The Goofus Bird Flies Backwards

Maarten de Vos, Unicorn, a familiar beast.


Of all the beasts in Jorge Luis Borge’s The Book of Imaginary Beings, I am most struck by those I do not understand. As understanding stems from familiarity—a fallacy and an illusion, but prevalent—I am left fascinated by those I cannot relate to. Or rather, by the ones that keep evading my grasp like Kafka’s godforsaken Odradek, a flat star-shaped spool for thread with a handle, mentioned last time in Playing Detective.

Borges’ book contains 120 entries detailing creatures born of mythology and literature. In his 1957 Preface, Borges chooses to mention the dragon.

Quote: We are ignorant of the meaning of the dragon as we are of the meaning of the universe, but there is something in the dragon’s image that appeals to the human imagination, and so we find the dragon in quite distinct places and times. It is, so to speak, a necessary monster …


While reading his book, I noted that the most common feature seemed to be a relation to birds—about a fifth of the creatures has some capacity for feathered flight. Whether that makes them dragons or not, I’m not sure (I too am ignorant of the meaning of dragon), but if the chicken is the closest modern relative to the Tyrannosaurus rex, then perhaps we can assume birds and dragons hatch from similar eggs.

The two oddest imaginary birds are the Pinnacle Grouse and the Goofus bird found under the heading of Fauna of the United States. The Goofus bird builds its nest upside down and flies backward, not caring where it’s going, only where it’s been. I get queasy looking backwards when riding the bus, so I’d say that lifestyle takes a sturdy gizzard. Based on this scant information, I speculate that the Goofus bird would be a good pet for anyone in the sect Laudatores Temporis Acti, comprising those who worship the past—to them the past is absolute: it never had a present, nor can it be remembered or even guessed at. On second thought, according to them, the Goofus bird shouldn’t exist.

The Pinnacle Grouse has a single wing, which means it can fly in one direction only, circling the top of a conical hill. It’s color depends on the condition of the observer.  When I read this, I drew a little cone and a spiral around it. But actually, I don’t understand why the Pinnacle Grouse can’t just use any old circular track, and I have grave concerns about its aerodynamic properties. To me the Pinnacle grouse is blue.

While on the topic of creatures with half a set of something: The Nasnas has only one eye, one cheek, one hand, one leg, half a torso and half a heart (it’s attributed to Flaubert, although its roots are in Arab folklore). How do you imagine that? At best I’m thinking da Vinci’s anatomical drawings, at neutral it’s a ramped up version of Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson, at worst it’s a torture scene from an unwritten novel by Richard Morgan (read Altered Carbon for a taster). Also regarding the Nasnas: Its flesh is sweet and much sought after. After imagining a human cleaved in two, I don’t feel much like eating.


The next creature also reaches us via Flaubert: The Mermecolion is lion in its foreparts, ant in its hindparts. Now, normally I wouldn’t be much perturbed by an ant-lion hybrid—there are some unexpected relationships out there—but since the father of such a creature eats flesh, and the mother grains, the Mermecolion is a thing of two natures, that can eat neither grains nor flesh. It perishes, therefore, because it has no nutriment. Ouch.

I’d like to conclude with the so called thermal beings, revealed to the philosopher Rudolf Steiner, who termed his brand of work “spiritual science”. The background interested me less than the notion that his thermal forms were organisms made of changing temperatures. I’m trying to envision that. I’m seeing fires, thermal gradients, contour lines, molten lava over a glacial core, glaciers with molten cores, ethereal but actually corporeal since temperature measures the excitation level of matter, maybe a colourful, conscious ideal gas …

If you enjoy fantasy or even just exercising your imagination, I recommend The Book of Imaginary Beings. You’re unlikely to be bored with it, and like the Odradek, the book will knock about your place for a good long while, entertaining the next generation even after you’re gone. When Borges wrote, he wrote for the ages.

Another familiar beast—Pegasus—but what an angle the artist chose! (click the pic to enlarge) Bellerophon on Pegasus by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo

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