Get Lost: a Love Rant

Heather McHugh

Spring 2019

for Rich

Poetry is not a prize. It’s a surprise.

I make no claims to treasure or predictability.

And because you are never too old to set a bad example (as Rochefoucauld so tartly put it), I’m hitting you right up front with prose.

During his travels in the late 1740s, the botanist and zoologist Carl Linnaeus had the opportunity to closely examine several monkeys. In comparing their anatomies to those of men, he found no differences except for speech. So man and monkey both wound up under the same category in his taxonomic scheme: Anthropomorpha.

Oddly enough, the first indignant objections he received were from his own colleagues—natural scientists and scholars whose fastidiousness seems akin to that of today’s crossword specialists. They called illogical his choice to describe a human as being “formed like a human” (anthropomorpha’s literal translation); their protest is a legalistic one my own and testy rules of logophilia would laud.

But here was Linnaeus’s answer to their finicky objection:

It does not please you that I’ve placed man among the Anthropomorpha, because of the [meaning of the] term “with human form,” but man does learn to know himself [italics mine]. Let’s not quibble over words. It will be the same to me whatever name we apply. . . . I seek from you and from the whole world a generic difference between man and simian that follows from the principles of natural science and history. I know of absolutely none. If only someone might tell me of a single such difference! Had I called man a simian ([as] perhaps I ought to have done, by virtue of the law of the discipline), I would have brought together all the theologians against me.

Thus, in one fierce swoop does Linnaeus implicitly propose recursive self-defining as an essentially human trait, correct a language-fiend’s selective myopia, and direct the critical focus back towards the historic implications of his study. Rarely does an observation change a moment this way, into a momentousness.

Heather McHugh lives on the Olympic Peninsula. She taught at the University of Washington for thirty years, and continues to take students occasionally through the MFA program at Warren Wilson College in Asheville, North Carolina.

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