What Shalizi Doesn’t Know

Cosma Shalizi writes of a discovery — an unexpected appearance of Borges’ “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.”

An edition of the old translation of this story, illustrated by an artist signing themselves only as “Rikki”, and published in 1983 by a press called the Porcupine’s Quill in Erin, Ontario. (Found, presumably mis-filed, in the cultural studies section of one of the two decent used book stores I’ve found in Pittsburgh.) The illustrations are dedicated to Carl Sagan, among others, and are nicely weird, menacing and suggestive. The map of Uqbar is also well done. I know nothing about the artist but would like to learn more.

Re-reading, I am struck by the terrific economy with which Borges tells the story of an elaborate, centuries-spanning conspiracy to take over the world. It is only too easy to imagine how much more space any contemporary author would take to tell this story, without adding anything to the effect. For that matter, why not a summer action movie version? (It’s hardly a greater stretch than what they do to Philip K. Dick.)

Either Shalizi doesn’t know or he was prevented from saying that Borges was the uncredited original author of Fight Club (1999). Don’t believe me? Just read this excerpt from a review Borges published of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941).

The structure of the film is even more rudimentary than its theology. In the book, the identity of Jekyll and Hyde is a surprise: the author saves it for the end of the ninth chapter. The allegorical tale pretends to be a detective story; no reader guesses that Hyde and Jekyll are the same person. The very title of the book makes us assume that they are two. There is nothing easier than shifting this device to the screen. Let us imagine any detective mystery: two well-known actors figure in the plot (let us say George Raft and Spencer Tracy); they may use analogous words or refer to events that presuppose a common past. When the mystery seems inexplicable, one of them swallows the magic drug and changes into the other. (Of course the successful execution of this plan would require two or three phonetic adjustments, such as changing the protagonists’ names.) More civilized than I, Victor Fleming avoids all surprise and mystery: in the early scenes of the film, Spencer Tracy fearlessly drinks the versatile potion and transforms himself into Spencer Tracy, with a different wig and Negroid features.

It’s all so obvious, isn’t it?

3 thoughts on “What Shalizi Doesn’t Know”

  1. That’s actually how I characterize my career, my social life and anything else of note that I do: it’s all so Top Secret that I could figure out what I’m doing, but then I’d have to kill myself.

  2. Borges in “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” — “Another believes that, while we are asleep here, we are awake somewhere else, adn that thus every man is two men.”
    ie: Tyler Durden and the unnamed narrator of Fight Club: one man, two men.

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