In concluding his remarkable work of philosophical fiction, Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, Jorge Luis Borges calls his imaginary world of Tlon “a labyrinth designed to be deciphered by men.” Herein lies (for me anyway) a central paradox of this story. That a world running on laws entirely unfamiliar to “men,” laws that could be described as irrational, is inevitably also a world “designed to be deciphered” by them. While our own world, a world not so designed (not by us anyway), is for Borges (writing in 1940) too bleak to be understood rationally. Familiarity is not the same as comprehension, and unfamiliarity need not imply incomprehension. In fact the familiar is also the incomprehensible, the unfamiliar holds decipherable laws.
Turning away from the nightmare that is Europe in 1940, Borges seeks refuge in Tlon, Uqbar a world of Berkeleyian idealism where Earthen laws of causality do not hold. (Bishop George Berkeley the 18th century English empiricist philosopher was famous for his question “does a tree falling in the middle of a forest, with no one to hear it fall, still make a sound?”)
The story is very famous (it gets its own wikipedia entry) and analyses abound on the Internet. The story is particularly plentiful in all the devices that Borges regularly employed. Fictional characters mingle with real ones; real characters engage in fictional acts; an extraordinary range of philosophers make guest appearances (Berkeley, Schopenhauer, Spinonza…) plus the usual suspects pop up; labyrinths, mirrors, the cabala and 1001 Nights. But I am not going to summarize the plot (which is hard to do in any case). Just go read it!
Instead I titled the blog-entry “a view from orbis tertius” (orbis tertius is Latin for Third World) to indicate that I want to take a different tack here. A Third Worldist reading of Tlon. A what! What on Earth (or on Tlon) would that be?
Tlon, Uqbar first appears in the story as a place somewhere in the vicinity of Iraq. Before it becomes a world onto itself, Uqbar looks and sounds like another newly discovered “Eastern Land”. The discovery of a new world, where known (read European) laws of rationality do not apply is a common theme in the European imagination of the colonial period. But instead of reading this as Borges’ attempt at creating an exotic New World, I prefer to read it as a satire or a jab at that genre. This reading is sustained by the fact that the exotic world that could exist in reality becomes just another figment of the European imagination (“a secret and benevolent society” among whose members is George Berkley arises “to invent a country”). Thus the mythical “other” land is an invention of the self. Sound far-fetched? I would love to hear from you if you think so.
Second, despite being rather unfriendly to what we would call science (remember causality is denied here, all events are mere associations), Tlon seems to do just fine. People there seem to be more interested in being inventive than in discovering truth. Borges tells us that the “metaphysicians of Tlon do not seek for the truth or even for verisimilitude, but rather for the astounding.” This could be taken a couple of ways. One way to read it is once again as an attack on the scientism of modern civilization. The insistence on pursuit of truth to the detriment of beauty, morality, what have you. A less charitable way (i.e. one that puts Borges amongst the European “self” rather than the Latin American “other”) is to say that the description of Tlon as a place where science takes a back-seat is akin to European portrayal of the “East” as uninterested in the practical matters of life, as being other-worldly. In one reading the “other” of Europe is a place where rationality and science do not oppress the psyche, in the second reading we put a different “spin” on the same fact and say that the “other” is a place where irrationality and superstition abound.
You take your pick.