Monday, April 20, 2009


It comes as no surprise that many of the ills of modern society can be traced to our inability to comprehend the interconnectedness of creation. But I was intrigued to learn this morning that the word "individual" originally meant indivisible, not cuttable, as in the Trinity, or husband and wife. Originally an individual was a person or thing seen in relation to the whole of which it was but a part, as in an individual instance of a family.

But by the mid-nineteenth century Darwin was describing "individuals of the same species" and soon the indivisible part of a whole had become just a separate part. "Individualism and individuality became the modern attitudes towards the self, meaning now the autonomous, completely self-determining subject, not the person intrinsically united to God or the Whole....Notions of individual identity may even underlie the turbulent and dangerous shift today from economic cooperation with our neighbors to the unbridled competitiveness of market forces. The notorious claim of modern capitalism that "society" does not exist threatens the weak and marginalized who cannot defend themselves, just as it enthrones the successful individual in a pleasure palace of consumption." (Raymond Williams, Keywords, via Laurence Freeman)

Reading this, I am reminded of some discussions I have had with my older daughter over the years about feminist language. She thinks I am rather rabid on the subject (I did come of age in the 70's after all) but I truly believe that how we use language affects how we perceive at a very fundamental level. It could, of course, be simply a chicken and egg problem, but if we could possibly follow the course Madeline L'Engle prescribes in A Swiftly Tilting Planet and go back in time to right a single wrong, the implications for our current thinking could be immense, rather like the butterfly effect: that part of chaos theory that suggests the flap of a butterfly's wing in Brazil could trigger a tornado in Texas.

All of which is to say that when I look at this image and feel the existential loneliness of this seagull, I am speaking wholly as a product of my century and my culture; that less than 200 years ago another -- dare I say, Individual? -- looking at this image would see, not loneliness, but an instant, an instance, a rare moment when one of a flock sits at rest, enjoying the flow of the tide and the rise of the sun. One might even call her perch a pleasure palace, though obviously not one of consumption -- unless we're speaking of her potential consumption of nearby fish!

And what do you see?


altar ego said...

I like to quote a former supervisor who was fond of reminding his students that "what we see depends on where we sit." It's not just the cultural environment, but personal leanings and preferences as well.

For instance, when I look at the picture I see rest and contentment at the close of a day. I am comfortable and often yearn for solitude, even as I abhor isolation. I am fortunate to have a relatively good balance of solitude and companionship, though the diversity of the latter could be enlarged a bit.

I wonder what astrologers would say about the notion of individuality. The age of aquarius is now gone, and we will cycle through other influences and circumstances that will shape how we function as individuals and communities.

Interesting stuff.

Jan said...

Where did you read that about "individuality"? I found that most interesting.

I think the colors of the image unsettle me about the seagull--the possible tranquility seems colder and lonelier with those shades.


I see the photograph "in a bigger picture sense" after reading your words. It is comforting to me to think that though alone this individual bird is part of a huge population and through its lone enjoyment of the paradise it beholds, we are all given a moment of peace by observing, even through a photograph, rather than on site, the same moment of peace. Thank you - the scene and the thought are wonderful! said...

The individuality quote is from Laurence Freeman's book, Jesus the Teacher Within; it's in the Labyrinth chapter. Your remark about the color intrigues me: it's unaltered color, shot just before sunrise (I was actually out photographing the moon when I turned and saw this). So that's why it has that cold feeling, I think...

...and I love the "what we see...where we sit" quote: someone once told me it's like one of those mirrored balls in a dance hall: we're all looking at the same ball, but we each see something different reflected back at us...

Welcome, Sunrise! -- or maybe that's what the gull is doing: welcoming the sunrise!