Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius by Jorge Luis Borges, 1940
The magic trick:
Creating an entirely new country and culture in a short story
What can you say about “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”? This blog, in many ways, is intended to be instructive; to detail some things your humble narrator has learned during my short-story read-a-thon this year. But to suggest that there is any takeaway from this story, anything the learning writer can glean, is bordering on preposterous.
What is the magic trick? Let’s see. Borges is the smartest, most imaginative person who ever existed? Is that something we can copy? Maybe?
The funny thing is I actually don’t particularly like this story. Certainly, it’s not among my favorites by Borges. But there is no denying it is a story that could only be the product of a super-genius. In fewer than 6,000 words, the story creates an alternate way of life, still filtered through the very realistic view of Earthly expectations. He has created a new culture, new religions, beliefs, value systems, everything. It’s kind of insane how complete his vision is for a work of art as brief as a short story. And that’s quite a trick on Borges’s part.
It is no exaggeration to state that the classic culture of Tlon comprises only one discipline: psychology. All others are subordinated to it. I have said that the men of this planet conceive the universe as a series of mental processes which do not develop in space but successively in time, Spinoza ascribes to his inexhaustible divinity the attributes of extension and thought; no one in Tlon would understand the juxtaposition of the first (which is typical only of certain states) and the second – which is a perfect synonym of the cosmos. In other words, they do not conceive that the spatial persists in time. The perception of a cloud of smoke on the horizon and then of the burning field and then of the half-extinguished cigarette that pronounced the blaze is considered an example of association of ideas.