Picasso had a minotaur; Max Ernst had a bird named Loplop; Carrington had a white horse; Fini had a sphinx. Half the fun of being an old-school modern artist was having an animal alter ego, preferably mythical. I am not a surrealist but I’m enough of a fan of the movement to have adopted my own mythical creature alter ego. Mine is the chimera.
Anyone who knew me in my pre-author days remembers my ubiquitous Chimera of Arezzo avatar and its accompanying tagline, “a creature composed of disparate parts.” I first adopted this avatar in my last year of college, when I was not very successfully trying to split my time between the chemistry and art history departments, each of which demanded my undivided attention and neither of which could understand why I would take upper-division classes in the other. Because the defining feature of the chimera is that it’s a mash-up of parts that don’t go together.
There are, of course, many other mythical creatures that are combinations of animals, most notably the chimera’s more popular cousin, the griffin. In E. Nesbit’s story “The Island of the Nine Whirlpools,” the hero defeats a griffin by tricking its two halves into attacking each other. But there’s an elegance to the griffin’s half-and-half design. It represents something made of parts that do go together–paradoxically, perhaps, but nevertheless harmoniously. For Dante, the griffin represented the bipartate nature of Christ. This is no creature for the misfits of the world.
The chimera, on the other hand, is the opposite of elegant. This thing makes no sense whatsoever. It has three heads, one on the front, one on the tail, and one…somewhere. It’s two-thirds mammal, one-third reptile, and sometimes it has wings even though none of its component parts do. No one seems quite sure what its body is supposed to look like. It’s a monster, but one of its heads belongs to the distinctly nonthreatening goat.
Every depiction of the chimera struggles to make sense of its appearance, especially the goat. The ancient Greeks gave it the body of a lion and just stuck the goat’s head on its back as an afterthought. D&D made it essentially a three-headed dragon, the goat nearly unrecognizable. Mission: Impossible 2 dispensed with the goat altogether and just described it as a monster with the head of a lion and the tail of a dragon. Other artists ignored the multiple heads and just put goat horns or hooves on a lion. Each of these depictions backs away from the creature’s fundamental nature and tries to reduce it to something more logical: basically a lion, basically a dragon.
The chimera cannot be reduced to something logical, and that’s the reason why it’s such a suitable avatar for anyone who themselves feels like they don’t fit into any of society’s predefined categories. Anyone who feels as if they’re always standing with one foot in one box and one foot in another, and that adding a third box would only create one more place where they don’t quite belong. For some people it’s a gender identity that doesn’t quite match the usual definitions; for others it’s trying to carve out space in a professional field or a hobby associated with a different kind of person.
We are the chimeras of the world, defying classification, cobbled together from parts of different sets, the people whose Hogwarts house is “Irreducibly complex human being.” And no attempt to reduce us to a pre-established type will ever succeed.