Instinct (After “Melanchthon”) What prevents man, individually and collectively, from behaving reasonably and morally is not so much ignorance as a self-blindness induced by some passion or desire. (W.H. Auden, The Dyer’s Hand) Thinking, granted, but less like a mind, more like an eager dog in search of a worn-out bone. These things comfort me: in my corner of the garden, familiar, it gives safety, blanket- like, tattered and torn, yet homely in its weathered wear. The mind glimpses, encompasses these things which Bentham sees from his prison tower and knows; surveillance gives the impulse, but instinct the reason. And so a dog returns to its own refuse and Jonah hides for days inside his whale; and I too need corners and familiar scents. Why I am what I am, I do not know. The dog has its goals and its purposes, so too the mole which, though blind, is quicker than the human mind’s quickest percep- tion. Yet we move by more than mere impulse, by brain-waves which fly and flit before we hear them. Reflexes have no accompanying, conscious thought yet some things are learnt and made reflex that should be conscious. “Adam, who told you that you were naked?” No need to teach him to hide his shame in leaves once the brain already knew, “Eat apple”. Automated and unthinking disobedience is the hardest to overcome; and we are cursed (blessed?) with the knowledge that instinct, though enchanting, is not enough, blessed (cursed?) with eyes to see both the apple and the consequence. If blind, we are wiser than our blindness knows, yet too blind to know it. The dog, the mole, defy us, yet we are called to more. “Naked, man, the self”: what’s been bestowed on him, on us, declares we cannot plead ignorance. Man – the height, though helpless before the creatures that preceded him – must bow and rule, burrow and build, obey and reason, trust and know, be blind and see. What calling, what heights beside what depths! What impulse and what instinct, what knowledge planted through that first breath, knowing all the blindness yet breathing still.
Today’s poem was a difficult one to write. Enchanted as I am by Marianne Moore’s work, she is a tough poet to imitate, tougher still to understand. But I have given it my best shot! Fascinated by animals, human nature and the poetic contrasts and parallels between the two, many of Moore’s poems deal with weird and exotic creatures and draw unlikely comparisons between them and humanity. In today’s poem I have tried my hand at this strategy, with the blind burrowing mole and my sister’s cocker spaniel-poodle cross as inspiration. You can read the original poem that inspired it here, thanks to another blogger who has kindly posted it.