Sunday, December 28, 2008

Fantastic Reality, Real Fantasy: Reading Borges

For my winter break, I am reading Borges. In Borges, worlds collide, or rather they infiltrate one another. They are not the infiltrations of worldviews or of governments into one another, although secret societies are involved. Rather, it is the mutual infiltration of fantasy and reality. How reality becomes fantastic or fantasy becomes real. It is the task of imagining a world. A world of pure imagination, and yet to imagine is to rearrange what you know--or, more accurately, rearrage what you perceive. Perceptions become reversed, as in a mirror, turned upside-down and twisted all around, until you find a world of fantasy, a world of pure imagination. And then, once Borges has set up this alternate world of pure fiction and imagination, he starts pulling the threads of reality. He begins to drain our perceived world of its reality and the imagined world feels more real. In fact, it begins to impinge on our reality, or, perhaps more accurately, this imagined world begins to manifest itself unexpectedly.

Yet Borges takes this to another level of verticality--and one does feel some vertigo when reading Borges--in "Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius." Uqbar appears to be a fictitious country of no clear placement that appears in four pages of one copy of an encyclopedia, which, in turn, is an adaptation of another encyclopedia. In this unknowable and unknown Uqbar, Uqbarians fabricated purely fanciful stories of an imaginery planet, Orbis Tertius, named Tlon. Yet the imagined fictions of Tlon then begin to appear in one volume of an encyclopedia of Tlon. This encyclopedia catalogues all one needs to know about Tlon, although only one volume of it survives. One discovers its geography, its language, its mathematics, its metaphysics, and so on of this completely imaginary world, yet an imaginary world systematically catalogued in weighty encyclopedic form. The form is very important: it is both labyrinthine, appearing chaotic, but completely orderly, cosmic.

At first it was believed that Tlon was a mere chaos, an irresponsible license of the imagination; now it is known that it is a cosmos and that the intimate laws which govern it have been formulated, at least provisionally.

This world, an imagined world within an imagined world, recreates its past, which is as plastic as the future. Doubling accomplishes this, and a convoluted sense of time. If all things have a double, then when one loses a pencil, for example, you can keep looking to find its counterpart. These counterparts then develop counterparts. Images of images of images, reflected endlessly as if in a hall of mirrors, yet, the image itself is just as real. It is the simulacrum, images without an original copy. Or, more exactly it turns the simulacrum on its head--images in which ALL become the original or, in a Platonic moment, participate in the original. Each can be grasped, can manifest itself. If one creates an image (an imagined image) of what you might think the past would be like, you eventually will find the artifact of that image. Reversing the process, the image creates the original, the imagination creates the real. As such, Tlon itself, which is an image of an image, begins to manifest in this world, reshaping our world, transforming a fanstasy twice removed into our own cosmic perspective until we truly are the Orbis Tertius.

Here are some quotations of the fictively real place. Or perhaps it is more of a time, the plastic past or potential future. Or, better yet, a non-true, which is not necessarily false, trace of something that lies on the boundaries between memory and forgetting:

The metaphysicians of Tlon do not seek for the truth or even for verisimilitude, but rather for the astounding.

I like this type of metaphysics! It seems to have a much more worthwhile goal. Yet is this not the only metaphysics possible in the constant reproduction of images that in turn produce the original itself? Truth lacks meaning. Astonishment seems more fundamental.

One of the schools of Tlon goes so far as to negate time: it rasons that the present is indefinite, that the future has no reality other than as a present hope, athat the past has no reality other than as a present memory. Another school declares that all time has already transpired and that our life is onlyt eh crepuscular and no doubt falsified and mutilated memory or reflection of an irrecoverable process.

In literary practices the idea of a single subject is also all-powerful. It is uncommon for books to be signed. The concept of plagiarism does not exist: it has been established that all works are the creation of one author, who is atemporal and anonymous. The critics often invent authors: they select two dissimular works--the Tao Te Ching and the 1001 Nights, say--attribute them tot he same writer and then determine most scrupulously the psychology of this interesting homme de lettres...

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