If no one asks me, I know what it is
If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know.
Aurelius Augustinus of Hippo, when asked about Time
If you can’t explain it to a six-year-old,
you don’t understand it yourself.
CLOUDS AND GEOMETRY
by Tomasz Teodorczyk
Gaze at the clouds for a long time. They keep changing shape, suggesting different things all the time. They blend form but also that which is indeterminate, things concrete and mysteries, state and flux, permanence and change. It hasn’t always been like this. Once upon a time, clouds had a distinct, geometrical shape. They owe their present form to someone who lived a long, long time ago…
This is his story.
“I won’t have sharp shapes! Life goes in circles. It’s flowing, formless. Time and space wind like a snake’s tail.” That’s what I shouted as a little boy in what I remember of my earliest childhood. I spent most of my time looking at the sky and staring at the clouds.
My parents reacted to these childish outbursts with a smile and didn’t take them seriously. And rightly so, as my life went on to show. But to me, at the time, it seemed the only truth. I couldn’t understand how anyone could fail to see the various connections linking different, apparently separate phenomena.
“Can’t you see all the coloured threads linking tastes, smells, pictures, thoughts and external phenomena?” I asked. But they just looked at me with indulgence.
I’d have probably made a good poet or some other kind of artist, or become a follower of the Gods of Beyond and, if pushed in that direction, that’s probably what would have happened. Maybe it would have been me who’d have created the paintings in Lascaux or Altamira, or written Gilgamesh. But a few years later, I recognised the value of Separation, Clarity, Distinction and Classification and became their follower. The indeterminate was put aside and that which is Precise and Concrete came to rule my life, which, no doubt, pleased the Gods of Form. Had I followed in that direction, perhaps I’d have invented the wheel or discovered Pythagoras’s theory.
This time, too, my parents didn’t believe it was the end of my intellectual journey and, as usual, they weren’t wrong. A few years later, I grew obsessed with ties and connections between clearly contradictory things and, in fact, this idée fixe rules my life to this very day. I wanted to create something that would bring together poetry and science, wisdom and the indefinable, clarity and darkness, water and earth, heaven and fire, sharpness and gentleness and many other opposites. I obviously wasn’t thinking about some sort of miserable compromise. Oh, no! I was interested in a solution which would be both opposing elements at the same time yet also an integrated third element. Now, that was a challenge!
My parents started worrying for the first time then, because I began to neglect everything which didn’t have anything to do with my obsession, meaning ordinary life, games, seeing friends of my age, hunting, relationships with the opposite sex and other daily matters. They really must have had good reason because I was behaving like a lunatic and was generally thought to be talking nonsense.
I now have to make a slight digression in order to describe the world as it was in those days. A fair amount of time has gone by since it was created. Power over it was divided between two families of Gods. So, Heaven, a bright, clear-cut and distinct region, was ruled over by the Gods of Form. They owned the domain of bright day and all matters concrete, defined and classified. For example, the clouds within their realm had clear, geometrical shapes. In its own way, this was no bad thing, especially as the shape differed according to the day of the week. For instance, on Mondays, clouds were always triangular, on Thursdays, they were square, etc. which meant that people didn’t have to bother remembering which day of the week it was; it was enough to look up. The Gods of Form also supported the development of metallurgy and forging, concrete, practical undertakings in which fire (as an undefinable element) was forced to assume a defined shape limited by the walls of a furnace. Rules and principles of every kind lay within their domain and they kept a sharp eye out to make sure that these were strictly adhered to.
The Underworld, the Region of Voids and Mists, was ruled over by the Gods of Beyond. The territory over which they ruled was night and all that belongs to it, including dreams which, under their influence, were always unclear, undefined and muddled. The Gods of Beyond reigned over every walk of life which was vague, unsure and knew no boundaries. Their kingdom also embraced all the arts, including music, painting and poetry. Life after death was, of course, also under their domain. These Gods firmly believed in the void and absence of limits. It is they, contrary to what the Gods of Form asserted, who invented such aphorisms as: “Pots and pans are made from clay. Thanks to the void within, they are useful.” Or: “Doors and windows are cut into the walls of a house. Thanks to the void which they frame, the house is useful.” Or then again: “Lightness is founded on weight.”
The world between Heaven and the Region of Voids and Mists belonged to us, human beings. We had to be very careful to make sure that the sacrifices we offered the Gods of Form and those of Beyond were exactly the same, otherwise we might have been exposed to the wrath of one of the families. And they were very easily peeved indeed if their authority wasn’t shown due respect.
As you must have gathered, the two families of Gods didn’t much like each other and it was only to be expected that, at some point, this would lead to a feud. Apparently, they fell out over dreams although this was, as usual, merely a pretext in the struggle for ascendency.
The Gods of Form accused the Gods of Beyond of using dreams to turn human beings against them, and demanded that they share their power in defining the final shape of dreams.
“You’re luring humans over to your side in this deceitful way,” they said. “It blurs the clear-cut boundary of World Equilibrium.”
“Quite the contrary,” replied the Gods of Beyond. “The boundary has never been clearly defined but, now you mention it, there’s always been a very clear-cut division: day is ours, night is yours, so stop meddling in what’s none of your business!”
This had to lead to conflict. A long and cruel war broke out, bloody and lethal only for the allies of both families because in those days, of course, the Gods were still immortal. The war lasted so long that the Gods finally grew bored and peace was negotiated, guaranteed and sealed by the marriage of Gest and Aldiss, God of Form and Goddess of Beyond. The wedding took place on the Trembling Bridge, which linked Heaven and Earth, and the reception in Spider’s Castle, halfway between Earth and the Region of Voids and Mists. It was agreed, as was to be expected, that the couple would spend their days in Heaven and their nights in the Land of the Gods of Beyond. And so it came to be. But soon the arrangement proved exceptionally difficult to keep.
“I can’t go on like this,” complained Gest after a month. “I feel like a piece of bread soaking in milk. I no longer know anything about myself, and the world is getting more blurred than a bad watercolour. The woman can’t make a single, simple statement without adding a question mark!”
“I can’t stand another day,” ranted Aldiss. “I feel as though someone’s forced me into clothes far too tight. And then there’s his constant demands to be precise and to the point! Not to mention that the Moon’s light isn’t enough for him. He always keeps bringing and lighting at least twenty oil lamps!”
It was obvious that this couldn’t go on. The marriage, and along with it the fragile guarantee of peace between the two sides, shifted even further towards the undefined (which, contrary to appearances, did not mean victory for the Gods of Beyond). The prospect of another war, however, was probably unacceptable to both sides, so the Gods started to look for a different solution. And, whether it was because they were more occupied with their own affairs, were afraid of not being able to resolve such a difficult problem or through sheer laziness, but together they fell upon a certain idea.
“Let’s look for someone among the humans,” they agreed. “After all, they’ve got to cope with problems like this on a daily basis. (They were thinking of how we manage to find a balance between both families of Gods). Let them show us what they’ve learned. Let’s send one of us to Earth to find someone who’s seriously wrestling with the question of uniting opposites, and give them our task.”
The Divine Messenger from Heaven above and the depths of the Underworld began to scour the Earth in search of the right person and, when this didn’t prove enough, went personally to the Region of Human Beings. There he finally came across me – a fanatic on the subject.
To cut a long story short, I was summoned by both divine families to a general meeting at which I was entrusted with the task of finding the answer to the question: how to unite evident opposites in a profound and permanent way. I was promised a large reward if successful, and I, in gratitude, accepted the quest. To be honest, I was extremely pleased not only by the prospect of a reward but, perhaps even more so, because my vanity was tickled.
I returned to my village and only then started to realise what a mess I had got myself into. The prospect of success was tempting but what would happen if I failed? Besides, I had tried to solve the problem for a good number of years but in vain, and did not quite know what else I could do.
First of all, I decided to visit the neighbouring tribe where there was a very wise seer. When I explained my doubts to her, she thought it over for a long time – all the while performing her rituals – and then suggested:
“When a man doesn’t know the answer to a question, he should seek beings who have already succeeded in finding an answer.”
“Right,” I thought. “That’s good advice, but who are these beings?”
But she didn’t know, or didn’t want to tell me.
Following the vision quest well-tested by our tribe, I set out on an endless journey, without food or sleep, and counted on something important happening. On the second day, I reached an enormous river, where I saw a strange animal. It was the size of a large mole, had the tail and beak of a duck, and I couldn’t see any teeth in its strange snout. It did, admittedly, swim, propelling itself along with paws equipped with webs and claws, but it also used these to burrow itself a hole in which I caught sight of the eggs it had laid.
“Ah, so this must be the famous and mythical Platypus, the animal with the threefold nature of fish, bird and quadruped!” I cried with joy. “What an extraordinary coincidence! This is just the creature which could teach me a great deal!”
It took the Platypus a few days to warm to me for it is a triply fearful being. But, finally, it told me its tale.
The Platypus’s Imaginary Tale
“We’re only small animals and don’t know much about how we came to be but, from what we pass on from generation to generation, it seems that our appearance results from envy and animosity between the Gods of Form and the Gods of Beyond. In the beginning, when they were creating the world, they worked in harmony and ever new species of quadrupeds, fish and birds appeared on Earth. As luck would have it, when it came to creating us, the Gods of Form conceived us as being beautiful, furry quadrupeds. The antagonism which had been growing for a long time, led to the Gods of Beyond creeping up under the cover of night and giving us a duck’s beak while removing our teeth in order to ruin their adversary’s plan. The following day, when all came out into the open, paws and the ability to swim had to be added. But, the following night, the jealous other party threw in claws and changed our reproductive system to oviparity. And so they continued to play around with us for some time, and it’s scary to think of what else could have become of us had both sides not come to the conclusion that they’d devoted enough time to us and got down to work on another species. At last, platypuses sighed with relief.
That’s all we know about how polarities had come to merge in us, but what we do know is that we’re not the only beings of this kind on earth. Besides, if you want to know more about them, you’ll have to find the famous Tribe of Hermaphrodites – non-men and non-women. They can give you more information. Follow the third star of the Great Bear’s shaft and, after you’ve walked for four weeks, you’ll soon arrive at their village,” he concluded.
I thanked him and, full of new notions, continued my wanderings.
After walking for four weeks in the specified direction, I reached the village of Hermaphrodites. I was welcomed with great kindliness and goodwill, and amazed at what I saw. It wasn’t even that the Hermaphrodites personified the ideal combination of man and woman with all the attributes of both genders. What was far more interesting and important was that, when I looked at such a being, it kept changing in a flicker, from moment to moment, being once a man, once a woman. It really was an exceptional and fascinating phenomenon.
“Why, in fact, have you come here?” they asked.
“I have a certain mission to accomplish. I’m looking for the answer to how objects and phenomena which, from the very nature of things, seem impossible to combine, can truly and reasonably merge, how opposites, which are like fire and water, can be transcended. I’ve been given the task by the Gods of Form and the Gods of Beyond, who finally want to resolve the conflict which has always existed between them. It’s in search of the solution that I make this journey. I’m visiting beings which have managed to cope with problems like this and discovering how they did it,” I replied.
“Good,” they said. “We’ll tell you our tale.”
The True Tale of the Tribe of Hermaphrodites
“You asked how we solved the problem you mention and how we arrived at the solution. The answer is very simple. It was thanks to Great Love! So, you should know that when living beings were made, two couples were created – just in case. One of these couples, Ask and Embla, were our ancestors. They fell so deeply in love with each other at first sight that they couldn’t be separated for a moment and didn’t pay any attention to anything else. It was such a love as the world has never seen again. The other couple started to settle down on Earth, paying homage to the Gods and going about their daily business. They, on the other hand, always walked hand in hand, looking into each other’s eyes and saying each other’s names. The Gods soon found this distasteful because what use was a couple like that to them and to the world. So they agreed that Embla had to die and that’s what happened. The unfortunate Ask fell into despair and nearly went mad. He hid himself deep in a cave and didn’t want to talk to anyone. He kept thinking about Embla all the time, of course, and always had her in front of his eyes.
When, a year later, the second couple appeared at the cave, pleading Ask to emerge from the depths of darkness, they heard the female voice of Embla saying that she would not step out into the light of day until her beloved came for her.
Another year passed and the couple came again with the same request, deceitfully adding that Ask was waiting nearby. Embla’s voice replied that she was, in fact, having her monthly bleed but would come out to meet her beloved. And when Ask emerged from the cave, he looked exactly as you see us now. His great love for Embla had made him just like her. And that’s the whole story. Our lives, too, are dictated by nothing but love. We sing songs to it, write poetry and love each other. We don’t need anything else, just like our ancestors. But if you want to find out about other beings like us, you have to find the famous Wind Statuettes. They can tell you more. Follow the brightest star shining in the night sky and, after five weeks, you’ll arrive at the seashore. There, you’ll see a large island in front of you and, once you’re on it, the inhabitants – if you’re lucky and they don’t eat you first – will tell you the story of the Wind Statuettes.”
Much moved by the story of great love which transcends the boundaries of physical limitations, I bade them a warm farewell and, once more, set off on my wanderings. I had never realised that feelings could be so strong as to change what appears to be inevitable destiny.
Five weeks later, I arrived at the seashore. My hastily constructed raft withstood the gentle currents and, after a few hours and with certain misgivings, I landed on the island of the famous Wind Statuettes. I must still have been full of last visit’s love or perhaps my emaciated body did not make a sufficiently good impression but the island inhabitants, unwillingly but clearly with no culinary intentions, offered me shelter for the night in one of their huts.
In the evening, by the fire, when the first ice had been broken and I’d explained the reason for my visit, the elder of the tribe struck the drum at his side several times and hushed the gathering. Then he began to speak.
The Secret Tale of the Famous Wind Statuettes
“We’ve been living on these islands since time immemorial but the calm sea you see around us now was once quite different, full of incredible currents which made going to the mainland impossible. The water seethed over invisible rocks, the depths sucked everything into their abysses and the forbidding surge engulfed many daredevils who tried to undertake the impossible. And so we lived, as it were, cut off from the world. Everybody could see that the little island would soon be unable to sustain all the people on it. Furthermore, there weren’t many trees here at the time so there wasn’t any chance of building a sturdy boat even if it could withstand the stormy waves.
The threat hung over our small population and it seemed that nothing could help us. Nothing except, of course, the Gods. And so we started to pray fervently and, ourselves going hungry, offered sacrifices with what remained of our provisions until the Gods finally took pity on us and taught us the art of flying. From then on, we were called Birdmen and our lives became a wonderful adventure. Because, at last, not only did we find as much food as we wanted – because we could always fly and get some – but we could also experience something other human beings couldn’t. What a man dreams of when looking up and envying birds their ability to fly had become common reality to us.
This went on for some time but, in the end – whether because of the pride which possessed our ancestors or because of laziness and negligence – the thanksgiving sacrifices to the Gods were forgotten and they, vindictive and cruel, quickly demanded their due and punished us horrifically. Not only did they deprive us of our ability to fly but, so as to make the punishment all the more acute, they created and erected Wind Statuettes on the island as a daily reminder of our glory and disgrace. If you go to the other side of the island, you’ll see them. They look like ordinary, heavy, stone statues, but if you try to get closer so as to touch them, they scatter like the wind. They are there to remind us not only that we were once like the wind but also to serve as a metaphor of the delusion and impermanence of human dreams. Even when we don’t go there, because recalling the past is too painful, the rustle of the wind constantly reminds us of their existence and the story that lies behind them.
The Gods, however, left the worst to the end. Do you remember I told you that the island wouldn’t be able to feed the islanders? If the Gods had, at least, let us all die! But no, they sentenced us to five generations of cannibalism! The Age of Darkness and Terror ruled. Mothers ate their own children, and fathers their wives. People hunted each other as if they were animals. The thought of what must have happened here fills me with dread and anxiety. Then the curse died away, the sea subsided and grew calm, and people slowly started to organise their lives anew, forgetting about the horrifying and painful past. Only the Wind Statuettes remained as a reminder and a warning.”
He fell silent as I sat, shocked at what I had just heard.
I couldn’t fall asleep for a long time that night and when, in my sleeplessness, I perceived a pale glow in the east, I gave up struggling and, prompted by a sudden urge, went to the far end of the island to look at the Statuettes. They appeared impressive – heavy, massive, monolithic – yet, as I tried to approach, they dissolved in a hushed rustle. I sat at a distance and began to ruminate. Many weeks had passed since I had begun my wanderings. I had learned many new things about the world, which changed me and made me an entirely different person. I wasn’t thinking about the task entrusted to me yet felt that each experience had brought me closer to the solution. Perhaps I ought rather to say that, in some strange way, I felt I was becoming the solution. Yet I was still missing something, one element of the puzzle. And then I don’t know whether I fell asleep and dreamed it up or I really did hear the Statuettes’ voices in the rustle of the wind.
“If you want to find out more about other beings like us, you can go on searching because there are more of us, but it would be better for you to go straight to the source,” they said. “And, you should know that, contrary to what the Platypuses, Hermaphrodites and Birdmen told you, the truth about how we were all created is somewhat different and goes back to the beginning of the world, some time before the families of the Gods of Form and the Gods of Beyond came to be. For the world originated from the Great Figure, called by various names, which embraces all that later appeared in heaven, on earth and under ground, yet within it remained in perfect harmony and unity. Within it, there was no division between left and right, small and large, cold and hot, or top and bottom. Everything was one. Only when the world began to form out of this figure, did these opposites and others resulting from them appear.
Seeing this, the Great Figure grew sad but it was already too late – the world had come to exist as you see it now, full of conflicts and warring opponents. With its last remaining breath, the Great Figure decided to create one being of each kind which would contain fragments of this Great Entity which was the source and substance of the world. It decided to do this so that a memento of what had existed at the beginning should remain and awaken such a longing as to make the world return to that state, one day. That is how the Tribe of Hermaphrodites originated among human beings, the Platypuses among animals, us, Wind Statuettes, among objects, and, similarly, one element among all other beings. As we said, you can go on searching but it’s best to go straight to the Great Figure. The only problem is, we don’t know how to find it but, since you’ve managed to get as far as here, there might already be something in you which will guide you on. Perhaps it’s your myth to become part of our great family. If so, you are bound to find the way.”
I roused myself, shaking all over. The earliest images of my life came to me. I now knew how to find the way to the Great Figure and sensed what would come next. I wanted to go there immediately and only later return to the Gods but something told me that this order of events would not be possible.
The return journey passed very quickly and I found myself before the two divine families once more. I told them about my wanderings and my encounters with the Platypuses, Hermaphrodites, Birdmen and Wind Statuettes. I only kept secret some of what I had heard at the end from the Statuettes.
“What solution do you bring us then?” asked the Gods. “What are we to do to prevent more of the discord and conflicts which only lead to further wars between us?”
“I can’t give you an answer at the moment,” I replied. “But in seven days, when on waking you go out and look up, you will see me and your own solution. I’ll receive my reward from another source.”
Seven days later, they went out and saw entirely different clouds – ones like you see today.
THE ENLIGHTENMENT OF PLATYPUSES
THE ENLIGHTENMENT OF PLATYPUSES is a collection of fables describing the meandering paths of human evolution. It presents the dangers we come across and the action we can take to help deal with them. Written by a psychotherapist with thirty years of experience working with people, it turns to history and the myths of various cultures. It reveals the universal motives of man’s fate, the difficulties with which we all wrestle and the limitations which we are unable to overcome. On the path to evolution, it is helpful to reach for the archetypal knowledge contained within the unconscious models of the human psyche, because – as the author writes – it is worth remembering that project “man” is unimaginably complicated, while project “a sensibly evolving man” is almost impossible.
THE ENLIGHTENMENT OF PLATYPUSES is the author’s second book of psychological fables. The first, HOW BIRDS DIE, appeared in 2014.
I don’t really know what enlightenment is, but I do know a little about platypuses. (A platypus is a creature which is a bit of everything.) I’ve been meeting them in my consulting room and at workshops for many years. Besides, I am one of them myself. [.….] There is a story about three Zen monks gazing at a fluttering temple flag. The first monk says: “The flag is stirring.” To which the second replies: “No, it’s the wind stirring.” Finally, the third takes voice: “It is the mind that’s stirring.” The third of these, apparently, was the Sixth Zen Patriarch. […..] Man is usually aware of only one level of “movement”. He thinks “only the flag” is moving, or “solely the wind”, or “nothing but the mind”, or he doesn’t even realise that different kinds of “movement” exist. It seems to me that the evolution of man implies an awareness of all the three levels of “movement” described in the story and, no doubt, of many others which are not mentioned – all at the same time.
Translation Danusia Stok