The Zoo in The Cave

Borges’ The Book of Imaginary Beings is a thin, unassuming work encompassed in a vast, elusive corpus of writing by Jorge Luis Borges. It’s 160 pages or so, depending on which edition you have, but it is a deceptively intense and puzzling book. The preface advises that this is not a book to be read in several sittings, instead, ‘we should like the reader to dip into these pages at random, just as one plays with the shifting patterns of a kaleidoscope’. Humans have evolved to perceive colour. Like a kaleidoscope and the visual experience you get from it, it is to our visual system, an intensive and inclusive experience not withheld for a long time and although as visually pleasing as a kaleidescope is, it tells us vast things about the capacities of the human visual system. Imaginary Beings could be the Kaleidoscope of the human psyche.

Within, Borges captures creatures (I use the term ‘creature’ sparingly) well known and not so well known, from ‘The Unicorn’ to ‘The A Bau A Qu’. They all have varying qualities and characteristics, some more intelligent and less brutish than others, or some like ‘The Fairies’ which are said to ‘meddle magically in human affairs…the most numerous, the most beautiful and the most memorable of the minor supernatural beings’. They also come from a variety of sources. Typically some are steeped in a fable, deep cultural history and tradition and others more recent like the brief passage from ‘An Animal Imagined By Kafka’ or the ‘Cheshire Cat from C.S.Lewis’. Other notable names are included as well from Seneca, Pope, and Robert Louis Stevenson. Most notably however is Plato, who’s name appears several times (the index includes 6 page references; Aristotle has 5, Dante has 11).

Plato’s name resonates though, alongside that of Borges’ but it evoked not just Plato’s allegory, but Borges’ penchant for using his own writing as playing within the confines of ancient and philosophical history. The Allegory of The Cave though famously describes a group of people who have lived inside a cave for the duration of their lives, facing the blank innards of the wall, on which shadows are projected from things and creaters that pass in front of the fire behind them. The shadows are given ‘forms’ and Plato said that these forms or ideas, and bodily sensations, possess the highest and most fundamental kind of reality.

The poetic nature of the allegory should not distract from the several messages that can be interpreted from it. But, the allegory and Imaginary Beings seem to be on a level with one another, because what is striking about Imaginary Beings is how in the 100 descriptions of the mythical creatures, so physically distinct from the human form, is how much they can tell us about human nature. Initially, it’s the whimsical nature of the story; the forms in the cave and the distorted shadows that the fire casts on the walls; small insects inflated to abnormal size and the inhabitants of the cave making stories and sense of them. The allegory is about life, and the life in the cave is the life in the world, and it is then philosopher who has trouble persuading the people that such a thing exists.

We think of the beings in Imaginary Beings as confabulation and fantastical, but they could tell us more than we than we could potentially imagine about the way the mind works. Plato’s influence on Freud and Western thought shouldn’t be understand, but what they more prosaically share is that their theories on the composition of the human psyche are so ingrained into public perception of psychology, its terms are entered into every day discourse. Any psychologist would tell you otherwise, as Freud theories are so vulgarly outdated in modern academia. The Imaginary Beings questions this as the preface says ‘we are ignorant of the meaning of the dragon in the same we are ignorant of the meaning of the universe, but there is something in the dragons image that fits man’s imagination’. What level of human consciousness allows us to create the image of the dragon?

Let’s compare the two dragons. ‘The Eastern Dragon’  has ‘the ability to assume many shapes…with a head something like a horse…it is customary to picture them with a pearl…the beast is rendered helpless if its pearl is stolen from it….their teeth bones and saliva are all possess medicinal qualities’. Significantly though ‘The Chinese believe in dragons more than any other deities because dragons are frequently seen in the changing formations of the clouds’. ‘The Western Dragon’ alternatively, is described as ‘ a tall standing heavy serpent with claws and wings…belch both fire and smoke…perhaps the best known but also the least known of the fantastic animals. It seems childish to us and usually spoils the stories in which it appears’. Jung also stated the Dragon that it is a reptile and a bird – the elements of the earth and of air. The two dragons are distinctly different and reflect the way the Eastern beings in the book tend to demonstrate a level of morality, where the Western creations are seemingly more sinister and interesting in a way that allows a story to be told about them.

The dragon though is a story, a symbol of culture. Look at the Chinese and the Welsh for instance. They are creations by human culture and ultimately have helped us make sense of it.  Caspar Henderson in his essay for the Guardian states how The ‘Fauna of Mirrors’ foreshadows a series of lectures given by Borges which described his recurring nightmares ‘I am afraid to pull my mask off and afraid to see my real face’ he said. Here we have the power of the creator confronting the real substance of his creatyions. Because that is what they are – imaginary. They are created by a human imagination and are perceived by a human conscience, and as much as they appear fantastical they always have the human element of the creator. The fear or wonder they create is only that of the fear and wonder instigated by the initial human creator.

Imaginary Beings is an exploration in the cave of the human mind. Our fears and demons lurking in our subconscious illuminated by the fire of our waking consciousness, Do we create stories to make sense of this? Of course we do. Narrative guides our life. When we are struggling the daily battle, we turn our hopes and fears into stories based on what we know, and give them endings based on what we already know and what we wish we did know. Henderson, mentioned earlier, claims the book is a shadow of the future. In the era of climate change, the Earth is rapidly heating, doing unspeakable things like altering DNA structure; we could be on the cusp of mass extinction, but what new life forms that this could alter and bring might as well be plucked out of Imaginary Beings, because who genuinely knows. Or are the beasts already here in ourselves?

Caspar Henderson’s essay is available here:

Fire and Forms in the cave