Sunday, June 28, 2009

Progress By Stove Lid: A Walk Back With George Santayana

El hombre es el único animal que tropieza dos veces en la misma piedra... 

Walking backwards, if nothing else, yields clear prospect of what is left behind.

The unimaginative may instantly remark the possibility of falling over a cliff.

This is plausible. That is, among other things, why it is so unimaginative.

Indeed, it is so plausible few have seen it for what it is, to wit: a systematic psychology of cause and effect.

The unstated assumption seems to be that, if one looks ahead carefully enough, one may be able to avert the unpleasantness of falling over a cliff.

This assumes that one: (1) sees the cliff; (2) sees the cliff for what it is; and (3) stops before one falls over it.

No one in right mind would deny that all three events in sequence were not possible, even likely.

On the other hand, there seems nothing that makes them necessary, nor even necessary in that order.

In the universe of the unstated assumption walking off a cliff may be considered bad form.

At some point one ordinarily hits bottom and, if thereupon defunct, becomes unable to do much else, including walking off another cliff, whether walking forwards or backwards.

The cause of falling over a cliff when one is looking dead ahead is usually given by those who survive as, "One was not paying attention.

It is not clear how the dead ones explain it.

One would think that falling off one cliff and surviving would be sufficiently impressive to make falling off the next cliff more unlikely.

That last is the thrust of the cat sitting on a hot stove lid, which, according to Mark Twain--quoting from Pudd’nhead Wilson’s New Calendar—“will never sit down on a hot stove lid again”, adding, “but also she will never sit down on a cold one" either.

The gist, according to Twain, is to be careful to get out of experience no more than the wisdom that is in it.

Looking deeper establishes that cats may be far smarter than many people.

For one thing, the cat may have no way of telling whether a stove lid is hot or cold really--without jumping up and sitting on it.

Having experienced the cold, it can be forgiven for having jumped up on the hot for a sit.

The unstated assumption here is that the future will be like the past.

Having experienced the hot, on the other hand, foregoing all stove lids may make eminent sense for a cat, for stove lids, however amiable as places to sit when cold, become risky and unpleasant when hot.

This might be nicely christened: the strong application of memory to the future.

Without memory the cat just keeps jumping on stove lids, hot and cold, without learning anything from the experience.

Without memory, and some category by which to apply it to what one is about to do, would it make the slightest difference whether one walks through the world looking ahead or behind?

Or is it necessary to look behind successfully to make out what one sees looking ahead?

The word “successfully”, it might be noted, is in the last sentence grammatically amphibolous. To wit: it may apply backwards, forwards, or—after William Empson’s analysis of the types of ambiguity in much poetry--both backwards and forwards, as when a poet constructs a sentence that can be heard or read in many different ways, all of which pertain.

In speech, as opposed to writing, the amphiboly may easily be averted by rhythm or tone.

It is in speech too, it almost goes without saying, that it is backwards or forwards (sequential), while on the page, actually, it stands left and right (spatial).

It was actually the progessiveness of the past that seems to have been what George Santayana was after in his much too often repeated—and so widely misunderstood—dictum about the past:

Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
Santayana’s savages as perpetual infants are the savages of his day and his culture, which considered itself very unsavage indeed. They are safely disregarded for the moment.

The passage is from Reason And Common Sense, and the context is repetition:

These natural formations, tending to generate and realize each its ideal, are, as it were, eddies in the universal flux, produced no less mechanically, doubtless, than the onward current, yet seeming to arrest or to reverse it. Inheritance arrests flux by repeating a series of phases with a recognizable rhythm; memory reverses it by modifying this rhythm itself by the integration of earlier phases into those that supervene.

In short, the cat without a memory keeps jumping on the hot stove lid because that is its nature, while remembering being burned the last time prevents the next time, short-circuiting repetition.

But that too is repetition, for it is the repetition of memory in context that prevents the repetition of act.

Santayana is almost musical in reference. Again after Empson, note closely how easy and pleasing it would be to replace “phase” with “phrase” with a musical sense in the preceding passage, retaining the same sense.

Santayana was an occasional poet, so it is no surprise if this musical substitution were elicited deliberately.

The idea that repetition seems to arrest or reverse flux is subtly stated, as befits a philosophical mind that has thought deeply on the matter.

Seeming is key: were each instance of the repetition the same, flux would not be flux at all, in the sense of unqualified randomness at least.

Then again, does anyone truly know what unqualifiedly random might mean?

Santayana clarifies, so:

Inheritance and memory make human stability. The stability is relative, being still a mode of flux, and consists fundamentally in repetition. Repetition marks some progress on mere continuity, since it preserves form and disregards time and matter. Inheritance is repetition on a larger scale, not excluding spontaneous variations; while habit and memory are a sort of heredity within the individual, since here an old perception reappears, by way of atavism, in the midst of a forward march. Life is thus enriched and reaction adapted to a wider field, much as a note is enriched by its overtones, and by the tensions, inherited from the preceding notes, which give it a new setting.

So the cat that has learned not to sit on hot stove lids produces other cats that sit on hot stove lids by nature and and by memory swear themselves same abstinence.

This itself becomes a rhythm.

Were cats given to socializing by writ, there might even be a sacred text on the subject, say, “Thou shalt not sit on stove lids, for thou shalt be burned.

The temptation to make an historical analogy is nearly irresistible: are there human cultures analogous respectively both to cats without memory and cats with?

The more serious question is—how many times may a human culture or society, or the whole species, walk over a cliff?

Again purely as a matter of style, one notes that this last passage of Santayana, which precedes the one on remembering the past in Santayana’s text, prepares the ground for the occurrence of “phase” as “phrase” with marching bands, notes, and overtones.

Was Santayana a fan of John Philip Sousa and his marches? Interestingly, the name Sousa is Portuguese but nowadays sounds as American as apple pie.

Santayana, on the other hand, though it is the name of the slightly lesser of the two great American philosophers, who both wrote in English, a little strangely still sounds Spanish.

This may be symptom of how much the United States has traditionally valued great bandleaders and marching bands over philosophers.

Santayana has been dead since 1952.

One knows of no recordings of him reading his work.

There is extant a silent film of Santayana at the Clinica della Piccola Compagna di Maria in Rome, a hospital run by the Blue Nuns, where the philosopher and poet spent his last years.

In the film he is visited by an unidentified American serviceman after the liberation of Italy from the Germans.

One of the Americans known to have visited George Santayana many times in the same hospital at Rome was Gore Vidal.

This resounds to the credit of both Vidal and Santayana.

Vidal records the visits in his autobiographical writings.

How interested Vidal was in Santayana’s philosophy is not easily decided. But he was surely drawn by Santayana’s only novel, The Last Puritan, subtitled, A Memoir in the Form of a Novel.

The novel was published in 1935. It was made a selection of the Book of the Month Club in 1936, and that year was the second largest selling work of fiction in the United States, after Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind.

One cannot recall reading the novel. One has, on the other hand, read Santayana's philosophical writings closely, many of them over and over, and a few of his poems.

A common judgment of Santayana’s literary qualities is that he stands, with Emerson, at the head of the best prose writers of the so-called American Classical period.

It is easy enough to concur.

It is doubtful that anything but a small part of the reading public knew Santayana either as a philosopher or as the second greatest philosopher of the Americans after Charles Sanders Peirce. Indeed, that judgment may seem doubtful to many still today. Several who understand the subtly and closely honed logic of Santayana’s thought have pointed out that it is perhaps exactly his superb prose style that may interfere with many appreciating his logical and philosophical acumen.

That is a great pity and also speaks volumes about American philosophical and literary life, such as it is.

Santayana worked with words, it is true, not numbers. For all that his consistent and punctilious use of words rivals that of any master of the woodpiles of, say, symbolic logic.

One’s opinion on this matter is more specifically that Santayana’s Scepticism And Animal Faith is not only the single most important systematic treatise of American thinking (Peirce wrote in short and scattered notices mainly, many not published until after his death), but also one of the most original and decisive volumes in the history of modern philosophy, from at least, say, Descartes.

On the other hand, one has read most of Gore Vidal, including essays and novels, and some of the novels more than once after hiatus of years.

One supposes that, with a bit of Latin, one might take the preceding hiatus as plural.

is surely his most impressive novel, and that from someone who struggled with Libanius' densely allusioned, often cryptic letters and speeches in Greek.

After Julian, it would have to be Burr.

Of his lesser known works, one of the more interesting is a short novel, published in 1954, titled Messiah.

This is the tale of a mortician's assistant who has the enlightenment that death--taken as death of the body--has no dread.

He shares the enlightenment and thereby becomes a prophet, marketed by mass media and with one character who has a touch of Paul.

The tone is very light and the logic of it all plays havoc with matter and spirit, among other things.

Having now recalled it, one almost wishes to find time to read Santayana's novel to see how it fits with Vidal's, if at all.

According to Vidal, the last words Santayana said to him were, “I think you will have a happy life. Because you lack superstition.

One is surely to understand a pause after “life”.

To have a singular prophecy about one’s future from George Santayana is in itself no little distinction.

To have Santayana's prophecy hinge on the connection between happiness and superstition, or its lack, is even more distinctive.

As for Mark Twain's cat, in order for it to sit on cold stoves and avoid hot, and do it fairly regularly, would not the cat have to remember not only when it was burned but also when it was not burned, and have to connect it to a clear idea of a stove lid which is now this, now that?

This sounds almost Platonic.

An intriguing dimension is that unconscious and natural, and doing whatever a cat does thus, how would the cat bother to remember when it was not burned, let alone that it was not burned sitting on the stove lid?

At one end that almost sounds Nietzschean, at the other Epicurean.

Both are put off to another day, another stove lid.

By E. A. Costa (June 2009)

[copyright eac]

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Note On R. D. Laing's Knots: A Song Of Trees, A Labyrinth, And The Sea

The voice seems to begin innocently enough:

The patterns delineated here have not yet been classified by a Linnaeus of human bondage.

The voice is that of R. D. Laing. It has already told two things. First, that it is not the voice of Linnaeus. Second, that no Linnaeus has yet classified the types of human bondage of which the voice of R. D. Laing will delineate some patterns.

The "not yet" of the page is dated 1969. This is patently play on the “Knots” of the title, immediately deepened by “delineated” and “Linnaeus”.

In fact, the surname of Carolus Linnaeus, author of the System Naturae, descended from the Latin name his father assumed after a large Linden tree on the family’s land, Linnagård.

The Swedish linn or lind is in German the Linde of Walther von der Vogelweide:

Under der linden
an der heide,
dâ unser zweier bette was,
dâ mugt ir vinden
schône beide
gebrochen bluomen unde gras.
vor dem wald in einem tal,
schône sanc diu nahtegal.

Under the linden
On the heath
Where we two bedded—
There you still may see
pretty broken blooms and grass.
In a hollow on forest’s edge
Sang the pretty nightingale:

Did R. D. Laing know von der Vogelweide’s Linden?

What matters is that Linnaeus himself was by the late Nineteenth Century known as much for his style as for his scientific classification.

So August Strindberg--Swede, playwright, and apophenic—judges: Linné var egentligen en poet, som råkade bli naturforskare—“Linnaeus was in reality a poet who decided to become a naturalist.”

Through Linnaeus and the Linden—let there be no doubt about it--Laing metamorphosizes into poet, expanding the ambiguities of “knot” from the “knots” of binding and bondage, through the “not” of what does not yet exist, and most subtly, to the knots of trees, where branches used to grow, and which evidence themselves visually as gnarled patterns in planed wood.

Once poet, Laing’s polysemy expands naturally to the nautical, wherein knots as a measure of speed in fluid media ultimately derives from the knotted rope to which was tied what was called in English the “chip log’, a wood panel weighted at one end to float upright. As the chip log stayed relatively still and resisted the water, the sailor who held the rope counted the knots played out on the line, tied 47’ 3” apart, while another hand timed the playing out with a sandglass measuring a period of about thirty seconds.

Is that enough for a poet and his beginning?

The allusion to Somerset Maugham’s Human Bondage, and its protagonist, Philip, clubfooted like the poet Byron, orphaned young and raised among cold surrogates, retreating into reading “as a refuge from all the distress of life”, later schooled in Heidelberg--is pedestrian and almost afterthought.

Starting out the poet offers patterns and no types or system.

“Delineated” the patterns are sketched out as lines and are visual like knots in wood, as well as thrown out as chip logs to measure speed by knots in rope playing out astern.

If Linnaeus is poet become scientist, Laing is scientist become poet. He exists on the page where he binds himself to his own past and what he has seen, familiar as a matter both of recognition and the habits of his own family. His purpose, however, is to remember and name, and the bind becomes double, for that is half the task of the Linnaeus who does not yet exist:

They are all, perhaps, strangely, familiar.
In these pages I have confined myself to laying out
only some of those I actually have seen. Words that
come to mind to name them are: knots, tangles,
fankles, impasses, disjunctions, whirligogs, binds.
I could have remained closer to the ‘raw’
data in which these patterns appear. I could
have distilled them further towards an abstract
logico-mathematical calculus.

The promise of an almost calculus, empirically derived, as something the poet could do, but would not, returns again to almost Linnaeus and his family’s Linden. “I hope that they are not so schematized”, he goes on:

that one may not refer back to the
very specific experiences from which they derive;
yet that they are sufficiently independent of ‘content’, for
one to divine the final formal elegance in these
webs of maya.

From what has gone before, the specific experiences must be what Laing has seen. If there is any reference back, how can the reference be to anything but Laing’s own memory and experience?

On the other hand, to be empty of content is to be stripped of particulars and becomes formal elegance.

What eventually comes to mind is the construction of typologies, that is, of types that are generalized from specifics and applied to a much larger scheme.

Both as a poem and as a study in psychology, Knots treats the games Laing has seen people play, including his own family, with one another and in language. No small number of the games involve what Gregory Bateson called the doublebind, a form of damned if you do and damned if you do not, but unfolding from greater power over lesser and designed both to obtain obedience and obedience seen as an act of free will:

It is our duty to bring up our children to love,
honour and obey us.
If they don’t they must be punished,
otherwise we would not be doing our duty.

As a typology of the thinking that manifests itself in the tyranny of authoritarian parents over their children the passage is clearly analytic and Linnaean:

If they grow up to love, honour and obey us
either we have brought them up properly
or we have not:
if we have
there must be something the matter with them;
if we have not
there is something the matter with us.

So too with Jack and Jill, who went up the hill but soon fell out in the tangles of their feelings expressed in words:

it hurts Jack
to think
that Jill thinks he is hurting her
by (him) being hurt
to think
that she thinks he is hurting her
by making her feel guilty
at hurting him
by (her) thinking
that he is hurting her
by (his) being hurt
to think that she thinks he is hurting her
by the fact that

da capo sine fine

The last is a logical and psychological loop, phrased neatly as an infinite refrain by way of the play on the musical notation da capo al fine--roughly, "Return to the beginning and conclude where you find the word fine."

In this case the band plays on sine fine--without end, and thus without the word fine anywhere to be found on its own.

What more apt as poem, typology, and almost calculus ad infinitum:

Jack and Jill went up the hill
To fetch a pail of water.
Jack fell down and broke his crown,
And Jill came tumbling after.

da capo sine fine

If this sounds like a broken record, that is exactly what it is, a record of broken people and their speech.

Is there any way out?

Laing ends his work curiously enough, with a direct allusion to the Zen topos of Yoka Daishi (Yongjia):

Foolish, with wrong interpretations,
they miss the pointing finger of the empty hand.

Mistaking the finger for the moon
their practice is confused
and they fabricate complexity with senses and objects.

[tr. Yasuda Joshu & Anzan Hoshin]

which becomes in Laing's poem first the logical complexity of the pointing finger:

Put the expression
a finger points to the moon in brackets
(a finger points to the moon)
The statement:
‘A finger points to the moon is in brackets’
is an attempt to say that all that is in the bracket
(.............................................................................. )
is, as to that which is not in the bracket,
what a finger is to the moon

and then the denouement of yes or no and simple presence:

What an interesting finger
let me suck it

It’s not an interesting finger
take it away

The statement is pointless

The finger is speechless

Whether Laing knew Walther von der Vogelweide or not, his final advice to Jack and Jill, it would seem, is very much that of the Minnesinger, to wit: to stop talking and bed down under the linden or not, as one chooses.

R. D. Laing died of a heart attack playing tennis in 1989.

Which is more curious--psychiatrist ending as poet, or poet issuing as remedy the psychiatric and logical prescription of Far Eastern monk?

In fact, in many ways R. D. Laing and Jacques Lacan paralleled one another, though is much different modes. Lacan, having spent the last years of his life modeling the psyche he investigated according to Knot Theory and Topology, closed all his clinics before his death and declared the clinic to be the world.

R. D. Laing, on the other hand, marginally, if very rightly, identified with the anti-psychiatry movement, declared the psychiatrist no more or no less patient than those he treated and investigated knots with the voice of a poet.

Does it amount to the same resting place approached from two different directions?

Ultimately, it is clear, the purpose of Laing's poem was not to tie knots, but to unravel them by description according to type.

There is another strange and striking dimension to Laing in Luis Borges' work, of all places, specifically in his short story, "The Garden Of Forking Paths", wherein the Englishman Stephen Albert unlocks the legended labyrinth of Ts'ui Pen:

"An ivory labyrinth!" I exclaimed. "A minimum labyrinth."

"A labyrinth of symbols," he corrected, "An invisible labyrinth of time. To me, a barbarous Englishman, has been entrusted the revelation of this diaphanous mystery. After more than a hundred years, the details are irretrievable, but it is not hard to conjecture what happened. Ts'ui Pen must have said once, 'I am withdrawing to write a book'. And at another time: 'I am withdrawing to construct a labyrinth.' Every one imagined two works; to no one did it occur that the book and the maze were the same thing....Two circumstances gave me the correct solution of the problem. One: the curious legend that Ts'ui Pen had planned to construct a labyrinth that would be strictly infinite. The other: a fragment of a letter that I discovered."

[tr. D. A. Yates]

Borges' story was translated into English in 1958. Does not R. D. Laing's poem seem the Englishman's version of an infinite labyrinth, constructed as a work of poetry and unraveled with the metalogical unknotting of Zen?

The letter Borges' character discovers is but a line, though one is to imagine it written in a fine and caligraphic Chinese hand:

"I leave to various futures (not all) my garden of the forking paths."

"[T]hey are sufficiently independent of ‘content’", Laing says about his typologies, "for one to divine the final formal elegance in these
webs of maya.

For one to divine? Is that the reader or the writer or both? Or has not one been pleasantly tricked by this bridge builder into constucting as one reads not just a quasi-Linnaeus and quasi-calculus, but in its knots, an enlightening infinite labyrinth unraveled in the process of the poem itself?

Jack and Jill went up the hill. And did what came naturally. Da capo sine fine.

by E. A. Costa (June 2008-9)

[copyright eac 2008]

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Res Novae (en el mundo, en la lluvia...)

Res Novae (en el mundo, en la lluvia..)

In the world
in the rain
a train quiet and vain

In the forest
in the treetops
thickly limbed
a jaguar…

In the city
in towns and villages
spider weaving

E. A. Costa (June 2009)

[copyright eac]

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

From Ant Men To Ekpyrosis: Culture And Tradition In The Sixth Dimension

By E. A. Costa (June '09)

At the root of culture is a metaphor likening society to a tended field in which crops are tilled and animals bred.

Ants are highly organized socially and some species not only cultivate fungi but breed and milk aphids.

How this originated is not known.

One presumes ants did not begin with such advanced techniques. The social instinct, on the other hand, may be genetic.

In any instance there seems to be change over long eons even when the only controlling elements, so far as one can see, are genetic and instinctual.

Do ants have culture in the human sense?

Young children grow into less young children intertwined with the world around them, whatever that world happens to be. It is not separate from them. It is a part of their mental and spiritual growth and of their molecular structure.

To make mention of Massachusetts, for example, will be most commonly taken as a mention of Massachusetts now, whenever now happens to be. Massachusetts then, on the other hand, may mean any number of things not at all obvious without reference to time, space, and context.

What is the last time one looked a bedroom suburb of Boston was, at one time, the largest political unit in the world still run by town meeting.

Railroad tracks ran through the small downtown.

A campaigning Adlai Stevenson, stranger from faraway Illinois, came through and spoke to a large crowd from the back of a train.

The automobile was already dominant but there were still a few horse-drawn vehicles. The rag man, for example, went from door to door in a horse-drawn cart with pneumatic tires buying rags that he sold to be made into fine paper. The knife-sharpener also went door to door sharpening knives. He had just switched from a horse-drawn wagon to a small white panel truck, as one recalls.

That is the then, and it is not as long ago as it sounds.

Space is wood-frame houses clustered close to the town center, with much surrounding woods and many ponds. In the Midwest they would call the woods stands of timber.

There were also small farms with stone walls between the small rocky fields.

Five miles through woods from the town center there was the colonial cemetery of a miniscule New England village. The first dated tombstone was slate. The marker read “John Death.”

The cemetery was surrounded by a wrought iron gate. It was in the middle of the timber off a narrow paved road. There was not a house in sight. In the forest in Fall to a child given to long secret walks alone the foliage and air were quiet and electric at the same time.

That is the where, and it is not as far away as it sounds.

The context is a volume the title of which one cannot remember in the hall bookcase. It was well printed and sturdily bound and was an anthology of some sort. In it cheek by jowl stood a short excerpt from Homer’s Iliad and one from Thoreau’s Walden titled—by the anthologist, as one realizes now—“The Ant War.”

Given that one is not an ant, nor a participant in the language and literature of ants, in order to attribute ants culture—as opposed to agriculture, which they have apparently given themselves—one can only apply the metaphor of the cultivated field externally.

Who can say whether ants themselves employ the metaphor, that is, that what they do together and how they change over time is analogous to tending fields or breeding other insects?

If, on the other hand, human society too is more or less genetics and instinct, the thrust of the metaphor is illusory and the point becomes moot.

It is also moot whether ants engage in war according to any human definition of the term, whatever the human definition might be. That they do have battles has been recorded by a long line of human observers, including Henry David Thoreau:

I was witness to events of a less peaceful character. One day when I went out to my wood-pile, or rather my pile of stumps, I observed two large ants, the one red, the other much larger, nearly half an inch long, and black, fiercely contending with one another. Having once got hold they never let go, but struggled and wrestled and rolled on the chips incessantly. Looking farther, I was surprised to find that the chips were covered with such combatants, that it was not a duellum, but a bellum.

It is no surprise that a young child, just beginning extensive reading, would not immediately understand the cryptotype of the Indian wars in the ants’ battle of colors or, before any Latin, follow the fine point, including hidden etymological learning, between duel—duellum—and war—bellum.

The contending attracted immediate attention, on the other hand, and the sudden surprise of first being treated to a duel, man to man, and in the next sentence having it evinced as but a trivial part of a much vaster conflict.

Too, this was long before the child had seen an ant war of his very own, which the child stumbled upon on the concrete slab at the bottom of the backstairs porch many years afterward.

Even here questions occur in retrospect.

Concede that ants do battle, do they really duel, one on one? In other words, are they individual enough to be spoken of as fighting one to one except by accident and to an external observer like Thoreau, and as a metaphor of what he first saw, and which a wider glance immediately turned into war?

The excerpt from Homer was only cursorily read by the child. Was it the parting scene of Hector and Andromache, who, still unfound by her husband, in Pope’s translation:

…stood on Ilion's towery height,
Beheld the war, and sicken'd at the sight;

One cannot clearly remember much from that first reading beyond the image of man and woman on Trojan walls talking, speaking in strange English and naming unfamiliar names.

To the child Thoreau and his ants were much more striking, both to eyes and memory.

For years afterward he gobbled up anything he could find on ants, fiction and non-fiction, including Eric North’s The Ant Men, a pulp novel with a still striking cover etched in memory.

North’s ants, dated to the mid-1950’s, were six feet tall, walked upright, had language, cities, organized armies, and “devised weapons that could destroy all mankind.

Curiously enough, they also had only four legs, or, more precisely, two legs and two arms.

It never occurred to the child that they were anything but giant ants, or that in the terror they inspired they reflected the new atomic age and near universal fear of nuclear holocaust.

In non-fiction the biggest surprise, even for pre-pubescent, was that most ants were not male, as any child would expect well-armored warriors to be, but neuter females, any one of which might, if the necessity arose, turn into breeding queen.

In fact, it turned out, both males and queens were winged as well as six-legged. But the only flight was pure mating ritual, in which an unfertilized winged queen was pursued by hordes of winged males, to be inseminated by one, come crashing down, and then breed the rest of her egg-laying life.

And the males—what was the fate of both the successful male and the horde of failures? To return to the anthill for a warm winter and another try? On the contrary, all soon died—of exhaustion?—after the mating flight.

The child stumbled into one mating flight of ants on a summer’s day.

He noticed a strange winged insect he had never seen before bumbling on the concrete of the driveway by the garage. He looked more closely and saw that it was in all respects very much like a black ant, except it had wings.

Two and two make four—was not this an exhausted male after a mating flight? He scanned the air closely and discovered the flight was still in progress, a horde of males after the queen in a long arc in front of the garage.

Had he not seen the defunct male on the pavement it is very unlikely he would have seen the flight, or, seeing it, have been able to identify it for what it was.

Later he got a much closer look at an ant queen and the inside of the nest.

The child’s own ant war was a few years later.

He was sitting on the bottom step of the back porch when he looked down and saw a long battle line, perhaps three feet long, of red and black ants on the pavement. The line was literally seething with combat.

Curiously enough, knowing more of the Iliad then, the sight struck him as much more like a passage of Homer than of Thoreau’s little essay.

The red ants were rushing in long lines from under the stairs, seemingly to defend themselves from the onrush of masses of black ants coming out of the grass from left and right. Without Thoreau’s looking glass he could make out little of the hand-to-hand gore and mutilation as both armies rushed into the pile that defined the line.

The most riveting aspect was the way the line grew longer over time, wriggling like a serpent, now the red ants pushing the black back, then the black ants on the flanks turning the line into a crescent, bodies strewn over the ground.

This was not the duello of Hector and Achilles but the mass rush of common soldiers at one another, mimicking battle as a matter of physics, with force and momentum in the bodies of the massed warriors.

What had set them off? As he found out much later, no longer a child, probably the pressure of overpopulation leading to competition for food in disputed territory.

The war lasted longer than a young boy’s attention could bear.

He cannot remember how it ended. Did he just pick up and leave or viciously scatter the viciously fighting and dying masses with his foot?

Was this not how the Olympians from far above viewed the massed battles before Troy?

For days he talked of seeing an ant war, just as in Homer or Thoreau, with no one that he can recall displaying more than passing interest.

Until recently that human beings walk upright and talk would have been considered strictly genetic and instinctive by many.

There are now known many exceptions to walking upright, including feral children who walk on all fours or, because raised by dogs, bark instead of talk.

This suggests the degree to which individual behavior is learned by imitation.

Imitation is a handing over from one to another. If one walks upright only because one is imitating others who walk thus, then even something as basic as bipedal motion is cultural in a certain sense.

A dispassionate look at human physiology, on the other hand, surely establishes there is a genetic disposition toward walking upright on two legs. If nothing else, the physiology of the foot would tell one as much. It looks much more carefully evolved to bear weight than to do needlework or hold infants at the breast while standing or walking.

Even there, however, there are known cases of human beings, born armless, who have learned to do an enormous number of highly skilled activities with their feet, including putting food or foot in mouth, and even typing.

At the other end, there are known cases of dogs, bears, and chimpanzees trained to walk on their hind legs as their main form of locomotion. As far as is known, however, there is no such case with ants, who are, on the contrary, sometimes seen to rear up on four legs.

Culture is synchronic, tradition diachronic. There is nothing new in saying this. Combining the two in another easy cliché, one might say that culture is the whole way of collective behavior of some society or tribe or hive or ant hill over an extended present while tradition is the mode in which such culture is handed down over time.

In fact, “handing over” or “handing down” is the root meaning of the word in Latin, tradere, from which the English “tradition” is derived. Interestingly enough, tradere itself seems to be a combination of the roots trans—“across”—and dare, “to give”.

The word tradition, along with most human language, is also handed down. In that sense, the word “tradition” also counts as a tradition. It is thus, as the logicians have it, autological—that is, its meaning and reference include itself both as word and as sense and meaning.

Tradition is giving across time. The elemental signification says to the future, “Look back, we have something to tell you.”

At this point, one might be tempted to distinguish between giving across time and giving across space, which space is by definition seemingly contemporaneous.

Is war and devising weapons that could destroy all mankind any less instinctual among men than battling over food among different tribes and clans of ants, real and fictional?

To return to the ants, the behavior they might be considered to learn from one another, by imitation, is a giving across space, from one or more ants to one or more other ants, while what is given across time, from generation to generation, is tradition, even if it is strictly genetic and instinctual.

How is handed down what is destructive to those upon whom the gift is bestowed?

Given enough time, the question takes care of itself.

A truly destructive tradition eventually destroys its inheritors, thus also destroys itself as a word and a tradition, as well as even the possibility of any further handing down.

This does not mean that any and all tradition is either good or necessary. All it means is that tradition, insofar as it still exists and is handed down, whether genetically and instinctually by ants—or culturally and symbolically by men—has not yet committed suicide.

If and when it does, who will be left to know?

The child grown into youth and still occasionally visiting cemeteries made another discovery.

Someone suggested to him, hearing of the "John Death" he discovered in the village cemetery, that there may not have been anyone at all under the stone, but that it was simply the first, morbidly mordant tombstone erected--idiosyncratically or conventionally--by New England colonials to christen, so to say, a brand new burial ground.

[copyright EAC]