The Lesson of Biology
THE LESSON OF BIOLOGY
MUCH has been written on the poet as a person who differs from others in that his childhood does not end and who preserves in himself something of the child throughout his life. This is true to a large extent, at least in the sense that his childhood perceptions have great durability and his first poems, half-childish, already bear some traits of his subsequent oeuvre. After all, the moments of happiness or of horror experienced by a child determine the personality of the adult. But the thought of a poet also depends upon what he learns about the world from his parents and teachers.
We should remember how many years of our lives are spent in school. There and nowhere else are we prepared to participate our civilization. In school we are indoctrinated everyday, until'our notions do not differ from those of our contemporaries and we dare not doubt certain axioms, for instance, that the Earth revolves around the sun. Varying political systems have their own forms of indoctrination, but since the entire planet has fallen sway to the cult of science which arose in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries on a small patch of Western Europe, a Chinese, American, or Russian child receives in a. diluted and vulgarized form the same knowledge, based upon the discoveries of Copernicus, Newton, and Darwin. It is rather difficult to comprehend all the strangeness of that transformation: the total defeat of images of the world which might be able to compete with those imposed by science, and hence the defeat of all non-Western ways of thinking. Only the mind of a paradoxalist, like that of the Russian
philosopher Lev Shestov, is capable of giving us a moment of meditation on how the upbringing of a young savage who believed in ghosts and magic differed from that of a modern child. Shestov wrote this at the very beginning of the twentieth century:
It is another matter with a child of our society: his mind is un-encumbered by fairy tales; he knows that demons and sorcerers do not exist, and he trains his mind not to believe such lies, even if his heart is inclined toward the miraculous. But, on the other hand, from a very early age, he is given reliable information, the implausibility of which surpasses absolutely every fibever told by the most imaginative writers of fairy tales. For example, he is told—and in an authoritative tone before which all
doubt subsides and must subside—that the Earth is not motionless, as the evidence indicates, that the Sun does not revolve around the Earth, that the sky is not a solid, that the horizon is only an optical illusion and so on.
In that manner, according to Shestov, there arises "a tendency in each of us to accept as truth only that which to our entire being seems false."
Without much exaggeration it can be said that poetry, for the majority of poets, is a continuation of their school note-books or is, both literally and figuratively, written on their margins. Notions of geography, history, or physics encountered for the first time, and for that reason particularly vivid, provide the background for many renowned poems, as for instance Rimbaud's Le Bateau ivre. Besides, the importance of the particular subjects taught is constantly changing. In Rimbaud's time geography and history were still the leading subjects, but were increasingly yielding to the natural sciences and pri-
marily to biology.
The adversaries of the theory of evolution, invoking its conflict with the Bible, appraised the danger correctly, for the imagination, once visited by the images of the evolutionary
chain, is lost to certain varieties of religious belief. Copernicus'
discovery deprived the Earth of its central place in the uni-
verse, but the discovery of man's animal origins was no less a
shock. Not only because the very singularity of being human
was brought into question, but also because the attack was
aimed indirectly at the meaning of human death. Nature in its
incredible prodigality, producing the billions of creatures nec-
essary to maintain the species, is absolutely indifferent to the
fate of the individual. Once integrated into Nature, man also
changes into a statistical cipher and becomes expendable. This
erosion touches every human being's perception of life in
terms of salvation and damnation. It is as if one image of life,
the traditional image, were covered by another one, the scien-
tific, thus producing the constant anxiety that arises when the
mind cannot cope with contradictions and reproaches itself for
inconsistency. At school, contradictions are perpetuated by
such subjects as literature and history, where a certain coded
system of values persists, values difficult to reconcile with sci-
entific objectivism. As to poetry, it must shift for itself as best
it can in the new conditions where imagination is losing its
foundation, that is, its vision of the central place of man, and
of any given individual, in space and time. Modern poetry has
responded to this situation with various tactics, and perhaps
their history will be written one day. Were Ito undertake that
project (and I have no such intention), I would examine the
school curricula of several decades, knowing in advance that I
would discover an increasing dose of biology at the expense of
the humanities, languages, and history; then I would look for
some correlation between science-oriented education and the
philosophy manifesting itself in poems. It seems to me that in
such a test American schools and American poetry would
prove the most informed by science. But other countries
would not be far behind.
I am going to quote now a poem that is a good example of
the influence exerted by the lessons of biology. I must briefly
explain why I chose this poem, since I could have chosen
others, equally useful for my purposes, which I would not
have had to present, as I do this one, in translation. Poland is a
country of numerous women poets. In the sixties I noticed the
poems of a very young poet, Halina PlAwiatowska. They had a
poignant tone, a despair at the mortality of the flesh, at being
totally enclosed in that mortal flesh, and hence a particularly
strong perception of love as constantly menaced, on the bor-
der of nonbeing. I learned that this young woman had a seri-
ous heart condition. In the seventies, when she died having
barely reached thirty, a group of her friends tried to preserve
her legend. At that time a well-known woman poet, Wislawa
Szymborska, dedicated a poem to her memory. Its title, "Au-
totomy," taken from zoology textbooks, means self-section.
The creature that appears in it, the holothurian, also bears the
name of sea cucumber.
In danger, the holothurian splits itself in two:
it offers one self to be devoured by the world
and, in its second self, escapes.
Violently it divides itself into a doom and a salvation,
into a penalty and a recompense, into what was and what
In the middle of the holothurian's body a chasm opens
and its edges immediately become alien to each other.
On the one edge, death, on the other, life.
Here despair, there hope.
If there is a balance, the scales do not move.
If there is justice, here it is.
To die as much as necessary, without overstepping the bounds.
To grow again from a salvaged remnant.
We, too, know how to split ourselves
but only into the flesh and a broken whisper.
Into the flesh and poetry.
On one side the throat, on the other, laughter,
slight, quickly dying down.
Here a heavy heart, there "non omnis moriar,"
Three little words, like three little plumes of light.
We are not cut in two by a chasm.
A chasm surrounds us.
Once, a long time ago, another observation of nature, commonplace and not scientific, provided philosophers and poets with a metaphor for the passage from life to death. It was the observation of the transformation undergone by a pupa when it changes into a butterfly, of a body being left behind by a
soul liberating itself. That dualism of the soul and the body accompanied our civilization through several centuries. It does not, however, exist in the poem I quoted. A chasm opens in the flesh of the holothurian, a division into two corporal "selves" occurs. Beginning with the Renaissance, another kind
of dualism was added to the dualism of soul and body. That was, as George Steiner has also pointed out, the dualism of fame and oblivion, expressed by the maxim "ars longa, vita brevis and by that great incitement to make one's name live in the memory of posterity: not everything dies, non omnis moriar.
This might be called additional insurance, running parallel to the Christian one; moreover, such strivings were in harmony with the ambiguous coexistence of the heritage of antiquity and the message of the Gospels, wherever Latin was the universal language. Of course, only a few could secure fame for
themselves, and thus the maxim about the shortness of life