An Encyclopedic Story and Its Encyclopedic Author: Jorge Luis Borges’ Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius

borges.jpgThere are intelligent authors. There are imaginative authors. And then there’s Jorge Luis Borges.

How can I possibly describe this unique and unclassifiable author? Maybe a good way to start would be to tell you about my favorite Borges short story, which reflects his unclassifiable genius – Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.

I know, I know, it’s a weird title. But don’t be put off by that. In barely twenty-one pages Borges tells a story that is so vast it seems almost comical that he could fit it on a page, let alone so few. Other novelists need a thousand pages to express fewer ideas than Borges can in a paragraph. And that’s one of the things I love most about Borges’ work – there are just so many ideas.

Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius is about the discovery of a made-up planet and how, as people become more and more obsessed by it, the culture of this made-up planet gradually replace the culture of people on Earth until our planet perfectly reflects what once only existed on paper. The planet becomes Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.

This kind of paradox is typical of Borges. He loves paradoxes, labyrinths, stories within stories, writers who write their own stories, etc. But there is an astounding depth to his treatment of his ideas. For example, he doesn’t just say that Uqbar has its own languages, philosophy, literature, mathematics, etc. No, Borges literally summarizes the unique features of all of these and more. To take a few brief examples, he notes how one of this planet’s languages doesn’t have nouns and talks about how things are described in terms of their actions only. Another language also doesn’t have nouns but instead defines things by the sum of their adjectives, so that the moon is described as “round-airy light on dark.” An entire poem, in this language, can consist of a single word. Philosophical texts contain not just an argument, but its own counter-argument as well. Literature has no authors. All works are anonymous and considered part of one general creator’s work. Also, all plots contain every different permutation of its own events. As for mathematics, Borges explains two different types of geometry, visual and tactile, whose methods are in some ways radically different from our own.

Just to be able to write this story required Borges to know a frightening amount of information about linguistics, philosophers, and even geometry and, in parts, topology. Furthermore, he has the intelligence and creativity to use this information to create entirely new schools of thought.

But perhaps my favorite aspect of Borges and his work is how much fun he has writing them. He clearly loves and appreciates literature and, more broadly, thought as expressed through all subjects. He is having fun and, for all the allusions to authors or ideas you may not have heard of, you have fun if only because he opens your mind to new possibilities of existence. And, as a consequence, you are never quite able to see our world the same way again.

When you add up his obvious intelligence and imagination and then consider his ability to conjure up stories that encapsulate anomalies along with the sheer scope of his knowledge, what you end up with an encyclopedic author – a category with only one perplexing member.

So go read it (Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius). Now.

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