Poetry and Biology / Joshua Alan Sturgill
Despite its current lack of popularity and even despite its loss of traditional forms and expressions, poetry still has the duty and privilege of articulating the central mystery: what is the source of our existence?
Perhaps without intending it, current philosophies divide existence from meaning. That is, the source of existence, of being, is understood as separate from the source(s) of meaning or purpose. Meaning is something added to existence at the discretion or whim of the individual.
Biological evolution is the first example of such a philosophy. As biology has merged with biochemestry to become modern genetics, the amount of gained information about the human body is staggering. So staggering that we are left to assume that somewhere in this delicate and dazzling tangle of systems within systems, not only our being but all meaning, emotion, desire, faith and personality must have emerged from there.
Somewhere in the body (most likely the brain) all the answers are stored up like data on a hard drive or key words in an infinite encyclopedia. With the right tools or enough time, we will find these answers.
Human origins, human meaning, human possibility. These are consciously or unconsciously understood to be rooted biology. Popularly, this understanding results in two mass activities, which seem unrelated but have a common root in an exclusively biological search for existence. They are: addiction to pornography and the current craze for genetic ancestry.
What both of these activities have in common is an underlying assumption that the physical body is a source of meaning and purpose—in one case the ecstasy of physical pleasure, in the other case the stability of origins. The addict believes in transcendence; the ancestry seeker believes in tradition.
The addict seems to say, “if only I can find the most intense physical experience or its virtual substitute, then I will be satisfied and fulfilled.” The seeker seems to say, “if only I can find where I came from, then I will know where I am going. If I know who my ancestors were, I will know who I am.”
Perhaps it seems that I have strayed very far from Poetry. But diagnosis is necessary for prognosis. And I believe it is crucial to unmask our ironclad faith in bio-genetics, so that we can really wonder first why we have come to such a point in our culture, and second, so that we can really wonder if our bio-genetic faith is solidly grounded.
Poetry does both: it helps us ask why we would throw off every beautiful human endeavor which doesn’t “produce” a new drug or experience or information. And it again opens us to the possibility that meaning does not come from biology, and that therefore, the body itself may be subordinate to higher things.
Allow me to employ a difficult word. One of the best definitions of “religion” I have heard is this: Religion is a particular coordination of beliefs and practices that attempt to integrate human nature and unite it to a transcendent truth.
I am suddenly referring to religion because I find this word very helpful despite its frequent derogatory misuse. From the above definition, we might easily understand that bio-genetics is a religion. We might also understand that a religion entirely depends on exactly to what “truth” we are attempting to unite.
Bio-genetics believes in nothing higher than the body. But poetry cannot be satisfied with this religion. Poetry resists the beliefs and practices that constitute the religion of the physical body. I do not think that poetry gives a new religion—not at all. What poetry does (along with all great literature) is not let us settle for less than transcendence.
Bio-genetics feels transcendent. The pleasure and purpose offered by the human body are astounding. Yet there is in us something always hoping for more, for higher, for better, for more open and free and unrestrained. In short, we are looking for a relationship with Truth, not just for information.
Poetry—and here, I do mean its best examples—continually breaks into physical and emotional life and says, “there is something more…your body is on loan to you for a short time… the truth you are looking for is connected with immortality…”
Poetry plays by different rules, it has different aims, than the religion of biological scientism. Poetry does not attempt to be a religion, but all religions use poetry to express transcendence. Poetry is at the service of human freedom, and is therefore not willing to make pronouncements about truths which it cannot fully contain. It gestures and refers to what is greater than itself.
Unlike bio-genetic scientism, which claims narrow, absolute knowledge, poetry leads us into a spacious mystery—a mystery we can’t come to the end of knowing: what is the source of our existence?
The answer can only be expressed as poetry and lived with the whole Self.