words. music. pictures. scheherazade.
My mind checks out often, either to music or cardiovascular activity, like while running or during sex. I was running one day with the earphones jammed into my ears. Some cheesy trance compilation jangled into my ears, hell-too-many beats-per-minute, a relic from the early ’00s whose mp3 file stared me down when I powered up my old laptop. Back in the day in Baltimore, I used to listen to such things and fantasize myself transported to Ibiza. Nowadays - as when I was on the treadmill last week - I find myself usually transported to the dingy studio apartment in Baltimore in media res, ergo: numbed into the act of fantasizing about fantasizing being transported to Ibiza. Fantasizing about fantasizing! Here’s a sure proof that you are getting older: even your dionysian hedonistic fantasies get filtered through yet another foggy layer of mediation. Fock me. And just as I was thinking/not-thinking about these things on the treadmill, this music video materialized on the screen at an arm’s length ahead of my eyes.
No idea yet whether the song is any good, as I only caught the video while listening to my iPod. But how amusing that this video should literally pop up right in front of my eyes just as I was thinking about the morphing slipstream of our identities, each person in the video transforming into an illusory version of himself or herself by a touch on the shoulder, the entire grocery store transformed into a jubilant bestiary of mythical beings, if you will?
Jorge Luis Borges (The Book of Imaginary Beings) and Sir Thomas Browne (Pseudodoxia Epidemica) both extensively contemplated the hybridic nature of mythical beasts, the composite make-up of the real and the fictive. W.G. Sebald, a keen reader of both, notes in The Rings of Saturn -
At all events, it is clear from Browne’s account that the endless mutations of Nature, which go far beyond any rational limit, and equally the chimaeras produced by our own minds, were as much a source of fascination to him as they were, three-hundred years later, to Jorge Luis Borges, whose Libro de los seres imaginarios was published in Buenos Aires in 1967. Recently I realized that the imaginary beings listed alphabetically in that compendium include the creature Baldanders, whom Simplicius Simplicissimus encounters in the sixth book of Grimmelshausen’s narrative. There, Baldanders is first seen as a stone sculpture lying in a forest… Baldanders claims to have come from Paradise, to have always been in Simplicius’s company, unbeknownst to him… Then, before the very eyes of Simplicius, Baldanders changes into a scribe… and then into a mighty oak, a sow, a sausage, a piece of excrement, a field of clover, a white flower, a mulberry tree, and a silk carpet.
Sebald grimly adopts what he believes is Thomas Browne’s view of this kind of morphology. On every new thing, he says, there lies already the shadow of annihilation. That the history of every individual, and of the whole world, even, follows a course which necessarily leads down into the dark.
I’ve written about Lewis Thomas here before, and when I state that he is my favorite essayist of the twentieth century, I do so without exaggeration. He was a physician by trade; most of his essays in print were first published in New England Journal of Medicine. A modern-day Sir Thomas Browne, so to speak, and the comparison is easy to make when one considers the fact that he was also an insightful reader of Browne, often alluding to his work… not to mention the beautiful and lucid equipoise of his prose.
Lewis Thomas, as Sebald had, considers the kinds of mythical creatures contemplated by Borges and Browne. Yet Thomas’ consideration of the morphology of the mythical bestiary stands diametrically opposed to Sebald’s pessimism: it is more nuanced, humanistic - and to me - altogether more inspired and convincing than Sebald’s rather monochromatic conclusion.
In the essay, “Some Biomythology,” Thomas first writes about the hybridic nature of the bestiary that Borges and Browne also contemplated: the Phoenix, Sphinx, Centaur, Ganesha, Manticore, et al., how they are mythical and fictional composites of parts that are actually familiar and real. Then, he suggests his own bestiary of mythical beasts to replace the old one, made of real microbiological “beasts.” Such as Myxotricha paradoxa, whose cilia and organelles are still going through the process of being assembled, far lagging behind our evolutionary process. “It is not an animal after all,” Thomas says of myxotricha, “it is a company, an assemblage.” Or a protozoan called blepharisma, who will begin eating its neighbors in times of famine and bloat to an immense size and turn into a cannibalistic giant straight out of a Norse fable. Even the common bacteria, on which the lives of their hosts are entirely dependent. “The meaning of these stories may be basically the same as the meaning of a medieval bestiary,” Thomas writes -
There is a tendency for living things to join up, establish linkages, live inside each other, return to earlier arrangements, get along, whenever possible. This is a way of the world.
… Any cell - man, animal, fish, fowl, or insect - given the chance and under the right conditions, brought into contact with any other cell, however foreign, will fuse with it. Cytoplasm will flow easily from one to the other, the nuclei will combine, and it will become, for a time anyway, a single cell with two complete, alien genomes, ready to dance, ready to multiply. It is a Chimera, a Griffon, a Sphinx, a Ganesha, a Peruvian god, a Ch’i-lin, an omen of good fortune, a wish for the world.
(Images by, top to bottom: Jonah Hill (freeze frames from a music video for Sara Bareilles' “Gonna Get Over You”) Marc Lüders, Masahiro Shinoda (a still from Double Suicide), Thomas Jackson (via the ever-excellent Lenscratch))