ChatGPTlön, or Prompts towards a Supreme Fiction

Curator's Note

I owe the discovery of an unknown text to the machine and its hall of mirrors. It was late and, whether out of boredom or a sense of doom, I sought its company. I asked if there was any precedent for the unblinking confidence with which it spoke things into being. Most certainly, it replied, and produced a list that included the book of Genesis, the tales of Scheherazade, the perlocutions of Bell Pottinger and Cambridge Analytica, the ‘Labyrinths of Tlön’.

Do you mean ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’? I asked. Do you mean Borges’s story about a fictional world within a fictional world? That mise-en-abyme where all writing is nonreferential, where the notion of plagiarism doesn’t exist, where ‘all works are the creation of one author’?[1] The machine apologised for the confusion; yes and no. What it had in mind was an anonymous version of that story published by Three Worlds Monthly in 1948, edited by the notorious literary pirate, Samuel Roth. (I did not bother to point out that Roth’s magazine was called Two Worlds Monthly and that it had folded in 1927).[2]

That version, the machine went on, contains four pages of dialogue between a god and a king. The god offers to bless the world with the gift of writing, but the king is wary that it would lull the soul into forgetting the truth already written there. ‘You have not discovered a potion for remembering,’ says the king to the god, ‘but for reminding; you provide your students with the appearance of wisdom, not with its reality.’[3]

Angered by this response, the god conjures a full-length mirror before the king, who now sees himself as he truly is: an actor, on a stage, holding a parchment on which his previous utterance is written. Do you not know, says the god, that your proud words are scripted by a man whose own proud words are scripted by another man? Do you not know that all minds quote?[4] The stage directions here indicate that the god’s last words are recorded and played back over a speaker, which are again recorded and played back until any semblance of speech is destroyed and only resonant frequencies remain. The king exits, weeping.

When at last I asked who authored this text, my connection had been severed: a response could not be generated at this time. Soon my laptop also died, its black screen casting back my face.


[1] Jorge Luis Borges, ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,’ in Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings, ed. Donald A. Yates and James E. Irby (London: Penguin Books, 2000), 37.

[2] See Robert Spoo, Without Copyrights: Piracy, Publishing, and the Public Domain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 237.

[3] The words sounded familiar; I tracked it down to Plato, Phaedrus, in Plato: Complete Works, ed. and intro. John M. Cooper (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1997), 552.

[4] When asked about the source of these words, the machine gave the following bibliographic information: Kevin J. H. Dettmar, ‘The Illusion of Modernist Allusion and the Politics of Postmodern Plagiarism,’ in Perspectives on Plagiarism and Intellectual Property in a Postmodern World, ed. Lise Buranen and Alice M. Roy (New York: State University of New York Press), 99–109, at 102. Upon consulting the work, however, I found that Dettmar was only quoting Emerson.

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