The Errors of the Fathers

The fathers — the passed and passing generations who created the software of our minds — did as well as they could, but they also made a lot of errors.  How should we deal with that?  Trust, but verify.

Here’s an example.  When I was a teenager I liked the Yeats poem “Long-Legged Fly”.  Here’s a taste of it:

THAT civilisation may not sink,
Its great battle lost,
Quiet the dog, tether the pony
To a distant post;
Our master Caesar is in the tent
Where the maps are spread,
His eyes fixed upon nothing,
A hand under his head.
Like a long-legged fly upon the stream
His mind moves upon silence.

Great poem, but Yeats’ politics is cruel and idiotic.   The great man theory of history, the idea that Julius Caesar, political infighter of the late Roman Republic was involved in saving civilization, all bad ideas.  Great poem, but Yeats used rhythm and cool images to make it stick in our minds.  It’s stuck in mine!

How do I unstick it?

My friend is fact, or in particular, the world of entomology.  Yeats is comparing the relationship between the creative human being and the  Absolute to the relationship of a water-strider to water.  His “long-legged fly” is of the family Gerridae, a species of insect that has evolved to walk without breaking through the surface tension of the water.  Here’s wikipedia on surface tension and water striders:

water striders use surface tension to walk on the surface of a pond in the following way. The nonwettability of the water strider’s leg means there is no attraction between molecules of the leg and molecules of the water, so when the leg pushes down on the water, the surface tension of the water only tries to recover its flatness from its deformation due to the leg. This behavior of the water pushes the water strider upward so it can stand on the surface of the water as long as its mass is small enough that the water can support it. The surface of the water behaves like an elastic film: the insect’s feet cause indentations in the water’s surface, increasing its surface area[4] and tendency of minimization of surface curvature (so area) of the water pushes the insect’s feet upward.

Yeats is telling us that the way the effective human being relates to God — the Parmatman –the Storehouse Consciousness (Alaya Vijnana)– what Gene Wolfe calls “The Increate” — is like how the water strider relates to the pond.  He skates on the surface without disturbing the silence with thought, but this in turn allows him to thought and react.

True?  False?  Half-true?  True in some circumstances rather than others?

Assignment for home.  Take Yeats’ Long-Legged Fly (which I keep in my mind calling Long-Leggedy Fly) and re-tell it for other pond creatures.  The frog.  The dragonfly.  The whirligig beetle.

And most importantly, the Diving Bell Spider!

What if Caesar’s mind is not like the water-strider that skates on the surface of God, but like the spider who also live in ponds but take the water, weave a diving bell out of it, and go beneath the surface to mate and lay their eggs.  A very different picture, less fascist, and less misogynistic, but more importantly, more accurate!

When we look in our minds and emotional repertoires (what I called our software above) we discover a lot of items deliberately stowed away there by the fathers, many of them like Yeats’s “Long-Legged Fly” were deliberately tricked up to be hard to forget because of the motives of the fathers, some admirable, some less so.  (Yeats wanted the grandchildren of his enemies to take his side.)    As Otto Neurath (the inventor of the universal hieroglyphic language used to let us know for example that a bathroom is wheelchair accessible) it’s an incoherent project to try to broom it all.  But we can check these items one-by-one and consider for example whether the relationship of the individual to God is more like the relationship of a water strider to the water, or the relationship of a diving bell spider to the water.

Obviously, the diving bell spider.

What about “the silence”?  Should we think of God as silence rather than activity?  Should we even use the word “God” at all?

Who knows?  We need to leave some errors for the next generation to take care of!


3 thoughts on “The Errors of the Fathers

    • nicosanzterre says:

      Hello and have a nice day,
      These are not only wonderful ideas, but also profound. I’m delighted, but also thoughtful. Nevertheless, Easter also saved me.

      An objection.
      Yeats writes from “long-legged fly” in the final verses of each stanza,
      not from “long-legged bug” or water strider or water skeeter or water skipper or pond skater, not even from jesus bug.
      That is, he does not classify the insect “long-legged fly” in the
      Order Hemiptera
      Suborder Heteroptera
      Infraorder Gerromorpha
      Superfamily Gerroidea
      Family Gerridae

      At least he doesn’t explicitly classify his named insect there,
      at least not obvious, not unequivocal: minimal one could say he leaves that open.

      No, so Yeats writes about the “long-legged fly”, that would mean →
      Order Diptera
      Infraorder Asilomorpha
      Superfamily Empidoidea
      Family Dolichopodidae

      I don’t know why (as you say) Yeats should have meant “long-legged fly” as a bug from the Family Gerridae.
      Yes, even the long-legged flies (Family Dolichopodidae) live …”near water or in meadows, woodland edges and in gardens. Some groups are confined to wet places including sands on the banks of water bodies…many are semi-aquatic and live in or near water margins”…

      Did Yeats deliberately make all this so ambivalent to confuse me or maybe you and maybe others. Maybe Yeats was also a disguised or secret entomologist – like other poets and writers, or priest, obstetrician…as you know, for example,
      William Hunter, Jean-Henri Fabre, Johann Christian Fabricius, William Kirby.
      Did William Butler Yeats perhaps anticipate, foresaw how he would “entomologically” provoke later contemporaries?

      Because in my modest opinion, the whole classification of Yeats’ “long-legged-fly”
      into the world of Gerromorpha-Gerroidea-Gerridae → vulgo “bugs”
      regrettably on shaky feet, further conclusions based on it are thus rather and unfortunately God’s “short-legged”.

      Further small questions, comments:
      How can you take water and weave a diving bell out of it (from water)?
      Did I understand that correctly?
      What is meant by the fasces – rod bundles, bunch of wooden rods, birch rods;
      resp. latin “fasciare” – wrap?
      Or did you mean really fascist- fascism…..as regards the poetry of Yeats or Ireland?
      Now I think I can understand it, maybe.Your article was written on April 20th.
      For Germany an always oppressive day, a date that permanently reminds of the great disaster.
      But why for the english speaking world?

      Please, take some things, but not everything seriously, maybe I could not always express myself clearly (English is not my mother tongue).
      I repeat again, I really liked your article because it left all conventional ways and made me think.
      And a nice and contemplative Easter.

      • Nico,
        1)Yeats is being imprecise using the word “fly”. That’s ok. In normal language people use words like “fly” “worm” and bug “loosely”.
        2)Yeats was politically a fascist — an anti-democratic nationalist with crazy ideas about the mythic past

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