Monday, July 02, 2012

Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius

For the last few days I've been adapting a book about the battle of Philippi for a general-interest military history series. It's been a frustrating process. The book I'm working from was written by a classicist, and so uses latin terminology constantly, seemingly unaware that most people don't know what, for example, a ‘equestris’ is. He'll write something like ‘before Gaius landed on the west coast of Asia he had the quaestor declared a hostis’, and expect the reader to just know what a quaestor is, what hostis means, and not be baffled by the idea that Asia has a west coast.

The thing that's most frustrating, however, is the sheer mind-boggling amount of detail he goes into. He describes every double-cross (there were lots) every faction and every minor player. Just in the introductory background section he drops about a squillion names, mentioning everyone from the supreme over-emperor of everywhere to the bloke who carried Brutus' stabbing irons to the theatre. Everyone has a backstory, a family history, and a list of motivations and grudges. These descriptions, though extensive, also manage to be entirely useless to a non-specialist as they are peppered with references to events and personages whose significance is never explained.

This breadth of allusion is what I find strange about this book (and pretty much all classical history books). The author writes like he's describing events that he lived through and, more strangely, that his audience lived through as well. I could learn what all these terms mean (well, I have, obviously, otherwise I wouldn't have been able to write the article) but I'd still feel like a foreigner in their world. I'm not a Roman.

I'd been mulling this over for about a week when – woken by a premature hangover and unable to get back to sleep – I took my wife's slab-thick Complete Works of Jorge Luis Borges down to the living room and curled up on the sofa. The story I found myself reading was ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’, one of my favorites. It's about a man who discovers an encyclopedia entry about a country that doesn't exist. This article turns out to be just a tiny fragment of a much larger work, a massive, Brittanica-like encyclopedia which stretches to hundreds of volumes, detailing every conceivable aspect of an entirely fictional world called Tlön. It is the secret work of generations of scholars, a vast enterprise that drew in specialists from every field imaginable.

Near the end of the story someone finds a complete set of the Encyclopedia of Tlön. It becomes a runaway hit, republished in every language, and reprinted constantly. The narrator then goes on to describe the effect it had on the world:

“Manuals, anthologies, summaries, literal versions, authorized re-editions and pirated editions of the ‘Greatest Work of Man’ flooded and still flood the earth. Almost immediately, reality yielded on more than one account. The truth is that it longed to yield. Ten years ago any symmetry with a resemblance of order – dialectical materialism, anti-Semitism, Nazism – was sufficient to entrance the minds of men. How could one do other than submit to Tlön, to the minute and vast evidence of an orderly plant? It is useless to answer that reality is also orderly. Perhaps it is, but in accordance with divine laws – I translate: inhuman laws – which we never quite grasp. Tlön is surely a labyrinth, but it is a labyrinth devised by men, a labyrinth destined to be deciphered by men.

The contact and the habit of Tlön have disintegrated this world. Enchanted by its rigor, humanity forgets over and again that it is a rigor of chess masters, not of angels. Already the schools have been invaded by the (conjectural) ‘primitive language’ of Tlön; already the teaching of its harmonious history (filled with moving episodes) has wiped out the one which governed in my childhood; already a fictitious past occupies in our memories the place of another, a past of which we know nothing with certainty.”

To my mind, this description works just as well for Rome.

I'm not saying that the Roman world never existed, just that it never existed in the form that we know it. What we think of as ancient Rome is not the civilization that once thrived on the shores of the Mediterranean, but a virtual civilization that still lives, insofar as it ever has, in an endless stream of written material.

Modern-archaeology aside, Rome is a paper-bound civilization that extends only as far as the edges of what people wrote down. As a result it is eminently knowable and finite, a far more comforting subject for study than the world around us. Even when there are contradictions or ambiguities in the written world of Rome, the problem easily identified as one of exegesis.

People like myself often look back through the broad sweep of history and say ‘it's only once people dropped religion that they started making progress’. I think this is true to an extent, but I think religion’s stultifying effect had a secular analogue – an enchanting, idealized world that captivated the minds of generations of scholars. It can also be said that it's only once we, as a culture, stopped trying to recreate ancient Rome – one bored latin student at a time – that we managed to get anywhere.