Coffee in Tlön

Reading Borges is almost always breathtaking and sometimes humbling. I wouldn’t even describe myself as an avid reader of the man, but on the rare occasions I do dip into his Ficciones I never fail to come across something that makes me briefly believe he did all there was worth doing in fantasy.

Take this paragraph, for instance. Up until now the story, Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius has been intriguing, but I think it’s at this point it kicks into top gear:

Hume declared for all time that while Berkeley’s arguments admit not the slightest refutation, they inspire not the slightest conviction. That pronouncement is entirely true with respect to the earth, entirely false with respect to Tlön. The nations of that planet are, congenitally, idealistic. Their language and those things derived from their language – religion, literature, metaphysics – presuppose idealism. For the people of Tlön, the world is not an amalgam of objects in space; it is a heterogeneous series of independent acts – the world is successive, temporal, but not spacial. There are no nouns in the conjectural Ursprache of Tlön, from which its “present day” languages and dialects derive: there are impersonal verbs, modified by monosyllabic suffixes (or prefixes) functioning as adverbs. For example, there is no noun that corresponds to our word “moon,” but there is a verb which in English would be “to moonate” or “to enmoon.” “The moon rose above the river” is “hlör u fang axaxaxas mlö,” or, as Xul Solar succinctly translates: Upward, behind the onstreaming it mooned.

Just in that short section (which is doubly fascinating in context, as Tlön is fictional even within the fictional story, putting another mirror in the hall), you have truly fantastic or speculative ruminations on philosophy, physics and linguistics. The rest of the story expands out into the fields of literary criticism, history, archivism and epistemology. All this from something that is essentially, at its core, a short detective story. Not to kick a dead horse, but to compare this to the Disneyland-Medieval pretenses and dry Anglo-Saxon philology games of Tolkien would be an unfair exercise indeed.

Borges, the Reality-Pimp.

G.K. Chesterton, of whom Borges was an admirer, once said that there were two types of great man: one who made others feel small, and another who made others feel great. Borges is both of these at once. I said at the beginning it was humbling to read such scope in such small spaces, but it’s also somewhat exalting. There’s no writer I know of that hasn’t been improved or inspired by reading Borges, from Cesar Aira to Mark Z. Danielewski. J.M. Coatzee credits him as laying the groundwork for an entire generation of Latin American novelists, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Mario Vargas Llosa included.

But it’s not just novelists who benefit from him. Derrida and Deleuze both read him, as did Baudrillard and Foucault.  A young scientist struggling with the theoretical contradictions of 20th century physics would be better equipped had he experience of Borges un/real or hyperreal worlds. Even mundane tasks are briefly made more interesting. Halfway through writing this post, I walked to the shop for milk for my coffee, and the short 3 minute journey seemed heavingly pregnant with possibilities, secret truths hiding behind every corner. The milk and the bread were being delivered at once – what conspiracy could have caused the trucks to arrive simultaneously? Why was one of the drivers staring, engrossed, at a wordless beer advert at the front of the shop, smiling a little smile?

All this from a man who was, personally, politically, a classic conservative. But he was, of course, a man who thrived on seeming contradictions.

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Laurence Thompson

Laurence Thompson is an English writer. He is almost certainly drunk.

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