Small Demon
Jul 032010
 

1. It is gratifying that whaling regulations have not been eased at the recent meeting of the international commission that oversees the “harvest” of marine mammals, but beyond that news & its egregious metaphor, I was fascinated by some of the information about cetaceans in this NY Times article; specifically, I was struck by the way the scientists quoted were defining personhood, if that’s the right term. Dolphins (& presumably whales) are interested in seeing themselves in a mirror, checking out parts of their bodies they can’t ordinarily see. The mirror test is presumed to to demonstrate self-consciousness, fair enough. My terriers will look at themselves in a mirror, but it’s hard to tell whether they see themselves or an image of another dog. They don’t behave as if they are seeing another dog, so perhaps they recognize themselves.  Birds will peck at their own image in a mirror & the behavior seems pretty complex. How about fish? I don’t know, but I know some fish are territorial & might react as if another fish were horning in on their territory. I’m not trying to find fault with the mirror test, just noting that it is the human observer who views the animal’s interaction with a mirror & makes a determination. We know what consciousness looks like, or personhood. This is more interesting to me than whether this or that animal reacts to a mirror in a certain way, as interesting as that is.

2. The vocalizations of cetaceans is often compared to music, or song, and somewhat less often (& less directly), to speech. They have tribal dialects, apparently, which suggests language & since they can both learn & teach what they have learned, it appears that it might be something we would recognize as a real language, not just a highly elaborate system of communication. And here we get back to the issue of self-recognition. Language, too, is a mirror. I’m far from expert, but in addition to their vocal communications, don’t at least some species of cetaceans produce & repeat long “symphonic” vocalizations and then work changes on them? If so, this would suggest a sense of the aesthetic in whales & dolphins, though perhaps it is only an elaborate kind of birdsong. [Need further information.]

3. Living in the country, Carole & I take delight in seeing & naming: birds (many species, including jays, woodpeckers, nuthatches, hawks, vultures, ducks, geese, several kinds of finches, bluebirds, thrushes. . .), turtles (painted, snapping), frogs & toads, beavers, skunks, porcupines, deer, and occasionally coyotes & bears. What is the source of our delight? Merely a privilege of the bourgeois, or something deeper?

4. Portrayals of damaged humans, usually children, in fact & fiction: Kasper Hauser, Victor (the Wild Child from 18 c. France; various accounts by Truffaut, T.C. Boyle, etc.), Malcolm (from Marisa Silver’s novel The God of War), Christopher (from The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime). By looking at what these damaged humans possess, as well as what they lack, we highlight the cluster of qualities that allow a person to create & recognize a self. And connected to these accounts, there is the much more abstract set of arguments in Marilynne Robinson’s Absence of Mind that seem to suggest a special place in the universe for human consciousness. Not sure if I can accept the “fine tuning” of physical laws Robinson suggests (but does not assert), but that is not necessary to appreciate her devastating response to “parascientists” like Steven Pinker, Daniel Dennett, and the other reductionists who believe that, because the brain is a physical organ, mind & consciousness are epiphenomena, easily dismissed as ontologically inferior the the various tissues and juices of the brain.

5. Mind as extension in the Cartesian sense. Richard P. Bentall’s Madness Explained: Psychosis and Human Nature argues persuasively that “madness” is not one thing and is not separated by a bright line from other “normal” states of mind; in this vein, he sees mental complaints rather than a discrete set of mental illnesses that can be assigned a particular diagnosis. He also brings forward an impressive amount of evidence that strongly suggests mental illness is a bio-social phenomenon.

Further thoughts a couple of days later: 1. Yesterday evening I was watching Jett, our seven year old Jack Russell as he stood on the deck looking down the road toward the river. There were some kids swimming down there & the other two dogs had been barking in that direction, but Jett was focused, his mouth a little open, his nose moving to sense the air almost as a human would feel a piece of fabric to get the sense of it. The other two dogs were excited, but he was calm, completely self-possessed. I’ve watched all the dogs over the years of course & each has his/her ways of focusing on the world & at the same time being themselves. In fact those two things go together — focusing intently on the world and being an animal self. This goes beyond Santayana’s notion of “animal faith,” which is a kind of confidence that the world will be, perhaps roughly, supportive of our being. For the philosopher, “animal faith” is a common ground for animals & humans, something we humans share with animals but also then surpass in all the usually enumerated ways: reason, language, technology & so on.

2.Over the years I’ve had many encounters with animals that have gone beyond mere observation into something more profound and, I believe, reciprocal, though I don’t want to sentimentalize the notion of reciprocity– I understand that the heron I saw 25 years ago on an estuary near the Pacific “understood” our encounter in the same way I understood it, but the bird did look back at me and allowed me to come quite close & was clearly conscious of me. Wild animals are one thing & domesticated animals another. I freely admit to sentimentalizing our dogs, but I also spend a good deal of time just watching them, trying to understand something about the way they understand the world. Their sensory organs filter the world for them in a way different from mine, of course, but there is enough overlap — we’re all mammals – that we can make sense of each others’ sensory worlds. Also, we share a social world of complex personal interactions that allow us to communicate our sense of the world. And of course we observe each other in action and draw conclusions, seeing the world, in imaginative reconstruction, “through each others’ eyes.”

3.So what kind of cross-species identification does it take to get on a jet ski in the Antarctic Ocean to attack a Japanese whaling vessel & through acid at its crew?

 Posted by at 6:00 pm
May 182010
 

I don’t know about you, but to me there is something deeply satisfying in the knowledge that the universe appears to be the result of an imbalance. Those old Navajo weavers were exactly right to put a flaw intentionally into their perfect rugs; the Japanese idea of wabi sabi captures this notion aesthetically, that a slight asymmetry makes for the greatest beauty.

Nov 062009
 

I was reshelving a book in my office and noticed a volume on the shelf that I hadn’t picked up in a couple of years– a collection of selections from the work of Gaston Bachelard, On Poetic Imagination and Reverie (edited by Collette Gaudin). I remembered being disappointed when I first got the book that it was a collection of snippets rather than something more substantial. I pulled the book off the shelf anyway and flipped it open at random, coming to this:

From the standpoint of its will to shape expression, the literary image is a physical reality which has its own relief. More precisely, it is the psychic relief, the multi-leveled psyche. It furrows or it raises; it finds a depth or suggests an elevation; it rises or falls between heaven and earth. It is poly phonic because it is polysemantic. If meanings become too profuse, it can fall into word play. If it restricts itself to a single meaning, it can fall into didacticism. The true poet avoids both dangers. He plays and he teaches. In him, the word reflects and reflows; in him time begins to wait. The true poem awakens an unconquerable desire to be reread. (28) [Empahsis in original; original source: L’Air et les songes, 286.]

So sometimes the merest chance brings you something you need. (My mother used to half-believe this about the Bible, but felt it was a little too “superstitious” to be morally reliable.) I am less cautious about such things than my mother and I needed to be reminded about this middle path for poetry, which of course does not necessarily mean “mainstream.” I think I was drawn to the passage, too, because of the word will in that first sentence. I’ve been reading William James, whose philosophy is in some ways an exploration of the idea of the power of will to create meaning. Here, Bachelard attributes will to the “poetic image” and only by extension to the poet who “creates” the image, or discovers it. This conforms with my own experience writing poems, in which language wills itself into meaning as a kind of collaborator with the one holding the pencil or sitting at the keyboard.

During my poetic lifetime — the last thirty years or so — it seems as if the reactionaries have had a steady presence that continues the orientation of the New Critics but without the New Critics’ skills; and the theoreticians of language and power have had an opposing presence that claims at least sometimes to descend from Pound and Williams, but also from the Objectivists and Olson. (I’ve never got Olson and in fact published a poem against him in APR several years ago.) I’ve long felt bereft in this landscape. I trace my own descent from Pound and Williams, but I also acknowledge Eliot (despite Dr. Williams’ disapprobation). I also honor my teacher Donald Justice, though I write nothing like him and resemble him only in my failure to be prolific and perhaps in my general pessimism. Also in my poetic makeup are some voices I have tried to disown over the years: from early adolescence Kipling and Edna St. Vincent Milay.  I still have my mother’s volumes of these poets on my bookshelves and while they are no longer central, I learned traditional metrical practice from them, for which I am grateful. And from my later adolescence comes my continuing attachment to the so-called Confessional School of Berryman, Plath, Lowell, Sexton, and Snodgrass. A very unfashionable group these days, but also a group, I’d argue, that practiced a middle-path poetics, with a concern for both matter and meter, subject and language.

Bachelard’s definition of poetry, if that’s what it is, also insists upon a reader, but a reader who has the gumption to reread, who is open to the poem’s insistence on being reread. It seems to me that contemporary schools of poetry have either over-emphasized or under-emphasized the reader, either pandering or pushing away, didacticism or word play. I think the division reflects a  fundamental dualism we have been unable to get beyond in Western poetics (with some notable exceptions); we feel driven to be one thing or the other, completely; we are made uncomfortable by mixed states.

[Cross-posted to The Plumbline School.]

Oct 252009
 

In the winter of 1906-1907, William James delivered a series of lectures at the Lowell Institute in Boston on the subject of pragmatism. They were, in many ways, the culmination of a lifetime of work (James would die only two years later) and they also have the virtue of what can only be called voice — one hears William James speaking in these lectures in the most direct way. James writes in his preface that the lectures are “printed as delivered, without development or notes,” making these deeply personal essays into the central theme of James’ battle against the Absolute in philosophy and religion, against Plato and Hegel. In the second lecture, “What Pragmatism Means,” James says:

What do believers in the Absolute mean by saying their belief affords them comfort? They mean that since in the Absolute finite evil is overruled already, we may, therefore, whenever we wish, threat the temporal as if it were potentially the eternal, be sure that we can trust its outcome, and, without sin, dismiss our fear and drop the worry of our finite responsibility. In short, they mean that we have a right ever and anon to take a moral holiday, to let the world wag its own way, feeling that its issues are in better hands than ours and are none of our business.

I find this bracing, even exhilarating. James was never one to let himself off the hook and in this passage he refuses to let us off the hook either. The emphasis on responsibility is characteristic of James’ philosophy and connects in my thinking to Camus and the mid-twentieth-century existentialist philosophers whom James prefigures in many ways. Existence not essence, in James, is experience not essence. I’ve recently been reading Buddhist texts and commentaries and James fits in there as well, but that’s a big subject and I just wanted to make a note of the above paragraph because James has become absolutely central to my view of the world (and my poetics) over the last few months.

Sep 112009
 

On this anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, I simply note the destructive violent power of absolute belief. Certainty is so difficult to maintain that whole religions and political systems have to be created to prop it up. Those systems — theirs, ours — are inherently violent.