Skip to content

If the augur could see the birds flying in his heart …

June 22, 2014

from D.H. Lawrence, Etruscan Places

“Birds fly portentously on the walls of the Etruscan tombs. The artist must have often seen those priests, the augurs, with their crooked, bird-headed staffs in their hand, out on a high place watching the flight of larks or pigeons across the quarters of the sky. They were reading the signs and the portents, looking for an indication, how they should direct the course of some serious affair. To us it may seem foolish. To them, hot-blooded birds flew through the living universe as feelings and premonitions fly through the breast of man, or as thoughts fly through the mind. In their flight the suddenly roused birds, or the steady, far-coming birds, moved wrapped in a deeper consciousness, in the complex destiny of all things. And since all things corresponded in the ancient world, and man’s bosom mirrored itself in the bosom of the sky, or vice versa, the birds were flying to a portentous goal, in the man’s breast who watched, as well as flying their own way in the bosom of the sky. If the augur could see the birds flying in his heart, then he would know which way destiny too was flying for him.
“The science of augury certainly was no exact science. But it was as exact as our sciences of psychology or political economy. And the augurs were as clever as our politicians, who also must practise divination, if they are ever to do anything worth the name. There is no other way of dealing with life. And if you live by the cosmos, you look in the cosmos for your clue. If you live by a personal god, you pray to him. If you are rational, you think things over. But it all amounts to the same thing in the end. Prayer, or thought, or studying the stars, or watching the flight of birds, or studying the entrails of the sacrifice, it is all the same process, ultimately: of divination. All it depends on is the amount of true, sincere, religious concentration you can bring to bear on your object. An act of pure attention, if you are capable of it, will bring its own answer. And you choose that object to concentrate upon which will best focus your consciousness. Every real discovery made, every serious and significant decision ever reached, was reached and made by divination. Columbus discovered America by a sort of divination. The soul stirs, and makes an act of pure attention, and that is a discovery.
“The science of the augur and the haruspex was not so foolish as our modern science of political economy. If the hot liver of the victim cleared the soul of the haruspex, and made him capable of that ultimate inward attention which alone tells us the last thing we need to know, then why quarrel with the haruspex? To him, the universe was alive, and in quivering rapport. To him, the blood was conscious; he thought with his heart. To him, the blood was the red and shining stream of consciousness itself. Hence, to him, the liver, that great organ where the blood struggles and ‘overcomes death,’ was an object of profound mystery and significance. It stirred his soul and purified his consciousness; for it was also his victim. So he gazed into the hot liver, that was mapped out in fields and regions like the sky of stars, but these fields and regions were those of the red, shining consciousness that runs through the whole animal creation. And therefore it must contain the answer to his own blood’s question.
“It is the same with the study of the stars, or the sky of stars. Whatever object will bring the consciousness into a state of pure attention, in a time of perplexity, will also give back an answer to the perplexity. But it is truly a question of divination. As soon as there is any pretence of infallibility, and pure scientific calculation, the whole thing becomes a fraud and a jugglery. But the same is true not only of augury and astrology, but also of prayer and of pure reason, and even of the great discoveries or the great laws and principles of science. Men juggle with prayer today as once they juggled with augury; and in the same way they are juggling with science. Every great discovery or decision comes by an act of divination. Facts are fitted round afterwards. But all attempt at divination, even prayer and reason and research itself, lapses into jugglery when the heart loses its purity. In the impurity of his heart, Socrates often juggled with logic unpleasantly. And no doubt when skepticism came over the ancient world, the haruspex and augur became jugglers and pretenders. But for centuries they held real sway. It is amazing to see, in Livy, what a big share they must have had in the building up of the great Rome of the Republic.”

3 Comments leave one →
  1. pseudonoma permalink
    July 22, 2014 2:45 am

    A significant quote. In which I am tempted to descry, but only poorly, certain signs of the times. There seems to be –whether deliberately or unconsciously I do not know –a central vein sustaining Lawrence’s meditation, remaining with it throughout, here apparently, there unapparently, like the sounding of one’s own pulse inside his head. It is the subtle preponderance of “consciousness,” of its unquestionable or not yet questioned applicability to the “prayer, or thought, or studying the stars, or watching the flight of birds, or studying the entrails of the sacrifice” of its employment in the identification of what mystery lurks in the blood, the “shining stream of consciousness itself” with which the haruspex is preoccupied. I am inimical to the barren practice semantic policing, but these indications may be read from a more fertile vantage point. They provide the clue, perhaps the omen, as to why Lawrence’s account, as burgeoning with insight as it is, also falls short –and is a directive towards future insight in this failing; only because each of these endeavors of prayer, thought, studying the stars, or watching the flight of birds find their universal characteristic as an “object of consciousness” can we characterize their ultimate truth in a manner extrinsic to them in their proper essence. And only if that is done can the mode of “divination” become a matter of a indifference or, in what amounts to the same, quantification of the “concentration” of consciousness on its object.

    • pseudonoma permalink
      July 23, 2014 10:57 pm

      I was forced to end my previous comment prematurely, so permit me the following addition:

      If Lawrence has attempted to interpret the ur-phenomenon fundamentally characterizing the essence of “every great discovery and decision” as “divination”, we may wonder about his own discovery, perhaps his “great discovery’, of this fundamental characterization. And in doing so, it would seem meet to pay scrupulous attention to the hints that speak in the language of Lawrence’s characterization of this universally characterizing “divination”; we ought to divine the source of his account. Because in doing so, we would at once concede to yet another form of divination, we would, in doing so, already be welcoming the substance of Lawrence’s keen discovery –and yet we would simultaneously be straining our concession with a unique restraint, holding off and holding up for question, in a word DEFERRING the manner in which Lawrence brings this discovery into the clarity of a clandestinely defined form, i.e. by his bringing divination into explicit relation with “consciousness.” Divination, were we to reach the clarity of its still anticipated proper characterization, may even eventually come into focus as something which of itself requires this deferring, this anticipation. It may even be that this essential requirement of divination, namely, deferring, is what forbids its being characterized in terms of consciousness. Forbids this, and yet allows for it, permitted such a characterization can be seen for the omen it is. .

      • pseudonoma permalink
        July 23, 2014 11:15 pm

        Now the point of this is not to merely enact a self-reflexive meditation parasitic on the far more interesting meditation Lawrence offers above. Neither is the point to condescendingly “purify” the language Lawrence is using. Rather. the point is to see that the deference of divination allows us to explicitly grasp in what way the modes of divination, while they can tentatively be understood as belonging to the same essence, at the same time impart themselves in different ways, in keeping with the unique way in which each is a mode of deference. To each “It is the same with…” that Lawrence asserts, must be added a reservation, a deference and a difference.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: