Hydrogen, the old quip goes, is an odorless colorless gas that, given enough time, turns into people. Hydrogen is quite flammable, as are people. Hydrogen can bond with oxygen to become water, which may in turn put out the fire caused by hydrogen that is burning the arms of a person also made from hydrogen. Thus hydrogen presents itself as archetypally indecisive, the Prufrock of elements—paralyzed by revision, invisible, colorless, the molecule embodies Modernist alienation in the face of a universe of which it is an integral part. Prefiguring Eliot’s oeuvre by fourteen billion years, hydrogen could be seen to usurp Pound as il miglior fabbro. Yet it is only through Eliot that this comparison becomes available: hydrogen, like the Deists’ Divine Watchmaker, is content to be everywhere and nowhere. The irony, of course, is that Prufrock was written down on a paper made largely of hydrogen by an Eliot made largely of hydrogen. Thus hydrogen becomes at once Prufrock, his yellow fog, the peach he does or does not dare to eat, the women who talk of Michelangelo, Michelangelo himself, the mermaids, the water in which we drown, the means by which all of it is reported, and those who read the report. Hydrogen’s grand joke, then, is that it has been using itself to complain about alienation from itself, and it is now using itself to analyze its complaint about itself, and to analyze the analysis and to analyze the analysis of the analysis and so on ad infinitum—a brilliantly postmodern stroke of metacommentary eons in the making.
How many cavemen died milking tigers and mastodons before settling finally on the cow? How many aspiring farmers were ruined raising wolves and trying to eat whatever plopped out of them, before discovering the chicken and its delicious egg? Many rocks are egg-shaped yet cannot be eaten. Many things that are not egg-shaped can be eaten. Berries for instance. And when we consider the vast squadrons of berry-testers who must have perished establishing that holly is bad and blueberries are good, it becomes clear that the lack of pictographic directions for use printed clearly on the side of all things is a serious Universal design flaw.
Though delicious, the large exposed surface area of the pizza leads to rapid cooling. This may be solved by rolling the pizza into a tight tube and pinching shut the ends. At this point, however, it may be argued that the pizza has ceased to be a pizza and has essentially begun to function as a burrito or calzone. What gives a pizza its pizzahood? Once again, a clear system of labeling might have alleviated the problem.
The trouble with bears is that they bear a resemblance to hamsters. Since the apparent size of an object rapidly decreases with distance, distinguishing between a nearby hamster and a distant bear may be dangerously difficult.
Rodent-toothed like a hamster, sized like a small goat, and containing in its name a confusing echo with bear, the capybara only complicates the Bear-Hamster Distance Problem. They are, however, adorable when placed in inflatable pools.
Troublingly located between rows of bony teeth, the tongue is nonetheless an impressive feat of engineering, capable of flexing to form words, bending into funny shapes, and tasting a variety of foods (see above). When too-hot items are placed on the tongue, it alerts the user with pain and the appearance of small red bumps. Unfortunately these bumps cannot be manually deactivated, and may take a few days to reset.
By flexing specialized meatsacks, humans cause the air to vibrate, which in turn causes the bones of another’s ear to vibrate, producing chemical reactions deep in the squishy tissue of the brain. The second human, in turn, can label these chemical reactions as love, anger, and so on, and communicate the diagnostics back to the first human by repeating the same meatsack-flexing process. Conceptually, it is as comical as it is ingenious. In practice, however, much information is lost in the air before reaching the ear, and even more is lost or distorted between the ear and brain. The process can also be accomplished visually; this method eliminates the data loss in the air, but has no effect on its distortion en route to the brain.
The Night Sky
The night sky’s decision to locate itself at a very great distance is an excellent one, both practically and aesthetically. In practical terms, if the night sky were to stand at, say, tree-level, the surfeit of suns would incinerate us all. (This, incidentally, would solve the Bear-Hamster Distance Problem by eliminating bears, hamsters, and the perception of distance—but would cause a great many other issues). Aesthetically, the unreachability of the stars enhances their allure: as Stevenson has argued, there is nothing as disenchanting as attainment. By remaining unattainable, the stars manage to indefinitely preserve our interest. As a counterpoint, see the moon: though many have crisscrossed it with dusty footprints, not one of these explorers has since gone back.
The Transience of All Squirrels
A man can’t step on the same squirrel twice. A squirrel can’t be stepped on by the same man twice. In the Symposium Diotima scolds Socrates for believing in a stable Self when all cells and thoughts and memories are constantly changing, making and unmaking new Socrateses. Animal behaviorists say a squirrel can’t purposefully recover the acorns it has stashed: it doesn’t remember where it put the acorns, it simply checks all the places where a squirrel—this squirrel, any squirrel—would likely hide them. Once I saw a squirrel try to mate with another squirrel, which fled. Squirrel B outran Squirrel A, and Squirrel A stood on the sidewalk breathing heavily and eyeing my gray shoe, wondering if the shoe would make an acceptable substitute for Squirrel B. But if Squirrel B had returned and acquiesced, would it still be B? Or by changing its desire would it have become C or D-Z at once? And by this point wouldn’t Squirrel A, too, be somewhere else in the alphabetic spectrum of squirrels? Does it then follow that every squirrel has and has not mated with every other squirrel, that no squirrel that wants to mate is the same squirrel that eventually does mate, and that every squirrel drifts perpetually through a series of longings and unbecomings, seeking always the possibility of acorns or of another squirrel and checking the places where every squirrel would check? And what if the squirrel had mated with the shoe? Would it still be the same shoe?
Van Gogh’s Ear
In the bandaged portraits we see not the ear or the absence of the ear but a barrier of thick white gauze: the absence of the absence of the ear. Thus the ear remains implicit and protean—at once every ear and no ear. The only visual records of the ear, today, are the pre-removal portraits. In these, the ear is rendered in the Impressionist mode. Perhaps then the ear—the actual ear seeping its red complaint through Vincent’s handkerchief—was in fact never an ordinary ear but an Impressionist ear. Not a solid block of cartilage but a collection of beige brushstrokes somehow affixed to his head. At this distance we cannot be sure. So perhaps the artist had us in mind as he made his way through the cobbled streets holding his lukewarm prize. Perhaps he chuckled at our inevitable interest in his dark joke: an ear could never answer our questions. It could only listen.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
J.G. McClure is an MFA candidate at the University of California – Irvine. His poems and prose appear in Gettysburg Review, Green Mountains Review, Colorado Review, and The Southern Poetry Anthology, among others. He is the Craft Essay Editor and Assistant Poetry Editor of Cleaver, and is at work on his first collection. See more here.
ABOUT THE ARTIST:
Marie studied art for seven years in the south-eastern region of the United States, where she earned a Master of Fine Arts degree before moving abroad to Eurasia. Following completion of her MFA, she was awarded a Fulbright Grant in Creative & Performing Arts with which she studied traditional Turkish tile painting and initiated a collaborative public art installation in the Anatolian city of Kütahya. After a brief return to the United States, she relocated to Manchester, England, where she works full time as an artist. Marie's work was featured in issue 35.2 of The Pinch. Find out more about Marie's work here.