Dreams of a Hummingbird
We All Search for Beauty
When animals such as bees, butterflies, moths, flies, and hummingbirds find food in a plant, they get sticky pollen or sweet nectar, stuck all over themselves. When they move to another flower to feed, some of the pollen can rub off onto this new plant's stigma and fertilization occurs. That's the science of it. Let's turn to the beauty.
Beauty and Seduction
Pollination shows us the power of beauty and seduction in the more-than-human world. "Beauty and seduction," says Louie Schwartzberg, "is nature's tool for survival."
Process theologians agree. Influenced by the philosophy of Whitehead, we believe that there is a lure toward beauty in all of life, including animal and plant life. We speak of this lure as the spirit of creative transformation in the world or, to use a more traditional word, God.
The lure toward beauty is not the whole of God, but it is that side of God which is present within us, moment by moment, as our own innermost desire to survive with satisfaction relative to the situation at hand. It is in other animals, too, and also in living cells within plants. This satisfaction is found in the enjoyment of harmony and intensity. Harmony and intensity are two names for beauty.
This enjoyment can include sexual enjoyment, which has its own kind of harmony and intensity. In human life, and perhaps in other forms of life as well, it includes forms of consciousness that are not directly related to sexuality, but which likewise bring pleasure, including spiritual pleasure, to human life.
One very important form of spiritual pleasure are emotions associated with love, forgiveness, empathy, respect, courage, self-giving, curiosity, and, as we seen in the art of Louie Schwartzberg, a sense of wonder. These emotions, too, may or may not have their evolutionary advantages, but from Whitehead's perspective, they are valuable in their own right, quite apart from questions of evolution. Such emotions are ways of being connected, in healthy ways, with a wider world upon which, at every moment of our lives, we are dependent. In the language of Buddhism, they are ways in which we experience inter-being.
To Live, To Live Well, To Live Better
One of the functions of art in human life is to evoke this sense of wonder, and Schwartzberg's art does this. Art can reveal harsher truths, too. And the shocking kind of art, too, has a kind of beauty, albeit of the deconstructive and destabilizing variety. This kind of art is educating, too. It is intense even if not harmonious.
But Schwartzberg's art is of the heart-opening variety. It opens our hearts to the beauty of the natural world and to the beauty of pollinators.
From Whitehead's perspective, we human beings and our kindred spirits in the greater web of life -- the hummingbirds and bees, the butterflies and bats -- are seeking satisfying beauty, too, the primary and first instance of which is sheer survival. To survive is to have a satisfying relation with one's own body. To live and to live well and to live better: these, says Whitehead, are the primary aims of biological creatures. They are ways of seeking beauty.
Of course, the beauty that hummingbirds seek is not that of evocative images (objective beauty) in art, but the beauty of satisfying experience in the present moment and future (subjective beauty.)
It is a desire to enjoy satisfaction in the moment and in the next moment, too: a desire to move forward.
Life Moving Forward
Schwartzberg tells us that, in developing the video, he asked his scientific advisors what motivates the pollinators. They said: "It's all about risk and reward." He asked: "Why's that?" They answered: "Because they want to survive." He again asked: "Why?" They answered: "In order to reproduce." He again asked "Why?" And one friend said: "Because nothing lasts forever."
This was a moment of illumination for him. He realized that "nature invented reproduction for life to move forward." Here, too, those of us influenced by process theology find wisdom. There are many ideas in Whitehead's philosophy which, together, help us understand the dynamics of live moving forward. Here are five of them: perpetual perishing, objective immortality, the creative advance into novelty, the subjective aim toward beauty, and God.
Consider perpetual perishing. This is the idea that life unfolds for all living beings -- people and hummingbirds and flowers -- as a series of momentary experiences or events. We do not stand outside these experiences as timeless observers; we are the experiences themselves. Every time a hummingbird flaps her wings an event is occurring; Schwartzberg's photography shows the flapping, event by event.
With every flapping the hummingbird is a slightly new hummingbird, and the old hummingbird has perished. What has perished is, in Whitehead's words, the subjective immediacy of the predecessor experience. Every moment is a living and a dying. A Buddhist will call it impermanence. Whitehead calls it perpetual perishing.
The second concept is objective immortality. This is the idea that, even as subjective immediacy perishes -- and even as our very aliveness in that moment perishes along with that immediacy -- something of us can and does survive in what comes after us.
It survives as an object which can be influential, positively or negatively, in what comes after us. This object can be our genes, or the fruits of our efforts, or both. A Buddhist might speak of this influence of the past on the present as karma. Whitehead calls it the objective immortality of the past in the present.
The phrase objective immortality has a flat sound to it, but for Whitehead the true "immortality" of the past is not the immortality of ideas, but rather that of patterned energy, emotional tones, and feelings. At each present moment, thinks Whitehead, living beings -- hummingbird and humans alike -- are indebted to, and drawing upon, experiences from their immediate past as nourishment for the present moments of her life. The influence of past feelings is largely unconscious. Consciousness is but a fleeting dimension of everyday experience; the tip of the experiential iceberg. Most experience is unconscious.
Creative Advance into Novelty
Regeneration is Schwartzberg's name for what Whiteheadians call objective immortality. It is a good name, because it rightly has connotations of aliveness, of the renewal of subjective immediacy. In Whitehead's philosophy the idea of regeneration is captured in two related ideas: repetition and novelty. The objective immortality of a past event in the present, and yet the present event is a new event, and contains more than the past event as objectified in the present. Thus there is repetition and novelty and, for that matter, a repetition of novelty, because the past event was novel, too. Regeneration is shorthand for these two ideas, and they seem to be at the very heart of life. Life is always moving forward as a repetition of novelty.
Whitehead's phrase for this is the creative advance into novelty. He believes that this creative advance is occurring everywhere: in atoms and molecules, galaxies and stars, plants and animals, pollinators and people.
Subjective Aim Toward Beauty
Still another idea is that of the subjective aim at beauty. This has been mentioned above. For some people it may be difficult to imagine that pollinators have subjective aims, but for those of us influenced by Whitehead it makes good sense. All living beings seek to live with satisfaction relative to the situation at hand. The seeking may be conscious or unconscious, but it is indeed a seeking.
Plato gives us three values that, in his view, are worth seeking: truth, goodness, and beauty. An interesting feature of Whitehead's thought is that, for him, beauty has pride of place. What makes truth worthy of pursuit in human life, and goodness worth embodying, is that both have a certain kind of beauty to them. Truth is a harmonious relation of ideas in the mind to the world as it presents itself. Goodness is a harmonious relation among people and between people and the natural world. The harmony of goodness can be intense and filled with healthy competition, but ultimately it is a sense of creative togetherness. Always there is an aiming toward beauty.
Within this aim, yet deeper, is a universally present yet omni-adaptive lure, with a power of attraction not unlike that of a flower to a butterfly, toward which all living beings are drawn. And non-living beings, too. This reality cannot be grasped with the eye or hand, but it is felt, inwardly, as an attractant -- a calling -- to say "yes" to life. This reality is that which inspires billions of years of galactic evolution, and millions of years of biological evolution on our planet, to explore different forms of existence, all the while seeking a beauty beyond measure. This reality is deeply seductive, but not in a compelling or manipulative way. It does not seek to absorb realities into its personal orbit. Rather it takes delight in multiplicity, in creativity, in regeneration, and different forms of communion. It seems tilted toward love. For process theologians this tilting is part of the reason why, despite entropy, our universe has evolved into so many kinds of beauty, all so wondrous. Louie Schwartzberg tells us that we protect the things we fall in love with. The lure toward beauty within our universe seems to have fallen in love with life. When we fall in love in similar ways, we are companions to the lure.
Responsible, life-enhancing, mutually empowering sexuality is one way of being a companion to the lure in a deeply human and humane way. It links us to the butterflies and hummingbirds, too.
Sexuality is in its deepest dimension is an aim toward a beauty that is within, but also more than the beauty of any person or any source of food. It is an aim toward intimacy with the All. Intimacy with God. It might seem odd to say that the butterflies, too, in their ways are seeking this intimacy. But certainly they hunger for something. And in their hunger there is, for those of us with Whiteheadian eyes, a kind of prayer, a prayer to be connected with the wideness in which the whole universe is gathered into living unity.
This wideness, this compassionate horizon which includes all horizons, is God's love. Butterflies need not name it in this way. But in their own ways, in their aiming to move life forward, they understand it.
Intersection between animal and plant world is a magic moment
Where life regenerates itself over and over again
Where life regenerates itself over and over again