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Concerning the Unpredictable

by W.H. Auden

Introduction to Loren Eiseley's "The Star Thrower"

In creation there is not only a Yes but also a No; not only a height but also an abyss; not only clarity but also obscurity; not only progress and continuation but al so impediment and limitation . . not only value but also worthlessness. . . . It is true that individual creatures and men experience these things in most unequal measure, their lots being assigned by a justice which is curious or very much concealed. Yet it is irrefutable that creation and creature are good even in the fact that all that is exists in this contrast and antithesis.

Karl Barth in Church Dogmatícs

Rather oddly, I first heard of Dr. Loren Eiseley not in this country but in Oxford, where a student gave me a copy of The Immense Journey, since which time I have eagerly read anything of his I could lay my hands on. His obvious ancestors, as both writers and thinkers, are Thoreau and Emerson, but he often reminds me of Ruskin, Richard Jefferies, W. H. Hudson, whom, I feel sure, he must have read, and of two writers, Novalis (a German) and Adalbert Stifter (an Austrian), whom perhaps he hasn't. But I wouldn't be sure. Some of the quotations in The Unexpected Universe surprised me. I would not have expected someone who is an American and a scientist to have read such little-known literary works as the Voluspá, James Thomson's The City of Dreadful Night,and Charles Williams's play Cranmer. . . .

Dr Eiseley happens to be an archaeologist, an anthropologist, and a naturalist, but, if I have understood him rightly, the first point he wishes to make is that in order to be a scientist, an artist, a doctor, a lawyer, or what-have-you, one has first to be a human being. No member of any other species can have a special "field." One question his book raises is: "What differences have recent scientific discoveries, in physics, astronomy, biology, etc., made to man's conception, individually or collectively, of himself?" The answer is, I believe, very little.
We did not have to wait for Darwin to tell us that, as physical creatures, we are akin to other animals. Like them, we breathe, eat, digest, excrete, copulate, are viviparously born, and, whatever views we may have about an "afterlife," must certainly suffer physical death in this. Indeed, one result of urbanization has been that, despite what we now know about our ancestry, we feel far less akin and grateful to the animal kingdom than did primitive tribes, with their totem systems and animal folktales.
Speaking of the recognition of Odysseus by his dog Argos, Dr. Eiseley says:
"The magic that gleams an instant between Argos and Odysseus is both the recognition of diversity and the need for affection across the illusions of form. It is nature's cry to homeless, far-wandering, insatiable man: 'Do not forget your brethren, nor the green wood from which you sprang. To do so is to invite disaster. . . . One does not meet oneself until one catches the reflection from an eye other than human.' "
Before Descartes, such a warning would have been unnecessary. On the other hand, nothing Darwin and the geneticists have to tell us can alter the fact that, as self-conscious beings who speak (that is to say, give Proper Names to other beings), who laugh, who pray, and who, as creators of history and culture, continue to change after our biological evolution is complete, we are unique among all the creatures we know of. All attempts to account for our behavior on the basis of our pre-human ancestors are myths, and usually invented to justify base behavior. As Karl Kraus wrote:
"When a man is treated like a beast, he says, 'After all, I'm human.' When he behaves like a beast, he says, 'After all, I'm only human.' "
No; as Dr. Eiseley says, "There is no definition or description of man possible by reducing him to ape or tree-shrew. Once, it is true, the shrew contained him, but he is gone." Or, as G. K. Chesterton said, "If it is not true that a divine being fell, then one can only say that one of the animals went completely off its head."
What modern science has profoundly changed is our way of thinking about the non-human universe. We have always been aware that human beings are characters in a story in which we can know more or less what has happened but can never predict what is going to happen; what we never realized until recently is that the same is true of the universe. But, of course, its story is even more mysterious to us than our own. When we act, we do know something about our motives for action, but it is rarely possible for us to say why anything novel happens in the universe. All the same, I do not personally believe there is such a thing as a "random" event. "Unpredictable" is a factual description; "random" contains, without having the honesty to admit it, a philosophical bias typical of persons who have forgotten how to pray. Though he does use the term once, I don't think Dr. Eiseley believes in it, either:

"The earth's atmosphere of oxygen appears to be the product of a biological invention, photosynthesis, another random event that took place in Archeozoic times. That single 'invention' for such it was, determined the entire nature of life on this planet, and there is no possibility at present of calling it preordained. Similarly, the stepped-up manipulation of chance, in the shape of both mutation and recombination of genetic factors, which is one result of the sexual mechanism, would have been unprophesiable."
I must now openly state my own bias and say that I do not believe in Chance; I believe in Providence and Miracles. If photosynthesis was invented by chance, then I can only say it was a damned lucky chance for us if, biologically speaking, it is a "statistical impossibility" that I should be walking the earth instead of a million other possible people, I can only think of it as a miracle which I must do my best to deserve. Natural Selection as a negative force is comprehensible. It is obvious that a drastic change in the environment, like an ice age, will destroy a large number of species adapted to a warm climate: What I cannot swallow is the assertion that "chance" mutations can explain the fact that whenever an ecological niche is free, some species evolves to fit it, especialIy when one thinks how peculiar some such niches-the one occupied by the liver fluke, for example-can be. Dr. Eiseley quotes George Gaylord Simpson as saying:
"The association of unusual physical conditions with a crisis in evolution is not likely to be pure coincidence. Life and its environment are interdependent and evolve together."
Dr. EiseIey has excellent things to say about the myth of the Survival of the Fittest:
"A major portion of the world's story appears to be that of fumbling little creatures of seemingly no great potential, falling, like the helpless little girl Alice, down a rabbit hole or an unexpected crevice into some new and topsy-turvy realm. . . . The first land-walking fish was, by modern standards, an ungainly and inefficient vertebrate. Figuratively, he was a water failure who had managed to climb ashore on a continent where no vertebrates existed. In a time of crisis he had escaped his enemies. . . . The wet fish gasping in the harsh air on the shore, the warm-blooded mammal roving unchecked through the torpor of the reptilian night, the lizard-bird launching into a moment of ill-aimed flight, shatter all purely competitive assumptions. These singular events reveal escapes through the living screen, penetrated, one would have to say in retrospect, by the 'overspecialized' and the seemingly 'inefficient’; the creatures driven to the wall."
The main theme of The Unexpected Universe is Man as the Quest Hero, the wanderer, the voyager, the seeker after adventure, knowledge, power, meaning, and righteousness. The Quest is dangerous (he may suffer shipwreck or ambush) and unpredictable (he never knows what will happen to him next). The Quest is not of his own choosing - often, in weariness, he wishes he had never set out on it - but is enjoined upon him by his nature as a human being:
"No longer, as with the animal, can the world be accepted as given. It has to be perceived and consciously thought about, abstracted, and considered. The moment one does so, one is outside of the natural; objects are each one surrounded with an aura radiating meaning to man alone.
"Mostly the animals understand their roles, but man, by comparison, seems troubled by a message that, it is often said, he cannot quite remember or has gotten wrong. . . Bereft of instinct, he must search continually for meanings. . . Man was a reader before he became a writer, a reader of what Coleridge once called the mighty alphabet of the universe."
For illustrations of his thesis, Dr. Eiseley begins with an imaginary voyage-Homer's epic the Odyssey-and goes on to two famous historical voyages, that of Captain Cook in the Resolution, during which he discovered not the Terra Incognita he was sent to find - a rich and habitable continent south and westward of South America - but what he described as "an inexpressibly horrid Antarctica," and Darwin's voyage in the Beagle, during which he found the data which led him to doubt the Fixity of Species. Lastly, Dr. Eiseley tells us many anecdotes from his own life voyage, and these are to me the most fascinating passages in the book. Of the Odyssey he says:
"Odysseus' passage through the haunted waters of the eastern Mediterranean symbolizes, at the start of the Western intellectual tradition, the sufferings that the universe and his own nature impose upon homeward-yearning man. In the restless atmosphere of today all the psychological elements of the Odyssey are present to excess: the driving will toward achievement, the technological cleverness crudely manifest in the blinding of Cyclops, the fierce rejection of the sleepy Lotus Isles, the violence between man and man. Yet, significantly, the ancient hero cries out in desperation, 'There is nothing worse for men than wandering.' "
Dr. Eiseley's autobiographical passages are, most of them, descriptions of numinous encounters-some joyful, some terrifying. After reading them, I get the impression of a wanderer who is often in danger of being shipwrecked on the shores of Dejection-it can hardly be an accident that three of his encounters take place in cemeteries-and a solitary who feels more easily at home with animals than with his fellow human beings. Aside from figures in his childhood, the human beings who have "messages" for him are all total strangers-someone tending a rubbish dump, a mysterious figure throwing stranded starfish back into the sea, a vagrant scientist with a horrid parasitic worm in a bottle, a girl in the Wild West with Neanderthal features. As a rule, though, his numinous encounters are with non-human objects-a spider, the eye of a dead octopus, his own shepherd dog, a starving jackrabbit, a young fox. It is also clear that he is a deeply compassionate man who, in his own words, "loves the lost ones, the failures of the world." It is typical of him that, on recovering consciousness after a bad fall to find himself bleeding profusely, he should, quite unselfconsciously, apologize to his now doomed blood cells-phagocytes and platelets-"Oh, don't go. I'm sorry, I've done for you." More importantly, he reveals himself as a man unusually well trained in the habit of prayer, by which I mean the habit of listening. The petitionary aspect of prayer is its most trivial because it is involuntary. We cannot help asking that our wishes may be granted, though all too many of them are like wishing that two and two may make five, and cannot and should not be granted. But the serious part of prayer begins when we have got our begging over with and listen for the Voice of what I would call the Holy Spirit, though if others prefer to say the Voice of Oz or the Dreamer or Conscience, I shan't quarrel, so long as they don't call it the Voice of the Super-Ego, for that "entity" can only tell us what we know already, whereas the Voice I am talking about always says something new and unpredictable-an unexpected demand, obedience to which involves a change of self, however painful.
At this point, a digression. Last September, I attended a symposium in Stockholm on "The Place of Value in a World of Fact." Most of those present were scientists, some of them very distinguished indeed. To my shock and amazement, they kept saying that what we need today is a set of Ethical Axioms (italics mine). I can only say that to me the phrase is gibberish. An axiom is stated in the indicative and addressed to the intellect. From one set of axioms one kind of mathematics will follow, from another set another, but it would be nonsense to call one of them "better" than the other. All ethical statements are addressed to the will, usually a reluctant will, and must therefore appear in the imperative. "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself" and "A straight line is the shortest distance between two points" belong to two totally different realms of discourse.

But to return to Dr. Eiseley. As a rule, the Voice speaks to him not directly but through messengers who are unaware of the message they bear. In the following dream, however, he is spoken to without intermediaries:
"The dream was of a great blurred bearlike shape emerging from the snow against the window. It pounded on the glass and beckoned importunately toward the forest. I caught the urgency of a message as uncouth and indecipherable as the shape of its huge bearer in the snow. In the immense terror of my dream I struggled against the import of that message as I struggled also to resist the impatient pounding of the frost-enveloped beast at the window. Suddenly I lifted the telephone beside my bed, and through the receiver came a message as cryptic as the message from the snow, but far more miraculous in origin. For I knew intuitively, in the still snowfall of my dream, that the voice I heard, a long way off, was my own voice in childhood. Pure and sweet, incredibly refined and beautiful beyond the things of earth, yet somehow inexorable and not to be stayed, the voice was already terminating its message. 'I am sorry to have troubled you,' the clear faint syllables of the child persisted. They seemed to come across a thinning wire that lengthened far away into the years of my past. 'I am sorry, I am sorry to have troubled you at all.' The voice faded before I could speak. I was awake now, trembling in the cold."
I have said that I suspect Dr. Eiseley of being a melancholic. He recognizes that man is the only creature who speaks personally, works, and prays, but nowhere does he overtly say that man is the only creature who laughs. True laughter is not to be confused with the superior titter of the intellect, though we are capable, alas, of that, too: when we truly laugh, we laugh simultaneously with and at. True laughter (belly laughter) I would define as the spirit of Carnival.
Again a digression, on the meaning of Carnival as it was known in the Middle Ages and persisted in a few places, like Rome, where Goethe witnessed and described it in February of 1788. Carnival celebrates the unity of our human race as mortal creatures, who come into this world and depart from it without our consent, who must eat, drink, defecate, belch, and break wind in order to live, and procreate if our species is to survive. Our feelings about this are ambiguous. To us as individuals, it is a cause for rejoicing to know that we are not alone, that all of us, irrespective of age or sex or rank or talent, are in the same boat. As unique persons, on the other hand, all of us are resentful that an exception cannot be made in our own case. We oscillate between wishing we were unreflective animals and wishing we were disembodied spirits, for in either case we should not be problematic to ourselves. The Carnival solution of this ambiguity is to laugh, for laughter is simultaneously a protest and an acceptance. During Carnival, all social distinctions are suspended, even that of sex. Young men dress up as girls, young girls as boys. The escape from social personality is symbolized by the wearing of masks. The oddity of the human animal expresses itself through the grotesque false noses, huge bellies and buttocks, farcical imitations of childbirth and copulation. The protest element in laughter takes the form of mock aggression: people pelt each other with small, harmless objects, draw cardboard daggers, and abuse each other verbally, like the small boy Goethe heard screaming at his father, "Sia ammazzato il Signore Padre!" Traditionally, Carnival, the days of feasting and fun, immediately precedes Lent, the days of fasting - and prayer. In medieval carnivals, parodies of the rituals of the Church were common, but what Lewis Carroll said of literary parody-"One can only parody a poem one admires" - is true of all parody. One can only blaspheme if one believes. The world of Laughter is much more closely related to the world of Worship and Prayer than either is to the everyday, secular world of Work, for both are worlds in which we are all equal, in the first as individual members of our species, in the latter as unique persons. In the world of Work, on the other hand, we are not and cannot be equal, only diverse and interdependent: each of us, whether as scientist, artist, cook, cabdriver, or whatever, has to do "our thing." So long as we thought of Nature in polytheistic terms as the abode of gods, our efficiency and success as workers were hampered by a false humility which tried to make Nature responsible for us. But, according to Genesis, God made Adam responsible for looking after the Garden of Eden on His behalf, and it now seems as if He expects us to be responsible for the whole natural universe, which means that, as workers, we have to regard the universe etsí deus non daretur: God must be a hidden deity, veiled by His creation.
A satisfactory human life, individually or collectively, is possible only if proper respect is paid to all three worlds. Without Prayer and Work, the Carnival laughter turns ugly, the comic obscenities grubby and pornographic, the mock aggression into real hatred and cruelty. (The hippies, it appears to me, are trying to recover the sense of Carnival which is so conspicuously absent in this age, but so long as they reject Work they are unlikely to succeed.) Without Laughter and Work, Prayer turns Gnostic, cranky, Pharisaic, while those who try to live by Work alone, without Laughter or Prayer, turn into insane lovers of power, tyrants who would enslave Nature to their immediate desires-an attempt which can only end in utter catastrophe, shipwreck on the Isle of the Sirens.
Carnival in its traditional forms is not, I think, for Dr. Eiseley any more than it is for me. Neither of us can enjoy crowds and loud noises. But even introverted intellectuals can share the Carnival experience if they are prepared to forget their dignity, as Dr. Eiseley did when he unexpectedly encountered a fox cub:
"The creature was very young. He was alone in a dread universe. I crept on my knees around the prow and crouched beside him. It was a small fox pup from a den under the timbers who looked up at me. God knows what had become of his brothers and sisters. His parents must not have been home from hunting. He innocently selected what I think was a chicken bone from an untidy pile of splintered rubbish and shook it at me invitingly. There was a vast and playful humor in his face. . . . Here was the thing in the midst of the bones, the wide-eyed, innocent fox inviting me to play, with the innate courtesy of its two forepaws placed appealingly together, along with a mock shake of the head. The universe was swinging in some fantastic fashion around to present its face, and the face was so small that the universe itself was laughing.
“It was not a time for human dignity. It was a time only for the careful observance of amenities written behind the stars. Gravely I arranged my forepaws while the puppy whimpered with ill-concealed excitement. I drew the breath of a fox's den into my nostrils. On impulse, I picked up clumsily a whiter bone and shook it in teeth that had not entirely forgotten their original purpose. Round and round we tumbled for one ecstatic moment. . . . For just a moment I had held the universe at bay by the simple expedient of sitting on my haunches before a fox den and tumbling about with a chicken bone. It is the gravest, most meaningful act I shall ever accomplish, but, as Thoreau once remarked of some peculiar errand of his own, there is no use reporting it to the Royal Society."

Thank God, though, Dr. Eiseley has reported it to me. Bravo! say I.

W. H. Auden


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