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9/27/11

Loren Eiseley & Milan Kundera : Consciousness & Mystery

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Benjamin Franklin Professor of Anthropology and History of Science at the University of Pennsylvania, Loren Eiseley (1907–1977) was a prairie child growing up in Lincoln, Nebraska, son of a hardware-salesman father and a deaf mother, his parents living together but estranged. Something in their relationship made a tortured poet out of Eisely, for in his books there is a quest, a haunted imagination of eternity and the infinite, all of it filtered through the long shadow of geological epochs and black outer space. After years, I can pick up The Immense Journey, Darwin's Century, The Night Country, and other books to find myself enrapt by captivating prose evoking the long shadows of an evolving Earth and its tiny, whirling track among galaxies.

In The Immense Journey, he recalls a moth under an opera tent, a seemingly insignificant subject, but in his prose he provides a metaphor that reaches above the tent into the night sky, up toward the stars. Here it is.
  • While I was sitting one night with a poet friend watching a great opera performed in a tent under arc lights, the poet took my arm and pointed silently. Far up, blundering out of the night, a huge Cecropia moth swept past from light to light over the posturings of the actors. “He doesn’t know,” my friend whispered excitedly. “He’s passing through an alien universe brightly lit but invisible to him. He’s in another play; he doesn’t see us. He doesn’t know. Maybe it’s happening right now to us.”
Living in an age dominated by science, we have come more and more to believe in an objective, empirical reality and in the goal of reaching a complete understanding of that reality. A thrill came with the announcement that the human genome had been mapped or with the idea that we are close to understanding the big bang. It rests in our desire for completeness.

But we’re fooling ourselves. We are like Loren Eiseley's moth, blundering from light to light, unable to discern the great play that blazes under the opera tent.

In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera finds a voice for imagination and his experiences in Soviet Czechoslovakia. He also provides an image that reminds me of Eiseley's. In the novel there is Tomas, and Tereza, his wife

They dance together in a dingy Soviet-era hotel. Tomas, promiscuous, has finally surrendered to Tereza, long suffering. He will no longer chase women. "I have no mission," he says. They go to bed to wake up for a new beginning in the morning.

Next day, they will die as their truck's brakes fail on a mountain road.

The story leaves this image of their last night alive: "Up out of the lamp shade, startled by the overhead light, flew a large nocturnal butterfly that began circling the room. The strains of the piano and violin rose up weakly from below."

Another parabola intersects with their decline into death, and the nocturnal butterfly does not even know it is night.
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