The Impossibility Of The Chimera

Fittingly, the word “chimera” has various meanings. The first, historically speaking, refers to a beast from Greek mythology. Like other Greek monsters – the Centaur, the Minotaur, the three headed dog Cerberus, Medusa, the Sphinx, some amphibious versions of sirens, the harpy, the hydra, etc. – the chimera is a biological union between different things, grafted together (rather haphazardly). The resultant union is discordant and strange, producing a bestial creature that often serves as the antagonist to the Greek hero. See: the Minotaur to Theseus, Medusa to Perseus, the sirens to Odysseus. Specifically, the OG chimera of Greek mythology is fire-breathing hybrid creature with a lion’s head, a goat’s body, and a serpent’s tail. From the mythological meaning comes a second one for the term “chimera”: a medical term for organisms carrying two genotypes for the same trait, causing a muddling or gynandromorphic effect that manifests in things like heterochromia (having two differently colored eyes) or the possession of both sex organs.

While genetic chimerism is real, the monstrous chimeras of our mythologies are definitively not. Moreover, they seem purposefully outlandish. Garish creatures with Frankenstein(…’s monster)-esque exposed seams and of Turducken grotesquery, impossibility feels to be tied inextricably to their incongruous multiplicity. They cannot exist, especially since the disparate animals that anatomize them already stand alone elsewhere. The amalgams are therefore perverse. Unnatural. It makes sense, then, that the second definition of “chimera” offered by Merriam-Webster is this: “an illusion or fabrication of the mind; especiallyan unrealizable dream.” The chimera is often judged horrid and generally evil. But what its concoction invokes foremost is power. Divine potency. Certainly there is a devilishness to the sirens and harpies, a hellish ferocity in Cerberus, and yes, a terrifying, rabid aggression in the hydra, the minotaur, the namesake chimera (all of which might be interpreted as an agitation for such a sordid existence). But there is also an arch beauty in the seraphic Sphinx. A pure majesty to the horse-bird Pegasus. And let us not forget that angels, too, are hybrid creatures, and they are glorious harbingers of the divine. Hindu and Egyptian gods with animal heads were celebrated and praised, not reviled as orcs and used purely to blame worldly pitfalls (as the Scylla and Hydra were blamed for treacherous vortexes that ensnared Greek ships). The point being that the chimerism that pervades various mythologies does not necessarily carry a monstrous or evil valence with it – it only suggests power.

The chimera is many things at once. It wears many hats – or, more aptly, it has many heads. But its duality – or triality, or quaternality, etc – is inharmonious. Sometimes monstrously so, but always remarkably – anyone can see the incongruency, and the more obvious or garish, the more monstrous the creature is likely to be. The subtler combos – man and winged creature, horse and winged creature, woman and fish – are less jarring. To be sure, those transmogrifications in which the human head is conserved are certainly more savory, because even if the combo is inelegant – as one might aver about the centaur, or even the mermaid – at least it doesn’t forsake human sensibility and intellect for snarling bullishness, or the replacement of a pretty face with vegetal fish-eyed countenance. In the case of human-animal hybrids, distance from humanity is connected to repugnance. In the case of those creature collages that don’t have any human parts, it’s the sheer number of ill-matched pieces that quantify their abominability. A hydra – while scary by nature – is less off putting than the original, Iliadian chimera, which looks like something cooked up in a mad geneticist’s lab.

The thing about the chimera – and what I speculate is its point, if I can use such a word – is that they are purely impossible except in a world of fantasy. Whether or not the monsters of Greek mythology or Frankenstein might have ever been fully believed as fact I can’t truly claim to know (Frankenstein was written in 1823, and people were fooled by Orson Welles radio broadcast of War of the Worlds in 1938). Yet, when you consider the modern, non-academic definition of chimera – an “unrealizable dream” – we can take these mythic figures as having at least transformed into symbols emblematic of impossibility, purposely unbelievable. If that is the case, what is the meaning of their apocrypha?

I think that the chimera symbolically exists to demonstrate that being many things at once is an impossible dream, one that causes much suffering. It’s as futile an effort  as all the king’s horses and all the king’s men trying to reassemble humpty dumpty. Unlike in Frankenstein, stitching together a collection of dead things will never make a live one.

Such is the endeavor of fighting against a life in conflict. Living too many ideas of a correct life at once – dividing our allotted attention among the fantasies of who we ought to be, dispersing our focus among our daydreams like the ambulatory functions distributed among the multiple heads of the lion-snake-goat hybri –  leads not to erudition, though it can, or a polygluttonous appetite for learning and a Renaissance-range of skills, though it might. It leads to a variety of lives halfway-, or third-of-the-way, or quarter-of-the-way-lived. Fractious, conflicted, and ultimately confused. As someone important says in the Bible in Matthew 6:24, “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other.”

I quote the Bible not because I am Christian, but because this idea of living a muddled, multiplicitous and therefore uneven life – and the response to the problem of chimerism – exists in so many religions, within that metaphoric Zen nougat at their bases, which Aldous Huxley, in his book The Perennial Philosophy, called “the unitive knowledge of the divine ground of all being.” The key word being unitive: unifying, self-coalescing. Anti-chimeric. Many of these religions have come to suggest that the achievement of our reconstitution requires abnegation; charity; penitence. And surely it does, at least in a sense. Yet we circle back to the metaphoric interpretations of the wisdom in religion that “Perennialism” favors. Though charity and abnegation are certainly vital, for them to be prerequisites to self-actualization is illogical, even impossible. Pulling oneself up by one’s own bootstraps cannot be the way. Solving a conflicted mind with a conflicted mind is like paddling against a river to pacify the current, stirring a spinning cup of tea backwards to neutralize its whirls. If charity – enacted charity, for true charity is not offered as a deliberate act but a natural one, springing forth from an anonymous and empty consciousness – but if charity practiced is a requirement and not a symptom of the aforementioned enlightenment, then it is because it demonstrates to the practicer the joy of being momentarily outside of oneself, offering a sample of the pure ecstasy of being outside of a fraught and conflicted consciousness (which is probably the same as a burst of dopamine in your head, but lets not split hairs, and I’m no scientist). Still, the Buddha eschewed asceticism, and Zen monks do not subscribe to nor prescribe any stringent meditative or charitable practices, because they know that right-thinking does not come necessarily from right-doing. Not to say that exercise can’t help clear a muddied mind, but that a mind that is fundamentally split cannot be “solved” by contradictive action. And trying and trying to conquer, to polish, to scrub away the conflicts and imperfections of the mind is a bit like trying to scrub off a leopard’s spots.

Is our conflicted nature really our nature? Is it inherent? Probably. It could be that we picked it up, accumulated tension from a world built to make us split at the neck. But in my assessment (and other, more educated opinions from more educated folks) our status as chimera is more likely attributable to our existence at a liminal evolutionary stage. As the late Terry Pratchett wrote poetically that human beings exist at the “place where falling angel meets rising ape.” So we’re caught between unfettered, ethereal, transcedent life and unfettered, corporeal, unthinking bliss. In the meantime, we dither about in the middle. Fettered.

The argument can be made that it is precisely because of our predicament, our fascination in vacillation, our ability and proclivity to serve two, three, four or more masters that a perfectly, ecstatically imperfect life is possible. And its not after self-abnegation, abstemious practices, self-flagellation and demonstrative charity. It’s simply with the acceptance that our life will always be conflicted that the conflict resolves. Because when you realize you will always be multiple, you cease to be so. When multiplicity is the only option, then optionality dissolves (it’s only an option when there’s another, isn’t it?)

I­­t’s possible that this particular age of existence is a bit stuffier and overcrowded and in your face with an overabundance of windows into other, seemingly “better” alternatives to your life than any previous generation. It’s certainly the case that we have access to more idealized imagery than ever before. Does it make us more dissatisfied and anxious to see these images, thanks to TV and movies and now social media? It certainly does something to us. I reckon that it does make things worse. Yet I can’t help but feel that the difference is negligible. After all, the dread of comparing oneself to others is nothing new. It’s a human foible as old as the ten commandments (read: thou shalt not covet), and though Instagram is essentially a delivery service of food for envy, it is not the reason human beings think in should/would/could hypotheticals more than they, well, should. Do you really think that if you finally manage to delete Instagram once and for all, you’ll suddenly be rid of envy, covetousness, anxiety? I’m willing to guess that you’ve probably deleted the app in a vain effort before, a gesture that you likely knew in your little pixelated heart of hearts was empty. It’s OK. This stuff, this uncomfort, this so-derided need for “instant gratification” from jackass condescending boomers, it’s all too deep, now. We’re steeped. We were bound to be, and it’s still OK that we are. But roiling against mal-tendency to imagine what we ought to do, to try to unchimera-ize ourselves is a self-surgery for which we are not equipped.

What is better – and indeed truer – is a simple acknowledgment: that we were never such a creature of conflict, such a grotesque mistake of nature as we shamefully imagine. The standard to which we are comparing ourselves – that’s the unrealizable dream. We, on the other hand, are the “perfect” reality. The platypus is no chimera – only through a lens of our querulous imagination does it all appear “unnatural.” Probably, gene-splicing and all that (see: I’m not a scientist) can and has created something unnatural, like the sterile mule, but the consciousness that the creature itself expresses cannot be “unnatural.” Even if a creature is born flawed; blind, deaf, dumb – it is still just as it should be, simply because that’s just how it is. Our proclivity to abstract, to envision other ways we could or should have been, it’s a gift, it’s a massive part of what make us human.  We can’t reject that. We cannot abnegate, purge ourselves of our oft-lamentable hypothesizing ways, for a neuter, purgatorial paradise. We can only accept the vicissitudes of our constant conflict as features as necessary to our sight as the rods and cones in our eyes.

An Indian parable describes a group of blind men who hear that a new sort of animal has come to town. They go to check it out. Because they are blind, they must discern its shape by touch. One feels its trunk and says: “the creature is like a thick snake”. Another rubs its ear and say it is like a fan. Another its leg and determines it is more wall-like. Another feels its tusk and says it is like a spear. Which is it? It’s all of those things, and none of them. Nothing, and everything is a chimera. Perhaps more accurately, being a chimera – a strange admixture if uncomplimentary and clashing things, which can grind and scrape and hurt a bit – is not only natural, it is vital. Subjectivity mandates that all things are irreducible, infinitely interpretable. Nothing is one thing, only an incoherable collection of angles, points of view that are anything but absolute. The same goes for us. We are a mish-mash, and it is the friction between heads that actually illuminates our worlds, lets us see and examine the cracks between things. In essence, our conflict makes the world subjective. The solution to the wholehearted, anti-solipsistic belief that other beings are real, and therefore worthy of empathy, charity, is to fuse the objective and subjective, to make the distinction between them specious, illusory. It takes no shortage of whimsy, but mostly it takes love. Self-love foremost, which becomes love for the “other” (as the sense of otherness fades when the division between the external and internal world does). The mental habit of comparison is hard if not impossible to be scrubbed off our minds, but it can be realized and understood, and then it cannot harm you. This solution has so many different words and terms, and like the Perennial philosophy’s universal definition of self-actualization, the way to that end is similarly pervasive.

What it takes is loving one’s conflict by understanding it not as discord, but as a natural state of being. This is the lesson of the perennial philosophy, expressed in so many different platitudes, yet all espousing the same thing. It is to live in the present, by recognizing that the disharmony created by comparison – whether comparing your own woebegone circumstances to someone else’s experience, or to your own, previous state where you were happy(er), or even a future/hypothetical state that could be better – is part of the only existence that there is, and loveable for its intricacy if not for its particular social currency (that is, its own instagrammability/lackthereof). To love the negative, the neutral and the positive equally is to erase their distinction. It is amor fati, to love fate – and that means all fate. It is the love of whatever circumstances have befallen you. As Joseph Campbell would say,  it is to mythologize your life – to turn your life into a story of incomparable mystery – by accepting the particular peculiarities, the idiosyncratic anatomy of your personal chimera. Let it be your spirit animal, strangely shaped but not misshapen, warped in form but not deformed, utterly unique – without a referential model to which it may be compared, and therefore always exceptionally beautiful.