Volcanoes! Dinosaurs!

(as a regular feature, I break from whatever else I’m reading to read the fiction and poetry in The New Yorker, and write something–sometimes a brief tangent, sometimes something more full and formal–here).

Reading The New Yorker, July 11th & 18th 2011 issue.  Fiction: “Aphrodisiac” by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala.  Poetry: “Before Air-Conditioning” by Frederick Seidel and “Reconstruction” by Stephen Dunn

Stephen Dunn’s “Reconstruction” hints, through a simple anecdote of a friend sharing with the narrator theories about volcanoes and dinosaurs and extinction, at the smallness of humankind.  The topic of dinosaurs puts in the foreground the minimal significance of humankind in geologic time: volcanoes were erupting and dinosaurs thriving long before our existence.  If merely mentioning dinosaurs isn’t enough to ensmallen* humans, then the suggestion at the end that


wasn’t even a concept yet, or a word,

still eons away from 

a certain slithering and the likes of us.

Should make it clear.  What’s being talked about is a fascinating, complex, mysterious existence that precedes human consciousness by millions of years.

But it is not just humankind’s brevity in the face of the cosmos the poem suggests.  If all this was happening before humans had developed ideas, concepts, values, morals, anything suggesting the sometimes abstract concept of “forgiveness,” well, then just how meaningful is our concept of “forgiveness”?  Or any other idea we come up with?  Isn’t any abstraction empty when considering prehistoric volcanoes and dinosaurs?  If such exists without our attempts to create meaning, then what do our attempts to create meaning really matter?  And so this brief anecdote takes down practically all human effort of intellect.

Can it end there?  The world existed for eons without us, and our minds, such a source of pride, so cherished, that which makes us feel superior to every other creature that exists or ever has existed on this earth, can create nothing of meaning.  That should teach us some humility enough, but it doesn’t end there:

and scarcity and greed.  An old story,

he calls it, as if simply affirming a fact–

the dinosaurs, when it came to food,

never knew how much was too much,

and given the size of their brains

kept doing almost forgivable 

stupid things.

Am I reaching to see the suggestions of humankind’s eventual demise?  In discussing the extinction of the dinosaurs, is there a hint here at the extinction of humankind?  I don’t think it’s hard for an environmentally conscious person to see a parallel here: how we consume and waste, how we pollute and destroy, how we, through stupidity and greed, irrevocably change our planet so much that we may wreck its ability to sustain us.  So there’s the third minimization of humankind: just as our existence does not go eternally back to the beginning, it will not continue eternally into the future.  We will go away, perhaps sooner through our own actions.

Yes, a simple anecdote of a friend sharing ideas about volcanoes, dinosaurs, and extinction.  A simple anecdote that points to a common theme of literature: human beings ought not be so full of ourselves.

*the opposite of embiggen


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