In a recent issue of Poetry Magazine, I came across a translation (by Suji Kwock Kim and Sunja Kim Kwock) of a poem by Korean poet Ko Un. It caught my eye because, in a few brief lines, the poem created a whole, mysterious imaginative world.
Someone's coming from the other world.
Hiss of night rain.
Someone's going there now. The two are sure to meet.
One way to read this poem is as a reflection on birth and death. A sort of balance is envisioned; one person leaves the world, another one comes (or perhaps returns). What interests me most, though, is that moment when the poet imagines both persons meeting.
Where is it, I ask myself, that this meeting occurs? I suppose it is a kind of Bardo state, a liminal space visible to the poet when things are murky (like on a rainy night) in the ordinary world. But as mysterious as this imaginative space may be, it insists itself upon the speaker's consciousness, hissing into his awareness.
The Riddle of the Two Buddhist Monks
The alternate world that the poem creates is the result of a blending of two states that normally don't occur in a single space: coming/going or birth/death. By blending these opposites, a third state is created -- one that transcends both. (Note: "Conceptual blending" has been covered earlier on this blog, here).
This all reminded me of a riddle I came across recently in a book by Mark Turner, a literary scholar who draws on coginitive science, entitled The Origin of Ideas.
The riddle, said to originate with Arthur Koestler, goes like this:
"A Buddhist monk begins at dawn one day walking up a mountain, reaches the top at sunset, meditates at the top overnight until, at dawn, he begins to walk back to the foot of the mountain, which he reaches at sunset. Make no assumptions about his starting or stopping or about his pace during the trips. Riddle: is there a place on the path that the monk occupies at the same hour of the day on the two trips?"
The answer is yes, but what interests Turner is how our minds go about finding it. He shows us that one way to do so is to compress the two trips and envision, in the mind's eye, not one, but two Buddhist monks (though they are the same person) -- each traveling a different direction (up or down the mountain path). Then, through our imaginative visualization we see for ourselves that...
"...no matter how the two monks move, so long as they start at dawn, end at dusk, and traverse the path without leaving it, the monks must always cross, or meet, somewhere, at least once, and that meeting point will be the location that the monk occupies at the same hour of the day on the two successive days. We do not know what point it will be, but we know that there must be at least one such point."
To solve such a riddle, Turner points out, we suspend time and space as well as the way we normally think of personhood. For we blend two days and two directions into one moment in one location -- and clone a single person into two. Like in the Ko Un poem, we create an alternate world where coming and going meet, except this time it's the same person who meets himself coming and going.
The theme of Turner's book is that this sort of conceptual blending (of which poetry provides the richest examples), is something we all do everyday to solve mundane problems, or even (or especially?) to help us come to terms with existential riddles. In the case of Koestler's riddle, such imaginative blending enables us to solve a thought problem without having to resort to a laborious mathematical proof.
And when it comes to a poem like "Ear", the "blend" offers a way to think about what's normally unthinkable: the infinite. Through creating a space outside of life and death, the speaker -- and we readers -- get a handle (at least for a moment) on the incomprehensible.
The revolutionary writer, Lautreamont, once insisted that "poetry must be made by all."
What fascinates a fan of poetry like myself is that the notion of conceptual blending suggests that Lautreamont was right, but in a way he couldn't have anticipated. For according to writers like Mark Turner, eveyone, of necessity, uses their own, innate metaphor-making and, and in this sense, poetic abilities everyday, to create blends that aid in navigating and reconstructing the many clashing worlds we all inhabit.
In other words, it takes a hell of a lot of imagination to get through the day. Any day. Thoughts?
Recently, I came across a Philip Whalen poem that offered an amusing example of interspecies communication. Check it out:
Walking along Elm Road Handful of nasturtiums, butter, some kind of bread 75¢ the loaf no advertising included Bread and air and a price tag wrapped in plastic The dogs come out as usual to roar at me I find myself screeching wildly in reply Fed up with suppressing my rage and fear I bellow and roar The dogs are scared and their people scandalized "What are you trying to do? HAY! What are you trying to do?" I had nothing to tell them; I was talking to their dogs.
One of the charms of this poem, for me, is its ordinariness, even banality. Who hasn't, out of sheer frustration with being barked at (by angry dogs or other beings), lost it, and barked back? I know I have, though, unlike Whalen, the last time I remember barking at a dog (a Doberman in my case), I don't think I was able to silence him.
But paradoxically, it's the very unexceptional quality of the event narrated here that makes it unusual. For there's a rich, imaginative tradition, spanning culture high and low, that paints the talent for "talking to animals" as a mysterious, nearly superhuman power.
In fact, in psychic/new age jargon, this talent has got a name --"zoolingualism" -- and it's a power possessed by everyone from Tarzan, Dr. Dolittle and St. Francis, to horse whisperers, like the one Scarlett Johansson once portrayed. Or like the shaman, in Elizabeth Bishop's great poem, "The Riverman," which begins:
I got up in the night for the Dolphin spoke to me. He grunted beneath my window, hid by the river mist, but I glimpsed him -- a man like myself.
When it comes to the mythologies surrounding poets and the act of writing poetry, the tradition of zoolingualism becomes (excuse the pun) even more pronounced. Orpheus, the archetypal poet, could understand the language of birds. And his song tamed even the fiercest beasts, as celebrated in this medieval mosaic (in which you'll notice a few wild dogs).
Whalen himself, for that matter, wasn't averse to this more mythic type of interspecies communication. Here's his poem "Never Apologize; Never Explain":
A pair of strange new birds in the maple tree Peer through the windows Mother and father visiting me: "You are unmarried, No child begot Now we are birds, now you've forgotten us Although in dreams we visit you in human shape"
They speak Homer's language Sing like Aeschylus
The life of a poet: less than 2/3rds of a second.
The Language of Barking
What's especially interesting, though, when it comes to a poem like "The Turn," is that the down-to-earth way it portrays such communications suggests how the sounds we emit as natural, rather than supernatural, beings actually can resemble the language of dogs, or other (nonhuman) species. Alva Noe, a philosopher grounded in cognitive science, comments:
"One of the very many false ideas about language is that its primary function is to express information or communicate thoughts. Speech has many functions, but surely a large part of it is more like the grooming behavior of chimpanzees or the shepherding behavior of dogs than it is like reasoned discourse among parliamentarians. We bark so that our kids get out the door in time to get on their bus and so that they feel safe and loved...The bulk of what we do and say each day is more like the grunts and signals baseball players use to indicate who'll catch the pop fly than it is like genuine conversation."
All of which is to say that language involves the performance of acts as much as it does the transmission of ideas. The dogs bark to chase Whalen away. He barks back to stand his ground. You could say at this moment -- one animal communicating with other animals -- he's "one with nature," as a Romantic might put it. But this doesn't mean, in the poem's realist version of this idea, that man and beast are necessarily going to get along.
Then again, to complicate matters a bit more, perhaps the language the dogs and the poet speak here has nothing to do whatsoever with anything the least bit "natural." For aren't the dogs stand-ins for their owners, speaking a social message for which they've been trained, one that can simply be translated as "no trespassing"?
And by answering the dogs, rather than their owners, perhaps the poet implies that such social aggression, unleashed on whoever's in the mere vicinity of a private property, doesn't deserve a civil reply. Thoughts?
In an interview the philosopher Martin Heidegger gave later in life, he spoke about how our technology had uprooted us, not only from tradition, but the very earth itself. He added that this alienation had reached such an advanced state that "only a god can save us."
I found it amusing, and a bit surprising, that in the recent summer blockbuster Godzilla, when this "god" finally arrives, he takes the the form of a giant, fire-breathing dragon.
If you've seen the film, you know that due to our experiments with dangerous technologies (in this case, nuclear energy), great beasts arise from the depths to torment humanity. Our main persecutor comes in the form of a giant, moth-like creature. Godzilla follows this "MUTO" ("Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism") up from wherever such beings live, to hunt down and destroy it. A battle ensues and God(zilla) is on our side all the way.
When I say Godzilla is a god, I mean that literally. As Director Gareth Edwards put it in The Daily Beast, the MUTO represents "man's abuse of nature," and Godzilla "is a god, really. He's at the top of the food chain and probably King of the World." Godzilla is also called a god by characters in the film.
The mission of this godly being is to restore the balance of nature (that the MUTO throws out of whack), saving humanity in the process, as a sort of fortuitous side-effect. At the end of the film, as Godzilla leaves the ravaged city where his battle with the evil MUTO took place, the crowd watching breaks out in a cheer.
This means, though, that even with its happy ending, the film has a pessimistic, somber mood -- not unlike Heidegger's later philosophy. Humanity seems helpless. Most of the action takes place between the behemoths. All the military/scientific team that gathers in the crisis can do ultimately, is "let them fight," as one character mutters reverently.
And yet, despite the reality of the issues the movie alludes to, I found it hard to take the messenger entirely seriously. A popcorn movie, where a couple of monsters jam it out, after all, can't help but seem more fun and silly than profound.
As a result, I found myself reading into the movie in more mundane ways. And I thought about Godzilla being a savior of something less grand than the earth itself.
Recently I've been reading a fascinating book about the entertainment industry by Anita Elberse titled Blockbusters. In it, she shows that the main vehicle the movie business now favors is the big-budget, special-effects flick. As a result, it follows a strategy in which it sinks most of its investment dollars into such blockbusters, in search of giant wins. She also shows that the rest of the entertainment industry is pretty much following suit.
Elberse tells us that this industry increasingly relies on blockbusters, in part, to avoid the need to place its bets on smaller, riskier properties, aimed at niche markets -- an approach often associated with the fragmentation of audiences that came about because of the web and the digital age. Instead, the blockbuster makes old-school mass-marketing to a mass audience still possible.
You could say, then, that Godzilla saves not only the earth, but, on a more trivial level, the movie studio that produced the film he stars in, by offering the promise of the kind of big profits that will keep it afloat.
And blockbusters don't just save the movie industry from being at the mercy of niche tastes. Elberse doesn't talk about this so directly in her book, but another aspect of entertainment in the digital age is that lots of it is free. Blockbusters, designed for big, 3-D screens, are one of the entertainment products for which people are still willing to pay.
In this light, Godzilla isn't only saving the earth; he's also helping the paid entertainment economy fight off the increasingly powerful free one -- or what Jeremy Rifkin has recently termed the "collaborative commons."
And in this regard, perhaps this economic message is related to the ecological pessimism you see in the film. For the same, clumsy, old school, big-time capitalism that survives by producing blockbusters, is, according to Rifkin, incapable of dealing with ecological crises. What he predicts, instead (in The Zero Marginal Cost Society), is the coming of "Collaboratism," a new economic paradigm that transcends both capitalism and socialism.
Until then, I suppose, one might have to agree with Heidegger, that only a god -- or perhaps a Godzilla -- can save us.