Saturday, December 18, 2010

On the Existence of Penguins

             We know, on scientific grounds, that penguins cannot exist.  How, then, to explain the persistence, among the unlettered, of a belief in these fanciful creatures?
            "Belief" is perhaps too strong a term;  surely no one of any sense, when pressed, would avow credence in these postulated entities  comparable to what we accord to objects for which we may rely on the evidence of our senses.  The vague report of these vertical beings, in a far-off land of eternal ice, popularly styled "Antarctica", smacks too strongly of the nursery.   Yet one cannot deny that, in unguarded discourse and casual daily life, a large proportion of the populace behave as though they did believe.  Again, how to explain it?
            For those who, having long outgrown such fancies, may have forgotten the details of the legend, we here briefly resume its outlines.   According to the "Penguin Myth" (Stith-Thompson taletype M-32-b), there lies at the very deepest reaches of the earth, far beyond the inhabited portion of the planet, a magical land called Antarctica, eternally frozen, impervious to the rays of the sun.  Some indeed maintain it is not land at all, but consists purely and simply of never-melting ice, somehow rooted to the bottom of the sea.  So austere is this region that, far from being populated by the expected races of trolls and goblins, there is to be found but a single species, called the "penguin", which, reigning in lonely splendor, has been fancifully dubbed the "Emperor": for indeed (one detects the rustic wit at work) it is sovereign of all it surveys.  The folktale is further atypical in that, so far from positing a panoply of colors such as characterizes the dragon, the griffon, and so forth, the creature is depicted as being entirely black and white.  Since the land, or rather the glacier, of its habitat, is likewise purely white, this motif is held by scholars to be an attempt to depict a purely abstract and Platonic paradise, prior to the fall of our own world into the riot of prism and spectrum.
            Thus far the myth is not too different from those with which we are familiar from the stores of Sumer and of Babel.   The penguin is, like the roc or phoenix, held to be a bird; and it will come as no surprise to students of the subject, that the simple tellers add: a giant bird, standing almost as high as a man.  Indeed, the creature is so curiously constituted that it is often compared, in its aspect, to that of an actual man in evening dress!  Such humorous touches are characteristic of the folk mind at its best.
            At this point, however, the penguin myth parts company with the sort of quasi-rationality or mock-realism that informs most legends and märchen.  Believers are unanimous in insisting that the "penguin", though definitely and undeniably a bird (the grounds for this assertion being unspecified), does not fly!  Here the investigator drops his lens in astonishment.  Are the "believers" slyly having him on?  Can they really be ignorant of the fact, or pretend to forget the fact, that  birdsfly??  Flying is what birds do! Fish – swim;   birds – fly.  Is there someone at the back of the class who does not grasp this?  -- Really,  one cannot reason with such people; we scarcely seem to share a common language.  As were one to meet a man who claimed to have seen a four-sided triangle, and moreover, a friend of a friend of his sister-in-law is said to have one at home.
            As though in unconscious compensation for this denial of the bird's defining ability, the myth-makers endow the creature with an opposite ability: the penguin, if you please, swims.  We might smile at this simple credulity, reminiscent of the straightforward inversions whereby the inhabitants of the Antipodes are held to walk on their hands, wear coats in summer and go naked in winter, et cetera.  Yet there remains something deeply disturbing, and contrary to nature, in this congeries of conflicting traits.  It is only too reminiscent of the long-exploded "platypus" hoax, attested here and there in the last century.

            So much for the content of these beliefs.  What of their purported grounds?
            Not, as in the case of supernatural beings, personal acquaintance.  We have all met someone who will claim to have seen a ghost, may even ourselves briefly have suffered such an hallucination.  But none of us pretends, or has ever met anyone who pretends, personally to have journeyed to this frozen floating wonder-world, this subaustral Shangri-La, and seen these beings, these "penguins", limned against the sky.  As to the creatures sometimes jocularly so labeled in our zoological gardens, whatever they may be, they are not "penguins", those emperors of the eternal ice, for whatever else our zoos may be, they are not glaciers the size of continents, hanging suspended at the bottom of the world.
            No, it is not by querying the credulous and confused, that one may hope to throw any light upon the matter, for that were merely to compound confusion.  As to the etiology of their alleged belief, science has identified four factors, acting severally or in concert:

            (1) They're lying.
            (2) It's a conspiracy.
            (3) Somebody paid someone.
            (4) They are all  stark,    staring,          mad……………..


[Update Oct 2014]  Cf. this:

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