The Liar’s Encyclopedia

November 2, 2011 § Leave a comment


The Book of Imaginary Beings (Borges, Jorge Luis and Guerrero, Margarita)

Like most other people on Earth, Borges had a fascination for fantasy; like most other librarians, he had a compulsion for cataloguing; like most other academicians, he felt obliged to scrupulously cross-reference his sources; but like most other philosophers, he recognized the futility of attempting to prepare an exhaustive list of an infinity of things. And like most other great story-tellers, Borges was a great liar.

The most striking thing about the skilfully mendacious is that almost everything they tell you is perfectly true. Most of it is what you already know to be true, and you can ascertain the veracity of the rest by looking up the sources that they diligently provide. It is only when they have lulled you thus into blind credulity that they slip in the little invention that looks indistinguishable from the rest but which you wouldn’t dream of checking up on.

This is always the case with Borges, except that he doesn’t beguile his readers into gullibility as much as bludgeon them into belief with his encyclopedic knowledge of the literature, mythology and philosophy from around the world. He can quote from Homer and Horace, the Torah, the Old and New Testaments, the Koran, the Book of the Dead (both Egyptian and Tibetan), the Eddas, the Upanishads, from Dante, Shakespeare and Cervantes, and also from Poe and Chesterton. But for all the world’s wisdom pouring out of his works, the best thing  about Borges’ fiction is his wildfire imagination – his experiments with truths, half-truths and untruths in different proportions. Once, in Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, he had invented a single fictitious entry in an out-of-print edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Here, he gives us an entire encyclopedia of imaginary beings.

Iungentur iam grypes equius, said Servius, and in time, this is what it became...The hippogriff, as imagined by JK Rowling (Courtesy http://www.harrypotter.wikia.com)

At the very outset, Borges declares:

 The title of this book would justify the inclusion of Prince Hamlet, the point, the line, the plane, the hypercube, all generic nouns, and perhaps, each one of us and the divinity as well. In sum, virtually the entire Universe. We have however abided by that which is immediately suggested by the phrase ‘imaginary beings’, and have compiled a volume of the strange creatures that man’s fantasy has engendered throughout time and space.

So it is just an anthology of strange creatures created across cultures and history. Or is it? If there’s anything Borges has taught us, it is that there are several levels of imagination and reality (I am thinking of The Circular Ruins, and the Golem). Beyond the imaginary lies the imagined to be imaginary – in addition to the categories he does mention in the quote above, I am almost certain that there is one more kind of imaginary being included in the title of the book: one not merely collected by Borges from the writings of others, but invented by him for the occasion. Is it the A Bao A Qu? The borametz? The fastitocalon? The zaratan? Or maybe the bizarre fantasy creatures that he insists were created by Poe, Kafka, Swedenborg, CS Lewis, Lotze or Etienne Bonnot de Condillac? Surely – surely! – he made up the Lamed Wufniks. And I refuse to believe in this creature, even as an imaginary being:

“Among the fish of the region is the Upland Trout, which builds its nests on trees, flies pretty well, and is afraid of water”

Or maybe the animals are all bona fide (apparently they are, every one of them, or at least as bona fide as imaginary creatures can get), but he only lies about the sources he quotes. Maybe there is just one line out of place in the whole book, a private joke that will remain unexplained for posterity – with Borges, we will never know. He revels in quoting classical sources for everything – sources that the casual reader is unlikely to verify. Lesser writers may use a hippogriff in their stories; only Borges can trace its origins to a line in Virgil, a Latin epigram attributed to Servius, and a creature mentioned in Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, which he proceeds to quote extensively.

In fact, the more commonly known the creature is, the more pains Borges takes to dig out its entire history for our benefit. The Hydra, he tells us, finds mention in Diodorus, Apollodorus, and, of course, Robert Graves; the Dragon in Pliny, Homer, St. Augustine and Konrad von Gesner; and as for the Phoenix, Borges trots out Herodotus, Tacitus, Pliny, Ovid, Dante, Shakespeare, Pellicer, Quevedo, Milton, Lactantius, Tertullian, St. Ambrose and Cirilus of Jerusalem as our primary sources for information about the fire-breathing scaly beast of legend. Is Pellicer even a real name? (Apparently, yes) And when Borges says Lactantius mentions it in a particular chapter of a particular work, how can we be sure that it isn’t in a different chapter? And was this Cirilus from Jerusalem at all, and not from Jericho? (nope – Jerusalem it is)

The liar’s perfect trick is to fool you into calling his bluff when he is actually telling the truth. Or is it? I have heard that ancient cartographers would guard their works from plaguirization by introducing an inconsequential untruth into it: a minor river whose course has been diverted a few miles from its real path, a tiny speck of a village that does not exist in reality, a stetch of a certain road between two towns missing completely from the map. This feature would be known only to the author and to his publisher, and anyone who copied the author’s work verbatim and passed it off as his own, could easily be found out. Thus, it was this tiny falsehood that governed and protected the larger truth, and it would be the cartographer’s greatest achievement, the finest expression of his imagination and his art in a life devoted to mindless reproduction of reality, and yet, tragically, it would be an achievement that he could never discuss with others, a secret that would die with him.

I never did get to the bottom of where Borges’ trademark deception lay in this book. Perhaps there wasn’t any, and if so, he has still managed to deceive me, by convincing me that he had hidden at least one untruth in the book. Or perhaps the deception wasn’t in the book as much as on its cover page. Who is his mysterious co-author, Margarita Guerrero? A comprehensive search of the internet yielded dozens of Margarita Guerreros, but the only one that is remotely a possibility is an Argentinian dancer and photographer whose real name was Grete Stern – and her only connection with Borges seemed to be that she photographed him once. Is her co-authorship then, Borges’ contribution to the collection?

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