Saturday, August 23, 2008

Borges' Literary Magic

Ross Smith has written an interesting piece comparing Borges' and Tolkien's ficitonal worlds. Here is an excerpt:

The world famous Argentinian writer José Luis Borges published a short story titled Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius1. In it, Borges describes a planet called Tlön, our knowledge of which, according to the narrator, Borges himself, has been pieced together from various works by anonymous authors, each writing on a specific characteristic of that world.

The fictive Borges comes across Tlön for the first time in a mysterious copy of the Encyclopaedia Britannica which contains an entry not to be found in any other copy. Intrigued, he seeks to increase his knowledge elsewhere, but there is nothing to be found in any of the numerous sources he consults. However, the fictitious world resurfaces in a mysterious book addressed to a recently deceased friend of the author, in the form of the eleventh volume of A First Encyclopaedia of Tlön. This encyclopedia, we are told, describes in the finest detail each and every aspect of the history, geography and culture of Tlön. The narrator hypothesises that this ‘brave new world’ is the work of a ‘secret society of astronomers, biologists, engineers, metaphysicists, poets, chemists, algebraists, moralists, painters, geometricians, all directed by an obscure man of genius’2. Each specialist contributes data on his or her area, which is then woven into the overall plan by the anonymous master.

Given the format he has chosen, Borges cannot be too profuse, so he offers brief but brilliant descriptions of the science, philosophy, architecture, language, mathematics, literature, archaeology and history of Tlön, containing references of persuasively profound erudition. On the subject of literature, for instance, we are told that in the world of Tlön ‘[w]orks of fiction address a single argument, with all imaginable permutations. Philosophical works invariably contain a thesis and an antithesis, rigorously for and against a doctrine. A book that does not encompass its counterbook is considered incomplete.’ Concerning the language of Tlön, Borges informs us in gravely academic tones that ‘[t]here are no nouns in the conjectural Ursprache of Tlön, from which the “current” languages and dialects derive: there are impersonal verbs, qualified by monosyllabic suffixes (or prefixes) of an adverbial character’. He then offers us an example of how the sentence ‘The moon rose over the river’ would be rendered – quite beautifully - in the language of Tlön: "Upward, behind the onstreaming it mooned."

It should be noted that this sentence was written in English (a language Borges knew well and deeply appreciated), within the original Spanish narrative, since the Encyclopaedia of Tlön, we are told, is in English. There is considerably more on both literature and language, as well as on the other subjects referred to above. Borges then goes on to describe his discovery of the identity of the ‘obscure genius’ behind the creation of Tlön, the formation during the late 19th century of a secret team of 300 specialists who wrote the forty volumes of the First Encyclopaedia of Tlön, the chance finding of this encyclopaedia in a library in Memphis in 1944, its unveiling via the international press, and the ensuing worldwide furore concerning all things to do with Tlön.

In addition to deploying his extraordinary imagination and narrative skill, in Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, Borges uses a number of devices to make his tale seem more factual than fictitious. hese include references to real people alive at the time (such as fellow writer and Argentinian Bioy Casares, who initiates the search for Tlön in the story), comments and footnotes on the work of historically relevant authors (Berkeley, Hume, Russell), specific place names, dates, and so on. He also takes advantage of his vast erudition in descriptions such as those quoted above on literature and language to strengthen the sense of reality.

Nonetheless, readers are evidently aware of Borges’ literary magic and know that this is fiction, however skilfully he has enabled them to suspend reality. The story is provocative and brilliantly told, but the belief persists that no one could ever truly invent an entire world, with the almost infinite strength of imagination, and volume of information, that would require.

However, when Borges published his most renowned works of fiction during the 1940s, an English author and academic on the other side of the Atlantic had already for decades been assembling a whole universe, partly from his own imagination and partly from his scholarly knowledge of ancient tales and sagas from north-western Europe. It was a world with its own seas, islands and rivers, mountain ranges, plains and swamps, its own skies and stars, inhabited not only by men but also by other sapient beings, each with a specific language and culture. There were wild beasts, some like those of our world and some not, and abundant plant life. The author had also created a history for this world, which went back not just to primitive times but to the very creation of the world itself, by its particular Gods.

The English academic in question was, of course, J.R.R. Tolkien, and to make his world credible he did not need to use any of the literary artifices employed by Borges. In fact his approach was quite the opposite of Borges’... Borges sought to compress an intellectually stimulating idea into the shortest format possible.

Read it all here.

Of course, Borges had many fictional worlds besides that of Tlön. I think of his story "El Brujo Postergado" and his "Laberinto". These too display economy of language while creating worlds through which the reader's imagination walks as in a dream.


Rob Rumfelt said...

This is great stuff, Ms Linsley! I recently discovered your Genesis blog and decided to check out this one. Thanks for increasing my reading list!

And poetry, too! It's good to see poetry is still alive somewhere. Will there ever be another great American poet? Is our high tech culture able to understand poetry?

Thanks for another great blog. Guess I'll have to add this one to my favorites list, too!

Alice C. Linsley said...

I'm glad you enjoy Students Publish Here. My students range from age 6 to 72, so "student" at this blog means anyone who is learning the craft of writing or who enjoys reading about great writing. I guess that makes you a "student" too!