But if emotion is not a direct response to our state of being, then what function does it serve? This question that the prehalifite view perceived as being so crucial is, of course, ridiculous. It neglects the fact that the universe is a hairy, tangled mess filled with purposeless digressions, of which our entire emotional framework is most likely just one among the uncountable. At any rate, be wary of those who would attempt to judge things solely by their function. The world is not an implement.
I made some comments on this piece when I first encountered it in Fried’s story collection The Great Temptation last year. I was going to allow that to stand for its appearance in this Pushcart volume (the second story from that collection to be selected for the Pushcart), but on re-reading the story, I changed my mind: as one story in a collection, it got short shrift, with only brief mention a few of the individual organisms.
Yes, organisms. The story is comprised of a set of gently academic (i.e., no training required for readers) essays, some laying out foundations of science, and some detailing a set of microorganisms you’ve likely never heard of. Don’t feel bad; no one has. They don’t exist in our current scientific literature, or, for that matter, in our universe. But they exist in Seth Fried’s.
If this were just a clever fictional scientific report about fictional organisms, it’d be a thoroughly enjoyable novelty piece. What raises the level is this: Through the examination of these organisms, Fried mines down into our humanity. It’s not just what the critters are; it’s what we reveal about ourselves as we examine them, and how we react to that very revelation. We can learn a great deal from these organisms, about our sense of identity, our need to see a purpose to our existence; about our flawed perception and status-seeking tendencies; and about fear, hope, and self-destruction.
Sprinkled among these bio-graphs are a set of short essays on the nature of science as a whole. My favorite is “The Role of Creativity in Science” which begins with an engaging thought experiment (“If a stranger were to approach you with a box of crayons and ask you to draw a clown, how would you respond?”) and its application to the scientist, who, in spite of the image we all have of the bespectacled humorless drudge squinting at a bubbling beaker, is a highly creative individual. It takes great creativity to imagine that something, anything, from unexpected fogging on photographic film to the gunk that grew in a lab dish left in the sink during an August holiday, might be might be important.
And of course it takes a lot of creativity to come up with organisms that exemplify our most human characteristics. We can learn a lot from studying these organisms.
What surprised me on reading the story in the Pushcart anthology was the omission of certain sections that were in The Great Frustration. Some of these were my favorites – the beautiful dawson, the unobservable bartlett, the sonitum that thrives on sound, and the delicious bastrom which only becomes more delicious when it is eaten alive in a frightened state (and you know where it goes from there). Presumably, these were added for Fried’s collection and did not appear in the original Kenyon Review publication of this story. This leads to one conclusion: you simply must obtain a copy of The Great Frustration, if not for the bastrom, for last year‘s Pushcart-winning “Frost Mountain Picnic Massacre” which was the reason I bought the collection myself.
Some of my favorite creatures in this edition of the story:
Once characteristics of a creature are fixed, it is given a role to fill as a result of those characteristics.
Identity: The eldrit changes. In fact, it’s impossible to describe, since between the scientist observing it in the microscope and writing down those observations, it’s already changed into something else. An intense investigation was undertaken to observe an eldrit continuously, assuming it would run out of permutations and reveal its true nature. That observation revealed no such true nature; or, more accurately, that its true nature is to change. All of which is fascinating, but leads to a larger question:
Why does it change? The example of a microorganism adapted to life in the lower intestine raises the question: if you find yourself in a shitty situation, why not change?
But the ability to change is not without sacrifice:
…the eldrit misses out on one of the most pleasing aspects of being a creature, which is, simply put, being a creature.
…Consider the gazelle. There is an unmistakable bravery in its implicit admission that, through being a gazelle, it is a gazelle…. it manages to take responsibility for what it is, while the eldrit can only change unconditionally, a slave to its wild, untouchable freedom.
Purpose: The kessel’s claim to fame is its brief life – one four-hundred-millionth of a second. That gives rise to all sorts of interesting observations about humanity:
In consideration of the kessel, human nature seems to be open to two conflicting criticisms. The first is that we see our average lifespan as being insufficient… despite the fact that we still find time enough to be bored and to wish for time to move faster. While the second criticism is that we see our average lifespan as sufficient and that the actions contained therein are significant. We flatter ourselves with the assumption that anything of importance can be accomplished in our seventy to eighty years when the earth has been around for billions of years and has been known to change dominant species as if they were hats.
But typically, one level of introspection is not enough for Fried, nor for his characters. The document also discusses the effect of the study of such creatures on the scientists conducting the study: “this air of arrogance and scorn…They are typically unkempt and wild-looking…these people are ready to conclude that everything we hold dear is futile and amounts to nothing.” Yet he doesn’t leave us there, either; the kessel has other qualities that are far more uplifting.
What I find striking about this section is the overt idea that birth, procreation, and death can exist simultaneously for the kessel – while the essayist allows for despair and hope in the same fashion, allowing form, content, and theme to merge into a single experience.
In other words, an impression reveals to us how much of reality can be discarded with reality still being successfully expressed. In the end, an impression is not a depiction of reality, but a seeing-through, a shutting-out of everything that is not essential.
Perception: Bobby McFerrin does a video in which he said of his bodily percussion, a precursor to contemporary beatboxing, that he gives the audience enough to continue in their own imagination; he sings the bass line a little, then switches to melody and the audience “hears” the bass line continuing (you can see this in practice in his spectacular audience-participation version of “I Can See Clearly Now“). Maybe he learned that from the paglum, an exceptional impressionist that never loses its own identity while evoking another. The consequences of this trick of perception may seem small, until you consider how we manage to see what we want to see so much of the time and base our behavior on that skewed perception.
Progress: This creature lives in space, in rings outside the Earth’s atmosphere. And again, Fried uses them to examine a very human reaction:
Just as we tend to look back with pity and condescension on all the creatures that are still bound to the ocean, we as a people began to understand that the next stage of life would look back in the same way on us, still bound to this floating palace of dirt….we feel usurped and irrelevant. Excluded, and jealous. Yet, we also cannot help but maintain that first touch of pride we experienced upon learning of life’s great journey out into the universe. Despite ourselves, we regard those far-off rings affectionately. We wish them well.
That last section makes a lovely close to the piece, sending us off into space and into the future with an optimistic vote of confidence in our ability to be, when it all comes down to it, human in the best possible sense of the word, in spite of the complexity that being human entails.