Saturday, January 12, 2008

the book of imaginary beings

I think most people love the idea of a bestiary. All children seem to go through a phase in life when they must learn absolutely everything about animals, or particular animals, and seem capable of quoting the most esoteric statistics and ecological descriptions of narwhals or triceratops. A bestiary of the fantastic falls within its own special category. Perhaps Aili will post on her love of Gnomes and Fairies at some point. For a slightly more surreal experience, pick up a copy of Jorge Luis Borges' The Book of Imaginary Beings (1954, 1967), which recently was released in another hardcover edition (2005).

Borges begins his collection with a thought-provoking foreword:

"Let us move now from the zoo of reality to the zoo of mythology, that zoological garden whose fauna is comprised not of lions but of sphinxes and gryphons and centaurs. The population of this second zoo should by all rights exceed that of the first, since a monster is nothing but a combination of elements taken from real creatures, and the combinatory possibilities border on the infinite... Readers browsing through our own anthology will see that the zoology attributable to dreams is in fact considerably more modest than that attributable to God. We do not know what the dragon means, just as we do not know the meaning of the universe, but there is something in the image of the dragon that is congenial to man's imagination, and thus the dragon arises in many latitudes and ages. It is, one might say, a necessary monster." (Borges, 1954)

Borges' insight on human psychology is, as always, impressive. Creatures fantastical are not randomly constructed but often represent aspects of our selves and environment that we perhaps find too repulsive or dangerous to process consciously. I am sure that Borges, like most intellectuals immersed in mythology, was influenced by Carl Jung and his idea of the collective unconscious. As a modern psychologist/neuroscientist, I am obviously skeptical of much of what psychoanalytic theory proposes, but I admit to being attracted by this particular idea. I think it reasonable that natural selection has shaped the human brain such that certain images and symbols (archetypes) possess inherent meaning. Let's consider this example of Borges': the dragon. The anthropologist, David Jones, has proposed that the dragon is a chimera of three significant predators that threatened our hominid ancestors: the snake (providing the scaly body and serpentine tongue), the large cat (legs, tail, and aspects of the head), and the raptor (wings). Our innate fear of these predators was externalized in the creation of a myth, the dragon, which in most cultures was a creature feared and reviled (see movie, Dragonslayer). Jones' book, An Instinct for Dragons, is an interesting read.

But back to the bestiary. There is nothing to dislike about this book. Borges encourages us to open it randomly and "dip into it from time to time in much the way one visits the changing forms revealed by a kaleidoscope." There are 116 entries, ordered alphabetically, with around 15 fine illustrations by the artist, Peter Sis. The creatures are taken from a variety of cultural traditions and Borges writes each entry meticulously, often with informative endnotes. He periodically quotes from a famous historical work by the Roman naturalist, Pliny, called the The Natural History which is interesting insofar as the author includes "real" and "imaginary" creatures side-by-side. If you've got some time on your hands, you can actually read the entirety of that work (translated from the original Latin) here. Skip to Book VIII for some entertaining reading relevant to Borges' work - I especially like the section on "the Rat of India, called Ichneumon."

A final quote, just to give you some flavor of The Book of Imaginary Beings. From the entry, The Jinn:

"Islamic tradition holds that Allah created angels from light, Jinn (singular 'jinnee') from fire, and men from dust... They were created two thousand years before Adam, but their race, Lane tells us, shall 'die before the general resurrection'... They make themselves visible at first as clouds or tall undefined pillars; then, accoring to their desire, they take the form of men, jackals, wolves, lions, scorpions, or serpents. Some are believers; others, infidels - heretics or atheists... 'They often ascend to the confines of lowest heaven,' Lane tells us, 'and there, listening to the convesation of the Angels respecting things decreed by God, obtain knowledge of futurity, which they sometimes impart to men'.... The Egyptians say that the Jinn are the cause of whirlwinds of sand or dust that rise like pillars in the desert; they also believe that shooting stars are spears hurled by Allah at evil Jinn...." (Borges, 1954)

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