Monday, September 19, 2011
As Plain as the Nose on Your Face
I learned through a mutual acquaintance that O’Cinnéide, that great embryologist, had died, so I attended his funeral mass at St. Vincent DePaul’s in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood. He had recently turned sixty, and had died according to the note I got from O’Neill “in distressing circumstances.” O’Neill added that he would appreciate advice on a matter of O’Cinnéide’s legacy. Along with a few of the regular morning mass-goers and some heavily aromatic homeless men sleeping in the pews at the back of the church, there were no more than a handful of us there that remembered him. These were mainly his former university colleagues. O’Cinnéide took an early retirement after which he severed contact with most of us. After condolences had been offered to his wife, a handsome, doleful and seemingly capable woman who had, in fact, seen little of him in his last months as he had been under the constant care of his doctors, a few of us retreated to the Local Option a block away on Webster Avenue. It was a crisp April morning, certainly not so warm that a person would have overcome his resentment at harsh treatment from another miserable Chicago winter; certainly not so warm that one had yet forgotten, as a Chicagoan typically does during the summer months, one’s resolve to flee. We settled into the back of the bar, ordered our pints and toasted the dead man. “A great Irish genius”, one of us said. And the rest of us mumbled into our pints, “Aye; that he was.”
We looked around from man to man – there being four in our little company, the remains of our “Irish club”, an assembly of Irishmen who all found themselves working at the same university, and who met every month or so for an after work drink – and we all seemed content for a moment to quietly remember our fallen colleague. For my own part I drank a little quickly knowing that I had little to say about that now dead fellow, having increasingly resented his odd behavior towards the end of his career: his unwitting boorishness in social situations, his contentiousness in faculty meetings, and his unwillingness, as I saw it, to shoulder his fair share of service assignments. During a meeting grown especially dull, he was known on occasion to rise, assemble his papers (in that order), and leave the room as some august colleague continued, falteringly, to present the case for this or that latest initiative. I also, I suppose, resented his brilliance, and resented the concessions made to his genius even by the members of Irish club to whom he was often churlish. I resented, above all, his almost effortless productivity, the accolades he received from universities nationally and internationally. For all that, I cannot deny that he was a man with unusual gifts. A good scientist is one who sees patterns where others observe random floating motes of information, but it takes a brilliant scientist to see patterns that are as plain as day and yet extend them to make the obvious fantastic. Newton, after all, was not the first person to have been clobbered by an apple. Though O’Cinnéide was not a Newton perhaps, he had nonetheless helped transformed embryology from a Victorian discipline of glass slides, cover slips, and pencil sketches into a modern molecular 20th Century science. For all that there was something antique about him: he was, in fact, proud of his technical drawings of dissected flesh. He maintained meticulous and dated notes on everything he observed.
The months before he retired though, there was a change in O’Cinnéide’s demeanor; the unselfconscious self-regard remained, but whereas before this narcissistic quality had been absentmindedly, if irritatingly, even-tempered, now an agitated moroseness descended upon him. It had occurred to me a few times in those last weeks before he retired that he had seemed more driven, perhaps obsessively so, than before – his former fairly high color had left him and he became gaunt. Of those in our company that morning, O’Neill alone had remained in regular but fraught contact with O’Cinnéide after the rest of us had lost track of him.
In the circumstances in which we found ourselves when jocular stories are not easily told, a tale of the bereaved man’s misfortunes is an acceptable alternative. So as we relaxed a little into our pints one of us asked O’Neill to tell us a little about the O’Cinnéide’s final weeks and months, all of us hoping for O’Neill to clarify what the “distressing circumstances” of the death had been.
O’Neill, a philosopher, was one of those large Irishmen that you don’t see so often these days, the sort of man whose friends in the old days might have called “horse”, or “bull”. His massive fleshy head had amorphous boundaries, so that it was difficult, truth be told, to tell where O’Neill ended and the rest of the universe began. Though O’Neill had been fairly taciturn most of the morning, it was clear from the furtive way that he had been glancing around the table that he was anxious to tell us the story.
In the weeks before his death O’Cinnéide’s wife had handed over boxes of the scientist’s notebooks to O’Neill, telling him that she could make little sense of them, and since they were primarily laboratory notes they might be worth archiving. The notes however covered all aspects of O’Cinnéide’s life. Anything he was working on or was thinking about, professional or private, went into those books the wife confided, and so she asked that some discretion be exercised. If O’Neill thought it advisable he was to excise sensitive material. It was on this matter that O’Neill had wanted our advice.
“Our friend” O’Neill began, “is now out of pain, and his was a pain of a great immensity –immense precisely because it was so seemingly trifling a thing. A man might recover from being flattened by a truck, only to take a nibble from a toadstool and perish in an instant. The notebooks, and there are hundreds of them, go back to his early adulthood, and as I gathered from reading them, so does the origin of his most peculiar problem, a problem so seemingly insignificant, that his death seems not only to come out of the shadows but the shadows might be said to have been the lethal instrument. In his very openness to shadows, he may have stumbled onto something of precedence. Embarrassing observations, to be sure, but ones for which he might claim an important scientific priority. Our task, gentlemen, is to decide what to preserve for the archives of our friend and what to burn.”
The story concerning the decline of our friend went as follows as best as O’Neill could construct it. Early in O’Cinnéide’s life, right after he came over from Ireland, he and his new bride along with a friend of the couple visited Clearwater, Florida. They had stayed in an unremarkable ranch house; one of those houses that is interesting only to those who have never walked out of the backdoor to pluck a breakfast orange from a tree. The first reference to the event that was to mark O’Cinnéide’s is such a disproportionate way came in the form of the following journal entry, recorded at 1am on the first night they stayed in the house. He wrote, “Though I will doubt this later, the figure I saw in the kitchen is as real as the nose on my face.”
In a passage written the following day he related the events of that night before. The couple had retired early, as nuptial couples do, to their bedroom where they had engaged in what O’Cinnéide described in his notes as a “copulatory” act. After what might be assumed to have been an efficient act of lovemaking, the depleted Irishman left the bedroom and went into the kitchen for a glass of water. As he opened the refrigerator a figure in the kitchen with him caught his eye. He closed the refrigerator door and at the same time turned to observe the figure, but she moved at roughly the same rate at which he turned, and thus the figure in profile never escaped the edge of his field of view, but never occupied the center of it either. He and the figure arced across the room like planets solemn in their private orbits; the scientist pivoting on his heels, the apparition sweeping a wider and more rapid arc. Though he never squarely viewed the figure, O’Cinnéide nonetheless gained some concrete impressions: a woman of medium height, of slender build, stately, grey in pallor, dressed in robe. Somewhere between shadow and concrete manifestation. The figure passed quietly from the kitchen into the bedroom where the friend was sleeping. O’Cinnéide moved swiftly into that room but the apparition had evaporated. The friend awoke and exclaimed that O’Cinnéide’s hair, and a thick Irish pelt it was, was standing on end.
It was then that he made the fateful decision to run for his notebook and write “Though I will doubt this later, the figure I saw in the kitchen is as real as the nose on my face.” He sat outside the house reflecting in that balmy Florida night the peculiarity of what had happened. It may be the most uneventful ghost story ever told. No pronounced terror; he had in fact registered no more than a sleepy concern at the time, though his scalp had responded more pronouncedly. There had been no prophetic utterances from the beyond, no trembling finger of the dead gesturing at the living, no detectable chilling of the room, other than that delivered by a refrigerator into an air-conditioned Florida kitchen. In such a case a man may think he saw something beyond immediate natural explanation, then later questions what he saw, and finally cast aside, with a suite of plausible explanations, his initial assertions about the event. An undigested bit of beef, he might say. A play of shadows and light from the appliances? Post-coital dreaminess?
The fantastical when we register it, is ordinarily dismissed and the quotidian reasserts itself in the soberness of the suburban day. O’Cinnéide was no different in this respect than any of the rest of us. He recorded in a notebook his developing thoughts on the episode: his initial discounting of the appearance, the plausibility of naturalistic explanations, he compiled a checklist of psychological factors; he interrogated his wife and their friend. He confidently concluded, and quite quickly, that the event was a combination of his tiredness and a trick of the refrigerator lights. But this satisfactory conclusion was troubled by his written attestation: “Though I will doubt this later, the figure I saw in the kitchen is as real as the nose on my face.” He believed.
Let’s say a person wakes up and in their morning dream-haze intuits that the sun is relatively fixed in the sky and that the earth revolves around it! One pokes one’s head out the window, watches as the sun reliably looms out of its dark eastern niche, and that preposterous speculation is shaken off. How absurd I was, the person chuckles and goes about her business. Another person given the same intuition holds fast to the intuition and strategically doubts the evidence of their senses. When that person’s intuition is correct we call this genius, when they are wrong we might call it madness. O’Cinnéide was unable to irrevocably set aside the Florida event, and the apparition, like a strange ethereal spermatozoon, took root in his mind and grew in a series of developmental stages. Denial at first, of course, but the written verification in his lab notebook overcame his objections emphatically, exactly as that statement was designed to do. Sequestration came next. O’Cinnéide had walled the notion off from his other observations about the workings of the world and there in the yolky sac of his unconscious the idea was nutrified. Sealed behind its membrane the notion developed, differentiated, and became more complex.
Notebook after subsequent notebook testifies to O’Cinnéide’s burgeoning career: observations, drawings, and later, notes on chromatographic gels, and for years there was no mention of the event. When the Florida event emerged again it was as if that zygote had hatched a monster and that monster was in the flesh of O’Cinnéide mind.
At one point O’Cinnéide remarked in a note: “How confident can one be of the nose on one’s face!” A joke, surely? But he enumerated reasons for confidence in the existence of his own nose. Other people have noses. But his own nose, he asked; why so confident? Well, his father used to pinch his nose affectionately. His wife told him that his had a nice shape. He had seen his own in the mirror. If he crossed his eyes downwards he could observe its tip. Elsewhere O’Cinnéide said, “Most important scientific discovery derives from things indirectly seen – microscope, telescope, electrophoretic gels, and the corner of my eye.”
O’Cinnéide’s descent at the end was rapid and dominated the last few years of his life. This apparition had, after all, been the observation of a lifetime, one that he imagined now he had foolishly neglected. He had captured an event, as improbable and perhaps as significance as the Higgs boson, using that most primitive and complex of apparatuses: the human eye. Not a direct view, but a sidelong glance, an eye modified like a microscope with phase contrast. He was determined to investigate with the vigor the situation demanded. He retired and went to Florida; not to rest but to replicate. Florida ranch houses became his cyclotron. His wife was coaxed into carnal reenactments in Clearwater bedrooms, umpteen midnight glasses of water were consumed, fridge doors were flung wide open, heels were spun on, and eye drops dropped to remove the rheuminess of age. The notebooks recorded times, experimental details, and some of the outcomes – all negative. But still he felt he was making progress, he wrote notes for review papers, presented data metaanalyses. He reported in one entry, that his wife’s help was becoming invaluable, and that he felt close to producing some real results.
He became, for experimental reasons at first, less confident in the things he could directly experience. What he was searching for was after all a shadow, and if the shadow was what was the really real then one must dispense with a stout belief in the obvious. The earth is not flat, but we act like it does, water vapor is lighter than air, but we are not accustomed to thinking it so. He started to ignore the most concrete of objects as if they were not there. At times he bumped into doors and tables as if defying their reality.
O’Neill paused then, saying that it was it this point that notebooks ended. He had pieced together the conclusion from his wife’s account of the last months. The simple and unfortunate conclusion of the story was that O’Cinnéide began to regard the plain world as unreliable, and was skeptical about reality. He ate less, injured himself doing the simplest of things, lost confidence in the workings of the mundane. Finally, he stopped eating altogether because he was suspicious of food. When he was transferred to the care of his doctors, exhausted, starving and raving, there was little they could do for the man. He withered away. Finally O’Neill asked Mrs O’Cinnéide what she knew of that night in Florida, but she claimed to have no memory of it whatsoever. I loved him dearly, Mr O’Neill, she said, but my husband sometimes could not see things that were really as plain as the nose on his face.
We concluded our memorial session with a little lunch, and then stepping back unsteadily into the brisk afternoon, the members of the Irish club went their separate ways back to our scholarly lives promising to let O’Neill know what to salvage for the archives.
Photo by Randall Honold.
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