Sunday, July 29, 2007

Where the idealism of George Berkeley is viewed as common sense

Philosophical themes
Through the vehicle of fantasy or speculative fiction, this story playfully explores several philosophical questions and themes. These include, above all, an effort by Borges to imagine a world (Tlön) where the 18th century philosophical idealism of George Berkeley is viewed as common sense and "the doctrine of materialism" is considered a heresy, a scandal, and a paradox ["Tlön...", p.117]. Through describing the languages of Tlön, the story also plays with the epistemological question of how language influences what thoughts are possible. The story also contains several metaphors for the way ideas influence reality. This last theme is first explored cleverly, by way of describing physical objects being willed into existence by the force of imagination, but later returns darker, as fascination with the idea of Tlön begins to distract people from paying adequate attention to the reality of earth.
Much of the story engages with the philosophical idealism of George Berkeley, perhaps best known for questioning whether a tree falling unobserved in the forest makes a sound. (Berkeley, an Anglican bishop, resolved that question to his own satisfaction by saying that there is a sound because God is always there to hear it.) Berkeley's philosophy privileges perceptions over any notion of the "thing in itself." Immanuel Kant accused Berkeley of going so far as to deny objective reality.
In the imagined world of Tlön, an exaggerated Berkeleian idealism without God passes for common sense. The Tlönian view recognizes perceptions as primary and denies the existence of any underlying reality. At the end of the main portion of the story, immediately before the postscript, Borges stretches this toward its logical breaking point by imagining that, "Occasionally a few birds, a horse perhaps, have saved the ruins of an amphitheater" by continuing to perceive it.[14] Besides commenting on Berkeley's philosophy, this and other aspects of Borges' story can be taken as a commentary on the ability of ideas to influence reality. For example, in Tlön there are objects known as hrönir[15] that arise when two different people find the "same" lost object in different places.
Borges imagines a Tlönite working his way out of the problem of solipsism by reasoning that if all people are actually aspects of one being, then perhaps the universe is consistent because that one being is consistent in his imagining. This is, effectively, a near-reconstruction of the Berkeleian God: perhaps not omnipresent, but bringing together all perceptions that do, indeed, occur.
This story is not the only place where Borges engages with Berkeleian idealism and with the related 20th century philosophy of phenomenology. Phenomenology privileges psychical phenomena over physical phenomena and "brackets off" objective reality as unknowable. In the world of Tlön, as in Borges's essay New refutation of time (1947), there is (as Emir Rodriguez Monegal and Alastair Reid comment) a "denial of space, time, and the individual I."[16] This worldview does not merely "bracket off" objective reality, but also parcels it separately into all its successive moments. Even the continuity of the individual self is open to question.
When Borges writes "The metaphysicians of Tlön are not looking for truth or even an approximation to it: they are after a kind of amazement. They consider metaphysics a branch of fantastic literature,"[17] he can be seen either as anticipating the extreme relativism that underlies some postmodernism or simply as taking a swipe at those who take metaphysics too seriously.

Literary themes
The story also anticipates, in miniature, several key formal ideas that were later played out in the works of Vladimir Nabokov. At one point Borges has Adolfo Bioy Casares propose to "writ[e] a novel in the first person, using a narrator who omitted or corrupted what happened and who ran into various contradictions," which arguably anticipates the strategy of Nabokov's Lolita (1955) and precisely anticipates the strategy of his Pale Fire (1962). At the same time, Earth's obsession with Tlön in Borges's story anticipates the central conceit of Nabokov's Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle (1969), where the narrator's world has a similar obsession with Terra. In both works, the people of the narrator's world become obsessed with an imaginary world (Tlön/Terra) to the point of being more interested in that fiction than in their own lives. The parallel is not perfect: in Borges's story, the narrator's world is essentially our own world, and Tlön is a fiction that gradually intrudes upon it; in Nabokov's novel, the narrator's world is a parallel world and Terra is our Earth, misperceived as a place of almost uniform peace and happiness.
In the context of the imagined world of Tlön, Borges describes a school of literary criticism that arbitrarily assumes that two works are by the same person and, based on that, deduces things about the imagined author.
The story also plays with the theme of the love of books in general, and of encyclopedias and atlases in particular — books that are each themselves, in some sense, a world.
Like many of Borges's works, the story challenges the boundaries between fiction and non-fiction. It mentions several quite real historical human beings (himself, his friend Bioy Casares, Thomas de Quincey, et al.) but often attributes fictional aspects to them; the story also contains many fictional characters and others whose factuality may be open to question.

Other themes
While this might seem quite enough material for any short story, "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" also engages a number of other related themes. The story begins and ends with issues of reflection, replication, and reproduction — both perfect and imperfect — and the related issue of the power of language and ideas to make or remake the world.
At the start of the story, we have an "unnerving" and "grotesque" mirror reflecting the room, a "literal if inadequate" (and presumably plagiarized) reproduction of the Encyclopedia Britannica, an apt misquotation by Bioy Casares, and the issue of whether one should be able to trust whether the various copies of a single book will have the same content.[18] At the end Borges is working on a "tentative translation" of an English-language work into Spanish, while the power of the ideas of "a scattered dynasty of solitaries" remakes the world in the image of Tlön.[19]
Along the way we have stone mirrors;[20] the idea of reconstructing an entire encyclopedia of an imaginary world based on a single volume;[21] the analogy of that encyclopedia to a "cosmos" governed by "strict laws";[22] a worldview in which our normal notions of "thing" are rejected, but "ideal objects abound, invoked and dissolved momentarily, according to poetic necessity";[23] the universe conceived as "the handwriting of a minor god to communicate with a demon" or a "code system… in which not all symbols have meaning";[24] hrönir, duplicates of objects called into existence by ignorance or hope, and where "those of the eleventh degree have a purity of form that the originals do not possess";[25] and Ezra Buckley's wish "to demonstrate to a nonexistent God that mortal men were capable of conceiving a world."

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