The sheen of a material or the glittering of a weapon, the dappled hide of a fawn, or the shining back of a snake mottled with darker patches. This many-coloured sheen or complex of appearances produces an effect of irridescence, shimmering, an interplay of reflections which the Greeks perceived as the ceaseless vibrations of light… Shimmering sheen and shifting movement are so much the nature of mētis. (Detienne and Vernant, 18-19)
In their studies of mētis in Greek thought and epic tales, Detienne and Vernant find it associated in a semantic field of descriptions also used to describe natural beauty. These are metaphors of glittering light and illumination, appealing to the quicksilver nature of mētis intelligence and “its kinship with the divided, shifting world of multiplicity in the midst of which it operates (21). They point out that Aesop (6th century B.C.E.) remarks in his fables that “if the panther has a mottled skin, the fox, for its part, has a mind which is poikilos (19),” translated as many-colored. In short, when exercised in supple responsiveness and cunning navigation of life’s puzzles, mētis is cunning like a fox. The flickering appearances of this supple mind-at-work is well-described by the onlooker, adversary, friend, or story-teller as a kind of poetry.
Mētis is beautiful! Its qualities have an aesthetic dimension. This is existence as an aestheiology.
But its beauty is in the movement of the moment. This is not statuary that holds its form and submits unchangingly to meditative gaze. This is the “blink and you’ll miss it” kind of beauty, in which only a wondering gasp or widened eye marks the passing instant: a black feather reveals its rainbow iridescence in a shifting light, the sure-footed fawn melts in and out of forested shadow in its dappled coat, translucent dragonfly wings mirror the sparkling waters before zz-mm-ing away.
These metaphors capture how mētis intelligence, keen for the art of the unique moment, reflects the multiplicity of the world in its own responsive, perceptive nature. It strikes me that this is why, as others come and sit with me, that I often remark that I can see their shimmer. I wish I had a visual synesthesia, because I think I would register soul shimmer as iridescence. Detienne and Vernant speak of “ceaseless vibrations of light.” This feels right; I experience another’s shimmer as an embodied hum, very like the acoustic resonance of a tuning fork or a singing bowl. I like the word shimmer, because it associates the interplay of light and shadow coming from the illumination of spirit with the humming resonance I feel in my body. Very often, my resonant harmonizing is called forth by listening to their vulnerable wrestling with tender problems, sufferings, or unknowings. In that vulnerability, they often express flashes of shame as they worry that they are not enough in their very being to meet the adversary of the moment, and that flicker of being in both light and shadow feels as shimmer. This vulnerable Other is beautiful, even though they are so engaged in meaning-in-the-moment that they have no simultaneous capacity to self-distance and apprehend their own loveliness. That is a gift given to me as I bear witness, and I can offer it back in discretion and wonder: Do you see? Do you sense? You are lovely in this shimmering mētis!
Souls are more than our mētis. But mētis is the soul’s movement to meaningfully navigate our stories, with the sheen of unfurling silk in its utter uniqueness. Martin Buber, revered for his articulation of the I-Thou relation as the first movement of our becoming, honored each human being as uniqueness within a world of multiplicity.
But the basic unity of my own soul is certainly beyond the reach of all the multiplicity it has hitherto received from life, though not in the least beyond individuation, or the multiplicity of all souls in the world of which it is one – existing but once, single, unique, irreducible, this creaturely one: one of the human souls and not the “soul of All;” a defined and particular being and not “Being.” (2006, 28-29)
But Buber states that we come to know the uniqueness of ourselves as not merely a discrete thing in the undifferentiated “darkness of chaos” (1996, 77) but an “I” through the process of having been welcomed and encountered by another human being as a longed-for You.
… the longing for relation is primary, the cupped hand into which the being that confronts us nestles; and the relation to that, which is wordless anticipation of saying You, comes second. . . as readiness, as a form that reaches out to be filled, as a model of the soul; the a priori of relation; the innate You.
When another bears witness to our beauty as a Unique One, we are able to move from discrete existence as a thing or an object in the world, into the fullness of our ethical self. In dialogue, when there is vibration between two modes of being – both the interplay of being an object in the world and the encounter of being a You with another, Buber tells us there is art. These movements are beautiful.
That which confronts me is fulfilled through the encounter through which it enters into the world of things in order to remain incessantly effective, incessantly It – but also infinitely able to become again a You, enchanting and inspiring. It becomes “incarnate”: out of the flood of spaceless and timeless presence it rises to the shore of continued existence. (1996, 65-66)
The It is the chrysalis, the You the butterfly. . . In the beginning is the relation. (1996, 69)
When we monologue in our own lives, mētis intelligence does its work in life’s navigation. In monologue, we are often alienated from our own beauty-in-the-moment; we might try to self-distance, but in looking at ourselves as our own object, we become stationary. We cannot catch the shimmering mētis-in-the-moment of our own movements. But another can see and bear witness to the poetic interplay of our own light and shadow as we move. In the dialogical encounter of I-and-You, our mētis is witnessed by another in its loveliness and met as a wonder. We long for relation and are lonely without it.
Man wishes to be confirmed in his being by man, and wishes to have a presence in the being of the other…. Secretly and bashfully he watches for a YES which allows him to be and which can come to him only from one human person to another.” (1996)
We have access to being beloved deep in our spirit, but when we hear it from another, it is a gift. “Even solitude cannot spell forsakenness, and when the human world falls silent for him, he hears his daimonion say You (1996, 116).” In relation we apprehend that our soul is never static. It shimmers in the movement of becoming, light and shadow.
Such a soul is creation and revelation in its very nature; it is illusion and illumination. It is poetry and play, creativity and destruction. In these supple movements, we will always find mētis and can be reminded of its beauty.
- Marcel Detienne and Jean-Pierre Vernant. Cunning Intelligence in Greek Culture and Society. Translated by Janet Lloyd. New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1978.
- Martin Buber. Between Man and Man. Translated by Ronald Gregor-Smith. London and New York: Routledge Classics, 2006.
- Martin Buber. I and Thou. Translated by Martin Kaufmann. New York: Touchstone, 1996.