Often times when we read segments or historical documents regarding a past culture, we tend to judge their values, beliefs and ideologies without truly investigating their contexts. While this is a fundamental flaw from the perspective on any historian, it is nonetheless a sad truth when we read descriptions and analyses of other authors. Within Jorge Borges’ speculative fiction story of Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, the author takes us through his journey of discovering documentation regarding an unknown civilization and then probing the cultural values through the lens of a limited set of documents. Undoubtedly, the author’s analysis makes some relatively broad claims, assumptions and characterizations regarding the philosophy and ideology of Uqbar. As a historian who was feeding his own personal curiosity, Borges sought to judge the civilization based on his own standards of knowledge and experience. Throughout his analysis, Borges uses small elements of his discovery to fabricate the original intentions and values of the Uqbar culture.
Borges used elements of philosophy and cultural devaluation to fabricate the backwardness of the Uqbar culture. For example, despite discovering a broad spectrum of evidence, Borges prejudged it as being boring and uninteresting. Even in evaluating an extensive volume of knowledge, Borges remarked that it contained “the horror of its mythologies and the murmur of its tongues, its emperors and its seas…” (Borges 71). That is Borges maintained that all of their literary assets were joined in one fluid text without any “visible doctrinal purpose or hint of parody” (Borges 72). The author was making the subtle claim that just because the different disciplines were not organized in a logical, western thought manner, that they should be disregarded as any form of valuable knowledge. From the interplay of the disciplines mentioned, Borges proceeded to make analogies to other reconstructed societies such as the one described in Brave New World.
Such a quick analogy reflects the notion that this culture did not offer any enlightening value. In fact, Borges was so bored with the documents that he argued that the contents “do not perhaps merit the constant attention of all mankind” (Borges 72). Moreover, Borges mentioned that because there was an abundance use of psychological analysis, their belief system was not even based on science. Instead, a political dogma of idealism that is apparent rendered the use of science utterly null, according to Borges (74). Ultimately, his final analysis claimed that the documents were cryptic overall and relatively archaic. Just from looking at a few excerpts of information from different fields was enough for Borges to label the whole culture as being the creation of a wild imagination. This is a fabrication of other cultures because it does not consider that we must not judge others based on our own standards; instead, this egocentric evaluation of the people and culture of Uqbar should be analyzed from the perspective of the historical context and time period relative to other comparable cultures. However, Borges merely picked apart several pieces of etymology and then cross referenced them to our own standards of academic and intellectual analysis.
These sorts of generalizations and biased viewpoints can easily be found in other works we have read as well. For example, even in the textbook readings of Chapter Nine on Charlemagne, it would be easily understandable to base the ruler’s diplomatic decisions based on our own standards of democracy and the republic as we know it today. For instance, an example remarked that Charlemagne attempted to marry the daughter of the Byzantine leader in Constantinople (Cunningham 187). While this may seem archaic to our standards that personal affection and affairs would get into the way of politics, it would be presumptuous of us to deduce that this was inefficient. In fact, however, using family ties and the institution of marriage was a common way of developing political alliances during the middle-ages. It was not only efficient, but it also helped promote a strong family lineage. However, in fabricating the diplomatic relations that medieval rules had, it is easy to assume their actions as both archaic and rudimentary; however, when taken in the context of the historical time period, we can see that it followed all patterns of monarchic leadership.
In using the method of judgment applied from Borges’ story, there may be some limitations in comparison to the relative strengths of analyzing different cultures across various historical contexts. For example, one sure fire strength that Borges’ story is that the author did his very best to make solid historical arguments and claims based on existing knowledge. Indeed, while all of it may not have been fully fused with the correct facts and there were fabrications, the author did at least make assertions based on some facts. This is surely a relative strength since in history, often we are left with piecing together parts of stories that we do not have all the answers to. Indeed, Borges’ broad generalizations and assumptions regarding the nature of the Uqbar people and their culture really did probably have some traces of the characteristics he described so thoroughly in his analysis. However, on the other end of the spectrum, generalizing and applying them as absolute truths is also a relative weakness, or limitation of his type of analysis. Since there was so little information regarding all the specific details of the culture, it would have probably been worthwhile to make assertions that were not so extreme in judging the culture. More specifically, the example where Borges claims that their culture was not based on any science tends to be misguided. The author is not aware of any limitations, religious beliefs or other cultural values that may have existed. Moreover, the translations from an archaic text should not be interpreted as direct translations as often times dialect, syntax and meaning heavily lost through time and translation.
While we are often faced with the difficulty of understanding and making claims about people and cultures based on limited evidence, it is nonetheless important to not fabricate and make broad assumptions as Jorge Borges does in his speculative fiction analysis of the Uqbar people. In doing so, the author often fabricates the negative nature of a culture by taking an egocentric perspective. Surely, Borges’ assumptions regarding how the culture used and interpreted their knowledge and portrayed it to the world was not entirely within the context of the historical time period. Even worse, the author’s analysis did not have a full volume of work from the culture that was in its original translation. Despite being a fictionalized account of a strange civilization, the means of analyzing the work along with the initial perspectives on reading and judging their culture was very telling of the way that we do so today. To exemplify, reviewing political and diplomatic tactics of medieval Europe may seem barbaric and ineffective by our standards but it was the way that society functioned. It is a much wiser approach to not generalize and make strong assertions about societies or cultures without considering the context, historical perspective and overall viewpoint from their perspective.
Borges, Jorge. "Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius." Collected Fictions: Jorge Luis Borges. New York: Penguin Books, 1941. 68-82. Print.
Cunningham, Lawrence, and John Reich. "Charlemagne and the Rise of Medieval Culture." Culture and Values. 6th Edition ed. Boston: Wadsworth Publishing, 2006. 185 - 189. Print.