Spring in all its states

by on Wednesday, 23 February 2011 Comments

Spring, it dredges up half-baked images from the collective imagination of baby lambs, flowers blooming, and mad hares, not that there is a large number of baby lambs in the Belfast area during May, nor Taipei in February for that matter (spring starts with Lichun in the Chinese tradition, between the 3rd and 5thFebruary, one month before the Western spring).

The human imagination has a habit of reifying the mundane; the simple increase in the tilt of the earth towards the sun or a vague measure of time, measured in the West as the three months between the three coldest months and the three hottest months of the year, becomes an attitude of mind. Humanity sees the birth of animals in nature - or more accurately in the “nature” of Disney movies; God forbid one could actually see an animal in real life - and despite the fact that humans do not have an oestrous cycle and that thanks to modern science different mammals now give birth at different times of the year anyway, in our imaginations we mimic the animal world, at least on a metaphoric level. One example is the Chinese term 「春意」 (meaning of spring) which refers both to the beginnings of spring and to suitably euphemistic English translation “thoughts of love” not to mention 「春藥」 (lit. spring medicine) for aphrodisiac. A nurse friend told me that in Taiwan masses of old people are said to die in the months immediately preceding the Spring Festival, which is seen as the start of a new year. It is commonly said that if one survives into the new lunar New Year, it is not likely that you will die again until autumn, autumn and winter being the seasons traditionally associated with death. Spring is for both East and West traditionally a symbol for renewal and new life. The pre-Christian religious importance attached to spring was in most part due to its importance for the planting season. This is also true in the East too, as the Spring Autumn Annals can attest to:


In literature too, spring is often used as a theme, whether for the purposes of metaphor or simply as inspiration for creation. In the contemporary world though, the pastoral side to spring evoked by Gerard Manley Hopkins when he puts the question: “What is all this juice and all this joy?” seems quite unspecific to spring for the modern reader. Certainly the world that Shakespeare alludes to when he describes the spring as “When shepherds pipe on oaten straws/ And merry larks are ploughmen's clocks,”[2] is not a familiar one to the average city dweller. I have rarely caught glimpse of a shepherd, maybe once or twice in my whole life; and as a proud member of generation Y, I have no clue what a lark looks like. My clock is a Diesel watch, the time display on my mobile or the bottom right of a computer screen. The scenery in the poems by the two poets recalls for me the shire in the Lord of the Rings films, more than what is outside my window in springtime. When Yeats in his ‘Imitation of Japanese Poetry’ exclaims, “Hurrah for the flowers of Spring, / For Spring is here again.” am I wrong to be somewhat underwhelmed? Perhaps some of the aura of spring has been worn off by the international import and export of flowers. The flowers and fruits that used to be exclusive to certain seasons are now available to everyone all year round (if you ignore the desperate cries of Jamie Oliver to eat fruit and vegetables in season). In fact, I’m generally unaware of what fruit and vegetable is available at what time of year in the UK and I certainly would not be inspired to exclaim “Hurrah!” at the sight of some rhubarb in autumn or strawberries in winter. Taiwan is slightly different, in that seasons still tend to influence what is sold in shops, a lot more so than in the UK, but still to a limited extent. So it is fair to say that the world has changed for most of us. We no longer suffer to be subject to nature in terms of the food we eat or the flowers we buy.

Alternative Spring

T.S. Elliot in the oft quoted The Wasteland espouses an alternative image of spring:

“April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.”[3]

Is this somewhat haunting image of spring closer to our contemporary imagination of spring? It can be seen as a reaction against the conventional ideas that we associate with spring, whilst still acknowledging that spring is a unique and differentiating it from the other seasons. The poem brings up in my mind images of landfill sites and abandoned buildings overgrown with a repugnant mimicry of nature: seagulls with plastic hoops stuck around their necks, yellowish weeds growing in old factories. Cai Mingliang’s film I don’t want to Sleep Alone (《黑眼圈》) represents a similar image in the scene were the protagonist is sitting leisurely with a fishing rod, fishing in the flooded basement of an abandoned factory where he is squatting and amidst the dank and desolate ruins of the building a butterfly appears and settles on his shoulder. Another way to view the “dead land” is in the “sundered” country that Du Fu describes in his poem Spring View, but without the green that comes again, and without the enduring hills and rivers:

“Though a country be sundered, hills and rivers endure;
And spring comes green again to trees and grasses”[4]


Impotent Spring

C_phiv_bagatelle_springThough perhaps, Cai Mingliang’s films are not a true representation of the contemporary world, they touch on the distance from nature that is becoming an ever increasing trend in society, which in big part is also due to the fact that we are a lot more capable of manipulating nature than we ever were before. As I mentioned before, the oestrous cycles of animals have been tampered with according to human need, flowers bloom in all seasons if you know where to buy them, the weather is changing (although no-one seems sure in what direction), and Beijing has even manufactured its own rain. Temperatures do rise in springtime, however, and spring, in Taipei certainly, is the brief comfort period between the unbearably cold and wet winters and the unbearably hot and humid summers, the period when people are unsure whether to turn to their electric heaters or their AC units or leave them both off. In the UK in particular, where many people claim to suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder, the transition from the now snow bound winters - though it rarely snowed when I was young, it is an annual occurrence now - to the rainy sunshine of spring can be a relief and can cheer you up from the cold winter nights. Mood and depression, however, is another thing that we have learned to manipulate artificially. The effect of the seasons’ on our moods is dampened with the use of anti depressants or, to a lesser degree, sun lamps. The physical rigours and effects of spring have seemingly been rendered impotent by the progress of science; spring itself becomes then, somewhat of an irrelevant matter and becomes little more than a superficial tradition which marks time with little actual effect on the way people live their lives.

Irrelevant Spring

Although perhaps it has become irrelevant to us in terms of the physical world, does spring still hold a metaphorical and ritual meaning for us? Spring is said to be the season of birth and growth, as opposed to the blossoming adulthood of summer, the aging of autumn and the death that is winter. It is this cycle that made nature appear such an apt metaphor for the human condition, the drive to further the species undeterred by the inevitable death of each individual human life: the old are replaced by the young in the new spring, they blossom into adults in summer and bear children, then they age into old people in the autumn of their lives and are replaced once again after their wintry death by grandchildren. The postmodern condition seems to challenge this narrative however in pace with the scientific reining down of the physical qualities of spring. Alternative sexualities and lifestyles have changed the way the contemporary world thinks of the purpose of life. Despite the entreaties of both Eastern and Western traditions, new life is no longer an inevitable part of many couples’ plans for their lives, the cyclic metaphor of seasons is no longer an adequate metaphor for humanity when they start to question the idea that winter must turn into spring. There are also the increasing efforts to delay autumn turning into winter to extend the metaphor, modern science tries to cure the diseases that come with age and the effects of aging itself. With modernist poetry it is never easy to decipher exact meanings, but perhaps one can take Elliot’s opening lines in The Wasteland to be a rejection of the spring’s entreaty to new life, to resent its attempts to rouse humanity again into the interminable cycle of life, to stir its dull roots, so to speak. In the contemporary world, whether from the environmental lobby or from people espousing traditional belief systems, we hear an entreaty to live in balance with nature, or that certain ways of living and behaviour are natural or unnatural. Humanity is seen as the criminal of the piece, the other that has corrupted a natural balance, whether that is from an ecological point of view, the romantic idealism of the pastoral era, or in terms of the fall from Eden due to original sin. The seasons as we experience them are a recent phase of the earth’s history, a freak chance that meant that life was able to grow there. In essence this boils down to our liberation from the forces of nature, which has been man’s unending mission from the moment he sought shelter from the cold. Building shelter, the birth of agriculture and farming, the damming of rivers, the industrial revolution, the discovery of penicillin, and many other human endeavours are a record of our attempt to move away from nature, to free ourselves from the filicidal Mother Nature who spawned us. Or as Žižek puts it in his interview with the New Scientist:

“If it is us who are the bad guys, all we have to do is change our behaviour. But in fact Mother Nature is not good - it's a crazy bitch […] I'm against the ecologists' anti-technology stance, the one that says, "we are alienated by manipulating nature, we should rediscover ourselves as natural beings". I think we should alienate ourselves more from nature so we become aware of the utter contingency, the fragility of our natural being.”[5]

Postmodern Spring

In the postmodern world, when the most basic question stirred by the human condition has seemingly changed from “Why do we exist?” to “Why exist?”, the answers that we find will vary. There is no longer a search for a grand narrative that underlies the whole of life, spring no longer fits into an eternal cycle, but rather it is a blip in the chaotic nature of the universe, a pattern that gives us the illusion of security. The fragile ecology of the earth is not its natural state, nature is a series of random catastrophes that has afflicted the life of the planet. The beauty of experiencing spring is not something that requires a “return” to a world without technology, but rather it calls for us to use the technology available to us, along with environmental policies, to allow us to appreciate the beauty of nature while protecting us from the its random nature. For our ultimate aim as humans is not to keep on continuing the species indefinitely, but rather to make life worth living. The ephemeral splendour of what we conceive of as nature developed from the first primeval atom of the universe to eventually form the freak show of life that is the green planet and the life therein. That spring has ever existed is a reminder that the planet we live upon is a strange and fantastic phenomenon, and that the unluckiest person in the world is still lucky to experience the wonders of existence, consciousness and perception. So in the postmodern world, spring should be a call for us to look at the world around us before we bring life into it and consider if life is worth living. Humanity, has evolved the tools to use technology to its advantage, we should use these technologies to renew our ecology in the spirit of spring, and to fight against the “crazy bitch” that is the random chaos of the universe, so that we can enjoy the bounty of nature in spring, even if that bounty is as plentiful all year round.

Photos: C. Phiv


[2] William Shakespeare’s ‘Spring’ from Love’s Labour’s Lost



[5] ‘Slavoj Žižek: Wake up and smell the apocalypse’ The New Scientist 30 August 2010 by Liz Else


Conor Stuart (蕭辰宇)

Born in Belfast. Just finished his Master from the Graduate Institute of Taiwan Literature at National Taiwan University (NTU). Currently lives and works in Taipei. 

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