The Ultimate Chicken

by Christopher Dow

One early morning, in the hour before dawn, I climbed through a shrouded, rocky gorge that lead up the east side of a fog-filled valley. At the top, I found a short flight of stone steps at the rear of an old stone and brick building and sat there to wait for daylight. Before me spread the valley, several miles wide and quite deep, though when I first sat, I could not see it. And not just because of the darkness. Dense fog filled it to the brim like an immense, tranquil sea of white whose edges drifted up onto the lawn less than a hundred feet from my steps. Nothing tangible could be seen on my side save the two steeples of a church jutting angular shadows above the fog’s surface a hundred yards down the hillside to my left. Misty, indistinct treetops darkened the rim of the shrouded ridge on the far side of the valley. The sea was white and calm, the air above it quiet and still. The world was ethereal, and I was a sitter on its rocky verge.

From above the building at my back, the sun rose, illuminating first the opposite hilltop, then gradually the surface of the sea of mist filling the valley. As the sun’s rays, first golden then brightening to white, bathed the mist and melted it away, shapes began to take form out of the blankness on the far slope, first in vague shadow, then in sharper detail. A tan patch soon acquired edges and turned into a lone house. A dark, foreshortened rectangle spotted with color became a parking lot with automobiles. A dense area laced with white and color resolved into a shady residential neighborhood.

This process of enlightenment and revelation continued for a couple of hours, and as the fog thinned, shrank, and flowed down the deepening valley to my left, I could see the town beneath the white surface—that a whole world of life and activity and variety existed where I would have seen nothing but blankness had I but casually glanced and passed on.

Two thoughts came as I sat there. The first was that I had witnessed a hatching process. When I first sat, I saw nothing but the surface of a large, white egg. Soon a crack began to appear in the surface, and that crack gradually widened and the life within showed itself in ever-greater detail. As I watched, the crack finally split wide enough to release that life, and out it came to bustle about on its daily round. The white egg, now vanished, was only a memory, but bound up in that memory was that the sun had been the life-giving source of energy that had sparked the life within then split the egg, revealing the form and structure organized within. The sun was no less than a sort of cosmic chicken—one among many in the henhouse of our galaxy.

At this point, the second thought arrived. The white surface I had seen also was like a piece of blank paper on which the energy of the sun—of creation—wrote its stories. The shapes it finally etched out of the white void were neither words or pictures but glyphs of a language that could be understood. That lone house there was not merely a house or an image of a house but, specifically, the definition of house and, by implication, the necessity for shelter, appreciation of aesthetics, construction techniques, deforestation, the nail industry, and so forth. You could look at that house and follow the physical trails and meanings of it throughout reality.

Because the implications of any given object or situation can ultimately reach into infinity, we require definitions to help order our complex reality. Definitions are limiting factors, helping narrow the range of possibilities to manageable chunks. And words, which are the abstract elements—the building blocks—of definitions, also serve as limiting factors. That lone house across the valley, by the simple fact of its existence as house, limited the space it occupied from the pure abstraction of everythingness that existed prior to it being defined as a house, to a specific set of responses that correspond to house. It, and the space it occupied, was house, not automobile, parking lot, grove of trees, or anything else. And even in its individual imperfection, it was the perfect definition of house.

White is the complete spectrum—the unification and presence of all the visible colors. It can be fractured—defined—by inserting a single word—prism—into its structure, which is then broken into the limited categories of the visual spectrum that can be defined as specific colors, which can then be mixed in an almost infinite variety up to but not including white. So implicitly contained in that white sea was an almost infinite range of possibilities simply waiting for the creative energy of the sun—the nuclear reaction going on inside—to write on the sea’s white field with a pen of photons and other emitted particles to define the limits of the space they touched. No less does the energy of the sun’s rays draw the forms of life on our planet’s blank landscape of dirt and rock. No less do the forces of creativity fill the blank spaces of the human mind.

Creation writes in certain, specific languages, each complete with definitions. It limits space/time, not only with definitions but with the physical forms those definitions take. The process holds true, for example, for these words on this paper. This paper is the white field of all possibilities. I could write anything here, and the words I do write are the shapes—the factors—that limit the infinite possibilities originally inherent in the blank sheet. They are the limitations that not only express thoughts but that say, “No, not poetry or fiction or article but essay.”

The power of limitation through definition seems, perforce, to link the realm of ideas inextricably with the realm of the physical. There is no better example than the words on this paper. In the physical world, we have the simple fact that these words limit the amount of white space on the page by covering it up with ink. More important is that the exact form of these physical limitations—the spaces in and between the ink—delimit the meaning a writer intends as much as the letters do, themselves.

 

Thus, we can glean certain information from a secondary limiting power of the ink on this page: its mere structure, which is simply abstract form codified and amplified. For example, consider these samples of writing from the standpoint of structure alone:

 

------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

 

Prose, obviously.

 

---------------------

---------------------

-------------------------

-------------------------

---------------

---------------

------------------

------------------

 

Rhymed couplets.

 

-------------------

-----------------------

-------------------

-----------------------

 

---------------

------------------

---------------

------------------

 

----------------------------

-------------------------

----------------------------

-------------------------

 

------------

------------

 

English sonnet.

 

In each case, the restrictions that the structure alone has placed on the field of all possibilities have served to limit our perceptions of that space. It is now recognizable as something specific that is not, and cannot be, anything else.

While both the intellectual and the physical serve as limiting factors by defining reality, the power of limitation on both of them is actually somewhat weak. Thinkers continue to strive for intellectual understanding—read, definition—but many basic philosophic points and concepts remain arguable. Besides, ideas continue to evolve, sometimes revealing greater clarity, other times just muddying the water. After all, variegation can be considered a move farther away from understanding. After all, the right thing is one thing, and all the rest are wrong. We all agree, for instance, that a chair is to be sat on, but what does the Platonic ideal of chairness actually embody? Is it a Morris chair, a throne, or early American? Or a stone step? What is the ideal government people should live by—democracy, totalitarianism, anarchy? What economic system? Where does economics end and politics begin?

Philosophers, politicians, critics, and pundits argue endlessly about the meanings of ideas because ideas are not easily limited by delineations and depictions of them. The problem is that, in the end, we cannot know a single fact to be universally, ultimately, and irrevocably true—we’ve learned that apparently even the speed of light has not remained universally constant through time, nor is it precisely the same in all regions of space. Could we know one singular, absolute fact, then the actual nature of the universe might eventually be deduced. Or revealed. After all, mystic the world over use one-point inward awareness to achieve satori.

But the reality within which we live encourages just the opposite. It demands outward perception because that is how we apprehend and know reality. If you don’t know how to make a living, you will starve. But outward perception is, by definition, limited in range and scope—the eye can never see totality because it cannot see farther than light has traveled, nor can it ever itself. Further, as Albert Einstein pointed out, all things are relative, which, perforce, must extend to the idea that all ideas must remain in a permanent state of flux because no one thing in the universe—in reality—is absolute and permanent—or real.

Nor is the concept of structured physical easily defined to the satisfaction of all. On a purely tangible level, for example, what is the most perfect female form? Peter Paul Rubens might answer very differently than Hugh Hefner. (Again the physical is bound with the idea.) Buckminster Fuller’s house would be distinct from Frank Lloyd Wright’s and both from that of a Chinese mandarin, yet each would be satisfied that his house is the best. Even the very basis of matter is indefinable since we have learned that matter is not actually something tangible but merely energy vibrating at various rates in subatomic packets that are either waves or particles, depending on how you observe them. But while we have reduced our understanding of matter to subatomic particles and some of their constituents, we have yet to deduce the basis or source of energy—the vibration—itself.

Some might say it consists of the remains of the explosion of the Singularity at the Big Bang as it expands into space. Others might point out that explanation doesn’t account for the source of the energy inherent in latent form within the Singularity to begin with. Nor does it explain the archaic universes that existed before ours and whose remnant shadows scientists have begun to detect. All we can truly say is that it seems that there was simply a state of pure Yin waiting to transform into pure Yang, and we exist in a time and place somewhere along in that process of transformation. Thus, not only is all life in flux, all life is in transformation, too.

The ultimate idea and the ultimate physical construct wrapped up together in a single state might be called, with a bit of tongue in cheek, the ultimate chicken—at once egg and creature, idea and construct. It would take something like that to discover a pure and accurate conception of universal truth and reality. But because such a “creature” is both unconceived and inconceivable—sort of a cosmic Schrödinger’s cat—it would seem to be impossible to apprehend either intellectually or physically. There was one additional avenue, however, down which I might pursue this chimerical being, and that is emotion. What about the limiting power of definition on emotion?

In many ways, emotions, which at first glance seem impossible to define in an absolute sense and thus limit, are actually more amenable to human perception than is the realm of the idea and more substantial than the realm of the physical. The fact that the definitions of emotions are subjective rather than objective does not negate them but actually reinforces their power, for in the proportion that something is internally recognized and universally known it gains significance. We can discuss an intellectual viewpoint—such as “What is the best government?”—extensively and never come to a conclusion, all while living under different forms of rule, each of which has its proponents. And if I say to you, “I live in a house,” you might ask for a description to determine what sort of house. But if I tell you “I love you,” you know exactly what I mean. A few people are interested in philosophy and many more in scientific discoveries or the latest news, but almost everybody wants to hear about sex scandals.

Although there are varying degrees and shades of love, and the details of expression of love may vary from culture to culture, people from widely different backgrounds, societies, and cultures can, and do, share love and a firm understanding of what the concept means. And everyone recognizes that the basic emotion of love is at polar opposites to the basic emotion of hate. Most people can feel hate at the mere mention of the word—not necessarily hatred for anything or anyone in particular, just general hate. If I say I’m happy or unhappy, perhaps you cannot know or understand the cause of my state, but you can identify with the emotion I’m feeling. While the intellectual ideal of home and the physical delineations and definitions of a house may differ from individual to individual, the loneliness of the single inhabitant of that house can be felt and empathized with by most of us.

The limiting power of the ways in which we delineate and recognize emotional content—such as facial expression, body language, verbal tone, and so forth—are more powerful and affecting than are those for either the intellectual or the physical simply because they are more universally understood and accepted. Two enemy soldiers meeting on the battlefield need no dictionary of translation to read each other’s hatred and fear—or relief at war’s end. Further, emotional states can—and often do—dictate behavior. Most obvious are cases of neuroses or psychoses, but to some extent, the emotions of even “normal” people subvert the intellect and the body to their will, in essence controlling one’s life in a way that can’t be governed intellectually or physically.

The ultimate proof of emotions’ universal power is that their effects and affects are true and authentic, even for those who live on the lower half of the IQ scale as well as for the most hardened realist who demands that a thing be quantifiable to be actual. Even pragmatists feel love, that most unpragmatic of emotions. Everyone responds to emotion, save, perhaps, the psychopath. This is true despite the fact that emotion is somewhat akin to a singularity, which is impossible to know except by peripheral phenomenon—like the eye/I, which is not visible to itself.

How odd that the concepts most definable—the physical and the idea—are the least susceptible to limitation, and that the concept most susceptible to limitation—emotion—is the least definable. And how interesting that, while the intellectual and the physical are occupied with scores of widely divergent or tangential possibilities, we distinguish only a few significant, basic, common human emotions, and those only in relation to and in distinction from their opposites: hate/love, happy/sad, anger/joy, and so forth. As the song says, “There’s a fine line between love and hate.”

 

At last the hatching process was complete, and the valley was fully revealed. The air was clear, as if there had never been a fog. I had sat on the steps overlooking the valley and watched as form and idea revealed themselves, but it was not the physical beauty of the scene nor the ideas contained in the revelation that had become important. Instead, it was the emotion that welled up from that ineffable place we have within us: a feeling of being at one with the mysteries of an external, idealized field of all possibility and with the mysteries within myself. For a short time, sitting there on the stone steps overlooking the valley, I felt as if I were, at once, both chicken and egg.

 

 

This essay originally appeared in Phosphene (Vol. I, #2, 1978) and is reprinted in The Best of Phosphene.

(Free Download Here)