Consulting the Mirror

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When I look into a mirror, I look at the enemy.
— Darryl Strawberry

Look: the mirror lies.

Not only because it switches sides, but because it doesn’t redeem.

True, it accuses; it judges, yes. For certain, it condemns.

A face’s truest reflection is in moving water: another face.

And the body? The body shines too. Its only true mirror is the body of another.

If I fall in love with a narcissist, am I too condemned?

We say the face of the earth, but never the face of the sky.

If I fall in love with the blue of heaven, who will redeem me then?

What does it mean to make a face?

Why is the straight man essential to the joke?

When you hold one mirror up to another, why doesn’t the world go dark?

Dream of the White Chamber

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The M.C. or Main Complex of the World Bank in Washington includes a cafeteria with a vast selection of affordable dishes from a variety of international cuisines. Of course, not just anyone can eat there. You have to know somebody who works for the bank, and he or she has to sign you into the building. (And this was before 9/11.) I was down in D.C. visiting my friend Chris, who worked just a block away and whose girlfriend Seung was a World Bank employee, so it made sense to go there for lunch.

We carried our trays out into an atrium where a faux bistro lured us to sit in a tease of real sunlight. Actually, “atrium” may not be the right word. (I apologize for my ignorance of architecture.) The M.C. is shaped like a hollow, square column, some ten or twenty stories high: every floor opens onto the sky-lit courtyard, which is roofed in glass too thick to admit any view of the clouds.

After about 40 minutes, Seung had to hurry back to work, leaving Chris and me to linger if we wanted. Unless he has a beer in his hand, however, Chris is never one to dawdle for very long. Let’s go back to the office, man, I’ll show you around!

On our way out, I paused to admire a large obelisk made up entirely of video screens, broadcasting satellite television stations from around the globe. Not too profound, as such things go, but provocative nonetheless – like the Washington Monument turned into a Tower of Babel. When I turned around to say something to Chris, he was gone.

I usually enjoy being lost. I searched half-heartedly at first, trying to maintain a brisk enough pace so I wouldn’t stand out as an obvious interloper among all the distinguished-looking people of every nationality who crowded the hallways. No sign of Chris. (It turned out that he had been searching for me at the same time. One of us should’ve just stayed put!)

After about ten minutes of this I gave up and started looking for an exit. Oddly enough, I couldn’t find one. Which was the ground floor? Was there more than one way out? Where was all the light coming from? The janitors I queried in a stairwell merely laughed – whether from nervousness or contempt I couldn’t tell. In my panic I started opening doors at random, briefly interrupting two meetings and backing away from half a dozen soft-walled labyrinths filled with the humming of office machines. It was starting to feel not just like a bad dream but the wrong dream, someone else’s dream that I’d somehow stumbled into. When I finally guessed right and found myself facing the front door, it was all I could do to keep from breaking into a run.

And sure enough – no surprise – I did revisit the World Bank in at least one bad dream that I can remember. It’s maybe six months later. The elevator opens onto a room somewhere in the sub-basement, I step out and there’s my old friend Ben, the one who died from a heroin overdose a couple years before. His head’s shaved bare. He’s lying on a mattress with hundreds of fishhooks emplanted in his skin. I edge closer and see the maze of piano wires that stretch away from the hooks in every direction, anchored in the white concrete of walls and ceiling.

You get used to it, he says. Besides, it’s only for another two years.

It’s not the thought of the pain that frightens me but his monotonal voice. This isn’t the joyful/scornful/angry/despairing rebel I once thought I knew so well. I’m thinking, This must be some kind of stunt double or something. He won’t catch my eye for a single moment, winces every time I look at him.

Look, I’ll call the police, I tell him, but already the guards are closing in. Where are your badge numbers? I demand to see your supervisor! I protest, as someone slips the plastic cuffs around my wrists. A desperate appeal to conscience: God is watching you! I say as calmly as I can, while someone lifts my upper eyelids with a pair of tweezers, first the left then the right, and sprays a burning mist directly onto each eyeball.

There’s a high-pitched giggle that sounds almost as if it could be from Ben. He don’t need no phone call – already got a direct line to the Chief! and a hand falls on my shoulder and rests there a half-second too long.

Without a net

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Locked in a public argument I cannot possibly win with an unknown adversary who may not necessarily be an adversary. The topic? Hardly matters. (Click here if you must know.) Because at root our differences seem to boil down to the choice, apparently arbitrary, of whether to say yes or no. Optimism or pessimism. It’s not a matter of which is right, I think, but simply which choice is less foolish, which will vary according to circumstance.

Or is it in part a question of aesthetics? One of the thought-bubbles that just burst on the coffee-dark surface of my consciousness this morning had to do with the nagging suspicion that much of what makes a person prefer one spiritual or philosophical tradition to another boils down to her aesthetic predilections. The spareness and open spaces of Zen or Islam – or the profuse gorgeousness of Vajrayana and Orthodox Christianity? The Via Negativa – as Lorianne pointed out in a comment on my first Inuit piece – is a way of the desert. If I refuse to commit to one faith tradition, might that not be in part for the seemingly trivial reason that I like to keep one foot in the desert and one in the jungle?

Similarly, there is definitely an aesthetics of nada – it has colored much of the modernist and especially the postmodernist outlook. (Though with writers like Paul Celan, one can never be sure his nada isn’t the flip side of todo, as it was for San Juan de la Cruz.)

A poet these days is an animist almost by nature; I’m no exception. The mainstream of contemporary North American lyric poetry is in complete rebellion against the age-old Western worship of abstractions and the consequent devaluation of the particular. Thus, while part of what makes me admire the apophatic tradition may be a quasi-aesthetic preference for open spaces, darkness and fog, an even stronger factor may be the deep suspicion I harbor toward all universalizing statements that could devalue life. These include, ultimately, both optimistic and pessimistic evaluations.

I am thinking then about the Adversary as a role model. The earliest textual reference to Satan is in – you guessed it – the book of Job. In the folktale-ish opening scene, Satan is among the “sons of God,” the divine courtiers meeting for a formal audience with the Guy Upstairs. Marvin Pope tells us that the name Satan is derived from the name of the Persian secret police. He is an agent provocateur. No Lucifer, but a dark star. A black hole.

The Zennists warn about the dangers of madness for the initiate to their path, and they aren’t kidding. My one and only brush with insanity, at the tender age of 16, was fed by obsessive (mis)reading of translations of D.T. Suzuki. When I envisioned and articulated the terror, it came down precisely to the arbitrariness of the distinction between yes and no. I chose yes, of course, but it was, for a long-time, a self-conscious and therefore ironic choice. I was my own Mephistopheles. (Whatever I have to say about the Adversary cannot possibly improve upon what the cartoonist Walt Kelley had Pogo so famously declare – you know the quote. “We has met the enemy, and they is Us.”)

Mahayana Buddhist texts are godawful boring things to try and read. But in my late teens I couldn’t get enough of them, plowing through the Awakening of Faith, Mulamadhyamakakarika, the Lankavatara, even – I swear – the complete Conze translation of the Prajnaparamita Sutra. Repetitious they were, yes. But probably the repetition was more healing than anything else could have been. Countless variations on a single, intellectually unrealizable paradox.

This is a classic example of homeopathy, of course. I experienced the secular parallel just a few years later, when I discovered blues music at just the time when I most needed that kind of medicine. And blues is – lest we forget – the Devil’s music.

In one of Bessie Smith’s late recordings, “In the House Blues,” the blue devils of loneliness and depression morph into blue-suited policemen, breaking into her house without a warrant. In the even darker “Long Old Road,” from the same recording session with Louis Armstrong, she concludes a parable about life’s journey with a verse that holds out little hope (enjambing where she lingers on a note):

You can’t trust no-
body, you might as well
be alone.
You can’t trust nobody, you might as well
be alone.
Found my long-lost Friend and I might as well
stayed at home.

That’s dark.

So why does listening to a song like that make one feel better? (This ain’t just me talking; almost every blues performer ever interviewed has described the blues as a kind of medicine.)

I am running out of time to blog this morning. Maybe tomorrow I’ll say something about Tezcatl-Ihpoca, a.k.a. Smoking Mirror. Or not.
Cross-reference: “42” and the entry following, on self-cursing
Postscript: with exquisite synchronicity that the slightly mad-seeming author of would appreciate, I just stopped over to the blog of my some-time debate opponent, commonbeauty, to pick up the link included above . . . only to discover that s/he has been posting about via negativa! In a manner that is anything but adversarial. We has met the enemy, and s/he has turned into something like a friend . . .
Corrected and edited around 5:00 p.m.

Notes to self

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Entirely too much self-consistency of late. Must contradict myself flagrantly and often.

What the hell is “primal fear”? Let’s muddy things up here!

How can we have gotten this far without any substantial discussion of “fear of the unknown”?

The wall. Let’s not talk about the wall. At all. Let’s not talk about the security fence on the border with Mexico. Let’s not talk about the Night of Broken Glass, the Warsaw ghetto of the mind. “If you’re not afraid, you’re not paying attention.” I think I’ll ignore that last remark.

A lover’s indrawn breath. An eyebrow’s arch. The navel’s sightless gaze. Write about the long drought, you chickenshit.

“The beginning of wisdom”? What the hell would I know about that?

All I know is what it ain’t. Neither this nor that. Neti, neti! Picky, picky!

Write more about food preparation, sanitary systems, naked mole rats, gravity and freezing rain. Don’t ever write about . . . you know.

Ravens. Write a brief (!) evocation of ravens. Or just think about it a lot.

Screw the Dao and the horse it rode in on.

It wouldn’t hurt you to finish a book sometime.

Building Dwelling Eating

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“Eskimos have a hundred different words for snow,” says the legend. The truth is more interesting: Inuit peoples speak complex, highly agglutinative languages in which the mood/perspective of the speaker has a strong influence upon the shape of the word/sentence. (I don’t really understand this, of course, but I’m imagining something like the Spanish subjunctive run amok.) As a result, Inuit peoples recognize no fixed nominal categories, only pervasive flux.

The implications for philosophy and religion are interesting. According to Phyllis Morrow (“Two Tellings of the Story of Uterneq: ‘The Woman Who Returned From the Dead,'” in Brian Swann’s Coming to Light: Contemporary Translations of the Native Literatures of Native North America, Random House, 1994), it is “impossible and inappropriate to impose a single translation, such as ‘soul,’ on the variety of terms that refer to sensible aspects of personhood: image, breath, warmth, personality, and sound. When asked, Yupiit simply tend to confirm that a variety of terms are used by different people.”

What this could mean for poetics is the main subject of anthropologist Edmund Carpenter’s introduction to the anthology of song texts I cited in yesterday’s post (I Breathe a New Song). He says: “The Eskimo language doesn’t simply name things which already exist. Rather, it brings things-actions (nouns-verbs) into being as it goes along. This idea is reflected in the practice of naming a child at birth: When the mother is in labor, an old woman stands around and says as many different eligible names as she can think of. The child comes out of the womb when its name is called. Thus the naming and the giving birth to the new thing are inextricably linked together.”

Let’s continue with one eye toward a general questioning of the concept of being, that holy grail of the Western thinker errant. In Inuit languages, “all words are forms of the verb ‘to be,’ which itself is lacking.” This is hardly unusual. As I understand it, this verb form – what linguists intriguingly call the copulative – is peculiar to Indo-European languages. And from the ancient Greeks forward, being has been pared with making. In the Hebrew Bible, God “brings things-actions into being” in a manner that is essentially shamanistic and divinatory: the breath of his speech impels or discloses organization from among all that is, in some sense, already present.

But in the Greek interpretation – and thus in the Bible that all of us are familiar with (or not) – God is the Maker: the Poet. (For speakers of modern Greek, says Olga Broumas, “poet is still synonymous with creator, as in the Greek Orthodox credo: I believe in one God, father almighty, poet of sky and earth . . . ” [Perpetua, note to “Etymology”].) The intuition of a Prime Mover must derive at least in part from our own sense of alienation or at least separation from the world of nature.

So even aside from the almost insurmountable challenges of translation, there is a problem simply in trying to fit into our own categories the linguistic arts of any people so fundamentally different in their world-view. “There is really no such thing as Eskimo poetry,” Carpenter admits; “there are only poetic acts by individual Eskimos. The poetry-making matters, not the result. And, since the forms of poetry are traditional, known to everyone, what need is there to keep examples? Like carvings, poems are created, not preserved.”

Ah, what could be more thingish, more obviously tied to a self-conscious making than the example of sculpture?

“As the carver holds the unworked ivory lightly in his hand, turning it this way and that, he whispers, ‘Who are you? Who hides there?’ and then: ‘Ah, Seal!’ He rarely sets out to carve, say, a seal, but picks up the ivory, examines it to find its hidden form and, if that’s not immediately apparent, carves aimlessly until he sees it, humming or chanting as he works. Then he brings it out: Seal, hidden, emerges. It was always there. He didn’t create it: he released it, he helped it step forth.”

I don’t know that this is unique to the Inuit. Many artists in our own culture seem to feel more or less the same way, though there is obviously a continuum (or spectrum) of beliefs about the role/importance of self-conscious decision-making. In my own experience, just letting words come and putting them down, without editing – as so many Beats and neo-Beats advocate – is actually extraordinarily difficult to do right. The editing is not eliminated, simply made coincident with the bringing-to-light. (But note that I just end-rhymed without meaning to!) Potter (and poet) Jack Troy – a pioneer in the introduction of Japanese wood-firing techniques to North America – testifies in his artist’s statement to the difficulty of “seeing [pieces] for what they are.” He says it took him 20 years to unlearn his original desire for “ruthless control.” Frankly, I doubt that the practice comes easily or naturally even to Inuit carvers – I think it would be excessively romantic to maintain otherwise. The ego is an unruly thing in any culture.

Carpenter says that for the Inuit, the closest equivalent to our concept of creation is a term that means “to work on.” He connects this respect for the own-being or self-unveiling of the artist’s subject to the way Inuit build relationships with other people. Numerous accounts of child-rearing and marital relations among various Inuit groups would seem to bear this out.

“It is also their attitude toward nature. Language is the principal tool with which the Eskimos make the natural world a human world. They use many words for ‘snow’ which permit fine distinctions, not simply because they are much concerned with snow, but because snow takes its form from the actions in which it participates: sledding, falling, igloo-building. Different kinds of snow are brought into existence by the Eskimos as they experience the environment and speak; words do not label things already there. Words are like the knife of the carver: they free the idea, the thing, from the general formlessness of the outside . . .

“Poet, like carver, releases form from the bonds of formlessness: he brings it forth into consciousness. He must reveal form in order to protest against a universe that is formless, and the form he reveals should be beautiful.”

It is this protest that particularly interests me. Again, the parallels with the worldview of the ancient Hebrews are striking to me – but that’s probably just because I’ve spent so much time puzzling over the Hebrew Bible, at once so foundational and so alien to our civilization. Although many thinkers and scholars whom I deeply respect have singled out this sense of protest against the natural order of things as a unique feature of Biblical religion, I think it is almost universal. Virtually all belief systems include some version of an atemporal utopia, for example. Nor is the notion of a transcendent deity so unique: implicit in the very concept of the sacred is the notion of that which exceeds our grasp. The sacred is, everywhere, what prohibits our approach, and everywhere the appropriate response is primal fear/awe/wonder.

Does this mean that humans must forever bow their heads in abject submission to the All? Hell no. “The secret of conquering a world greater than himself is not known to the Eskimo [or to us, I would add]. But his role is not passive. He reveals form; he cancels nothingness.

“Eskimos seem to be saying that nature is there, but man alone can free it from its dormant state; that it requires a creative human act before the world explored becomes a world revealed; that the universe acquires form, ‘existence,’ only through man the revealer: he who releases life inherent in nature and guides its expression into beautiful forms.” Here, my relative ignorance of Inuit mythology makes me unable to effectively critique this. But I strongly suspect that shamans, carvers and singers are themselves enacting a becoming-more-alive by identifying with certain mythic beings. Among the Tikigaq of Point Hope, Alaska, for example, male and female shamans identify respectively with the first shaman and the earth crone/maiden who brought him about. Together they slay a whale-like sea monster (shades of the Babylonian Tiamat or Leviathan) and shape the world from its carcass. (Tom Lowenstein talks about this in the introduction to “Two Stories from Tigikaq,” in Coming to Light. His book Ancient Land: Sacred Whale[Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1993] is on my reading list.)

The idea of human co-creation of the world is not completely foreign to the Western tradition. Lurianic Kabbalah is an especially rich vein for this kind of thinking: the goal of the human being is to uncover and elevate holy sparks left over from the original Creation. Abraham Isaac Kook, in The Lights of Holiness (Orot Hakodesh) maintained that “We raise these scattered sparks and arrange them into worlds, constructed within us, in our private and social lives. In proportion to the sparks we raise, our lives are enriched.” Here he is talking more of moral action, of course. If there is a fundamental difference between the Biblical worldview and that of peoples like the Inuit, it is precisely in this sense of the commingling of natural and moral law. Recall the shaman Aua (quoted in yesterday’s post): taboos just are. They are not meant to be just.

Which is not to say that Inuit lack a concept of right behavior: far from it. I wonder how the recently Christianized Inuit have assimilated our notions of justice and divine goodness? Often I tend toward the Daoist view that if a society has to codify rules of behavior, something’s already wrong!

For Rabbi Kook, Creation is both holy and daunting: “We cannot identify the abundant vitality within all living beings, from the smallest to the largest, nor the hidden vitality enfolded within inanimate creation. Everything constantly flows, vibrates, and aspires. Nor can we estimate our own inner abundance. Our inner world is sealed and concealed, linked to a hidden something, a world that is not our world, not yet perceived or probed.

“Everything teems with richness, everything aspires to ascend and be purified. Everything sings, celebrates, serves, develops, uplifts, aspires to be arranged in oneness.” (Translated by Daniel C. Matt, The Essential Kabbalah, Castle Books, 1997)

What’s different here is context. I mean, literal contextualization: the making and unmaking of world as text. (And at risk of sounding even more ridiculously pretentious: the worlding and unworlding of the text. The analogizing of word to Word and back again, which Kenneth Burke says is a fundamental religious trope.) One specific difference is the cultural preference for unity as opposed to diversity. Recall Phyllis Morrow’s statement about the multiplicity of words for the soul among the Yupiit. Among some groups, apparently, this multiplicity was more than linguistic. “The souls of people, and some animals, were, like so much in the Tikigaq cosmos, multiple and composite. Tikigaq people believed there were three human souls . . . ”

I’m quoting now from the aforementioned Ancient Land: Sacred Whale, which I just went and fetched from my father’s library. I can see that there is much meat here for further digestion:

“‘Tikigaq nuna,’ an old man told me, ‘isn’t real land. At the moment of creation, the land was something else: the animal.’

“This is nigrun, the animal that was, and which still becomes, nuna [land] . . . [T]he mythic process is never complete. The land-whale myth takes place ‘back then’ (taimmani), but back then time, so long as people go on telling stories, is also present and continuous. Myth events are real. ‘The stories,’ storytellers never tired of saying, ‘are true!’ Acts of creation survive in stories. But to keep this life going each generation must repeat the stories and enact them in rituals.”

Where should we be looking, then, for the inner forms, the sparks, the templates of original creation? Has this little exercise in exegesis really been anything more than a pleasant diversion from the exigencies of the day? It’s a whale of a problem, all right, but I think the quarry is becoming a little clearer with every cut of the knife. One can almost begin to see where best to look: right between the one and the many, Infinity and One!

Here I stand,
Humble, with outstretched arms,
For the spirit of the air
Lets glorious food sink down to me.

– Copper River Inuit, from “Religious Hymn to be Sung Wearing a Head Decoration of the Skin of the Great Northern Diver”

Time for some breakfast.


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If I were to re-christen this weblog with a name less grand and perhaps a bit more true, I’d have to call it something like, “Thoughts on an Empty Stomach,” or perhaps, “Mind-Farts Before Breakfast”! Because that’s how it comes about: I get up around 4:00 or 5:00, shower, drink coffee (sitting outside if there’s no wind and it’s above 5 degrees), then start picking up books and letting my thoughts wander wherever they want.

So this morning I am going back and forth between poems of the Inuit and the poetic debates of Job and his three friends/adversaries (Chapters 3-21 in the KJV before I am able to put it down). This seems bizarre at first, but eventually (as usual) a pattern emerges. Dissatisfied with my single anthology of Inuit song texts (Richard Lewis, ed., I Breathe a New Song: Poems of the Eskimo, Simon and Schuster, 1971), I go online and search Knud Rasmussen – the great Danish/Inuit polar explorer and anthropologist who is responsible for collecting most of the best song-texts we have. His expeditions took him across the Inuit world, from East Greenland to eastern Siberia.

The Humanistic Texts site includes a page of “Eskimo Songs and Thoughts” collected by Rasmussen. The dialogue with a shaman reprinted below is what made me realize the kinship between these otherwise vastly different bodies of work from two very different sorts of deserts. Of the several discourses on poetics, only the one by Orpingalik (the last selection below) was familiar to me.

For several evenings Knud Rasmussen, Aua, a shaman, and other Eskimos had discussed rules of life and taboo customs of the Iglulik Eskimos. They did not get beyond a long statement of all that was permitted and all that was forbidden, for whenever Rasmussen asked “Why?” they could give no answers.
As if seized by a sudden impulse, Aua took Rasmussen outside with him, where the snow was being lashed about in waves by the wind, and said:

“In order to hunt well and live happily, man must have calm weather. Why this constant succession of blizzards and all this needless hardship for men seeking food for themselves and those they care for? Why? Why?”
Aua then led him to Kublo’s house. A small blubber lamp burned with but the faintest flame, giving out no heat whatever; a couple of children crouched, shivering, under a skin rug on the bench. Aua asked Rasmussen:
“Why should it be cold and comfortless in here? Kublo has been out hunting all day, and if he had got a seal, as he deserved, his wife would now be sitting laughing beside her lamp, letting it burn full, without fear of having no blubber left for tomorrow. The place would be warm and bright and cheerful, the children would come out from under their rugs and enjoy life. Why should it not be so? Why?”
Rasmussen made no answer, and followed him out of the house, into a little snow hut where Aua’s sister, Natseq, lived all by herself because she was ill. A third time Aua looked at Rasmussen and said:
“Why must people be ill and suffer pain? We are all afraid of illness. Here is this old sister of mine; as far as anyone can see, she has done no evil: she has lived through a long life and given birth to healthy children, and now she must suffer before her days end. Why? Why?” . . .
“You see, you are equally unable to give any reason when we ask you why life is as it is. And so it must be. All our customs come from life and turn towards life; we explain nothing, we believe nothing, but in what I have just shown you lies answer to all you ask.
“We fear the weather spirit of earth, that we must fight against to wrest our food from land and sea. We fear Sila [the weather].
“We fear death and hunger in the cold snow huts.
“We fear Takfinakapsfiluk, the great woman down at the bottom of the sea, that rules over all the beasts of the sea.
“We fear the sickness that we meet with daily all around us; not death, but the suffering. We fear the evil spirits of life, those of the air, of the sea and the earth, that can help wicked shamans to harm their fellow men.
“We fear the souls of dead human beings and of the animals we have killed.
“Therefore it is that our fathers have inherited from their fathers all the old rules of life which are based on the experience and wisdom of generations. We do not know how, we cannot say why, but we keep those rules in order that we may live untroubled. And so ignorant are we in spite of all our shamans, that we fear everything unfamiliar. We fear what we see about us, and we fear all the invisible things that are likewise about us, all that we have heard of in our forefathers’ stories and myths. Therefore we have our customs, which are not the same as those of the white men, the white men who live in another land and have need of other ways.”
Aua, Iglulik Eskimo

(Compare, for example, Job 14)

Oh! You strangers only see us happy and free of care. But if you knew the horrors we often have to live through, you would understand too why we are so fond of laughing, why we love food and song and dancing. There is not one among us but has experienced a winter of bad hunting, when many people starved to death around us and when we ourselves only pulled through by accident. I once saw a wise old man hang himself, because he was starving to death; he had retained his senses and preferred to die in time. . .
Qaqortingneq, Netsilik Eskimo

In days gone by, every autumn, we held big feasts for the soul of the whale, feasts which should always be opened with new songs which the men composed. The spirits were to be summoned with fresh words; worn-out songs could never be used when men and women danced and sang in homage to the big quarry. And it was the custom that during the time when the men were finding the words for these hymns, all lamps had to be extinguished. Darkness and stillness were to reign in the festival house. Nothing must disturb them, nothing divert them. In deep silence they sat in the dark, thinking; all the men, both old and young, in fact even the youngest of the boys if only they were old enough to speak. It was this stillness we called qarrtsiluni, which means that one waits for something to burst.
For our forefathers believed that the songs were born in this stillness while all endeavored to think of nothing but beautiful things. Then they take shape in the minds of men and rise up like bubbles from the depths of the sea, bubbles seeking the air in order to burst. That is how the sacred songs are made!
Majuaq, Alaskan Eskimo

Job 4
12 Now a thing was secretly brought to me, and mine ear received a little thereof.
13 In thoughts from the visions of the night, when deep sleep falleth on men,
14 Fear came upon me, and trembling, which made all my bones to shake.

Job 35
10 But none saith, Where is God my maker, who giveth songs in the night . . .

Job 38
28 Hath the rain a father? or who hath begotten the drops of dew?
29 Out of whose womb came the ice? and the hoary frost of heaven, who hath gendered it?
30 The waters are hid as with a stone, and the face of the deep is frozen.
31 Canst thou bind the sweet influences of Pleiades, or loose the bands of Orion?

Songs are thoughts, sung out with the breath when people are moved by great forces and ordinary speech no longer suffices. Man is moved just like the ice floe sailing here and there out in the current. His thoughts are driven by a flowing force when he feels joy, when he feels fear, when he feels sorrow. Thoughts can wash over him like a flood, making his breath come in gasps and his heart throb. Something, like an abatement in the weather, will keep him thawed up. And then it will happen that we, who always think we are small, will feel still smaller. And we will fear to use words. But it will happen that the words we need will come of themselves. When the words we want to use shoot up of themselves–we get a new song.
Orpingalik, Netsilik Eskimo

Scientific authority and the prodigal theory

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Fabre’s unsparing and curmudgeonly critique of theoreticians leads me to wonder: Are theories necessary? The obvious answer is that without some sort of logical framework (notions about natural organization, animal instinct, etc.) Fabre’s own meticulous winnowing of observations for a few grains of authentic insight would have been impossible. But the grander superstructures of imagination, such as the theory of evolution by natural selection, are what struck him as a diversion from the natural scientist’s true tasks of observation, experimentation and (with luck) some limited amount of inductive reasoning.

Most non-Western bodies of knowledge are built solely on a basis of empiricism. This does not prevent them from achieving results whose accuracy (according to our own preconceptions) seems little short of miraculous. Consider the complex recipe for the South American psychotropic drug ayahuasca, a.k.a. yage. Given the tens of thousands of species of herbs and lianas native to this region, and given that the active ingredients in the recipe have very different or even negligible effects when taken in isolation, how can we imagine an experimental process to arrive at the correct formula?

One ethnobotanist I was reading a while back (I think it might have been Mark Plotkin) made the not unreasonable suggestion that, at least in some cases, humans have been able to learn something about the properties of herbs from close observation of animals. He gave one example, based on fieldwork in Central Africa, in which the people he’d been working with had quite recently adopted a new plant (for purposes that turned out to be biomedically sound) after watching chimpanzees use it. Another example from northern South America suggested that observation of tapirs may have led to the local adoption of a new herb.

The inference to be drawn here, I suppose, is that animals can use their superior sense of smell/taste, in combination with finely honed instincts “unimpeded by the thought process” (as the Car Talk guys would say), to find whatever they need for a particular ailment or condition. This in turn implies that humans might have the same ability, within the limitations imposed by our own, vastly inferior olfactory organs. And it occurs to me (as it has surely occurred to anyone else who has read a certain number of ethnobotanical accounts) that mind-altering plants and fungi themselves may play a role in helping people to see/sniff out useful new drugs or drug ingredients. This may seem uncomfortably close to an appeal to revelation: after all, some champions of psychotropes do refer to them as entheogens. But merely altering the way our senses operate (whether by “cleansing the doors of perception” or in fact blocking them up and opening new ones) does not obviate the need for inductive reasoning and the assimilation of a vast body of empirical data. One can easily imagine the medical specialist learning to distinguish certain tastes/smells corresponding to distinct chemical properties, and probably relating those properties in turn to particularities of habitat and even, in some cases, obvious visual clues.

What interests me in all of this is the role that indigenous theory forms in the valid recognition and organization of data. For South American practitioners of traditional medicine, the world-pictures are so fantastic to us that it is difficult to see them as analogous to theory rather than (say) religious dogma. I would counter that, in very many cases I have read about, the shaman is usually among the most pragmatic and open-minded members of any given tribe, and has very little problem (and often great facility) with the self-conscious manipulation of concepts to achieve a best fit with the evidence. But examples from traditional Chinese and Indian sciences may be more helpful here.

Consider acupuncture: accurate almost to a fault in pinpointing nerve endings – and perfected in the complete absence of any accurate knowledge of the human nervous system. A completely imaginary system of lines of life-force (chi) formed not just a theoretical framework but an essential mnemonic for the location of pressure points. One could say the same about the chakra-system of yoga or any of the myriad other conceptual frameworks developed to organize and guide what Sufi writers call “the science of the mind.” Indeed, I doubt that anyone could ever come up with a system such as feng-shui, which seems to embody a genuine and very profound understanding of human perceptions of space, without the aid of a quasi-mystical theory to “explain” the mutual interpenetration of mind and matter.

In all these cases, it seems to me, it doesn’t really matter whether one regards the guiding theories as literal representations or provisional constructs. What matters is the theory’s utility as mnemonic aid and heuristic. But I begin to list dangerously in the direction of that modern disciple of Diogenes, Paul Feyerabend.

I should mention that I generally try to avoid reading Feyerabend simply because his notions and prejudices are so similar to my own. I am afraid that if I were to go through and carefully digest his theories, I would deprive myself of the hundreds of hours of pleasure and bewilderment that would be involved in developing similar ideas all on my own! But this morning I’ll make a small sacrifice for the sake of my faithful readers (he says pompously) and crack the cover of Against Method (Verso, 1978), Chapter 4. Marginal notes in my own chicken scratch indicate I have been here before. So perhaps all of the foregoing is simply an unconscious re-capitulation of Paul Feyerabend? Well, here’s the argument:

There is no idea, however ancient and absurd, that is not capable of improving our knowledge. The whole history of thought is absorbed into science and is used for improving every single theory. Nor is political interference rejected. It may be needed to overcome the chauvinism of science that resists alternatives to the status quo.

As an example of such positive political interference, he cites the Communist Chinese government’s about-face on its original rejection of traditional medicine as primitive. This re-evaluation was sparked by a purge of “bourgeois elements” in the Ministry of Health in 1954 – an event with doubtless very unfortunate consequences for many such “elements.” In fact, given what we now know or strongly suspect about the horrific death tolls from forced collectivization under the banner of Mao’s Great Leap Forward, it seems positively ghoulish to celebrate any political consequence of that unhappy period. But Feyerabend was never one to shy away from provocative conclusions – in fact, he delighted in them. And his evaluation of the “sizable lacunae in Western medicine” seems sound:

[T]here are effects and means of diagnosis which modern medicine cannot repeat and for which it has no explanation . . . Nor can one expect that the customary scientific approach will find an answer. In the case of herbal medicine the approach consists of two steps. First, the herbal concoction is analysed into its chemical constituents. Then the specific effects of each constituent are determined and the total effect on a particular organ explained on their basis. This neglects the possibility that the herb, taken in its entirety, changes the state of the whole organism and that it is this new state of the whole organism rather than a specific part of the herbal concoction that cures the diseased organ. Here as elsewhere knowledge is obtained from a proliferation of views rather than from the determined application of a particular ideology.

The fact that such proliferation may be in some instances propelled by the outside influence of a repressive ideology, religious dogma or, for modern scientists in the West, the almighty dollar (as Feyerabend teasingly suggests) is irony indeed. But in the very next breath he mounts a spirited defense of the importance of a well-developed, untramelled imagination, “not just a road of escape but as a necessary means for discovering and perhaps even changing the features of the world we live in.”

As for the difference between Fabre’s perspective and Feyerabend’s on the relative importance of theories, I think it is about what one would expect given the disparity between their backgrounds and occupations. In any case, they do seem to meet on a common ground of suspicion toward any theory with universalistic or truth-status pretensions. And they would have agreed wholeheartedly in matters relating to the theory of education. Feyerabend concludes Chapter 4 of Against Method by advising the reader “to consult [John Stuart] Mill’s magnificent essay On Liberty.” Considering the connection between Mill and Fabre that I was just writing about the day before yesterday, I guess I better go follow his advice. The gods clearly will it!

Mask and pageant

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

“The prominence of masks in the rituals and supernatural beliefs of the Iroquois Indians implies that they embodied an idea of peculiar importance. False Face dancers performed dramatic pantomime at the New Year’s and Green Corn ceremonies; they drove out witches and disease in the spring and fall; and they cured illnesses at any time of the year. Cornhusk masks were worn by other ritual dancers . . . Some of the more secretive medicine societies employed special, rarely seen masks. Even the mythology dealt with beings who went by the name of False Faces and who possessed a curious dual character, compounded of strength and shyness.”
Anthony F.C. Wallace, The Death and Rebirth of the Seneca, Random House, 1969.


“These appearances are not transitional appearances that lead to the real properties of the things and vanish when they appear. They are not true and are not false appearances either. They do not function as signs relaying the gaze to the things themselves. They do not have that transparency; they thicken, materialize for themselves. The rhythm and musicality of their facades, shadows, reflections, and auras obscure our view into the position and composition of things which are uncovered, discovered, and grasped in action.

“It is not that things barely show themselves, behind illusory appearances fabricated by our subjectivity; it is that things are exorbitantly exhibitionist. The landscape resounds; facades, caricatures, halos, shadows dance across it. Under the sunlight extends the pageantry of things. The twilight does not put an end to their histrionics. In the heart of the night the pulse of the night summons still their ghosts.”

Alphonso Lingis, The Imperative, Indiana University Press, 1998.


“This is the moment of initiation: the masks come off, revealing to the novices that ‘we are not always like this.’ But in this first moment, instead of adults initiating children, the dead are initiating the living. The particular point of greatest interest is that the kachinas, even the ones from Kachina Village itself, wear masks. The dead have not so much become kachinas as they have been representing themselves as kachinas, and they invite the living to join them in their game of representation. This puts the visual focus of what is and is not a kachina squarely on the mask, in case we have any doubt on the point, and it may help explain why most of the kachinas of painted pottery and rock art are represented solely by their masks.”
Dennis Tedlock, “Kachinas and the Dance of Life and Death,” in Polly Schaafsma, ed., Kachinas in the Pueblo World, University of Utah Press, 2000.


We say: if there is truth, there must be Truth. Choose Truth. But others have said: when the doctor takes off his mask, he is no different from anyone else. We say: whatever makes us live is not of the body, because the body dies. Help comes from outside. Know the Truth. But others have said: help comes from inside out. The mask itself is full of medicine. We say: to hear is to receive, like a woman. To see is to grasp the truth. But these others – so many! – have felt synaesthesia to be one of the heart’s most enduring attributes. There in the silence of the just-before, we translate ourselves to ourselves. The country opens up. Every true fiction can heal, can make the world whole.


“[S]ongs are still being dreamed. Since the rigid poetic pattern of olden days has been relaxed, there is, perhaps, more humor and more variety in the songs of desert life, which the animal visitants teach. And to these animals that cause and cure sickness there have been added three white man’s importations: the horse, the cow, and the devil. They teach their proteges entire series of songs no less vivid than those of the hawk and the coyote.

“Even the dreaming and performance of operettas is not obsolete. One of the northern villages has an ancient Keeper of the Smoke who was very ill. In his delirium he dreamed a series of songs to which the youths and maidens of his village have been dancing for two years . . .

“The old man found himself in a city ‘far under the east’ where the streets were like rocky canyons. There he saw the clown who dances at Papago ceremonies, wandering lost. The clown said he had been spirited to this strange city because someone had taken his photograph and transported it thither. Of course, the clown had to follow, even against his will. But, with the old man there, the clown felt the strength to return.

“The clown went, singing, back to the west, and the old man followed. ‘There wonderful things were seen.’ Among them was an ancient rain house, made of brush and hung with all the trappings of Papago ceremony. There were the masks of the harvest singers; there were the cotton ‘clouds’; there, too, were the woman’s grinding slab, and the man’s bow and arrow.

“‘Look at these things,’ said the clown. ‘Our people are ceasing to use them. It may be that this is right and that they should take over the white man’s ways. But, before you decide, come here. Look once more at the old things. Be sure.”

Ruth Murray Underhill, Singing for Power: The Song Magic of the Papago Indians of Southern Arizona, University of California Press, 1938.

Cross-reference: Deeply superficial (on the poetics of Mark Doty)

Sounds about silence

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

A wonderful, brief meditation on silence over at Coffee Sutras provoked a quote from Wallace Stevens (“the blackbird whistling/or just after”) in the comments thread and a longer entry at another blog, Hoarded Ordinaries, in an essay called “A Mind of Winter.” For once, I don’t have a whole lot to add. It’s always nice to see other folks saying what’s on my mind, too!

The way of a naturalist (part 2)

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

(Part 1 appeared on Tuesday, January 13. Click here for the permalink.)

Maurice Maeterlinck called him “the Insect’s Homer . . . one of the most profound and inventive scholars and also one of the purest writers . . . of the century now past [the 19th].”

To Edwin Way Teale, this “humble chronicler of the commonplace” was like Diogenes, Ponce de Leon and Thoreau rolled into one.

Phenomenologist Gabriel Marcel may very well have had his famous countryman in mind when he wrote about “the naturalist,”

For him, the word ‘insignificant’ has no sense. In the passionate study of a particular species he has triumphed for all time over such reactions. The living organism he considers subsists in a dimension of being to which we, the profane, have access only with difficulty. Even leaving aside any belief in a divine creator, the naturalist experiences a kind of wonder before the fineness and complexity of the structure he observes. Here, in a very unexpected way, beyond our world of the profane and the ignorant, some connection is realized between the scientist and someone who must perhaps be called the saint. (Tragic Wisdom and Beyond, 1968)

If one pictures the saint as someone touched with an abnormal, slightly mad sense of dedication toward a single goal that most of us never give more than a passing thought to, then J. Henri Fabre definitely fits the bill. Born in 1823 and living almost a century until 1915, Fabre lived essentially two lives in succession. In the first, this son of French peasants clawed his way up out of the extreme poverty of his childhood into the more-respectable penuriousness of a rural schoolteacher in Provence, scrimping and saving toward his retirement at the age of sixty.

Along the way, he was fired for trying to admit girls into his science classes. (Though his one visit to Paris had left him appalled at the lonely existence of modern city-dwellers, he was no reactionary.) He had managed to befriend John Stuart Mill, whose loan of $600 was enough to keep the wolf from the door while he threw himself into writing popular science books and even pot-boilers to make enough money to support his wife and five children. During these especially lean years an audacious and (to most) incomprehensible dream took root. And in 1879, at the age of 55, with his children grown and the loan paid off, Fabre began to put his plans into action. He bought “a small foothold of earth,” Teale writes, “sun-scorched and thistle-ridden, unfit for grazing or agriculture, an area known locally as a harmas, at the edge of the village of Serignan. It was the first bit of land Fabre had owned in his life. To him, the stony soil, arid and rusty-red, formed an Eden.” (The Insect World of J. Henri Fabre, 1949).

For the next 36 years, this was to form his outdoor laboratory for many of the imaginative experiments and the countless hours of observations that went into his second life’s work. The idea he’d hatched was to write a great, multi-volume, encyclopedic work on the lives of insects and other arthropods: Souvenirs Entomologiques. With his beloved oldest son and wife recently deceased, at the age of 60 he remarried and fathered three more children. He spent virtually every day either out in the field or in the shed he’d converted into an indoor laboratory, though being too poor to afford even a microscope, his chief instruments were, he once remarked, “Time and Patience.”

When the last of the ten magisterial volumes was finally complete, Fabre did enjoy (if that’s the word) a brief, incandescent renown among scientists, government officials and men of letters. Entomologists revere him to this day. What is puzzling to me is that he not more celebrated by the champions of French literature for what one English translator called his “simple, durable prose,” reminiscent of John Steinbeck or George Orwell. Through regular, humorous asides and occasional longer musings upon his task, and with countless classical and popular references to make his subject matter more sympathetic, Fabre quickly endears himself to even the least nature-savvy of readers. In the first excerpt Teale included in his anthology, Fabre admits that some critics “have reproached me with my style, which has not the solemnity, nay, better, the dryness of the schools. They fear lest a page that is read without fatigue should not always be the expression of the truth. Were I to take their word for it, we are profound only on condition of being obscure.”

Of course, if some of the critics may have looked down their noses, that was nothing compared to reactions he elicited from his fellow villagers. He describes one incident in which a rural policeman attempted to arrest him for suspicious behavior while he was lying in the sand engrossed in the hunting activities of a wasp. He uses the present tense to describe another incident he describes as characteristic:

Ever since daybreak I have been ambushed, sitting on a stone, at the bottom of a ravine. The subject of my matutinal visit is the Languedocian Sphex. Three women, vine-pickers, pass in a group, on their way to work. They give a glance at the man seated, apparently absorbed in reflection. At sunset, the same pickers pass again, carrying their full baskets on their heads. The man is still there, sitting on the same stone, with his eyes fixed on the same place. My motionless attitude, my long persistency in remaining at that deserted spot, must have impressed them deeply. As they passed by me, I saw one of them tap her forehead and heard her whisper to the others: ‘Un paore inoucent, pecaire!’ And all three made the sign of the Cross.

An innocent, she had said, un inoucent, an idiot, a poor creature, quite harmless, but half-witted; and they had all made the sign of the Cross, an idiot being to them one with God’s seal stamped upon him.

The incident is introduced for reasons beyond mere self-deprecating humorousness; it is the hook: “It is in this ravine with its three grape-gathering women that I would meet the reader,” Fabre explains in The Hunting Wasps. Like the writer,

The Languedocian Sphex frequents these points, not in tribes congregating at the same spot when nest-building begins, but as solitary individuals, sparsely distributed, settling wherever the chances of their vagabondage lead them. Even as her kinswoman, the Yellow-winged Sphex, seeks the society of her kind and the animation of a yard full of workers, the Languedocian Sphex prefers isolation, quiet and solitude. Graver of gait, more formal in her manners, of a larger size and always more sombrely clad, she always lives apart, not caring what others do, disdaining company, a genuine misanthrope among the Sphegidae. The one is sociable, the other is not: a profound difference which in itself is enough to characterize them.

This amounts to saying that, with the Languedocian Sphex, the difficulties of observation increase . . .

As this sample demonstrates, Fabre did not completely abandon the populist techniques he had honed during his years as a hack writer. He had the sense to leaven his detailed descriptions of insects and the experiments he performed on them with plenty of drollery which, somehow, never quite strays into the minefield of unscientific anthropomorphism.

This is of course a particular challenge with insects and other invertebrates, which cannot fail to seem alien to even the most avid reader. Maybe because it IS such a challenge, some of the most engaging natural history classics of the 20th century also took insects for their theme: Teale’s own Near Horizons and Grassroot Jungles; Howard Ensign Evans’ Wasp Farm and Life on a Little Known Planet; Berndt Heinrich’s Bumblebee Economics. Yet I confess that, much as I have enjoyed all these books, the specific details, even the names of the insects they describe so lovingly quickly fade from my memory. Perhaps it’s because I am at heart a humanist, but insects seem simply too foreign for my imagination to fully assimilate.

But the fact is that insects, so supremely endowed with inhuman otherness, are linked to us by a thousand commonalties and unconscious partnerships. The science of ecology, unknown in Fabre’s day, gives ample support to the intuition that, without insects, most complex food webs would collapse and the vast majority of multi-cellular life forms – plants, animals and fungi alike – would rapidly go extinct. In the radically simplified, artificial ecosystems favored by farmers and gardeners, insects appear chiefly as pests. But this gives a distorted impression, since the species so perceived represent a tiny fraction of the total. Even in apparently healthy, “natural” ecosystems, outbreaks of native herbivorous insects are, in many cases, the result of widespread human alteration of landscape patterns and disturbance regimes. In some cases, outbreak behavior is a normal part of local or regional cycles of disturbance and is essential to the propagation of that species, such that its great numbers during an outbreak belie its sensitivity to environmental change. The Rocky Mountain locust (Melanoplus spretus) for instance, became extinct within a few decades of the introduction of the plow and the cow to the river valleys of the Great Plains and the intermontane West.

Insects challenge us in many ways. Even apart from their keystone roles in maintaining ecosystem functions, their sheer diversity is daunting. The British naturalist B.S. Haldane, when asked by a clergyman what, if anything, a lifetime of scientific research had led him to conclude about the mind of the Creator, famously replied that God must have “an inordinate fondness for beetles.”

One of the biggest challenges for a scientific observer is simply to come up with reasonable explanations for behavior that, in humans, would be taken as prima facie evidence of reason. Fabre’s ability to disprove, through careful and imaginative experimentation, the obvious and anthropomorphizing explanation was the truest sign of his aptitude for what we call science.

Fabre’s unflagging faith in the power of blind instinct might strike many readers as symptomatic of a stunted imagination or an insensitivity to wonder. But actually I think the opposite was more nearly the case. The fact that insects can accomplish so many amazing feats WITHOUT the ability to anticipate or to ponder cause and effect should be (as it was for Fabre) an inexhaustible source of wonder. In a famous series of experiments with captive burying-beetles, for example, he managed to show how these insects could surmount innumerable obstacles to the burial of a small mammal. The beetles were, Fabre decided, the beneficiaries not of reasoning intelligence but of a limited toolkit of instinctual behaviors and enough time to employ them in, over and over in varying combinations, until at last a solution appeared on its own – or failed to appear, despite the insect’s physical ability to accomplish it.

Fabre’s own instincts have largely been borne out by subsequent research, which too is impressive considering the meagerness of his respective toolkit. He knew nothing, for instance, of the importance of pheromones and other chemicals to insect communication, yet through close observation he was able to document the very haphazard and (to our way of thinking) inefficient way in which insects such as the burying-beetles would “investigate” and “cooperate” to achieve complicated results.

Casual readers of this weblog might assume, based on my frequent criticisms of reductionism as a stand-alone basis for human understanding, that I would advocate its complete abandonment in favor of Zen-like direct apprehension or some form of quasi-theistic mysticism. Not so! The fact is that the ability to break a problem down into its constituent parts is usually essential to its solution. To reject all such problems as unfit for the spiritually inclined would be to accept, in most cases, explanations that flatter rather than humble us. The imagination is like a muscle: it needs to be exercised. In this regard – paradoxical as it may seem – skepticism is the imagination’s closest ally. Fabre rightly dismisses the “explanations” of previous naturalists, who lacked his skeptical and wide-open gaze, as so much folklore. But the real folk, his fellow villagers, struck him as superior in their instinct for the truth. When queried about the cause of some mysterious phenomenon, such as the clumps of foam produced by froghoppers, they would answer simply “I don’t know.”

“The theorists, proudly daring, have an answer nowadays for every question,” Fabre wrote in The Mason-Wasps, “but as a thousand theoretical views are not worth a single fact, thinkers untrammeled by preconceived ideas are far from becoming convinced.” He continued:

It is something to observe; but it is not enough: we must experiment, that is to say, we must ourselves intervene and create artificial conditions which oblige the animal to reveal to us what it would not tell if left to the normal course of events. Its actions, marvelously contrived to attain the end pursued, are capable of deceiving us as to their real meaning and of making us accept, in their linked sequence, that which our own logic dictates to us. It is not the animal that we are now consulting upon the nature of its aptitudes, upon the primary motives of its activity, but our own opinions, which always yield a reply in favor of our cherished notions. As I have repeatedly shown, observation in itself is often a snare: we interpret its data according to the exigencies of our theories. To bring out the truth, we must needs resort to experiment . . . Observation sets the problem; experiment solves it, always presuming that it can be solved; or at least, if powerless to yield the full light of truth, it sheds a certain gleam over the edges of the impenetrable cloud.

“Fabre is another Gulliver,” writes Mary Oliver in Blue Pastures. She calls his descriptions of insects and other arthropods “close to miraculous.” That’s why, a century after their first appearance, despite the competition from so many other, more recent classics on one aspect or another of the mammoth Class Insecta, Fabre’s volumes continue to amaze and enchant.

I am a dreamer and a writer of poems. The scientific quest is, in some ways, as strange to me as the world of insects. I have neither the patience nor the aptitude to pursue a scientific career, yet perhaps for that reason I am awestruck by the few latter-day Fabres I have been fortunate enough to meet. The seasoned field naturalist is as unlike the verbose humanist scholar as one can imagine: he or she tends to be much less convinced of the ability of language to capture truth. “The more I observe and experiment,” Fabre confessed, “the more clearly I see rising out of the black mists of possibility an enormous note of interrogation.”

J. Henri Fabre’s life makes for a great morality play: a scientist’s version of the Horatio Alger myth. For all that he may have been a paragon of single-minded dedication to an enormous and exacting task, it is his good sense and wisdom that wins me over in the end. One of his most famous statements of belief comes from a letter he wrote to a friend near the end of his life. If it were up to me to rewrite the Bible, I would put this quote right at the very end:

Because I have shifted a few grains of sand upon the shore, am I in a position to understand the depths of the ocean? Life has unfathomable secrets. Human knowledge will be erased from the world’s archives before we possess the last word that a gnat has to say to us.


Bibliographic note: The Maeterlinck quote comes from the Preface to The Life of the Spider, translated by Alexander Teixeira de Mattos, Dodd, Mead and Co., 1919. This preface also contains a slightly different translation of the quote, just given, about the limits to human knowledge. It continues (in part): “Success is for the loud talkers, the self-convinced dogmatists; everything is admitted on condition that it be noisily proclaimed. Let us throw off this sham and recogize that, in reality, we know nothing about anything, if things were probed to the bottom. Scientifically, Nature is a riddle without a definite solution to satisfy man’s curiosity . . . To know how not to know might well be the last word of wisdom.” I’m sure it was statements like this that sparked Teale’s comparison with Diogenes!

All the other Fabre quotes come from the one-volume selection, The Insect World of J. Henri Fabre, edited and introduced by Edwin Way Teale. Not only is this book still in print but, according to Amazon, affordable reprints of each translated volume of the full-length Souvenirs Entomologiques are available too. Despite not being exactly a household name, Fabre obviously still has a devoted following.

For more on the extinction of North America’s only native locust species, see Jeffrey Lockwood, “Voices From the Past: Learning From the Rocky Mountain Locust,” Wild Earth, Spring 2002, 21-27.