Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius and You

We cannot endure permanently half-Fox and half-free.
We will become all one thing, or all the other.

In belated honor of the coincidence of the 112th birthday of author Jorge Luis Borges and the book tour of unindicted war criminal Dick Cheney (and co-author/bloodthirsty Predator drone daughter Liz Cheney),

I pulled the notes for this post off a digital shelf where I keep the roughly one million jots and paragraph and half posts that I have pasted up and set aside based on my fishing expeditions in the veritable cataract of current events that are constantly roaring past our collective digital front doors.

It is all too much to encompass or even comprehend, and believe it or not for every post that I finish off and publish, there are probably 10 that never make it out of the body shop (insert your own mental image of a clean, well-lighted garage where the jumbled guts of a dozen cars are stacked here there and everywhere, all in various states of assembly, disassembly or being-taken-apart-for-the Hell-of-it. )

But doesn't that mean I could, say, quintuple my output if I really wanted to?

Sure. Piece of cake, actually, if I wanted to go into the sentence-fragment-plus-link business (and make no mistake, the aggregation business is primarily a business.)

In fact, I already tried it on for size and bench-tested just how difficult it really is to do the aggregation thing: a daily clipping service of he-said-she-said links to the same set of a dozen or two others with a thin layer of prose frosting on top.

Turns out it's actually quite easy compared to, y'know, actual writing, but not nearly as much fun, so fuck that.

Where was I?

Oh yes.


Specifically fiction writing.

More specifically, powerful, literary, speculative fiction about totalitarianism that is timely enough to constitute "Hey, doesn't this shit look like this guy Borges was talking about the GOP?" news, and obscure enough that maybe you've never heard of it before.

Borges' wonderful "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" does a better job of describing the culture war that we are actually engaged in -- and it is a war -- than almost anything else I have ever read.

"1984" is, of course, indispensable: worth its weight in Victory Gin if only for the terrifying vocabulary it bequeathed to anyone with the will to listen (Who among us does not recognize the "Two Minutes Hate" roots of the Fox News business plan? Who in their right mind can read Orwell's description of "doublethink" --
The power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one's mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them....To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just as long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies — all this is indispensably necessary. Even in using the word doublethink it is necessary to exercise doublethink. For by using the word one admits that one is tampering with reality; by a fresh act of doublethink one erases this knowledge; and so on indefinitely, with the lie always one leap ahead of the truth.
-- and not see the typical Tea Party goon?")

But "1984" is a post hoc story, describing a completely articulated totalitarian state at the height of its power. "1984" is a world where all hope and opposition to tyranny have been finally and methodically eradicated: a place where one can easily imagine the descendants of Oceania 100 or 1,000 years later, completely devolved into terrified, grunting, barely-human animals endlessly charging back and forth from war to want to war, pausing only long long enough to shriek out their hatred of the Universe once a day, mate, and tear this week's designated internal enemy to pieces.

"Tlön...", on the other hand, described what twilight looked like on a world that was going mad; describes the inexorable, intoxicating, nightmare "logic" that bum-rushed that world into darkness:

/Spoiler Alert/

In "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius", an encyclopedia article about a mysterious country called Uqbar is the first indication of Orbis Tertius, a massive conspiracy of intellectuals to imagine (and thereby create) a world: Tlön. In the course of the story, the narrator encounters increasingly substantive artifacts of Orbis Tertius and of Tlön; by the end of the story, Earth is becoming Tlön.

Appropriately, the people of the imaginary Tlön — a fictional construct within a fictional story — hold an extreme form of Berkeleian idealism, denying the reality of the world. Their world is understood "not as a concurrence of objects in space, but as a heterogeneous series of independent acts. One of the imagined languages of Tlön lacks nouns. Its central units are "impersonal verbs qualified by monosyllabic suffixes or prefixes which have the force of adverbs."

In a world where there are no nouns — or where nouns are composites of other parts of speech, created and discarded according to a whim — and no things, most of Western philosophy becomes impossible. Without nouns about which to state propositions, there can be no a priori deductive reasoning from first principles. Without history, there can be no teleology (showing a divine purpose playing itself out in the world). If there can be no such thing as observing the same object at different times, there is no possibility of a posteriori inductive reasoning (generalizing from experience).

The narrator learns that as the society's work began, it became clear that a single generation wasn't sufficient to articulate the entire country of Uqbar. Each master therefore agreed to elect a disciple who would carry on his work and also perpetuate this hereditary arrangement. However, there was no further trace of this society until, two centuries later, one of its disciples was the fictional Ezra Buckley. Buckley was an eccentric Memphis, Tennessee millionaire who scoffed at the modest scale of the sect's undertaking. He proposed instead the invention of a planet, Tlön, with certain provisos: that the project be kept secret, that an encyclopedia of the imaginary planet of Tlön be written, and that the whole scheme "have no truck with that impostor Jesus Christ"

In the early 1940s — still in the future at the time Borges wrote the story — the Tlönic project has ceased to be a secret, and is beginning to disseminate its own universe. Beginning "about 1942", in what at first appears a magical turn, objects from Tlön begin to appear in the real world. While we are later led to see them as forgeries, they still must be the projects of a secret science and technology. Once the full, forty-volume First Encyclopaedia of Tlön is found in Memphis, the idea of Tlön begins unstoppably to take over and eradicate the existing cultures of the real world.

The fictional Borges is appalled by this turn of events, an element in the story that critics Emir Rodríguez Monegal and Alastair Reid[8] argue is to be read as a metaphor for the totalitarianism already sweeping across Europe at the time of the story's writing. Their remark seems only a small extrapolation from a passage toward the end of the story:
Ten years ago, any symmetrical system whatsoever which gave the appearance of order — dialectical 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."

We live in a time when Nixon's Southern Strategy stands triumphant: when the last vestiges of sanity have been finally centrifuged out of the Party of Lincoln, leaving behind nothing but the feverish fascist dregs of American culture. But since the racists, Dominionists, yahoos and oligarchs that remain inside the GOP are not natural allies, they need a story -- a unifying narrative -- to bring them all into alignment to accomplish together what none of them could possibly accomplish on their own: the liquidation of the United States of America as we know it.

They need a lie so big and tightly woven that it can comfortably contain all the smaller lies that make each member of the conspiracy happy.

They need a creation myth about an America that was founded by Conservative Christian Evangelicals who cribbed it all directly from Leviticus.

An America where slavery wasn't so very bad, was fought continuously by the Founders, and would have died a natural death from the benevolent force of the capitalism if the meddling federal gummint had just let things run their course.

An America where Jim Crow barely existed, and the only member of the Klan was Robert Byrd, who (like all Democrats) stayed a secret Klan member and a sworn racist until the day he died. An America where Martin Luther King, Jr. was a Republican. Were Reagan was a fiscally prudent strict Constitutionalist. Where the Depression was created and then worsened by Liberal meddling.

An America where putting a LoJack inside every woman's vagina isn't Evil Big Gummint, but making sure every kid gets a good education and grows up with clean air to breath and water to drink is.

An America where Christ hated the poor and the weak but loved Wall Street and endless war.

An America where the worldwide climate science consensus is nothing but a Leftist conspiracy and evolution is just Communism dressed up like dinosaurs.

An America where Dick Cheney isn't a fucking war criminal and the world just loves in that America invaded the wrong country, and justified it with lies it tortured out of prisoners.

They are all quite dangerously and irretrievably mad, which is why the more logic and data we throw at them, the louder the screech and bray and demand that the history of the world be rebuilt to their deluded specifications out the building blocks of their childish, ignorant, paranoid fantasies.

Remade from scratch out of Tlön, Uqbar and Orbis Tertius.


Anonymous said...

I've sometimes thought of writing "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward: Republican Strategist".

I just can't decide if Nixon or Atwater makes a better Curwin. And of course it'd have a much more depressing ending than the original.

J said...

That is one sweet fuckin' photoshop!

Kevin Holsinger said...

Good morning, Mr. Glass.

1. The term I use is "bullshistory".
2. Never heard of "Tlon". It sounds interesting, so thanks.
3. I would, however, caution against embracing stories like this and "1984" too much, though. The society of "1984" only works if it's constantly run by efficient super-geniuses. In reality, imbeciles and incompetents eventually get the reins of power, wrecking everything their villainous betters created.
As for "Tlon", I have to wonder what happens when one society that has fully embraced this new world interacts with societies that haven't. What motivation do other countries have to embrace America's delusions? If anything, I could see our worst-case-scenario future being that the Right turns us into the poorly educated, low-wage servants of the rest of the world.

Ormond Otvos said...

W being at the top doesn't mean smart evil people aren't running things. It just means you don't know specifically who they are.

But you can certainly classify them without knowing their names.

casimir said...

Mr Driftglass - I've read the story many times and it never struck me as about Totalitarianism, just Borges doing what he loved most - spinning out an epistomological proposition to its logical conclusion. It's hard to think of someone with more interiority than Borges and as far as I know, apart from his long-running feud with Peron he didn't spend much time pondering political systems. Nevertheless, you are outstanding, sir, in your righteous witness-bearing and artful prose.

Interrobang said...

If the US had less truck with that impostor people call Jesus Christ, it'd be in better damn shape, and teleology is still bullshit.

One wonders what Borges would have made of Chinese and its to-western-thinking unusual approach to verbs, not to mention Hebrew, which has no real verb conjugation for "to be" (lihiyot) in the present tense.