost by X and were subsequently discovered in various locations by X, Y and Z. This is an anecdote that supposedly originates in the 11th century, and which has since been the subject of a debate on the ‘existence’ of the coins while they were ‘lost.’ This single philosophical tradition has thus lasted for hundreds of years, taking an important place in the progression of Tlönist thought. Furthermore, the author has situated the secret society’s invention of Tlön is situated within the spectrum of the last few centuries, running parallel and intersecting with what we know existed. This inevitably vests it with historical legacy from our reality. Borges constantly establishes connections between that planet and our own, such as by linking the triumph of the school of “idealistic pantheism” to the “doctrine” of 19th century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, although he equally if not more often stresses the differences between these two worlds.

Lastly, the author explores the function of the archive or document in the preservation of the memories of humanity. The story is itself diaristic to some degree, preserving fictional Borges’ encounter with Tlön. More importantly, Borges the author has effectively created the archive, or at least the idea of an extensive archive, in the form of the Encyclopaedia of Tlön. The invention of a planet is a massive undertaking, and the documentation of it even more so – written records lend it legitimacy by serving as evidence of a detailed study that can be eternally preserved. As a sidenote, the story could further function as a critique on the ease with which a supposedly reliable historical text can be concocted. It is taken to the extent of subverting linear time by projecting six years into the future to his “quiet days in this hotel in Adrogué” in his 1947 postscript (this harkens back to the insistently non-linear nature of our own memories, which emphasize specific incidents along a chronological line rather than the progression of the line itself). The postscript serves as a secondary source that affirms not only the existence of extensive documentation of Tlön, but also the discovery of the Tlönist artifacts known as “hrönir…the coincidental offspring of distraction and forgetfulness.” These artifacts are in fact manufactured relics – that is, they are constructed memories. In the archival of Tlön lies the seed of our collective memory of this mythical place, a memory that is so strong and vivid as to be able to manifest as the physical Tlönist objects that have been unearthed as evidence of the text.

In the end, it becomes increasingly clear that the onus is on the reader to complete the process of memory construction that Borges has initiated, in order for it to be subsumed into humanity’s collective memory. In the story, the idea of an eternal collective memory is first suggested to the reader in the examination of the Tlönist understanding of the oneness and timelessness of knowledge that extends across all fields. On page 76, Borges describes their understanding of geometry: “The fact that several persons counting the same quantity come to the same result is for the psychologists of Tlon an example of the association of ideas or of memorization. — We must always remember that on Tlön, the subject of knowledge is one and eternal.” On page 77, he describes their understanding of literature: “It has been decided that all books are the work of a single author who is timeless and anonymous.” The exploration of the hrönir towards the end of his account of Tlön can even be interpreted as a metaphor for the ability of the reader to extend the meaning of a text beyond itself. Nevertheless, it is only in the postscript that Borges directly addresses the role of the reader, actively diminishing the narrator’s role in the story. “Here I end the personal portion of my narration. The rest lies in every reader’s memory (if not his hope or fear).” (80) On the last page of the text, Borges states: “Tlön may well be a labyrinth, but it is a labyrinth forged by men, a labyrinth destined to be deciphered by men.” The author could not possibly hope that Tlön could enter collective memory in reality. Yet, what this truly refers to is the potential of literature, which is to be realized in the mind of the reader. The author is responsible for creating the “labyrinth,” while the reader is responsible for navigating it. Memory is recognized as a living being that is shaped and interpreted by those who remember; this in turn is the affirmation of that which is remembered. Remembrance is not merely memorization, but also reinterpretation. By allowing the text to come alive and to endure, this individual act becomes a contribution to collective memory. Ultimately, a written record cannot be a substitution for memory itself – they must exist in tandem, and always with the potential for growth.

Visual & Critical Studies