Until recently, the Hronir were the accidental products of distraction and forgetfulness. … A scattered dynasty of solitary men has changed the face of the world. Their task continues.
– Jorge-Luis Borges, Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius
Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius
In that delightful tale of the planet Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius
by Jorge Luis Borges we come upon those strange objects, the Hronir. Objects that have allowed archaeologists the ability to both interrogate and even to modify the past, which “is now no less plastic and docile than the future”.1 We discover these objects are both uncanny and weird, and the planet upon which they were discovered resembles that break from the principle of sufficient reason that Schopenhauer and Meillassoux see as the veritable power of contingency unbound: a place where “the duplication of lost objects is not infrequent”. One might think of Lacan’s objet petite a – that lost or missing object, the impossible object of jouissance that is irrecoverable; yet, exists in its very lostness, an object whose very presence is revealed in its utter absence. Like a Lover’s kiss that one can no longer imagine, but rather feel in the movement of one’s desire.
As Borges as tale-bearer will recite: “Two persons look for a pencil; the first finds it and says nothing; the second finds a second pencil, no less real, but closer to his expectations. These secondary objects are called hronir and are, though awkward in form, somewhat longer.” This notion of the noumenal impinging on the world of appearance in odd and uncanny ways underpins Borges’s satire of the Idealist notions in Plato, etc. For as his interlocutor says: “Centuries and centuries of idealism have not failed to influence reality.” You notice the phrasing in the negative sense, not positive. Idealism has not failed to influence reality. This notion of influence harkens back to its early etymological drift as an astrological term, “streaming ethereal power from the stars acting upon character or destiny of men,” from Old French influence “emanation from the stars that acts upon one’s character and destiny” (13c.), also “a flow of water,” from Medieval Latin influentia “a flowing in” (also used in the astrological sense), from Latin influentem (nominative influens), present participle of influere “to flow into,” from in- “into, in, on, upon” + fluere “to flow” . This notion of an inflowing from elsewhere that doesn’t so much as change reality, as it does the thoughts and minds of its human inhabitants, carries them beyond their shared illusions into that realm of Imagination from which we begin to see into things. For Borges this notion of influence in Idealism is of the noumenon that by indirect inflowing reduplicates the forms and substances of things, but in uncanny and strange ways that become truly materialist for the first time. His inversions of Idealism reveal the tension of things as real, a materialism that moves from the objects without us: the inflow, or influence from elsewhere is none other than the reality that is fused with the world not beyond it or behind it.
Borges himself will see it in temporal terms of cyclicity: “the process is cyclical: the hron of the twelfth degree begins to fall off in quality. Stranger and more pure than any hron is, at times, the ur: the object produced through suggestion, educed by hope.” In other words these hron are not so much actual objects as they are virtual potentials that can through the efforts of men under the influence of these objects produce unusual and creative results.
Borges has always been one of those satirical metaphysicians who twist and break ideas against the refinements of our expectations. He forces us gently to see things not as they are in themselves, but indirectly as they reveal themselves under the sign of strangeness. Neither an obscurantist, nor an Idealist he plays the traditions of Idealism against its own insurmountable obstacles. He plunges us into the labyrinth and mirrors to reveal the dark contours of a world that is both real and material; yet, is neither of those things as we have come to understand such objects. An immaterial materialism that allows things to mesh with ideas and release the energy in the immanent relations of their strangeness.
The anonymous character of this strange tale of the Immortals and their timeless City is one that still haunts my thoughts. A tale that is itself a fiction of a fiction that purports to be the truth as told by one ancient Thebean of Thebes who lived during the age of Diocletian is without a doubt a Borgean masterpiece. As our interlocutor discovers for himself after a dangerous and lengthy travail in the great hidden deserts of Arabia he discovers the traceless path into the Immortals City. After wandering through it endless alcoves and labyrinths he realizes it is not what he thought it would be, that in fact:
This City, I thought, is so horrific that its mere existence, the mere fact of its having endured – even in the middle of a secret desert – pollutes the past and the future and somehow compromises the stars. So long as this City endures, no one in the world can ever be happy or courageous. (ibid. p. 188)
After wandering around this magnificent artifact from a time out of time he begins to discern that the – as he terms them, Troglodytes who inhabit the caves and hills surrounding this ancient edifice are indeed the descendants of its original builders:
The Troglodytes were the Immortals; the stream and its sand-laden waters, the River sought by the rider. As for the City whose renown had spread to the Ganges, the Immortals had destroyed it almost nine hundred years ago. Out of the shattered remains of the City’s ruin they had build on the same spot the incoherent city… that parody or antithesis of City which was also a temple to the irrational gods that rule the world and to those gods about whom we know nothing save that they do not resemble man. The founding of this city was the last symbol to which the Immortals had descended; it marks the point at which, esteeming all exertion vain, they resolved to live in thought, in pure speculation. (ibid., p. 190)
His guide through this fabulous city of the dead and Immortal is none other than Homer, the Poet. Just before he leaves Homer will relate to him a truth:
Death … makes men precious and pathetic; their ghostliness is touching; any act they perform may be their last; there is no face that is not on the verge of blurring and fading away like the faces in a dream. Everything in the world of mortals has the value of the irrecoverable and contingent. Among the Immortals, on the other hand, every act (every thought) is the echo of others that precede it in the past, with no visible beginning, and the faithful presage of others that will repeat it in the future, ad vertiginem. There is nothing that is not as though lost between indefatigable mirrors. Nothing can occur but once, nothing is preciously in peril of being lost. The elegiac, the somber, the ceremonial are not modes of the Immortals hold in reverence. Homer and I went our separate ways at the portals of Tangier; I do not think we said goodbye. (ibid. p. 192)
The interlocutor himself who recites the tale of the Immortals and their City in the secret desert in a postscript reveals his own complicity in the truth of the tale when he tells us that the images have fallen beyond memory, that only words remain. He will then say: “It is not strange that time may have confused those that once portrayed me with those that were symbols of the fate of the person that accompanied me for so many centuries. I have been Homer; soon, like Ulysses, I shall be Nobody; soon, I shall be all men – I shall be dead.” (ibid., p. 194)
One needs no commentary for such and explication as this, the Immortal is that which becomes all men and becomes no one, and nothing. Is this not the truth of that Immortal City in the ruins of the secret desert we build around us even now?
1. Jorge-Luis Borges. Collected Fictions. ed. Andrew Hurley ( Penguin, 1998)