Monday, 25 July 2011

The whole truth

'Facilius per partes in cognitionem totius adducimur'
Seneca the Younger (4BC to AD65) from Epistulae morales

I remember my early science classes at school. I don't think at that age we had split them into their separate disciplines. Sometimes, when the season was right, we would collect wild flowers from the school grounds and take them inside and dismantle them to learn about their constituent parts. Buttercups were a favourite; they were cheerful and simple and in plentiful supply. Looking back, I don't recall any qualms about us picking them, no cautionary lessons about sparing their less common brothers and sisters. There were words that hadn't been invented in those days, like 'ecosystem' and 'biodiversity'. Eden was there to be reaped, and raped.

Anyway, with nimble fingers and tweezers we pulled apart our chosen flower, laying out the fragments on a blank page. A tiny dab of glue was a precaution against sudden sneezes and boisterous classmates. Once we had our design just the way we wanted, a yellow and green five-pointed star, we would annotate it in pencil. Stipe and stigma, stamens and sepals, the alliterative words rang at once clinical and musical, equally at home in the poem and the operating theatre. When we were done the whole thing was covered in a square of transparent 'sticky-back plastic' (a phrase forever linked in my mind with Valerie Singleton, John Noakes et al). And there they were, our dissected flowers preserved for always, or at least until we grew tired of our no-longer-new exercise books and lost them.

It was a harmless enough lesson I suppose, but even at a young age I remember a certain disquiet about it. There was something a little unseemly about the end result, something not entirely edifying about dismantling a private thing of beauty and splaying it in this way. I must be careful here; with my adult sensibilities I can add connotations of sexual violation to what we were doing of which I am sure to have been innocent at the time. So what was it exactly, this undefined uneasiness? Disappointment, I think, and sadness. It is like the feeling I get in provincial museums and private collections looking at trays of displayed moths and butterflies. Musty and mouldering, they signify age suspended, a chimera of everlasting beauty. Drop the tray and these little pinned-out Dorian Grays will disintegrate into dust.

Our exercise, intended to reveal, had merely exposed. The flat page showed us what but not why. We learned nothing of how our specimens aligned themselves to the rays of the sun, or how they opened to the insect vectors of their choice, why they grew abundantly here but not there, why they flowered in June but not April, why they were golden yellow and not blue or white. Our neat two-dimensional creations had anatomy but lacked vitality; stems and stamens yes, but no soul.

The quotation above, written by Seneca in a letter at the end of his long life, translates as 'We are more easily led part by part to an understanding of the whole.' This linear and very Latin approach to learning has been enshrined in our education system ever since. We break things down, take them one step at a time, allow time for assimilation before moving on. But it is a method not without fault. A compartmentalised approach to learning can easily accentuate the differences between things rather than the commonalities. It spills over into other aspects of our society, leading to linear cause-and-effect responses to probelm solving. Our piecemeal approaches to clinical medicine and law-making are examples, they are rarely holistic. It seems we can never entirely put Humpty together again.

My disappointment with my buttercup was, I suppose, a first lesson in Gestalt; the whole is not merely the sum of its parts, an aphorism attributed with some dispute to Aristotle's Metaphysica. It has become fashionable to disparage the grand old philosopher in our iconoclastic age but his explorations of the origin and essence of things, of primal existence, have illumined our view of ourselves in a way that is unparalleled in Western thought.

Later I went on to study natural sciences at college, at times conducting laboratory exercises far more brutal and pointless than dismembering buttercups. And often I was left with that same elusive unease that we were missing something. We found out what things were made of but not what made them the way they are.

I have some of my school exercise books still, those jottings of another me. None contains a flower preserved under plastic I'm pleased to say. These days I prefer to wade knee-high through buttercup fields, relishing how radiant they are in their wholeness.


  1. Your post has left me smiling with memories. I have to admit, I recall similar experiences, but with the very butterflies and moths you mention. As a child, I recall catching the unassuming creatures as they settled on a leaf for a brief respite. I recall folding their wings together, taking the creatures home, wrapping them in silver paper, and then tucking them between the pages of my dictionary.

    Years later, I opened up the dictionary with intention and removed all the painfully dead cadavers. I asked myself why I had done this terrible thing, as a child. Naturally, I knew the answer was that I wished to keep the lovelies for myself, but I didn't realize, young as I was, that once they were dead they were no longer as beautiful... as desirable... as alive!

    But this is how we learn, isn't it?

    Thank you for sharing this lovely post, Anhrefn. I enjoyed it completely! Let's just say that it made me feel... well... not quite so evil. There is comfort in sharing.


  2. How, why, what... Part by part ... Bit by bit... Deconstructing the very soul of beauty for our 'enlightenment'... You are so true. We are missing the essence of the beautiful world around us by defining it in mechanical terms, the sum of its parts.. I'd rather wade knee deep in the sea of buttercups with you, enquiring languidly 'do you like butter' than cover them in sticky back plastic to watch them change colour as they shrivel.. Thank you for reminding me why I'd never really indulged in nature flower-pressing... although I do feel bad about the flies ...

  3. Nevine, it is good to hear from you and thank you for sharing your childhood memory. As you say, this is how we learn and we should not be too hard on ourselves about our youthful desire to capture and preserve beauty. You are most certainly not evil! How many of us have brought home shiny wet pebbles from the beach only to witness with dismay their colours fade as they dry with a patina of salt?

    To my other visitor, thank you for dipping a toe into dysnomia... you are welcome to stay. Feeling bad about the flies? I think you should confess all!