Sunday, 12 June 2011

A couple of examples of Pittiarniq from Inuit legends

"The axiom of criticism must be, not that the poet does not know what he is talking about, but that he cannot talk about what he knows. To defend the right of criticism to exist at all, therefore, is to assume that criticism is a structure of thought and knowledge existing in its own right, with some measure of independence from the art it deals with". AC Hamilton, Northrop Frye: Anatomy of his Criticism

Just so people understand that what I say of pittiarniq is not of my invention, I would like to provide some examples from Inuit legends. Inuit legends have some depth to them that is not immediately apparent sometimes especially ones that are intended for general audience (ie, not just for young children), like Kiviuq, the old woman who turned into a narwhal, etc.

In many of the Inuit legends (which vary in detail but rarely in form), there is this element of providing examples of well-formedness (pittiarniq) and ill-formedness (pittiannginniq) and of growth (the transformation, or transition from immaturity to wisdom). Usually the "villian" or the questionable character or even the hero (at first) is unable to do something well: either in hunting, or the stitch and tailoring of clothes are poorly done; it goes from clumsiness to refined.

In the example of the transmigrating soul, the whole story is about pittiarniq. When the foetus (which is human) is miscarried, it is hidden in the snow in secret and a bitch happens upon it and eats it. And so it begins that the soul is born as a dog and achieves some success and becomes the lead dog. Because of its privileged position it becomes arrogant but is, in the end, taught a lesson in humility; after, the soul becomes a wolf, but a starving wolf because it cannot keep up with the pack in chasing down the prey.

After much frustration, it finally asks advice from its better; it is told that in order to run faster it has to do it consciously (apparently running is not a natural thing but learned). The wolf learns slowly but becomes a better wolf.

As a caribou, it cannot get fat like the others though it eats its full. It again seeks advice and is told to eat certain things in certain proportions.

And so it goes...

Then, there is this example that is zen-like: a blind boy who shoots an arrow at a polar bear whom he's sure has hit because he has not always been blind and knows the true arrow when it hits its mark.

Inuit legends abound with these examples, vignettes to ponder. The multiple layers are there to be interpreted but there has to be a willingness to listen to gain the valuable insights. The details vary from person to person and, even in the same person, vary over time, depending on the psychological issue being explored and examined by a wise and thoughtful teacher/storyteller.

This pittiarniq concept is not unique to Inuit culture: it is a conscious decision to try and do things excellently, to acquire a deliberate way of life, a goal to quiet the mind so it can open up to the "zen", the "tao", to the parable, the character or model worthy to emulate or learn moral lessons from. It is hero worship as much as it is a cautionary tale. All cultures and all times have it, this mark of excellence that the cluttered mind, the arrogant and the selfish cannot see nor achieve.

It is, in the words of Northrop Fry: being taken up by one's subject as opposed to just taking a subject. It takes time because it is driven and inspired by conscious effort, a moment of epiphany, an awakening. It is a taught thing not of native intelligence, and more permanent than a flash-in-the-pan, more surer because it is made conscious in a person.


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