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Contemplating Koi

To a certain extent this post assumes familiarity with the Borges’ short story “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”, which you can find here.

The freeways around Buenos Aires form a vast labyrinth with snaking asphalt paths. “Take that exit. No that one, THAT exit!” “Fuck! We almost got creamed by that bus, you’re going to get us killed!” “Shit! Is this where we’re supposed to be?” “We’re lost. Where the fuck are we going?” “I don’t know. According to the GPS we’re right where we’re supposed to be.” “Okay, we’re on Pasco. And there’s Moreno.” “Here it is. WTF. Where are we?

I owe the discovery of Uqbar to the concurrence of a mirror and an encyclopaedia.
-Jorge Luis Borges, Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius

GPS: Fail. We were to meet Luis Alvarez at Pasco 261, cross street Moreno. That is exactly where we were, but it looked like a rough neighborhood with low-slung buildings. As it happens in Argentina, we were immediately surrounded by friendly and helpful people, who after their initial empuzzlement on finding us in Ramos Mejía, soon pointed us in the right direction. Several days later Luis called to say: “I was just reviewing Borges’ ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’, and did you know that the mirror that led to the discovery of Uqbar was located in Ramos Mejía?” Sometimes the universe conspires to show us strange things – this time it had led us to the starting point for my favorite short story.

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Zodiaco – 1953, Xul Solar.

The story is rooted in the philosophy of George Berkeley, that objects are known by our perception of them. In fact Berkeley goes so far to say that that is the only way we know objects, so if our perception of the object changes, it changes the object itself. So that “cute colorful wiggly thing” drastically changes to “Oh shit, snake!” when it chews on your tent mate and leaves him writhing with agony. Borges cleverly keeps introducing unusual objects and concepts until Tlön is set to overwhelm Earth by displacing all perceptions about it.

For example, there is nothing equivalent to our word ‘moon’, but there is a verb that for us would be ‘to moonrise’ or ‘to moon’. ‘The moon rose over the river’ would be ‘Hlör u fang axaxaxas mlö’ or, literally, ‘Upward behind the lasting-flow it moonrose’. (Xul Solar translates this more succinctly as ‘Upward, behind the onstreaming, it mooned.’)
-Jorge Luis Borges, Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius

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Desarrollo del Yi Ching – 1953, Xul Solar.

“Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” betrays the the strong influence of Xul Solar, a friend of Borges’ who lived on Laprida street in Buenos Aires. There is a curious and quirky exhibition space where he used to live that is dedicated to his work, mostly art, but also the musical instruments and games he invented. It is difficult to categorize a person like Xul, the closest I analogy I can come up with is that he was a latter-day-Buenos-Aires equivalent of Leonardo da Vinci. Among the recurrent themes in his work are his fascination with the number twelve and the development of new languages to express his ideas. Two of his rather ambitious projects were neo-criollo, a new language for South America, and Pan-lingua, a formal universal language to express axioms, facts, and their derivations. This inspired me to think about everybody needing their own language to communicate that which is important to them. To me I use language in two ways – to communicate with myself (internal dialogue), and to communicate with others.

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Tu y Yo – 1923, Xul Solar.

So why a personal language, isn’t English sufficiently rich enough to express my personal experience? I would say no, how many times have you had that feeling “Augh! I just can’t express myself. It was on the tip of my tongue and now it is gone.” For example how do I represent the indescribable joy and serenity of watering my orchids at 5:30am in the morning? If I create a token, “Orchibliss”, I can interact with that feeling in an abstract way and improve my internal dialogue. I find that English in particular is quite restrictive in the words used to express the sensations of taste and smell. Most likely I would find Xul Solar’s languages deficient as well, if perhaps not in the same areas.

Xul Solar also encoded his artwork with a language of its own, one that unveils a transcendental state or euphoria and scholars are still trying realize the many layers of meaning in his paintings. Luis Alvarez told me “I have grown up with Xul Solar’s paintings and I always liked them, but now they speak to me.”

3 Responses to “Upward, behind the onstreaming, it mooned”

  1. Fred says:

    Creating language tokins! What fun! Here is one of mine: “airlinehatred”.

  2. unawoken says:

    Very interesting post! I will read this a few times

  3. Shreesh says:

    @Fred
    Its been a long time since I have designed a language; I feel it is time to do so again. I don’t think I would include that token – maybe “RagePreto” :)

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