I, Animal

Sumatran Tiger

Ever haunted by the nature of consciousness, I stare at the nailed planks of a structure I had no part in building. The workers knew they were building it for thousands of people they’d never meet. I’m an anonymous parent, surrounded by other anonymous parents, watching to make sure our kids don’t exit the playground. In shockingly little time, had I not written about it, this moment would be washed away forever.

The playground is at the Nashville Zoo, a place I’ve spent more time at this summer than I would’ve ever predicted. But when your family has a membership and two boys in constant need of diversion, the zoo (and I can only speak for Nashville’s) becomes a sort of paradise. There’s more shade than one should reasonably expect from an outdoor attraction, with the exception of the Botswana area, where a lack of shade feels appropriate–think open grassland, where a Southern White rhino can plod heavily downhill to give you a Southern White Rhinoceros good long look at itself, reminding you he has a bulk that television just can’t communicate; this is exactly the experience I had on a recent trip.

One thing our zoo has done so well is create a feeling of otherworldliness: you enter through the bamboo gates and walk over a rushing stream in a completely forested area; soon the trees open up on the right to an enclave of bright blue Macawsmacaws; they chatter and squawk along the branches, using their beaks like a third foot to navigate from one limb to another. These parrots are big–a solid two feet tall, perhaps? A zoo attendant tells me that macaws can bite through a nail, and I quickly understand what they could do to a human finger.

The macaws are the first of many creatures where, standing before them, I’ll drift into unanticipated arenas of thought. I think about the passage of time and the transitoriness of so many moments; I think about my own status as an animal, one that, like a Sumatran tiger or an Andean bear, has a limited space to occupy and a limited time to occupy it. Andean Bear

I also think about consciousness, and how we humans have it in abundance, whereas the animals I’m staring at have it hardly at all. Sometimes I envy their ability to inhabit their world, to be settled in it, yet I wouldn’t trade my own insecurities for that kind of resignation. Consciousness is so strange, such a mystery–often weird, never stable for long. But without it, we wouldn’t have any art, or science, or anything else that makes life worth living.

my boys, looking at flamingos

the author
Alan D. Tucker

Van Gogh, Monet, Degas, and Their Times: Room One

Van Gogh, Monet, Degas, and Their Times (show title) On a freezing Monday, with less than forty-five minutes to spare, I limited myself to only one room of the Van Gogh, Monet, Degas, and Their Times show at the Frist Art Museum, and in that roughly half hour, I found an excess of satisfying art. One of the joys of membership is that I feel I can come and go as I please, so when another free hour arises, I’ll go and take in another room. I have until the fifth of May.

Details draw me in, perhaps, more than full compositions, like the textural lines Degas, tiny bronze horse-headon the cheek of a tiny bronze horse-head by Degas, or the brushstrokes in the beard and cheeks of a portrait by Cezanne. There’s the short column of green in the background of a Toulouse-Lautrec bar scene–almost concealed by the bartender–which I imagine is someToulouse-Lautrec; bar scene; absinthe kind of dispenser of absinthe. Or the vertical lines in a mirror’s reflection of a woman trying on hats, whose face (in the Degas; millinery; ghost facemirror) is a literal, ghostly blank, also by Degas. I’m drawn by the juxtaposition of complementary colors, and by the texture and brilliance of oils.

When I walk into a room and spy a Cezanne, it’s like realizing an old friend has been invited to the same party; a feeling of reunion arises. The piece is an Alan magnet. Even if I don’t go directly to it, I’m aware of its presence; I feel it calling out to me, like ideology. In the portrait of VictorCezanne; Victor Chocquet; portrait Chocquet, the master’s touch is unmistakable: a face built with blocky, diagonal strokes. I echo art critics ad nauseam when I say that Cezanne’s surfaces are built rather than painted; they have scaffolding.

I left that solitary room of the Van Gogh, Monet, Degas, and Their Times exhibition in full awareness that the majority of the show still lay behind me, unseen. But I didn’t feel as if I’d cheated myself out of anything. My art-loving cup was full. Indeed, one room at a time, for an hour here and there, might be the best way to experience a show of this magnitude. As long as you don’t have to pay admission every time.

the author, Alan D. Tucker
Alan D. Tucker is a novelist, blogger, and essayist.

Ideas are Invisible Golems

replica of a golem (ideas in statue form)
Replica of a Golem (Wikipedia)

While listening to Jessa Crispin’s Public Intellectual podcast, it struck me that (and I’ve heard this before but it didn’t settle with the kind of weight it does now) there’s a real sense that ideas are actual things operating in the world, as in not just in the minds of people, but as in being nearly autonomous things themselves–things with agency; things that impose themselves on people’s minds and either persuade them to think a certain way, or maybe they seek to nestle inside the neural pathways so deeply that the thinker believes all his ideas originate in his own mind. 

Ideas can be like water, which depends on passive force to carve its canyons. As with water, time is of no concern to ideas; they will arise when conditions are suitable, unbidden and essentially unopposed. On the podcast, Crispin’s guest was talking about a historical moment, and he referred to an idea as having “crept in.” So ideas can also be like critters, scurrying in when the door’s left open and unattended, setting up residence in the wall and forcing the homeowner to reckon with their presence.

I think of the Jewish mystical concept of the golem, which, in the most reductive way I could possibly explain it, is a figure made from clay who is then spoken to life by its maker (think Adam in the biblical account of creation, except instead of God speaking a little clay man to life, a rabbi does it). Golems don’t have the agency of a human; they are created for specific functions, such as protecting cities or any number of its creator’s biddings. But whatever it does, it’s out there, animate and self-starting, like a sentient being, but not quite.

In the real world, can we imagine ideas being like this? We generate them, and they remain in the environment–out and about, ranging here and there, waiting for the right moment to assert themselves. Imagine it: at your work, in your house, at the store, and along the highway, ideas are there, put there by us but hidden from view. They sit in the room with you, ready to pounce.

the author
Alan D. Tucker
Content Blogger, Essayist, & Novelist