Jellyfish and revelation

Albrecht Dürer, The Revelation of St John: 12. The Sea Monster and the Beast with the Lamb's Horn

Once again, it’s the time of year when we ponder endings and beginnings, when we hunker down for the long nights, wonder where this year has disappeared to, and devise all sorts of convoluted theories about what is to come. Despite the endless recycling of “The Little Drummer Boy” in nearly every commercial space, this time of year also seems to have a peculiar kind of gravity, a pressure on the heart and lungs, a sense of urgency that has nothing to do with shopping lists or end-of-year numbers and everything to do with preparing for something final. But what?

I’m more than usually preoccupied with end-times because of a discussion group I’ve been part of focusing on Revelations: Visions, Prophecies, and Politics in the Book of Revelation, by Elaine Pagels. In it, Pagels examines the cultural and political landscapes out of which John of Patmos’s Book of Revelation (the final book of the Christian Bible) arose, and then follows the surprising twists in the history of its interpretation until it became the emphatic omega on the list of officially sanctioned writings that became the New Testament in the latter half of the fourth century CE. She gives the reader a glimpse into the other books of revelation—Jewish, Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Christian—that were written more or less the same time as John’s, books that claim to be “revelations” of a reality that is usually hidden from humanity. While some, like John of Patmos, focus on the end of the world, many do not; they claim, rather, to reveal divine secrets through, as one historian put it, “visions, dreams, and other paranormal states of consciousness.”

The genre of revelation is often associated with high drama and vivid weirdness, writhing with dragons and angels, backlit with blinding lights or drenched in palpable darkness: revelation as conflict. Yet Pagels cites one book entitled Thunder, Perfect Mind whose images seek to unify rather than to divide and to find completeness—the divine—in pollution and purity both:

I was sent forth from the power,
And I have come to those who reflect upon me,
And I have been found among those who seek me…
Do not be ignorant of me anywhere or any time. Be on your guard! 

Do not be ignorant of me. 

For I am the first and the last. 

I am the honored one and the scorned one. 

I am the whore and the holy one. 

I am the wife and the virgin…
I am the barren one 
and many are her sons. 

I am she whose wedding is great, 
and I have not taken a husband. 

I am the midwife and she who does not bear. 

I am the solace of my labor pains. 

I am the bride and the bridegroom, 
and it is my husband who begot me….

The whole of the book—the part that still exists, that is—glows with power of a very different sort than John’s revelation does. Although it is not a Jewish or Christian work—most probably, it is a hymn to the Egyptian goddess Isis—many of its images harmonize beautifully with biblical language:

Hear me in gentleness, and learn of me in roughness. 

I am she who cries out, 

and I am cast forth upon the face of the earth. 

I prepare the bread and my mind within. 

I am the knowledge of my name.

That we learn wisdom in precisely the moments that seem most inimical to it—times of tribulation and violence, of incomprehension and confusion—seems to be the book’s central teaching. The repetition of “I am” throughout the text suggests familiarity with the Jewish/Christian awareness of the power of naming. Who am I? Who am I not? What is my name and who named me? How I am in conversation with that which is not me, with the One who named me?

In John’s compelling depiction, conversation requires the drawing of very stern lines: there are those whom you converse with and those whom you destroy. Once evil is destroyed, the purified remnant enters the glorious New Jerusalem. I have very mixed feelings about this stern line. I know that evil has some people in such a stranglehold that trying to address them seems hopeless, ridiculous, and lethal: people who shoot children, for instance. How would you talk to someone who could do such a thing?

Thunder, Perfect Mind sets forth a very different conversational strategy: no one is excluded. Purity is an illusion, utterly contrary to the divine self-identity. Thunder, Perfect Mind resonates in my heart and mind, an antidote to John’s fiercely tribal, exclusionary, accusatory language. And yet it leaves me wanting as well (although less), wanting the street-language translation for a conversation that took place somewhere in the stratosphere. Is there another idiom in which the intersection between the mortal and the divine can be spoken, one that doesn’t involve violence, secret codes, hallucinations, and abstractions? Of course I think the answer is yes: revelation does not necessarily require a one-time blast from beyond; faithfulness to daily interactions can work the same ground.

I read in a recent New York Times Sunday Magazine article about a Japanese scientist, Shin Kubota, whose work with tiny jellyfish that age backwards—nicknamed “immortal jellyfish”—seems to tap into some of these questions from a completely different direction. Despite the fact that Turritopsis dohrnii is about the size of “a trimmed pinkie fingernail,” and despite the fact that it has no brain, no heart, and that it eats out of its anus, its genetic overlap with the human genome is unnervingly significant (insert punch line here.) “Turritopsis application for human beings is the most wonderful dream of mankind,” Kubota told the Times reporter. “Once we determine how the jellyfish rejuvenates itself, we should achieve very great things. My opinion is that we will evolve and become immortal ourselves.”

Every day for at least three hours a day for the past fifteen years, Kubota has tended to his menagerie of jellyfish, the only captive population in the world. It is “grueling, tedious work,” requiring daily water changes, observation under a microscope, and feeding, which can require cutting up nearly invisible dried brine shrimp eggs that sometimes need to be cut up with two needles under a microscope. “The work causes Kubota to growl and cluck his tongue. ‘Eat by yourselves!’ he yells at one medusa. ‘You’re not a baby!’ Then he laughs heartily.” When he travels to conferences, the petri dishes come with him in a cooler. There are no days off. He is faithful to his tiny, mysterious dependents.

Five years ago, however, he had what he vaguely refers to as “a scare,” a period in which he aged “a lifetime” in one year: “It was astonishing for me. I had become old.” Today the hair that was white has turned black again, his energy as exuberant as a middle schooler’s. As a consequence of the scare, Kubota started a second career as a singer and songwriter and is now something of a celebrity, “the Japanese equivalent of Bill Nye the Science Guy.” He sings about the beauty of his jellyfish and about the natural world, work he now considers the crux of his work. Before humankind can apply what we learn from Turritopsis to ourselves, we must first come to love nature; otherwise, we’ll misuse our knowledge. “We’re very strange animals,” he said. “We’re so clever and civilized, but our hearts are very primitive. If our hearts weren’t primitive, there wouldn’t be wars. I’m worried that we will apply the science too early, like we did with the atomic bomb.”

He considers his science as having a limited value in his campaign to teach love: “‘We must love plants—without plants we cannot live. We must love bacteria—without decomposition our bodies can’t go back to the earth. If everyone learns to love living organisms, there will be no crime. No murder. No suicide. Spiritual change is needed. And the most simple way to achieve this is song. Biology is specialized,’ he said, bringing his palms within inches of each other. ‘But songs?’ He spreads his hands far apart, as if to indicate the size of the world.”

Something about Kubota’s obsessive fidelity and tenderness allow him access to the same conversations that John of Patmos and the author of Thunder, Perfect Mind had (and have) with eternal order. The theatrical volume of famous revelations drowns out the ones that happen quietly over time as a result of the minute, open-hearted engagements to which we’re invited in each minute of our lives: do we converse with the creature in front of us, open to something as solid to as ourselves, containing vigor and disease, song and dissonance, grace and clumsiness? Or do we remain stubbornly monolingual? Kubota looks, as surely as does John of Patmos, for a time where every tear will be wiped away, where death will be no more, nor mourning nor crying nor pain, and he looks for this arrival in a conversation that includes tedium and frustration. Can there be any doubt that something new and beautiful will be born?

What we’re reading
Parker Palmer, Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit
Martin: Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln

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3 Responses to Jellyfish and revelation

  1. Tom M. says:

    Another beautiful, thought-provoking piece. When is The New Yorker going to wake up and offer you a staff writer position?

  2. John Tate says:

    Thanks. But I still don’t get the Revelation of John.

    Here’s a question: is John’s Revelation in the same category of scripture as Jesus’s apocalyptic statements? Right or wrong, I at least have an interpretation of the latter–they’re a description in images of a spiritual experience. I haven’t found any path to understanding Revelation.

    I realize it bodes ill for getting an answer that you mainly discuss Thunder, Perfect Mind and Shin Kubota instead. But that’s OK! As the Zen fellow said, not knowing is pretty close.

  3. Juli Berwald says:

    Aha! The allure of the jellyfish caught you too! Beautifully written, as always. Just wait til I fill you in on the jellyfish stories I’ve been hunting down (in Japan and elsewhere) since I got my start at Madroño. I think I need another stay to get it all out of my head and onto paper. Sending you the warmest of holiday greetings–and wishes for a year in which many things new and beautiful will be born.

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