"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

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Am I Dreaming?

Thinking of the philosopher who did "not know
whether he was then a man dreaming he was a butterfly,
or whether he is now a butterfly, dreaming he is a man."

Zhūangzi (Chinese Philosopher, c. 369 BC – c. 286 BC)

A few weeks ago, I was so mesmerized -- as were many others -- by an inspiring philosophical post from my facebook friend Anna that I decided to record it here, along with a few additional connections of dreams and butterflies and reflective reality. On the way to school, her little daughter Clara had asked her, "Mom, am I dreaming? Am I awake? How can I ever tell if I am really awake?"

A variety of clever responses followed:

She's a philosopher!

A post - modern existentialist!

Definite Descartes moment. Proud.

I think I am; therefore, I think I am.

Very impressive! How did you reply?

I said she was having a Descartes moment. She said "what?" And then I didn't say anything else bc my younger kid started scooting off down the street. Seems appropriate enough.

All in good time . . .

Put The Matrix in!

There's actually ways to test if you're in a dream . . .

I prefer to let her wonder . . . AHAHAHHA! Maybe that's not nice.

What you didn't pinch her?

Was it a vision, or a waking dream?
Fled is that music: -- do I wake or sleep?

~ Keats (English Romantic Poet, 1795 - 1921)

Not only did Clara's question remind me of Zhūangzi's parable of the butterfly and Keats' "Ode to a Nightengale," but I also suddenly remembered this mysterious prose poem tucked away in my autumnal saved files. Has the narrator dreamed up the entire conflicted relationship? Was she in his dream? Was he in hers?

I was always thinking about her even when I wasn’t thinking. Days went by when I did little else. She had left me one night as a complete surprise. I didn’t know where she went. I didn’t know if she was ever coming back. I searched her dresser and closet for any clues. There wasn’t anything there, nothing. No lotions or creams in the bathroom. She had really cleaned out. I thought back on our years together. They seemed happy to me. Summers on the beach, winters in the mountains skiing. What more could she want? We had friends, dinner parties. I walked around thinking, maybe she didn’t love me all that time. I felt so alone without her. I hated dinners alone, I hated going to bed without her. I thought she might at least call, so I was never very far from the phone. Weeks went by, months. It was strange how time flew by when you had nothing to remember it by. My friends never mentioned her. Why can’t they say something? I thought. I remembered every tiny gesture of her hand, every smile, every grimace. Birthdays, anniversaries — I never forgot. But then something strange started to happen. I started doubting every memory. Even her face began to fade. The trip to Majorca, was it something I read in a book? The jolly dinner parties, were they a dream? I didn’t trust anything any longer. I searched the house for any trace of her. Nothing. I started asking my friends if they remembered anything about her. They looked at me as if I were crazy. I sat at home and began to cheer up. What if none of this happened? I thought. What if there was nothing to be sad about?

~ James Tate (American Poet, b 1943)

Floor Mosaics, here and above,
at the Wynn / Encore, Las Vegas

And lastly, this dreamy poem which my son Ben was asked to respond to several years ago on a college entrance essay. The prospective students were given the poem without the last line and asked to imagine how the poet might conclude his reverie:

Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota
Over my head, I see the bronze butterfly,
Asleep on the black trunk,
Blowing like a leaf in green shadow.
Down the ravine behind the empty house,
The cowbells follow one another
Into the distances of the afternoon.
To my right,
In a field of sunlight between two pines,
The droppings of last year’s horses
Blaze up into golden stones.
I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on.
A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.
I have wasted my life.

~ James Wright (American Poet, 1927 - 80)


Shortly after posting the above essay, I came across the following passages.
Two in two days! What's the odds?

1. Rereading an old favorite
on Monday, September 29th:
Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress
by Dai Sijie (Chinese–French Author & Filmmaker, b 1954)
"At this Luo broke away and started running, faster and faster, in a desperate headlong flight down the steep mountain in pursuit of the Little Seamstress. I went after him, taking a short cut across the rocks. The scene was like one of the bad dreams that had been troubling me lately, with the Little Seamstress losing her footing and falling into the void, and with Luo and me chasing after her, slithering down perpendicular cliffs without a thought of the risk to ourselves. For a moment I lost track of whether I was running in my dream or in reality, or whether I was dreaming as I ran" (193 - 94).

2. Starting a new favorite
on Tuesday, September 30th:
The Friendly Persuasion
by Jessamyn West (American Novelist, 1902 - 84)
"They rode into Vernon [Indiana] together . . . two rawboned farm boys . . . and saw it the way a man who thinks he has been dreaming wakes and sees the landscape of his dream lying all about him, the disaster real, hard and unmelting as sunlight -- and dreaming the only means of escape" (74).

Next Fortnightly Post
Tuesday, October 14th

Between now and then, read
my shorter, almost daily blog posts

Looking for a good book? Try
my running list of recent reading

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Safe Home

The Peaceable Kingdom
by American Artist, Edward Hicks, 1780 – 1849

As an illustration for the Badger's elaborate creation theory, I picked this painting of the animal kingdom for the diversification it portrays: the bull's magnificent horns, the lion's impressive mane, the camouflaged leopards with their designer spots, the powerful bear down in the corner, kissing the cow with the curly horns; and the many other sleek coats, massive paws, half - hidden claws or tapered noses. Some of the best - known fictional explanations for these varied and unique natural properties can be found in Rudyard Kipling's Just So Stories. My preference, however, is the rationale provided by the wise Badger whom Merlin enlists to teach young Arthur (aka "Wart") about human nature:

from Chapter 21 (pp 191 - 93)
in The Once and Future King
by T. H. White, 1906 - 64

"When God had manufactured all the eggs out of which the fishes and the serpents and the birds and the mammals and even the duck-billed platypus would eventually emerge, he called the embryos before Him, and saw that they were good.

"Perhaps I ought to explain," added the badger, lowering his papers nervously and looking at the Wart over the top of them, "that all embryos look very much the same. They are what you are before you are born --- and, whether you are going to be a tadpole or a peacock or a cameleopard or a man, when you are an embryo you look just like a peculiarly repulsive and helpless human being. I continue as follows:

"The embryos stood in front of God, with their feeble hands clasped politely over their stomachs and their heavy heads hanging down respectfully, and God addressed them:

"He said: 'Now, you embryos, here you are, all looking exactly the same, and We are going to give you the choice of what you want to be. When you grow up you will get bigger anyway, but We are pleased to grant you another gift as well. You may alter any parts of yourselves into anything which you think would be useful to you in later life. For instance, at this moment you cannot dig. Anybody who would like to turn his hands into a pair of spades or garden forks is allowed to do so. Or, to put it another way, at present you can only use your mouths for eating. Anybody who would like to use his mouth as an offensive weapon, can change it by asking, and be a corkindrill or a sabre-toothed tiger. Now then, step up and choose your tools, but remember that what you choose you will grow into, and will have to stick to.'

"All the embryos thought the matter over politely, and then, one by one, they stepped up before the eternal throne. They were allowed two or three specializations, so that some chose to use their arms as flying machines and their mouths as weapons, or crackers, or drillers, or spoons, while others selected to use their bodies as boats and their hands as oars. We badgers thought very hard and decided to ask for three boons. We wanted to change our skins for shields, our mouths for weapons, and our arms for garden forks. These boons were granted. Everybody specialized in one way or another, and some of us in very queer ones. For instance, one of the lizards decided to swap his whole body for blotting paper, and one of the toads who lived in the drouthy antipodes decided simply to be a water bottle.

"The asking and granting took up two long days --- they were the fifth and sixth, so far as I remember --- and at the very end of the sixth day, just before it was to knock off for Sunday, they had got through all the little embryos except one. This embryo was Man.

" 'Well, Our little man,' said God. 'You have waited till the last, and slept on your decision, and We are sure you have been thinking hard all the time. What can We do for you?'

" 'Please God,' said the embryo, 'I think that You made me in the shape which I now have for reasons best known to Yourselves, and that it would be rude to change. If I am to have my choice I will stay as I am. I will not alter any of the parts which You gave me, for other and doubtless inferior tools, and I will stay a defenceless embryo all my life, doing my best to make a few feeble implements out of the wood, iron and the other materials which You have seen fit to put before me. If I want a boat I will try to construct it out of trees, and if I want to fly, I will put together a chariot to do it for me. Probably I have been very silly in refusing to take advantage of Your kind offer, but I have done my very best to think it over carefully, and now hope that the feeble decision of this small innocent will find favour with Yourselves.'

" 'Well done,' exclaimed the Creator in delighted tones. 'Here, all you embryos, come here with your beaks and whatnots to look upon Our first Man. He is the only one who has guessed Our riddle, out of all of you, and We have great pleasure in conferring upon him the Order of Dominion over the Fowls of the Air, and the Beasts of the Earth, and the Fishes of the Sea. Now let the rest of you get along, and love and multiply, for it is time to knock off for the week-end. As for you, Man, you will be a naked tool all your life, though a user of tools. You will look like an embryo till they bury you, but all the others will be embryos before your might. Eternally undeveloped, you will always remain potential in Our image, able to see some of Our sorrows and to feel some of Our joys. We are partly sorry for you, Man, but partly hopeful. Run along then, and do your best. And listen, Man, before you go....'

" 'Well,' asked Adam, turning back from his dismissal.

" 'We were only going to say,' said God shyly, twisting Their hands together. 'Well, We were just going to say, God bless you.' " [emphasis added]


On last year's annual walk through the British Pine Forest,
we stumbled upon this little lean - to, or as Ben entitled this photo:
"Summer Home" ~ May 2013

The following passage echoes the Badger's lesson that, from beginning to end, humans retain the form of defenseless embryos -- "a naked tool all your life . . . an embryo till they bury you" -- like the innocent children included amongst the animals in Hicks painting, as well as the settlers and natives off to the left, meeting together to discuss the possibility of sharing the land in peace. Even at the height of our adult strength and power, we remain "weak, slow, clawless," no fur, no fangs, forever in need of shelter, in search of a home:

from Chapter 2, "House and Home" (p 29)
in Staying Put: Making a Home in a Restless World
by Scott Russell Sanders

[see previous excerpt from Hunting for Hope]

The word house derives from an Indo-European root meaning to cover or conceal. I hear in that etymology furtive, queasy undertones. Conceal from what? From storms? beasts? enemies? from the eye of God?

Home comes from a different root meaning 'the place where one lies.' That sounds less fearful to me. A weak, slow, clawless animal, without fur or fangs, can risk lying down and closing its eyes only where it feels utterly secure. Since the universe is going to kill us, in the short run or the long, no wonder we crave a place to lie in safety, a place to conceive our young and raise them, a place to shut our eyes without shivering or dread." [emphasis added]


American philosopher Susanne K. Langer makes a similar point about the human need for signs, symbols, language, and expression. When the embryos chose their big brains over physical might, they steered us toward imagination and communication.

from paragraphs 13 & 14
of "Language and Thought"
by Susanne K. Langer, 1895 - 1985

When we are faced with a strange or difficult situation, we cannot react directly as other creatures do, with flight, aggression, or any such simple instinctive pattern. Our whole reaction depends on how we manage to conceive the situation -- whether we see it as a disaster, a challenge, a fulfillment of doom, or a fiat of the Divine Will. In words or dreamlike images, in artistic or religious or even in cynical form, we must construe the events of life. . . .

Conception is a necessary and elementary process . . . of human culture -- of intelligence and morality, folly and superstition, ritual, language, and the arts -- all the phenomena that set us apart from, and above, the rest of the animal kingdom.


In his typically amusing way, Andreas suggests a process similar to that of the embryos choosing their gifts:

from StoryPeople
by Brian Andreas

A few said they’d be horses. Most said they’d be some sort of cat.
My friend said she’d like to come back as a porcupine.
I don’t like crowds, she said.


Arthur C. Clarke -- along with T. H. White and Scott Russell Sanders -- observes that, compared to many others creatures, humans are neither strong nor fast:

"We humans govern the future
not because we're the fastest or strongest
creature but because we're the most intelligent.
When we share the planet with creatures
more intelligent than we are,
they will steer the future."

Arthur C. Clarke, 1917 - 2008

British Science Fiction Writer
(and the first person that Wernher von Braun
wanted to meet upon leaving Germany)

Dawn or Doom: This Week at Purdue University

Next Fortnightly Post
Sunday, September 28th

Between now and then, read
my shorter, almost daily blog posts

Looking for a good book? Try
my running list of recent reading