Selfies and Borges

I was in my local branch of the Brooklyn Public Library yesterday when I found this: The Book of Imaginary Beings, by Jorge Luis Borges. It’s a cryptozoological encyclopedia of animals described in myth and literature, which Borges details with typically awesome digressive riffs. There’s the “Squonk”, which apparently is native to Pennsylvania, is perpetually sad over its wart-encrusted appearance, and thus can be hunted by following “its tear-stained trail”. There’s “The Hairy Beast of La Ferté-Bernard,” which somehow survived the Biblical flood despite not having been on the Ark; “Its preferred victims were innocents — maidens and children.” There are the “Brownies,” helpful little creatures that Robert Louis Stevenson claimed had whispered the plot for The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde into his ears while he slept. Or there’s the “Basilisk”, whose Medusa-like gaze is fatal, which — as Borges notes — helps explain its desolated environment: “The Basilisk lives in the desert, then; or rather, it created the desert. Birds fall dead at its feet, and fruits rot; the water in the rivers from which its lakes its thirst is poison for hundreds of years. That its glance breaks stones and singes grass has been attested by Pliny.”

Still, my all-time entry in this collection is the one for “Animals That Live in the Mirror”. Given the endless debates over the supposedly narcissistic payload of the selfie, this monster seems awfully contemporary. Borges begins by detailing the myth of the “Fish”, a creature that lives inside mirrors, and then delves into the work of Herbert Allan Giles’ — a specialist in Chinese history — who tracks the myth back to “the legendary age of the Yellow Emperor”. As the myth goes:

In those days, the world of mirrors in the world of men were not, as they are now, separate and unconnected. They were, moreover, quite different from one another; neither the creature nor the colors and shapes of the two worlds were the same. The two kingdoms — the specular and the human — lived in peace, and one could pass back and forth through mirrors. One night, however, the people of the mirror invaded this world. Their strength was great, but after many bloody battles, the magic of the Yellow Emperor prevailed. The Emperor pushed back the invaders, imprisoning them within the mirrors, and punished them by making them repeat, as though in a kind of dream, all the actions of their human victors. He stripped them of their strength and their own shape and reduced them to mere servile reflections. One day, however, they will throw off that magical lethargy.

The first to awaken shall be the Fish. In the depths of the mirror, we shall perceive a faint, faint line, and the color of the line will not resemble any other. Then, other forms will begin to awaken. Gradually they will become different from us; gradually they will no longer imitate us; they will break through the barriers of glass or metal, and this time they will not be conquered. Water-creatures will battle alongside mirror-creatures.

In Yunnan province, people speak not of the Fish but rather the Tiger of the Mirror. Others believe that before the invasion, we will hear, from the depths of the mirrors, the sound of arms.

This is such a great sci-fi concept: That our reflections are imprisoned slaves, desperate for freedom — and that perhaps this is true too of our smartphones, filled with smiling ducklipped images of ourselves that long to escape and fight us to the death.

(That photo above courtesy the Flickr Creative Commons stream of the Boston Public Library!)

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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