"Reading at the Roche Limit"

Brook Aidan Rosini


That which is identical to itself

            On Tuesday, X crosses a deserted road and loses nine copper coins.  On Thursday, Y finds in the road four coins, somewhat rusted by Wednesday’s rain.  On Friday, Z discovers three coins in the road.  On Friday morning, X finds two coins in the corridor of his house.  The heresiarch would deduce from this story the reality—i.e., the continuity—of the nine coins which were recovered.  It is absurd (he affirmed) to imagine that four of the coins have not existed between Tuesday and Thursday, three between Tuesday and Friday afternoon, two between Tuesday and Friday morning.  It is logical to think that they have existed—at least in some secret way, hidden from the comprehension of men—at every moment of those three periods.
            The language of Tlön resists the formulation of this paradox; most people did not even understand it.  The defenders of common sense at first did no more than negate the veracity of the anecdote.  They repeated that it was a verbal fallacy, based on the rash application of two neologisms not authorized by usage and alien to all rigorous thought: the verbs “find” and “lose,” which beg the question, because they presuppose the identity of the first and of the last nine coins.  They recalled that all nouns (man, coin, Thursday, Wednesday, rain) have only a metaphorical value.  They denounced the treacherous circumstance “somewhat rusted by Wednesday’s rain,” which presupposes what is trying to be demonstrated: the persistence of the four coins from Tuesday to Thursday.  They explained that equality is one thing and identity another, and formulated a kind of reductio ad absurdum: the hypothetical case of nine men who on nine successive nights suffer a severe pain.  Would it not be ridiculous—they questioned—to pretend that this pain is one and the same?   They said that the heresiarch was prompted only by the blasphemous intention of attributing the divine category of being to some simple coins and that at times he negated plurality and at other times did not.  They argued: if equality implies identity, one would also have to admit that the nine coins are one.
            Unbelievably, these refutations were not definitive.  A hundred years after the problem was stated, a thinker no less brilliant than the heresiarch but of orthodox tradition formulated a very daring hypothesis.  This happy conjecture affirmed that there is only one subject, that this indivisible subject is every being in the universe and that these beings are the organs and masks of the divinity.  X is Y and is Z.  Z discovers three coins because he remembers that X lost them; X finds two in the corridor because he remembers that the others have been found . . .

Today, one of the churches of Tlön Platonically maintains that a certain pain, a certain greenish tint of yellow, a certain temperature, a certain sound, are the only reality.  All men, in the vertiginous moment of coitus, are the same man.  All men who repeat a line from Shakespeare are William Shakespeare.

Jorge Luis Borges, "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius," 11-12. From Labyrinths, editors Donald A. Yates and James E. Irby. New York, NY: New Directions Publishing Corporation, 1964.