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After his graduation from Trinity College in 1704, Irish philosopher, mathematician, and clergyman George Berkeley developed his initial theory of immaterialism, revising his ideas in 1707 with his famous formulation that “to be is to be perceived.”
His theory of immaterialism was greatly misunderstood to be congruent with that of some of his contemporaries, especially the Materialists who fostered the idea that material objects have only intermittent existence; that they come into existence when perceived and pass into nothingness when no longer perceived. While Berkeley respected this view, he did not hold it, and denied that it followed from his principles.
The general misunderstanding deepened with the publication in 1710 of his A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge, in which he expanded his ideas about immaterialism to include all objects of sense. The epistemological consequences of his treatise required him to defend and further explicate his theory to the philosophical community. This he did in a variety of venues, culminating in his 1712 discourse The Tendency towards Existence. As he wrote in the book’s introduction, Berkeley chose to have it published invisibly in order to put a visceral point on his argument. Objects, he said, when not actually being perceived, are still there, still perceivable, “still with relation to perception.” In his most famous statement from this work, he writes, “I question not the existence of anything we perceive by our senses. . . . We may ride our favorite horse, or engage in careful reading , but when we do not, the horse is in the stable, the Books are in the study as before.”
The irony of the book’s publication method is offset, however, by the deeper irony that Berkeley, along with his friend and colleague Jonathan Swift, was a member of Orbis Tertius, and for a time its secretary, making some of the finest contributions to the society’s mythological realities, which by the late 20th century have come to frame how we perceive and understand our own material existence.
On loan from Foundation Orbis Tertius
For almost half a century this title by Silas Haslam was known only by its reference in two sources: an entry in a catalog of the British bookseller Bernard Quaritch, and a mention in the bibliography to an encyclopedia article on the country of Uqbar found in some, but not all printings of the forty-sixth volume of the 1917 edition of The Anglo-American Cyclopaedia (which is itself only a pirated reprint of the 1902 Encyclopaedia Britannica).
That no one had ever heard of Uqbar, and that evidence of such a land appeared only in a handful of printings of an unscrupulously published encyclopedia would have consigned Haslam’s title to the category of hoax had it not been for its appearance in the bookselling catalog of the impeccably reputable Quaritch. It was presumed that at least one copy of Haslam’s book must exist, but no one at the Quaritch firm could remember the book, and because of a fire there was no extant record of its purchase or its sale. While the most promising lead seemed to be a dead end, there remained a memorable feature in the encyclopedia entry on Uqbar: the literature of Uqbar, it claimed, was a literature of fantasy, and its epics and legends always referred to the imaginary realm of Tlön. Furthermore all of its literature was contained in invisible books.
Haslam’s book remained just another bibliographic mystery, until 1937 when volume eleven of A First Encyclopaedia of Tlön surprisingly appeared in Argentina in the personal affects of a recently deceased English engineer named Herbert Ashe, who was later ascertained to be a member of the highly secretive, but now well-known order of Orbis Tertius. If this volume exists, it was reasoned, than all the others must as well, and so too must Haslam’s history of Uqbar. In the five years that followed, more and more information was amassed about Orbis Tertius and its generations-long effort to erect an immense, detailed, and self-contained cosmos parallel to our own. Then in 1947, forty volumes of the Tlön encyclopedia were discovered in the Memphis Public Library, and so too was Haslam’s invisible book.
While invisible books are an ancient format, they had been entirely forgotten until this discovery—and nothing has been the same since. As one observer has noted, “Contact with Tlön and with invisible books, the habit of Tlön and invisible books, has disintegrated this world.”
On loan from Foundation Orbis Tertius
For many years, this title was known only from a passing reference in a manuscript account of the Library of Babel as being a prized volume in one of the infinite hexagons of the library. When the volume on display here was discovered in late 1947, the language of its text was indecipherable, and was believed either to be written in code or in an unknown, long-vanished language. Indeed, even the ancient writer of the Babel library account indicates that while Axaxaxas mlö was prized as an artifact, the language and meaning of its text was unknown even then.
The eleventh volume of A First Encyclopaedia of Tlön had appeared ten years before, and when the remaining volumes surfaced in a Memphis library only a few months before the identification of Axaxaxas mlö, it soon became evident that the text of this invisible book was written in Tlönese. The standard translation of the title has been rendered as “The Rising Moon.” This translation, however, as well as the standard translation of the text itself, does not capture the essence of the Tlönese expression, since their language is shaped entirely by their conception of the universe.
For the people of Tlön, the world does not consist of objects in physical space, but rather as a heterogeneous series of independent acts. In such a world view, nouns that make direct reference to physical reality have no meaning. Instead, Tlönese consists almost entirely of impersonal verbs modified by mono-syllabic suffixes and prefixes functioning as adverbs. Therefore, there is no noun that corresponds to our word “moon,” but there is a verb which in English would be “to moonate” or “to enmoon.”
The title Axaxaxas mlö is derived from the book’s opening line: “Hlör u fang axaxaxas mlö,” which in standard translations is rendered as “The moon rose above the river.” More accurate, however, would be Xul Solar’s succinct translation: “Upward, behind the onstreaming, it mooned.” Therefore the title should be more precisely translated as “Mooning Upward.”
On loan from the Library of Babel
When this work was discovered in 1956, at the height of the rediscovery of invisible books, it was ignored in favor of other, more compelling and accessible books. Its early dismissal was due in part to its claim in the preface that all the books ever written are simply variations on the same theme, the same single and eternal subject. All books, it asserted, are the work of a single author who is timeless and anonymous. Mainly, however, the book’s early neglect had more to do with the fact that its content is nearly unintelligible, or more precisely, indecipherable. The book is written in multiple languages, often simultaneously, and some of these languages appear obscure, artificial, or even spurious.
It wasn’t until the 1960s when a group of graduate linguistics students from Princeton were able to demonstrate that eighteen of the more obscure languages used in Combed Thunder are actually transliterations of dialects of indigenous languages from the western United States, Australia, New Guinea, south-central China, equatorial Africa, and the Amazon basin. Each of the dialects, and many of the languages they were based on, became extinct by the early 20th century.
With the publication of their findings, and the knowledge that several copies of Combed Thunder (not counting the forgeries) had come to light since the text’s initial discovery, a new spark of interest was kindled in this most invisible of invisible books. But even this did little to bring clarity to the dense, obfuscated, and even random narrative. Interest waned once again, except among a few Kabbalist interpreters, who by 1969 were able to prove that the book’s seeming indecipherability was just that: it was one long, interrelated, self-referencing cipher that with diligence and ingenuity could be shown to be continuously revelatory.
It gradually came to light that when a reader applied a certain numerical interval to the first chapter, the letters extracted from the text at that interval could be strung together to form intelligible sentences in one of the book’s many languages. These sentences in turn formed a series of riddles, the answers to which were each, individually profound. This in itself could have been enough to propel the book to best-seller status. It was further demonstrated, however, that the answers themselves could be strung together intelligibly to form sequences that inferred an interval that could be applied to the next chapter, which would uncover even more profound revelations.
By 1974, Time magazine proclaimed Combed Thunder as the Rosetta Stone of human understanding. One revelation would continuously unfold into another, but although the potential for discovery was enormous, it was also demonstrably finite. Then, in 1978, it was discovered that the initial interval applied to the first chapter was not the only possibility, but that innumerable intervals could be applied, yielding even more substance that could be reinvested exponentially into succeeding chapters.
By 1984, so much had been discovered, and so much more remained potentially untapped that Combed Thunder’s most ardent adherers declared it the Book of Books, the Answer of Answers, the Unifying Source of all Possible Things Known and Unknown. Its extreme detractors condemned the book as an abomination, the Lie of Lies, the product of the most fallen of fallen angels. Doctrines were founded; new disciplines and lines of inquiry were established; political parties rose and fell on platforms associated with the book’s controversies; wars were fought over interpretive disagreements and ultimately resolved through the book’s universal principles. In literature and the arts, the single theme became the metaphor of artistic output, and the concept of authorship diminished, and in some societies disappeared altogether.
Whatever side one is on, it is universally accepted that the book’s author or authors (and most likely, generations of authors), whether divine, demonic, or human, were certainly members of the still secretive Orbis Tertius. The book’s defenders laud the accomplishments of the society’s efforts, citing the progression of human understanding since the book’s discovery. The critics, however, still decry that the book’s essence in not “sense,” but “non-sense,” and that “rationality” (even humble, pure coherence) is an almost miraculous exception. The most noted critic speaks of “the feverish book, who’s random chapters constantly threaten to transmogrify into others, so that they affirm all things, deny all things, and confound and confuse all things, like some mad and hallucinating deity.”
Whatever its actual worth, the book itself remains, unbeknownst to nearly everyone, invisible and unfamiliar, almost an afterthought as we tumble over each other to plumb the depths of its contents, peel away the layers of meaning and anti-meaning, and embed ourselves in each successive cipher and decipher. The book itself is forgotten, but we are unimaginably transformed and are still reeling from the consequences.
On loan from the Library of Babel
In 1941, the Argentine writer and poet Jorge Luis Borges, who was the first to publish the remarkable memoir of the librarian from the Library of Babel, wrote a review of the works of British novelist, playwright, and short-story writer Herbert Quain soon after the latter's death. Quain was so obscure, however, as to be thought of as a fabrication. So, for more than a quarter century, it was presumed that Borges's review was a fiction, an inventive exercise in examining the imaginary writings of an imaginary author. This remained the prevailing view despite the fact that one of the works reviewed, Quain's play The Secret Mirror, was actually staged in London in the late 1930s, was very-well received, and extant actor's reading copies of the play were known to exist.
Even with this knowledge, the existence of the three other works reviewed by Borges remained speculative for lack of evidence until the discovery of invisible copies of Quain's novel April March in 1968, and his collection of short stories Statements in 1969. Another book reviewed by Borges, Quain's first novel The God of the Labyrinth, remains elusive.
The discovery of the invisible works of Herbert Quain had an immediate impact on the literary world. Noted Polish author Stanislaw Lem, for example, credits his exposure to the unique, complex structure of April March (1936), a novel with nine different beginnings, trifurcating backwards in time according to a specific formula, as well as Borges's review of the story, as the inspirations for his own related books The Perfect Vacuum (1971), Imaginary Multitude (1973), and One Human Minute (1986).
Quain, Borges notes, believed that an aesthetic act could not be achieved without some element of astonishment, and Borges felt that Quain's books "are over-anxious to astonish." Publishing invisibly is arguably a manifestation of that assessment. Borges called Statements "the most original of [Quain's] works, doubtless the least praised and most secret." Apparently, Quain wrote the eight stories in Statements in order to elicit a belief in the reader that the storylines are the imaginary inventions of the reader himself. According to Borges, Quain, a proud and self-proclaimed failure, wrote Statements as a kind of revenge for the success of his play The Secret Mirror, by playing on the vanity of readers that they themselves are artists and creators. Borges himself was not immune to Quain's machinations, admitting that "I was ingenious enough to extract from the third [story in Statements], 'The Rose of Yesterday,' my story of 'The Circular Ruins,'" which was originally published in 1941 and included in his 1944 collection, Ficciones.
Since Statements and April March (and, perhaps, The God of the Labyrinth) were published invisibly before the general rediscovery of invisible books, and therefore the contemporary popularization of invisible publishing, there was broad speculation that Herbert Quain was a member of Orbis Tertius. Very recent evidence has established that this indeed is the case, which of course raises speculation about Borges's own affiliation.
On loan from the British Museum, Invisible Books Division
This curious, multivolume invisible set was written by an equally curious and invisible author. The book is undoubtedly the most complete and comprehensive discourse on Nebraska ever written, yet almost nothing is known about its author except for what we find in the preface to volume one, the details of which are oddly intimate, yet dissatisfyingly obscure. For forty years researchers have tried in vain to uncover the details of his identity. There are no records of Clinton York or the publisher A. D. Foster, and even if they are complete fabrications, not a single shred of evidence has surfaced in all this time. Clinton York is the D. B. Cooper of Nebraska history.
We know from his own statement that he was forty-seven when this book was published. We also learn what is perhaps even more curious than the invisibility of the book and its author: he claims that he has never been to Nebraska, but only that he has always been interested in the state.
He writes, “ever since I was a child it’s been Nebraska for me. Other kids listened to the radio or raved on about their bicycles. I read everything I could find on Nebraska. I don’t know what got me started on the thing. But, anyway, this is the most complete history ever written about Nebraska.” That is an undeniable fact. His original set remains the most accurate and definitive text on the state and the many editions since its original 1966 publication have only updated it with recent history.
Perhaps the set’s invisibility and the apparent anonymity of its author and publisher, as well as the author’s claim never to have visited the state is a metaphor for Nebraska’s own invisibility. Its legendary flatness and homogeneity may be just that: the stuff of legend, promulgated by exposition in books. Nebraska has tried to overcome its anonymity with its equally legendary college football teams, unicameral legislature, and peculiar Electoral College system, but to no avail. It remains a state that if visited, is hardly remembered. I myself have traveled extensively through Iowa, South Dakota, Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas, and Missouri, and never once have I encountered or even caught a glimpse of Nebraska. Not that I remember.
On loan from the Brautigan Lending Library, San Francisco
This 23-page, two-act play has been heralded since its discovery as one of the most ambitious works by this Nobel Prize-winning author, and a natural progression from his earlier works, including 1969’s Breath, a 30-second play with no characters. The use of invisibility appears to have been a conscious decision by Beckett, symbolizing the starkness and emptiness of life, and exemplifying the anonymity and facelessness of 20th-century man.
After the book’s discovery, just weeks after the centennial of the birth of this pioneering minimalist, literary critic Eric Matheson, in an interview with The Onion, praised the work for “the bare-bones structure and bleak repetition of what can only be described as ‘nothingness.’” Matheson observed that the book “features certain classic Beckett elements, such as sparse stage directions, a mysterious quality of anonymity, a slow building of tension with no promise of relief, and an austere portrayal of the human condition. Beckett’s traditional intimation of an unrelenting will to live, and the possibility of escape from the vacuous indifference that surrounds us is embodied literally in the book’s invisibility, which one must assume Beckett believed would one day be discovered and brought to light.”
Biographer Neal Gleason notes that the book exhibits “Beckett’s trademark style of ‘paring down’ to really get at the core of what he was trying to not say. However, it is not outside the realm of possibility that, given his sharp wit, the whole thing was just intended as a joke. If Beckett were alive today, he might respond to the buzz and excitement surrounding the discovery of this book, that the emperor has no clothes.”
On loan from the British Museum, Invisible Books Division
The Colonel's Portentous Cat Unsays.
This is perhaps the most recent and remarkable of invisible books. It follows a long tradition of dream books and stories, from biblical citations of dream-state narratives, to the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili and Shakespeare’s Mid-Summer Night’s Dream, to Gabriel García Márquez’s Eyes of a Blue Dog and Lane Hall’s Dream Snake. Until very recently the book’s existence was known only from an email correspondence between two friends:
Charlie Huenemann to Rick on Aug 25, 2006:
Rick Krause to Charlie on Aug 26, 2006:
On loan from Richard “Rick” Krause, Milwaukee, Wis.