Challenge 620 Response
Bewildering Stories discusses
The Glass Jar Present
with Bertrand Cayzac
In Don Webb’s “The Glass Jar Present”:
- How many generations separate Fil from Phillip?
- Why might one say that is Fil engaged in archeology as well as in scavenging?
- How does the artifact illustrate the meaning of “present” not only as “gift” but also in terms of the epigraph?
[Bertrand Cayzac] Hello Don,
Thanks for this poem. Since my remarks about it came effortlessly and “all clothed” — which doesn’t mean they are inspired by wise Athena — I am happy to share them with you and BsS’ readers in the form of tentative responses to the challenge.
• From grandfather to grandson, leaping over the fathers, the poem takes us down a cascade of five generations. And one cannot but remark that redundancies, then information, dwindle in the process that turns a stately “Phillip” (with its two pillars in the middle) into a slick “Fil.” One cannot but wonder about the muted transient fathers too: is this binary rhythm an echo of the sway between “up and down,” the past and future that seems to mark the poem?
As a side remark, the fading information makes me think of this Baal Shem Tov tale, which tells how the Master of the Good Name used to fix his difficult problems by going into the forest, lighting a fire behind an ancient oak tree and directing his heart in a special prayer.
The next generation is unable to light the fire; the following has forgotten the special way to say prayer; the following forgets the place of the tree, etc... Still, each one, including the narrator’s, succeeds in obtaining the wisdom required to get the job done as long as the story is summoned. Well, the versions of this parable seem to differ but we should be getting the gist of it now...
• The mound is a burial tomb, is it not? Fil does not know much about it, though. Information was lost somewhere along the alley of time. He still has some clue, as he wonders about the builders. This awareness is enough to make him an archeologist and a scavenger when it comes to taking the jar away. Why is he not wondering about those who lie inside the mound?
• Fil will bring the jar back home as a present, an actual gift to “re-present what was once but cannot be now.” To me, this deep, intricate rune makes “re-present” sound like “make present anew.”
If the Jar can “work” as a representation or a symbol of the past to Fil’s tribe, the underground meaning of the verse “what cannot be now” seems to cast a spell on it. The artifact belongs to what cannot be at this point in time, for it belongs to times gone by.
Fil’s present audibly forces it further into what Plato calls “the world of becoming,” at least in the Timaeus. Yes, demiurges and kids tend to spread otherness into sameness; all parents learn that when they step barefoot upon the angle of a Lego brick in the middle of the night.
• Was the jar sleeping by the mound, perchance dreaming? Aye, the thing is now bound to find some new mode of existence; that’s the rub.
A dream... yes, this was my first impression upon reading the poem. With its density, its consistency and the hint that the hero is free to go up and down space or time, the verse exhibit many of the qualities of those rich “turnkey” dreams that past sleep sometimes offers as a “present” to the waking mind.
But do past, present and future exist outside of consciousness? Dreams won’t tell us, and research into the nature of consciousness barely will, either. If time has such an external quality, the poem guides us to its essence in its own way.
[Don Webb] And thank you, Bertrand, for your very thoughtful and informative observations! The legend of Baal Shem Tov; Plato’s “world of becoming”; the nature of time and its relation to the conscious mind... all are fascinating associations!
And, of course, stepping on a child’s Lego block in the dark. One has to chuckle: all parents have had similar experiences!
• What prompted the evolution of “Phillip” into “Fil”? Readers will easily get the picture of linguistic “drift” over time. What I had in mind is not really relevant but, for what it’s worth:
At the beginning of the 14th century, people were speaking various and sometimes mutually incomprehensible dialects of Old French. At the dawn of the 15th century, their grandchildren were speaking Middle French.
Within the span of only three generations, grandparents — if any survived — and grandchildren were speaking what amounted to different languages. After the disastrous 14th century, the French were, for all practical purposes, immigrants in their own country. In that regard, Michael E. Lloyd’s reference to Jane Jacobs’ Dark Age Ahead is well taken.
• What is a “midden”? Basically, it’s landfill, a trash heap. In some cultures, middens have even served as graveyards. Whatever the case, middens are an archeologist’s delight. Garbage sent into the future becomes treasure from the past.
• What is the nature of time? The epigraph pins it down. The past exists as reality; the future, as potentiality. We all exist in each other’s past and future. But what is the present? It exists separately in each individual, indeed, in every organism. I fondly imagine that Einstein himself might approve of this image of relative time.
Copyright © 2015 by Bertrand Cayzac
and Bewildering Stories