The Mirror and the Encyclopedia
Orbis Tertius: The Mirror and the Encyclopedia
Paper presented at Druskininkai Poetic Fall, Vilnius, Lithuania
October 3-6, 2008
San Francisco State University
Orbis Primus is the world as is; it’s the rock that Samuel Johnson kicked to refute the Idealism of Berkeley. This first world of nature, civilization, and other physical matter (including ourselves) makes imagination possible. Orbis Secundus is the world of imagination, memory, representation, and art. Here we also find accidents of perception, such as mishearing, an uncanny poetry of the everyday. Philosophy is keen on this second world, for example the famous relation of word to thing. It is also an area of dispute regarding the illusion-making faculty of poetry, without which Coleridge’s “Christabel” and Yeats’ “Leda and the Swan” would have little force. By joining the visual potency of language, ekphrasis, with movement, such poetry creates a mental cinema that seems almost real, therefore believable. The film semiotician Christian Metz refers to the experience of the real in art as diegesis, a narrative that creates a reality but also admits to its status as a telling. The American phenomenon of language poetry shows its puritanical side in opposing, as illusory, both narrative and the image-icon. Ironically, it makes a claim for the erotics of its oblique and intermittent phrasing, a la Roland Barthes in his comments on zero-degree writing. But a large part of poetry’s power is its ability to “world,” to borrow from Heidegger, through seeing. Common sense and experience tell us that readers aren’t fooled by literary apparitions; they know what they are and delight in them. Adorno writes, “Now, just before the curtain rises there is an instant of expectation: everybody is waiting for an apparition.” (Adorno121) We go to writing for information and pleasure. Why deny the sensual world of objects and their shadows? Do I have to hold a brick in my hand every time I want to use the word brick?
If Orbis Primus is the thing, and Orbis Secundus is the words for the thing, Orbis Tertius is the resulting complex of meaning (poem, city, civilization, dream world, English garden, not as reality but as idea). As a mental construction of seemingly little permanence, it’s a world far in, rather than far out. Borges’ 1940 story “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” begins, “I owe the discovery of Uqbar to the conjunction of a mirror and an encyclopedia.” (Borges 3) Like the lost mountain in René Daumal’s novel, Mount Analogue, Uqbar exists only metaphysically and metaphorically, not in material reality. Orbis Tertius is the icebound Arctic ship on which Victor Frankenstein meets his creation eye to eye, a monster who, out of revenge for his grotesqueness and lost bride, has destroyed all that is dear to his maker. It’s Zeus descending as a swan to ravish Leda. In the Borges story, four pages are missing from Volume XLVI of the fictional Anglo-American Dictionary; it is those pages, of 921, that describe the conditions of Uqbar. Thus, imaginary pages describe an imaginary land of imaginary conditions. As readers, we trust that Jorge Luis Borges was a man of real flesh who lived in Buenos Aires and wrote: “For one of those gnostics, the visible universe was an illusion or (more precisely) a sophism. Mirrors and fatherhood are abominable because they multiply and disseminate that universe.” (Borges 4)
Ancient Greek sophists could win any side of an argument through verbal skill and false reasoning. They had no particular commitment to truth and would sell their services in the agora. According to Borges, “The metaphysicians of Tlön do not seek for truth or even verisimilitude, but rather for the astounding.” (Borges 10) For instance, Tlön has a transparent tiger and a tower of blood. In Tlön, the only science is psychology, even though there are no people. Tlönian literature “abounds in ideal objects, which are convoked and dissolved in a moment, according to poetic needs.” (9)
Borges’ story is a burlesque on Idealism. What we experience is an airy copy, like shadows cast on a cave wall. Half of western thought is built upon such an assumption, in other words, upon a poetic image. According to an online article, in Plato’s myth of Er, the cosmos consists not of bands of light and darkness (Parmenides), or spheres, “but of the ‘lips’ of concentric whorls fitted into one another like a nest of boxes.” (Burnet, section 93, “The Stephanae”) Compared to the story of Er, Uqbar suddenly doesn’t seem so outlandish. Cosmologists are inevitably poets.
Given the tone of our own time, it’s important to note the story’s political resonance. The directors of the Orbis Tertius have leaked news of its existence into the real world, with the result that ideal objects have been disseminated throughout it:
“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?” (Borges 17)
Today, we have our own orderly plant, the spread of global capitalism and corporate power. Following the fall of the Trade Towers in 2001, the U. S. has abandoned any pretense that it is not a ruthless world power. Under Bush-Cheney, it has suspended habeas corpus, tortured prisoners, damaged the constitution, seized power in all three branches of government, ignored the needs of its citizens (excuse me, consumers), refused to execute laws passed by Congress, and opened the treasury to corporate looters through lax regulations and war profiteering. All these developments were licensed by the images of 911. If to any degree, they were manipulated to give an impression of reality, we do indeed live in a repressive Wag the Dog world (compare Bela Tarr’s Werkmeister Harmonies, a chilling fable of demagoguery). A false image can send people racing through the streets with farm implements in hand.
Poetry is expected to be in good faith. We trust that it is unencumbered in its pursuit of truth and beauty, old and new. Why should poetry be anything but sincere? When a poem is true, even its artifice is surpassing.
Things themselves are true; they could not be truer. A stone is always stone, and a wall is eine Mauer. They are ancient and faithful markers of the world as found. You can try to lie in poetry about the stone, but we won’t believe you. We know it too well. If someone writes that wind and stars sweep through a stone, we test the truth of it on our nerves; that is, on poetry’s terms as well as those of science. This particular proposition may be true even to science. Some stones have fallen from space in flame; they’ve rested underground for thousands of years, in the dark.
Can art be true in one way, for instance technically, but assert something untrue? In Heidegger’s clearing, or Open, the truth is unconcealed, something so deeply familiar that it seems true for the first time. We enter the journey with the hope, or even expectation, that a clearing lies ahead. But when that journey is entirely mapped, the recognition is puny and the art impoverished. A carpenter or a professor may know what is plumb, right, and true, see beauty in it, and go home to beat his wife. There is beauty in right angles and parallel lines that never meet. The right angle is rational and objective; Rodchenko and Tatlin, who avoided the curved line as lyrical and bourgeois, would have seen its beauty. Parallel lines are mystical and whimsical, because the axiom that they will never meet can only be proved by imagination. This sort of brave, laughable, metaphysical puzzle, on a hopeful traipse after its forever-to-be-unproved proof, is my idea of a good time in poetry. Farewell, parallel lines, immortal train tracks, emblem of the soul’s destination, that seem to meet just as they disappear, but not really!
Charles Simic, author of Return to a Place Lit by a Glass of Milk, employs such whimsical and intellectual imagery. The world is full of real things, such as milk, that poets can’t stop investigating. The more scrupulous the research of object as object, the greater the metaphysical investment, the more intense the drama, and the closer it is to silence and mythology. Simic’s poem “The Wall” contains this stanza:
The fly I was watching,
The details of its wings
Glowing like turquoise,
Its feet, to my amusement
Following a minute crack—
Around that simple event.
The metaphysical is rarely warm and cozy. It’s the recognition of the solitude of things. Simic’s poetry reminds us that poetry, indeed all literature, creates allegorical worlds. The literary modes of the fable and dream underlie much of his work, both fictional in their “worlding.”
Borrowing from Martin Buber, Jerome Rothenberg wrote that the truth of a thing is like a kernel of grain; the husk is its outward appearance. But the gleaming kernel shouldn’t get all the attention; the husk, in its pale overcoat, also has metaphysical character. What matters to poetry is the true fiction that such things make possible. In the work I most enjoy, the representation is as real as the thing. I suspect this makes me an idealist.
Without the thing, there is no representation and no poem. Without representation, the thing is unrecognizable. In one sense, truth is an imaginary, which doesn’t mean it’s not true. It sounds like an old science fiction movie, but all of these worlds collide, intersect, and coincide, which is largely the point of Wallace Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”: “A man and a woman / Are one. / A man and a woman and a blackbird / Are one.” (Stevens 93)
Laura Riding eventually abandoned poetry in the belief that it is a “lying art.” She was uncomfortable in the Orbis Secundus of suggestion, representation, and shadow play. Obviously, she had no sense of humor.
In the postmodern period, much doubt has been cast on lyricism, but the same scholars who condemn it probably love mournful songs and the changing color of wheat as wind presses it down on a field. In poetry, the accuracy of the fiction does the singing. It’s what the mirror told the encyclopedia, and the other way around.
Adorno, Theodore. Aesthetic Theory. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1970/1984.
Borges, Jorge Luis. “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.” Labyrinths: Selected Stories & Other Writing, Ed. Donald A. Yates and James E. Irby. New York: New Directions, 1964.
Burnet, John. “Early Greek Philosophy, Chapter IV, Parmenides of Elea.”
Simic, Charles. “A Wall.” Charon’s Cosmology. New York: George Braziller, 1977.
Stevens, Wallace. “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” The Collected Poems. New York: Vintage, 1982.