Augury and Autobiography

by Clyde on 9, December 2010

Years ago, when the economy was more benevolent than the one we currently endure, I could cover my monthly expenses with only a few days’ labor.

As a consequence of this good fortune I was permitted to pursue intellectual endeavors that had no intrinsic ability to pay back in cash what time they consumed. Competitive etymology is a good example.

If I were to be vanquished at a dinner party by someone’s thrilling elucidation of the origin of the word ‘sincere,’ I would merely vow to hunker down, spending hours in the library to search for an even more convoluted tale to spin.

That is how I came upon the word augury and its noble heritage.

The Augur was a Roman priest who specialized in divination by observation of the flight patterns of birds. We hark back to that meaning when we say ‘this augurs well for such-and-such.’ Perhaps more would choose ‘this bodes well’ instead, but ‘to bode’ is not a subject of this post.

Apparently, the Augur was, in turn, a refined version of the Auspex, a practitioner of haruspicy who, in his more primitive and hands-on manner, would divine the forthcoming unfolding of events through assiduous examination of birds’ entrails.

Peering inside an avian cousin and compelling oneself not to avert the gaze, but instead to studiously penetrate to the meaning of the play performed there on the stage of the glistening, iridescent viscera is to arrive at the undeniable fact of our own material nature.

One has to admit, it does convey a certain symbolic representation of a willingness to bear the full weight of the ‘truth,’ whatever it should happen to be.

Still, there is something inherently poetic captured by the unflinching, individual and coherent mind put on display by a darting flock of birds. An ensemble becomes one.

As proof of my assertion that this is ‘poetic,’ I submit these lines from an actual poem by Richard Wilbur, called ‘The Event’

What is an individual thing? They roll
Like a drunken fingerprint across the sky!
Or so I give their image to my soul
Until, as if refusing to be caught
In any singular vision of my eye
Or in the nets and cages of my thought,
They tower up, shatter, and madden space
With their divergences, are each alone
Swallowed from sight, and leave me in this place

I had mixed feelings about this poem when I first encountered it in a book review. I am naturally repelled by poems that utilize rhyme. I have, however, concluded that this one merits some respect, especially given that I have remembered the image of the ‘drunken fingerprint’ for years now. Also, I am drawn to the image Wilbur uses to depict time flowing backwards:

As if a cast of grain leapt back to the hand,
A landscapeful of small black birds, intent
On the far south, convene at some command
At once in the middle of the air, at once are gone
With headlong and unanimous consent
From the pale trees and fields they settled on.

In considering the motion of a flock of birds the question peeps into my head, ‘how do the one hundred trillion cells of the human body come to believe they are one organism?’ It sounds like a joke when you phrase it that way, but who would even know if there were dissenters in the ranks?

Time and Moments

one way copy ‘One Way Sign’

Wilbur’s casual allusion to running the film of reality backwards through the projector of time brings to mind this photograph that I have so urgently tried to place in a spotlight where it will be seen and acclaimed.

Its origins lie in my posing to myself the question ‘how does the self continually, instantaneously and spontaneously maintain its apparent integrity from moment-to-moment?’ I began to address this question in SyntheticBlog with the post ‘My Son the Narratologist,’ when I explored the role of narrative as it exists in our minds.

I have detected in my recent readings that there is a tendency to relate the continuity of self to our notion of time and its origins. Perhaps this follows logically, though it could merely be a trend, a fashionable intellectual conceit. I tend towards the former view.

We (let me use ‘we’ as a shorthand for a dominant idea in our culture)believe that time flows continuously in one direction and that is exists apart from our awareness, and by extension, apart from any awareness.

After our death we suppose that time will exist unchanged for those who remain and  that, in this sense all minds are irrelevant to the existence of time. Yet evidence favoring this belief is scant, while evidence against it is difficult to dismiss. An introduction to these ideas can be found in the amiable manifesto Biocentrism: How Life and Consciousness are the Keys to Understanding the True Nature of the Universe.

Naturally, since humans all tend to ask the same questions about themselves, the history of these ideas can be verifiably traced back 2500 years to the well-known set of Zeno’s Paradoxes.  Originally forty in number, only seven have been preserved and these come to us by way of Aristotle.

The ‘Arrow Paradox‘ posits the falsification of time by its reduction to a set of points on a path that themselves are without duration. With that in mind I turn once more to my photograph.

Conventionally, in our left-to-right reading society, the movement of media through time, media like video and audio played on a computer, is depicted with arrows pointing leftward to go back in recorded time, and arrows pointing rightward to signify a forward march. Here is a snippet from the Windows Media Player toolbar:


We all know how to interpret this. Now look again at the ‘One Way’ sign above. According to our conventions of iconography, it seems to declare there can only be movement: backward into the past.

Curiously, within us is an autobiographical self that ordinarily moves rather effortlessly in this direction. The voice that speaks our past to our present selves, never ceasing to tell its story, always strives to paint the present in pointillist colors from yesterday’s palette.

Yet it struggles always to pin down the blob of mercury that is the future, and this failing has engendered the varied arts of divination, augury being but one of many.

Those who have experienced prescient dreams may harbor different feelings about this blob of uncertainty we call the ‘future.’ I know I do. Coming events cast their shadow before them,’ as Joyce quotes Thomas Campbell in Ulysses.

Could the roiling cauldron of that-which-is-possible gel for an instant, perceptibly, and thereby convey its image to our selves?

Hold to the now, the here, through which all future plunges to the past.” -Joyce, once again from Ulysses.

Much of our awareness seems to consist of an uninterruptible flow of chatter in our heads. Is it from this that we assemble a ‘self?’

In Need of a Good Trepanning


Finally, in my tour of the word augur, I cannot omit its use as the name of a tool used to bur round holes, for example in the art of trepanning, or trepanation.

People have endured this practice of drilling holes through the skull for thousands of years. According to the International Trepanation Advocacy Group, one can even elect to have this procedure performed today.

I do like that people use the phrase ‘drill down’ to indicate a hierarchical relationship that needs examination at a core level. Besides the obvious evocation of trepanning, this metaphor fits in nicely with the notion that the self can be examined in a similar fashion.  Furthermore it brings us to a clearer delineation of the essential, Cartesian problem of mind: drilling down reveals merely matter, but inwardly is a personal private universe known only to oneself.

.A pleasant place to contemplate these ideas can be had in Solms and Turnbull: Brain and the Inner World: An Introduction to the Neuroscience of Subjective Experience.


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