Fact or Fiction? Part 1 (Jorge Luis Borges)

My one-month old baby doesn’t leave me much time to write, but she lets me read and reflect, at least once in a while. A few days ago I remembered some research I did during my MFA program regarding fiction writers whose work either altered the real world, or who toyed in their writing with the idea of fiction spilling into reality. Of course, the number of writers on such a list is vast, so in my research I focused only on a few of them that I really liked or hated. Their work, that is.

As I reread my papers from back in 2007, I noticed that my obsession with fact versus fiction was as alive then as it is today. It fuels this blog, even though rewriting history is just one aspect of fact versus fiction. I also read a lot of blogs about religion and politics.

This fascination of mine began soon after the Romanian Revolution of 1989, when the official history of the country first changed, as I wrote about here. The fascination never stopped since. The spine of the alternate history novel I’m working on is, of course, imagination/reality. As I work on my next rewrite, I keep in mind those writers who tackled fact versus fiction so well in their work.

Jorge Luis Borges’s Ficciones and the mixing of fiction and reality

“That history should have imitated history was already sufficiently marvelous; that history should imitate literature is inconceivable. (p. 125) – “Theme of the Traitor and Hero”

FiccionesArgentine poet and writer Jorge Luis Borges (1899–1986) gave us magical realism. In his collection of short stories entitled Ficciones (1944) he took an original and profound look at the world of fantasy and how it shapes and creates our own world. His approach is less alarmist and more contemplative. His fictions construct bizarre but compelling settings, from a world of no time and space in which dreams create people, to a planet brought into existence by the imagination of a handful of intellectuals. The theme of language creating the world powers up most of the narrative in the seventeen stories in Ficciones.

In his lectures, Borges quoted Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation and explained the existence of a will innate to each of us, a will that produces a “representation” of the world we live in. The same idea exists in the works of other writers such as Henri Bergson, who talked about “élan vital” (meaning creative impulse or living energy), an immaterial force which cannot be scientifically proven, but which continually shapes reality. Bernard Shaw named it “The Life Force,” which is the same thing. Borges saw a difference between Shaw and Bergson on the one hand, who think that the life force needs to impose itself and it is our responsibility to dream and will the world into being, and Schopenhauer and Buddha on the other hand for whom the world is a dream, but we can stop dreaming it and still create the world through difficult and tenuous exercises of the mind. Borges does not espouse one or the other of these views, but seems to entertain the idea that writing is the most akin occupation to the world of the divine. And he takes his task to its limits, with each story in Ficciones inventing elaborate new worlds that—he warns—could spill into our immediate reality as it happens in his short story “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.”

The idea of a Grand Plan that spawns a new concept of reality doesn’t originate with Jorge Luis Borges, and probably not even with David Hume(1711–1776) or George Berkeley(1685–1753), two philosophers whom Borges invokes in “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.” This idea is old as human nature itself and has taken numerous incarnations throughout time. The narrator in “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” gives a mundane example of this pattern:

 “I knew that it was the name of a German theologian who, at the beginning of the seventeenth century, described the imaginary community of Rosae Crucis—the community which was later founded by others in imitation of the one he had preconceived. (pp. 19-20)

In “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” the scholar-detective narrator discovers an odd encyclopedia entry about a mysterious country called Uqbar. From there, he goes on to discover Orbis Tertius, a global conspiracy of intellectuals belonging to secret societies throughout time. Their goal: to imagine a new world with a new culture, on a new planet. In the course of the story, the narrator encounters more and more artifacts of Orbis Tertius and of Tlön. Tlönian culture replaces Earth cultures, one by one. Humans adopt the new reality and erase the history of their own existence. At the end of the story, planet Earth is turning into planet Tlön.

“Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” unfolds as a first-person detective narrative. Events and facts are revealed as the narrator becomes aware of them or of their relevance. The event that prompts the creation of fictional worlds is not even important enough to be specified. “The popular magazines have publicized, with pardonable zeal, the zoology and topography of Tlön” (p. 23) is the only transition Borges offers from Tlön being a secret rediscovered by a group of intellectuals with too much time on their hands to Tlön becoming a reality that the public devours and co-opts into its daily life. Not giving a good reason why this phenomenon always happens is as if saying that such a transition from imaginary to reality is bound to take place no matter what. It is inevitable, in the nature of things that ideas ultimately manifest themselves in the physical world to the point of overtaking their initial cradle.

The mixing of fiction and facts in “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” leads the reader to grope for an elusive truth. Plausible historical facts are connected through links that may or may not be correct. Borges brings not only facts into his story, but real people too, with their accurate or invented opinions: Bioy Casares, Bernard Quaritch, Thomas De Quincey, Carlos Mastronardi, and others. From there on, it is hard to say if the short story is only a work of fiction, or a conspiracy waiting to unfold, especially since the Prologue to the story, published in 1940, is written as if from 1947.

Borges explored the idea of the imaginary engulfing reality in other short stories included in Ficciones. In “The Circular Ruins,” for instance, a wizard takes on the project of dreaming a reality that then can be grafted onto the real world.

“The purpose which guided him was not impossible, though supernatural. He wanted to dream a man; he wanted to dream him in minute entirety and impose him on reality. (p. 58)”

At the end of Borges’ story, the dreamed son of the wizard and the dreamed god of Fire take over the circular ruins that the wizard inhabits.

“The ruins of the sanctuary of the god of Fire were destroyed by fire. (…) He walked toward the sheets of flame. They did not bite his flesh, they caressed him and flooded him without heat or combustion. With relief, with humiliation, with terror, he understood that he also was an illusion, that someone else was dreaming him. (p. 63)”

In “Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote,” Borges pioneered the idea of inventing something believed to already exist. Creating a Plan that inhabits reality changes the past when the Plan becomes real. Pierre Menard sees this reasoning to its end and proceeds from its result.

“He did not want to compose another Don Quixote—which would be easy—but the Don Quixote. It is unnecessary to add that his aim was never to produce a mechanical transcription of the original; he did not propose to copy it. His admirable ambition was to produce pages which would coincide—word for word and line for line—with those of Miguel de Cervantes. (pp. 48-49)

Borges was not opposed to including the reader in the work of writing. Referring mainly to poetry, he imagined works of literature that seem to be made by all and not by one alone. Pierre Menard is the author of Don Quixote because any good reader is the author of Don Quixote, Borges told us. Pierre Menard is a perfect tlönian. He is a writer who doesn’t sign his books, doesn’t care about copyright, and doesn’t entertain the idea of other writers’ influence over his work. The idea from “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” that “Books are rarely signed. The concept of plagiarism does not exist; it has been established that all books are the work of one single writer, who is timeless and anonymous” (p. 28) is thus implemented by Pierre Menard who goes to write Don Quixote as if the substance of the novel exists in one timeless, boundless conscience.

“Almost immediately, reality gave ground on more than one point. The truth is that it hankered to give ground. Ten years ago, any symmetrical system whatsoever which gave the appearance of order—dialectic 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. It may be so, but in accordance with divine laws—I translate: inhuman laws—which we will never perceive. Tlön may be a labyrinth, but it is a labyrinth plotted by men, a labyrinth destined to be deciphered by men. (p. 34) – “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”

Fact or fiction? Check out “Funes, the Memorius” or “Theme of the Traitor and Hero” or “Three Versions of Judas” from Ficciones to watch the game being played.

Next: Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum and the rewriting of history.

9 thoughts on “Fact or Fiction? Part 1 (Jorge Luis Borges)

  1. Wow, Roxana, this is great. Loving your blog and most important; I learn something every time I read it. Thank you for the time, energy and vast knowledge you share with us.

  2. Very nice, Roxana! I’m eagerly waiting to read the Foucault’s Pendulum entry! If you liked Tlon you will probably like very much Culianu’s “Pergamentul diafan” (Gossamer Scroll, I guess; regretfully, I did not find an English translation).

    • Thanks, Bogdan, for reading and posting here. I haven’t read Culianu’s story. I’ll see if I have it at home, if not, I’d like to borrow it.
      Umberto Eco is maybe my favorite writer. I’m happy to talk about him any chance I get.

  3. Holy Toledo! Roxana. Keep running this. Exciting and interesting and challenging. Have another baby if that fuels the mind that pulls this together. Rewriting history in more than one sense once the notion of Truth, Untruth, and Lie comes into existence.

    • Indeed. The words rewriting and history have so many meanings, and when you put them together..
      I have quite a list of different things I want to write about on this blog, and they all fit in with my theme. Thanks for staying with me for the ride, Jack.

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