Jorge Borges in Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol #22, A Companion Reader

Doom Patrol Vol. 2 #22
“Crawling from the Wreckage, Part 4: The Ossuary”
Writer – Grant Morrison
Art – Richard Case
May, 1989

While investigating the relationship between texts, a scholar might mistakenly claim that one text influenced another, not knowing that the writer never came in contact with it. It’s an easy mistake to make, as most scholars don’t have access to the personal libraries of the writers they study (although that might soon change with the advent of Goodreads). Nor is it particularly damaging, as the study of intertextuality doesn’t need a causal link for one text to assist in interpreting another. Nonetheless, an analysis can be quite sloppy when influence or effect are considered without specifying the degrees of separation.

Such is not the case here. Grant Morrison directly appropriated (Morrison might even add plagiarized) Jorge Borges’ short story “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” in the Doom Patrol’s four-part reintroduction “Crawling from the Wreckage.” In an interview in 1990 (which sort of meanders in the best way possible), Morrison admitted to the influence of Borges’ short story on his own eclectic ideas:

“It’s got a lot to do with stealing [the] work of a blind Argentian writer… I think he’s wonderful. I just have baths in this sort of thing. That was one of the things I wanted to introduce to Doom Patrol. All those strange paradoxes and philosophical curios (Thompson).”

As we will see, Morrison’s adaptation of “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” became a purview of the rest of his run on Doom Patrol, exploring the meltdown of traditional boundaries, finding humanity in the inhumane, and meeting catastrophe with creation.

The four issues also inaugurate Doom Patrol to a regular Morrison methodology of binding meta-concepts (in this case the nonfictional parasite-universe Orqwith) to physical dimensions with some form of sentience; a technique not unique to Morrison but always implemented by him in startling, fantastic ways.

But first, onto Borges.

Possibly you’ve heard the name Borges and are familiar with his work, therefore I won’t dwell on his person very long. But if you’re unfamiliar with the Argentine writer and want to learn more, there are plenty of biographies and the ever-pervasive Wikipedia to turn to. For now, understand that Borges was a poet, author, and translator, and a reticent but influential intellectual whose work on existentialism, phenomenology, and logical conundrums has baffled and fascinated waves of readers and writers. Often, Borges played with the metaphysical aspects of ordinary objects, such as mirrors and masks, or slightly esoteric places such as labyrinths and libraries. His short story “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” published in 1962 in the anthology collection Labyrinths, explored another concept, that of power of invention over the minds of men.

Narrated by Borges himself, or at least a close proxy, the story follows a series of personal memoirs recorded over a decade. In the beginning of the story, Borges and a companion discover an encyclopedia that’s completely identical to its kin except for the inclusion of an imaginary country called Uqbar. Borges is unable to establish the existence of Uqbar, but later he inherits the eleventh volume of an encyclopedia on Tlön, an imaginary region mentioned earlier in the Uqbar entry. The eleventh volume turns out to be a fragment of an unknown planet’s history, leading Borges and fellow scholars to begin exploring the epistemology of the world with both intrigue and dread. They discover that the people of Tlön deny material existence, believing that reality is created by the mind’s perceptions. Tlönians also disregard continuity, incapable of conceiving time or cause-and-effect. Instead, “all men who repeat a line from Shakespeare are William Shakespeare” and “they do not say ‘moon’ but rather ‘round airy-light on dark’” (Borges).

In the last act of the story, the alien universe begins to seep into ours. Simultaneously, Borges discovers that the universe is fictional, invented by a society of “benevolent” philosophers and later mass-produced by an American millionaire who removed any mention of God, and therefore, objectivity. In the end, the seductive worldview of Tlön eradicates and replaces reality. Borges survives, continuing his (now obsolete) translations in isolation.

In reflection, the Borgesian narrator exists in a borderlands similar to the Doom Patrol; both are able to identify and witness the effects of reality warping without conversion due to their own experiences with like events on a diminished scale. Borges’ immunity comes from his role as a translator and scholar, which requires a certain neutrality around the exchange of ideas. The members of the Doom Patrol have already survived their own personal catastrophes, and thus are able to detach themselves and navigate larger calamities, even when those calamities are scaled to the entire physical universe.

The difference, however, is that while Borges witnesses the seduction of anti-materialism, he is unable to stop the ensuing totalitarianism of the Tlön regime. All he can do is come to terms with why the ideas are so prevalent; he concludes that Tlön offers an ordered, restrained universe, albeit at the cost of individual will. Borges summarizes the appeal:

“Any symmetry with a resemblance of order – dialectical materialism, anti-Semitism, Nazism – was sufficient to entrance the minds of men. How could one do other than submit to Tlön, to the minute and vast evidence of an orderly plant? It is useless to answer that reality is also orderly. Perhaps it is, but in accordance with divine laws – I translate: inhuman laws – which we never quite grasp. Tlön is surely a labyrinth, but it is a labyrinth devised by men, a labyrinth destined to be deciphered by men” (Borges).

Morrison’s Doom Patrol won’t have this impotence. It’s their job to re-establish some semblance of the status quo, although not with super-fists or endless streams of bullets paradigmatic to most superhero serials. Instead, the Doom Patrol overcome invasions such as Orqwith with two very human attributes, through logic and emotion. I won’t go into this much here, but we’ll see the triumph of human logic and emotion as a recurring climactic event for the rest of the series.

And so, without further fuss, let’s explore Doom Patrol #22.

Right away, we can see another major allusion that Morrison will be pulling into this issue – expressions and principles of the Roman Catholic Church. The cover is dominated by a stained glass window; below it, two popes sit on thrones, their faces masked by clocks with Roman numerals. The pictorial art in the glass shows images from the ensuing issue, as if the upcoming actions will someday be (or already have been) canonized by the hollow religion.

The next few pages establish the blueprints of Orqwith. The plane consists of an endless city of “bone” and “miracles” with neither “suburb or boundary,” but which centers around a vast yard called the Quadrivium.

The city appears to be a drab collection of buildings acquired from various dimensions, all infused or perhaps contained by colossal bone structures that extend into the sky. The drabness is intentional; Richard Case uses browns and mute purples to give the realm an intentional otherworldliness mixed with an unremarkability, which the text acknowledges:

“Yet no matter how strange, no matter how beautiful, everything in Orwith is dulled by the taint of long familiarity.”

The Quadrivium is set on a cosmic crossroads, and therefore some kind of capitol. Atop the convergent point, or epicenter of the Quadrivium, is a cathedral called the Ossuary, inside of which sit the two clock-faced priests from the cover. The priests are explained; one is a liar, the other an honest man, and they await the “question that will unmake the world.” Inside the cathedral is a “devout silence” with the very air “worn thin by continuous prayer.” There’s also mention of votive candles and stained glass, and the designs of the Ossuary are obviously borrowed from the architecture of the historic Catholic cathedral, although there are no pews.

Why the Church? Possibly because Morrison thought it was cool, but there might be ‘subtle’ messages here. Many of the oncoming story arcs will revolve around the rejection of conformed living and mass-think (nor will the Ossuary be the last injection of Catholic façade). Morrison, it seems, has a lot to say about systems of power. In fact, he appears to be saying that organized religion, as well as the mindless rabble surrounding it, or organized society, are the fictions of men and the enemies of reality. The Inquisitors of Orqwith won’t usually be found wearing red-and-black pajamas and sporting scythes growing out of their hands, but they can be found, and they will likely be replacing the willpower of the individual with dull ideology in the guise of ‘normalizing agents.’ Nietzsche, by the way, would be nodding his head furiously.

As far as we can see, Orqwith has cut out danger and chaos for an inferior, homogenized existence. It’s a sinless world, but only because its denizens can’t conceive of immorality, or morality, or much of anything outside their numb existence. The assimilated are sad and mindless, searching aimlessly for lost things. Joshua, cut-out by the Scissormen in #21, reveals his eternal distress when he mutters that he’s “looking… for my house… can’t find it… can’t find it anywhere.” He wanders away in his soulless stupor, and they have to leave him behind.

But Orqwith isn’t truly an invasion from some alien hive-mind. After all, the Scissormen might speak in nonsense, but it’s English nonsense.

And despite the chaos of their phrasing, Mama Pentecost can still decipher it. Not long after, Morrison brings in the plane’s unwitting creator, a philosopher named Reinmann, and we discover that Orqwith originated in the minds of men, as logical and sound as any other man-made constitution.

As he bleeds out from a gun wound inflicted by Caulder (showing both the urgency of the moment and a calculable darkness in Caulder that will re-emerge in #57), Reinmann reveals how Orqwith began as an intellectual exercise. A group of philosophers, including Reinmann, pooled their various intellects to comprise the Black Book of Orqwith. In fact, it was intended to be a joke, a coded hoax perhaps meant to be introduced to the public as an enigma or kept as an intellectual oddity. Then the Scissormen began to come.

Reinmann brings revelation. Orqwith isn’t just an idea supplanting reality – it’s accidental creation made purely from the stuff of thoughts. But Caulder doesn’t have time to reflect on this marvel:

The logical inconsistency turns out to be the “philosophical curios” Morrison was so adamant about putting in: Orqwith must be confronted by its own unreality by being asked how there can be something rather than nothing.

Later, in a battle reminiscent of the final stand-off in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (Cliff’s words, not mine), Negative Thing asks the priests if there can be something rather than nothing. The priest lies and says there is, implying that the priest knows there isn’t anything at all. This leads the dimension to face its own fabrication and collapse, releasing the heroes in a faraway field back on Earth.

The paradoxical existence of Orqwith is resolved without anyone thinking too deeply about the encounter, and later, when the heroes are recounting the logical fallacy, they aren’t entirely sure they understood what they were doing. Somehow Orqwith met its own nothingness. Somehow Orqwith disintegrated.

But the awkward thing is that our own reality hasn’t figured out a true scientific answer to that question. How can there be something rather than nothing? How can there be an universe, and how are there laws like physics and systems like quantum mechanics? Why isn’t there just one endless quantum vacuum? If one thinks too deeply about the resolution of this issue, a sort of existential dread begins to develop. Hopefully, when it comes time to answer these questions, our cosmos will fare better than that of the Scissormen.

The issue ends with Crazy Jane, Cliff Steele, Negative Thing and Joshua dedicating themselves to fight as the Doom Patrol. I’ll close this article on that affirming note:

Works Cited

Borges, Jorge Luis. “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis, Tertius.” Labyrinths. New York: New Direction, 1962. Print.

Callahan, Timothy. Grant Morrison: The Early Years. Sequart Research & Literarcy Organization. Kindle edition, Jan. 2012. Web. 21 May 2014.

Chen, Ken. “Doom Patrol Volume 1-6.” Rain Taxi. Web. 22 May 2014.

Christ, Ronald. “Interviews: Jorges Luis Borges.” The Art of Fiction, No. 39. The Paris Review, 2014. Web. 25 Nov. 2014.

Thompson, Kim, ed. Amazing Heroes #176: Grant Morrison Interview. Seattle, Washington: Fantagraphics Books, 1990. Print.

Postscript. I lied, because I have to toss this in. Niles Caulder being as bad ass as possible:

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When Desmond White is not blogging out of both ends, he’s stunt doubling for a bear or actually doing his job -- teaching literature at a Texas high school. A loose definition of genius, Desmond’s goals in life include making yerba mate sound appetizing (“It’s grass... that you drink!”) and writing about comics. Check out his blog, which is dedicated to bad writing advice for the aspiring bad writer.

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1 Comment

  1. ...Kate Stallman says:

    I’ve really enjoyed reading these articles on Doom Patrol. They’ve certainly enriched my re-reading. I was wondering whether there’s any intention to continue the series? Even if it was in book form? I, for one, would be willing to pay for a book with more of this kind of content.

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