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.

On the Coast Starlight

We climbed aboard the Coast Starlight in Portland, bound for Los Angeles, 24 train-ride hours away, but we stopped unexpectedly somewhere up in the Cascades southeast of Eugene. Snow was falling. In those days, you could walk between the cars and open the top of the dutch door for some fresh air. The air was raw and cold, the woods dark, and the smell as strong as a cigar of pine sap. The tracks followed rivers, valleys, passes, built along paths of least resistance. It’s possible now to consider the railroad a naive form of travel.

When we speak of losing our train of thought, we are comparing thinking to a train, I suppose to indicate how one thought after another coupled together are all headed in the same direction, or should be, if the logic holds water, but thought does not move like a train, the engine a thesis statement, the coal car fuel of claims, the cars one example after another, all following the same track of thought, the dining car full of opposing arguments, the caboose a bright red conclusion.

News travelled slowly on trains in those days. Long and longer minutes passed without anyone new coming into our car. Our conductor reappeared and explained we were stopped because a freight train ahead of us had derailed. At first, it wasn’t clear how long we would be delayed. Equipment to reposition the freight train was en route to the wreck. Minutes, as it turned out, became, as they always do, hours. The conductor came through our car again to announce we would all be treated to a free dinner in the dining car. There was also a club car where we could hang out while waiting.

Thought, if it moves at all, is more like the flight of a bird. But Thomas Hobbes, in his 1651 book, “Leviathan”, put us on the track of thinking of thought as a train, to wit:

“Of the Consequence or TRAYNE of Imaginations. BY Consequence, or TRAYNE of Thoughts, I understand that succession of one Thought to another, which is called (to distinguish it from Discourse in words) Mentall Discourse. When a man thinketh on any thing whatsoever, His next Thought after, is not altogether so casuall as it seems to be. Not every Thought to every Thought sueceeds indifferently. But as wee have no Imagination, whereof we have not formerly had Sense, in whole, or in parts; so we have no Transition from one Imagination to another, whereof we never had the like before in our Senses. The reason whereof is this. All Fancies are Motions within us, reliques of those made in the Sense: And those motions that immediately succeeded one another in the sense, continue also together after Sense: In so much as the former comming again to take place, and be predominant, the later followeth, by coherence of the matter moved, in such manner, as water upon a plain Table is drawn which way any one part of it is guided by the finger. But because in sense, to one and the same thing perceived, sometimes one thing, some times another succeedeth, it comes to passe in time, thatjn the Imagining of any thing, there is no certainty what we shall Imagine next; Onely this is certain, it shall be something that succeeded the same before, at one time or another.”

I ordered a salmon steak and a glass of red wine. I don’t remember what Susan ordered, but since she dislikes fish, I suppose she might have had a filet mignon with a glass of white wine. We were not in a hurry. Had we been in a hurry, we would not have taken the train in the first place.

By the time we pulled into the station at Santa Barbara, the train was five hours behind schedule. Another, new conductor had come aboard in San Louis Obispo. A group of passengers who had been on board even longer than us, having boarded in Seattle, were told to wait at the door at the end of our car. It was noted this door had not previously been used at any of our stops; nevertheless, our new conductor insisted the group wait at this door. An anxious wait ensued. The door did  not open. The train began to move. The group would have to travel with us all the way to Los Angeles, where Amtrak would put them on a bus which would drive them back to Santa Barbara.