The Garden of Forking Tongues – Jonathan van Belle

“Consider what is required,” said Gregor, “for something to be deemed a fact. There must first be a world, in some sense of world, to ground this thing called fact. How could the fact ‘water freezes’ be a fact without the existence of water? How could the fact ‘there are tortures wherever there are men’ be a fact without tortures?”

“Do all facts require a world or ground? 1 is a number. 1 plus 1 equals 2. Those facts don’t seem dependent on the existence of any world.” Justine lifted her flute of champagne to her lips, and paused, and let the champagne shore up a little around the flute’s cusp. “What’s a world? We’re speaking so liberally of ‘world’, or, in your hedging phrase, ‘some sense of world’; we’re presuming worlds now.”

“We’re being tentative,” Don said, leaning against a wall in the corner of the room, lightly and absent-mindedly brushing a bouquet of sweet violets with his forefinger.

“No, it’s a fair move,” said Gregor, “fair and—well, fair. And I don’t have a ready-made reply. My first temptation involved a circular definition: The world is just the totality of facts.”

“My guess will still suffer from circularity, but might we allow for a plurality of worlds by this definition: A world is any set of facts.” Don tilted his head downward, feeling doubt and thinking of objections to his suggestion. “I’m willing to bite the bullet and accept the counterintuitive consequences of my definition: that a non-empty set is a world; that the set of all facts about shoelaces constitutes a world; and so on.”

“Does this allow for worlds that are literally made out of the abstracta of sets? If so, there may be a world that’s just the set of all sets that are not members of themselves. It would be a bizarre, contradictory world.”

“Let’s christen such degenerate worlds with the name: Justine Worlds.”

“No thanks, Gregor; I’m a simple prophet—not a Creator.”

“It’s distasteful, yes,” Don interrupted, “but does our distaste mean anything or do any work?”

Justine sipped her sparkling drink, then sipped again. “No, it doesn’t.” A third sip. “Is this champagne a world?”

“It might be, given the price I paid for it.” Gregor enjoyed his joke more than the others. Then a flash of lucidity overwhelmed him; he became, suddenly, sullen. “There’s something wrong here.”

“Something wrong with my definition?” Don asked.


“I fail to believe that,“ Don said. “There must be some error in my nonsense.”

“I’m not talking about that,” stressed Gregor.

“What are you talking about, then?”

“Don, give him a moment,” Justine said, noticing the almost lightless eyes on Gregor’s face.

“Are you feeling well, Gregor?”

“Gregor,” Justine said, setting down her glass, “do you need something? What is it that’s wrong?”

“Our world. This.”

Justine and Don waited, one patiently and the other impatiently, for more. Gregor looked both of them directly in the eyes, moving his gaze back and forth between them.

“I know that I see your eyes, but that’s it. Something’s wrong with that.”

“What do you mean?”

“What do you mean, Don? Look at my eyes. Do you see them?”

Don looked at Gregor’s eyes. “Yes, I see them.”

“What else do you see?—and observe yourself as carefully as you possibly can.”

Don looked around for a moment. “I see many things.”

“What do you see specifically? Stop being imprecise.”

Don focused his gaze on Justine’s flute of champagne. “I see Justine’s flute of champagne.”

“Now close your eyes and try to reconstruct our location. Call to your mind the details of our location: the furniture, the textile patterns of the furniture, the time of day, any sounds in the background. You too, Justine. The both of you.”

“Alright,” said Justine, closing her eyes.

“What occurs to you first?” Gregor’s voice floated through Justine’s awareness like a breeze through a mist.

“A bouquet of violets,” Justine said.

“Me too—violets,” Don added. “And the champagne glass.”

“Anything else? Justine, you? Anything else?”

“I know where we are,” Justine said, her inflection of “we” suggested that Justine was entertaining a lightly mocking thought.

“No, that’s untrue, Justine. You don’t. None of us do. It is certain to us that we know, but we don’t know. Somehow we’re under some magic spell of false judgments. Describe my face, Justine.”

“Your face? It’s, well—your eyes are—.” Justine opened her eyes and looked anxiously at Gregor.

“Now you see. There’s no fact about my face. There’s no face. You somehow know that you’re looking at me, but there’s nothing you’re looking at. You know that you’re looking at me, at Gregor, but that’s all you can determine—that’s all that’s true in your experience.”

Don opened up his eyes and also searched for Gregor’s face. “Gregor, stop. I know I’m looking at you. I’m looking at you right now.”

“Yes, but describe what you see.”

“It’s you. It looks like you.”

“Yes, but what do I look like?”

Don felt like looking away, looking back to the violets, ignoring the confusion. “You look like—you’re a man. You look like a man.”

“I have a name that’s more commonly given to males; that’s all that you’re saying now. You’re inferring my appearance. You see it too, you and Justine. Stop pretending! Be lucid!”

“I don’t understand your point,” Justine said, picking up and drinking her champagne nervously. “I know I’m looking at you, yet you claim I’m not.”

“Incorrect. Wrong. False! You believe you’re looking at me, but that’s it, that’s the whole of it—there’s nothing else. There’s no object you’re looking at, Justine. It’s dreamlike; in dreams, you might find yourself absolutely certain that you’re a zebra flying through the sky, and yet there’s no visual information, no aroma, no audio, no texture. Nothing. Just the delusion. It’s like that in this case. You’re insurmountably convinced that there’s a world of rich detail and decoration around us, and that there’s an ‘us’ with pastness and extension and agency. There’s nothing like that.”

“Why?” asked Don.

“How am I going to answer that? ‘Why?’ to you, Don. Why is it, Don? You haven’t realized the problem, if that’s all you have to say.”

“Are we in one of my Justine Worlds?” Justine smirked, but then she felt a vast weightlessness come over her; she realized she couldn’t picture her own smirk. Nor her face. Nor her body. “Gregor?”

“Justine?” Gregor could not see Justine. “Shout to me, Justine.”

“Gregor? Can you hear me? Don? Don’t play with me!”

“Justine?” Don called out, desperate with fear. “Gregor?”

“Don? Justine?” whispered a trembling voice. “Please, answer.”

“Gregor? Don?”

“Help me!” cried some depersonalized voice. 

Jonathan van Belle is the author of Zenithism (2021) from Deep Overstock Publishing, Editor-in-Chief at Z-Sky (, a Content Creator at, and a fan of mallsoft music. You can find his cardboard cutout at

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