Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Monday, July 4, 2011

Eagle and seagull

I can't help that this really did happen on the fourth of July. It was six years ago, and every day I encountered headlines about the Iraq War, but during it this encounter, I thought nothing at all about national symbolism until after the fact. Since then I have thought many things--Garuda and the snakes, the founding of Tenochtitlan, the Albanian Eagle--but at the time I only watched and felt.

I was waiting for my bus, but well before I got to the stop I heard the crying of a seagull. We had crows in my neighborhood but seagulls were not so frequent this far from the water; and it was a very insistent and repetitive cry. I looked up into the almost-cloudless sky and saw two birds: one small white seagull, and one enormous and unmistakable eagle. The wings were huge and black and straight, as if it were cut from paper. There were two small spots of of white: head and tail, I guessed, though it was very far away--yet despite the height, it was clearly not just huge, but in fact much bigger than me. I saw it flap its wings maybe twice or three times the whole time I watched. It was circling and rising in the updraft, and the seagull was diving at it, over and over. I have seen such a thing once before--I watched it from the window of the bus, and something seemed almost unbearably sad about it; but when I tried to put my finger on what, all I came up with were obviously loaded mistakes. It wasn't the fact that everyone else on the bus seemed oblivious to this amazing spectacle; it wasn't the apparent "nobility" of the great bird and the annoying gadfly-quality of the smaller; I couldn't quite tell what it was. Now, here it was again, but something was new: this time I could hear the seagull crying. I stood there for between five and ten minutes craning my neck into the sky watching. Every once in a while I had to check to see if my bus was coming; or the bright sun would blind me, and I'd lose the birds in the blue; but the sound of the seagull would draw my eye; remarkable that it could be that precise from such a distance. Rather early on, a plane flew by underneath the two birds; even then, the sound of the jet did not drown out the seagull's cry; and after that, they kept going, higher and higher. It was astonishing how high they climbed; how the eagle just rose and rose, swerving each time the seagull came in; how the seagull did not give up. So I watched and watched, bewitched; if I looked away for a moment to rest my eyes or ease my craning neck, I had to search to re-find the birds, smaller and smaller in all that swimming blue, but whenever I did, guided by the gull's voice, I was struck once again by how I could see, even from that distance, the sharp outline of pinions on the eagle's wings. A man walked by seeming not to notice; someone rode past on a bicycle. Something of my old annoyance with the apparent obliviousness of bystanders twitched inside me, but I dismissed it--too easy, probably wrong, and anyway not at all what I was interested in just then. Then a woman walked by who either had heard the bird or had seen me staring thunderstruck into the air and followed my gaze. As she passed I looked at her. "It's sad beyond words," she said. "Yes," I said, somehow both thrilled and unsurprised that someone else should perceive the same obvious emotional quality. "That eagle isn't going to let go," she said. And walked on. It dawned on me for the first time what that other little patch of white must have been. The whole significance of the scene inverted, a figure-ground reversal. I looked back up into the sky. My words with the woman had taken maybe 10 seconds. The air was silent. The eagle was gone, the seagull was gone. Nothing. They'd disappeared. Whatever final moment there'd been to see, I'd missed while getting my realization--if that was what it was. I scanned the empty air over and over.


  1. The imaginal/visionary doesn't abide by the rule that if you were there you would experience it. It can even be partial as with Paul on the road to Damascus, his companions heard the voice but did not see the light. The visionaries in Medugorje are in the same space but those with them simply see the manifestation in their rapture of a presence, no more.

  2. Yes, not only is there a reality that abides when you go away (like the noise of the tree in the forest), there are things that can be absent even you are there (or think you are).

  3. Artfully rendered, skholiast. So you sensed a sadness in this unfolding drama even before you understood quite what was happening? It doesn't seem likely that you already perceived the truth and its intrinsic sorrow but that you wouldn't consciously allow yourself to accept it. Maybe you made an empathic connection with the gull, an unconscious affective resonance with any creature that would be so driven, so desperate, to pursue an obviously futile endeavor with such relentless perseverance?

    Curiously, last week I wrote a post about an optical illusion that I had just experienced. My intention was primarily to illustrate the iterative back and forth between evidence and inference by which I tried to resolve the anomalous nature of what I thought I saw. My first commenter, though, responded as though I had been describing not an actual visual experience of the world but rather a dream. In his response he cited two Biblical dreams: that of Pharaoh interpreted by Joseph, and Nebuchadnezzar's dream interpreted by Daniel -- i.e., visionary dreams. Your first commenter also links your visual anomaly with the visionary, and cites a Biblical parallel. Certainly there is something uncanny about seeing something extraordinary, something that for a time eludes rational explanation -- as though you suddenly find yourself getting the briefest glimpse through a window opening onto some other reality.

  4. ktismatics,

    you wrote,
    "Certainly there is something uncanny about seeing something extraordinary, something that for a time eludes rational explanation -- as though you suddenly find yourself getting the briefest glimpse through a window opening onto some other reality."

    Sleight-of-hand magic works this way in many indigenous tribal cultures. Even though they know very well that there is what we would call a "rational explanation" for every effect, they really do not experience it as a fraud -- there is still something genuinely mysterious and "true" about the discourse that pertains to their practices.

    Many would say that philosophy is in the business of dismantling the conceptual analogues to sensory illusions-- from Plato's parable of the cave to Wittgenstein showing the fly the way out of the fly-bottle.

    My own take goes one further, though I do follow Plato in this (and L.W. too, I believe). The shadows on the cave wall are illusions, and have to be critiqued. But once one has done this, and seen the fire that was behind one's head, one might well think that all one's work was done. But the philosopher's task is just beginning. The sun, which is outside the cave, is like the fire, and like it is does cast shadows. So the philosopher must say: You know that process that had you completely fooled? Well, there's something like that, but it's absolutely real. These words of course doesn't even begin to communicate what it's like to go up above ground, and yet, in the parable, they are all the philosopher has.

  5. Ktismatics,
    Interesting that another person was under the same illusion as Skholiast. If S. had been an auger to C.i.C. Bush at the time and told him that vision then victory would have been assured. Now that a flock of seagulls are harassing the imperial eagle, if told of a vision along those lines C.i.C. Obama might realise that his forces were stretched too thin and that there were too many fronts.

    But we are not Romans so we are left with turning 2D into 3D which is fine as far as it goes but it does not exhaust the information. If you were to view the pond-horse as the spirit of the pond telling you that the eutrophication was monstrous, that it was being killed by it; would you be wrong if you added that 4D to your 2D/3D interpretation?

    The sleight of hand that Skholiast mentioned is perhaps a way of getting into a proper mood for surreal information. However I better stop here for fear of exceeding your modulus of elasticity.

  6. Thanks for the extended Socratic metaphor, skholiast, although I'm not sure what realities or processes for detecting/understanding them are implied.

    Ombhurbhuva, I love "the spirit of the pond telling you that the eutrophication was monstrous." Is this sort of 4D surreal information to be received or imagined, do you think?

  7. Imaginal would be the sufi term. This distinguishes it from the purely imaginary and the actual everyday common shared experience. http://www.kheper.net/topics/imaginal/index.html

    It tends to be mediated by whatever archetypal symbolism is native to you but is enacted in a drama that definitely seems to be other than the script of your own heat oppress'd brain.

  8. Interesting. I'll have to discuss this practice of the imaginal tomorrow in my weekly tea-and-conversation session with my literary prof pal, who is an avowed Jungian archetypal enthusiast.

  9. Ktismatics,
    James Hillman makes a deep bow to Henry Corbin in his The Dream and the Underworld. I have a few remarks on the topic in a post: http://ombhurbhuva.blogspot.com/2011/02/grail-cup.html

  10. It turns out that my Jungian lit'ry friend met James Hillman when they were both teaching at different institutions in Dallas.

  11. So this afternoon I was again walking across the mesa overlooking the pond. There's a big cottonwood perched at just about the spot where I saw the image of a giant horse in the pond. The tree has been struck by lightning! Wide gashes run ten feet or more up both sides of the trunk, and chunks of bark and wood have been blasted out onto the ground.

    Now I find myself wondering: is this place a source of visionary power for me, a place to which I should return frequently in search of enlightenment? Or should I avoid it as a nexus of monstrous destruction?

  12. Wow.

    If it was me, I'd go back. And try to stand very, very quietly.

  13. Ktismatics,
    Staying with the Sufi cosmology a place struck by lightning (barak) has barakah
    One recollects the early primordial soup experiments and their recent replication.
    You may whistle the theme from xfiles if you must. Some bark or fragment of the tree might be a useful talisman.

  14. Interestingly, since this post's theme has become entwined with the nature of (mis)apprehension optical and otherwise, my father, an amateur ornithologist of some repute, assures me that since the bald eagle's diet consists almost entirely of fish, it is likely that the eagle fixed upon movement below it and wound up with a baby gull by mistake. Moreover while shore birds do get agitated while eagles fly overhead, the raptors almost never attack smaller birds. The golden eagle may occasionally eat a smaller bird but usually eats small mammals; the bald eagle prefers fish almost exclusively.

    Om., I presume the etymology of Arabic barak must relate to the Hebrew baruch (blessed) with which Hebrew prayers begin. (Also a proper name [=Benedict], e.g Spinoza's). I didn't know the lightning-connection. But it makes sense. Isn't the stone in the Kaaba thought perhaps to be a meteorite? Power from on high.

  15. Per recommendation I selected a piece of wood from the scene of visitation. It looks a bit like an alligator...

  16. Skholiast:
    Barak in Hebrew is also ‘lightning’. About the stone in the kaaba, I was reading recently Idris Shah , Caravan of Dreams where he had a close look at it and he thought it was like no stone that he had ever seen before. Probably a meteorite.

    I found this:
    “Uncegila was a mighty water snake in Native American (Lakota) mythology. She polluted rivers and subsequently flooded the land with salt water so nothing could grow. According to myth twins that hit the only fragile spot on her body eventually killed her. As the sun scorched her flesh it dried up the soils, and it is said this led to the development of the Nebraska and Dakota Badlands; a large desert area in the USA.”

    I wouldn’t be surprised if there was lore associated with that pond, if it’s natural.

  17. Sorry to go back to the existential sadness of the scene after so many interesting comments. I see the point and it reminds me both of the poem of Nazim Hikmet (I only read it in an Italian translation, but it should sound like "Feel the sadness of the tree becoming dry, feel the sadness of the planet dying…") and of the only time I seized a lobster. Before that time, I had heard that the lobster's shrill cries while one is cooking it (still alive) is just a mechanical noise. But when the person I was swimming with saw it in my hands, and took it with him, looking forward to eat it, I heard that noise again. The lobster was "crying" for fear. I can't find any better explanation.