Berkeley, Buckley, Borges


JL Borges

‘I owe the discovery of Uqbar to the conjunction of a mirror and an encyclopedia.’ Such is the opening premiss of Borges’s ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’.

Berkeley, who was Bishop of Cloyne in 1734, denied the existence of matter in reaction to Locke (1632–1704), whose conception of the universe was Newtonian and mechanistic, that is to say a universe exhibiting solidity, figure, extension, motion or rest, and number. Among other things, these bodies operate on human sense organs, and on the immaterial substance of human minds – all of which amounts to a conjunction in those minds of ideas. Therefore what we perceive as the world around us is not really the world around us, but only our ideas of it. To Berkeley this was repugnant, not least because, although as a system it allowed that God may have created the world, it did not require God’s eternal supervision. His programme was theological, and this is what led him to deny the existence of matter, maintaining that material objects were in reality spiritual objects. That things don’t cease to exist in our absence is Berkeley’s proof for the omnipresence of God, who is able to posit them as divine grammar or syntax, through which any well-adjusted mortal may commune with his maker.

In Borges’s revision of Berkeley, Uqbar is an undocumented region of Iraq or of Asia Minor, one of whose heresiarchs had declared the visible universe either an illusion or sophism, and that mirrors and procreation were abominable because they multiplied and disseminated that universe. It emerges that Uqbar is a region of Tlön, and that Tlön is an invented country, the work of a secret and benevolent society conceived in the early seventeenth century, and numbering Berkeley among its members. As the society’s work began, it became clear that a single generation wasn’t sufficient to articulate an entire country. Each master therefore agreed to elect a disciple who would, on the one hand, carry on his work, and on the other perpetuate these hereditary arrangements. However, there is no further trace of this society until, two centuries later, one of its disciples is an ascetic millionaire from Memphis (Tennessee) called Ezra Buckley, who scoffs at the modest scale of the sect’s undertaking. He proposes instead the invention of a planet, and with certain provisos – that the project be kept secret, that an encyclopedia of the imaginary planet be written, and that the whole scheme will have no pact with the impostor Jesus Christ (and therefore none with Berkeley’s God either). The date of Buckley’s involvement is 1824. The timing of events in Borges’s story is approximately a century after that, when Buckley’s encyclopedia is beginning not to be a secret, and as a kind of mirror has started to disseminate its own universe.

What kind of encyclopedia that is, and therein what kind of planet we behold, is something we glean at various points in the story. For example it is not a construct of objects in space, with the consequence that one of the languages of Tlön – necessarily a conjectural language – is without nouns. As its central unit are impersonal verbs, inflected by monosyllabic extensions bearing an adverbial value. Borges offers us, for what would be our own the moon rose above the water a Tlönic equivalent: upward behind the onstreaming it mooned. In another language of Tlön, the prime unit, rather than the verb, is the monosyllabic adjective, which, in combinations of two or more, is noun-forming – therefore for moon read instead round airy-light on dark. We may say further that because there are no nouns – or because nouns are composites of other parts of speech, and are subordinate to them – there can be no possibility of a priori deductive reasoning (and therefore no telos), and no possibility either of a posteriori inductive reasoning – which renders history void and ontology an alien concept. At this point we understand that we have entered into a Berkleian idealism with one critical attenuation, i.e. Buckley’s removal of the multiple and omnipresent percepts of a deity. It is tempting at this stage to think about a phenomenology that does not merely bracket off objective reality, but parcels it separately into all its successive moments. This leads us to the interesting paradox that any citizen of Tlön drawing her present breath, is not the same citizen who drew her previous breath (I speak the chronologised jargon of an Earthling), and will become yet some other citizen in the act of drawing her next. This fantastic and replicating notion bears similarities to the position held by certain contemporary physicists, particularly Julian Barbour, who has argued that time as something measured by a clock isn’t consistent with a quantum theory of gravity. He has proposed that we may have to consider each moment as an entity in itself, moreover as an entity that does not change. We, who are not of Tlön, believe in time because identifiable objects – persons, texts, the firmament – persist not as an act of mentation, but independently of us, through a succession of equally identifiable moments. Barbour on the other hand conceives of a universe giving rise to its entire stock of moments simultaneously, and what we call time is the approximation of those moments in a sequencing process that we ourselves perform – we, of course, having invented, and having access to, nouns.

If there is an absence of a single overarching structure unifying the macro and micro scales of Relativity and Quantum Theory, similarly there is no such centred locus approached in Borges’s Tlön, where the essentials of Berkleianism are removed from their European loci and returned to us as the indeterminate world of Buckleianism. If we had been used to view formal European schemata in terms of the human sciences, and to record a privileged place to one in particular – ethnology – then ethnology could not approach to the status of a science until European culture had been decentred, change bringing with it the dislocation of metaphysics as a concept of European Being. Here also is the point at which European culture ceases as the culture of reference, and the point also at which the reflected image of Berkeley gazes back at us as Buckley. This is not principally one of philosophical and scientific discourse, but is at once political, economic, technocratic. Ethnology, as it arises in discourse, is primarily a European discourse, one that for all its liberal pretensions continues to employ traditional concepts. As a consequence of this, the ethnologist accepts into her discourse the premisses of ethnocentrism while at the same time denouncing them. It is this dualism that in my opinion is the sine qua non of Borges’s art, in its character of non-European Europeanness.

Share Price Medi Check

Check this! A pulse as accelerated
As the growing demand on the pension
Funds. Unemployment? That’s moderated

By our UK’s changing definition,
So looks as steady as that temperature
Chart. Budget deficit, in recognition

Of the Chancellor’s staid expenditure,
Threatens rude Rabelaisian health
(Hope that optimism isn’t premature).

Reflexes: these are like the nation’s wealth,
Retracted in the hands of a top
Five per cent. (That’s right. Take a deep breath.)

Interest rates: down. Inflation: more or less stopped.
Workforce: flexed as any Eastern sweatshop.




It is the late 1990s, and Bruce is reflecting on an affair of twenty-five years before, in the mid-70s, with Marisa, an arts polymath. At this time she lives in a bedsit, and periodically takes off on continental adventures on the powerful motorbike she owns. Bruce by contrast is on the brink of inheriting the financial consultancy firm his father has developed as a family business.

When, unexpectedly, Marisa inherits a rambling dilapidated town house, her first thought is to sell it, in order to fund a decade-long backpacking expedition round the world. This is completely alien to Bruce’s way of thinking, and he persuades her that she will never get a better start in life than ownership of property. It’s a house that has been divided into an upper and lower flat. Both are in need of significant renovation, and Bruce contributes much of his own money to bring about the restoration.

Meanwhile Marisa is developing a feminist critique through whatever artistic means she can – music, theatre, publishing, the visual arts – but is always in need of funds to finance her projects. Bruce is ever willing to help, though is aware, gradually, that he can never fully enter into an intellectual union with her. The time must come for them to part – which they do, amicably. This coincides with Bruce’s marriage to Henrietta, someone of his own social background, whose political aesthetic is not nearly so well developed as Marisa’s. Contented husband though Bruce is, it remains to his lasting anguish that Marisa could never be his partner.

What prompts these reflections is Marisa’s name and address in one of his business listings. After twenty-five years she is still at the house he has helped renovate, though now as a work address, where with her daughter, Alicia, she runs a media PR agency. Bruce has one of his employees make contact, ostensibly to sell the RaeAgency financial services. Through this contact Bruce learns that although Marisa has a daughter, she has remained unmarried, and there appears to be no man in her life. For the whole duration of the book, Bruce debates with himself whether or not to try and make contact, and is unresolved on that question until the final, explosive chapter.

First published by CentreHouse Press as a paperback in 2006, now available as an ebook.

Marisa is available at Kindle USA, Kindle UK, and at Smashwords.