We have begun to explore how man is a double creature, a being who is natural and yet transcendent. The last post listed a number of ways in which this might be the case. This post will begin to explore numbers 2, 3, and 7. We can do this by first asking:
What does ‘poetry’ or ‘poetic’ mean?
One might refer to something impressionistic or stylized as poetry. If something has meaning that goes deeper than the surface, it too might be thought of as poetic. Beauty and even irony make their claim upon this title. That which displays a stylization or order, and also that which is ephemeral may receive this label. Yet another use of the term poetry or poetic may refer to a lack of systematization, to a certain appearance of frenzy or genius, or even to the ineffable. And of course stanza, rhyme and rhythm all get categorized as poetic.
Poetry, from the Ancient Greek, merely refers to that which is made or done with skill and purpose. Poetry captures a sense of an artful and intentional ordering. In this sense, one might refer to a statue, a story, a stanza, a photo, or a song equally as poetic. But so too a house, a bed, a dress, a spoon, or a computer. They are all things made with skill (more or less).
This may clarify Scripture’s use of the term:
- In the beginning God created (e-poihsen) the heavens and the earth (Gen 1).
- We are his workmanship (poihma) created in Christ Jesus unto good works (Eph 2:10)
God is an artful, orderly, purposeful maker of things.The bible describes all of creation and man in particular as God’s poetry. Yet, man is not only a work of poetry, but (made in God’s image) poetic. This could mean countless things. Here are a few suggestions:
- Man is creative
- Man is imitative
- Man is receptive
- Man is Contemplative
Man is Creative
We make houses and build bridges. We produce works of art and enjoy inventing. We create with words, with play-dough, and with wood. We delight in the act of ordering, discovering, and innovating. We love to see what will fit together.
Other creatures find creative ways to use natural objects. Birds, ants, and bees build amazing homes. Dolphins use sponges to stir sandy ocean bottoms. Otters use shells like hammers. Octopus use shells as shields. Animals use tools in a certain rudimentary sense. But no creature other man goes quite so far in its creative act. There is a sense in which we imprint or transfer the form of our intention into natural objects to such an extent that the object becomes double.
The hammer of the otter remains yet a shell. The wood which a beaver uses remain but sticks. The wasp’s paper is an excretion. These animals work with nature, for nature, in nature. But man, by the time he is finished with crafting a tool (or crafting an object by means of that tool) has so changed nature that we cannot use the term ‘natural’ in the same sense anymore. By and large, this is not the case with any other animal. It is natural for man to find a house, but a house is not strictly natural The object has taken on a new look, even if its original material(s) can still be identified.
One can even impose a look of nature back upon or in unity with the home. This is often referred to as rustic (or some such appellation). At such a point, the home begins to take on the sense of the fantastic or becomes evocative of atmospheres. In any case, when we are through with our work, our work bares a double form.
Man is Imitative
Stop copying me. Stop Copying me…
If you have a brother or sister, you probably know this delightful game. But mimicry is serious business. Just ask the birds. To imitate is to learn, to delight with, to share, to empathize, to know. It is part of how we socialize. It is a part of how we create. After all, we do not, as God does, create out of nothing, but rearrange and apply materials which are already there. Even our most outlandish creations–Zombies, iphones, etc–rely on attributes, needs, concepts which were recognized within creation and within the human heart.
Our poetic works, whether utensils for eating or Homer’s Odyssey, are all works of interpretation. We interpret and respond to reality. A fork is an imitation of the hand. A knife the imitation of teeth. The Odyssey an imitation of human actions, thoughts, desires, and knowledge.
We not only mimic, but through imitation, clarify by means of isolation, emphasis, order, and choice of material. The knife, in certain ways, improves upon teeth. A fork improves upon fingers, not in terms of grasping ability, but in terms of cleanliness. Homer improves upon our ability to see by telling a tale of a certain size, characters, and actions with a beginning, a middle and an end.
Man is Receptive
Homer helps us see that we are poetic, not merely in exterior creativity and imitation, but in our interior lives. Achilles and Priam share a poetic imitative moment together in the Iliad. And we experience that within ourselves through reading.
Empathy is the taking in and imitation of another’s experience. An image or likeness of the other takes shape poetically within the self. I have the possibility, not only of knowing my neighbor, but sharing in her experience. Thus I can be with her, and this withness takes the form of a kind sympathetic poetic social engagement.
A dog or cat may sympathize with its owner to a certain degree, but in man the ability to relate is brought to a certain perfection. The very nature of our being with an other takes the form of poetic communion. Our mode of knowing and sharing is thus poetic and imitative of God’s own existence as Trinity (more on this in future posts).
We not only receive emotions in this manner, but ideas, images, impressions, knowledge and experience. Man is not just a creature within a cosmos, but a cosmos unto himself, for he is capable of knowing and being all things. We are not primarily collectors of facts, but sharers in reality. In as much as the soul is all things (Aristotle, de Anima 3.8), we are creatures of poetic communion–we enter into relations by deepening our kinship with each and every thing. The unique structure of our nature is that of communion (cf. Zizioulas, Being as Communion). It is this, the totality of our being, which constitutes the Imago Dei (more to come).
Man is Contemplative
If you place a leaf next to a rock, the two do not communicate with one another in a very deep sense. Nevertheless, what makes a universe a cosmos, and not just a big junkyard for all things, is that there is harmony, agreement, symbiosis, etc.
Taking into account all the remarkable interactions and interrelations that can be discovered in nature. Nature herself is not aware of her own interconnections.
Imagine placing your pet frog next to your pet cat for the first time. The cat will most likely tentatively investigate this new creature. It will probably sniff it, threaten it. Look at it, and of course, it will smack it at least once or twice.
The cat will come to a certain familiarity with the frog, but it will never come to know the frog as can. I am not referring to empirical knowledge. What I refer to is our imitative capacity. We become like the frog through contemplation.
There is not a green slimy thing that enters into me when I look at a frog. But by living with it, watching it, gazing and wondering, I come to a certain knowledge of the life it lives. I participate in its life without becoming it. I am other than it and yet can share in a certain sameness with it.
Through contemplation man beholds, imitates and participates in the life of all things. This is not to say that he will see every single thing, but that every created thing is created to be known in a certain mode or capacity. This is because the Creator, which every creature is to some extent like, is that supremely knowable Being, even as He remains unfathomable (cf. Pieper, The Silence of Thomas).
Man stands within and yet apart from nature in his capability of imitation and contemplation, and yet this otherness he possesses constitutes his deepest mode of relating to and be with all of creation.
It is man’s poetic/imitative otherness which simultaneously separates from and unites him to the universe.