Saturday, March 17, 2007

More harping on the obvious

It is unfortunate, but Chuckling is something of a slow thinker, if not an outright dullard. I only bring that up because I am still thinking about a recent article I wrote on the films of Michelangelo Antonioni and the questions surrounding random meaninglessness vs. purposeful narrative that they engender.

After writing that piece, I spent days in front of my computer screen, staring unfocused, engrossed in thought and contemplation of those issues. Why do we need purpose in our narrative? Is it some kind of evolutionary thing? After all, there are over 200 billion galaxies all containing 200 billion or so start and the universe is at least 17 billion years old. There are more giant stars in our own galaxy than there are humans and human existence in time is not even a blink of the cosmic eye. Relative to the universe, we are ever so much smaller and less important than ants are next to us. Is our need for purposeful narrative just a lonely whine against the meaninglessness of our existence? I sat for days lost in these thoughts. Actually, I only thought about spending days thinking those thoughts , and only for a few seconds at that. Unfortunately, I had written about Antonioni early in the morning and had to interrupt my contemplation of time, the universe and the meaning of life in order to take a shower and go to work.

Things happened fast after that. Almost before I knew it, I was in Washington, D.C. on a completely unexpected business trip. Normally when I go to D.C., it all ends badly in a haze of booze, drugs, strip clubs and prostitutes, but this time, I vowed, would be different. Of course that’s not actually true about the sex and drugs and this time, as usual, I found myself at the zoo.

It was a cold and windy day. The sun was bright. I had forgotten my sunscreen and had to keep to the shadows as much as possible. These shadows diverted me on my way to the zoo when I noticed I was near Mount Pleasant. It had been many years since I had visited that neighborhood. In the old days it was very dangerous. There were crack dealers on every corner and the sound of gunshots was common. Now it is very yuppified, but not entirely and I was able to find a great Peruvian chicken place where they didn’t even speak any English. The creamy green hot sauce was excellent.

I’ve spent many cold rainy days at the National Zoo. Cold rainy days are the best days to visit a zoo. The animals are out more and seem to act more naturally. I don’t think they like having thousands of people stare at them all day. I’m sure being stuck in a cage is bad enough without that. The point was reinforced in one of the exhibits, a kind of “discovery zone,” one of those hands-on environments where normal people and kids can get a feel for how scientists work.

Observation is, of course, a key to our scientific understanding of animal behavior. An Orangoutang was in a big glass cage with chairs around it where visitors could sit like great zoologists and observe the unfotunate ape, unlike in the regular Orangoutang cage where we could only gawk like tourists. Anyway, professor chuckling, ph.d in zoology, observed the poor Orangoutang for nearly half an hour. Actually, I was hoping that a female Orangoutang would happen along and they would have sex, or that it would at least masturbate, and with Orangoutang’s you usually don’t have to wait that long, but on that day it spent all of its time building a little fort to hide in. The creature piled a big wall of straw around itself and then put a large piece of brown paper over its head. Every now and then it would look out to see if we were still there. Sometimes I hate zoos.

Back at the hotel I rested a little while and read snatches of Invisible Cities, the novel by Italo Calvino. I have been working on a review of that work for quit some time now, but it is not going very well. Invisible Cities is a perfect work. Every word is precisely the right one; each word fits as well as it possibly could within its respective sentence; the sentences work together to create paragraphs of perfection, the paragraphs form perfect chapters, and so on all the way up to the novel as a whole, which is as perfect as its parts. I asked myself, is there any other novel as perfect as Invisible Cities? After some minutes reviewing every novel I’ve ever read, and then some, I realized that yes, there was another perfect novel, Pan by Knut Hamsun. Perhaps if I were to re-read Pan, it would help with my review of Invisible Cities? I rushed right out, after a short nap, to have a leisurely dinner at my heretofore favorite Peruvian restaurant in D.C., which has gone sadly downhill, and then hastened to a used books store on 18th street in the hopes of finding Pan.

Unfortunately, it was not to be. Not only did they not have Pan, they didn’t even have any titles by Knut Hamsun or Italo Calvino. At first I was crushed, but an idea began to dawn on me that perhaps this trip had a larger purpose, that there was a book that I was meant to find that would, if not unlock the secrets of the universe, at least give some clue as to the purpose of life. I spent several minutes that seemed like hours, scouring the literature shelves, then the history, the politics, the religious, women’s and gay studies, philosophy, how-to, and humor, all to no avail. Then I thought, maybe I missed something in the H’s? Maybe a Hamsun book was poorly shelved?

And so it was. I found Under the Autumn Star , a thin volume that is more in the tradition of Hamsun’s earlier work than his later. On the way back to the hotel, I noticed a jazz trio playing in a bar. The music was good, the crowd was sparse, I ordered a bourbon and began to read Hamsun. Unfortunately, the band finished their final set before I finished the whiskey and within days I had misplaced the novel without coming close to finishing it.

But I’ll tell you this. I enjoyed the smell of the used books and the whiskey. I enjoyed the cries of the toucans in the birdhouse at the zoo and even the shrieks of the ambulance which triggered memories of the old murder capital days. I relished the sight of the grizzled old jazz pianist and my old neighborhood, and even the White House which is now fenced off like a zoo exhibit. It's similar in that it's filled with dangerous animals, but unfortunately they get out whenever they want.

And now I’m home, the slop from yesterday’s sleet storm is melting and I’m thinking it might be a good day for some Antonioni. You know what I’m saying?