By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’ is a 1940 short story by the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986). The story tells of the narrator’s discovery of a fictional country named Uqbar, whose inhabitants wrote of the legends of a planet named Tlön. The inhabitants of Tlön believe a form of philosophy known as subjective idealism, meaning that they believe nothing exists outside of their perception of it.
In many ways his definitive story, ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbius Tertius’ features a number of Borges’ chief preoccupations, tropes, and symbols. You can read the story here before proceeding to our summary and analysis of it below.
‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’: plot summary
The narrator of the story (to whom we shall refer, for the sake of convenience, as Borges) begins by recounting how he first came to hear of the land of Uqbar. He was having dinner with his friend, Bioy Casares, when their conversation turned to the ‘monstrous’ nature of mirrors. Bioy recalled reading in an encyclopedia about an old gnostic writer from the land of Uqbar who had written about mirrors being abominable because they cause men to multiply in number.
However, when Borges and Bioy try to locate the relevant passage in the encyclopedia, they cannot find it, nor can they find the entry on Uqbar which Bioy distinctly remembers reading there. The next day, Bioy phones Borges to announce that he’s managed to find the article and passage, and Borges asks to see it.
Borges reads the entry on Uqbar, but there is something vague about the encyclopedia’s description of the land, which appears to lie somewhere in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). However, he learns that the literature that the people of Uqbar wrote was entirely fantastical, with its epics never referring to the real world. Instead, their legends refer to two imaginary regions named Mlejnas and Tlön, the latter being another planet. What is strange, however, is that none of the atlases in the library mention this land of Uqbar.
Two years later, an old friend of Borges’ father, Herbert Ashe, dies, soon after receiving a package of a book. Borges comes into possession of this book, which is none other than an encyclopedia of Tlön. On the first page is an inscription which reads, Orbis Tertius. This is the eleventh volume of a much larger encyclopedia, but Borges is unable to locate any of the other volumes in any library or from any bookseller in America or Europe.
He comes to the conclusion that Tlön was invented as a vast hoax, probably involving a secret society of intellectuals. Tlön, he learns, is a world with ‘transparent tigers’ and ‘towers of blood’. He also learns that the inhabitants of Tlön are all idealists in their philosophy: their language contains no nouns because objects in and of themselves cannot be said to have existence.
The only academic subject they have any time for on Tlön is psychology, since everything in the world is perceived by the mind, rather than having independent existence. Indeed, one group of philosophers even negates the idea of time, arguing that the present is indefinite since we only perceive things directly in the present moment (and the past has no reality other than as a memory experienced during the present). Another school of thought on Tlön argues that while we are asleep, another version of us is awake somewhere else, and so every man is actually two men.
We also learn in a footnote that another church of Tlön posits that anyone who repeats a line from Shakespeare is William Shakespeare in that moment. The people of Tlön have no concept of plagiarism, and most books are unsigned when they’re published: it’s as if everyone has written them.
‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’ carries a postscript dated 1947, which tells us that a letter was subsequently found among the possessions of the late Herbert Ashe, detailing the origins of Tlön: a secret society whose members included the philosopher George Berkeley had been formed in the seventeenth century, and this society had invented the country of Uqbar and created a history for it.
Then, in the nineteenth century, a millionaire named Ezra Buckley had taken up the project, but found it lacked ambition, and so a whole planet, Tlön, had been invented too. It was Buckley who had decreed that an encyclopedia of this imaginary planet should be written.
The encyclopedia, which was the work of three hundred men, was then translated into one of the fictional languages of Tlön; the group of men leading this hoax was given the name Orbis Tertius. One of the men who worked on this translation was Herbert Ashe, and this explains why the book was found among his possessions when he died.
Borges then relates that, in 1942, an Argentine princess found, among her possessions, a compass inscribed with words belonging to one of the languages of Tlön. Some time after this, Borges came into possession of a small cone of bright metal, which fell out of the pocket of a drunken neighbour when he died. This cone depicts certain gods associated with Tlön.
Then, in around 1944, all forty volumes of the encyclopedia of Tlön were found in a Memphis library; Borges suspects that they have been placed there by members of Orbis Tertius and were meant to be discovered. Borges believes that one day, the hundred volumes of the second version of the encyclopedia will be ‘found’.
The whole world has assimilated the ideas of Tlön and these ideas have changed many fields of science. The world, Borges says, has become Tlön. However, Borges himself ignores all of it, and contents himself with translating the book Urn Burial by the seventeenth-century philosopher Sir Thomas Browne.
‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’: analysis
One of Borges’ most ambitious (and longest) stories, ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’ is often labelled a work of speculative fiction, or, sometimes, ‘science fiction’.
However, the planet of Tlön does not exist, even in the story itself: it is a fiction within a fiction, a hoax invented by a secret society in the nineteenth century, with more and more details and artefacts related to Tlön being gradually ‘released’ into the world to add credence to the idea of the planet’s existence.
Borges’ work is full of paradoxes, infinite reflections in mirrors, and labyrinths, and this story is in some ways the quintessential Borgesian story.
The people of Tlön believe that nothing exists outside of their perception of it; curiously, they are right, since their world is nothing more than a fiction, and so when Borges the narrator (and we, as readers) are told of the details of Tlön, such as its ‘transparent tigers and towers of blood’, these ‘things’ do exist only in our subjective imaginations, rather than in physical reality. Borges’ story is thus a fiction within a fiction, a mirror facing another mirror.
In ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’, Borges mentions George Berkeley, often known as ‘Bishop Berkeley’. This Irish philosopher (whose name also survives in an American university: the University of California, Berkeley was named after him) is best-known for his theory of subjective idealism, which is often summarised as ‘if a tree falls in the forest and there’s nobody to hear it, does it make a sound?’ (Berkeley’s answer would be ‘no’, since things only exist when they are perceived by humans.)
For Berkeley, and for the inhabitants of Tlön, matter, or material substance – that is, real physical ‘stuff’ – doesn’t exist, but is merely an idea perceived by the mind. The book I hold doesn’t exist as such but is merely something I perceive to exist. Of course, the people of Tlön are fictional, so paradoxically, they are right (even though they don’t exist): their world does only exist as a set of perceptions, perceived by Borges and by us through the pages of his story.
Curiously enough, as Gene H. Bell-Villada reveals in his informative book Borges and His Fiction, Borges named his planet Tlön because of its resemblance to the German Traum, meaning ‘dream’. Life is but a dream, something we perceive that has no material reality, at least for those who live on Tlön itself.
Bell-Villada also observes that many of the people Borges mentions in ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’ were real Argentinian figures, so that the story’s original readers in Sur magazine in 1940 would have found the story to be an unsettling and disorienting combination of fact and fiction, reality and fantasy.
And this, in the last analysis, is the great theme of Borges’ story: the blend of fantasy and reality. It is a theme which we find in many of his other stories, too: in ‘The Circular Ruins’, where a man travels to a mysterious ruined temple and steps through the flames of a forest fire, only to realise that he doesn’t exist and was merely dreamed into existence by someone else; or in ‘The Immortal’, in which a man discovers the secret of immortality and lives for thousands of years through real historical events.
‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’ opens Labyrinths, the most accessible selection of Borges’ prose work in English, and in doing so it raises the curtain on the curious fusing of fantasy and reality which we will encounter time and again in his work.