Art and Sex and Very Small Birds

When breeding season is over the Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula) flies down from the inland mountains to the coast where the best tasting insects buzz all winter long. Kinglets are, in Peterson’s phrase, “tiny mites of birds,” about the size of hummingbirds but stouter, olive-gray with white wing bars and eye-rings. We saw a female Kinglet this past weekend, hovering in the boughs and snapping at invisible gnats. She was so compact and perfect, so happy and quick and undistractable, I could have watched her for hours.

Certain people think they’re being very Darwinian when they boil down the various behaviors of organisms to a bare procreative calculus. They apply their formula not only to wild animals but to humans too. “Why do termites and leopards and people do thus-and-such?” they ask. And the answer is always the same: In order to increase the chance of mating and passing on their genes. The way they describe it, it’s almost as if our genes were parasites with minds of their own, and what we innocently regard as our volitional self was nothing but an obliging host.

In Absence of Mind, Marilynne Robinson lampoons the way this idea is sometimes applied to creative endeavors: “What is art? It is a means of attracting mates, even though artists may have felt that it was an exploration of experience, of the possibilities of communication, and of the extraordinary collaboration of eye and hand.” She continues: “So, it would seem, the first thing to know about art, whatever the account of its motives and origins, is that its maker is self-deceived. Leonardo and Rembrandt may have thought they were competent inquirers in their own right, but we moderns know better.”

I share Robinson’s frustration, but I don’t like to underestimate our capacity for self-deception either, and I wonder if there isn’t after all a connection – though maybe a different sort of connection – between our mating and our making. It’s fun at least to ask how human history and culture might have differed if we were the sort of species that restricted lovemaking to set seasons. What if, like Regulus calendula, our hormones cooled after a brief fever and we were spared for nine or ten months at a time from the constant distraction of sex?

There’s really no saying what a circumscribed mating season might have meant for us. I wouldn’t be surprised, however, if under those circumstances our urge toward artistic activity cooled too and the making of art was reduced to the same two or three month span as the begetting of children. Not because making art only serves to help us attract mates and pass on our genes, but because the energies behind artistic creation and procreation both express, and promise the satisfaction of, a single intellectual longing.

A half hour after our audience with the Ruby-crowned Kinglet, my wife and I went walking in the hills. It was sunset and the deer were stepping into the meadows. Soft pink and orange clouds – afterthoughts of a Pacific storm – floated above us like colored paper lamps. Talking as we went, I felt as sharp a pleasure in handling ideas as I felt in watching the light change and in smelling the wet earth. It was one of those fully integrated moments the blessing of which I can feel for years and which have so far prevented me from thinking too poorly of the universe.

Walking like this, as any walker can tell you, has a way of stirring up new ideas or making old ones feel fresh again. I found that I was suddenly in love with the old idea – the commonsensical notion, really – that all experience is particular experience. I was in love, more precisely, with my own experience – not merely of the present moment, but of my personal experience of experience, the sense of being my own self and being subject to sensory and intellectual impressions in the particular way that I am.

The human mind is a prism (or mirror or lamp) in which light is gathered and split in characteristic ways. The perceptive faculty may be the same from one person to another, but the instruments are calibrated differently. When we see through these eyes, hear through these ears, touch with these hands, and understand by this mind, there is a personal quality of perception that we can’t bear to think might one day be extinguished. The death of an individual, when the individual is our self, is felt as the extinction of a species.

The desire to prevent the total loss of our own native perception is, I think, what unites both procreation and the arts. By each we seek to establish kinships. If not me, then someone like me. If not mine, then an experience like mine. Children inherit not only physical characteristics but, to varying degrees, the texture of our perceptive faculties. They split the light, if not in the same way as we do, at least in a very similar way. Likewise, through art we try to reproduce the quality of our own vision in others. We craft relics of ourselves, images of the light as we saw it, records of the song as we heard it, in the hope that someone else might discover them and be able, at least briefly, to see and hear like we did.

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2 Comments

Filed under Misc.

2 responses to “Art and Sex and Very Small Birds

  1. Thanks, Ian. Very well done. I’m reminded, in reading what you say, of part 2 of Kenneth Burke’s “Definition of Man” (in Language and Symbolic Action): “Man is the symbol-using animal.” I think this link should take you to it at Google Books, if you do not know it already. What a charming writer Burke is, too:

    http://books.google.co.jp/books?id=_p53-PaRr1oC&lpg=PA5&vq=symbol-using&hl=ja&pg=PA3#v=snippet&q=symbol-using&f=false

    Mark

  2. Ian Wolcott

    Thanks, Mark. I’ll check it out. I’m familiar with Burke’s definition but haven’t read him.

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