The moderns are allergic to hybrids, things which don’t belong completely to one category or another. One of the articles of faith of post-Enlightenment modernity is the separation of nature and culture, of things pertaining to science (necessary, true, real) and those created by humans (contingent, potentially false, artificial). The space between these two sets of notions is not admitted, hybridity is banned from the modern book and outlook.
If tolerance is defined by the acceptance of half-lings, beings on the edge of our self-imposed categories, then pre-modern societies were, counterintuitively, the most tolerant. Hybrids sitting between this world and another, between the eternal universe and the world of the humans, like the countless mixed creatures populating ancient and medieval imaginations and bestiaries – were not waiting for us to sort them into our own modern drawers, but were floating freely in a world of flux, which the poets and philosophers described as an ocean of being, nourishing the world and inhabiting every desire and fear. The simple fact that the English word ‘awe’ captures the interaction between fear and admiration, terror and desire, doesn’t make premodern societies contradictory or ‘weird’, but reflects a deep truth about our humanity, one that we have grown insensitive to.
The modern impulse to separate in fact destroys rather than creates, proliferating reductionisms instead of hybrids. Wishing to cleanse the world of ‘thirds’ that don’t conform to this or that category, it acts like a Procrustean bed which ends up mutilating the world in the name of order and rationality.
The surrealists had to merit to repopulate the terra vacua with all sorts of hybrids to the point that their art became a proclamation against the tenets of modernity. Against the certainties of the 18th and 19th centuries, they opposed a world of fertile ambiguities, where nothing really is anything but everything, where meaning is restored in a multiplicity of readings, none more qualified than another – in other words, the premodern flux where the real and unreal, sacred and profane, nature and culture are inextricably linked.
Theseus may have killed the Minotaur, but the guardian of the premodern Labyrinth is never quite dead.