The Answer Questioned
ERGO Productions, London, Ontario, 1979
Review by Stephen Morrissey
CVII, May 1984
"Those who know do not tell, those who tell do not know," wrote the venerable Chinese sage Lao Tzu. There are no answers and our response to "answers" appertaining to the deeper or urgent issues of life must be questioned. This seems to be Roy McDonald's "position" in his long poem The Answer Questioned. What McDonald gives us is the continuous use of puns sustained by intelligence. He seems to be saying that as soon as we make an experience, an intuition or an insight into a ready-made or permanent "answer" it becomes false; indeed, language when used to define truth, is not a vehicle for understanding reality, but for obscuring it. Lao Tzu writes:
Existence is beyond the power of words...
Terms may be used
But none of them absolute.
The Answer Questioned doesn't take itself seriously — or does it? Perhaps in its apparent lack of seriousness there is a deeper and more significant "seriousness". For instance, McDonald writes:
All this makes no sense, you say,
and you are right, but was Frank Lloyd
Wright about architecture?
The Arc de Triomphe,
Noah's Ark, and Joan of Arc . . .
that is the burning question.
Things are not what they appear.
But back to sense.
This all makes sense.
Actually, it is a
dollars and cents
Ouch! I have just cut myself
trying to shave with Occam's Razor,
and cut Being in two,
into non-being and being, but then again, so did Godo.
The poem works on a number of levels, only one of which is literary. There are references and allusions to the writings of Samuel Beckett, Joseph Conrad, Bob Dylan, The Bible, Shakespeare, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, The Beatles, and others. This is truly a wonderful book in which more is revealed to the reader each time it is read. Reading The Answer Questioned you actually feel the right side of your brain waking up!
The depth of the book comes from the constant use and juxtaposition of puns: McDonald makes a statement, however brief, and then immediately deflates the statement with a verbal pun. We see two sides of his statement almost simultaneously; the poet seems to be saying "Don't expect me to give away any truths, you have to discover them for yourself." Arthur Koestler, in The Act of Creation, writes:
The pun is the bisociation of a single phonetic form with two meanings — two strings of thought tied together by an acoustic knot. Its immense popularity with children, its preva-lence in certain forms of mental disorder ("punning mania") and its frequent occurrence in the dream, indicate the profound un-conscious appeal of association based on pure sound.
For the last century in the western world there has been a movement among some artists to try to get away from the rational mind; they feel that we have lost both our sense of wonder and the feeling that life has meaning. Perhaps, some artists suggest, we may find in the irrational a newer and more profound meaning. But is it possible that, whether rational or irrational, the mind as it is presently constituted cannot perceive anything but what it projects as "reality"? And if that is the case, then McDonald is right to make us laugh at the whole quest for "deeper meaning". Meaning or truth cannot be "arrived at", for how can what is always changing and in flux, be frozen and codified? However, seeing the futility of trying to freeze or even standardize meaning is something to laugh at and there is a mystical and religious tradition of "holy laughter." Nietzsche, who refers to the importance of laughter in his writing, might have enjoyed McDonald's puns. Laughter is not only important but essential, Nietzsche tells us, for it externalizes our concept of self and allows us to go beyond the fixed idea of our existence; however, it is Lao Tzu and the Taoists that Roy McDonald is closest to. He writes:
All this comes from
trying to say
two opposite things
at the same time, and both saying them
and not saying them.
"The way of life" as postulated by Taoism is at odds with much that our modern world considers important. It has been suggested that the Tao Te Ching, the major document of Taoism, and Taoism itself, is a remnant from the Neolithic Age, a golden age when people felt a solidarity with their environment. The happiness people experienced at that time was lost quite suddenly around 500 B.C.; Joseph Campbell refers to this loss as "the great reversal". Campbell, in his The Masks of God, Oriental Mythology, writes:
. . . following the crucial moment that I shall term the great reversal — when, for many in the Orient as well as in the West, the sense of holiness departed from their experience both of the universe and of their own nature, and a yearning for release from what was felt to be an insufferable state of sin, exile, or delusion supervened —
Today, each of us experiences the Garden myth as a psychological fact. With the birth and development of science in ancient Greece western man became separate or fragmented from the mystery and wonder of nature; nature became something to analyze and take apart rather than to perceive as a whole, a unity. This movement towards ultimate fragmentation, rather than to ultimate reality, has continued and finds expression in the writings of Ivan Illich who shows how we have become institutionalized; instead of doing things for ourselves, whether it be education, medicine or government, we have abnegated personal responsibility and rely totally on institutions and government. While we may have gained minimally from government intervention in our lives we have lost much that is of great importance; for instance, personal integrity and the ability to act and think for ourselves without relying on the opinion of the authority.
Back to the Garden of Eden,
where Godo broke up
the first crap game in history
by taking away Adam and Eve's Paradise.
And Satan was making snake eyes.
Which brings to my mind the earthworm,
because all animals went into Noah's Ark in pairs,
all except the worm.
They went in apples. Gulp! I think I just bit off
more than I can chew.
Chew? Achooo! Goose! Goose-undheit,
Lao Tzu writes, "the way to do is to be" and McDonald replies:
To bee or not to bee,
that is the only question
for a bumble, bumbling bee
who believes his hive
to simply be
in the flower of his youth.
At times McDonald is like the Zen Master who, seeing the impasse of the rational and intellectual mind, responds with apparent nonsense, the irrational, the ridiculous. But in the nonsensical is a different level of "sense"; it is the perception that we must challenge the assumptions upon which we base our life. There is also the awareness that language and thinking that is based on projecting ideas onto reality rather than an awareness from a mind that doesn't know the answers, can only continue our collective and individual psychological status quo.
Finally, it is a question of the self's relationship with the world. Bunan, a 17th century Zen Master, wrote:
Be a dead man,
And act as you will,
and all is good.
Erich Fromm, in Zen Buddhism and Psychoanalysis, illuminates Bunan's poems when he writes of,
paradoxical logic, which assumes that A and non-A do not exclude each other as predicates of X ... The general principle of paradoxical logic has been clearly described in general terms by Lao-Tse: "Words that are strictly true seem to be paradoxical." And by Chuang-Tzu: "That which is one is one. That which is not-one, is also one."
In this there is an explanation of Roy McDonald's The Answer Questioned.
Copyright © 2007 The author