Centaurs, Wodwos, Wasps and Orchids—A Unitarian Meditation

READINGS

“As a Great Cry” from “Report to Greco” by Nikos Kazantzakis (1885-1957)


Blowing through heaven and earth, and in our hearts and the heart of every living thing, is a gigantic breath — a great Cry — which we call God. Plant life wished to continue its motionless sleep next to stagnant waters, but the Cry leaped up within it and violently shook its roots: “Away, let go of the earth, walk!” Had the tree been able to think and judge, it would have cried, “I don’t want to. What are you urging me to do You are demanding the impossible!” But the Cry, without pity, kept shaking its roots and shouting, “Away, let go of the earth, walk!”
          It shouted in this way for thousands of eons, and lo! as a result of desire and struggle, life escaped the motionless tree and was liberated.
          Animals appeared — worms — making themselves at home in water and mud. “We’re just fine here,” they said. ”We have peace and security; we're not budging!”
          But the terrible Cry hammered itself pitilessly into their loins. “Leave the mud, stand up, give birth to your betters!”
          “We don’t want to! We can’t!”
          “You can’t, but I can. Stand up!”
          And lo! after thousands of eons, man emerged, trembling on his still unsolid legs.
          The human being is a centaur, his equine hoofs are planted in the ground, but his body from breast to head is worked on and tormented by the merciless Cry. He has been fighting, again for thousands of eons, to draw himself, like a sword, out of his animalistic scabbard. He is also fighting — this is his new struggle — to draw himself out of his human scabbard. Man calls in despair, “Where can I go? I have reached the pinnacle, beyond is the abyss.” And the Cry answers, “I am beyond. Stand up!” All things are centaurs. If this were not the case, the world would rot into inertness and sterility.

—o0o—

“Wodwo” by Ted Hughes

What am I? Nosing here, turning leaves over
Following a faint stain on the air to the river’s edge
I enter water. Who am I to split
The glassy grain of water looking upward I see the bed
Of the river above me upside down very clear
What am I doing here in mid-air? Why do I find
this frog so interesting as I inspect its most secret
interior and make it my own? Do these weeds
know me and name me to each other have they
seen me before do I fit in their world? I seem
separate from the ground and not rooted but dropped
out of nothing casually I’ve no threads
fastening me to anything I can go anywhere
I seem to have been given the freedom
of this place what am I then? And picking
bits of bark off this rotten stump gives me
no pleasure and it’s no use so why do I do it
me and doing that have coincided very queerly
But what shall I be called am I the first
have I an owner what shape am I what
shape am I am I huge if I go
to the end on this way past these trees and past these trees
till I get tired that’s touching one wall of me
for the moment if I sit still how everything
stops to watch me I suppose I am the exact centre
but there’s all this what is it roots
roots roots roots and here’s the water
again very queer but I’ll go on looking

—o0o—

Beatrice Moses Hinkle (1874–1953) in “The Recreating of the Individual” (Harcourt Brace, 1923, p. 437)

Mankind possesses many wishes. But there is one great and universal wish expressed in all religions, in all art and philosophy, and in all human life; the wish to pass beyond himself as he now is, the wish for a further attainment, for a new consciousness or a new state of being in which that greater unity and more harmonious psychic integration longed for, is an achieved reality. [It is a] desire for a new consciousness or a new state of being in which that greater unity and more harmonious psychic integration longed for, is an achieved reality.

From the anonymously authored, late-mediaeval “Book of the twenty-four philosophers”

Deus est sphaera infinita cuius centrum est ubique, circumferentia nusquam — God is an infinite sphere whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.

—o0o—

Ophrys insectifera, the fly orchid, is a species of orchid and the type species of the genus Ophrys. It is native to Europe and favours sites with alkaline soil. The name arises because its inflorescence resembles a fly, although it is dependent on wasps and bees for pollination. The plants use scent to attract male wasps and bees which pollinate the flowers as they attempt to mate with the flower. The scent released by the flowers mimic female sexual pheromones.

—o0o—

ADDRESS: Centaurs, Wodwos, Wasps and Orchids—A Unitarian Meditation

Today I would like to bring before you an invitation to consider three juxtapositions that will, I hope, encourage you to ask further questions so as to begin a new line of reflection in your thinking about what it is to be a human being or, indeed, any thing in the world.

Last summer I stumbled upon the passage you heard earlier by Nikos Kazantzakis (1883–1957) who will be best known to you as the author of “Zorba the Greek” and “The Last Temptation of Christ”. In it you will recall that he said that “The human being is a centaur . . . All things are centaurs.”

The centaur is, of course, a mythical creature with the upper body of a human and the lower body of a horse. The usual account of how they came into being is that Zeus (the chief god of the Pantheon), having pity for a human king called Ixion who had gone mad after murdering his father-in-law, decided to bring him to the home of the gods on Mount Olympus and to introduced him at their table. Alas, instead of being grateful for and humbled by this honour, Ixion began to lust after Hera, Zeus's wife. Zeus, discovering Ixion’s intentions made a cloud in the shape of Hera and he tricked Ixion into having sex with it. It was from the union of Ixion and the cloud that there came forth Centaurus. Centaurus form — or as our cultures have mostly see it — Centaurus’ deformed form means that he could find no peace amongst other humans and so escaped to the mountain of Pelion where he roamed, lived, and mated with the Magnesian mares who inhabited that place. It was from their union that the race of Centaurs come. They were called the Ixionidae (Ixy-on-id-aye) after the dishonourable king and were said to be wild, savage, and lustful. Not surprisingly since then, and particularly in the fields of psychology and psychoanalysis, this creature has often been used to explore the idea of humankind’s complex nature as a union of contrasts.

Let’s now juxtapose the Centaur with the Wodwo about whom I began to think after re-reading Ted Hughes’ strange poem bearing the same name.

The Wodwo is characterized by Hughes as a sort of “half-man, half-animal spirit of the forests” and he appears in various forms in both British and Europe mythology. He is perhaps most famously mentioned in the late fourteenth-century poem “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”. The name was gradually replaced with the term “wild man” but it survives today in the form of the surname Wodehouse or Woodhouse. We will return to an interpretation of Hughes’ poem after our next example.

Again, what we have in the Wodwo is a creature expressing the idea of humankind’s complex nature as a union of contrasts.

Lastly, let’s juxtapose the Centaur and the Wodwo with the Wasp and the Orchid. Now, superficially, you may be lured into thinking that the Wasp and the Orchid are separate and distinct entities quite unlike the obviously dual-natured Centaur and Wodwo but, according to the French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, you’d be quite wrong. In their 1980 book “A Thousand Plateaus” (p. 10) they draw upon a by now well-know evolutionary biological narrative which tells us the orchid imitates the wasp to help the propagation of its own species.

But Deleuze and Guattari extend this narrative by suggesting that perhaps a better way of seeing things is to say that the orchid is “becoming-wasp” and the wasp is “becoming-orchid”. In other words there are at play here constant processes of deterritorialization and reterritorialization in which the wasp and the orchid are always already indissolubly connected to and caught up in one another. According to Deleuze and Guattari the wasp and orchid together form a rhizome — i.e. some larger thing that is able to apprehend multiplicities in a more complex and pluralistic whole.

What is key to see here is that the encounter between these two apparently separate entities creates a new reality, a new becoming and one question this raises is what does it mean for the orchid to become-wasp and the wasp to become-orchid? Thanks to the juxtapositions, by extension we may also ask what does it mean for the man to become-horse and the horse to become-human? What does it mean for the human to become-forest-spirit and the forest-spirit to become human?

At the very least it displays a deep mutual relationship — perhaps we may even call it love — for one another and it presents to us a significant breakdown in the way we usually understand the world and how each thing in it relates to every other thing.

With the wasp and the orchid, once again we come face to face with an idea, an image, a story which helps us explore the idea of the complex nature of the world as a union of contrasts.

But we have all grown up in an age and culture — particularly those of us at the liberal end of the spectrum — which is dangerously obsessed with individuality and the associated idea that we are each absolutely, discrete, separate souls.

Whilst I don’t want to completely demolish the value of the idea of the individual, I think that, by and large, we have gone way far too far in this direction and these three juxtapositions before us today should at least give us pause.

This set of juxtapositions remind us — for good biological and cultural reasons — that no easy distinction can ever really be made between the human and the animal, between the human and the forest, between the animal and the vegetable, between all things here and all things there.

But the culturally powerful image of the single, discrete individual entity continues to hold sway and although it has clearly had powerful and, in many cases, what we would call beneficial consequences, these benefits have come at the cost of dysfunctionally closing us down to understanding something primordial about our nature.

I know of no better nor more succinct expression of this primordial something than some words written in 1923 by the remarkable Beatrice Moses Hinkle (1874–1953) who was an important early American psychoanalyst, writer and translator. In a book entitled “The Recreating of the Individual” she wrote:

Mankind possesses many wishes. But there is one great and universal wish expressed in all religions, in all art and philosophy, and in all human life; the wish to pass beyond himself as he now is, the wish for a further attainment, for a new consciousness or a new state of being in which that greater unity and more harmonious psychic integration longed for, is an achieved reality (“The Recreating of the Individual”, Harcourt Brace, 1923, p. 437).

Is not this the desire being expressed in different ways by the orchid becoming-wasp and the wasp to becoming-orchid? By the story about the human becoming-horse and the horse becoming-human? By the story of the human becoming-forest-spirit and the forest-spirit becoming human?

To help bring us to a temporary close let me conclude by walking through Hughes otherwise strange poem because it can stand as report of both my own and the poet’s experience of what this deterritorialization and reterritorialization can feels like when it happens, say, during a meditative walk along a river.

The poem begins with the pertinent question “What am I?” It is, I think, significant that Hughes does not begin by asking “Who am I?” I’ll leave you to ponder this . . .

So, what am I, nosing here and there in this address, turning real and metaphorical leaves over, following a faint stain on the air to the river’s edge where I enter water and split what might seem to some an impermeable boundary between the what of me and the what of the river? 

Once through the looking glass of the river’s surface do “I” look up to the bed of the river or up to the sky? Well that depends on whether I am some putative human looking down or some putative river looking up. But since I seem to be both at once I find myself in mid-air.

I begin to know the frog as both man and river. What is true of the frog is true of the weeds too and I and the river cannot tell whether they know me and name me to each other, whether they have they seen me before and whether or not I fit in their world.

It all makes me seem separate from the ground and not rooted but dropped out of nothing casually. I suddenly realise that I’ve no threads fastening me to anything and that, miracle or miracles, I can go anywhere. Indeed I seem to have been given the freedom
of this place but, if that is given I have to ask again to what is it given? What am I then?

Sitting there by the river picking bits of bark off this rotten stump gives me no pleasure and it’s no use so why do I do it? I realise that “me and doing that” have coincided very queerly and so question upon question tumbles out of me.

So what shall I be called?

Am I the first?

Have I an owner?

What shape am I?

Indeed, how can I answer what shape I am if I am so huge I go to the end on this way past these trees and past these trees till I get tired? Also, what is it that’s touching one wall of me for the moment if I sit still? And then there is the sense that everything seems to stop to watch me. Why is this? Perhaps it is because I am the exact centre? But that doesn’t seem right because there’s all this around me — roots, roots, roots, roots — rhizomatic roots endlessly and infinitely bifurcating, always making some larger living thing about which some anonymous ancient mediaeval author in their Liber XXIV philosophorum (the book of The Twenty-four Philosophers) once said:

“Deus est sphaera infinita cuius centrum est ubique, circumferentia nusquam” — “God is an infinite sphere whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere”.

And then, suddenly, here I am again by the water — I find I have become a “who” again and the water, too, has again become the water and I find myself speaking in the voice of Lewis Carroll’s Alice:

“How queer everything is today! And yesterday things went on just as usual. I wonder if I’ve been changed in the night? Let me think: was I the same when I got up this morning? I almost think I can remember feeling a little different. But if I’m not the same, the next question is, Who in the world am I? Ah, that’s the great puzzle!” (Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Chapter 2)

“But”, I say out loud to myself, “not ‘Who in the world am I?’ but ‘What in the world am I? That’s the truly great puzzle!”

And, as I stand there by the river’s edge returning to an everyday perspective, I find I can still catch hear an echo of Kazantzakis’ “Great Cry” and I make a promise to myself that I will go on looking; looking for that new consciousness or a new state of being in which that greater unity and more harmonious psychic integration longed for, is an achieved reality.

Queer indeed — but surely this is an expression of the fundamental, enabling Unitarian vision, one in which a person can both see and know something of how the many can meaningfully be said to be the one and the one, meaningfully the many.

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