Translated by Ilan Stavans
We shall not attempt a definition of the egg: Everyone knows quite well what it is and what its purposes, functions, signification, splendors and miseries are. But it is one thing to know an object quite well and a different thing to be able to say and explain the vastness of our knowledge. Thus, the question “What is an egg?” and a set of similar questions such as “What is time, meekness, imperfection, love or beauty, entertainment, suspicion and culpability, lust, voyeurism and love?” produce a Wittgensteinian mental freeze. We know and don’t know; we’re unable to explain, to develop, to expose. What to do? Where to begin? How to answer the question “What is an egg?”? Wittgenstein describes the situation: We have “a multitude of thoughts unable to come out because all of them push to emerge but they scramble and hit each other as they reach the exit.” Let us then free ourselves of such anxieties by putting things in order; let us order things, thus beginning our siege of the egg.
Metaphysics of the Egg
To begin at the beginning: Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Therein the way to start our discussion, with a paradigmatic case of sacred perplexity, the mother of all speculations. For Aristotle, the chicken had primacy over the egg. Dr. Emilio Uranga has looked in vain in Aristotle’s corpus for the quote “The chicken came before the egg,” but it’s true that the Greek philosopher supports such a doctrine. The origin of this radical embrace of the chicken over the egg is to be found in the distinction between the being as intention and the being in action, which Aristotle finds endearing. Between the being in its finished, complete state, the ser en acto, and the pure nonbeing, one ought to infer an intermediary, the ser en potencia, which already belongs to what is real without having achieved its perfect realization. The changes and movements are explained by saying that they are the step from the being en potencia to the being en acto. An example: In the London streets, a thoughtful moralist wanders around in full concentration, undisturbed; this individual concludes that it’s necessary to annihilate some women and does so. Metaphysically speaking, what is it that just happened? It is said that the moment the sinners are liquidated, Jack the Ripper is en acto. Was he also in action before he committed the lethal street surgery? Obviously not en acto, although his crimes were in a process of gestation, which, in and of itself, is a form of reality. To negate that reality is the equivalent of suggesting that Jack the Ripper came out of sheer nothingness. His incisions would then be unintelligible. Thus, the solitary, not-yet-harmful wanderer is Jack the Ripper, but only en potencia. The reality of his intention is implicit in melancholic reflections such as “the music that Mozart would have written had he not died at 35” or “What a wonderful time we would have had if the frivolous little girl had not decided to jump on the cow” or, in these days, “Where on earth is Jack the Ripper these days?”
Now, the fact that action precedes intention must be understood from four different viewpoints: 1) According to notion. Action precedes intention because action defines intention. The lonely passerby is defined by the enticed Jack the Ripper en acto. 2) According to temporal order. The individual Jack, the somewhat strange and silent child who ate lizards and was exposed to sermons, is en potencia before he commits his vile assassinations, the way the apple was before the seed. But from the viewpoint of the species’ superiority, it is necessary to accept that the perfect state, the state of action, must always precede the imperfect state, that of intention. Hence, in the generational order, one ought to start from a full-grown and complete apple. 3) According to substance or according to perfection. Action is equally initial, because everything that changes “seeks its own origin and also its end, since the origin brings forth the end, and progress occurs because there’s an end to it. From which it follows that the end is action itself,” as in Jack the Ripper’s case. 4) According to eternity. Because eternal beings precede the corruption of being, and eternal beings don’t have the intention of nonbeing, they are not en potencia. Hence, there are beings in action that precede any intention.
Ergo, the chicken comes before the egg.
The egg is a chicken in intention yet an egg in action. The egg in action is quite superior to the unfortunate chicken in action. On the other hand, if, at the metaphysical level, it is necessary that action precedes intention, it isn’t the same when one approaches the issue at the aesthetic level: The purity and simplicity of the egg are unquestionably superior to the confusion, excess and arbitrariness of the chicken.
Geometry of the Egg
To be a bird is to have a little of the yolk and the white—with breeze added to them. The egg is responsible for flying. Life of moving beings is created through eggs. What properties will the geometrical body have, in order to become the hinge on which life rotates and renews itself? Where will the oval figure find its merit and authority? Geometry looks at the egg as it does the irresponsible: In the science of clarity and beauty, the oval form produces horrors that point to arbitrariness and imprecision. What can one expect from the voluptuous egg if our earthly models are the well-shaped cube or the perfectly symmetrical sphere? The egg is a monster, incapable of rolling around normally or finding serenity through balanced repose; its movements on a table are unexpected, oblique dances, if not also displacements, which always entail the danger of a dramatic break.
The oval’s geometric construction is the result of four arches. Those who are curious and try to design it shall immediately discover the lack of necessity and precision, the oval’s essential fickleness. Indeed, it can be stated that the oval is in between a doodle and a circumference. But let’s not be carried away by illicit pessimism. In the egg’s heterodoxy, in its imperfections and instability, one might marvel and find excellence. Thus, the following words of Octavio Paz in his introduction to “Sendas de Oku,” on Matsuo Basho, might also be used to describe the egg:
Japanese poets and painters could say with lves Bonnefoy, “Imperfection is the apex.” Such imperfection, as we’ve seen, isn’t really imperfect; it’s voluntary incompleteness. The right way to describe it ought to be as conscience of fragility and as precariousness of existence, a consciousness of the one that is aware of being suspended between one abyss and another. Japanese art, in its most tense and translucent moments, reveals to us such instants—because it surely isn’t a single instant—of equilibrium between life and death. Vivacity: mortality.
All this is applicable par excellence to the subject of Zen meditation. The egg, which is a drop of matter suspended in a shell, in a free fall that suddenly stops, instantly becomes a rounded, quiet instant.
The great painters/geometrists of the Italian Renaissance didn’t have these same revelations. In the pictorial collection of the Milan-based artist Brera, one is able to admire a canvas by Piero della Francesca depicting Virgin and Child with saints, archangels and the donor, Federigo a Montefeltro (whose profile is unforgettable); and on the upper roof of the church, above the Virgin s unadorned head, is an egg hanging reverently. Lionello Venturi clarifies for us this refined intrusion. The egg’s presence “should be understood as an invitation to the sheer satisfaction generated by a perfect form to the eye; also, it’s a symbol of the four elements of the world, of creation,” juxtaposing, in promiscuous fashion, these two components, as a symbol of perfection of creation as contained in an egg. In other words, and to put it in terms carried away by enthusiasm, we are before the perfection of imperfection.
Psychology of the Egg
We cannot deny that the egg is the summit of being en potencia: a transitory item, a state, a passing step, a moment, a phase, imminence. Every egg is materialized waiting and expectation reiterated in space. The egg is the Godot of all beings. The waiting is a relative of surprise and boredom; surprise is a consequence of the waiting—be that because we wait for something different to come or because that which is surprising isn’t factored into our approach to waiting—and boredom is its habitat. Waiting is defined by its omissions: To wait is to stop doing other things. Action that is clearly defined and has a directed purpose is the opposite of the anemic paralysis of waiting. An example: Let’s imagine that a couple devoted to their own erotic efforts are surprised in the very act of copulation by an intruder. To the question “What are you doing?” the partners respond, “We’re just waiting to be picked up so we can go to the agricultural exhibit.” Nobody would believe them; their action is in direct opposition to the austerity of any form of waiting. That’s because waiting has something mortifying in it: an element of penitence, of minor torment, of abstinence, of suspension. That’s why it can’t be admitted that a gourmet in a French restaurant or Jack the Ripper with a frightening knife in his hand or the lubricated couple lying in the deep sofa would be, in their respective splendors, situated in the psychological order of waiting.
The brief narrative “Perpetuity of the Egg” encapsulates the obvious relationship between the egg and waiting. I imagine its plot to move along these lines:
The merchant traveler and explorer Signore Maffeo Polo was to be married to the beautiful daughter of the Cyprus-based Signore Genovevo, known as an ogre and as a moneylender. Secretly Signore Maffeo was looking to avenge the abuses and offenses that, in diverse opportunities and circumstances, the Signore from Cyprus, insolent and nasty as he was, had inflicted upon him. The explorer, filled with rancor, gave his bride a large and gorgeous egg that he had stolen from an Egyptian temple after much difficulty and danger. “This egg,” the false lover explained to Genovevo and his daughter, “contains that rarest and most valuable of all animals, a prodigious beast that no human eye has ever seen. It’s impossible to know if it holds a bird, a fish, a lizard, an insect, an amphibian or else an unknown creature. (According to some, the egg contains the blue unicorn that pays tribute to maidens and that floated next to Noah’s Ark.) I beg you, my dear one, to keep it safe until my return.”
Signore Maffeo didn’t lie. He departed happily for Basora, leaving the egg behind. Genovevo and his daughter became greedy. They looked at the egg with enormous curiosity while they waited for a revelation. Many years went by. Maffeo Polo accompanied Sinbad on his fifth voyage. He was allowed to see the alto domo, the gigantic cupola that incubated the Ave Roc. He actively participated in the abominable act of breaking the egg with a stone, then eating chicken meat that tasted like frog. He was also a victim of the Ave Roc’s mother, and with much effort, he saved his own life from a shipwreck. Later on he traveled to Cathay, a trip discussed by his nephew, Signore Marco Polo, in his book “Description of the World,” also known as “The Million.” In his old age, he returned to Venice in order to enjoy his vengeance (a dish, according to gastronomists, that ought to be eaten cold), and he found both Signore Genovevo and the Cyprus beauty obese, physically handicapped, entirely obsessed and pushed to lunacy by the contemplation of the gorgeous egg. The anxious wait for the supreme animal scheduled to emerge from the egg had ruined the ogre and moneylender and his daughter. Signore Maffeo felt compassion for the old Genovevo, who was desperate, thinking that death would visit him before he saw the surprising nature of the embryo growing inside the amber-colored carcass. Genovevo spoke: “This egg,” he explained, “is and will be as old as the world, since it holds an immortal creature that hasn’t been nor will be born. This always-young carcass is the product of the Phoenix, which, tired—and perhaps secretly overwhelmed by horror—of being eternally itself, of being its own legacy, decided to lay an unpredictable and unnatural egg. The embryo has been left thus, revisiting its own matter every day, its own elemental life of confused, impeded and captive entity. This is a perpetual egg, a marvel of unique qualities, the rarest and most valuable of all animals.” Signore Genovevo died laughing, his incapable hands caressing the enormous, immutable egg. Maffeo Polo married the fat, Cypriot daughter already crazy beyond control, and he populated her craziness with richness and pleasure until the insolent and greedy woman paid her dues on earth.
This is a story designed for claustrophobic people suffering a hint of melancholy: The perpetual egg has been lost. Some suggest that it was destroyed along with the house of the last of the hermit naturalists in the burning of Berlin during World War II.
Semantics of the Egg
It might well be that starting at the beginning, ab obo, consists of scrutinizing the word egg, unraveling its semantic roots. This minimalist origin no doubt has its benefits, but it also carries risks, because the word huevo, in Mexico, is pregnant with anthropological and moral resonance that situate it among the most delinquent words in the Spanish language. Let’s then approach the egg from the linguistic side.
The word huevo isn’t among the most refined we have, but it is as energetic and beautiful as the provincial girl, the famous vaquera of poet Marqués de Santillana. Indeed, one could apply to it the judgment enunciated by Mark Twain: “She was not quite what you would call refined. She was not quite what you would call unrefined. She was the kind of person that keeps a parrot.” To me the word huevo has an onomatopoeic sound, much like its Latin base, ovo. Obviously we’re in front of a rounded word, soft, hefty, just like sapo [toad], globo [balloon], bola [ball]. An astute word, huevo, when properly articulated or written, makes us feel as if one is designing an oval, filling it with living matter. Ovoide [ovoid], óvolo [ovules], aovado [oval-shaped] are refined, phonetically voluptuous expressions. Notice how the letter O jumps in ó-vo-lo, the O that, in and of itself, is a graphic and auditory representation of the egg, like the oolito [limestone made of material similar to fish eggs]. A fine epic poem could be titled “The Bronze O.” Of course, the O could be approached through its emptiness, as in oro [gold], aro [hoop] and ojo [eye]. Or the O could be approached though its weighty quality, as in orto [sunlight], orco [a Roman mythological hell] and opreso [opression]. And through its materiality and depth, as in oso [bear] and ogro [ogre]. The O also symbolizes two spectacular items: the zero and doubt. The fat O is a blockade, as in “o me caso o me voy de buzo o me meten a la cárcel o me transfiguro en anofeles o me compro todas las ratas o major no hago nada” [Either I marry or I become a scuba diver or I go to jail or I disappear magically or I acquire rats or else I don’t do anything]; and it forces us to do what St. Augustine called “the torments of doubt.” The sharp, connective I is fluid, sociable, honest—a letter/pin. The O and the I have a magnetic attraction to one another. Everything suggests, then, that the O is the primordial substance of that oval-like word, huevo.
The diverse uses in Mexico and anthropological and moral meaning of the word huevo and its derivatives might be explained by the oval form of a part of the male reproductive system: the semen-secreting glands. The fruits of this analogy are strange. The “Diccionario de Autoridades” observes that “en diciendo huevos, por antonomasia se entiende de los de la gallina” [When a person says huevos, it is understood that the reference is to those laid by a chicken], but this isn’t applicable to Mexico. For as much as one looks, the link between these uses of the derivative forms of huevo and the male reproductive system isn’t clear. Instead, quantitative expressions such as “Tiene muchos huevos” [He has balls] are used to emphasize bravery and temerity. The augmentative huevón is used to refer to a person who indulges in laziness, a vice understood as a form of tedium or fastidiousness related to work and the troubles—especially spiritual—it generates in the individual. To seek a theology of la hueva and huevonería is a capital punishment, e.g., la hueva is one of those predicaments that ends up catapulting us to an abyss. Of la huevonería, we might derive other sins, such as malice, rancor, faintheartedness, sloppiness, indolence (in keeping the commandments), as well as the wandering of the mind in the direction of illicit objectives. This type of degenerate judgment, like por mis huevos and other similar ones, signal arbitrary and authoritarian tendencies related to the one engaged in the action, as in a huevo, which indicates dutifulness. This expression must be used in a technical, precise sense, though. To tell someone, “You are a huevudo,” might cause confusion and denote lack of intelligence because this augmentative, although it appears to denote temerity, doesn’t explicitly state it. As a result, laziness lurks in the background. Nonetheless, to call someone a huevón isn’t much of an offense, since one is perfectly capable of self-accusation, which, in truth, is an excuse, as when one says, “hoy no te voy a ver Meli-sandra, tengo mucha hueva” [I won’t see you today, Melisandra, because I’m overwhelmed by hueva].
A political relative of huevo is incubar [to incubate], from the Latin incubare, meaning “to lie down on something, to brood.” This, in fact, is the source of terms such as incubo [nightmare], “he who throws himself on someone”; súcubo, “he who throws himself under someone”; and cubículo [cubicle]. The Mexican philosopher José Gaos used to say that a cubicle should be used only in reference to “the place where researchers lie down.” Disturbing terms like concubina [concubine]; inhospitable ones like cubil [animal’s den]; legal ones like decúbito supino [lying in a supine position] or decúbito prono [lying prone] all come from incubar. (In a musical comedy, someone answers, “Estertoroso y supino” [Death rattling and supine] to the question, “How are you, sir?” I’ve never been able to find out in which comedy this happens, though.) The word incubación [incubation] is beautiful. William James uses it brilliantly in “Varieties of Religious Experience” to explain cases, always refreshing and intense, of religious conversion and spiritual metamorphosis. One day someone ought to write a “General Theory of Incubation” in order to allow the word to fully germinate. (Let’s compare: A tempest is incubated, and so is fear, dawn, laughter, voyeurism, the world, grammar, love, the absurd, a revolution, a treaty, alfalfa, different kinds of killings, a game of billiards, itchiness, a nightmare, humiliation and, of course, the egg.). Meanwhile, let’s leave this theory to incubate in our imagination, which tends toward the omni-comprehensive.
Leda s daughter Helen, the most beautiful of all women, couldn’t be born but from an egg. When we observe the egg meticulously, in its supreme form, we shall see announcements of Zeus, the swan, Helen, the Trojan War and, by extension, the entire history of humankind.