Congratulations! You have arrived in Cartania, the web site of John Cartan. Cartania is the home of the tallest tower in cyberspace, from which John occasionally reads a profound essay to the assembled masses. Today's essay is on the essential topic of Ponarvs...
Some of you have already scoured the dictionary in vain for a definition of the word "Ponarvian." One of my greatest ambitions is to get this word safely into Websters where it belongs. Until that happy time, the following definition will have to do:
PONARV (PO narv) n. [acronym] A project of no apparent redeeming value. Hence, Ponarvian: one who pursues such projects.
It is my contention that not some, but MOST of the greatest human triumphs in art, science, and technology have their root in the humble ponarv. All ponarvians, whatever their age, are children who simply like to play. If you ask them to justify their behavior, they will be unable to do so, or will provide what can only be described as a playful response. Basically, they just can't help it. They like to play.
Throughout history, all great ponarvians have been surrounded by suffocating masses of anti-ponarvians. The anti-ponarvian is a gloomy person who divides the world into work and play, and who sees play as a regrettable lapse in the vital and unceasing pursuit of work. They define work as an activity which leads DIRECTLY to something valuable, and the only things they value are those things like food and shelter which enable them to survive long enough to procreate and produce more workers. To an anti-ponarvian, play is like sleep, a biological necessity which interferes with work and should therefore be minimized. They love to recite the fable of the grasshopper and the ant but never stop to consider that this story was written by an ant. They are the early birds: up at the crack of dawn, catching worms.
Poets and pure mathematicians are ponarvians by definition. Mathematicians are sometimes forgiven by the anti-ponarvian masses because the equations they drop to one side in their foolish pursuit of elegant theorems and pleasing symmetries can be used to build factories which produce cannons which can then be used to level factories (cannons and factories are "useful"). But poets are eternally damned in the eyes of the anti-ponarvians because, after all, there is no money to made in poetry.
It is one of nature's greatest ironies that these very poets and mathematicians so despised by the anti-ponarvians, these idle dreamers and crackpot inventors, are the very source of all the gadgetry and innovation which anti-ponarvians hold in such high esteem. The process by which this happens is a deep mystery to both parties. The only word we have for it is "serendipity," an aptitude for the happy accident. Ponarvians never really try to be useful; it just keeps happening.
Most of us have heard of the accidents behind many of the great discoveries of science, the mislabeled test tubes and bits of moldy bread that revolutionized whole centuries. But these accidents were no accident. They were instead the inevitable result of a playful atmosphere. Revolutionary ideas are almost never produced in factories. Instead they are produced in the very places which anti-ponarvians do their best to avoid or destroy: a shady spot under a tree, a warm bath, a lazy bed. Descartes lay abed till noon each day and that is where he invented his Cartesian coordinate system. A hundred earth-shaking ideas were launched from that bed until he took a job with Queen Christine of Sweden, an anti-ponarvian who insisted that he get to work every morning at five a.m. - he was dead within a few months.
Anti-ponarvians never bother to remember their dreams and yet the chemist who discovered benzine rings made that discovery in bed upon waking from a dream in which he saw a snake eating its own tail. Newton was sitting under a tree when the famous apple hit and when Archimedes uttered his legendary cry of "Eureka!" he leapt up not from a desk but from a bathtub.
Often the trail which leads from a Ponarvian's foolish obsession to an invention of very apparent redeeming value begins in such an unlikely spot, and takes so many unexpected twists and turns, that the ponarvian himself is the last person to grasp the implications of his "work." One of my favorite ponarvians, Johannes Kepler, spent much of his life trying to show that the planets were arranged as a set of nested platonic solids. He was completely wrong, but along the way he produced, almost as a byproduct, the laws which made him the father of modern astronomy. One of the greatest ponarvians of this century, Richard Feynman, was given an office at the Institute For Advanced Studies and told he could work on whatever he wanted. To the horror of the anti-ponarvian administrators, he choose to sit in the cafeteria and study the way plates wobble when they are thrown in the air by playful dishwashers. The mathematical systems he created to describe these wobbles later proved essential to physicists pursuing the unified field theory.
Even the staunchest anti-ponarvian may concede that mathematicians and scientists have an uncanny knack for becoming "useful," but they will find no such hope for poets, and indeed for artists in general. Yet the contributions of poets are just as fundamental and follow precisely the same ironic pattern. Language is the most useful tool of all; without it all the technical manuals and dusty business letters of the anti-ponarvians would be impossible. But of all the complex systems invented by man, no system has a more wacky and improbable history of development than language, and it is the poets and playwrights who are present at almost every wacky twist and turn. Trace the origins of dullest word and you will find a long parade of passionate phrases and outlandish incantations. Every word, as Emerson has observed, is a fossil poem, and language is the playground of every ponarvian.
The great ponarvians of history are not lucky fools who in their madness happen to bump into great discoveries. Rather, they are skilled and relentless hunters who endure the hoots and sneers of the unimaginative and bring to light the most elusive prey. Do they have anything in common? Do they employ some special system? I believe they do have a common system, or more likely an anti-system, which the poet John Keats described as 'negative capability.' According to Keats, a ponarvian is 'capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason... This pursued through volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.'
The negatively capable ponarvian not only tolerates ambiguity, but revels in it! Moreover, the value system of a ponarvian centers not on money or power, but on beauty, and beauty is in the eye of the ponarvian. This applies not only to poets plumbing the depths of human experience, but to mathematicians and artists in pursuit of symmetry, philosophers in search of truth, programmers in pursuit of elegant code, dancers and potters finding delightful shapes, alchemists seeking the philosopher's stone, saints seeking the Holy Grail, and scientists lifting the veil of Nature herself.
Ponarvians are driven, and at first this may seem to contradict the image of ponarvians as playful children. But anyone who lives with a child will tell you that children are driven, that they are downright demonic at times. They are insatiable and carnivorous; they stride like tigers through the ordered kitchens and living rooms of the world, reducing them to shambles. They are relentless game players, who play again and again and again in search of a perfection beyond adult understanding. They do not concern themselves with manners or rules; when they are hungry they shriek and when they achieve their childish goals, their joy is incandescent.
A final thought... The 'P' in ponarv stands for project and a true ponarvian does more than merely lie on a couch and speculate. Because the ponarvian is driven, he is not content merely to dream but will always build as well. Ponarvians are forever shaping, tunneling, erecting, and writing. The pursuit of beauty is never easy. Ironically, they often work harder than the ant-like anti-ponarvians, and because their visions are so strange and new, they must work harder still to overcome the stern opposition of their contemporaries. In the end, their poems and pots and proofs are all that's left of them; they leave themselves in their creations.