The Ultimate Chicken

Christopher Dow

 

 

One early morning, I found myself sitting on a short flight of stone steps at the rear of an old stone and brick building. The building was atop the east side of a ridge, and before me spread a moderate-sized valley two or three miles wide and quite deep.

 

When I first sat, the valley was filled to the brim with a dense fog that seemed like an endless sea of white whose edges drifted up onto the lawn only a hundred or so feet away from me. Nothing tangible could be seen save the two towers of a church jutting above the surface a hundred yards down the hillside and the trees on the uppermost edge of the shrouded ridge across 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 bathed the mist, shapes began to take form out of the blankness on the far slope, first in rough outline then in sharper detail. A tan patch soon acquired edges and turned into a 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 valley, I saw that there was a 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 opened wide enough to let out the life, and out it came, and it bustled about on its daily round. The egg became memory, but bound up in that memory was that the sun had been the heat source of the hatching process—the chicken—that had imparted form and structure out of the white nothingness and lent the energy necessary to spark the life within.

At this point, the second thought arrived. The white surface I had seen was like a piece of blank paper on which the energy of the sun—of creation—drew its forms. The shapes it finally etched out of the white void were not simply pictures, but glyphs of a language that could be understood. That house there was not merely a house or an image of a house but, specifically, the definition of a house and, by implication, the necessity for shelter, appreciation of aesthetics, construction techniques, loss of forest land, the nail industry, and so forth.

 

But though the implications of any given object can ultimately reach into infinity, definitions themselves—and words, which are abstractions of definitions—are limiting factors. That house across the valley, by the simple fact of its existence, 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.

 

What I first saw was a sea of white. White is the complete spectrum—the unification of all possibilities—and implicitly contained in the white sea were all possibilities. The creative force of the sun—the pen that wrote on this white field—wrote a certain, specific language complete with definition. Thus, it limited the space, not only with the forms themselves but with the definitions inherent in the forms. The process holds true 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; they are the limitations 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, and the exact form of these physical limitations—the spaces in and between the ink—delimit the meaning a writer intends. Furthermore, we can glean certain information from a secondary limiting power of the ink on this page: its mere structure, which is simply form codified and amplified. For example, consider these samples of writing from the standpoint of structure alone:

 

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Prose, obviously.

 

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Rhymed couplets.

 

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English sonnet.

 

In each case, the restrictions the structure 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.

 

The power of limitation on both the intellect and the physical, however, is actually somewhat weak. Thinkers continue to strive for intellectual understanding—read, definition—but many basic philosophic points remain arguable. Besides, ideas continue to evolve and move farther away from understanding, if for no reason other than variegation. 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 that 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, and that is 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—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 such a fact, then the actual nature of the universe might eventually be deduced. Or revealed. But because perception, which is how we apprehend and know facts, is limited in range and scope—the eye can never see totality because it cannot see itself—all ideas remain in a permanent state of flux.

 

Likewise, the physical is not easily defined to the satisfaction of all. What, for example, 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. 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, which may be either waves or particles, depending on how you view them. But while we have reduced our understanding of matter to subatomic particles, we have yet to deduce the basis of energy—the vibration—itself. Some might say it is the explosion of The Singularity at the Big Bang, while others might argue that that doesn’t account for the source of the energy inherent in latent form within The Singularity. All we can say is that it was simply a state of pure Yang waiting to explode and expand into pure Yin. (Thus it is that heat death belongs to Yang and equally hot birth to Yin.)

 

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. It would take something like that to discover a pure and accurate conception of universal truth and reality. But because it is both unconceived and inconceivable, it would seem to be impossible to apprehend. There was one additional avenue, however, down which I might pursue this chimerical being, and that avenue is emotion. What about the limiting power of definition on emotion?

 

Emotions, which at first glance seem impossible to define and thus limit, are, in many ways, actually more direct than the realm of the idea and more substantial than the realm of the physical. The fact that their definitions are subjective rather than objective does not negate them but actually reinforces their power, for in the proportion that something is 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, and if I say to you, “I live in a house,” you will ask for a description. But if I tell you “I love you,” you know exactly what I mean.

 

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 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. We can all 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 unhappy, perhaps you cannot know or understand the cause of my unhappiness, but you can identify with the emotion I’m feeling. Whereas 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 all.

 

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 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. And the ultimate proof of emotions’ universal power is that they are true and authentic even for the most hardened pragmatic realist who demands that a thing be quantifiable to be actual. This is true despite the fact that emotion is somewhat akin to a singularity, which is impossible to know except by peripheral phenomenon, or to the eye, which sees everything seeable but itself.

 

How odd, then, 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 possibilities, we distinguish our truly significant, basic, common human terms—emotions—only in relation to and in distinction from their opposites—again the Yin and Yang. As the song says, “There’s a fine line between love and hate.”

 

At last the hatching process was complete, and the valley was revealed. The air was clear, as if there had never been a white mist. I had sat on the steps overlooking the valley and watched as form and idea revealed themselves, but it was not the physical aspect of or 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. And 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 magazine and is reprinted in The Best of Phosphene.

Copyright 2019 by Phosphene Publishing Company

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