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Tlön, R’lyeh, Orbis Tertius (Notes for my Bibliofantasies Panel)

November 2nd, 2012

Friday 3:00 p.m. Vaughan BIBLIOFANTASIES
Many classics of the fantasy and supernatural revolve around mysterious, exotic, arcane, or potentially threatening books or collections of books. The panel will go beyond the Necronomicon to discuss examples, and the enduring popularity of the trope. Helen Marshall (M), Tina Connolly, Jennifer Crowe, Michael DeLuca, Don Pizarro.

All books are codifications of thought–they take something mutable and subjective and make it fixed and objective. This has vast potential negative consequences; e.g. religious doctrines. Writing anything down is an act of exclusion.

Myth-encodification

  • Book of the Dead, Egyptian, Tibetan
  • Popol Vuh – fascinating example because lost and found again. What happened to the myth in the intervening time? It exploded.
  • Plato’s Phaedrus – A Socratic dialogue wherein Socrates shoots down the written word as lazy and weak.
  • The standardization of the Bible. apocrypha, gospel of Judas
  • Malleus Maleficarum
  • Grimm’s, Mabinogion

Fictional books are a resistance to this process. They restore subjectivity and mutability–at least, until somebody actually tries to write them. Thinking about this conflict leads me to Borges and Lovecraft: Lovecraft because he’s in the panel description, Borges because I’m pretty much always thinking about Borges.

Lovecraft
“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.” –Lovecraft, “The Call of Cthulhu”

By which of course he means also the opposite, that terror is founded on the attempt to correlate experience with that which contradicts experience. I really like and am sad that I can’t corroborate the theory (Wikipedia, elsewhere) that Abdul Alhazred’s last name comes from “all has read”, that the Necronomicon is the result of a human being attempt to comprehend everything–or at least, everything that has been written.

Wilbur had with him the priceless but imperfect copy of Dr. Dee’s English version which his grandfather had bequeathed him, and upon receiving access to the Latin copy he at once began to collate the two texts with the aim of discovering a certain passage which would have come on the 751st page of his own defective volume. This much he could not civilly refrain from telling the librarian–the same erudite Henry Armitage (A. M. Miskatonic, Ph. D. Princeton, Litt.D. Johns Hopkins) who had once called at the farm, and who now politely plied him with questions. He was looking, he had to admit, for a kind of formula or incantation containing the frightful name of Yog-Sothoth, and it puzzled him to find discrepancies, duplications, and ambiguities which made the matter of determination far from easy. As he copied the formula he finally chose, Dr. Armitage looked involuntarily over his shoulder at the open pages; the left-hand one of which, in the Latin version, contained such monstrous threats to the peace and sanity of the world.

–Lovecraft, “The Dunwich Horror”

Borges

“…an enormous circular book with a continuous spine…that cyclical book is God.” –Borges, “The Library of Babel”

“Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” is the fragmentary, subjective history of a conspiracy to create an encyclopedia describing a fictional culture whose establishing principle is subjectivity. It may in fact be an indirect reference or homage to the Necronomicon? Lovecraft died 1937, story first published 1940. And we know Borges read Lovecraft, though he didn’t like him much, because later he wrote “There are More Things”, an acknowledged Lovecraft homage (in reference to which Borges calls Lovecraft “un parodista involuntario de Poe”). And (skipping over Clark Ashton Smith etc) the fan reproductions/insertion of Necronomicon entries in card catalogues etc seems to originate in the 70s, possibly influenced in turn by Borges (or by a secret conspiracy to allow Borges to influence the legacy of Lovecraft)? Cool! Johannes Valentinus Andrea, 17th century philosopher referenced in “Tlön”, “invents” the Rosicrucians in approximately the same way Borges invents the cult of the Necronomicon? Through satire. Hee! And by drawing this silly connection, I am more or less aping the philosophers and literary theorists of Tlön, who “seek not truth, or even plausibility–they seek to amaze, astound.”

Consider, with respect to all this, the old saw that it becomes less scary once you see it. Lovecraft suffers from this–At the Mountains of Madness becomes a story about eldritch cosmic bureaucrats once we learn too much about them. In “The Dunwich Horror” I wish the big slimy whipporwill-tweeting thing would have stayed invisible. Does this mean being in the position of Adbul Alhazred–knowing everything and making the decision to record the most awful part of it (making it the truth?) would actually be, not sublime, not awe-ful, but freaking boring?

Still, for some reason, in this my fourth or fifth time through “Tlön, Uqbar”, I find myself most intrigued by the reclusive Texan millionaire, Ezra Buckley, whose arrogance impels the clandestine society of Tlön to create not a country but a planet, and who ends up being as responsible as anybody in this story for the world’s true history being eclipsed by that of Tlön. I’m kind of itching to write a story about him.

More Fictional Books in Classic Genre

  • Eco – Name of the Rose
  • Alexander – The Book of Three
  • Gaiman – Sandman, Destiny’s book, the Library of Lost Books
  • Ende – The Neverending Story – interesting example, since it at once creates the fictional book and codifies that book, but only partly so. As I interpret it, the second half of the novel breaks out of the bindings of the fictional Neverending Story, though of course not the physical one.

Fictional Books I’ve Read Recently and in the Near Future

  • Carlos Ruiz Zafon – The Shadow of the Wind
  • Gabriela Damian Miravete – “Future Nereid”, in Three Messages and a Warning
  • Me – “Other Palimpsests”, everybody else (or so I presume) in Bibliotheca Fantastica
  • Samatar – A Stranger in Olondria – There’s an ebook coupon for a free sample of this in your WFC swag bags.

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