Spontaneous Generation (The Greatest Generation)

But sudden, strange to tell
A portent they espy: through the oxen’s flesh,
Waxed soft in dissolution, hark! there hum
Bees from the belly; the rent ribs overboil
In endless clouds they spread them, till at last
On yon tree-top together fused they cling,
And drop their cluster from the bending boughs.

—Virgil, The Georgics, or, “The greatest poem by the greatest poet”—but who the hell is the translator?

Some of the poem’s final lines describe bugonia, not begonia—begone, thou begonias!—or spontaneous generation from the carcass of an ox, the creation of life from inanimate matter, which seems to be the explanation for how life began (even, perhaps, in the Bible), while matter itself likewise seems to have been created from absolutely nothing at all, disproving (as Shakespeare disproves in Lear) the old maxim that from nothing nothing comes. But forgive these dashes and interrupting parentheticals. The point is this: people used to believe that mice were spontaneously created by piles of hay, that ants were children of the sand, and that fully-armored hoplites would leap up from the soil and clash with one another if the sky happened to rain dragon’s teeth. We now know these falsehoods to be self-evident.

Keats asked—“Do not all charms fly / At the mere touch of cold philosophy?…Philosophy will clip an angel’s wings.” Rather, I think an angel will clip philosophy’s. For while we know that bees are seeded by a curious elixir of pollen and sugared nectar, we pretend to believe that human beings are always the result of that chilly word, coitus, whereas the fact of the matter is that they are just as often created in the same manner as bronzeclad hoplites, or even Zeus’s greatest headache, Athena. A bomb dropped into a city from an airplane will seed terrorists, bands of barbarian raiders often come galloping out of sandstorms, and even a few drops of rain carried on the wind will crowd a city to the brimful.

This is what happened yesterday, a gray windy day whose afternoon was fraught with gales and raindrops. Miraculously Busan’s traffic got all crammed up with cars and trucks unrolling from the tar full of whole families and entire stores’ worth of goods, and the sidewalks click clack clocked with the clop of new pumps and new heels born from a solicitous convocation of rainwater and cement. What other explanation can there be for the spectacular crowding that begins the very moment the skies start their imitation of weeping willows?

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