by Kenneth WHITE
In that classic text-book for biologists, Forbes and Hanley’s Molluscs, you find the following general description of the octopodidae :
« The cuttle-fishes of this family have mostly more or less global, inflated bodies. They have rather small heads, prominent eyes protected by eye-lids, fleshy lips to their mouths and strongly curved compressed beaks. Their arms are eight in number, and all similar though more or less unequal ; they bear sessile suckers. The mantle is always attached to the neck. They are active animals, swimming and creeping with facility, but living chiefly among the crevices of rocky ground. »
Thereafter, in a section devoted to what Lamarck called octopus vulgaris (« the species of this genus were the polypi of the ancients ») you have the following details as to colour :
« Its colour is tawny grey above, with brownish spots marking the position of the warts. The intensity of its hues, as in other cuttle-fishes, is exceedingly variable and transient. The back of the arms and the head are similarly coloured, but beneath and around the head it is bluish white. »
The octopus may not be the most beautiful of animals (though some species can perform amazingly graceful movements), indeed to some minds it may be positively repulsive, but it is interesting. First of all, it is intelligent, very. I’ve heard a biologist say that if it could exist outside the saline element it needs, if it could live longer and had some means of communicating acquired knowledge down the line, the octopus could rival (ain’t that something ?) homo sapiens himself. And when you see it abstracted, reduced to its geometry, as on so many Greek pots, it has a definite fascination.
What is certain is that it fascinated the early Greeks. It was connected in their minds with the origins of the world, and with a certain type of thinking. In order to get into this area, I propose now we move back from modern marine biology into some of the sea-myths of ancient Greece.
It’s Hesiod, in the Theogony, who tells the story, at least in its best known version : there was this woman, Metis, who knew more than anybody, whether man or god. Zeus married her, then swallowed her.
To iron this out a little : Zeus represents the principle of order, he symbolizes the attempts to move out of disorder and chaos into an organized, differentiated, hierarchised cosmos. In the beginning, Zeus needs Metis, because of all the knowledge she possesses, but it is a dangerous knowledge, connected with all that chaos and disorder it is his mission to overcome. Which is why, if Metis starts off at his side, she ends up inside him. Her knowledge and her way of being must be subordinated to Zeus’ own handling of affairs. In other words, Hesiod tells a more or less straight line story : from disorder to order, Q. E. D. It’s the official version of olympic control. The triumph of orthodoxy.
There were, however, more paradoxical minds who felt that Hesiod’s version was too simple, that Zeus himself was too high-handed, and that this subordination, if not total occultation, of Metis just wouldn’t do. These were the Orphics, the followers of Orpheus (the man who sang the song of the cosmos when the Argonauts set sail), and they worked out their own version of the Zeus-Metis myth.
For the Orphics, Metis is the great primordial goddess, aquatic and polymorphous, and to show that she can never be subordinated to any oversimplified olympic control principle, they no longer present her as female but, in a male-dominated society, give her masculine status. As common noun, however, metis was still of feminine gender, which tended to mean that to the Greek mind Metis was both he and she. He-she transcended the opposition of male and female, just as she-he transcended the opposition of black and white so often used by the cosmogonic imagination to express the play of forces at the origin of the world : metis is both dark and light, she rises from darkness, bringing light, before plunging into darkness again. He-she represents a creative power dating before the constitution of a precisely differentiated cosmos. With the Orphics, when Zeus swallows Metis, he goes back beyond Kronos and Ouranos (regulated time and space), to the primordial area. Over against Hesiod’s straight-line story of progression, the Orphic narrative presents a cycle of expansion and contraction, dispersion and concentration.
Close to the Orphics in his vision of things was Alcman, who wrote a cosmogonic poem in Sparta, in the seventh century before our era. Again, the sea is the primordial element, and at the start of things Alcman places a marine goddess, Thetis, half-woman half-fish.
In the beginning, there was a state of total formlessness : ten hulen panton tet aragmenen kai apoeton (« the matter of everything was in a state of confusion and incompletion »), till Thetis, who is phusis kai thesis tou pantos (« nature and the disposition of all things ») and aitia euthesias (« cause of the good dispositiion of the elements»), by means of a demiurgic act, created the good order of the universe : eukosmia.
After all that has been said of Metis and her fellow-figure Thetis, it will hardly come as a surprise to hear that the creature associated with her was the octopus, or closely related members of the same genus. It was no doubt the observation of this animal that gave rise in the first place to the myth-idea of Metis. From neolithic times, the octopus has symbolised water and the sea, its undulating movements mimetically re-presenting the motions of that element. Then, it seems peculiarly female : because of those self-same movements, but also because of its colour, especially perhaps in a mediterranean context where men, living outdoors, are burned by the sun, while the women, staying at home, tend (at least tended) to have paler skin. And the same animal took on mystic proportions when it was observed not only how cryptic and secretive it was, but how from its whiteness could exude blackness : it seemed to unite qualities that were usually separated, and represented therefore an earlier stage of creation. Describing a certain type of calamar, cologo-teuthis, Ovid, in his Haleuticon, says that it is nigrum niveo portans in corpore virus (« carrying a black strength in its white body »).
Before leaving the figure of Metis-Thetis, we must come back to Alcman. In that poem of his, Thetis is accompanied by three other figures : Skotos, Poros and Tekmor. In order to get at their meanings, let me recount the genesis in other terms. In the beginning, there was mega chasma, a great abyss of darkness, a state of matter in which no ways were indicated and no signs shown, aporon kai atekmorton, with everything, for lack of distinguishing marks, confused in a dark fog : adiakriton panton onton kata skotoessan omichlen. If Skotos still accompanies Thetis, even after her demiurgic act founding the good disposition of the universe, it is that essential darkness still remains. But Tekmor is a promise of signs, just as Poros indicates the possibility of a way.
This is where we make the move back from myth to methodology.
Greek thought, as it has come down to us from Plato and Aristotle, invites the mind to think of reality in terms of two levels, two distinct categories.
On the one hand, you have the realm of ideas, the domain of the One, of all that is immutable and eternal. This is the region of philosophy, metaphysics of being, a logic of identity, and science (exact calculation and rigorous reasoning). On the other hand, you have the world of becoming, the world of multiplicity, if all that is unstable, erratic, ephemeral. This is outside the domain of philosophy and science, outside the domain of real knowledge, episteme. If the mind can be active in this area also, its activity, for Plato, can only be of a low epistemological order : partly mere floating opinion, partly a type of thinking which is called metis (the name of our fishy sea-goddess). This type of thinking is described as pantoie (multiple), poikile (multi-coloured), aiole (undulating). It is polymorphous, polyvalent, versatile. Polumetis is a word used to describe Ulysses, the man of a thousand tricks, who is often likened to an octopus, which Aristotle, in his treatise on nature, calls panourgotatos, the most cunning of fish. This « secondary » type of thinking is in fact cunning rather than knowledge. Let’s call it octopus logic, or tentacular intelligence. Ulysses has it, with his tricks, his duplicity, his deviousness and his stratagems. The politician has it. And the sophist too — the sophist, for Plato, being neither the sage, who claims he possesses wisdom, nor the philosopher, the lover and seeker of wisdom, but the man who does not take wisdom seriously and who plays with knowledge and rationality.
The hunter and the fisherman must have metis if they are to track and trap animals and catch fish. That is, confronted by a multiple, polymorphous, rapidly changing reality, they must themselves become multiple and polymorphous in order to get a hold on an almost unseizable object which never stays long enough in the one place to be contemplated like an idea.
Even more interestingly (for the hunter and the fisherman, however distractingly mobile they may be, are still concerned, like the philosopher and the scientist, with « fixing » something), the navigator must have metis in order to find his way in the open sea. He must know tides and stars, he must be attentive to time, season, sky and winds, all changing elements. He must have a many-sided intelligence, gnome poluboulos.
The Greeks had their city, a citadel of philosophy and science. They also had their known sea : thalassa, pelagos, kuma. But while they did not « have » it or « know » it, they also had wind of another sea : pontos, the open sea, with no well-known coasts in sight, no signs, the kind of sea the Argonauts got lost in : a panic area. That was what the Black Sea was : Pontos Axeinos (axeinos, from a scythico-iranian word meaning « dark »), which inspired so much fear its name was euphemistically changed to Pontos Euxeinos.
Now, to a poet, who is not exactly persona grata in the city, and who is never quite at home there, to a poetical mind, this open sea, this pontos, might seem a pretty good analogy for life (non-constricted, non-codified life), and he might begin to try and think (can it be admitted that a poet might wish to think ?) in terms of a life-thinking, a kind of thinking concerned with a way-of-life (poros biou), a sort of wave-and-wind thinking, a chaos-cosmic thinking… Oh, it would be vague enough at first. But it would be something more than lyrical enthusiasm, something more than emotive effusion, and a lot more than versified commentary.
He might go back to Plato, who is after all the most articulate of his fellow-citizens, and the one against whom, eventually, he may have to argue his case. Perusing once again the texts he studied in the Academy (because our poet was, and still is, a scholar) he’d find that for Plato, Metis, our famous sea-goddess, is the mother of Poros (poros : a way out), who lives with Penia (need, necessity), and from these two is born Eros. For Plato, the philosopher par excellence, Eros is not a god (theos), but a demon (daimon). From Metis and Poros, he inherits a very alert mind that enables him to procure in a hard world what he wants, which is, ultimately : knowledge, beauty.
Our scholar-poet, who finds similar notions in Parmenides, begins to think in terms of « erotic logic », and to invent extravagant words like biocosmopoetics, chaoticism…
He is still talking Greek, our poet-scholar-thinker, but it is disconcerting Greek. The philosophers will refuse to take him seriously, the lyrical poets will consider him a renegade to speculation, the defenders of the ideal will consider him a dangerous nihilist and confusionist, while the mentally flat-footed will shun him as pretentious. On all sides, he will be accused of something or other. Which is why he may choose to leave his native city-state for a while. He may go away out beyond the pale and live with barbarians, like Ovid during his exile on the Black Sea. Or else, he may travel over sundry lands, picking up signs here and there, and thinking wildly to himself.
Oh yes, he is an extravagant fellow, this poet we are gradually getting to now.
It was Eratosthenes, poet, grammarian, philosopher, mathematician, geographer and for long years head of the library of Alexandria who made fun of the Greeks for dividing the world neatly into two sections : Greeks, that is, civilized folk, and Barbarians. The world, for him, was wider and more complex than most civilized minds cared to think.
For Strabo, by no means the most limited intelligence in Athens, the world ended towards the west at Cape Sagres, on the ocean coast of Iberia ; towards the east, at the Taurus mountains ; towards the south, at the island of Taproban (South of India) ; and towards the north, at Ireland. « From Celtica », he said, « the farthest you can go north is the island of Iern, which is situated well beyond Britain, and where the cold is so intense that only a mean and wretched life is possible ». Yet three centuries before him, Pytheas of Marseilles had spoken of an island still father to the north which he called Thule. Strabo simply refused to believe it : it was scientifically impossible.
We can imagine the poet-scholar we met up with on the barbarian coast reading Strabo and comparing him with Pytheas who’d actually travelled north. We can imagine him taking out his Homer and reading about all those peoples that lived on the Bosphorus and beyond, peoples with no distinct name, referred to globally as « Hyperboreans ». We can imagine him travelling round the seaboard of the Barbary States, or the shores of the Black Sea, or the ocean coast of Celtica.
He might see strange patterns engraved on stones, strangely undulating and whirling patterns unlike the angular geometry he had learned in school — though he might remember the representations of octopus on Greek vases, as well as old stories about Typhon, the spiralling, labyrinthine, manifold (poluplokos) Typhon, the son of Tartarus the underworld and Gaea, the earth.
After contemplating the tumulus at New Grange, the pillar at Pfalzfeld, a stone or two in Gotland and the flowing lines of the great stones on the island of Gavrinis, in Brittany, our scholar-poet-thinker, with a head full of swirling, whorling, writhing forms, might travel East.
On the way, for he has studied linguistics and grammar, he might think of certain etymologies. He might take the vedic word panthah, meaning a path not traced out in advance, the crossing of an unknown region, the road to be opened where none exists and where no road, in any all-too-heavy sense of the word, can exist. And he might connect it in his head with the Greek pontos. Studying old Chinese, he might come across a definition of « intellectual » congruent with his own feeling of the word : « wind-and-lightning man ». He might actually come to China and hear about Tao, the watercourse way : « The Tao of the heavens operates mysteriously and secretly. It has no fixed shape. It follows no definite rules. It is so great that you can never come to the end of it. It is so deep that you can never fathom it. » He might even come, this wandering poet, to a certain temple in Japan where the god of healing is depicted riding the waves of the sea on the back of an octopus.
He is finding more and more living confirmation of what were at the outset tentative intuitions of his awakening intellect : that erotic logic, those biocosmopoetics. He is more and more convinced that the sharp division in Greek thought between being and becoming, feeling and intelligence, however fine its achievements, however much the West has depended on it in practically all fields, is fundamentally invalid.
He is out on another way.
And he will be out on his own a long, a very long time.
But by the second half of the twentieth century, science, or maybe rather the philosophy of science, seemed to be giving some kind of confirmation to the tentative apprehensions of our traveller-poet.
Certainly the times were ambiguous, as times often are. On the one hand, they resembled closely the fifth century Western Empire as described by Whitehead in Adventures of Ideas : « In the Western Empire, there was no pursuit. Its remnants of irritability were devoid of transcendent aim. » Irritabilities were rampant, but mostly confused, and often stupid. What transcendent activity and talk there was tended to be hollow. But in the margin and on « islands », there were moves towards an enlarged epistemology and a more vibrant cosmology, with a new sense of creative life. Certainly, there too was much frothy discourse — but something was in the air, there was a ripple of something in the mental atmosphere. Thought was moving out from its established divisions and connections into a larger space, a larger and more breathing space.
« In order to understand the essence of thought », wrote Alfred North Whitehead in Modes of Thought, « we must study its relation to the ripples amid which it emerges. » And in Adventures of Ideas, there was a similar sense of complex relation and oceanic being, seen this time not from the point of view of philosophy, but from that of physics :
« Modern physics has abandoned the doctrine of Simple Location […]. There is a focal region, which in common speech is where the thing is. But its influence streams away from it with infinite velocity throughout the utmost recesses of space and time. […] For physics, the thing itself is what it does, and what it does is this divergent stream of influence. Again the focal region cannot be separated from the external stream. It obstinately refuses to be conceived of as an instantaneous fact. It is a state of agitation, only differing from the so-called external stream by its superior dominance within the focal region. […] Thus if we endeavour to conceive a complete instance of the existence of the physical thing in question, we cannot confine ourselves to one part of space or to one moment of time. »
It was in statements such as that one that the traveller-poet and wandering scholar whose tracks we picked up a short time ago found confirmation of his intuitions and justification of his nomadic activity. And he found further confirmations when he read Popper’s Open universe, Schwenk’s Sensitive Chaos, or Atlan’s Between Crystal and Smoke. On all sides, in all fields, there was vagrant questioning. In fact, a new field seemed to be opening.
Whitehead had attributed the abandonment of the doctrine of Simple Location to « modern physics ». But early on in the same book (Adventures of Ideas), he had defined modern epistemology, modern cosmology in the following terms, which represented a previous (Cartesian-Newtonian) state of things : « The universe is shivered into a multitude of disconnected substantial things, each thing in its own way exemplifying its private bundle of abstract characters which have found a common home in its substantial individuality. » The use of the same word modern to designate two radically different visions of the world could only lead to confusion. It seemed advisable to restrict the term « modern » to the cartesian-newtonian system, which coincided with the rise of the « modern world » out of the Middle Ages, and find a new word to designate the new « field », the new world-in-emergence. The first word to present itself was, or course, post-modern. In the general confusion of the pseudo-culture, it was likely to be picked up and indiscriminately mouthed on all sides by superficial minds, but it would still be useful as a global, transitional term until a more precise vocabulary became current.
If the proliferation of neologisms can become a lexical disease, there is no doubt that at some point, they are necessary : « At any moment », says Whitehead again (Adventures of Ideas), « twenty new terms may be required by some advance in the subtlety of logical theory, », and any outcry against them is « a measure of unconscious dogmatism ». We have already seen our scholar-traveller-poet advancing concepts like « erotic logic », « biocosmopoetics », « superhihilism », « chaoticism »… He considered these as laxative concepts, meant to loosen up the functioning of the mind, but what really interested him, beyond all the -logies, was a new sense of the logos. That meant, in the final instance, a new poetics.
Most of the poetry that had come the traveller’s way in « modern times » left him totally indifferent. It all came out of the context described by Whitehead : « The universe is shivered into a multitude of disconnected substantial things, each thing in its own way exemplifying its private bundle. » So you had private bundles of this or that nature (mostly sad sacks), a modernistic glee in incoherence, various types of simple location as exhibited by lawnmower-poets, back-alley poets, national poets (etc., etc.), or else wild wailings and noble nostalgias for lost ideals and coherences past. Which is why, in his search for a new world-poetics, our traveller-scholar-poet preferred to the latest volume by W, Y or Z studies in geomorphology, biogeography, oceanology.
Dwelling in isolated places here and there, walking the whispering shores of the world, though also at times moving through cities, he was trying to work it out, trying to work his way into what he conceived of as a complete logos-life.
Living the tides and the multiple spaces.
Trying to say it.