To say we are bird-brained is not so much to scramble as to fry a truth overeasy.
Yet we’re not so different from the crow, who avoids that garden with the great-horned plastic owl perched at its gate. Like that scared crow, some part of the human brain mistakes counterfeits of nature for nature, and takes flight.
When my children were younger — about two and three years old — we’d go shopping for clothes. I’d get a kick watching them react to mannequins. Sometimes, the mannequins modeled dresses, and my kids would sneak up, lift the dresses, and peek. I’d check over my shoulder, blush, laugh, and redirect their attention. Look, over there! It’s Dora The Explorer! And off they’d go.
(Come to think of it, they never once asked if this or that Dora was the real Dora. And a monkey in boots never once troubled them. Little literalists, they, believing as they did in The Map. What they’d see is what they’d get, and that’s the way it was — our childhood is more ancient than we suppose.)
I’m really not so different from my children, though I’m a bit less literal, a bit less inclined to pull up a mannequin’s dress. Still, I’ve noticed that I’m wired to do something quite the same, and as literal — but in the yoga-pants aisle. Passing those well-muscled mannequins, perched as they are above an ancient garden, my eyes, of their own accord and disobedient, peek.
I mean, I catch myself, and I avoid gawking. (I am, afterall, a grown and civilized man, who does his best not to embarrass his family.) Yet my eyes, my eyes the windows of a soul much older than my own, duck-like, take flight without me, in the direction of an ancient objective, blind to the fact that these yoga-pants but cover a well-placed decoy. And unlike my eyes — or that unconscious part of my brain which has intention but not volition — I know this world to be filled with duck blinds, behind which hunters take aim at our wallets, treating our credit cards like sporting clays.
Our modern world is much made up of such plastic illusions. Just as in a dream, during which that part of us sleeps that might call the dream a dream, we mistake our visions for reality; so in waking, we respond to what we see, in part, as it were the Great-Horned Owl itself, perched at the gate. Part of us does not distinguish between the real and the unreal. For that part of us, what we see is what we get. For that part of us — as old as the most ancient of fish — it is all real. (It is not for that other, newer part of ourselves to distinguish between light and shadow, but to distinguish between meals, lures, and lies.)
Once, in Costco, approaching Halloween, pushing my then four-year-old daughter along in a shopping cart, I spotted decorations — pumpkins, skeletons, scarecrows — and grew excited at the prospect of decorating our home for all the little trick-or-treaters who were to come for candy. But as we rounded the corner, my daughter panicked, crow-like, on spotting three life-sized witches stirring their wicked brew in a wicked cauldron while laughing their wicked laughs, with their eyes lighting red, and with lightning flashing against a backdrop of night.
One of the trio turned her head directly to my daughter, chanting Double, double, toil and trouble, fire burn and cauldron bubble! My little girl burst immediately into tears, screaming for me to turn around, which I did, after what was for her a forever moment.
But, being a dad, and curious, I got no farther than the underwear aisle, when I got bored, and found my eyes taking flight, bat-like; and the cart’s wheels found themselves following, slowly, slowly, until we could hear a witch laughing again: I come, Graymalkin! My daughter’s eyes turned to me, her protector, as if to ask, Really, Daddy? Are you fucking with me? We’re going back there?
Of course we were.
But as we again approached the corner, and she began to cry, I told her not to worry, that the witches are not real, that they are just plugged-in plastic, a superstition. What she said next exactly defines what separates us from fishes, birds and bats: “I know they’re not real, Daddy! But they scare me anyway!”
“Give me that poverty which makes me inwardly rich.” –Henry David Thoreau
There was an old man who lived down by the river, who, when asked, What’s the secret to living a long, happy, and rich life? answered, “Keep your mind full, and your bowels empty.” The older I get, the more I come to appreciate the utter simplicity of all that we’d call wisdom.
Wisdom is simple. But our lives are complex. And we live as the multiplication charts were the proper guide to life. We multiply entities beyond necessity, and pay no heed to Occam’s Razor when forming an economy of life. We live as if living well were to be surrounded by a million particular and interesting things, paying no mind to the singular element which would unify the million.
As a life, so a man or a woman is one. Counting fingers and toes cannot change this fact. We live once; we are born to die. Nor will the sun rise ever again on a life after the final sunset. But it does not ultimately help to enrich life by filling it with many things; life still remains one, albeit a fragmented life. And a fragmented life is a life divided and diminished.
How many times I have met a man or a woman who has become dejected. Life has ceased to smile. He looks on his old car, frowns, buys a new car, and sells himself, his time, to make payments on a shiny new vehicle which gets him not where he longs to be. She looks on her small, dank apartment, and sets her sights on a new apartment on the richer side of town, though it be far from her work, and now she needs a better car to get her to the job which she is not sure fits her and to which she is now more than ever shackled to, a slave of longing.
We long to be free. Freedom is simple. Life is one. Except that the parts would fit seamlessly, the many do not make one, and would fracture the universe; and thus ever we seek to step into the universe next door, where the stars are brighter.
Richness is inward. Nor is richness an appearance. It is too common a condition that a man, living a life of quiet desperation, surrounds himself with seductive shiny objects, though they financially strain him and push him to the edge. Sometimes that edge is a 21st floor window, and he’d jump.
Richness is inward. It is substantial. As the old man by that old river called life tells us, living well is keeping the mind full, and the bowels empty.
Keeping the mind full keeps it clear, rich, and able to apprehend beauty; or, when one finds himself lost in a dark wood and surrounded by wolves, having an inwardly rich mind will more quickly apprehend the safe path out. The rich mind is clear enough to imagine the wolf, and what the wolf would want; for the wolf is not so different from himself. Life is one. And imagining the wolf for what he is, the mane does not present himself to be a meal.
Having a rich mind is having that mind which knows how to feed not only itself but the body. A well kept and fed body is that body which keeps empty bowels.
Any man or woman of wisdom recognizes that the earliest sign of stress is sluggish digestion. And a sluggish digestion leads to a sluggish and suffering mind. A wise man, like the old man by the river, recognizes full well that the body is a temple. It houses the mind, the sacred mind. Any pursuit which compromises health is unwise; for without health, life is hardly worth living. Indeed, men and women who suffer from extremely poor health beg that life would end. To abuse the body is sacrilege.
So the woman gets her apartment across town, has therefore to buy a new car, and has consequently two meaty new payments which necessitates that she has to keep her job which is itself destroying her health. She goes to work now for ten to twelve hours, sits in meetings stressed, takes on the problems of others though unable to solve her own, and then gets into her new car to sit and drive for an hour to get to a home in which she can sleep for but a few hours before she has to get up and sit in that car to go to work yet again.
Though now she has prestige, which is but an external semblance of some ill conceived fantasy, her digestion is poor, her body is stressed, and she cannot understand why she bursts into tears longing for freedom.
Wisdom is simpler. Cut, cut, cut!
Cut out the million things which draw the mind from its proper object, which is to support itself and seek out what it is to live. And this wisdom achieved, from abundance, the mind may then take on the responsibility of supporting others, of helping them to solve their problems.
The first object of wisdom is learning how to support the body that the body may best support the mind. That goal achieved, the mind may then turn itself to beauty, and take a long afternoon down by the river. Having then an abundance of wisdom which proceeds from health, so wisdom may venture to help others.
We have little problem when a Dostoyevski brings us up a set of stairs to bury an ax in an old woman’s head. But when Nabokov brings us on a little tour of the United States and has Humbert Humbert bury himself in his insane fantasy of a twelve year old nymphet, we are quick to call Nabokov an immoral pervert who encourages pedophilia. Indeed, when vandals attacked the St.Petersburg museum dedicated to Nobokov, they left a note which read, “How can you remain unafraid of God’s wrath promoting Nabokov’s pedophilia?”
Yet even literate readers level a similar charge against Nabokov.
Just this week, I debated a scientifically-minded philosopher on the topic. He told me that Nabokov is a horrible man for penning such immoral smut. He told me that such a book does not belong on any shelf a teenager might peruse. He admitted that he had not read the book.
Having got his confession, I told him that when my one year old daughter is literate and mature enough, I want her to read the book — the sooner the better. I want her to be wise to the Humbert Humberts of the world.
We should be thankful that we have such a beautiful, moral book as Lolita. We should be thankful we have this first-person account so that we may explore perversion sublimated par excellence. I for one am thankful for having been made wiser to the world for having read this first person account of a cruel, mad mind, driven to divine idolatry.
Countering, my philosopher friend gave an account of a scientific book which gives us to understand how rape is an unsavory impulse embedded in our genetic pattern, and that understanding this scientific account can help us to understand why we should not throw gasoline on that little red coal which burns in the darker corners of the human genome, of hotels, and of Hollywood.
And yet he did not think his scientific book an immoral book. Yet he, like so many, considers Lolita smut, perverse and pornographic.
I pressed him to distinguish why Nabokov’s account of a child rapist is a sick and immoral account, while the scientific account is not.
I asked him if it had to do with presentation, if it had to do with our relation to pronouns, if it had to do with the fact that a scientific account is not given in the first person, but is rather given in the third person or in the passive voice, in which the personal pronoun is neatly and happily hidden, like so many in our culture.
(According to Humbert Humbert, some seventeen percent of men have enjoyed a nymphet — yet Humbert Humbert is not a scientist. He is an unreliable narrator, and Lolita is unreliably narrated.)
My philosopher friend considered, and we have yet to conclude this conversation. Nonetheless, this lively debate led me to think about what we fancy Literature to be, and what we imagine Literature to give us. Scientific Literature, the prejudice goes, gives us knowledge — impersonal, sane and sanitary. Literature Literature, on the other hand, can give us a Humbert Humbert — but not knowledge.
Literature Literature alone can present for us the first person account, alone can present us with precision an individual, and alone can widen our understanding, knowledge, and humanity as the third person or passive voice cannot. Literature Literature can show us with precision what the scientific imagination alone cannot.
“A writer should have the precision of a poet, and the imagination of a scientist.” —Nabokov
Here in Korea, my science students tell me that though on any corner you can see half a dozen red neon crosses reaching for heaven; that though not even in the corner of your living room are you safe from missionaries magically transubstantiating your doorbell into a church bell; that though here Bible thumpers everywhere corner you and thump their Book with more zeal than thump traditional Korean drummers their buk; that, despite all this, Creationists will not corner Korea. They tell me that all the students here learn evolution without theological qualms; and they tell me that, despite the universal, catholic, eternal and unchanging truth claims of Abrahamic theology, omnipresently valid, the likes of which not even Jonah could escape, that there is no tension here, locally, between science and religion. Creationism, they tell me, is an American disease. When they tell me this, I stand back askance, and sidle to the nearest window to see if God again has stopped the Sun, if not all critical thinking, that Joshua may win his battle.
My science students tell me that the roots here are very different than those of the United States, which has again shown its old worrisome tendency towards theocratic puritanism; and they tell me that their sindansu roots protect these old rain-worn Korean mountains from land-sliding into old Creationist abysses. They tell me that Korean mythology does not celebrate a creator of the universe so much as it celebrates and venerates clan lineages and leaders, who teach the people how to live upright and virtuous lives.
To an extent, what my students tell me makes sense. Korea does have a unique mythology which is latent in their formative and regulative concepts. We can see this mythical dynamic expressed in the god-status of North Korean leaders whose sons are given to rule. We can also see this in South Korean capitalism, where the fathers like Samsung or Hyundai naturally give their sons to rule. Here, Abraham’s sacrifice makes less sense. Yet Korea’s sons’ are now increasingly tied upon Abraham’s alter by an organized and zealous minority who would presume the godly authority to “correct” biology text books and “delete” the error of evolution. Would that Korean science educators sent us an angel, the likes of a Carl Sagan, to abort this sacrifice. Would that a Korean angel lit a scientific candle in this dark, demon haunted world. Would that The Society for Textbook Revise [sic] learned to read. First lesson: of fruit and metaphor. Eat up, boys.
Korean origin myths are different than Genesis. They don’t begin at The Beginning. Rather, they establish how Koreans came to be and are staged in an already existing world. In philosophical parlance, these myths are not concerned with the speculative question, Why is there something, rather than nothing? Korean mythology is not concerned with the infinitely regressive and speculative problem of how Being came to be. Rather, Korean mythology is concerned with establishing a unifying narrative, and in establishing a practical foundation for a Korean civilization and ethics.
Consider the Korean island of Jeju, and its unique culture. It has a rich array of cultural myths. Among these is the founding myth of Samsonghyol, in which three divine men emerge from three holes near the already existing Mt. Halla. These men are the ancestors of the three family names: Go, Yang, and Bu. The people of Jeju have traditionally traced their historical narrative back to these three divine men. Neither do the people of Jeju fear that Darwin would threaten their unique island culture; nor do they rally behind the battle flag of the king of kings–well, not until recently, when many among them enlisted in The Army of The Lord, and found a peculiar admiration for Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son’s scientific education.
Jeju also has a story about the origin of people, which is infinitely more naturalistic than the story of Genesis. In this myth, the two giants Maitreya and Sakyamuni fight in an already existing world. Maitreya kills Sakyamuni and makes earth out of the corpse; and the maggots which form on it become people. In this, we can clearly see one species changing into another: maggots to people. Clearly, one might think, Darwin will have less of a problem here; for who is so attached to maggots as to become a zealot? Who on this myth would suppress science education? Who for maggots would stop the Sun, and declare Truth changeless?
Peninsular Koreans have the myth of Dangun to establish their origin and ancestral lineage. In this story, a heavenly prince named Hwanung looks down on an already existing world. He wishes to possess it and to rule over the mortal men who live there. His father Hwanin knows that Hwanung will be a good ruler and will make the people happy; and so this father sends his son down to earth, setting him on Baekdu Mountain; this father sends his son down to earth, not in order to sacrifice him, but to establish the holy city of Sinsi. Moses-like, this good god-son establishes laws, moral codes, and the cultural order.
Later, a male tiger and a female bear pray to Hwanung in order that they would become human. So he tells them to spend a hundred days out of the sunlight, in a kind of maternal cave, with only the sacred foods mugwort and garlic to eat. (We can deduce from this that fruit is among the oral pleasures forbidden them.) Naturally, the male tiger gives in to temptation and is delivered to evil. He leaves this maternal cave a kind of oedipal miscarriage, while the female bear manages to supress her natural desires and oral fixation; thus she is transformed into a human who knows, a Lacanian might observe, le-nom-du-père. (After all, every person has to get beyond the oral attachment to mother’s sweet breast milk in order to become a healthy human citizen.)
This obedient and virginal Eve-bear lacks a husband, and so naturally prays for one at a sindansu tree. Though no serpent tempts her, Hwanung is happy to answer her prayer, and blesses her with a son named Dangun, who is given to rule, who establishes a walled city near Pyongyang, and who thus begins the old kingdom of Gojeosan and Korean history in about 2333 BCE.
Nearly four thousand years later, in 1603, just thirty years before the Inquisition would jail Galileo for his scientific heresy; and just eighty-nine years before the Salem Witch Trials condemn nineteen Americans to death for witchcraft, justifying this on sound theological grounds; just four thousand years later, I say, a Korean carries an atlas of theology into Korea, and Korea begins to learn a new but already dying story, and to help ensure their children might one day inherit the wind, flatulent a wind though it may be. The scent of history is rank; when on disguised theological grounds creationists suppress science in the classroom; when on theological grounds tired old judges burn witches or burn books to forward their drive for wealth and power. Vive la suppression!
Yet it was not until the mid 1960s, some forty years after Tennessee put John Scopes on trial, and but a thin decade after the Korean War, that the number of Korean Christians spiked and began to outnumber adherents of traditional religions. Interestingly, this spike parallels the radical westernization of South Korea; there is a common causal link between sightings of both Ronald McDonald and sweet Jesus–forsooth, man cannot live on garlic and mugwort alone!
My students are right to point out that, like mad cow disease, the conflict between science and religion is not native to Korean soil; yet the infection is here. There is nothing in the traditional Korean mythology which claims eternal authority on an unchanging and otherworldly Truth; yet the infection is here. The Korean mythos tends to be pragmatic, not speculative, not worried about eternal and unchanging Truth, not inclined to mud-over cracks in the fortress of theology, not inclined to suppress science education. Yet unscientific creationists are getting into the business of science text books.
Korean philosophy is traditionally Confucian, which tends toward creating social order and to defining virtuous living. It is less concerned with the ultimate structure of reality. Even in Buddhism, metaphysical speculation is seen to be a waste of time and effort, to which point we have the parable of the poison arrow.
“Suppose,” the Buddha says, “that a man is shot with a poisoned arrow, and the doctor wants to remove it immediately. Suppose the man refuses to let the doctor remove the arrow until he knows who shot it, what his age is, who his parents are, and why he shot it. If he waits to answer all of these questions before removing it, he may die.”
Korean science expresses this pragmatic tendency, and a kind of economic urgency, trying to pull out a poison arrow called poverty; wherefore Koreans tend to fund well the applied sciences, which have helped to build such economic giants as Samsung; and they tend to underfund speculative science, which does not fit well into practical economic structures and does not quickly fill empty rice bowls.
One consequence of this is that Korean scientists have not, as a whole, taken a keen interest in Darwinism as a question of ultimate origins, and have been able to ignore the profound zero-sum contradiction between modern science and the Abrahamic religion–Abraham, who is usurping Dangun’s claim for mythical origins. In place of a virtuous and chaste she-bear, Koreans are increasingly meditating on Eve and Mary; and for their love of Christ, they are increasingly denying empirical science, biting the hand which feeds it. And Korean scientists, going about their daily business, have been caught flat-footed, thinking, like my students, that there is no need to worry.
There is need to worry; and the sovereign mind of free-thinking Koreans, who would do right by their country to practically solve real problems; indeed, the sovereign mind of free-thinking people everywhere; this sovereign mind of a first born, I say, risks to become a blood sacrifice to an Abrahamic Metaphor.
“ A friend is a person with whom I may be sincere. Before him, I may think aloud.”
As a boy, I counted friendship cheaply. Anyone who’d play ball with me I’d call a friend. And maybe in a boy’s world that is enough. But as we get older, the consequences of friendship are deeper and profounder. And we come to learn the deep and sacred value that is a friendship. It is a rare soul that I’ll count among my friends.
When I was a senior in high school, readying to leave that boy’s world and enter into the world of men, a teacher of mine often told me that I could count myself a lucky man if, when counting those on whom I might call a friend, I could fill up a whole hand. Just five fingers, and I could count myself lucky.
Five friends seems a most meager number, yet the value of one friend is infinite. Five would indeed seem superfluous were it not also true that every friend represents a unique infinity, and did not every friend alone hold some one-of-a-kind key that unlocked some secret door in your soul. Friends unlock who we are, help us to discover what we can be, help us to fulfill the old Socratic dictum, Know thyself.
I’ve met many a kind man or woman, and would not diminish the value of pleasant acquaintances. But I do not want to diminish the meaning of the word friend by applying the word friend too liberally. And granted, I may use the word casually in my day to day conversation; yet in my deeper hours, I would place to word as carefully as I’d place a newborn child in a cradle.
After university, where I counted myself rich with friends, most of whom I’ve lost contact with, I travelled to Russia as a Peace Corps Volunteer, and there I learned a deeper sense of the word friend when I learned the Russian word druk. Now, in any Russian-English Dictionary, druk translates to friend. But though a dictionary can help us crack a word open as a nutcracker might a nut, we cannot understand a word till we have eaten of its flesh. Living with Russians I learned what no dictionary can teach, what experience alone can offer: wisdom.
After having lived for several months with a host family, with whom I lived for my basic cultural and language training, I shipped off to live in the tiny Far Easter village named Yagodnoye. The village is tiny, about a two hour drive down the Amur River from Komsomolsk-on-The-Amur. There, I lived as an English teacher, and as the only foreigner. I adapted, roughly, and learned how to get along. Every day an old PE teacher named Vladimir came over and taught me to speak red-neck Russian passably well through the winter I lived there. I had a handful of other buddies who’d come over and help me out as well. But none helped me so much as did Vladimir.
During one holiday, I took leave of the village, proud of what I had learned, though exhausted. I went back to Vladivostok to visit my host family and host mother. My host mother was thrilled that I had learned to speak Russian so well, and that, for the first time, we could hold a decent conversation. She asked me how I had adapted, and I told her that I had adapted well. I told her how I got along, and then told her casually that I had made many friends in the village. She looked at me, serious as death, and told me that I was naive. She told me that I had not made so many friends. She told me, Those are your acquaintances, and that I could not call a single person druk until they had proven utter trustworthiness. She went on to explain that, in Russia, the meaning of the word druk had formed a special meaning owing to historical conditions. In Stalinist Russia, for example, calling the wrong person druk could lead to the dreaded midnight knock, grab, and stuff into a train car, which lead to some remote labor village. Indeed, the village in which I taught was a labor village built by Stalin.
I never got to test any of my relationships long enough in Russia to learn if any of my buddies were worthy of the word druk. I suspect Vladimir I could call druk. But he, like several of my other buddies, loved his country, and was dirt poor. All of my colleagues who had experience with Russia warned me that I had at least one government shadow making sure that I was not spying. Indeed, the Peace Corps was accused by the Russian Government to be spying. The Cold War had created deep suspicion. And that suspicion leads me even to this day to ask if my best buddy in the village was my friend. Nor can I blame him if he was paid to shadow me.
Now of course I was no spy. I lack that competence and ability to keep my mouth shut. And I had a tendency to get too often too drunk with my buddies to keep sensitive information hid. I was just an English teacher out in the adventure of life trying to learn what this thing called life is.
Every year that passes, I take Emerson’s words more and more profoundly. “A friend is a person with whom I may be sincere. Before him, I may think aloud.”
When we have a person whom we may endeavor to call a friend, if we do not trust to speak our mind fully and honestly, we cannot yet call him a friend. And if we do speak honestly, and that person would not use what we would say for his advantage against us, we have that far in him a friend. If we find that we must calculate carefully what we would disclose, the assuredly the word friend does not apply.
With Vladimir, even if he were hired to be my shadow, there was nothing I would have kept from him that was in his interest. And I think he knew this, and so enjoyed our time together. I suspect, based on the wisdom of my gut, though I spent but one long Russian winter drinking tea and chatting with him, that he would have backed me, because he would have learned that I would do the same for him. So I do think of him as my friend. But the other guys—they’re buddies.
Most of the guys I know are buddies, and buddies are great. But a to be a friend—that’s another thing altogether.
We owe Death a profound debt, and shall not default.
Did we not die, we could not have evolved our most humane attributes. Thought, Art, Music, Compassion, Love: all these are strictly indebted to Death and his cold, churlish claws. Without Death, the very faculties which make the sweet fruits of civilization possible could not be.
We have made our way from simple, single-celled organisms to complex, self-aware and infinitely creative beings who even long for immortality. But it is not to be. No individual has the right to default on our great debt.
The birth of one individual child, of one beautiful child, is dependent on the death of trillions of generations which struggled and adapted to survive and procreate. Slowly, generation after generation, century after century, millennium after millennium, age after age, the simple cell–without a single break in the biological chain between it and the child–moved from the simple to the complex; it moved from simple reactive behavior to the reflections of Kant; it moved from the calls of lower primates to the poetry of Shakespeare; it moved from mating calls of beasts to the music of Beethoven; it moved from scraping the walls of caves to the art of Van Gogh; it moved from the first dream to the science of Einstein. Onward it goes, this simple, single-celled odyssey.
Seeking refuge from death, we have procreated and shed less clever and less brilliant forms until at last we learned how to live for something, not merely to live running from death. We have learned to love, the greatest of all evolutionary adaptations. And maybe now we can learn to respect death in a new way, and learn to be somehow thankful.
At the heart of love is the infinite vulnerability, which is mortal through and through. Without this vulnerability, without our mortality, our need for care would be no need at all. Nor would we have learned to care for those who would show us also love. Death is at the heart of beautiful love, just as the birth of a baby implies the pending death of loving parents. Without death, love is not possible.
And the hope that parents have for their beloved children! For children embody our deepest longings. They embody our struggle for immortality, to survive beyond death; or, more properly, they are born that we will be survived. And we hope that our children will rise to the greatest blessed and immortal height that evolutionary adaptation has made possible. What will the child give? Will that child be an artist? A philosopher? A healer? Kind?
Kindness also latently imlplies death’s cold shadow: eternal night. Kindness is the warm fire built this night, around which we invite our blessed friends to stay warm, to share in a conversation, to share a story, even to sing a song that our breath will rise and reach for an eternally mysterious canopy of stars.