Friday, May 28, 2010

Those Damn Binaries

 Hot/Cold. Good/Bad. Light/Dark. Masculine/Feminine. Yin/Yang. Everywhere. Everything. All the time.

We persist in binary thinking, even when it doesn't serve us very well. Sometimes we might do well to think outside or away from binaries. People, especially - are they all one way or the other, always, completely?

Artists steer us towards other ways of thinking about many things and binaries are no different.

In her poem "The Swimmer's Moment," Margaret Avison writes of people who refuse binary thinking, those who refuse to even name the whirlpool, the moment of decision. To be sure, the refusal does not result in happiness - an allusion to Dante's Paulo and Francesca endlessly going round and round in Dante's second circle of the Inferno -  but the introduction of a third term instead of only choice between binary opposites shows that there are ways of thinking outside the norm.

The Swimmer's Moment

 For everyone
The swimmer's moment at the whirlpool comes,
But many at that moment will not say
'This is the whirlpool, then.'
By their refusal they are saved
From the black pit, and also from contesting
The deadly rapids, and emerging in
The mysterious, and more ample, further waters.
And so their bland-blank faces turn and turn
Pale and forever on the rim of suction
They will not recognize.
Of those who dare the knowledge
Many are whirled into the ominous centre
That, gaping vertical, seals up
For them an eternal boon of privacy,
So that we turn away from their defeat
With a despair, not for their deaths, but for
Ourselves, who cannot penetrate their secret
Nor even guess at the anonymous breadth
Where one or two have won:
(The silver reaches of the estuary).
Margaret Avison

W.B. Yeats in "The Second Coming" also demonstrates a position outside binaries. "The falcon cannot hear the falconer" (2). It is not the case that the falcon either obeys or disobeys the falconer's commands; it cannot hear the commands - thus Yeats introduces a third term.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

I am not argiung that bad is good and good is bad - that's just more of the same kind of thinking. Most things are nuanced, gray, and have complexity that we refuse when we think in binaries. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn put it well: "...the dividing line between good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who among us is willing to destroy a piece of their own heart?"

Or put another more humourous way in an old joke: At a hotdog stand in NYC, the vendor asks the Dalai Lama what he wants on his hotdog and the Dalai Lama answers that he'll have "One with Everything."

Binaries and being "One with Everything" don't go well together.


(The title is an excerpt from an interview with Canadian writer Robert Kroetsch.)


askcherlock said...

Such excellent poems. There are days when I say to my husband that surely the End Times are coming. And then I read a story of enlightenment or hear positive things people have done for others, and I am renewed. It is a strange world, these times.

ChrisJ said...


Yes, strange times indeed; you are exactly right.

Ciss B said...

I have read so many times throughout history when many thought the world was ending. I tend to be one who lives for the moment and if it is the last one - so be it.

The world is made up of Yin and Yang, but that doesn't mean that they don't work together and are always opposites. They often nestle together as in the black and white image that represents them.

ChrisJ said...


Yes, it's "both /and" rather than "either/or."

Owen Gray said...

Only when we can see both -- not either/or -- can we begin to think "outside the box."

ChrisJ said...


Outside the box is good.

Salma said...

Surely evrything will come to an end but every age has had its crazed period of insight versus fear etc. I know I will die, but when? I just feel it's a waste of time thinking about it.

Great poems Chris.

ChrisJ said...


Yes, dwelling on when one will die is counterproductive and worse, fearful.

cooper said...

The box is an illusion is it not? It's the illusion we are stuck in.

I've never heard the first poem of of the first poet that was lovely.

ChrisJ said...


You're right - an illusion.

Glenn Ingersoll said...

I thought the point of yin/yang was that opposites contain one another, that the binary is an illusion, you don't get to choose white and get white without getting some black and vice versa.

ChrisJ said...


It's hard to get out of binaries - thinking about opposites, even contained in one another is an illusion, I believe. Our minds make opposites.

Theodore said...