Literature Study GuidesFiccionesPart 1 Tlön Uqbar Orbis Tertius Summary

Ficciones | Study Guide

Jorge Luis Borges

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Ficciones | Part 1, Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius : The Garden of Forking Paths | Summary

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Summary

Five years ago the narrator and his friend, Bioy Casares, spent time in a villa where they were disturbed by a mirror at the end of a hallway. Saying "mirrors and copulation are abominable, since they both multiply the numbers of man," Bioy claimed to be quoting one of the heretics of Uqbar and promised to show the narrator the entry on Uqbar, a region in Asia Minor or Iraq, in the Anglo-American Cyclopaedia, "a literal if inadequate reprint of the 1902 Encyclopaedia Britannica." Finding no entry, Bioy is baffled because he is sure the entry exists.

When Bioy returns home, he examines his copy of the Anglo-American Cyclopaedia in which the entry on Uqbar is the final one in the book. The men recognize few names and references, and the prose has "a fundamental vagueness." The section on Uqbar's literature states its "epics and legends never referred to reality but to the two imaginary regions of Mlejnas and Tlön." Skeptical, the friends go to the national library where they search in vain for any testimony of Uqbar.

Two years later the narrator recalls his father's friend Herbert Ashe. A few days before he died, Ashe had received a book the narrator now possesses. Leafing through it he feels "a sudden curious lightheadedness." Called A First Encyclopaedia of Tlön, Vol. XI, Hlaer to Jangr, its first page is stamped with the words Orbis Tertius. The narrator compares this discovery to his discovery of Uqbar "in a volume of a pirated encyclopedia, a brief description of a false country." Volume 11 makes references to other volumes, which may or may not exist, in the Encyclopaedia of Tlön.

The narrator explains Tlön's philosophies. People are "congenitally idealist" in that they adhere to the idealist philosophy in which the human mind is the only real thing, or the most real thing of all. The narrator mentions the Irish idealist philosopher George Berkeley, who is credited with the argument material things exist only when someone perceives them. When perception of the thing stops—when the lights go out, for example—the thing stops existing. On Tlön, planet of the radical idealists, Berkeleyism makes perfect sense, for Tlön is focused on creating a philosophy that offers "a kind of amazement," not truth. Thus philosophers "consider metaphysics a branch of fantastic literature" and oppose materialist philosophy, the opposite of idealist philosophy in its belief material things are most real. In describing Tlönian literature, the narrator says Tlönians see all books as written by a single author. In a final evocation of idealism on Tlön, the narrator remarks: "Occasionally, a few birds, a horse perhaps, have saved the ruins of an amphitheater." The birds or horse perceive the amphitheater, maintaining it in existence.

In the 1947 "Postscript" the narrator refers to the first part of the story as an "article ... in the Anthology of Fantastic Literature, 1940." The invention of Tlön is explained in a letter by Gunnar Erfjord, found in a book belonging to Ashe. In the early 17th century a secret society, to which Berkeley belonged, invented a country, Tlön. But the invention turned out to be the work of generations. In the 19th century an American millionaire insisted the project invent a whole planet. The millionaire Ezra Buckley would leave all his money to the project on one condition: "The work will have no truck with the imposter Jesus Christ."

In 1914 the society delivered the "final volume of the First Encyclopaedia of Tlön." But the project will continue. The 40-volume First Encyclopaedia of Tlön will be the basis of another work, written in a Tlönian language, to be called Orbis Tertius.

In 1942 the narrator is present when a crate shipped from Europe is opened, and among its contents is a compass with letters stamped on it, letters from an alphabet in a language of Tlön. Months later the narrator witnesses a second "intrusion of the fantastic world into the real one." A river has flooded, and the narrator and his friend sleep in a country store. A drunk curses and sings in the night, and in the morning he is dead. A metal cone, small but heavy, has fallen from his belt. The narrator says, "Those small, very heavy cones ... are images of the divinity in certain regions of Tlön."

In a final paragraph the narrator sums up. In 1944 someone found all 40 volumes of the Tlön encyclopedia in a library in Memphis. Some believe the discovery was no accident but guided by "the directors of the still nebulous Orbis Tertius." The discovery of the encyclopedias led to a kind of Tlön mania. Copies and commentaries on the encyclopaedias proliferated. Reality became more like Tlön. The narrator comments, "The truth is that it [reality] hankered to give ground." In the 1930s people readily believed in any system of ideas with an "appearance of order," including communism, anti-Semitism, and Nazism. "Why not fall under the spell of Tlön?" asks the narrator.

People are seduced by Tlön's order. But because Tlön was invented by humans, its discipline is "the discipline of chess players, not of angels." The seduction by Tlön changes the world. Academic disciplines are reorganized along Tlönian lines. "Contact with Tlön and the ways of Tlön have disintegrated this world." In the end "The world will be Tlön." Paying no attention to all this, the narrator works on a stylized translation of Sir Thomas Browne's Urn Burial.

Analysis

In this story Borges proposes a fantastic idea: the discovery of a fictitious planet changes everything on the real planet. Like the best liars Borges makes the fantastic idea believable through details. Not all the meticulous details are details of Tlön, a world that remains shadowy. But the volume of the encyclopedia is meticulously described or, rather, shrewdly judged on its merits: the Anglo-American Cyclopaedia is "a literal if inadequate reprint of the 1902 Encyclopaedia Britannica." The reprinted encyclopedia has the typical relationship of a copy to the original; the copied encyclopedia is lesser than the original encyclopedia. By contrast, the fictitious world of Tlön is more powerful than the original, true world.

The stories in Ficciones often display a bewildering erudition. The narrator and his friend Bioy Casares read the encyclopedia entry on Uqbar and recognize only one historical name: "the imposter, Smerdis the Magian." The fifth-century BCE Greek historian Herodotus tells of King Darius of Persia who came to the throne by murdering the reigning prince, Smerdis. Afterward he claimed the murdered Smerdis had actually been an impostor, a Magian named Gaumata. In "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" the name "Smerdis the Magian" is a throwaway detail, mentioned only once. But it too underlines the theme of the copy. If Darius is to be believed, a copy (the impostor Smerdis) usurped the place of the real (the true prince Smerdis). This is the plot of "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius," in broad outline: a fictional world usurps the place of the real world. Although Tlön is not an exact copy of the world, and indeed is different from Earth, it is a fiction that usurps the place of the real. As the narrator says at the end, "Now, in all memories, a fictitious past takes the place of any other."

Ultimately "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" shows its devotion to the superiority of the impostor by its emphasis on idealism. For idealists the realm of ideas is more real than the material world. People on Tlön are "congenitally idealist." Thus they would have no problem believing ideas of George Berkeley. The perception of a thing, the perception in the mind, is the only real part of the thing. The narrator takes this notion even further, remarking on the case of a gazing bird or horse keeping an ancient ruin of an amphitheater in existence. (A contemporary building on Tlön would not need the help of animals because people would perceive it day in and day out.) When the world becomes Tlön, as the narrator predicts it will, the inventions of the mind will have taken over the material world.

Another way Borges persuades readers to accept the fantastical story of a secret society spending generations creating a fictitious planet is by inserting himself in the story. Borges gives the narrator's friend the name of his real-life friend Bioy Casares. The fictional first-person narrator is not exactly Borges but shares some details of Borges's life. Many of the stories in Ficciones ground Borges's "notes upon imaginary books" in a first-person perspective. This habit constrains the metafictional tendencies of the stories. They do not become endless funhouse mazes. The stories feature a first-person narrator who speaks as a reader or critic. Therefore, Borges's account of the imaginary writer or book or planet is more credible.

The narrator of "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" speaks of the impact of Tlön with melancholy. Something alien has infiltrated the real world, and its advance is irreversible and unstoppable: "The world will be Tlön." The nations of Earth will subside, but Tlön will endure. The narration takes on a somber and melancholy quality, as if bidding farewell to things and customs of this world, soon to be replaced by those of Tlön. Although the stories in Ficciones show a preference for idealist philosophies, here it is anticipated as a sad event when Tlön's ideality overtakes and vanquishes the world.

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