WHR March 2009
World Haiku Review, Volume 7, Issue 1, March 2009
The 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth is being celebrated across the world.
The interesting thing about Darwin is that the evolution of living things does not occur because they want it to happen. On the contrary, living things are in fact ultra-conservative and do not like evolution. They want to replicate themselves exactly as they are, in which case there can be no evolution. What they seek is perfection in terms of the speed, accuracy and fecundity of replication in order to win the race of survival. In other words, in their intentions no mistakes are allowed to happen and replication must be perfect.
However, as Darwin’s observations showed, mistakes do happen and the copying process is imperfect. The earth-shattering discovery is that these very mistakes and imperfections themselves are the vital key to the secret of evolution. Namely, it is they that make evolution possible. Despite the wishes of generations of parents, such mistakes and imperfections should be celebrated as ‘evolutionary improvements’. They vary from the most infinitesimal changes to astonishing mutations.
I am in an evolutionary mood today and am thinking of the history of haiku in terms of evolution. It is 365 years since Basho’s birth and 400 to 500 years since the births of such fathers, or shall we say grandfathers, of haiku as Sokan Yamazaki, Moritake Arakida, Teitoku Matsunaga or Soin Nishiyama who all contributed to the development of Haikai-no-Renga which later begat haiku. Haikai-no-Renga was in itself an outcome of the long process of evolution of the old Japanese poetry tradition.
Being part of the very conservative Japanese literary form and like other similarly conservative Japanese art forms, haiku has been expected to follow that replicating process which is perfect in terms of speed, accuracy and fecundity. However, like the biological evolution by natural selection triggered by the ‘mistakes’ and ‘imperfections’ to which the copying process is liable, haiku has also evolved because of what the conservative die-hards regarded as ‘mistakes’ and ‘imperfections’ in haiku-writing. The haiku evolution is still with us. In fact, if anything it has accelerated its speed and variety in our time so much so that one should be forgiven for thinking that in modern haiku we have nothing but mistakes, imperfections, variations, changes and mutations.
The haiku evolution, however, does not occur by natural selection. In some senses one dearly wishes it did. But if nature took charge of haiku, this special poetic genre would have become threatened with extinction. In the case of haiku what is happening is not the survival of the fittest either, depending on what is meant by the word ‘fit’. Analogy should stop at some appropriate point but let us go on a little bit longer.
Haiku began with awe, wonder and worship of nature and reflections on man and his relation to her. It is a man-made product and therefore cannot by definition be nature herself or part of it. To try to be such would be just as arrogant as trying to ignore nature. Some Japanese gardens are seen by non-Japanese to be manifestations of human hubris if the garden designers aimed at recreating nature by human hands. It would be tantamount to playing God. The same would be the case with haiku poems if they are made to mean more than a mirror of nature and are expected to become nature herself.
However, Darwinism teaches us that we are also merely part of nature and herein lie a big paradox and a rub. Haiku poems are created by man who is in turn part of nature. It must follow from this then that nature creates haiku. The paradox is much more profound than a mere play on logic. It should and will remain a paradox until and unless we come to know exactly what man’s relationship with nature really is. Darwin has brought us enormously forward in understanding this question. So has DNA.
There is one lovely possibility that ‘fits’ this paradox like a glove and makes it cease to be a puzzle conclusively, categorically and permanently. And that is, that we decide that God or gods are a human invention and creation and that, crucially, we have cooked up a story that He or they created nature (the universe), including ourselves.
This idea is convenient because while we know quite a bit about evolution we still do not know how it all began at all or how far the universe or universes can expand or end. It is a very “convenient untruth”, indeed. Let us therefore believe as a story made up by ourselves that God or gods began it all. It is after all still a very powerful interpretation and has many merits, though unproven or improvable. When it comes to the crunch belief is a human conduct which includes having faith in what is not possible to prove.
What is provable is that man as part of nature has developed those capabilities and qualities by evolution, which include the ability to write poems which include haiku. So, haiku is no more than an activity whereby nature (man) is writing about nature (man included). Here, man and nature are not separated, mutually excluded or antagonistic to each other. This view, though sounding nebulous, eliminates the silliness of such argument as whether or not haiku is nature poetry or whether we should or should not allow urban haiku or sci-hai-ku.
Once accepted, Darwin’s theory of the survival of the fittest, however, has also been abused for vile purposes such as compulsory sterilisation in America, eugenics in Britain and, worst of all, holocaust by the Nazis. Religious fanaticism against Darwinism has been replaced by political and racial prejudice and opportunism by distorting it as Darwin himself had predicted. While those regarded as fittest were given ultra priority because they were thought to deserve the best chance for survival, i.e. worship, adulation and special position of superiority (the ‘Arians’, super race, the white and bright etc.), those who were judged (by whom?!?) to be inferior got the opposite treatment, ranging from unequal treatment to being mass-murdered because they were regarded to be not fit for survival and therefore deserve segregation or even extinction.
Whatever humans discover or invent there are bound to be evil people who would put it to the worst possible use as well as those good ones who would make the most of it for the benefit of our well-being and happiness.
The word ‘fit’ will be the key. It tends to mean in ordinary English something right and correct in terms of size, weight, shape, type, number, strength, nature and function, occasion, purpose or quality, as seen in such expressions as ‘perfect fit’, ‘fit for a king’, ‘fitting and proper’, ‘fighting fit’, ‘fit as a fiddle’, ‘fitted carpet’, ‘a close-fitting dress’, ‘a fitting room’, ‘punishment to fit the crime’, ‘fitting tribute’, etc. From this primary meaning must have come an added sense of something “suitable”, “of the right quality” or “with the right qualities or skills”. Darwin of course used the term ‘fit’ in this sense to qualify those creatures and plants that had such capabilities and qualities in changing conditions, environment, situations and circumstances and maintained that those who had them most, i.e. the fittest, were likely to survive at the expense of those who did not. There is no moral judgement here, i.e. right or wrong, or good and evil. Nor is there a distinction in terms of beauty or literary merit.
Of course, animals, birds and plants may have their own ethics, aesthetics or literary activity. Who knows that they might be writing their own haiku, well in a non-human way? Oh, their haiku poems must be good! (“new pond…/a man jumps in/the sound of water, quack-quack” written by a duck, or “endless blue…/and our long journey/under winter water” written by a wale) However, at least one can say that we humans have evolved into possessing much more than a fair share of ethics, aesthetics or literary pursuit, or at least in the most human way. It is this human world of ours that I am dealing with here.
So, how shall we end our analogy? Haiku now has so many different variants. However, almost all the origins of the modern haiku species outside Japan can be found in America. They experienced explosive evolution through the most unnatural selection and the resultant species became so strong in terms of the speed, accuracy and fecundity of replication that they have copied themselves in many other countries of many other continent and oceans. Linguistic, cultural or ethnic differences, normally the bulwarks against foreign invasion, have offered little resistance and have been engulfed and taken over by the spread of these species just like McDonald’s. There have been no survival of the fittest because there just has not been any need for these species to try to survive; they have thrived. Perhaps, some feeble but genuine and new haiku species that spontaneously sprouted from the soil of different countries and which were potential hopes for what might have been wondrous non-Japanese haiku species have become extinct or are still in danger of extinction. They have not been ‘fit’ enough to survive the onslaught of the dominant species.