Monday, September 29, 2008



Many years ago, when I was a kid, I remember someone demonstrating how you could catch a frog by peeling off the red cellophane strip from a pack of cigarettes, attaching it to a hook, and dangling it in front of the amphibian's nose. Unlike fish, who could often be fussy about what a lure looked like and whether it resembled what they're accustomed to eating, the frog didn't seem to care that the cellophane didn't look in the least like an insect or anything else that might be regarded as suitable prey; it responded only to motion, instinctively and without discrimination. It's worked for 200 million years, so why complicate things?

What the frog appeared to lack was an idea of its prey. Does, on the other hand, the motionless heron in the marsh, waiting for a fish — or our hapless frog — to swim within range of its beak, have such an idea, a mental image of what it has caught before and may expect to see again? I'm not up on the research on animal minds, but I'd be surprised if it didn't. And anyone who thinks that a dog, waiting in a silent house at the end of an afternoon, is less capable of not just expecting but imagining its owner's imminent arrival than the man now driving home is able to envision the dog waiting behind the door, can't have spent much time around dogs.

But it doesn't matter where we draw the line in our ancestral journey up from mindless invertebrate wriggling, whether at the birth of the first mammal or the first primate or at Lascaux. The inescapable fact is that at some point along the way we became capable of experiencing in our minds things that are not there. And the moment we can form an image of something, whether in pictures or sounds or ideas, we enter a world of ghosts, because an image, by definition, is separate from the thing it represents and takes on a life of its own.

Like most people, I regularly communicate with people whom I have never seen or even spoken to. Technology has made this faster and more pervasive, but in essence the phenomenon dates back to the birth of writing. A scribe picked up a stylus and incised a row of signs in a tablet of clay, and the signs escaped him and bore away their signals to be read by others in another city or another time, even long after the cities had fallen into ruins and the scribe's language had vanished from the tongues of men.

As Derrida famously showed, even spoken language itself is, in essence, another form of writing, of inscription, not the other way around. Like writing, our spoken words — even our imagined words — are no more than the trace of a presence whose own existence is hypothetical except as revealed in its trace. But I'm not really all that interested in the philosophical problems this raises, as provocative (and unresolvable) as they are.

What does interest me is the psychological landscape that such a discovery supposes. Because we are conscious and capable of imagining things that are not immediately present, we live among memories, fantasies, anticipations, fictions, conversations recollected and imagined. We draw distinctions, naturally, between what is real and what we only imagine, but the border turns out to be surprisingly permeable. We can, for instance, be moved to tears or laughter by a movie knowing full well that we are only witnessing flickering patterns of light, shadow, and sound, knowing that the actors are not who they pretend to be, that they may be dead or may even, in the case of animation and computer graphics, have never drawn a breath at all.

And what of those who are real (or were) but whom we imagine when they are not there, whom we perhaps imagine, at times, as they are not and have never been? What ghost world do they enter, the moment they step out of sight?


Today on my way back to work from picking up lunch I spotted a large praying mantis on the sidewalk. The mantis seemed sound in body but I wasn't sure how long she'd stay that way if she remained where she was, so I gently urged her from behind until she had climbed up onto a wall into at least temporary safety. I could have captured her and brought her home, but what do I know of where a mantis wants to be?

As far as the mantis was concerned, my prodding, a signal from an alien and inconceivable world, was nothing more than a stimulus producing an enforced response. The mantis climbed, and within whatever rudimentary form of consciousness it possesses no trace of me remained.

Mantises are not common — though probably not as uncommon as one would think, being well-camouflaged — and I doubt that I see even one a year. Though they probably play some small ecological role, eating and being eaten, I suspect it would be scarcely noticed if one day they simply vanished. How many other small things have gone, and no one the wiser? But against that gray, depleted eventuality the mantis climbed the wall, vigorous but unhurried, and one of us walked away altered by the encounter.

Something — anything — that is not only this moment.

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