by Jeff Oaks

There are certain things that put me to sleep. Someone saying “ontology” in a sentence is one. I just had to look it up again, read the definition, closed that screen, clicked back to this one, and immediately found that definition was gone again. It ceased to exist in my mind, although I’m sure that it still exists someone out there, that someone is using it to win an argument, seduce a lover, write an article, practice for a philosophy exam. I admit that I have a deep distrust of any word with an –ological tail to it. I don’t even like using the word suffix, and would rather use “tail”. I’m hopelessly Anglo-Saxon. The Latinate unnerves me and has ever since someone told me that flatulate meant the same thing as fart, but without the stink. I like the stink. I judge the real by whether it stinks.

So, once again I go back and look at the definition of Ontology. This time I cut and paste. Here it is from Wikipedia, which is about the only definition that manages to make any sense:

Ontology… is the philosophical study of the nature of being, existence, or reality, as well as the basic categories of being and their relations. Traditionally listed as a part of the major branch of philosophy known as metaphysics, ontology deals with questions concerning what entities exist or can be said to exist, and how such entities can be grouped, related within a hierarchy, and subdivided according to similarities and differences.

And yet it’s still a complete snooze fest. Honestly, I hear myself saying to myself, who cares? Which of course is funny coming from a poet, a being whose very existence is debated daily in the papers, when it’s acknowledged at all.

But I know someone does care about ontology. Every word has its defenders, its apostles, apostates, its entourage all acting as if the world without that world would be imperiled, would vanish. For myself, I prefer birds to ornithology, insects to entomology, digging in the ground to archeology. Frankly speaking, I prefer writing to poetry, fiction, and nonfiction too, but I’ve learned to adjust to the illusions of genre.

What does exist? I don’t know. One of my favorite writing exercises is to bring Thich Nhat Hahn’s short essay “Interbeing” into my writing classes. It begins with this:

If you are a poet, you will see clearly that there is a cloud floating in this sheet of paper. Without a cloud, there will be no rain; without rain, the trees cannot grow; and without trees, we cannot make paper. The cloud is essential for the paper to exist. If the cloud is not here, the sheet of paper cannot be here either.

The essay goes on to show that a logger, the logger’s mother, the logger’s bread, the wheat that made that bread, and so on, all are part of that piece of paper. In fact, says Thich Nhat Hanh, this piece of paper, as thin as it is, contains everything in the universe.

Am I trying to screw with the students’ Western notion of ontology by reading them this? I’ll be damned if I know. (I’m still afraid to publish this and have someone tell me I am completely wrong about what ontology means!) What I think I’m doing is introducing them to a way of thinking about their own existence as a thing made out of other things, an infinite number of things, none of which exist only for or of themselves either. I originally did this, hoping I’d provoke them into thinking more metaphorically, less literally. I hoped that if they could imagine how things were all connected, they might be freer to associate things they might not normally associate. It was a way to nudge them toward wilder connections, toward seeing even very simple things as full of complicated connections.

I do know that if I went in and said, “Let’s examine your ontological notions,” most of the students would panic. It’s only a word, I suppose, but the diction shifts the world away from their nerves. The word ontology would raise the walls of abstraction that I spend a lot of time breaking down (or maybe make temporarily vanish?). I want them to feel the complicated stink of their existence, their complexities, which so much of the culture offers them evasions from. Write down all your names, I ask them the first day of class. Given names, nicknames, secret names, alternative names, names they wanted to have, lover’s names, aliases, adopted names, usernames, avatar names, confirmation names, and on and on, until the room is full of our complicated existences, which are after all full of sound and fury.