Mama, I killed a deer

Mama, I killed a deer
I saw him come so near
in my headlights it is clear and o

Mama, I killed a fish
snapped him from his stream
thought I heard him scream and o

Mama, I killed a frog
we dissected him in class
the teacher let it pass and o

Mama, I killed a fly
they never asked me why
but I know I cannot lie and o

Mama, I killed an ant
I squashed it with my foot
now I know I’m no good and o

Mama, I killed a cat
I was curious at that
but now it makes me fret and o

Mama, I killed a cow
a butcher told me how
a Hindu disavows and o

Mama, I killed a horse
majestic was his force
sad was I of course and o

Mama, I killed a pig
a hatchet did the trick
it’s more humane than bricks and o

Mama, I killed a snake
hit him with a rake
down by a murky lake and o

Mama, I killed a whale
Melville got it right
I lie awake at night and o

Mama, I killed a duck
he waddled out of luck
but I didn’t give a fu.. and o

Mama, I killed a shark
it happened in the dark
look he has left his mark and o

Mama, I killed a bird
it didn’t take a third
stone for him to die alone and o

Mama, I killed a mouse
I put a trap next to his house
I am not worth my vows and o

please forgive me

Mama, I killed a deer was originally published on Meandering home

Meditation on Persons

The question: What is a person? is more complex than it appears. Indeed, when we recognize the complexity of the question, and forget our assumption that a person should be a human being. We can no longer thing of a picture of homo sapiens, Vitruvian Man or his slightly obese contemporary counterpart, so the concept of a “person” becomes enigmatic.

What about: the bearer of something? The bearer of free will, or rights, or responsibilities? But this is begging the question. A person is recognized as a person when he is considered the bearer of these dignities. Francis Fukuyama writes about this in his recent book on “Identity”, following Hegel that history is the dialectical play of recognition, resulting in the liberal democratic society at the famous “end” of history. Philosophy in this sense is translating common sense into notions, not investigating some underlying substance.

Such “substance” is the domain of metaphysics and it seems dangerous to let that discipline decide what (who!) counts as a person and who doesn’t. This theoretical question will become extremely relevant of course in the impending era of artificial intelligence. As soon as “chatbots” portray the characteristics of personhood and manage to obfuscate the algorithmic origin of their utterance, we can expect action groups advocating a bill of rights for these computer programs. The right to live, for example, translates into a right not to be shut down.

Machines have to pass the Turing test, or generate enough doubt so we have to assume they could pass, in order to be considered persons. The ability to have a human-like conversation appears to be the only criterion for personhood. This seems to excludes other animals. I would argue that we should be as benevolent as we could be in our interpretation of what we count as a conversation. We talk to our companion animals or pets, and there sure is mutual understanding. Some animals also partake in the life of the mind. And just to be on the safe side, why don’t we include them all and assign them some sense of personhood, and a right to life, dignity and the pursuit of happiness?

Judging if we are dealing with a person becomes the responsible task of other persons, in which they give their best effort to discern symptoms of personhood. We are generous with personhood.

Meditation on Persons was originally published on Meandering home

Reading: Dead Animals by John Hollander

The American poet John Hollander (1929-2013) was known for his language virtuosity. His most famous book for a wider audience was his 1981 introduction to form and prosody Rhyme’s Reason, a witty tour through the intricacies of poetry that you can borrow online. Some say that his poems lack personal engagement, that the emotion is never the author’s (which, following Eliot, it shouldn’t be). Here I read a short verse that gives you some impression of Hollander’s craft:

Dead Animals
Granted, then, that the punishment,
-Whether appropriate or not-for that
One tiny universal act (“Come, try it!”
“Yum-yum!”) of disobedience was Death,
It seems obscenely inappropriate
That all the other creatures, furry, smooth,
Scaly or feathered, shelled, gelatinous,
Great- or tiny-winged, swift-legged or slow
(I need-however lovingly-not name
Them all right now) have been condemned, like us,
To death, just to provide those symmetries
And analogues, just to allow us to
Compare ourselves to them whether or not
Condescendingly-I don’t know. I think
I’ll trade this one in for another story.

On offer is a precise and funny rephrasing of Genesis and our culture’s bullshit story of original sin. A ‘tiny universal act’ of disobedience because of a yummy Golden Delicious is totally inappropriate of course and the entire myth has been fabricated to channel a deep and dark hatred of life. Hollander doesn’t need such verbiage – suffice the word “obscene”.

He sums up the other creatures (I think he has a knack for completeness. Hollander was a celebrated anthologist and enjoyed formal perfection in poetry). Here, he skillfully implies weaker rhyme like slow-now or like us-symmetries or condescendingly-story. What do we make of his insecurity in the end? Which story does he want to trade, the book of Genesis, or his own poem (playing with meta-poetry is a common feature in Hollander’s work)? Or both?

The obscenity is that animals are mortal like us yet without sin. It allows us (compels us, maybe, it alliterates now and that’s what is really going on) to compare ourselves with the animals, to look down on them because they can’t be seduced, they have no will of their own against the flow of Being, as it were. The animals are there to make us go “look they die just like us but we have deserved to be treated like them because we have sinned; had we not sinned, we would also die, but we take on that burden consciously. Our reward is to feel better because we can name our situation. We have a mind that can create for us the illusion that we have an independent will and thus the ability to sin. Of course it is all bullocks, but that masochism gives us at least the satisfaction of being more ‘advanced’ than the animals.

Do you think this is what Hollander means?

Reading: Dead Animals by John Hollander was originally published on Meandering home