[ by Charles Cameron -- on caterpillars, butterflies, psyche and the alephs of Georg Cantor, with a glance at the vertiginous idea it might be "boxes all the way up and down"... ]
Let’s get the science — which is quite fascinating — taken care of first. Here’s our best current visualization of how a caterpillar, after crafting its cocoon, prepares to become a butterfly:
Words can sometimes tell us some things that images can’t — or explain things to parts of us that simply cannot comprehend them visually — so here for parallel processing is an account of part of the same business from Scientific American:
How does a caterpillar rearrange itself into a butterfly? What happens inside a chrysalis or cocoon?
First, the caterpillar digests itself, releasing enzymes to dissolve all of its tissues. If you were to cut open a cocoon or chrysalis at just the right time, caterpillar soup would ooze out. But the contents of the pupa are not entirely an amorphous mess. Certain highly organized groups of cells known as imaginal discs survive the digestive process. Before hatching, when a caterpillar is still developing inside its egg, it grows an imaginal disc for each of the adult body parts it will need as a mature butterfly or moth—discs for its eyes, for its wings, its legs and so on. In some species, these imaginal discs remain dormant throughout the caterpillar’s life; in other species, the discs begin to take the shape of adult body parts even before the caterpillar forms a chrysalis or cocoon. Some caterpillars walk around with tiny rudimentary wings tucked inside their bodies, though you would never know it by looking at them.
Once a caterpillar has disintegrated all of its tissues except for the imaginal discs, those discs use the protein-rich soup all around them to fuel the rapid cell division required to form the wings, antennae, legs, eyes, genitals and all the other features of an adult butterfly or moth.
It’s just possible that the bear’s ability to “die” in the winter and “be reborn” in spring gave use the original cirumpolar bear cult — and more generally, a propensity to believe that resurrection from the dead might be a physical, existential human possibility.
Humans watch animals pretty diligently — my old friend and mentor Wallace Black Elk once told me:
We watch the deer, and when they’re sick they know which plant is their aspirin: they eat that green medicine, and drink water. So we have deer medicine. We don’t need the mass-produced kind.
I don’t have the exact quote, but he also observed somewhat wryly that scouts from pharmaceutical companies used to watch him and see what medicines he used, in much the same way…
And if there’s any natural process that humans have watched with equivalent metaphysical interest to that which they may have shown in observing the bear’s pattern of hibernation and return, it would have been the process of metamorphosis in butterflies — whose name in Greek, psyche, is also the word for soul.
WB Yeats had a sense of the butterfly transcending both day-to-day human logic and death itself, when he wrote in his poem Tom O’Roughley:
‘Though logic choppers rule the town,
And every man and maid and boy
Has marked a distant object down,
An aimless joy is a pure joy,’
Or so did Tom O’Roughley say
That saw the surges running by,
‘And wisdom is a butterfly
And not a gloomy bird of prey.
adding just a few lines later:
What’s dying but a second wind?
What I’d like to do here is to take us from the plodding science of linear thought to which Yeats was (among other forms of linearity) objecting, towards the science — and poetry — of complexity, of nuance.
And I’d like to do it by skipping a couple of thoughts like a stone across water, inviting you to watch the ripples…
These are the leaps that connect the dots.. the creative leaps. And some leaps, it seems to me, are bigger and more demanding than others.
Is the leap from cocoon to butterfly in Hutching‘s quote really quite a huge leap? It certainly keeps some of our best scientists busy uncovering its hidden secrets. And the leap from butterfly to tornado, that Lorenz made? That would appear to me to be a larger leap, requiring a different mode of perception. And skipping from Hutchings to Lorenz, can we skim our stone of thought even further?
Putting two and two together is one thing: imagining “aleph null” for the first time, as Cantor did, that would be something else altogether. From two to four, I’m tempted to say, is a quantitative leap, while the imaginative leap from four, ten, or ten thousand to the alephs is qualitative.
How should we recognize and connect widely separated — yet deeply entangled — dots? What would prove to be the richest and most profound of creative leaps? Is there a move that will take us not just out of this box into the box it came in — but out of a whole matrioshka nest of boxes?
Those are the questions in my sandbox about now.
When we next meet, I’ll try to tie them in with this diagram that Adam Elkus recently pointed us to —
and with Hermann Hesse‘s Glass Bead Game for good measure.