"One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture
and, if possible, speak a few reasonable words." ~Goethe

~ also, if possible, to dwell in "a house where all's accustomed, ceremonious." ~Yeats

Friday, August 14, 2009

Birds of Pray


Above: These 3 buildings at the Pier Head on the Mersey River are called the "Three Graces" of Liverpool. Look closely (above & left)for the mythical Liver Birds atop the Liver Building. As legend goes, these symbolic birds once haunted the local shoreline, guarding the waterfront and awaiting the safe return of seafarers.

(Pronunciation quirk: "Liver" rhymes with "diver" -- not with "giver" as in "Liverpool")

Not until recently would I have identified the image of a one - legged seagull as a recurring motif in literature, but a surprising reading coincidence has caused me to think otherwise.

Not long ago, I was reading volume one of M. T. Anderson's historical fiction, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation. Octavian has been brought from Africa as a child, in the 1700s, to participate in an elaborate American educational experiment, funded from England by an eccentric benefactor. When this Lord Cheldthorpe dies, his nephew, the new "Lord Cheldthorpe of the New Creation," as he insists on being called, travels to America to visit the College of Lucidity.

Upon his arrival, he reveals his ignorance of the natural world with an urgent question for his hosts. Speaking of himself in third person, he elaborates: "One had, a kind of pet aboard the ship, a one-legged seagull. One was charmed by its sense of balance when the ship rocked. Would there be a way that one could attract it to this house? It specifically?"

Rather than treating Cheldthorpe's request as ridiculous, the polite and beholden American scientists attempt to let the Lord down easy, speculating, "Were we to . . . spread garbage upon the roof, we would likely attract quite a number of . . . seagulls . . . but there is no guarantee . . . My Lord . . . that one should be your especial friend" (ellipses in original, 80).

The seagull comes to represent those who must suffer from Cheldthorpe's cruelty and his arrogant belief that the world revolves around him. His treatment of the gull prefigures the patronizing harshness in store for his unwitting subjects: "We tried to knock it over by throwing lead-shot and failed. . . . The bird was nimble. . . . Could one attract it to one's side, one could keep it upon one's shoulder, and call it Hector, and it would be a fine, fine thing" (my ellipses, 80 - 81).

"Indeed, My Lord," concludes the host. "My very thought. . . . Perhaps you might give me some time to consider a solution?" (80 - 81). In fact, the issue never arises again, and I probably wouldn't have given it much more thought if I had not soon encountered a similar image in Gladys Reunited: A Personal American Journey. In this memoir, British / Danish writer Sandi Toksvig describes her travels across the United States, as she catches up with old friends that she knew years before when attending school in America.

She starts on the East Coast and finds herself at last in California, standing on the deck of the Queen Mary, reminiscing of the trips she took on it years before, back and forth across the Atlantic with her parents. As she recalls fondly, though sadly, a final conversation she shared with her father, she spies a seagull who seems to embody both her grief and her determination. But this is not just any seagull:

"Then, on the farthest railing I saw a one-legged gull standing watching me. What could happen, I wondered, to a gull that might cause it to lose a foot? Did it affect take-offs and landings? What did the other gulls think? Was the one-legged fellow an object of gull ridicule? Did all gulls really come from California?" (299)

A seagull with one leg? I had to stop and think a minute. Oh yes, Octavian Nothing and crazy Lord Cheldthorpe a week or so before. Two one-legged seagulls in two weeks? And in two books so widely differing from each other. What's the odds?

Of course the quintessential seagull, that "one-in-a-million bird" who taught us the meaning of life back in 1970 is Jonathan Livingston Seagull. One leg? Broken wing? Jonathan knows how to overcome all such earthly stumbling blocks, how to achieve freedom and perfection:
"Overcome space, and all we have left is Here. Overcome time, and all we have left is Now. And in the middle of Here and Now, don't you think we might see other once or twice?" (61, 87).

1 comment:

  1. Octavian Nothing - you've grabbed my interest.
    There are two things in my life that I have never done yet: changed a baby's diaper and read Johnathan Livingston Seagull. Not that the two are related...but I thought it was a good thought. Loved your blog - check out yesterday's by the Yarn Harlot!