Wednesday, January 25, 2017

The Black Swan

Photograph: Bronwyn Lloyd (23/1/17)

rara avis in terris nigroque simillima cygno.
- Juvenal (CE 82)

I am still
The black swan of trespass on alien waters
- Ern Malley (1943)

On Monday night I looked out the bedroom window only to see a full-sized black swan wandering around our front yard. As you can see, she (or he) was quite imposing: raising both wings in frustration at not being able to find a way out through our fence - it does have exits, but these were probably not apparent in the semi-twilight - it seemed to dwarf everything around it.

So what you do when you see a black swan? Curiously enough, the question had arisen before, many years ago, when two of them landed on the roof of our garage, and sat there, apparently exhausted, for hours. My father got very agitated and rang the zoo and various other people, none of whom had anything useful to suggest. Eventually they just flew away.

The same thing happened on this occasion. The last time we saw it, the swan was making itself a nest in the hydrangeas. When I looked out later that night, it seemed to have disappeared. Certainly it was gone by next morning, leaving no signs of its presence beyond this picture. I don't think it particularly appreciated the flash photography (you can actually see the whites of its eyes), but we didn't have the courage to go out and try to chivvy it away - they can apparently break your arm with a single blow from their beaks!

Some strange things have been happening around the place lately. A couple of weeks ago a large black painting fell down in the middle of the night. That wasn't so surprising in itself, as the string it was hung on probably wasn't strong enough for its weight. But what was odd was the strange set of hairline scratches in the oil paint at the upper left-hand corner.

There's no obvious way these could have been caused by the fall (it was still upright when we went to check it), and they certainly weren't there when it was hung. It's hard to imagine what could have caused them. Thick oil paint is fairly resistant, and you'd have to press your fingernails on it pretty hard to get anything resembling that effect. It looks more like a set of pins have been dragged across it.

Then there was the plastic soapholder. This used to have a magnet so it could hold up a piece of soap with a metal circlet embedded in it. We don't really use it anymore, so it came as a bit of a surprise to find the front of it broken off and lying in the middle of the bathroom floor. Neither of us could remember touching it, letting alone knocking bits off it, and it's too high off the ground to be reached by a cat.

A week or so later the same piece of plastic (which Bronwyn had binned in the meantime) was found in the middle of the same bit of floor. Did someone dig through the rubbish, extract it, and plant it back where it had been? If so, why? With what conceivable motive?

So, all in all, the black swan seemed like the last straw.

But what, you may be asking, is the emblematic significance of black swans? Traditionally, of course, they represented something impossible (the first-century Latin satirist Juvenal speaks - in the line quoted above - of something resembling "a rare bird in the lands, and very like a black swan" - in other words, something so rare as to be non-existent). A black swan stood for a contradiction in terms. Until, that is, they were actually first sighted by Dutch explorer Willem de Vlamingh in Australia in 1697.

As a totem animal, the website Wildspeak explains that the black swan:
will only appear when right and appropriate, and cannot be forced to visit you, commune with you, or share messages with you. Black swan is a proud animal guide / energy to visit, and will not dignify those who do not respect it with its presence. It will often require offerings ...

Black swan can be a clear communicator, and will often 'converse' with those who visit it. It can be a stern teacher, has a very strong spirit, and can be a persistent guide (i.e. one that doesn't just appear once and disappears, but sticks around sometimes for many decades). In journeying, swans are often found on islands in the middle of lakes, and using this as a starting point for a visualising (i.e. crossing such a lake to the island) can be very helpful.
The wikipedia page "Black Swan Theory" sees it somewhat differently:
The black swan theory or theory of black swan events is a metaphor that describes an event that comes as a surprise, has a major effect, and is often inappropriately rationalized after the fact with the benefit of hindsight.
In other words, the actual discovery of black swans after they had been assumed for so long to be impossible can be seen as a model for any such rewriting of history after the event.

So what is the significance of this black swan, and the - possibly related - strange and unsettling events which have accompanied it? "Black swans indicate deep mysteries within us that are longing to be set free to express themselves creatively," argues the astrology site "What's Your Sign?"

Then again, maybe it just got lost on its way to Lake Pupuke.

In any case, it was - to be honest - quite an awe-inspiring encounter. We await further developments with interest, mixed with a little apprehension ...

Black Swan (2010)


Richard said...

Well Jack. You can fool Them, but not me. But before I unravel it all, do you know that the 'black swan' effect is similar to Hume's point about seeing one day, out of the blue, so to speak, a white blackbird. This rare and seemingly impossible event can happen? Also, for example, if I hold a lead weight in my hand, or indeed a soap-holder magnet and drop it and keep repeating this: there is no way of knowing that one day, it will, in fact, not drop. There is no 'reason' for this, it is just that, if something hasn't happened, there is no knowing it might happen. [You might evoke probabilities and all that palaver but you don't need that, it seems obvious to me that if something has NOT happened, it doesn't mean it cant.] Hume and later Wittgenstein thought so and it is one of the problems associated with epistemology.

But all that aside, your Swan. Never mind all this about Juvenal and Ern Malley (Australia's greatest poet as everyone knows), it is quite clear to me that you DID see said Swan. But you left the rest out. I know you like birds. And Swans, and as a poet-writer etc you have read Yeats on Swans, know the mystery of Swans, know 'Swan Lake'...but here I recall to the readers' attention the Walrus and the Carpenter. Indeed tears flowed, copious tears as they devoured the unfortunate Oysters...

Now I believe or was I told, that you have a great penchant for poultry.

You devoured the Swan! Black or not! Who could resist such a repast! (Tears may indeed have flowed during this iniquitous (to many softies) act), but devour it you did.

All this other stuff pointing to ghosts and mystery is a cover...but then I too enjoy a Swan of an evening. They take a bit of demising (they squawk and lash out and protest), plucking etc and preparation but they are a wonderful cooked meal with vinegar and various sauces.

In fact, in the state of mind you are clearly in, you may have done this, grabbed the Swan, cooked it, ate it, while listening to Tchaikovsky, but have forgotten you had done it at all.

You knew (perhaps subconsciously) that the authorities would take no interest, nor any 'Swanners' (they are a fanatical and neo-fascist sub-group of the local bird enthusiast societies): as they never look for them in Hydrangea bushes...

It is clear to me Jack....

The picture though: a 'large black painting' I think you said? That is clear **shades** of Wilde's '...Dorian Gray' and of course Malevich and others...but it is no coincidence it is black. Those who voraciously (and mercilessly) devour ebon avians are known to have a predilection for gadgets, collecting, and the colour black (sometimes combined with red or yellow)....

The soap holder falling and other fabulations are further legerdemain to distract us from your (to many, but not to myself as I love Swan, duck, chicken, roast Kiwi, and much else...anything, in fact that is relatively plump with feathers and meat underneath) seizing this opportunity to feed on a black swan.

Dr Jack Ross said...

Leaving aside your calumnious assertion that I actually ate the swan, Richard, I have to say that I am impressed with your Dorian Gray suggestion about the incident with the painting.

And, funnily enough, there is a certain half-truth in your remarks. Many, many years ago one of my father's friends presented us with a (dead) black swan, which was duly "hung" in the basement until it was ready to cook, and then served up to us by our long-suffering mother.

Being constitutionally squeamish, I refused to eat any of it - or even taste it. (Reading your comments on how succulent it can be, I now regret this somewhat). The rest of the family duly tucked in, though it did receive some mixed reviews.

It was only my brother Ken who really took to it. In fact, so much of it was there (swans are huge), that I recall he took swan sandwiches to school for what seemed like weeks afterwards.

Funnily enough, he's staying with us at present, so perhaps the messenger was meant for him ...

Richard said...

Now Jack, that's not good enough. Ken, yes, I can imagine Ken eating a Swan, as he is not a poet. But thou dabblest. It is my view that thou hast indulged...

...actually as I was writing the above, I wondered idly what lit. comparisons to make so I started in on trying to connect it to Pale Fire...then realised that it was Slade not Shade (I think it is) who does the mad commentary on the poem or was it Slade who wrote the novel's anycase I reached for Dorian Gray as a straw and it worked. I kept forgetting the whole plot of that I have to concede. I read it twice and also the story by Poe that inspired it I read once...the name of which I have forgotten...the great power of the mind to forget!!

How is Ken? Hope all is well. (Actually I haven't eaten a Swan, and that was the other thing, I only guessed that a swan would be like a large chicken!! In fact, I wasn't sure if anyone had ever eaten a Swan. I believe Ducks at Western Springs become victim to those who know how to convert them into meals....

You also had an amusing cat...that was the one that kept getting clothes from the neighbours! I wonder if that is part of the maternal thing in cats or was it a man cat?

My English grandparents had an old house in Devonport and we used to visit almost every Sunday for the roast (not swan I hasten...) and then afternoon tea which I also yearned for brought in on a tray, and in that room, the door (all the doors?) had oval handles. The black (now I have black on my mind, perhaps it was tabby, yes it was, from memory, a large and rather lazy, even philosophic, tabby I had worked out how to reach up with its paws, and as the handle I think was in a lateral or horizontal position, to twist it, push, and thus: enter cat!

Who said we humans were the top of the Tree. Joyce thought that dogs had no souls and this brought about his terror of them (strange for a man who had abandoned religion). Montaigne I believe, in his essays thought that animals could speak, and speculated that speaking wasn't just by sounds, but by expressions and movements etc...he seemed to have covered everything (I am reading, inter alia, this book currently: “WHEN I AM PLAYING WITH MY CAT, HOW DO I KNOW THAT SHE IS NOT PLAYING WITH ME? Montaigne and Being in Touch with Life,” by Saul Frampton.) I seem to read about Montaigne more than I have read his books. But he would have been unimpressed...

...Or perhaps not, he was a complex and sometimes deliberately ambiguous thinker in his own way. Are you and Jack arguing the toss about writers and writing etc?

A Swan for a pet? They are indeed a beautiful animal.

My poem with a Swan or a theoretical Swan in it (for you, Ken and the avid readers):

A Spiral Puzzle
In Fine Lines

The cygni, gyra
vortexicate off datum.

White waves.

Pulchri -
High. No, no man - no inarticulate
the the, infinite, dead sum
of all
thin, intricate


we watch like prophets
their acrofections
who are aves now
rising like a requiem

we we

we who were godded to the spot —
But, big radix:
go thou hencely hie,
that these quick,
precious things, speaking,
and curling from the lake,
should not butterfly die -
as things do go morte,
or thud to black.

R Taylor