Sunday, April 03, 2005

Through Eiseley eyes

I’ve been running my own little Loren Eiseley festival this afternoon, though from the outside it looked like I was just reading a book. Eiseley was an American anthropologist, and he could write. His work made "the ideas and findings of his fields not only radiantly comprehensible but almost spiritually meaningful to readers whose knowledge of science is slight".

I first stumbled across an essay of his in an encyclopedia, while searching for something else. (And isn't that always the way? Serendipity or something.)

You are a changeling. You are linked by a genetic chain to all the vertebrates. The thing that is you bears the still aching wounds of evolution in body and in brain. Your hands are made-over fins, your lungs come from a creature gasping in a swamp, your femur has been twisted upright. Your foot is a reworked climbing pad. You are a rag doll resewn from the skins of extinct animals. Long ago, 2,000,000 years perhaps, you were smaller, your brain was not so large. We are not confident that you could speak. Seventy million years before that you were an even smaller climbing creature known as a tupaiid. You were the size of a rat. You ate insects. Now you fly to the Moon. [...]

Life is indefinite departure. That is why we are all orphans. That is why you must find your own way. Life is not stable. Everything alive is slipping through cracks and crevices in time, changing as it goes.

- Loren Eiseley, “Introduction to Part Four: The Cosmic Orphan”, in a multi-volume encyclopedia with a red? cover, pp139-141. (Sorry... No excuse.)

Now, finally, I’m reading one of his books, and another is on its way.

The evening was perfect. The light was just fading on the faces of the company, and the perfectly clipped lawns and hedges fell away before us on the terrace as only the very rich and the very powerful can afford to have them. My friend held a mint julep in his hand and gestured toward me.

"Man," he said, "will turn the whole earth into a garden for his own enjoyment. It is just a question of time. I admit the obstacles you have mentioned, but I have
tremendous faith in man. He will win through. I drink to him."

He poised his glass and said other happy and felicitous things to which the company present raised their glasses. Even my own glass - and I am a weak and doubting character - was somewhat dubiously being lifted, when I saw an incredible and revolting sight. There, under my friend’s white canvas chair, and outlined against the stuccoed wall at his back, a thin, greasy, wet-backed rat upreared himself and twitched his whiskers with a cynical contempt for all that white-gowned, well-clothed company.

I say he addressed himself to me, for I have never seen anything so peculiarly appropriate. He had obviously emerged from a drain a bit farther on in the wall, perhaps a little prematurely, along with the rising tide of evening. I stared in unbelief and waited for the ladies to scream. I wanted to lift my glass. I wanted to set it down. I waited for my novelist friend to come to his senses and spring away from that bewhiskered mocking animal that crouched beneath him. The novelist made no move. He spoke on as eloquently as always, while the rat sniffed his shoe and listened, stretching up to his full height. I felt for an uneasy moment that the creature might ironically applaud. He looked across at me, and it seemed best not to warn the company. Anyway, it was unlikely that I could warn them sufficiently.

For that this was a message I felt certain. I alone saw him and I never spoke. He listened a while with great attentiveness to our voices, and then he went back into the rising darkness and the drain pipe swallowed him up.

- Loren Eiseley, The Night Country (Lincoln, Nebraska USA: University of Nebraska Press, 1997 / copyright 1971) ISBN: 0803267355, pp34-5.

And in an unheralded sudden change of topic: it took me about three hours to write this post, and the only parts I needed to actually compose were the introductions. I need to get faster at this. I don't know how. This constant write and rewrite and rewrite aggravation: it will not let me go.