Where Have All the Fire-Breathing Dragons Gone?

Dragons Play with a Pearl of Lightning, painting on xuan paper by Li Yu-Jun

Tell me the landscape in which you live, and I will tell you who you are.                                                                   —Jose Ortega y Gasset

Once upon a time I lived in a house with my parents, my sister and my grandma from Russia. Grandma Sophie had come to this country as a teenage bride. She was illiterate and spoke in a shifting patois of Russian, Yiddish and English. I didn’t always know what she was saying but I understood her intuitively. We’re going in the machine? raised the question if we’d be taking a drive in the Dodge. Alternatively, Turn on the machine? was a request to turn on the television. “Machine” was a useful word that also applied to the washer and dryer in the basement, but not to the radio or the telephone for which she knew the names.

Lately I’ve been thinking about obsolete language, how the vernacular changes dramatically with time and technology. So many expressions I’ve grown up with have disappeared. Time marches on. Now there’s a phrase that sounds archaic, conjuring up as it does the sweep of seasons across the calendar year, armies crossing the Alps on elephants, the waxing and waning moon. Time marches on, and we feel the rippling of temporality in our bones, light thinning and darkness coming earlier each day. Is this the same Time marked by a digital blink on our computer screen? Yes. And, no. (See: connotative vs. denotative language.)

Mercury on the ceiling of the Loggia of Psyche, fresco by Raphael and his pupils, 1517-1518, Villa Farnesina, Rome.Language is mercurial, and like the substance mercury itself, is skittery and unstable, malleable to the whims of culture and the fortunes of technology. For the Romans, Mercury (Hermes in Greek) was the god of communication, a sprightly figure with wings on his heels who made swift flight carrying messages between humans and gods. Of all the gods in the Roman pantheon, Mercury was the most playful, a trickster figure, and like language itself, never to be taken at face value. What he said was not necessarily what he meant.

What got me going on the subject is the title of my new novel Digging to China, an expression whose origins are difficult to locate. The urban legend during my childhood held that if you dug straight down through the center of the earth you would reach the other side of the world, the land of China.

China had a mystical ring. It offered the promise of adventure, evoked images of fire-breathing dragons and sweeping mountain mists—iconography at odds with the heavily industrialized, tech-savvy China of today. Other words elicited similar thrills: Everest, Zanzibar. The moon. Timbuktu.

The distance between peoples, countries, continents was vast, and for most of us, utterly unknowable except through fairy tales and myths. Certain names lodged in the landscape of our imaginations symbolizing places timeless and eternal, our own sort of Interior Castles where we just might bump into the divinely otherworldly, where we might dream ourselves into heroes with a thousand faces.

Photo by Mike Choi of the Starbucks in Lukla, from his April 2011 blog post on The Fit World Traveler about his Everest Base Camp trek experience. We need our wild, soulful places. Maybe now more than ever, when the world is almost entirely knowable, when we’ve Google-mapped even remote regions of planet Earth; when we can tool on down to visit the blue-footed boobies on the Galapagos, or the penguins of Antarctica; when climbers on Everest carry iPads and coffee from the local Starbucks; when, thanks to MRIs, PET scans and whatnot, the most inaccessible parts of our anatomy have been studied—and the Man in the Moon, the goddess Luna, have become simply craters of rock.

Maybe more than ever we need experiences of the sublime, that state of wonder, awe, and terror that enchants us into other realms. Yes, hooray for science, mathematics, engineering! Hooray for molecular biology! Hooray for astronomy, cosmology, zoology and all the rest, but can our species prosper without niches for our imaginations to hang out?

Maybe our great big frontal cortexes, our rational, logical brains are juiced up by the new synaptical connections technology encourages, but I do believe some primordial, instinctual, not-yet-disappeared part of us yearns to taste the wind on our tongues. Longs to run with the wolves and fly with dragons.


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