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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.
When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.
A certain kind of thinker reads this poem, and grows angry. I’ve heard people protest that Whitman is anti-intellectual; that Whitman has no business, as a poet, to come waltzing into the lecture-room and tell scientists how the world is — both reactions smack of both insecurity and irony.
Whitman is in no sense anti-intellectual. The man loves words, language, and the contest of ideas. Nor does Whitman devalue science, as some scientifically-minded intellectuals are wont to say. Rather, Whitman’s romantic rebellion against scientism amounts to an opening of the mind, to a recognition that, though science has brought us unimaginably far, we ought not sacrifice our imagination for petrified sentences.
In the lecture-room, closed off from the open night sky, some men fancy that they have captured, or are well on their way to capturing, the right set of sentences to represent reality. They fancy that our language is sufficient to capture reality. Especially, they fancy that so-called scientific sentences are the best for capturing the universe, and cramming it into a lecture-room.
But this is all to make the universe small, stale and stiff. Romantics would have us love the lecture-room, but to love more the door; and did a lecturer lock that door, romantics would have us revolt, and bust the door down. The universe cannot fit into a classroom; tomorrow cannot fit into yesterday’s ideas. There remains ever the silent unknown, which would dazzle us.
When I teach this poem, and especially when I teach this poem to science students, I love to use a particular scientist’s experience and analysis to lend support to Whitman’s poem. But before I get to her, let me draw your attention to the structure of the poem.
The poem is contains eight lines, the first four of which begin with the word when. This poetic device—repeating several lines with a single word or phrase—is called anaphora. Significantly, the word when connotes time. In the lecture-room, all who are present belong to a time. This poem was written in 1900, just before the revolutions of physics and astronomy which were to come. The people in this lecture-room are learning nothing timeless and eternal, but are learning the charts and diagrams which belong to a historically conditioned paradigm. Yet they persist in the illusion that they have it.
Whitman knew better. Not only did these scientists not have it in any ultimate sense, but simply in a historical and contingent sense, they did not have a privileged monopoly on all we could call knowledge. Having knowledge of how to write poetry well, for example, can have just as profound an effect on the human condition as the knowledge of how to write mathematical proofs. Whitman’s poetry in particular has done much to help America imagine what social equality looks like. And Whitman knew that yesterday’s poems would not suffice for the new America we are still busy imagining.
In poetry, and no less in the sciences, we must leave the door on the classroom unlocked, so that we may walk outside, so that we may walk out of our historically conditioned and contingent knowledge, to look up at romantically timeless stars, and imagine, in silence, what might be.
The first eight lines of this poem connote the historical conditions of the lecture-room, which is a product of civilization. Notice also the building, and expanding tension of the lines. The first is short, and each of the next three is longer than the one before it. This expanding quality brings the poem to nearly burst out of itself at its climactic moment, almost as the poet would break out of his historical condition, and into a timeless realm. It is as if he breaks out of his paradigm. Yet here, there is nothing to say.
The last four lines, paradoxically, describe this silent, timeless moment. He enters into a place of solitude, out of the inter-subjective objectivity of his time. Here, there is nothing said, nothing yet to say, and nothing here can be contained in the classroom. No matter how large we make the classroom—even in our post-modern world with high speed internet access in the classroom—, we cannot fit the stars therein; nor can we fit what scientific paradigm we might dream up tomorrow in yesterdays ideas; for it will always be the case that what fits in a textbook is at once conservative and yesterday’s ideas. The dreamers must step out of the classroom in order to step beyond it.
But let’s now return to the particular scientist I wrote of above. I like to suggest to students that this poem is structured like our brain. This poem, like our brain, can be divided neatly into two parts.
The left hemisphere can be thought of as a serial processor, or as organizing our experience into linear structures and categories. The first four lines, with their whens, and with the charts and diagrams, adding and dividing: these are analogous to the left hemisphere. Further, the left hemisphere is the primary center for language. It is this language which makes up the intersubjective objectivity which makes the lecture-room possible.
In contrast, the right hemisphere can be thought of as a parallel processor, or as organizing our experience as objects or images in space. The last four lines are composed without implying any goals, and are filled with words of silence and peace. These lines are analogous to the right hemisphere. The language of these four lines transcend the intersubjective objectivity of the lecture room. Here, the language is not dry and abstract; but here, the night is living, and mystically moist.
The scientist I would like to present to you is a brain scientist. In the middle of her career, she had a stroke. The stroke was in the left hemisphere, and took her ability to use language away from her. What she discovered in this process was this silent, mystical moist night to which Whitman points us.
Again, I will emphasize that neither Whitman nor I imply that science is not one of the supreme achievements of humanity. Rather, we both hold that we must leave the lecture-room door open, and imagine that tomorrow will somehow be greater than yesterday’s ideas.
I hope you enjoy this video of Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor’s “Stroke of Insight.” The link is below.
“Design, ” by Robert Frost (1936)
I found a dimpled spider, fat and white,
On a white heal-all, holding up a moth
Like a white piece of rigid satin cloth–
Assorted characters of death and blight
Mixed ready to begin the morning right,
Like the ingredients of a witches’ broth–
A snow-drop spider, a flower like a froth,
And dead wings carried like a paper kite.
What had that flower to do with being white,
The wayside blue and innocent heal-all?
What brought the kindred spider to that height,
Then steered the white moth thither in the night?
What but design of darkness to appall?–
If design govern in a thing so small.
Robert Frost lived a life filled with hardship, grief, and loss. His Father died of tuberculosis when Frost was only eleven years old, leaving his family with only eight dollars. His mother died of cancer when he was 16. In 1920, Frost had to commit his sister to a mental hospital, where she died nine years later.
Mental illness ran in his family; both Frost and his mother suffered from depression; his daughter was committed to a hospital in 1947; and Frost’s wife also fought with depression.
Frost had six children with his wife. His son Elliot (1896-1904) died of cholera before he was ten; his son Carol (1902-1940) committed suicide at age thirty eight; his daughter Marjorie (1905-1934) died of of puerperal fever after giving birth at age twenty nine; his daughter Elinor (1907) died three days after her birth. Only two of his children outlived him: Lesley (1899-1983) and Irma (1903-1967). And his wife developed breast cancer in 1937, and died of heart failure in 1938.
By the time Frost first published “Design” in 1936, he had already lost three children and his wife, to say little of the other struggles of his life: the early loss of his parents, and the mental illness and depression that filled his world. His impression of this “Design” of nature is dark and deep, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
Yet through his poetry he manages to find something lovely in nature: and this is what people emphasize when reading Frost’s poetry. We are all familiar with his famous lines in his poem “The Road Not Taken,” where he chooses to take the road less travelled by, which has made all the difference. This poem is often taken as a poem of optimism, of the beauty of following one’s own path, validating non-conformity.
There is nothing wrong with reading “The Road Not Taken” in this way, especially when teaching the poem to youth, who are looking to gain the courage to live meaningful lives, and who can be affected to the power of sunrise as many of us nearer sunset have long since forgotten.
There is much to be said for the argument that the author is dead, and that how the poem affects the reader is what counts. Sometimes this is the best way to read, since we weave our own lives as we would interpret them—with or without poetry.
Yet we can gain much by taking account of the facts of Frost’s life and time when we seek to understand what this dead poet would communicate to us.
When we read Frost carefully, we detect cold undercurrents in his river, upon which the Sun sparkles. And if we ignore his darker depth, we might miss his wisdom entirely. He tells us, at the end of his great poem “Stopping by Woods on A Snowy Evening,” that life is “Lovely, dark and deep.” Frost looks into the darkness, and yet shows us how to find it lovely.
Teachers tend not to teach Frost’s poem “Design.” They fear the controversy which the poem, carefully read, would bring to surface out of the cold depth. Teachers, with good reason, want to bring to students poems that will inspire them, show them the goodness of life, and send them out of the classroom beaming with rays of sunlight. And they know that to bring up evolution will bring about arguments so packed with emotion and irrationality that a class may devolve into a profound and designless chaos.
But to get to the power of Frost, we must have the courage to look into the deep, and see how it would testify for itself. What would life have to say for itself? And beautiful nature, lovely, dark and deep?
Frost lived from 1874-1963. He lived in a post-Darwinian world. Unlike William Blake, who published his poem “The Tyger” in 1794, Frost does not take the concept for a designer—or God—as a given. Whereas when Blake looks at nature, in the form of the Tyger, Blake gives us no sense of irony when he reflects on the designer. This is not the case with Frost, who is a poet in the modern age.
Modern poetry and literature is full of irony, which marks a profound shift between ages. Often, modern writers will present what was once a common assumption, and which is yet a commonly held though antiquated assumption, and argue that point so to call out its absurdity and make the case for the opposite.
In Frost’s case, he argues, full of sound and irony, for design—a tale told by . . . who would dare frame nature’s fearful symmetry?
We have to remember that Frost writes this poem in the years just following the infamous Scopes Monkey Trial, which was decided in 1925, a case which pitted modernists and fundamentalists against one another. By 1927, there were thirteen American states which held anti-evolution laws, preventing that our children would be taught the concept, and so be held in the darkness, lovely, but not deep, their way lit with a candle, not an electric light. (Out, out brief candle!)
But Frost is a poet, a great poet, and as such presents an image of the time, and of the progress of the human mind. Just as Shakespeare recognized the veracity of the Copernican Hypothesis in Hamlet, which is a major topic in itself little discussed, Frost recognizes the veracity of the Darwinian theory and the literal mountains filled with evidence for the case.
It is no accident that the great poets of our time are not writing new versions of the Bible, as they did in King James’ time. The King James Bible is a beautiful work of literature, whose lines are crafted by the greatest poets of an age. But in our modern age, the best one can get in a modern translation of the Bible is a grammatically correct version. Even idiots can tell a tale crafted in grammatically correct sentences. Poetry has long since died in religion and has been reborn in the wilderness, crawling with spiders, and snakes.
I have yet to hear a fundamentalist with a shrewd sense of irony. And I take irony to be one gauge of intelligence—which is lacking in the intelligent design movement. The ironic man can hold two concepts in mind simultaneously, and indicate the correct concept by espousing its contradiction.
Frost is full of irony, and the very title of his poem “Design” is ironic. In the poem, Frost tells us of a simple, small observation he makes of nature on a walk one morning. He shows us the macrocosm by focusing on the microcosm. He spots a “dimpled spider.” This spider, with its smiling dimples, has just killed a moth, which has unwittingly flown into the spider’s designed web—to start the morning right.
If we are to take the argument from design seriously, it follows that all of the horror we find in nature is either right, or our lives are but tales told by an idiot. Yet this dichotomy excludes a possibility, which is that the designer is cruel, and that therefore rightness has no real meaning.
Fundamentalists will not concede that God is cruel, for their god is good. Nor will they concede that God is an idiot, for their god is all-knowing. Then if god is not cruel, and is not an idiot, he must be impotent; for what kind of god, who is good and all-knowing, would allow for such suffering and cruelty, except he be impotent?
This forces them into the contradiction. God cannot be good if he is all-knowing, all-powerful, and he allows such cruelty and suffering. The spider cannot have his moth and eat it too, if God is as theists claim.
The white and innocent spider’s dimples are insidiously ironic; it smiles, itself so small, at the grand systems of theology that he can innocently make tumble and fall–without even thinking. The spider is not intelligent; design is not intelligent. Indeed, it is no design at all, for design would require intelligence.
The poem makes use not only of irony, but of pun, one of which is the word “morning,” which suggests “mourning.” Frost is witnessing a funeral in the morning, as he has too many times in his own life. His ironic tone mocks the “rightness” of this mourning in nature’s darkness. Right and wrong make no sense in nature, but are human concepts born of human designs. The universe is indifferent, if beautiful.
The moth appears to Frost like a rigid piece of satin cloth. The moth is stiff, like a corpse, and coffins are lined with satin. There is no justice in the moth’s death, no design, just evolved systems.
If there is to be any justice in the universe, we must create it. And we cannot create a sound system of justice if we do not account for things as we find them. Frost finds an innocent and dimpled spider eating an innocent moth, and finds therein neither design nor justice.
But we can make a better world, make a just world: we can harness the theory of evolution and minimize disease and suffering. Frost suffered the death of his children who died of natural disease. Nothing in their deaths would be unjust, except there be a god, or there be men who stultify the progress of science and medicine.
If there is a god, then this creation is a horrible injustice, and God is a cruel and sadistic murderer. This creation contains all the elements for a witches’ broth, and indicates a tale told by an idiot. Indeed idiots tell one hell of a tale.
If there is not a god, then nature is just nature. In either case, it is unjust that men would prevent the ideas which promise cures to disease from going forth. Insofar as they deny the concepts which would set us free of illusion and give us real cures, for which they are provided sound evidence, they are unjust and criminal, except they were found of unsound mind.