Monday, August 10, 2009

What the Mind's Eye Sees

In Der fliegende Berg, Christoph Ransmayr juxtaposes two different ways of looking at the things of this world:

Was bedeute eine Gestalt denn schon?
Es könne doch auch eine Nebelkrähe
bloß als kluger Vogel erscheinen
und zugleich ein Bote des Himmels sein—

ebenso wie das über einen Grat ins Tal einfallende

Morgenlicht zugleich den Sonnenstand
den Lidschlag eines Gottes anzeigen könne,

und erst recht erscheine etwa ein Firnfeld,
das hoch oben unter den Gletschern den Mondschein spiegele,
einem schlaflosen Hirten als ein silbernes Tor in den Felsen
oder als ein Stück offenen Himmels!

und sei
in Wahrheit? eben doch nur Schnee,
Schnee vom vergangenen Jahr. (198)

A crow can be just a clever bird as well as a messenger from heaven; the morning light on a ridge can tell you where the sun is and also be the blinking of a God; a field of snow in the moonlight can be a silver gate in the cliffs or, "in truth?", just snow from last year. (See here for a discussion of this passage in German.)

For the narrator's brother Liam, only one of these perspectives is valid, while Ransmayr's Tibetan nomads are able to accept both of them at the same time.

George Keithley's The Starry Messenger, his sequence of poems about Galileo Galilei, makes clear, in the poem "What the Mind's Eye Sees," that Liam's perspective can be called "scientific." Keithley's Galileo determines what the Milky Way is (a huge swathe of invididual stars) to the exclusion of other understandings of it:

He reports the Milky Way is not a vaporous river.
Nor is it a stream of milk from Hera's breast.

Nor is it the spine of the sky—the pale backbone

of the black beast whose belly is our home.

Nor is it the ancient route of a raven's flight
through a night of snow.

Nor is it the path of souls descending from heaven to earth.

Nor the spirits of the dead departing to the other world.

The poet in me is inclined to accept the double perspective of Ransmayr's nomads and to defend the images that Keithley's Galileo refutes. But the materialist in me protests that metaphors and symbolism do not describe the world. Then the poet in me asks, "What do metaphors and symbols do to the world then?"

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