Birdbrain, Bird-witted, and more on Thought

Reflecting yesterday afternoon on my morning post, “On the Coast Starlight,” in which I suggested thought, if we are to try to compare it to anything, seems more bird-like than the train of thought first found in Thomas Hobbes’s 1651 “Leviathan,” I thought, to force thought onto a track where ideas are coupled one after another in forward motion toward some predetermined destination results from printing press technology, as McLuhan has shown. Thinking like a train does produce advantages, but the linear notion of thought may put us in a cage. Then it came to me that a reader might have commented that I seem birdbrained.

Since I’ve had comments and likes off for recent posts, no such reader was able to suggest it, so I’ve come forward to suggest it myself. (Readers intent on comment, like, or dislike, btw, will find an email address at the bottom of the Toad’s About page.)

But why we have come to disvalue flightiness to the extent we have, I’m not sure. Birdbrain, according to Google Ngram, is a word product of the second half of the 20th Century, while bird-witted has a more storied past, with interesting spikes of usage in both the 1720s and the 1820s.

I readily agree that my brain seems to be more bird-like than train-like. But upon discussion with Susan, she informs me that only the hummingbird is able to fly backward. Trains, of course, can travel forward or backward, but not at the same time. Yes, but trains can’t leave the track (except to switch to another track), and two trains running in opposite directions on the same track – well, in a quantum train world, perhaps a train may indeed run forward and backward at the same time. In any case, the intelligence of birds is not in question. The question is whether to think like a bird offers the human any advantage over thinking like a train. But we are only speaking to the metaphors, of course, because of course trains don’t actually think at all, and people don’t and can’t and will never think like birds any more than they’ll be able to fly like a bird.

It’s probable that in the era of trains, people did think more like trains than bird-like, while before artificial locomotion was mass produced, people thought more like other animals think. Now, people no doubt think more like automobiles. And we might update Hobbes to suggest an automobile of imagination.

The poet Marianne Moore, in her poem “Bird-witted,” leaves no doubt that to think like a bird is to think like a human:

parent darting down, nerved by what chills 
  the blood, and by hope rewarded -  
of toil - since nothing fills 
  squeaking unfed 
mouths, wages deadly combat, 
and half kills 
    with bayonet beak and 
    cruel wings, the 
intellectual cautious- 
ly creeping cat.
The last stanza of “Bird-witted,” from The Complete Poems of Marianne Moore, Penguin, 1982, p. 105-106.
Photo: Susan and Chicken, Culver City, circa 1952.
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Joe Linker

"The Coming of the Toads" by Joe Linker is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, and Copyright 2007-2020 Joe Linker - author of "Penina's Letters," "Coconut Oil," "Scamble and Cramble: Two Hep Cats and Other Tall Tales," "Saltwort," "Alma Lolloon," and "end tatters."