Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

A Hawk From a Handsaw, Part 3

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Note: My article “The Campbell Machine,” which describes one of the strangest episodes in the history of Astounding Science Fiction, is now available online and in the July/August issue of Analog. To celebrate its publication, I’m republishing a series about an equally curious point of intersection between science fiction and the paranormal. This post combines two pieces that originally appeared, in substantially different form, on February 17 and December 6, 2017.

Last year, an excellent profile in The Atlantic by McKay Coppins attempted to answer a question that is both simpler and more complicated than it might initially seem—namely how a devout Christian like Mike Pence can justify hitching his career to the rise of a man whose life makes a mockery of the ideals that most evangelicals claim to value. You could cynically assume that Pence, like so many others, has coldly calculated that Trump’s support on a few key issues, like abortion, outweighs literally everything else that he could say or do, and you might be right. But Pence also seems to sincerely believe that he’s an instrument of divine will, a conviction that dates back at least to his successful campaign for the House of Representatives. Coppins writes:

By the time a congressional seat opened up ahead of the 2000 election, Pence was a minor Indiana celebrity and state Republicans were urging him to run. In the summer of 1999, as he was mulling the decision, he took his family on a trip to Colorado. One day while horseback riding in the mountains, he and Karen looked heavenward and saw two red-tailed hawks soaring over them. They took it as a sign, Karen recalled years later: Pence would run again, but this time there would be “no flapping.” He would glide to victory.

For obvious reasons, this anecdote caught my eye, but this version leaves out a number of details. As far as I can tell, it first appears in a profile that ran in Roll Call back in 2010. The article observes that Pence keeps a plaque on his desk that reads “No Flapping,” and it situates the incident, curiously, in Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota, not in Colorado:

“We were trying to make a decision as a family about whether to sell our house, move back home and make another run for Congress, and we saw these two red-tailed hawks coming up from the valley floor,” Pence says. He adds that the birds weren’t flapping their wings at all; instead, they were gliding through the air. As they watched the hawks, Pence’s wife told him she was onboard with a third run. “I said, ‘If we do it, we need to do it like those hawks. We just need to spread our wings and let God lift us up where he wants to take us,’” Pence remembers. “And my wife looked at me and said, ‘That’ll be how we do it, no flapping.’ So I keep that on my desk to remember every time my wings get sore, stop flapping.”

Neither article mentions it, but I’m reasonably sure that Pence was thinking of the verse in the Book of Job, which he undoubtedly knows well, that marks the only significant appearance of a hawk in the Bible: “Does the hawk fly by your wisdom, and stretch her wings toward the south?” As one scholarly commentary notes, with my italics added: “Aside from calling attention to the miraculous flight, this might refer to migration, or to the wonderful soaring exhibitions of these birds.”

So what does this have to do with the other hawks that I’ve been discussing here this week? In each case, it involves looking at the world—or at a work of literature or scripture—and extracting a meaning that can be applied to the present moment. It’s literally a form of augury, which originally referred to a form of divination based on the flight of birds. In my handy Eleventh Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, we read of its use in Rome:

The natural region to look to for signs of the will of Jupiter was the sky, where lightning and the flight of birds seemed directed by him as counsel to men. The latter, however, was the more difficult of interpretation, and upon it, therefore, mainly hinged the system of divination with which the augurs were occupied…[This included] signs from birds (signa ex avibus), with reference to the direction of their flight, and also to their singing, or uttering other sounds. To the first class, called alites, belonged the eagle and the vulture; to the second, called oscines, the owl, the crow and the raven. The mere appearance of certain birds indicated good or ill luck, while others had a reference only to definite persons or events. In matters of ordinary life on which divine counsel was prayed for, it was usual to have recourse to this form of divination.

In reality, as the risk consultant John C. Hulsman has recently observed of the Priestess of Apollo at Delphi, the augurs were meant to provide justification or counsel on matters of policy. As Cicero, who was an augur himself, wrote in De Divinatione: “I think that, although in the beginning augural law was established from a belief in divination, yet later it was maintained and preserved from considerations of political expediency.”

The flight or appearance of birds in the sky amounts to a source of statistically random noise, and it’s just as useful for divination as similar expedients are today for cryptography. And you don’t even need to look at the sky to get the noise that you need. As I’ve noted here before, you can draw whatever conclusion you like from a sufficiently rich and varied corpus of facts. Sometimes, as in the case of the hawks that I’ve been tracking in science fiction, it’s little more than an amusing game, but it can also assume more troubling forms. In the social sciences, all too many mental models come down to looking for hawks, noting their occurrences, and publishing a paper about the result. And in politics, whether out of unscrupulousness or expediency, it can be easy to find omens that justify the actions that we’ve already decided to take. It’s easy to make fun of Mike Pence for drawing meaning from two hawks in North Dakota, but it’s really no stranger than trying to make a case for this administration’s policy of family separation by selectively citing the Bible. (Incidentally, Uri Geller, who is still around, predicted last year that Donald Trump would win the presidential election, based primarily on the fact that Trump’s name contains eleven letters. Geller has a lot to say about the number eleven, which, if you squint just right, looks a bit like two hawks perched side by side, their heads in profile.) When I think of Pence’s hawks, I’m reminded of the rest of that passage from Job: “Its young ones suck up blood; and where the slain are, there it is.” But I also recall the bird of prey in a poem that is quoted more these days than ever: “Turning and turning in the widening gyre / The falcon cannot hear the falconer.” And a few lines later, Yeats evokes the sphinx, like an Egyptian god, slouching toward Bethlehem, “moving its slow thighs, while all about it / Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.”

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Written by nevalalee

June 20, 2018 at 8:03 am

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