Participation

Arturo Vasquez on poetry:

It occurred to me while thinking about this how we naturally assume that prose is the “first” language and that “poetry” is a development from it. But why should this be so? Surely animals are born, copulate and die quite efficiently (sometimes more efficiently) than the “speaking” animal. Were the first words spoken by humans “Sell consols and buy blue chip”? Don’t you think it would have been more like:

Sing, O goddess, the anger of Achilles son of Peleus,
that brought countless ills upon the Achaeans.

This sums up what we’ve lost in the modern age. What is called “poetry” today is not some fanciful embellishment that we use to “pretty up” our prose. It’s our original, most authentic, and purest way of expressing. In modern times, we give priority to objectivity, and thus we value analytical and reductive prose. But that’s quite recent in evolutionary terms. We wear analytical prose like a hairshirt. Our bodies and minds weren’t designed for analytical reductiveness; we were made for participation.

Owen Barfield was an expert on the poetry and history of the English language, and often made this same point. Just yesterday, I discovered a fascinating blog, which has a great post about Owen Barfield’s “Unancestral Voices”:

Now, I just finished reading the first three chapters of Barfield’s Unancestral Voice , and my brain is on fire. In this short expanse of prose, Barfield turns Darwin on his head in a reverse manner to the way that Marx supposedly turned Hegel on his head. There was no inchoate, unreasoning, unKnowing process that willy-nilly resulted in man’s rational and linguistic capacities. His single phrase “The interior is anterior” liberated me to see what he had been saying all along. The “unfree wisdom” was what nature had all along. All of it, Plato, Aristotle, Jefferson, Einstein, was there, somewhere, encoded into the warp and woof of Creation, but it wasn’t free. It wasn’t yet self aware. And it wasn’t the result of material processes. And at the center of it was the Incarnation.

5 thoughts on “Participation”

  1. The Vasquez quote made my mind jump to Gilgamesh. A teacher of mine introduced the epic to the class as one of the oldest pieces of literature we have. But he said something strange about where it was found, how it was like a small thing tucked into the corner of a lot of accounting documents and court records.

    The memory is fuzzy now but his odd qualification on its importance stuck with me. As though he was saying buying “blue chips” and tracking debts were much more important to the ancient kings, maybe? Meh, I’m sure there’s a better understanding than my memory’s or my teacher’s…

    I read something recently about how many of our forms of writing might have come from a need to manage more and more complicated food production systems and expanding empires. A tool of control and administration. Get things fixed, set. But it certainly did affect our consciousness, I think. Our eyes just might be analytical reductionists.

    That in itself says nothing of the 50 000 – 100 000 years of storytelling beforehand though. Our other senses certainly seem to be “participationists”.

    I’ll check out the other blogs now (and, it looks like Barfield is on my reading list now as well 🙂 )

  2. You’re right! The best current theory is that written language was developed as a means of keeping track of trade. The archaeological evidence suggests that trade was a uniquely homo sapien activity, and arose long before written language, and that written language was first used for accounting. It appears that numbers came before words, in written language. And that the first cities arose as trade hubs, and the first kings were leaders of trade hubs. Matt Ridley’s “Rational Optimist” gives a brief popular overview, and he always provides copious footnotes.

    John Hawks recently talked about some evidence that numbers are a “technology” that is learned, rather than something innate. If that’s true, and if written numbers came before written words, it seems likely that the two domains were mostly forked at first — that spoken language was still very participative and subjective, while written language was purely abstract and numerical. It would only be later that they merged.

  3. while doing some other reading today, I came across this exchange between J Campbell and B Moyers, which seems to echo your point about the “authenticity” of poetry over prose. Campbell suggests reading symbols as historical facts is problematic:

    CAMPBELL: That is reading the words in terms of prose instead of in terms of poetry, reading the metaphor in terms of the denotation instead of the connotation.

    MOYERS: And poetry gets to the unseen reality?

    CAMPBELL: That which is beyond even the concept of reality, that which transcends all thought. The myth puts you there all the time, gives you a line to connect with that mystery which you are.

    Made me think of this post, that’s all. (Moyers actually uses ‘unseen reality’, the sensory thing again, 🙂 )

    The distinction between technology/learned and biology/innate is very cool! It might say something else for why we adopted a more “universal” numerical system (10-based-digits, algebra, calculus) much faster than a universal language. ‘English’ is certainly making a run for the monopoly now though, considering web-code and english journals and so on…

  4. Wow, I remember hearing Moyers interview Campbell on NPR almost 25 years ago, when I was still an atheist. It was around the same time they talked about Stanislavsky (maybe that was Campbell too), and featured Hime Kami. I read a lot of Campbell’s work after that, and it definitely influenced me to lean towards a “mythopoeic” stance and start to discount reductionism; key steps to my being able to eventually embrace conservative Christianity.

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