Monday, April 25, 2011
The Life of an Ephemeron
by Justin E. H. Smith
Going through a difficult separation? Feeling lonely? Well I've got just the book for you. It's called After Kinship, and it's by Janet Carsten. She says that the focus on the affine pair as the basic unit of anthropological theory was really only a projection of mid-twentieth-century Euro-American ideology into an ethnographic field where bonds of kinship are by and large much more fluid than Lévy-Bruhl et al. were able to understand. I don't know why they keep this kind of stuff away from the 'self help' section of the bookstore. It cheers me right up.
I went to the Lawrenceville Petco and inquired about getting a cat to keep me company. "I'd really like a cat," I said to the teen-aged employee, "but I'm worried about hygiene."
"Cats are only as filthy as their owners," she said, rehearsing some bit of wisdom she did not seem fully to comprehend.
"Well, suppose I'm filthy," I replied.
"Oh. Maybe you should get, like, a hermit crab?"
I received a message from a former student. "Hey," it started out, "I heard you're retired now. That's too bad! You were a great teacher!" For the record, I'm 38, and I'm on a temporary research sabbatical. And I am not a 'teacher'.
Facebook now has sidebar ads that are supposed to speak to the particular interests and desires of the social-networking site's individual users. Recently I've been getting an ad that beckons: "Hey Philosopher! Find your market!"
Now this is why I can't have a cat: Just today I discovered an uneaten basket of raspberries, purchased in January, at the bottom of my desk drawer. It was sitting on top of the copy of Being and Time that I've been carrying around with me for complicated reasons I need not go into here. Little remained of the raspberries, as they had been gradually replaced by thousands upon thousands of fruit flies. If I had a cat, I would have joked to her: Well look at that, countless generations of them have come and gone since January, and they still haven't outgrown their Heidegger phase.
The other night I was in a café in Princeton and I saw Professor K. sitting and reading at an opposite table. K. is a prominent expert on literary hoaxes and other high-brow shenanigans in 19th-century France, and is well-known to the larger public for his witty interventions about current American politics on NPR's 'All Things Considered'. He cuts a formidable figure, and it was taking a while for me to work up the courage to go and speak with him. But at some point our eyes met, and so I gesticulated a 'hello' and went over to his table, carrying a copy of L'arte della prudenza that I hoped might serve as a conversation-starter.
"That was a great conference last week, wasn't it?" I said. He looked at me blankly. "I particularly enjoyed your paper." Silence.
"Are you sure you don't have me confused with someone else?," he finally replied.
"No," I insisted. "We sat right across from each other at the conference dinner. You're K."
"No, I'm H."
"But you look just like... I mean the hair, the glasses. Everything."
"Be that as it may, I'm H."
"Well, do you know K.?," I pleaded, hoping for some reason that even as identity was slipping away, I could be consoled by at least the faintest connection between this man and his Doppelgänger.
"I've heard of him," H. replied. I still don't know whether I met K. the other night, enacting some 19th-century literary hoax of his own, or whether this man really was, as he claimed, H. Dare I ask K. (whose name is not really K.) the next time I run into him? This is not some elaborate metafictional set-up into which I'm hoping to draw you, dear reader. This is a simple question della prudenza.
Now the sidebar ad is asking: "Proud Mongol?"
My car is at the repair shop so I had to take a taxi home from the grocery store. There aren't very many taxis in Princeton so you have to call in advance. I got the number for "Henri's Jerusalem Taxi" from the grocery store's bulletin board. Henri was Haitian, and we were both delighted to speak a bit of French. He said he'd been driving a taxi in Princeton for 19 years, but that he lived in Trenton. He knew all the names of the streets in Princeton, and he still found it amusing, after all this time, to conduire sur Einstein, that is, to drive on Einstein Drive. At some point he abruptly began emitting incomprehensible gutturals and glottals, and when he could see I had no idea what he was saying, he asked me whether I understood Hebrew. I said I did not. He seemed surprised. He had learned it on his own, at home in Trenton, in order better to comprendre la langue de Dieu. Isn't that what we're here for, he asked: to understand the language of God?
Sometimes things happen to me and I want to say, only in New York. But I'm in New Jersey.
After I killed off Dr. Smith, FRS, in the final installment of my Quaeries series (deeply beloved to me, even though it seems to have inspired little enthusiasm in the broader, non-me public), I received a message from a 3QD reader asking me if everything was alright. Fine, I replied curtly. Assured that I was not suicidal and he would not have to call some hotline on my behalf, he wrote back, worried now that I had signaled, with the death of Dr. Smith from complications of gout, my own intention to retire from 3QD. Hell no, I'm not retiring. I intend to become the Andy Rooney of this site, to keep right on well after my expiration date, imposing my elderly, tone-deaf, eructative voice --the privilege of an eminence grise-- for decades to come, even as other Monday Columnists come and go like the generations of Drosophila, writing with great urgency about things I no longer strain to understand, such as Lady Gaga: things I am certain will turn out not to matter.
I think what I might in fact mean is, only in America. But that's not true either.
In 1675, the Dutch microscopist Jan Swammerdam published his study of the mayfly, entitled Ephemeri vita, of Afbeeldingh van 's menschen leven, which is to say --if my Dutch is not failing me (I am sure, at least, of my Latin)--, The Life of an Ephemeron, or, The Image of a Human Life. Swammerdam was struck by the short duration of the mayfly's life-cycle --no more than a single day--, and he thought this merited poetic comparison to the fleetingness of a human life. A human life lasts more than a day, certainly, but as Pascal had already observed, a day and a century both fall equally short of eternity.
I suppose I am in the early afternoon of my ephemeral day; the shadows are already growing long, yet for the moment there can be no thought of retreating from my labors.
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Posted by Justin E. H. Smith at 12:45 AM | Permalink