Friday, September 17, 2010

The Book of Imaginary Beings by Jorge Luis Borges

The plot of this allegory... is curious: One of the splendid feathers of the distant King of the Birds, the Simurgh, falls into the center of China; other birds, weary with the present state of anarchy, resolve to find this king. They know the name of their king means "thirty birds"; they know that his palace is in the Mountains of Kaf, the mountains that encircle the earth. At the beginning, some of the birds reconsider their rashness, and grow cowardly: the nightingale excuses itself from the journey-quest because of its love for the rose; the parrot, because of its beauty, which is the reason it lives within a a cage; the partridge says it cannot live without the high mountains, while the heron pleads its need for marshes, the owl, for ruins. But at last the birds undertake the desperate quest. They cross seven wadis or seven seas. The penultimate of these is called Vertigo; the last, Annihilation. Many pilgrims abandon the quest; others perish on the journey. At the end, thirty birds, purified by their travails, come to the mountain on which the Simurgh lives, and they contemplate their king at last: they see that they are the Simurgh, and that the Simurgh is each of them, and all of them.


I am writing this review on July 6th, 2010. God knows when you'll read it, since I actually bought Borges' Book of Imaginary Beings as a late birthday present for Nathan. Since he lives in another state, who knows when I'll be able to give it to him (I don't trust the postal system), and since it's going to be in my possession for a while, well, I figured I'd just go ahead and read it.

Borges is perhaps the most notable Spanish-language author since Cervantes, and in a book I'm reading concurrently (sure to be reviewed before this one), How to Read and Why, Harold Bloom identifies him as the purest example of a line of short fiction writers preoccupied with phantasmogoria and the fantastic, including Kafka. A bestiary of imaginary creatures, then, seems as if it would appeal to Borges, both in the brevity of its format and the whimsicality of its subject. Some, like the dragon and the unicorn are common enough; others, like the Lamed Wufniks or A Bao A Qu, less recognizable. Some belong to ancient religion, others to modern authors like Lewis, Flaubert, and Kafka himself. Though no entry is more than a few pages, some are mystifyingly laconic:


Descartes tells us that monkeys could talk if they wanted to, but they have decided to keep silent so that humans will not force them to work. The Bushmen of South Africa believe that there was a time when all animals could talk. Hochigan hated animals; one day it disappeared, taking the gift of speech with it.

Who is Hochigan? What is Hochigan? Does it belong to the tradition of the Bushmen, or does it appear in the works of Descartes?

Typified in this very short entry is Borges' synthetic power, which is his most significant contribution to his source material. By bringing Descartes and the Bushmen together, he is suggesting the existence of a larger human tradition of cryptozoology; these traditions, likely not mentioned simultaneously until their inclusion here, speak to a common need to create new life and augment the natural world.

We expect much of Borges, but he is strangely reticent to show his face; often, he provides no comment on his sources at all, including wholesale selections from other works as complete entries. Elsewhere, Andrew Hurley tells us in his translator's note, Borges hews almost exactly to unattributed sources. But Borges' genius is not absent: there is near-heresy in placing "An Animal Dreamed by Kafka" in the same volume as the great dragons of Chinese tradition. I do not think that Borges is suggesting that religion is a fiction, but quite the opposite: these creatures have a considerable impact on human existence. To have seen the great unicorn tapestries of the Metropolitan Museum's collection is to understand that the unicorn, through its powerful symbolism and command over the human imagination, has a certain kind of realness of its own. In his preface, Borges explains:

We do not know that 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, not some ephemeral and casual creature like the chimaera or the catoblepas.

Yet Borges seeks to categorize both the necessary monsters and the casual, because they all speak to the human in ways that a bestiary of tangible beasts would certainly not. In this way it is a very anti-academic exercise masquerading as an academic one, as if to classify and collect these animals were to bring them a little bit closer to being flesh-and-blood. In the end, it is an exploration of ourselves, who, as the birds in the story of the Simurgh above, seek endlessly to understand the Other but are faced with only our own image.

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