Back in March 2020, when the Covid-19 pandemic was taking over the world, we didn’t foresee that a separate contagion was about to explode. Conspiracy theories had been spreading for years, but their infectious power seemed limited, to the point that those who caught the disease were thought of as quirky characters, at worst annoying. But then billions of people took shelter at once, stuck to their multiple screens with anxiety-grade glue, and began consuming (dis)information at a faster rate than ever before. It was an ideal breeding ground.
Maybe even you, reader, have lain in bed on sleepless nights and wondered—and this you’ll confess to no one—if maybe, just possibly, the YouTube documentary, or Twitter thread, or WhatsApp message from your uncle makes a tiny bit of sense. Covid-19 vaccines contain microchips for governments to better control and surveil us; Covid-19 is caused by electromagnetic waves emanating from 5G networks; Covid-19 is a Chinese bio-weapon, or an American bio-weapon, or perhaps a population-control strategy devised by Bill Gates—a member of an international cabal of pedophiles ruling the world.
Perhaps frightened by the hypnotic power and the unrivaled virality of conspiracy theories, the media has rushed to check in with sociologists, psychologists, neurologists, politicians, evolutionary biologists—programmers even, and, in the clutches of desperation, philosophers. But curiously, they haven’t yet turned to the intellectuals who lie—who come up with their own worlds and their own imagined theories—for a living: fiction writers.
When I took up Jorge Luis Borges in the summer of 2020, I didn’t do so expecting answers on this particular matter; I actually returned to his books and short stories to find shelter from the deluge of articles, video analyses, tweets, and Facebook posts attempting to explain the phenomenon. Returning to Borges has always felt like a homecoming for me. In the house where I grew up, books with his name on the spine held a privileged position. In fact, my parents loved his writing so much they named me after him, and perhaps it was my name that drove me to read, all those years ago, at a perhaps ill-advisedly young age, his short story “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.”
I didn’t understand it back then, though I loved the word-sounds and the sight of its tightly knit black letters on the yellowed paper. Since then, I’ve periodically revisited the same volume. In fact, when I left Mexico to study semiotics in Estonia, the only book I brought with me was that heavy 1974 Emecé edition of Borges’s collected works. Reading him soothes me in the way conversation with an old, wise mentor does. And the best part—as with all true classics—is that he always has something new to say. Last summer, Borges made the world comprehensible to me again.
In my new opinion, Borges’s Ficciones is the best treatise, parable, warning, and instruction manual on conspiracy theories. The story I attempted to read as a child opens the collection, and in it, a fictional Borges reads about Uqbar, a region of the Middle East, in a volume of the Anglo-American Cyclopaedia owned by his friend Adolfo Bioy Casares. As they compare editions, they find no reference to Uqbar in the one fictitious-Borges owns. This leads Borges on a quest that eventually yields the eleventh tome of what’s titled A First Encyclopaedia of Tlön. In it, he learns about Tlön, an apparently non-existent planet made up by “Orbis Tertius,” a secret society that worked for centuries to produce forty volumes in which all the minutiae of this imagined place are explored—its history, literature, chemistry, physics, mathematics, zoology, botany, and astronomy. In a postscript, fictitious-Borges says that the complete encyclopaedia can be found in a library in Memphis, that reprints of the same now populate the libraries of the world, and it would only be a matter of time before objects from Tlön started appearing on Earth, and worse, Tlön’s knowledge had already started to replace common curricula in schools. “Almost immediately” he says, “The truth . . . wanted to cave in.”
What interested me most this time was the rationale that the protagonist uses to explain humanity’s quiet relinquishing of reality in favor of fiction: “How could the world not fall under the sway of Tlön?” asks fictitious-Borges. When confronted with an impenetrable real world whose vastness overwhelms us, how could we not yield to this strange but perfectly ordered planet? “Tlön may well be a labyrinth, but it is a labyrinth forged by men, a labyrinth destined to be deciphered by men,” the author writes.
Whereas in “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” we encounter a world being colonized by fiction, in “The Lottery in Babylon” this procedure happened centuries ago, and people prefer to believe there is an intellect, an order, behind chance. In “The Lottery in Babylon,” the narrator explains the history and operation of a lottery which, through a convoluted sequence of events spanning eons, went from being a regular game of luck to ruling over every aspect of life in the kingdom. The complexity and breadth that the lottery acquired gave the secretive committee in charge of its management, known only as The Company, omnipotence. In the last lines of the story, the narrator speaks of heretics who deny The Company’s existence and even some who declare that the question whether it exists or not is inconsequential since “Babylon is nothing but an infinite game of chance.”
The systems of belief in “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” and “The Lottery of Babylon” don’t need to be reassuring, nor do their reasons have to be understandable, to win adherents; these theories, these beliefs, have only to posit a reason behind it all, because what is unbearable to humans, in today’s world or Borges’s, is not suffering, but a lack of meaning.
In the universe Borges presents, everything is a sign, a ciphered message, a movement on the chess board where we are mere pawns. “But what God beyond God begins the round?” Borges wondered years later in a sonnet about chess. With the same relief and horror as the protagonist of “The Circular Ruins,” Borges realizes that he, like everyone else, is the dream of another. The only thing more terrifying than to discover “I don’t control my own fate,” he goes on, is to discover that no one does: the dream is without a dreamer—we are subjects of vertigo.
Borges doesn’t yield to the abyss with anguish or bitterness (he is not, after all, his beloved Schopenhauer), but with elegance and—dare I say it—levity. Borges’s antidote to this mournful intuition is a delicious irony, the art of the understatement that he learned from British writers, particularly De Quincey. In hyper-intellectual labyrinths built with an arduously polished language, he leaves fissures for his naughty smirk to shine through like the Cheshire cat’s smile. Borges knows too well—and this with reverence more than pain—that there is no ulterior meaning, or, if there is, we won’t find out. He knows, therefore, that all we have, and all we are, is stories.
In “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” which features the delirious word-for-word rewriting of Cervantes’s novel by a crazed twentieth-century French author, the exegete who is profusely annotating sections of both Cervantes’s Quixote and Menard’s, highlights the following excerpt: “truth, whose mother is history, rival of time, depository of deeds, witness of the past, exemplar and adviser to the present, and the future’s counselor.” To the critical eye of the narrator, Cervantes’s line “is mere rhetorical praise of history,” while Menard’s idea is “staggering,” given that Menard, “a contemporary of William James, defines history not as a delving into reality but as the very fount of reality. Historical truth, for Menard, is not “what happened”; it is what we believe happened.”
What matters is what we believe happened. The facts are one thing, impenetrable—witness those registered by the prodigious memory of Funes, whose mind is tormented by the sheer amount of undigested reality he absorbs. What is relevant to the rest of us, though—people blessed with a mediocre memory—is the agreed-on interpretation of said facts.
This implies, of course, that reality—or the agreement we have concerning it—is precarious, fallible, multiple.
The claim of a “post-truth era” is just one more way we’ve found of claiming uniqueness in history. Already in the seventeenth-century, Daniel Defoe denounced lies that spread faster than the plague—in a book that was itself a heavily researched novel posing as a first-person account. Borges can remind us that reality is a fact independent of our ideas about it, yes, but that human reality is always a complex weave of meanings and, as such, is vulnerable. We have always been a tribe of stories; we are all capable of preferring one narrative to another, sometimes just because it’s easy to understand or favorable to our worldview.
One last story by Borges, “Death and the Compass,” can stand as a cautionary tale. In it, detective Lönnrot rejects his partner’s sensible explanation of a murder by saying: “Possible, but uninteresting. You will reply that reality has not the slightest obligation to be interesting. I will reply in turn that reality may get along without that obligation, but hypotheses may not. In the hypothesis that you suggest, here, on the spur of the moment, chance plays a disproportionate role.”
It’s more interesting to think of this global pandemic as the result of an intricate global plot than to accept that it’s simply due to chance and human negligence. The same logic applies to most unproven conspiracies, no matter how fascinatingly absurd.
The excerpts from Ficciones are translated by Andrew Hurley (Penguin Press, 1998). The line from “Chess” is translated by Alastair Reed.
Jorge Luis Flores Hernández is a Mexican semiotician, writer, and translator currently living in Tallinn, Estonia. He has published short stories in the anthologies Vampiro y otros cuentos, Poquito porque es bendito, and Para leerlos todos, as well as in the magazines Alternativas and Dédalo. He has won first and third prize in the National Literary Contest of the Tecnológico de Monterrey and first prize in the Literature Awards of León. (updated 3/2021)
“The Bad Photographer,” a short story by Juan Villoro at AGNI Online, was Hernández’s first published literary translation.