Archive for July 2009

Music After Death

July 31, 2009


Two themes of this blog, caves and lyres, come together in the figure of Orpheus, who charms his way into the Underworld by virtue of his virtuoso harping. Deep underground, Queen Persephone weeps to hear his music, which after all must sound more beautiful there than on the surface, given the cavernous, mineral acoustics. A modern echo of this moment in mythopoeic time is provided by the Great Stalacpipe Organ, an instrument in Luray Caverns, Virginia, that is really more percussion-based, given that each key, when depressed, causes a hammer to strike a stalactite, producing the appropriate note. The resulting music is reminiscent of a giant marimba, or vibraphone, or some of the extravagant musical instruments created by artist Tim Hawkinson. On my own trip to the Underworld, presumably unable to bring along any kithara or guitar, I will have to hope that a grand stalacpipe organ is already there, waiting for new arrivals to sit down and perform, and perhaps in that way I could charm the current Queen of Hell, whoever she may be, into sending me back above, or letting me stay on as her beloved.


Jellyfish School

July 17, 2009


Many by now have read or seen footage on television of Ongeim’l Tketau, the Jellyfish Lake in the archipelago of Palau. This small body of saltwater is home to millions of spotted jellyfish which, cut off from the sea and unthreatened by predators, have evolved nematocysts that are too small to produce anything but the lightest sting, more of a tickle or a tingle, when they come in contact with human skin. It’s possible to swim among these pulsating, neutralized jollyfish and even hold a pair, one in each palm, without concern, something that would be uncomfortably nettling or even fatal among their more toxic pelagic relatives.

I imagine other such possible lakes, or cut-off pools, or islands, for each of the planet’s more intimidating species. Any animal, isolated from either its predator or prey, would presumably evolve into a harmless version of itself, and it’s nice to think of slipping, for example, into Crocodile Lake, or Mountain Lion Valley, and gamboling as well as petting there.

Finally, given that this island Earth is a habitat in itself, and we are in fact the most toxic species to be found here, perhaps extra-terrestrials in some distant future will come to disport themselves on Human Planet, among billions of highly evolved, stingless, weaponless homo sapiens.

O my Chevrotain!

July 11, 2009

A film with multiple parallels to Monster on the Campus is the earlier classic, also directed by Jack Arnold, Creature from the Black Lagoon. Here we find the same notion — that species from the distant past (in both movies, “one hundred million years ago”), when brought into the present, are capable of only a lunging, murderous rage against human beings, as if primitive were synonymous with malevolent. In Creature, the “Gill Man,” (so-called, though he often moves comfortably on deck, and even, Grendel-like, uses an underwater grotto as his lair), can be thought of either as a fish that has evolved in a very humanoid direction, or an early primate that has, after choosing a lagoon habitat, evolved fish-like features. In either case the creature, especially in its underwater scenes, has a poetic, seductive realism, and balances his viciousness with moments of graceful curiosity, the kind we already know from otters and dolphins and that we might after all expect from an aquatic hominid.

There are examples in evolution of animals adapting to an underwater life and morphing over millenia into new species. I learned this week that paleontologists have identified a primitive (malevolent?) deer-like animal, Indohyus, as the  ancestor of the whales. The indohyus, like the modern

chevrotain, could lurk underwater, hiding from predators for lengths of time, and in time evolved into an animal that could live underwater permanently. Astonishing to think that a small cervine creature could morph into something as grand as a sperm whale. But time and love allow. A more gruesome evolution is that of the Gill-Man himself, who these days can be seen prancing and singing on L. A. billboards, advertising something or other, I have no idea what. I understand that there is currently a serious remake of Creature in the works, but I can think of nothing more horrifying for “my beautiful beast” than to be transformed into a degraded rock star and pressed into the service of vulgarity and merchandising.

Monster on My Campus

July 4, 2009


There is no living coelacanth in captivity.  Preserved specimens, such as this one that I saw recently at the Naturhistorisches Museum in Vienna, give a poor idea, I imagine, lacking as they do all the color and movement and humor (comic in their ancientness) of the living fish. As is widely known, coelacanths were thought to have been extinct for millions of years, but then were rediscovered in various deep sea habitats in the Indian Ocean beginning in 1938, and have been referred to ever since as living fossils. This seems like an odd term. Another corner of the Vienna Museum displays the skeletons of an Ice Age family, but I didn’t walk away from it thinking of myself as a living fossil — rather, I thought of the family as dead humans. Still, the point is there to take — that somewhere deep inside we contain and maintain a bloody thread stretching back into our unimaginable past, and this seems to be the point of a movie that I haven’t seen in years, Monster on the Campus, a Universal horror production from 1958 that tells the story of Professor Donald Blake, who, in the course of unpacking a delivered coelacanth specimen, manages to spill “silicant juices” from the fish here and there. A dog laps some up and turns into an “antediluvian” wolf, a dragonfly sips a bit and enlarges to the size of a model airplane, a drop or two gets into Professor Blake’s pipe bowl, and soon after smoking he turns into a savage hominid, something halfway between Lucy and Mr. Hyde.

In the Vienna museum, it was tempting to request a tissue sample from their coelacanth, to take home to Valley College and see if I could duplicate Blake’s experience in the laboratories of the English Department. However, I think my primitivized self would conform to the idea of our hominid past that we see in current reconstructions: earnest, thoughtful, hard at work hunting and gathering, always poised on the brink of religion, society, and law. Instead of murdering co-eds, I would ingest the transformative substance just before class, and then lecture, a living fossil, on Swift’s yahoos, or Rousseau’s sauvages.