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POETRY BOOK III:

TETRALOGY I:
AN EVOLUTIONARY JOURNEY
IN FOUR PARTS.

POEMS, 2004-2008

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Poetry Book: Tetralogy I:
An Evolutionary Journey in Four Parts.
Poems 2004-2008

Allahabad: Cyberwit. 2019. 428 pages




Tetralogy I: An Evolutionary Journey in Four Parts. Poems 2004-2008




I. SCIENCE AND POETRY

I have always been interested in questions about the nature of life, about how the world came to be, about how everything works, how everything is related to each other, and how human beings fit into this world. I guess I am not alone in asking these questions ― they will be of interest to anyone with the time and energy to think about them. The entirety of literature and culture of the world is full with traditions ­― both old and new ­― speculating, meditating, pondering about such questions. This is one trajectory I am pursuing in this volume: a discussion of aspects of mythology, theology and philosophy as they pertain to natural and cultural history.

Yet there is a second trajectory. While poetry and mythology seem a natural fit, the assumption is typically made that poetry and science do not mix. The assumedly cold and inhumane processes of hypothesizing, experimenting and theorizing that characterizes much of science surely would not lend themselves easily to a poetic treatment? Richard Dawkins (River out of Eden, Unweaving the Rainbow, The Magic of Reality, An Appetite for Wonder) would certainly disagree with this, as he has published widely on the poetic nature of the world, demonstrating that once you unweave the rainbow, it does not become less fascinating but more so, and that the natural world is simply so wonderous that you cannot help but to see it in poetic terms. Similarly, Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson (Cosmos), Stephen Hawking (A Brief History of Time), David Attenborough (BBC nature documentaries, especially Life on Earth), and many, many others more have worked to imbue the public understanding of science with the same degree of wonder, fascination, and poetry that usually is reserved to the realms of mythology and religion. My attempt here is to follow this direction by structuring the poems in this book in a way that science is clearly seen as an inspiration and organizing principle in the understanding of the natural world. There are plenty of passages dedicated to the description of scientific knowledge, the understanding of the theory of evolution, and the celebration of the scientific achievement of all human cultures throughout history.

This brings me to the third and final trajectory, the interaction between both principles, the harmonization of mythos and logos, of shadows and forms (in the Platonic sense), or fiction and fact, of religion and science. The late Stephen J. Gould famously understood science and religion as “non-overlapping magisteria.” I do not subscribe to this belief at all. All our religious and mythological creation stories are attempts to situate human existence within a natural order. There are many ways of telling that story, and before science took hold, universal forces and principles would simply be described in the language of divinity. Mythological and religious knowledge has also always evolved. Contrary to what religious institutions may want you to believe, religious orthodoxy has always been in flux, has always adapted to changed understandings about the world. These processes of adaptation may have seemed longer and more subtle, but they have always been there. Anyone trying to systematize Greek or Roman mythology/theology will discover that different authors will disagree with each other about the nature of the gods all the time, and that functions and even family relations of gods are oftentimes contested, resulting in multiple origin stories. Furthermore, serious theology has always come with the warning that if you believe you understand the nature of god, you have not understood the nature of god, just as Richard Feynman has reportedly said that "If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t understand quantum mechanics.” The Biblical commandment forbidding humans to make graven images of God is exactly such a warning against being too sure in your convictions, against believing you can define God, and in favor of retaining the capacity for doubt and continuous life-long pursuit of the truth, without never knowing whether you have finally reached it. I only wish more people would follow that.

Science and Religion are thus more related to each other than might typically be assumed. However, I would not put both on the same level of hierarchy: Science clearly has shown to have more predictive and explanatory power than religion; even though religion frequently is left to tell the more emotionally affective story. Despite Newton’s best efforts, his statement that “for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction” does not read as awe-inspiring as religious warnings against sinning. An angry god is probably scarier than a simple statement of cause and effect. But talking to people in the language of religion tends to infantilize people, unless, of course, you get to conduct serious theology, but that is typically reserved to the priestly caste, who may very well be rather cynical about their business as already remarked by Cicero, echoing Cato, when wondering “that a soothsayer doesn't laugh when he sees another soothsayer” (De Divinatione 2, 24). Science does not approach humanity with such cynicism, but with the serious invitation that anyone could practice it, and that its findings are transparent and will, if true, stand up to anybody’s scrutiny. Science is democracy in practice. What is more poetic than that?

II. ABOUT THE POEMS

Now to the poems. The four poems forming my first Tetralogy are set up with the following reasoning in mind:

  • They describe the evolution of humanity since we have left the Woods, ventured into the Desert, spread through the planet by traversing its Seas, to eventually discover space and the Stars.

  • The four parts also mimic the four seasons: spring (“The Woods”: the time of growing), summer (“The Desert”: heat, stress, warfare), fall (“The Sea”: the moral fall of the world in colonization), and winter (“The Stars”: the coldness of space).

  • They also mirror Wagner’s operatic tetralogy The Ring of the Nibelung: from innocence (“The Woods” / The Rheingold), to temptation and conflict (“The Desert” / The Valkyrie), flawed heroism (“The Sea” / Siegfried) and the transcendence of the world (“The Stars” / Twilight of the Gods). This is not as direct a connection, but it is made explicit sometimes when referring to Wagner especially throughout The Woods.

I have provided footnotes throughout to explain some connections that may not be easily apparent for everyone. That might seem unnecessarily academic or even pedantic, but so be it. I do not believe poetry should essentially be riddles for a specially initiated elite, but I am hoping to be communicating as clearly as possible.

All four poems are organized into five acts like a classical drama, with introduction, epilog and interludes. Each act consists of 10 sections. You will see little graphics at the end of each small section. These are inspired by Richard Dawkins’ “Biomorphs” that he established in his Blind Watchmaker, but they are not algorithmically evolved but deliberately designed to fit each section’s theme.

Now, let me make some remarks about each of the individual poems.

THE WOODS” introduces in its introduction the leitmotif “would we go lost / were once to return we?”. This is the question that hints at our origin as the “Third Chimpanzee” (Jared Diamond), a creature of the woods. We became human by leaving these woods, evolutionarily speaking, and yet we are still tied in many ways to this history. We seem to calm down in the presence of greenery, and we are used to think in three dimensions just as we would have had to when we were “mere” forest dwellers. Maybe some of our ancient fears come from these times still (Donald Brown, Human Universals, Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate).

We begin our voyage by discussing elements of the forest, mixed with some loose meditating on the wider meaning of them in both Acts I and II till we approach the night. Act III follows, loosely, Wagner’s opera Siegfried, Act IV is about natural evolution, and Act V provides a wider discussion of hopes, dreams and desires. The decision to create a tetralogy was made during the end of the writing process of the poem, which was originally intended to be a stand-alone piece. But once the format had evolved, it became clear that there was clearly the potential for a larger structure, and so it was to be.

THE DESERT” is a meditation on the abyss, following the theme of “Errand into the Wilderness” established by Samuel Danforth. Just as Moses, John the Baptist and Jesus were tempted in the desert, humanity is tested by the wilderness. Civilization is a thin layer covering human nature, sometimes successfully, sometimes not; and in itself, even civilization is not as civilized as it claims, and shares more with its supposed opposite, barbarism. Just as Goethe’s Faust exclaims that two souls are living inside him (“Zwei Seelen wohnen, ach! in meiner Brust”), humanity is drawn between good and evil, sin and virtue, easy and hard, success and failure, Thanatos (death wish) and Eros (life wish). We begin with descriptions of landscape and nature, (Acts I and II), warfare (Act III), civilization (Act IV) and conclude with reflections on the life of the soul (Act V).

THE SEA” opens with reflections on the origin of life in the seas (Act I), then continues on to marine life (Act II), mythology (Act III), the Age of Discovery (Act IV), colonization and genocide (Act V), and a somewhat bittersweet ending. The juxtaposition of the optimism of discovery, and the realization of the moral failure of the colonialist enterprise belong together, and cannot be resolved, but in talking about them together, at least the story itself is being told in a more complex way, hopefully. It needs to be told in order to shape a better future after lessons hopefully learnt.

THE STARS” continues with the theme of discovery. It begins with reflections on physics (Act I), continuing to descriptions of the planets (Act II), mythology (Act III), astronomical discoveries (Act IV), and concludes with further meditations on scientific themes (Act V). The intersection of mythology and science is supposed to illustrate not just the triumph of science, but also to recontextualize the mythological approaches within an early pre-scientific framework. We know so much more now than we ever knew in the history of humankind; yet future generations will probably know even more than us, and look at us as primitive, even though we tried our very best. This perspective should humble us and generate and sustain a deep sense of respect for the achievements of the past, however imperfect the results may have been in today’s eyes. Yet where science still sometimes fails today, mythology has been succeeding till now, and probably will continue to succeed in the future: in inspiring us, in telling fantastic stories that weave a tale of universal importance into the intimate need of human beings to situate ourselves within a world that has other priorities than our own individual happiness or even survival.

This then concludes my meandering meditations about the evolution, natural history, the nature of civilization, and the deeper layers of the human mind.

III. OTHER POEMS & OUTLOOK

This is my third poetry volume published with Cyberwit. While all my poems can also be found online at philjohn.com, these books provide the additional benefit of more commentary, different selections and new contexts that shall provide an enhanced reading experience. The first volume, Life As We Know It, is a brief compilation of individual poems and excerpts from larger ones. It follows five different themes: I. Observations, II. (Human) Nature, III. Life and Death, IV. Love and V. Civilization.

The second volume Daimonia follows a clear line of thought which describes the shattering of a solid belief system, and attempts to rebuild and reshape it. In its five sections, it moves through the stages of I. Certainty, II. Introspection, III. Trauma, IV. Questioning, and V. Redefinition.

A future volume is already in preparation and it will follow up directly to the volume at hand. Tetralogy II will again comprise four larger poems dealing with essential philosophical questions of human life. Its individual parts will probably be “The Road”, “The Garden”, “The City” and “The Ruins.”

Thank you, dear reader, for joining me in this voyage you are about to undertake. I hope you will find the effort worthwhile, and that after pages and pages of reflections on science, mythology, and culture, with plenty of erratic distractions, and approximately 200 pedantic footnotes, you will have had a chance to experience a similarly ecstatic effect as when I was setting out on this private voyage of poetic discovery all these years ago.







Table of Contents:

Introduction

The Woods
The Desert
The Sea
The Stars




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