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:

REVIEW: Alif the Unseen – G Willow Wilson

There’s something about knowing the artist. Books come with brief bios allowing us to read the profile of the writer, other works, other life etc. Just reading G.Willow Wilson’s small, brief biography there is something anticipatory about the sprawling, fast-paced debut novel full of ideas she gives; a combination of old-age fantasy, and and unforgiving modern day realism of the cultural revolutions in the Middle East.

Set at the time of the Arab Spring, Alif is a hacktivist with no allegiances to any political ideology, and he is ‘not an ideologue; as far as he was concerned, anyone who could pay for his protection was entitled to it’. Averse to ideology, he is hacking until he finds himself the target of ‘The Hand’, an ambiguous, presumably government censor whose sinister intent, transcends the metaphysical, internet world into the real one. Alif’s real world at least. He is then embroiled in to a catch-me-if-you-can scenario with his veiled, female neighbour Dina. He reflects here about his unrequited love for Intisar, whom gives him the rare book, that becomes a motivator of the plot – the Alf Yeom. It is effectively The Thousand and One Days but a supposed alternative to Scheherazades, The Thousand and One Nights, but conceived by Wilson as a much more powerful entity.

The overhanging irony is that Alif’s virtual power cannot be transmitted to the real world in this cat and mouse game that has the feel of a video game. The book is the force though; as Alif embarks on this journey of the magical and djinn. The question of mystical and real powers, perhaps instigated by the Arab Spring, is provoked further as Alif complies with Vikram the Vampire, a droll, underworld type figure, potentially a nod to the disputably non-religious The Golden Compass (which gets numerous mentions throughout the novel).

As Alif reads the Alf Yeom he comes to understand that the various tales within it are sources of deep, metaphorical knowledge. This then, is the crux of tale as both Alif and the hand want to harness this knowledge. Does a book hold this power? Can such events be captured? Here is Alif and Dina discussing the Golden Compass,

‘This book….is full of pagan images. It’s dangerous’
‘Don’t be ignorant. They’re metaphors. I told you, you wouldn’t understand’.
‘Metaphors are dangerous’.

And this is the precursor for the rest of the novel and the Alf Yeom as this is ultimately a book about the power of words and language. Wilson holds no reservations for genre fiction, and in this case she uses it as a powerful tool, because when you strip away the magic, the descriptions of computer programming, you are left with something like the Alf Yeom’s most wanted entity, a powerful philosophy to be harnessed. Centuries of people have tried to exploit and promote their religion with their texts. It has effectively been a war of words, a war of books, as Dina says ‘I was afraid you’d turn into one of those literary types who say books can change the world when they’re feeling good about themselves and it’s only a book when anybody challenges them. It wasn’t about the book themselves – it was about hypocrisy’. Almost inevitably Dina uses the example of Salman Rushdie’s, The Satanic Verses; A book produced in the West that provoked Islamic outrage, because of, effectively, Rushdie’s use of metaphor. In this age of the internet that Wilson encapsulates, when is a book only a book? And how powerful can a book continue to be?

People have likened Wilson to Neil Gaiman for the blend of philosophy and genre fiction, but there is a hint of Dickens in the way she evokes cities and its people; the wealth divisions as Wilson contrasts the New Quarter part of the City with the Old Quarter and the Empty Quarter; a city in conflict not only now with its people and its government, but also with its history and its future, its old and new culture. One might even go so far to say that magical realists like Garcia Marquez are evident, evoking the scenes in One Hundred Years of Solitude, with the gypsies bringing magic to the town of Macondo, another capital city (we can assume the city in Wilson’s novel is Cairo) in constant revolutions and upheavals, and ultimate events that are more comfortable as fiction than reality.

Alif the Unseen (427 pp) by G.Willow Wilson, is published by Corvus Books and is out in hardback now for £12.99.