“We express our being by creating” wrote Rollo May in his seminal work on emotions and vulnerability in the creative process.
Jorge Luis Borges (August 24, 1899 – June 14, 1986) was an exceptional being himself, so it is only fitting he stalked and collected other exceptional beings. The Book of Imaginary Beings is an absolute pleasure to read because it was clearly a pleasure for Borges to create.1
[Preface to the 1957 Edition]
A small child is taken to the zoo for the first time. This child may be any one of us, we have been this child and have forgotten about it. […] He sees for the first time the bewildering variety of the animal kingdom, how can we explain this everyday [sic] and yet mysterious event?
[Preface to the 1967 Edition]
A book of this kind is unavoidably incomplete; each new edition forms the basis of future editions, which themselves may grow endlessly.
[Preface to the 1969 Edition]
As we all know, there is a kind of lazy pleasure in useless and out-of-the-way erudition. The compilation and translation of this volume has given us a great deal of such pleasure; we hope the reader will share something of the fun we felt when ransacking the bookshelves.
In assembling these beings, by summing the universe, Borges becomes that delighted child at the zoo, enamoured and engaged. What environmentalist Rachel Carson called a state of “wonder.”
Some creatures in The Book of Imaginary Beings are wildly known—like the dragon or fairies—others are highly specific and seem to be included at Borges’ pleasure. 23
An Animal Imagined by Kafka
It is the animal with the big tail, a tail many yards long and like a fox’s brush. How I should like to get my hands on this tail some time, but it is impossible, the animal is constantly moving about, the tail is constantly being flung this way and that. The animal resembles a kangaroo, but not as to the face. […] Sometimes I have the feeling that the animal is trying to tame me.
One of Borges’ interviewers remarked that, above all, Borges was truthful. Honest. It is evident in Borges’ writing; he uses humor, not guile.
And yet, this wonderfully truthful man was fascinated with mythology. With things created and imagined. And he gave tremendous irrational power to rational things, like reflections in mirrors.
Suggested or stimulated by reflections in mirrors and in water and by twins, the idea of the Double is common to many countries. It is likely that sentences such as A friend is another self by Pythagoras or the Platonic Know thyself were inspired by it. In Germany this Double is called a Doppleganger, which means ‘double walker’. In Scotland there is the fetch, which comes to fetch a man to bring him to his death; there is also the Scottish word wraith for an apparition thought to be seen by a person in his exact image just before death. To meet oneself is, therefore, ominous.
What Borges gives us in The Book of Imaginary Beings is unadorned evidence of how connected our cultures, languages, and methods of thought really are. Apart from time, geography, and even communication.
Ages ago, a certain South African bushman, Hochigan, hated animals, which at the time were endowed with speech. On day he disappeared, stealing their special gifts. From then on, animals have never spoken again. Descartes tells us that monkeys could speak if they wished to, but that they prefer to keep silent so that they won’t be made to work. In 1907, the Argentine writer Lugones published a story about a chimpanzee who was taught how to speak and died under the strain of the effort.
Myths and dreams are created to make sense of the nonsensical, to somehow put into being things that simply don’t exist but should. Borges’ beloved collection is not really about imaginary beings, although they abound; it is about the people and cultures who created and celebrated the beings.
Accompany this bestiary with Michael Dylan Foster’s study of yokai, mythological creatures that have existed and evolved for centuries in Japan or the rich imagination of T. S. Eliot who named cats “just like you and me.” And step into the wonderfully rich mind of Ted Hughes, the British poet who imagined a crow that was able to fathom an existence Hughes was not.4
Haokah, the Thunder God
Among the Dakota Sioux, Haokah used the wind as sticks to beat the thunder drum. His horned head also marked him as a hunting god. He wept when he was happy and laughed in his sadness; heat made him shiver and cold made him sweat.
Human invention is a wondrous thing. May our rich imaginations grow endlessly, in lockstep with the scribes who take note.
I’ll close with this gentle suggestion from the author.
The Book of Imaginary Beings is not meant to be read straight through; rather, we should like the reader to dip into these pages at random, just as one plays with the shifting patterns of a kaleidoscope.