- From Philosophical Idealism to Political Ideology in "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" and "Deutsches Requiem"
Jorge Luis Borges was first recognized as a great writer by post-structuralist and postmodernist critics who saw in his fictions a reflection on language as a universal library, a labyrinth with no exit; he was thought to have pioneered the discovery that "there is nothing outside the text." This interpretation, however, did nothing to counter the objections against his work from early in Borges's career: that it doesn't meet the writer's ethical responsibility to deepen our insight into the real, and in particular, that it lacks engagement with history and the political. In subsequent decades, however, a number of writers have sought, with some success, to show that there is a good deal of reference to history and the political in Borges's stories. The labor of contextualization carried out by these critics reminds us that no text, no matter how self-referential, exists in a historical vacuum.
Rather than trying to adjudicate between these two critical standpoints, I propose in this essay to carry forward the projects of both. I want to show that the concern with historico-political reality in Borges's fiction at times [End Page 205] takes the form of a reflection on language, and specifically on its seductiveness, its tendency to ensnare us in its labyrinth by causing us to think that its shape is the shape of reality. For Borges the type of discourse that was most dangerously seductive was always philosophy. Rightly understood, he thought, philosophy is a form of fiction; but it aspires to be a mirror of reality at its deepest, metaphysical, level. When carried to its extreme, the deluded ambition of metaphysics is magnified into the form of political ideology—language that functions as a component of sociopolitical reality. Thus, in reflecting on the labyrinth of language as ideology, Borges's fiction bends back around to touch historico-political reality.
Borges most obviously engages historical reality in his short story "Deutsches Requiem," a sort of dramatic monologue by a Nazi, Otto zur Linde, on the eve of his execution for war crimes, which has in recent years become a focus of critical debate. I will not, however, begin with "Deutsches Requiem"; the first and longer part of this essay, which will prepare the way for my interpretation of "Deutsches Requiem," shows how in "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" the seduction of idealist metaphysics on the fictional planet of Tlön, and subsequently on earth, functions as an allegorical figure for the seduction of political ideology. This allegory is hinted at by a remark the narrator makes near the end of the story about the flooding of the earth by the textuality of Tlön:
Ten years ago any symmetry with a semblance 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 planet?(1964, 17
Since the analogy between Tlön and "dialectical materialism, anti-Semitism, Nazism" seems casual and, indeed, far-fetched, I will have to reread the whole of this complicated story to show how it can be reinterpreted in detail in line with this remark. To conclude my argument, I will then turn briefly to Borges's explicit engagement with the seduction of Nazi ideology in the stunning "Deutsches Requiem." The tendency of philosophy to become ideology that is satirically pictured in "Tlön" is developed with frightening historical [End Page 206] concreteness in "Deutsches Requiem," suggesting that the allusion to Nazism in "Tlön" has deep resonances in Borge's thought.
Briefly put, my argument in this essay is that one should read "'Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius' in conjunction with 'Deutsches Requiem,'" because if one does so, one will never read either of these stories the same way again.
Borges and Idealism
The plot is set in motion when in the course of a conversation about literature the narrator hears from his friend Bioy Casares the following quotation: "Mirrors and copulation are abominable because they increase...