Tuesday, December 03, 2013

`Dedicate the Attention to One Small Thing'

Our trash bin this week contained the remains of a squirrel and opossum killed by the dog, a dead sparrow I found behind the garage, the usual plastic shopping sacks of canine and feline fecal matter and the carcass of the Thanksgiving turkey (boiled clean for broth). In summer, it would have smelled like death but the days have been cool and the nights cold, and we’ve been spared the worst of the stench but not the persistence of flies. Lift the lid and out they swarm, like escapees from a genetics lab. Close the lid and they return to await the next opening. 

I assign Diptera and Drosophilia to the zoological category Annoying and Remotely Dangerous but Not Repellent, to distinguish them from leeches, lice and ticks. I have no compunction about killing them but don’t stalk or flee them or deploy chemical weapons. When observed attentively, they are seen to be beautiful feats of adaptation and applied mechanics, and simply beautiful, a fact understood by Robert Hooke (1635-1703) three and a half centuries ago in Micrographia. Here is his blue fly, and here his fly’s head. Among Hooke’s older contemporaries was John Donne (1572-1631), better known for “The Flea,” who preached a sermon in which the fly is praised as part of an elaborate theological conceit inspired by Saint Augustine. In February 1620, for the wedding of his friend Sir Francis Nethersole to Lucy Goodyer, Donne says: 

“But what glory can God receive from man, that he should be so carefull of his propagation? What glory more from man, then from the Sunne, and Moon, and Stars, which have no propagation? Why this, that S. Augustine observes; Musca Soli praeferenda, quia vivit, A Fly is a nobler creature than the Sunne, because a fly hath life, and the Sunne hath not; for the degrees of dignity in the creature, are esse, vivere, and intelligere: to have a beeing, to have life, and to have understanding; and therefore man, who hath all three, is much more able to glorify God, than any other creature is, because he onely can chuse whether he will glorify God or no; the glory that the other give, they must give, but man is able to offer to God a reasonable sacrifice.” 

A slightly later poet, a close contemporary of Hooke’s, also benefitted from developments in microscopy. The poet-priest Thomas Traherne (1636-1674) peered through an early microscope and, in The Kingdom of God, reported what he saw: 

“The Creation of Insects affords us a Clear Mirror of Almighty Power, and Infinite Wisdom with a Prospect likewise of Transcendent Goodness. Had but one of those Curious and High Stomached flies, been Created, whose Burnisht, and Resplendent Bodies are like Orient Gold, or Polisht Steel; whose Wings Are So Strong, and Whose Head so Crowned with an Imperial Tuff, which we often see Enthroned upon a Leaf, having a pavement of living Emrauld beneath its feet, their contemplating all the World…the Infinit Workmanship about his Body the Marvellous Consistence of his Lims, the most neat and Exquisit Distinction of his Joynts, the Subtile and Imperceptible Ducture of his Nerves, and Endowments of his Tongue, and Ears, and Eyes, and Nostrils; the stupendious union of his Soul and Body, the Exact and Curious Symmetry of all his Parts, the feeling of his feet and the swiftness of his Wings, the Vivacity of his quick and active Power...” 

Traherne chose to see God’s glory in the smallest and most scorned of creatures. The earliest practical microscopes appeared during his life. The first microscopic description of living tissue appeared in 1644, in Giambattista Odierna's L'occhio della mosca (The Fly’s Eye). Scientists and poets remind us that the very small is worthy of our attention. In her 1930 poem “Lines to a Kitten” (Poems 1924-1940, 1950), Janet Lewis describes her cat as a “morsel of suavity” as it sits on her knee and intently watches a fly from six feet away: 

“Only the great
And you, can dedicate
The attention so to one small thing.”

1 comment:

R.T. said...

Thank you for calling my attention to the little things in life. I too often forget how much they matter--especially in the sense of being representations of the mind of God.

One of favorite authors, Flannery O'Connor, understood the divine presence in lesser creatures. She sometimes had little patience for humans, but she always had time for other creations--especially her various peafowl, chickens, and ducks.

I am currently engaged in a Flannery O'Connor project at my blog. Do stop by now and then.