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Letter to a rabbit, now underground

Letter dated Winter, 1997

Yesterday I read Kafka's story "The Burrow," and I thought of you, even though Kafka's digger is carnivorous and you were always a dainty herbivore. Still, you were very good at churning up the dirt, very capable of going underground. I've considered, on a number of occasions, going underground myself.

It's convenient, then, that so many movie theaters in Prague are underground, excavated as if they might double some day as air raid shelters. You walk down a flight of steps, sometimes two, wondering how you'd ever get out in case of fire. You feel doubly vulnerable because movie-going here can often be an unreliable encounter with an uncertain pleasure. The cinema may or may not be showing the advertised film at the expected time. Popcorn is available only sporadically. But still you go because you somehow need what's down there.

Yesterday Greg and I wanted to see a film at 2:00 at the Blanik, and we set off at 1:30 to walk up Wenceslas Square. We stopped at a teahouse and were nearly overcome by incense and the smoke from the hookahs of the people at the next table, but still we persevered. We talked loudly and with energy about Kafka's many screenplays, until the Zen brethren who run the place asked us to leave. Their feeble reason was that we were spilling as much Lapsang souchong as we drank, but it was just as well because we wanted to get seats before the movie started.

We began to walk very quickly along until, that is, the bright lights and palpable excitement of a herna bar drew us inside. I'm afraid we bet, and lost, our last crown. It was only by busking in front of the equestrian statue of St. Wenceslas (doing our impressions of Mr. Bean) that we made enough money to see the film. When we entered the cinema, the advertisements were just ending, so our timing was very good in that way.

The movie we saw, Contact, was based on Carl Sagan's book of the same name about humanity's first encounter with extraterrestrials. The credits, however, didn't list the real (if I may be permitted a pun) star of the show--the whole vast universe with its myriad distant suns, its whirling galaxies, its unimaginable phenomena, the biggest light show of them all and the cause of feelings of awe so deep and powerful that we are made abject. Even a scientist, rational and conversant with logic, is filled with a sense of what Sagan calls "the numinous." This might be defined as an almost religious feeling that nature is a manifestation of something both overwhelmingly exciting and more than a little frightening. And in the film it's technology (radio telescopes, machines made according to alien blueprints) that puts us in touch with such an experience. To most of us, this technology is so far beyond our understanding as to seem like magic.

The search for technological solutions is a search for transcendence, just as the practice of magic is. In fact, there is an intense relationship between science and magic, science allowing us to do many of the things magic once promised (to fly, to see and hear things at great distances, to ravage the land) and magic providing the alchemical crucible from which science was born. Contact shows a number of encounters between rational scientists, concerned with the pursuit of truth about the universe, and the irrational forces they must contend with, such as religious fanatics and hostile bureaucrats. Yet the aims of Dr. Ellen Arroway, an astronomer and the film's protagonist, seem very much like the neoplatonic strivings of the scientists at the Court of Rudolph II here in Prague four hundred years ago. (The most famous of them, the astronomer Johannes Kepler, frequently mentioned by Dr. Sagan in his popular television series, Cosmos, was as fixated on mathematics as a mystical language and on the music of the spheres as he was on astronomical observation and calculating planetary orbits.) Like Kepler, Arroway is trying to find a connection between "man" and the rest of the cosmos, and is searching for a transcendence of mere physicality, namely, the body with all its earthbound weaknesses. Whether the solutions sought are alchemical or technological, the flesh is seen as weak and inadequate to the task. Plato, whose writings were so influential in Kepler's time, advised that clarity could only come to those who, through intellect, separated themselves from the body's influences through mathematical and dialectical training. Only the mind can engage with cosmic mysteries. Only the mind can reach for the stars.

Meanwhile, down on earth, or rather in it, we have Kafka's humble burrowing animal, focussed on his body's needs -- a place to store food, safe chambers in which to sleep, protection from larger predators than himself. How should we try to understand this burrower? He uses no tools either to build or to defend himself from the beast whose whistling breath he hears and whose powerful and ceaseless digging seems to frighten him. What is the burrower's relationship to the beast? What is his relationship to the stars?

Sartre says that we must adopt the mentality of the dreamer to explore the meaning of the fantastic, but even if a dreamer accepts that the language of his dreams is a symbolic one, he is not bound to a particular scheme or system. The burrow in Freudian terms could seem very womblike, the burrower trying to regress to a secure, enveloped, fetus-like state, free of anxieties and worldly concerns. But, as Fromm tells us, some symbols are accidental and peculiar to the individual dreamer. Maybe the snug burrow can be seen as the cherished physical self, both vulnerable and grand, both troublesome and essential. Perhaps the burrower, so intensely focussed on the perfection and safety of his burrow, is a valetudinarian or a hypochodriac or someone coping with a serious illness -- Kafka is said to have called his tuberculosis "the beast." The burrower is entirely concerned with matters of survival and never even thinks to look at the stars. Yet there is a valor about his struggle, a sincerity and dedication. Grappling about in the dirt seems oddly noble, almost transcendent. The burrower feels for his burrow a kind of awe.

At this point one might ask why the scientists who feel awe before the mysteries of the starry heavens aren't equally awed by the myriad fascinating structures of the body. But then sometimes we can be distracted by our awe from the truth. If the stars distract us, maybe they aren't as important as we think. If the wonders of the body don't humble us, maybe we aren't as rational as we would like to believe. The fantastic, I submit, can help us focus our attention on what is significant, can help to ground us, can help us shift our gaze and look down when that's where what's significant truly lies, especially since life and death are so much closer than the stars and so much more complex.


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