Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Muzzling, or Where Does Creative Thinking Really Happen?

Several weeks ago, back before the hurricane, before the summer skidded abruptly into autumn, before the fog and rain and shriveled brown leaves became a part of the surround, I got up one morning and thought about the day, and the night before:

Hazy pink morning, the sea grey.  The sun a red ball. Still. We wake in the night and fret: the stillness is eerie, unsettling.  The owl at the back of the pond hoots into the silence:  Hoo! Hoo!  Hoo! Hoo! again and again.  Why does the owl sing at night? Marike asks.  And why the same song over and over?

This question, as soon as she asked it, as soon as I recorded it, inspired another sort of mimic hooting in me: for it set lines from Wordsworth's Prelude to echoing so loudly in my head, that I had to run to the shelf and begin paging through the volume of poetry just to still their rant.  (Or is it cant? What theory of the origin of language is here?

Here, so you can still the echoes in your own head--or begin to hear them if they don't already rattle--is Wordsworth:

 There was a Boy, ye knew him well, ye Cliffs
And Islands of Winander! many a time
At evening, when the stars had just begun
To move along the edges of the hills,
Rising or setting, would he stand alone
Beneath the trees, or by the glimmering Lake,
And there, with fingers interwove, both hands
Pressed closely, palm to palm, and to his mouth
Uplifted, he, as through an instrument,
Blew mimic hootings to the silent owls
That they might answer him.  --And they would shout
Across the wat'ry Vale, and shout again,
Responsive to his call, with quivering peals,
And long haloos, and screams, and echoes loud
Redoubled and redoubled; concourse wild
Of mirth and jocund din! And when it chanced
That pauses of deep silence mocked his skill,
Then sometimes, in that silence, while he hung
Listening, a gentle shock of mild surprize
Has carried far into his heart the voice
Of mountain torrents; or the visible scene
Would enter unawares into his mind
With all its solemn imagery, its rocks,
Its woods, and that uncertain Heaven, received
Into the bosom of the steady Lake...(Prelude Book V: 389-412)

Why does the owl sing the same song over and over? And why are we so drawn to imitate it? Surely Wordsworth is somehow right--this imitation of nature--this play of mimicry back and forth, this enthusiasm for such exchanges must be at the origins of our language, our poetry...  In any case, I've been musing on these questions ever since.

In fact, in a strange and perhaps altogether predictably repetitive twist, I've been musing on the word musing.

Wonder where that word comes from? Marike asked, and so one night after dinner I pulled out the dictionaries--an old compact Oxford English that belonged to her father (1934) and Skeat's Etymological Dictionary of the English Language (c. 1900).  Muse, I mused, must be related to light-heartedness, to amusing.  Perhaps.  But not quite.

The etymology of muse is far more beautiful than that.  And perhaps it answers to why we are given to such mimic hootings of, and wild concourse with the animals around us.  Not because they inspire us, in the way of the nine Muses of classical mythology.  That strain of the word is descended from the Greek Mousa, which shares the root men-, or mon-, with other words denoting to think, to remember.  But muse, as I marked it, meaning to wander about in your thoughts--or as the Oxford dictionary would have it, "to ponder, reflect, gaze upon meditatively..." this muse derives, it seems, from the Old French muse, or MUZZLE, which is to say, to "sniff the air when in doubt about scent."

Or as Skeat argues it, the word comes into English from the "F[rench], muser, 'to muse, dreame'."  Before that, he says, one finds the roots of the word in the Old French muse meaning "the mouth, muzzle....The image is that of a dog sniffing the air when in doubt as to the scent; cf Ital[ian] musare, to muse, also to gape about, 'to hould ones musle or snout in the aire' Florio, from Ital[ian] muso, snout" (Capricorn Edition, 1963, 341).

Now that's a beautiful etymology!  The origins of creative thinking found, not in sight or hearing, but in what--or more properly, the way--a dog sniffs the air. 

We often say, as we watch the dog scent out the messages left in the yard overnight, that she is reading the morning news.  Indeed.  And all my mimic hooting, here, is only that, a weak, attenuated imitation of the dog's MUZZLE.

--Which is to say--if you follow out that etymology--TO BITE.  

But more on that--the link between thinking, creating and aggression (or between people and dogs)--another day.

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