The Ovenbird

The hypothesis underlying this study is that human beings act in strict accordance with an instinctive programme, which governs all of our actions, however unpredictable or freely chosen they may seem, and that our ‘cultural’ free will is consequently no more than a kindly illusion with which we dupe ourselves, as much a part of our innate heritage as the rest. On the face of it, this proposal is extremely bold or outright preposterous: the idea that everything could be foreordained would seem to be refuted by the wild variety of human lives, beginning with the extravagant iridescence of thought, the unpredictability of our least reactions and the ideas that come to mind willy-nilly; and if it’s unconvincing in an individual case, how could it explain the incalculable differences between one human being and another, no matter how closely related they are? But this impression of difference is precisely the illusion that the hypothesis aims to dispel, and all one has to do (I’m not saying this is easy) is accept that it is an illusion for the variations to become irrelevant and the veil that hid our essential instinctive uniformity to fall away. There’s no need to give up those variations, or sacrifice one’s ‘surface’ differences to a ‘deep’ essence, because, in fact, there’s no such essence; it’s all surface. And what’s to stop all the countless minutiae of our acts, thoughts, desires, dreams and creations, everything that happens second by second between birth and death, being inscribed a priori in our genes, in the form of a programme that’s identical for every member of the species? Science has accustomed us, by now, to greater wonders of computing. Humans have always been very sure that their actions are determined by a kind of causation that is free and superior, ‘cultural’ rather than natural… And the equally ancient hypothesis of instinctive programming has always been reserved for animals and applied to them with fanatical rigour.


I don’t know if I’ll be able to persuade anyone. The idea is too shocking and arbitrary; and in a way it’s self-defeating because if it’s not built into our programme, how could we accept it? But maybe it is built into our programme; after all it occurred to me (and I’m not the first). And it’s true that persuasion is one of our instinctive gifts, along with fiction.


What humans have traditionally believed about animals owes a great deal to fiction. I’m not saying it isn’t true. How could I? Let’s take it at face value, and turn it around. Let’s imagine, for the purposes of demonstration, how an animal of some kind might apply its reason to this issue. It might be objected that animals don’t have reason to apply. Very well, I’m quite prepared to use another word; in any case, it’s just a question of terminology (and I know I’m not expressing myself well). By the ‘reasoning’ of an animal, then, I mean something different, for which we don’t have a word, precisely because we have always stayed on this side of the line. Let’s forget all the tales and the fables: the traveling ant, the grumbling bear, the fox and the crow… Or, rather, let’s take them to their ultimate conclusions. Instead of ‘fiction,’ let’s call it ‘translation,’ and translate thoroughly, Now’s the time to do it, because only translation can get to the bottom of this nature/culture dialectic. I think it will be clearer if I give an example, but I should point out that it’s not an example in the conventional sense, that is, a particular extracted at random from the general by discursive means. What follows is all general, from start to finish, pure generality.


Let’s imagine an ovenbird, in the year 1895, in the province of Buenos Aires. And let’s stay with the human perspective for a moment, in order to make the contrast clearer.


The ovenbird begins to build in autumn… While building its nest, the bird keeps an eye on its human neighbours… when the construction has attained its spherical form… the bird mates for life and gathers its food, which consists of larvae and worms, exclusively on the ground… it struts around with a gravely serious air… its strong, confident, clinking cry…


That’s enough. The reader will have recognised the tone. It’s a human speaking, a naturalist. Like all styles, this one takes the eternal existence of its object for granted. We have turned the lives of the animals into a voyage through various styles, and in the process our lives have become a voyage through styles as well (which is what allows me to conduct this experiment).


The ovenbird was building his hut. Let’s say it was autumn, so as not to offend against plausibility, or just for fun. Enormous country afternoons. A shower at five. The sixteenth of April 1895. Let’s go back to a sentence from the naturalist’s paragraph: While building its nest, the bird keeps an eye on its human neighbours (in context, the point of this observation is to explain why the entrance to the bird’s hut always faces the nearest house or ranch, or the road). In his plentiful spare time, the ovenbird thought…


But is this possible? Is it possible to go this way without straying into the world of Disney? Isn’t this taking translation too far? It might be acceptable to the use the verb ‘to think’ as a translation, a way of communicating, when referring to what is going on in the animal’s brain, or its nervous system, or, more precisely, in its life and history. But what about the content of this thought? Even if it’s acceptable for me to say that the bird thinks, can I say what he thinks? I think I can. Because it’s the same thing.


So, what was he thinking? Nothing. His mind was blank. Fatigue and anxiety (these words are translations too, like all the words that follow; I won’t be pointing this out again) had left him in a daze.


Translating from ‘ovenbirdese’: he felt overwhelmed by an accumulation of disasters, which is how he saw his life. So much work, so much suffering, so many obligations! And the constant uncertainty: always having to choose, without ever knowing if you were making the right choice… The only thing he knew for certain, and this ruled out the only possible consolation, was that there was a right way, a manner of doing things well, of being happy. And he would never follow that way, or he would, but only as far as the first intersection, where he would turn off. He knew this for certain because of the humans, always there right in front of him. Now for example: the family had come out onto the balcony, after the rain, and they were drinking mate. He envied the automatic instincts that determined the behaviour of humans and all the other animals, except for the ovenbird, that accursed species (so he thought). He shivered as he watched them brewing the mate, passing the gourd around, the whole complicated ceremony, involving the use of implements and accompanied by words, gestures, movements… Human instincts were so amazing! By instinct they were able to perform this intricate ballet (and so many others: he was always seeing them do something new) without hesitation or stopping to think, without wondering if it was the right thing to do or not, without deliberation, just because that’s how it was written in the immemorial archives of their happy species. While he… Ovenbirds, he thought, had paid for the skills that allowed them to survive with a drastic weakening of the instinctive system. It was futile, and perhaps ungrateful, to complain, but he felt that the price was too high. That’s what the example of the humans was telling him. Humans lived, and they knew in advance how to do it. The ovenbird was subject to the terrifying arbitrariness of ideas and thoughts and states of mind, of will and its endless weaknesses, of climate and history.


How had they known it was time to drink mate? The rain and its stopping had nothing to do with it, because they often drank mate when it hadn’t rained or stopped raining, and they didn’t drink it every time the rain came to an end. The unfathomable wisdom of instinct! And the drink gave them so much pleasure, lucky bastards. To think that the same instinct had sent them to the store to buy the mate, to the kitchen to boil the water, to bed for their siesta… They were perfect. Perfect machines for living. An object lesson for an anguished wretch like him. But what could he do if he belonged to the only species that nature had neglected to endow with an instinct worthy of the name? There was no point bemoaning that fateful moment in evolution when the species had strayed from the safe path of adaptation… Maybe the solution was to keep forging ahead into maladaptation until things came good again… But no, it was futile, and dangerous too; making things worse was not the way to go.


Meanwhile, he was feeling increasingly ill. He was dizzy, everything was spinning. What was he doing there, in the fork of a hackberry tree, six yards from the ground? He was a ground animal, heights disagreed with him. But he couldn’t go down right then because there happened to be a hungry, bad-tempered rat prowling around under the tree. Every time it rained a few drops, that stupid rodent’s burrow would flood, which made him crazy and vicious. It was true that the ovenbird could fly far away and land anywhere and walk for a bit, if only to find some relief from his worries. But it was a bother; after-wards, he’d have to come back… And where would he find a decent place for a walk, with all the puddles that had formed? It was better to stay where he was and try to control the dizziness. Also, he had to wait for his mate, who’d set out before the rain and ended up who knows where; she’d come back wet, muddy, grumbling, and they’d have to sleep in that ruin with damp feathers and empty stomachs… he turned to look at the half-built nest. His indecision added a mental dizziness to the physical sensation, which almost made him lose his balance and fall like a stone. Sadistically, the rain had chosen the worst possible moment. By stopping just when he was normally getting ready to end his day’s work, it confronted him with another one of those difficult decisions that made up the story of his wretched life: when the sun broke through the clouds there were still at least two hours of daylight left. He couldn’t start working instantaneously; he needed a while to set up the systems for transporting, mixing and so on. Two hours was a fair stretch of time, enough to add an inch or two and maybe replace all of the new section he’d built that morning, which had been damaged by the rain. But he’d already wasted an hour watching the humans, lost in his melancholic daydreaming. So was it still worth the effort or not? The mud would have been too thin, but there was plenty of it… He’d lost the will to work, but he knew he’d feel guilty if he didn’t do something. What could he do, though, in the short time left before it got dark? If he didn’t get to work, he’d just go on being depressed. Which is what happened. A wasted day.


The nest was half built. It didn’t exist. Mud origami. All right: tomorrow, first thing, he’d get straight to work. Or should he do something now? There was more time left than it seemed, he felt sure; the daylight always lasts longer after rain. Oh well… Tomorrow. At least he had the consolation that the weather would be fine. The clouds had gone away; there wasn’t one left in the sky.


The ovenbird saw his constructive art as an accumulation of vague and useless forms, from which, by chance, something equivalent to a function ended up emerging. He told himself that he should follow the example of the humans, with their hyperfunctional houses, built automatically, always the same: vertical walls, a roof, openings, a system of ways in and out… At least they didn’t have to bother with architecture! They did it the way they did it. They just did it, the same way every time, and the houses lasted forever. Take location. Guided by an infallible instinct (that is, by instinct itself), they always built on the ground, right on the ground, on the surface. They didn’t have to choose; nature had chosen for them. An ovenbird, by contrast, was subject to the most unpredictable whims: a post, a tree, a roof, the eaves of a house, five yards from the ground, or six, or fifteen… And then there was the question of which kind of mud to use, and the proportion of straw or horsehair… There were practically no fixed standards to go by (or that, at least, was how he saw it). And the accidents! Like the rain today. He was at the mercy of circumstances: the slightest variation could change everything; the consequences of the most trivial events would ramify right to the end of his life, their superposition making it unlivably motley and baroque. Humans, by contrast, like all the other living beings on the planet, had a way of neutralising the accidental: a healthy and well-structured instinct allowed them to cancel out randomness by improvising new circumstances. But not him! Every other creature but him! That was because the ovenbird was an individual, like all ovenbirds, while humans were a species. The species was firmly grounded in necessity; the individual was up in the air, suspended in dizziness and contingency.


But shouldn’t that exceptional status have had some advantages too? Whenever you pay, thought the ovenbird, in the depths of his terrible wretchedness, you get something in return. And the ‘accursed race’ to which he belonged had paid a substantial price: they had given up the peace of living without anxiety, generation after generation, in happy, trusting submission to the sweet mechanisms of nature. There had to be some compensation for such a great loss. There must have been some advantages. There were: they were great and definitive. A single word summed them up: freedom. He had freedom. All he had to do was enjoy it.


If only it were that simple! he silently exclaimed in the throes of a mental agony, and lifted his aching eyes to the sign that the world had used as an equivalent of ‘freedom’: the sky. A rainbow had appeared in its empty dome. He was seeing it aslant, diagonally, and that made it look more monumental and impressive. For him, it was charged with ‘poetic,’ ‘philosophical,’ ‘moral’ and ‘aesthetic’ resonances (these are equivalents as well, but I trust they will serve to convey my meaning), while the humans, who were looking at it too, saw it for the simple meteorological phenomenon, the simple gift, that it was. Beyond: the pink splendor of the dusk.


Yes! (Now he was getting excited, poor thing.) Freedom! The immense freedom of flying over the world, over the various worlds. That was something humans didn’t have! The rigid blind of instinct came down in infancy, and all they did for the rest of their lives was automatically obey the dictates of their nature. The ovenbird, on the other hand, was progressing on the path of infinite possibilities.


But that path was too much like the void. His current state, which felt like premature old age, an exhaustion caused by the constantly draining struggle simply to stay alive, proved that freedom was inherently excessive. Freedom really had to be defined anew, and in that definition he would come off badly. Beings who lived in strict accordance with an uncontaminated nature, like humans, were free in a superior sense of the word. Slaves of instinct? Granted, but ‘instinct’ had to be redefined as well; and if instinct was equivalent to infallibility and happiness, what greater freedom could there be? All the rest was illusory. They weren’t missing out on anything.


The humans there on the balcony were nearly finished with their mate because the water had gone cold, and the leaves had lost their flavour, and they’d had enough… in a word: because the magnificent Law that governed all the little causes had so decreed. The entire universe was manifest among the humble and the meek, and attended to them like a god, serving and obeying them. Time that destroys and dominates all things slowed to a standstill in the eternal present of simple existence. Calm and sensual, strangers to the torments of conscience and doubt, trusting to the gentle flow of life, mating, reproduction, and even death, they (unlike him) could truly say, ‘To die, to sleep – To sleep, perchance to dream.’ They had no fears… And yet they too had ‘resonances.’ When, as now, they contemplated the pink and violet sky, the pristine countryside, and time frozen in the delicate whorls of the air, they too were sensitive to metaphysics, poetry, morality, and aesthetics – more sensitive than he was, because they saw reality without veils! Had he been tempted to imitate them, as he’d occasionally tried to do, it would have been futile: another whim of consciousness, another project doomed to fail, one of the many on which he wasted his energy over and over…


Now they were talking. They had been talking the whole time, confidently, calmly, with their dry little words and whispers. That was another sore point for the ovenbird. Although it wasn’t an important part of life for him (it is for us humans, but not for him; which shows that one shouldn’t rush to translate back the other way: the equivalences, although complete, are not symmetrical), he found it especially galling. What came out of human throats was effective, simple, and practical; the ovenbird’s songs and chirps were a dreamlike tangle in which function and frill, sense and nonsense, truth and beauty were chaotically mixed. Humans didn’t have problems like that; Nature had made it easy for them: from birth, or shortly afterward (from the moment, in their first year of life, when the ‘blind’ of instinct came down), they deposited all meaning in language, and whatever didn’t fit was considered marginal or insignificant. But for the ovenbird, meaning was dispersed in a thousand different telepathies, while song was an aesthetic without precise limits, which could be used for just about anything, or be of no use at all. He sang for love, or because he had the hiccoughs, or felt like it, or just because of the time of day… And his song, like everything he did, was subject to the unpredictable fluctuations of consciousness, to excess freedom or the excessiveness of freedom itself.


Night was falling over the sacred pampa. The little bird, still and quiet like a curl of mud in front of his unfinished dwelling, went on wallowing in anxiety and nostalgia for real life, which he saw as the life of others in an inaccessible elsewhere. I don’t know if I’ve made myself clear, and even if I have, I might not have been convincing. The only aim of this piece is to offer some counterevidence, which will I hope be thought-provoking, although it’s hardly conclusive. The method itself could be challenged: after all, this was written by a human. But what does that prove, except that humans are equipped with an instinct that enables them to write? How else could they do it? Why don’t birds write? Precisely because they have too much freedom: they could write or not; there’s nothing in them to trigger the activity in a failsafe way; unlike humans, they don’t have a programme that would allow them to write with perfect automatic facility. The action of writing these pages is itself written into the genetic endowment handed down to me from the dawn of time. That’s why I can do it just like that, without hesitations or corrections, like breathing or sleeping. From the ovenbird’s point of view, there’s a gulf between this magic facility and the deliberations that make all his tasks so labourious.


This is an excerpt from The Musical Brain, out 3 March 2015, from New Directions.


was born in Coronel Pringles, Argentina, in 1949. His many books include How I Became a Nun (1993), The Literary Conference (2006), The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira (2012), The Conversations (2014) and The Musical Brain, forthcoming from New Directions in 2015.

Chris Andrews teaches at the University of Western Sydney and has translated many books by Roberto Bolaño and César Aira.