Entry 118: Slip-jig Philosophising– In 1964, in a club somewhere in the British Isles, a tape recorder started spinning and it snared a virtuoso on the tenor banjo playing one of the oldest Celtic dances, Kitty Come Down From Limerick. A little before this, around 655 A.D. an unnamed Irish monk set down on sheepskin parchment some quite modern thoughts concerning the manipulation of time in a treatise entitled, De mirabilibus sacrae scripturae.
Listening to Barney McKenna play the banjo makes me speculate that he must have hit upon a way to manipulate space and time to produce the notes he played. And perhaps it is not too fanciful to posit something about the Irish milieu that, from time to time, messes with our reality. After all, didn’t George Berkeley, bishop of Cloynes, in the 18th Century declare that objects are only ideas in the minds of perceivers causing Dr Johnston to kick a rock in an attempt to refute this Irish philosophising?
In my mind, I see Sam hopping and leaping about in a painful parody of that most balletic of Irish dance forms- the slip jig. Now, George would never have resorted to the limerick as a form for philosophical exploration but a clever English scholar and priest, one Ronald Knox, wittily used the form to poke fun at Berkeley’s immaterialism,
There was a young man who said “God/Must find it exceedingly odd/To think that this tree/Should continue to be/When there’s no one about in the quad.”/“Dear Sir, your astonishment’s odd./I am always about in the quad./And that’s why the tree/Continues to be/Since observed by, Yours faithfully, God.”
Knox, also, preceded Orson Welles by a dozen years in perpetrating a radio hoax on a nation: one snowy weekend in 1926, he broadcast on BBC Radio the purported news of a revolutionary uprising in London where rabid malcontents lynched government ministers and destroyed the Houses of Parliament, bringing Big Ben crashing down.
He was neighbours in Oxford for a while with C. S. Lewis, an Ulsterman, who has given us The Chronicles of Narnia and the space trilogy which includes, Out of the Silent Planet. Lewis wisely observed, Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art… It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things that give value to survival.
The value of philosophy to survival is most clearly seen, not in abstruse, turgid tomes of which there are libraries-full, but in poetry such as the early Irish poet, Amergin who, in The Mystery, writes,
I am the wind which breathes upon the sea,/I am the wave of the ocean,/I am the murmur of the billows,/ I am the ox of the seven combats/,I am the vulture upon the rocks,/I am the beam of the sun,/I am the fairest of plants,/I am the wild boar in valour,/I am a salmon in the water,/I am a lake in the plain,/I am a word of science,/I am the point of the lance of battle/,I am the God who created in the head the fire./Who is it who throws light into the meeting on the mountain?/Who announces the ages of the moon?/Who teaches the place where couches the sun?/(If not I).
I find an echo of this ancient soul in a piece by one of my favourite American poets, Carl Sandburg, who informs us in Who Am I?,
My head knocks against the stars./My feet are on the hilltops./My finger-tips are in the valleys and shores of/universal life./Down in the sounding foam of primal things I/reach my hands and play with pebbles of/destiny./I have been to hell and back many times./I know all about heaven, for I have talked with God./I dabble in the blood and guts of the terrible./I know the passionate seizure of beauty/And the marvellous rebellion of man at all signs/reading “Keep Off.”/My name is Truth and I am the most elusive captive/in the universe.
Even in the demotic voice, the resilience and wisdom of the people ring out, as here in a defiant shout by Paul Lawrence Dunbar, 19th Century African American poet’s Philosophy,
I been t’inkin’ ’bout de preachah; whut he said de othah night,/’Bout hit bein’ people’s dooty, fu’ to keep dey faces bright;/How one ought to live so pleasant dat ouah tempah never riles,/Meetin’ evahbody roun’ us wid ouah very nicest smiles./Dat ‘s all right, I ain’t a-sputin’ not a t’ing dat soun’s lak fac’,/But you don’t ketch folks a-grinnin’ wid a misery in de back;/An’ you don’t fin’ dem a-smilin’ w’en dey ‘s hongry ez kin be,/Leastways, dat ‘s how human natur’ allus seems to ‘pear to me./We is mos’ all putty likely fu’ to have our little cares,/An’ I think we ‘se doin’ fus’ rate w’en we jes’ go long and bears,/Widout breakin’ up ouah faces in a sickly so’t o’ grin,/W’en we knows dat in ouah innards we is p’intly mad ez sin./Oh dey ‘s times fu’ bein’ pleasant an’ fu’ goin’ smilin’ roun’,/’Cause I don’t believe in people allus totin’ roun’ a frown,/But it’s easy ‘nough to titter w’en de stew is smokin’ hot,/But hit’s mighty ha’d to giggle w’en dey’s nuffin’ in de pot. ‘Nuff said.