Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, Evanstonjew
In a world where there are no nouns — or where nouns are composites of other parts of speech, created and discarded according to a whim — and no things, most of Western philosophy becomes impossible. Without nouns about which to state propositions, there can be no a priori deductive reasoning from first principles. Without history, there can be no teleology. If there can be no such thing as observing the same object at different times there is no possibility of a posteriori inductive reasoning. Ontology — the philosophy of what it means to be — is an alien concept.
In "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius", a short story by Jorge Luis Borges, an encyclopedia article about a mysterious country called Uqbar is the first indication of Orbis Tertius, a massive conspiracy of intellectuals to imagine (and thereby create) a world: Tlön. In the course of the story, the narrator encounters increasingly substantive artifacts of Orbis Tertius and of Tlön; by the end of the story, Earth is becoming Tlön.
In the story, Uqbar initially appears to be an obscure region of Iraq or of Asia Minor. In casual conversation with Borges, Bioy Casares recalls that a heresiarch in Uqbar had declared that "mirrors and copulation are abominable, since they both multiply the numbers of men." Borges, impressed with the "memorable" sentence, asks for its source. Bioy Casares refers him to an encyclopedia article on Uqbar in the Anglo-American Cyclopedia, described as "a literal if inadequate reprint of the Encyclopædia Britannica of 1902." It emerges that Uqbar is mentioned only in the closing pages of a single volume of the Anglo-American Cyclopedia, and that the pages describing Uqbar appear in some copies of the work, but not in others.
Borges, the narrator, is led through a bibliographical maze attempting to verify the reality or unreality of Uqbar. He is particularly drawn to a statement in the encyclopedia article that "…the literature of Uqbar… never referred to reality, but to the two imaginary regions of Mlejnas and Tlön."
A brief and naturalistic aside about Borges's father's friend Herbert Ashe leads to the story of Borges inheriting a much more substantial related artifact (one of several increasingly substantial and surprising artifacts that are to appear in the course of the story): the apparent eleventh volume of an encyclopedia devoted to Tlön. The volume has, in two places, "a blue oval stamp with the inscription: Orbis Tertius."
At this point, the story of Tlön, Uqbar, and Orbis Tertius expands beyond the circle of Borges and his immediate friends and acquaintances, as scholars such as Néstor Ibarra discuss whether this volume could have been written in isolation or whether it necessarily implies the existence of a complete encyclopedia about Tlön. The proposal emerges to attempt to reconstruct the entire history, culture, and even languages of that world.
This leads to an extended discussion of the languages, the philosophy and, in particular, the epistemology of Tlön, which forms the central focus of the story. Appropriately, the people of the multiply imaginary Tlön — a fictional construct within a fictional story — hold an extreme form of Berkeleian idealism, denying the reality of the world. Their world is understood "not as a concurrence of objects in space, but as a heterogeneous series of independent acts." One of the imagined languages of Tlön lacks nouns. Its central units are "impersonal verbs qualified by monosyllabic suffixes or prefixes which have the force of adverbs." Borges offers us, for what would be our own "The moon rose above the water" a Tlönic equivalent: hlör u fang axaxaxas mlö, meaning literally "Upward behind the onstreaming it mooned." In another language of Tlön, "the basic unit is not the verb, but the monosyllabic adjective," which, in combinations of two or more, are noun-forming: "moon" becomes "round airy-light on dark" or "pale-orange-of-the-sky."
In a world where there are no nouns — or where nouns are composites of other parts of speech, created and discarded according to a whim — and no things, most of Western philosophy becomes impossible. Without nouns about which to state propositions, there can be no a priori deductive reasoning from first principles. Without history, there can be no teleology. If there can be no such thing as observing the same object at different times there is no possibility of a posteriori inductive reasoning. Ontology — the philosophy of what it means to be — is an alien concept. Tlön is a world of Berkeleian idealism with one critical omission: it lacks the omnipresent, perceiving deity on whom Berkeley relied as a point of view demanding an internally consistent world. This infinitely mutable world is tempting to a playful intellect, and its "transparent tigers and ... towers of blood" appeal to baser minds, but a Tlönic world view requires denying most of what would normally be considered common sense reality.
In the anachronistic postscript, the narrator and the world have learned, through the emergence of a letter, that Uqbar and Tlön are invented places, the work of a "benevolent secret society" conceived in the early 17th century, and numbering Berkeley among its members. The narrator learns that as the society's work began, it became clear that a single generation wasn't sufficient to articulate the entire country of Uqbar. Each master therefore agreed to elect a disciple who would carry on his work and also perpetuate this hereditary arrangement. However, there was no further trace of this society until, two centuries later, one of its disciples was the fictional Ezra Buckley. Buckley was an eccentric Memphis, Tennessee millionaire who scoffed at the modest scale of the sect's undertaking. He proposed instead the invention of a planet, Tlön, with certain provisos: that the project be kept secret, that an encyclopedia of the imaginary planet of Tlön be written, and that the whole scheme "have no truck with that impostor Jesus Christ" (and therefore none with Berkeley's God). The date of Buckley's involvement is 1824. In the early 1940s — still in the future at the time Borges wrote the story — the Tlönic project has ceased to be a secret, and is beginning to disseminate its own universe. Beginning "about 1942", in what at first appears a magical turn, objects from Tlön begin to appear in the real world. While we are later led to see them as forgeries, they still must be the projects of a secret science and technology. Once the full, forty-volume First Encyclopaedia of Tlön is found in Memphis, the idea of Tlön begins unstoppably to take over and eradicate the existing cultures of the real world.
(As an aside, the eleventh volume of this full encyclopedia is not quite the same as the earlier, isolated eleventh volume: it lacks such "improbable features" as "the multiplying of the hrönir." "It is probable," writes Borges, "that these erasures were in keeping with the plan of projecting a world which would not be too incompatible with the real world." Material reality may be subject to reshaping by ideas, but apparently it is not entirely without resistance.)
While the fictional Borges and his academic colleagues pursue their interesting speculations about the epistemology, language, and literature of Tlön, the rest of the world gradually learns about the project and begins to adopt the Tlönic culture, an extreme case of ideas affecting reality. In the epilogue set in 1947, Earth is in the process of becoming Tlön. The fictional Borges is appalled by this turn of events, an element in the story that critics Emir Rodríguez Monegal and Alastair Reid argue is to be read as a metaphor for the totalitarianism already sweeping across Europe at the time of the story's writing. Their remark seems only a small extrapolation from a passage toward the end of the story:
"Ten years ago, any symmetrical system whatsoever which gave the appearance of order — dialectical materialism, anti-Semitism, Nazism — was enough to fascinate men. Why not fall under the spell of Tlön and submit to the minute and vast evidence of an ordered planet? Useless to reply that reality, too is ordered."
As the story ends, Borges is focused on an obsession of his own: a translation of Sir Thomas Browne's Urn Burial into Spanish. Arguably it is no more important than Tlön, but it is at least of this world.