The tree ring model of time

Let’s add this “fourth take” to my Three Takes on Time, starting with a William Faulkner quote: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past” (Requiem for a Nun, 1951).

Pushing off of the linear model, our conventional way of looking at time – with the past as a thread disappearing into some distant space that no longer exists – is actually counterintuitive. Doesn’t it make more sense to see the past as something very much still with us, but at a depth, providing the real-time substructure of the present, just as the rings of a tree do not disappear as years go by but rather continue to provide the real-time substructure of the tree? Indeed, the rings are the tree! In the same way, the cultural “past” is not gone, but is right here, at a depth, providing in real time all the folds and substructure without which the cultural present would collapse as a paper-thin surface with nothing underneath. Doesn’t this make more sense?

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The Red Wheelbarrow and Jung’s Synchronicity (plus Keats)

so much depends                                                                                                                     upon

a red wheel                                                                                                                       barrow

glazed with rain                                                                                                                 water

beside the white                                                                                                                 chickens

(William Carlos Williams, 1923)

The first thing readers often notice about Williams’s poem is that it seems so arbitrary – just an arbitrary set of domestic images, with no philosophical propositions, no apparent symbolic referents, no historical context. Just the “thing in itself,” as Williams liked to say. In some other context, a red wheelbarrow may have a practical function, but here the images are stripped of practical value. This is exactly what liberates us to see them through the lens of pure aesthetic wonder. At least that’s the imagist idea.

Formal construction of the poem supports this imagist project. The line structure breaks each substantive unit (wheel / barrow, rain / water, white / chickens) as if to retrain the eye, bringing you through a double-take back to the thing in itself. The one verbal unit – “glazed” – puts it all under a glass coat for aesthetic gaze.

So if that’s the agenda, the question remains, why these images? Why not “the pile of dog / shit / by the black / shovel”?  For the imagist, it’s a trick question. The arbitrariness is itself the key. Of all colors, red on white! The arbitrariness gives a fragile sensory beauty that cannot be achieved in more cerebral poetry.

When the poem rips its subject from practical and historical standards of value, you might say it rips away the causal nexus that brought the objects into this configuration. This is where the imagist poem intersects with Jung’s idea of synchronicity. For Jung, there are two modes of assigning value: via causality or via synchronicity. You can explain things by looking at the external string of causes that brought them here, or you can strip away the causal nexus and look at the things in themselves in their unique and arbitrary aspect. The imagist poem focuses through the lens not of causality but of synchronicity.

While I can appreciate the imagist project, I still like to think that I can appreciate the poem on both levels (despite the poet’s intention, as it were). I can place the imagist poem into historical perspective as a countercultural thread within modernism. Key features of modernism – fragmentation, the loss of depth and of transcendental meaning – which may cause paralysis and despair in the poetry of T. S. Eliot or the prose of William Faulkner – are turned by the imagist into a celebration of the arbitrary fragment, of the colliding surfaces themselves. One might in this respect align the fragmented, colliding surfaces of Picasso with the imagist poets, as a counterweight within the angst-ridden modernist movement.

But when the historical placement is done, it’s still nice to go back and bask in the immediacy of the imagist poem. It is, after all, the flash of synchronicity which re-opens a vista for modern Westerners who have in many cases lost the register for that kind of raw, meaningless beauty.

Compare, finally, to the closing lines of John Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” (1819):

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

Noteworthy is that Keats attributes these lines to the urn itself and not the speaker of the poem. Indeed, the lesson we might apply from the imagist poem is that truth is NOT beauty. “Truth” is the cornerstone of causal thinking. We compare a proposition to the world it references and determine its truth-value. “Beauty,” on the other hand, is the cornerstone of synchronicity. Its value lies in its immediacy. The urn in those final lines tries to marry the two together, but the real poignancy in the Keats ode lies in the fact that that marriage is tenuous. Keats may have already sensed at the writing of the poem the tuberculosis that would soon kill him. Certainly, in any event, the tension between the mortality of the poet and the immortality of the figures on the urn is an operative force in the poem. The young lovers depicted on the urn will remain “forever young,” and therein lies their beauty. But the truth is that they will never feel the warmth of the kiss, their lips forever an inch apart.

The poet has an advantage over the marble figures in that he will feel the human warmth of the kiss, but the cost of this warmth is that he and his beloved will soon wither. The urn’s beauty lasts forever, but the truth the poet must face is death – and very soon, in Keats’s case.

The image set in “The Red Wheelbarrow” is like the set of figures on the urn. Its beauty will last, as the poem has lasted for generations, its synchronic value unadulterated by time. But the imagist poem evades the truth of mortality. Or almost evades it. Williams’s first stanza (“So much depends / upon”) suggests a tiny hole in the imagist fabric, an element of urgency, an inkling of time and mortality, a slightest hint of the inexorable truth of causal reality breaking against the edges of its crisp and beautiful synchronicity.

The Clown and the Tiger

“That’s water-turned-wine,” said Jane, archly but without a trace of impatience.  “Your turn.”

I pulled two cards from the top of the deck and studied them.  Far away, goats’ bells ding, and still further out, glimpsed between the gnarled crosses of olive trees tumbling down the rugged hillside, lies the expansive, dark blue Mediterranean.  Two white chickens, boisterous, nearer to the scene, patrol Spiro’s patio.  Unripe grapes hang, lemony waxen bath beads, above our heads.  Time passes.  Giovanni deals the cards, suffers a poor draw.

One must not forget: the sun is to be worshipped here.  We fill an empty bottle with local wine, swim, and prostrate ourselves before said deity, naked like stones in the sand. A hoary old Greek raises a piece of driftwood shaped like the arm of Achilles and heaves it with great show of violence into the sea; he stares straight at me with a look of wild relief, laughs, spits, and disappears down the east beach.

I jump when awakened.  It is one of my traits.  This time, I am awakened at Lake Travis, Austin.  Years seem to have passed.  Jane is naked, shorter than average but perfect in form, waist deep in water. The tips of her hair, long, brown, silky, dip the water. Her solid brown eyes, soft but alert to every modulation in the visual universe, observe, assess, and disregard two kids wading toward her. I lay back and close my eyes at the sun, as Jeff sits up and says something about chili rellenos.  I hear the kids shriek and plunge.  A stout woman screams something in Spanish.  I open my eyes. The beach is deserted save for them and us.

On the way home I know Jeff is about to speak by the way he rubs the swarthy stubble on his jowls, making the pint-sized popeye tattoo on his upper arm seem to rise from the dead and then die again with each stroke.  He pats his paunch thoughtfully, the face tensing slightly under the massive crown of black locks until it achieves an expression that might have become Humpty Dumpty just before the fall.  “Katie is in trouble,” he says. “She needs to move in with us.”

We find Katie and Alissa, her four year old, in the front yard studying a caterpillar. Alissa has Katie’s narrow chin and high cheekbones. One can already see her life unfolding through the features. The caterpillar reminds Jeff of a story.  Once he had waited for months for a cocoon to open. He had pictured the fuzzball breaking open like a pomegranate.  But eventually he forgot about it.  Then one day he was playing in the yard and heard a little scratching sound.  He turned and saw the cocoon just beginning to tear.  And do you know what came out of that cocoon?

“What?”

“A TIGER.  RAAAAAAAAAAAAAA.”

“No,” said Alissa.  “A butterfly.”

We load Katie’s boxes and take her mattress to the dump. We do not notice the city’s mysteries along the way because Jane and Katie and I are together, and are absorbed in each other’s radiance, so to speak.  In a way, I suppose, we are all in love.  The dump is a mess with its own incalculable aesthetic.  Dump trucks fly past, magical beasts from an unwritten landfill fairy tale.  We wave.  We are high at the dump.  Jesus.

Now we have five residents in our household.  Jeff is the most observant.  Jane is the most beautiful.  Katie is the most fun (but tragically not so on the day of our story).  Alissa is the youngest.  And they say, perhaps jokingly, that I am the philosopher.

Perhaps we are not all in love.  Perhaps I am oversimplifying.  I say this because of what I saw at Bartholomew Park.  The joggers, thin, fashionable, or flabby, loped past.  At the center of the park is a playground.  There is one child in the playground.  She pops a yellow, curly-topped head out from under a slide, pokes a stick in the sand.  One of the joggers, a woman, perhaps in her late 20s, has stopped near a trash barrel.  Her gym shorts sport a High School logo no longer legible and an animal face about the size of a walnut.  Several Coke cans and the meat of a fruit lay around the barrel.  The jogger near the barrel is Jane.  She is breathing heavily.  No, she is weeping.  The child is studying something dark that she holds in her hands.  It begins to rain. I will not see Jane again.

Year after year we play cards.  Once, long ago it seems, Jeff and Katie and Jane were playing, and Alissa and I were arranging her toys into a line from the refrigerator across the kitchen threshold and out to the front left leg of her mom’s chair.  “Your turn,” I heard Jane say, her impatience light as a feather.  It reminded me of something, one of those faint patterns that ruffle the edges of our sensible spectra, lending coherence by sheer resistance.  A smell of violet, a certain hair texture, a voice, a symbol.  “Should I put in the clown next?”

“No,” said Alissa, “the tiger.”

(Gary Gautier)