Hanging gardens

What is wrong with me, that I don’t agonize about the purpose of my blogging as so many other bloggers do? A few days ago, my brother Steve asked me what I wanted to achieve with Via Negativa. I had to give it a little thought. My first reaction was, “beauty is its own excuse for being,” but that seemed awfully conceited, so instead I stressed its importance to me as a daily goad. I’m as lazy as the day is long, so, unlike more highly motivated writers for whom blogs are at best a compliment to their daily efforts and at worst a time-eating distraction from more serious stuff, for me, blogging is at the center of my writing practice right now.

Another, closely related purpose is to explore a number of concepts that interest me. Blogging forces me to do more research than I otherwise might, as well as to arrange my thoughts in at least a semi-coherent fashion – which may or may not be desirable, from a poetic point-of-view. I told Steve I like to imagine Via Negativa as a kind of garden (employing the age-old image from Arabic literature), while remaining fully conscious of the difference between the world of Nature and the world of the text – or the Internet. I also mentioned the importance of establishing connections with other writers and readers through comments, responses in other blogs, and e-mail. The sense of kinship this creates must be a bit like how it feels to live in an artists’ colony. Finally, I said something about the ephemerality of all artistic expression. I simply don’t believe there is such a thing as literary universality or immortality, and even if there were, I don’t see how it could possibly be good for the soul to pursue it.

This morning another thought occurred to me. Once a blog achieves a certain, probably fairly minimal threshold in readership, the chances become pretty good for multiple preservation of its best moments. Occasionally one receives hints that this is happening, as over-enthusiastic readers may let slip that they habitually save and/or print their favorite entries – and of course it’s rarely the entries one would have thought. So there’s a triple level of uncertainty, which I find delicious to contemplate:

1) I don’t know how many people will read any given post;

2) I don’t know how people will read a post, in terms of the level of attention or unique life experiences they may bring to it;

3) I don’t know whether or in what form (paper, hard drive, through linking or quoting elsewhere, etc.) a given post may be preserved.

Only at this third level of uncertainty does blogging differ substantially from non-electronic forms of publishing. But isn’t it really just a subset of a much larger mystery that ought to concern everyone who believes in the capacity of individuals to leave a mark and/or change the world? That is,

4) I don’t know to what extent a word or action of mine may be passed on, magnified (“the ripple effect”) or perhaps slowly transmogrified beyond all recognition (a la “whisper down the lane”). A word uttered half in jest may land who knows where and change some unknown heart – like an insect unwittingly carrying pollen between widely separated plants, facilitating an act of creation which is, if anything, more marvelous for the complete absence of any conscious intent, any knowing agents.

Have you ever looked closely at the handiwork of papermaking hornets? Someone collected a small yellow jacket nest and left it on the verandah of my parents’ house, where I noticed it a couple days ago. Lacking reading material at the time, I was bored enough to pick up the golf ball-sized nest and rotate it slowly on my finger. Not only was it shaped like a potter’s creation – a narrow-mouthed water jar with a missing bottom, perhaps – but I noticed that it had clearly been constructed following the coil method. There was a subtle modulation in shades of gray between one millimeter-wide strip and another, presumably reflecting differences in the source material.

Later, I looked in vain through my mother’s nature library for detailed descriptions of vespid papermaking techniques; all I found was the information that the founding queen abandons all building duties after the first generation of workers emerge from their final molts, and that inside layers were continually ripped away as the nest expands. Even the miniature example I had in hand contained three, tightly nested layers. I think this style of architecture has insulating and cooling effects. I vaguely remember reading something somewhere about air circulation and heat exchange in hornets’ nests.

But lacking any designer save so-called blind instinct and random chance, can one still consider this “architecture”? I am fascinated by all the beautiful and symmetrical objects so made – bird’s nests and eggs, seashells, beaver lodges – although I realize that the distinction between making and growing is fairly arbitrary. As the world’s most fully self-conscious creators, I often wonder, don’t we humans have an obligation to celebrate such manifold and wondrous creations – to intuit Creation, maybe even a Creator? Can it be that wonder and awe play some obscure yet necessary role in the moment-to-moment preservation of the universe?

Without our joyful participation, beauty would have little excuse for being, I sometimes think – then immediately chide myself for excessive anthropocentrism. We humans are no less blind than hornets. I think especially of us bloggers, walking upside-down and backwards in a circle to make our elaborate castles in the air, regurgitating half-digested matter gathered from wherever it pleases us to alight . . .

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