Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Birds and the imagination (or, Loplop takes flight)

Today while I was shopping for groceries, I was momentarily reminded of my creative side (much curtailed these days, alas), when the song "Speed of Sound" by Coldplay was played on the overhead system. Have you ever had a song that was a shorthand message for something beyond itself--a memory, an idea, a feeling? Of course you have. Ever since traveling minstrels went around singing "Hey nonny no," or whatever it was they sang, words set to music have had an uncanny power over almost all of us.

This particular song is one of my "enigmatic signifiers" (a term I explain in a previous post, "Why Birders Bird and Listers List"), for a variety of reasons. One, it sounds wistful and lonely without being whiny. Two, it mentions birds. Three, the birds it mentions are clearly symbolic of something else, but I'm not sure what, which keeps me guessing. The birds themselves are referenced in the refrain "And birds go flying at the speed of sound/To show you how it all began/Birds came flying from the underground/If you could see it, then you'd understand."

The image these lyrics form in my mind is something I hope to work into a story--a vast flock of birds, dark birds, wheeling up into the sky until the sun is momentarily blackened, braiding the air with their flight, and with the ponderous sound of a million wings beating together.... Of course I didn't get this image from the song; rather, the song reminds me of this image, which had already formed powerful (yet ineffable) associations in my mind. Partly it brings to mind the huge mixed flocks of black birds that one sometimes sees in the fall, and the aerial acrobatics of starlings. Also, inescapably, the memory I can't possibly have, and yet feel as if I do, of passenger pigeons overhead, darkening the sky for days as they passed.

And yet the birds of this song are clearly very deep. They contain the mystery of life in some fashion, for they can "show you how it all began," like the Persian Simurgh, who roosts in the Tree of Knowledge. Most of us are oblivious, and yet if only we would open our eyes to their flight, if only we could see them, we would understand. Maybe you can see why I love this song.

With this aural prodding, I began thinking about birds and the imagination, a topic way too huge to be covered to anyone's satisfaction in a single blog post -- instead I hope to get you musing, as I have been, on the relationship between the two. Birds are prevalent the world over as mythological figures (many cultures have a phoenix-type legend, for example, and then there are, of course, Odin's Ravens, and similar messengers of the gods), and many poets have written famously about birds, such as Shelley's sky lark, Frost's ovenbird, and Dickinson's bobolink, just off the top of my head.

But I think that the ultimate union of Bird and Imagination has come about in the works of surrealism. The painter Max Ernst, for example, was fascinated by birds, so much so that his alter ego was called Loplop, the Superior of Birds. (The image at the top of this post is also by Ernst.)

Ernst stated that the figure of Loplop came about due to a confusion between humans and birds when he was a child, for his pet bird died the morning before his sister was born, a juxtaposition of events that evidently scrambled his brains forever. One of his works, a graphic novel called "Une Semaine de Bonte," showed birds as humans or humans as birds with both horrific and erotic intent.

The surrealist painter Leonora Carrington, one of Ernst's girlfriends, also seemed a bit enamored of the intersection of birds and dreams/nightmare images.

Another artist who frequently featured birds was Marc Chagall, although his works are more of a gentle dream than something uneasy or even nightmarish.

It is tempting, at this point, to try to explicate further; but that would be pointless. Either the images resonate, or they don't. But if they do, consider this just the tip of the iceberg. There is much more to say on the topic of birds and the feverish reaches of the mind.


  1. This is such a rich field, and one in which I know very little! I'm fascinated by birds in mythology and fantasy and art. I like Marc Chagall- the other two artists you mention, not so much. And of the poets, let's not forget Poe's Raven! Mom

  2. what is the name of the picture at the top of this article?

    1. The artist is Max Ernst, from his "Semaine de Bonte." There's a whole series of pictures, which I highly recommend if you like surrealism.