Guest blogger, Caspar Henderson, writes for Broad Conversation on his new book, ‘The Book of Barely Imagined Beings’. We will be holding an event with Caspar on Wednesday 12th December at 5pm. See below for more details.
In The Book of Imaginary Beings, Luis Borges maps a good part of the terrain of myth and story that humans have ever dreamed up. Amongst his inspirations was the medieval European bestiary, or ‘book of beasts’, a genre that reached its full flowering in beautifully illuminated manuscripts, in the decades before the Black Death.
Bestiaries are full of allegory and symbol because, for the medieval mind, every natural creature was believed to embody a religious or moral lesson. Hume and Darwin discredited this way of looking at nature. Our new reality, however, is that as we humans increasingly shape the world through science, technology and our sheer numbers, such other living things as do thrive and evolve are increasingly becoming corollaries of what we love, value or neglect. In this sense, the world is becoming allegorical again.
Our times are more like the Middle Ages than we like to think. We still routinely mix rational thinking, mythology and spirituality, which can be good for us, with delusion and lies, which never are. We may have a vastly greater store of knowledge, and have made enormous strides in human health and political liberty, but it is far from clear that we are capable of using this knowledge wisely, as continuing blockages to rational action on climate change show.
Self-styled techno-optimists such as Stewart Brand, author of Whole Earth Discipline, suggest that we are as gods so we might as well get good at it. Agreed, industrial civilisation has given us awesome powers, but a better characterisation of how we handle those powers is made by Braden Allenby and Daniel Sarewitz in The Techno-Human Condition: We are as gods? No, for we have created the power but not the mind. We have got used to, even blasé about, the possibility of nuclear winter, in the way a two year old gets used to a loaded .357 magnum lying on the floor within easy reach.
A good starting point for a life well-lived is continual effort to enlarge the boundaries of one’s imagination and knowledge to all the dimensions and details of the real world. Henry Thoreau may have written that in wildness is the salvation of the world, but this environmental visionary and political radical was not a wooly thinker. It was Thoreau not the supposedly practical folk around him who refused to believe that Walden pond was bottomless and actually took the trouble to measure its depth with a plumb line. As Richard Feynman later said, our imagination is stretched to the utmost not, as in fiction, to imagine things which are not really there, but just to comprehend those things which are there.
We know that the oceans, for example, contain creatures stranger than anything you will find in a medieval bestiary: beings as tall as men that have no internal organs and thrive in waters that would scald us to death in moments; others which are highly intelligent but able nevertheless to squeeze their bodies through spaces the width of their own eyeballs. We know that there is a vast world of cold darkness on this planet in which almost every creature glows with its own light. Some of the creatures you might find also appear in The Book of Barely Imagined Beings, a work inspired both by medieval bestiaries and the newest discoveries in science. I hope you can join us for the talk at Blackwell’s.
Caspar Henderson’s The Book of Barely Imagined Beings is published by Granta. @casparhenderson and barelyimaginedbeings.com
Join us as Caspar will be discussing his book and signing copies on Wednesday 12th December at 5pm. This is a free event, all are welcome. We advise that you arrive early to avoid disappointment.