Imitation of Life

Recently, I was struck by an extraordinary Roman sculpture at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. If anything comes close to a likeness of the human, and by extension, a likeness of life, I think it has to be this.

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The devious satyr is unsettling in his beauty—even uncanny. Arrested in this one pose, mangled, mounted in sterile space, he still seems capable of taking a breath, of magically coming to life, like Hermione in The Winter’s Tale.

Uncanny was also the first word that came to mind when I watched a video of BigDog, Boston Dynamic’s robotic animal, a machine eerily animal and eerily not so.

Sculpture and robotics are both technologies, both imitative arts. Where sculpture was perfected in antiquity, robotics is being perfected now. In both, there seems to be the potential for life to leap from objects, regardless of purpose and whether those objects move or remain still.

Maybe, as so many theorists predict, robots like BigDog will someday come to life. Maybe they never will, or maybe they already have, and will only grow more alive, through technology—which is to say, through imagination.

Rats!

Last week, as I was returning home from running errands, I looked up at my back porch and froze. There, in midday, right by my door, was a rat.

For a fraction of a second, we looked at each other. What was it that passed between us? Not hate. Not universal love and understanding. Just surprise. I yelped, and the rat tripped over itself, rolled down a couple of steps, leapt from the stairs, and disappeared.

It was the first live rat I had ever seen in Cambridge. They are a growing problem in the area—but so is their removal. Poison doesn’t just kill the rat population: last April, for example, a well-known red-tailed hawk who had nested in the area for years died after eating a poisoned rat.

This past week, a timely brochure from the Cambridge Public Works arrived in the mail: ¨Preventing Rats on Your Property.¨ The advice is harsh: ¨Starve them. Wipe them out.¨

I can’t claim to be pro-rat, but it would take a serious situation to get me to actively track and kill a rat, especially a rat that shares, at least part-time, my property and environs, since preference for a location, at the very least, seems to be a neighborly thing we have in common.

If only a more friendly feeling could develop between us.

In the 1970’s B-movie ¨Ben,¨ a little boy named Danny bonds with a rat (Ben) who happens to be the leader of a destructive swarm.

¨They’re putting poison underneath all the houses and killing all the rats!¨ Danny complains to his sister.

¨Rats are dangerous,¨ she says.

Danny pauses. ¨Some rats are okay.¨

The rats end up killing several people. In response, the police torch the rat colony (with flame throwers).

But miraculously—predictably?—inevitably?—Ben makes it out alive:

Eleven Perfect Lines

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¨Who is the mortal who can live forever?
The life of man is short. Only the gods

can live forever. Therefore put on new clothes,
a clean robe and a cloak tied with a sash,

and wash the filth of the journey from your body.
Eat and drink your fill of the food and drink

men eat and drink. Let there be pleasure and dancing.¨
But Gilgamesh replied to the tavern keeper:

¨Tell me the way to find the only one
of men by means of whom I might find out

how death can be avoided. Tell me the way…¨

 

from David Ferry’s ¨Gilgamesh,¨ Tablet X

The Lowest Key

“…the poet’s habit of living should be set on a key so low that the common influences should delight him.”

—Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The Poet”


 

Lately, I have had a lot of free time. It has been hard to find time to do much, what with all my time taken up in being free.

Passing the slow, quiet days in and around my apartment, treading familiar ground, I am sometimes lucky enough to find my little world grow larger, more connected and fantastic.

At the base of my front door steps a pile of oak leaves has gathered, peppered with broken acorns. I look up at the oak branches, branches I’ve never looked at before, where these exact leaves and fruits must have shaded my first steps to the street, spirit-like, in summer.

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Walking along the driveway, too, I notice the Japanese paper fox balloon hanging from my kitchen window. It was taped there a few years ago as an afterthought and forgotten. Now, the fox seems to be staring at the neighboring apartment’s window. How long has the fox stared this way? Have my neighbors felt watched? Watched over? Protected?

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Behind the house, one tree is bare of leaves but full of squirrels, although it’s easier to hear them than to spot them. The tree must be full of nests.

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Last winter, on a late January night, a Chinese family gathered in the adjacent parking lot and launched traditional New Year’s paper lanterns. One lantern, on its ascent, flew into the tree and caught fire. It burned, the flame growing larger and larger in the wind, threatening to sweep to the garage roof. The lantern became tangled in the bare branches, though, and the fire extinguished there a few minutes later.

It was the last lantern they sent up. But others were still visible in the sky, sailing off at intervals—lanterns with ¨chambers,¨ like those Elizabeth Bishop describes, that ¨flush and fill with light/that comes and goes, like hearts¨:

Once up against the sky it’s hard
to tell them from the stars—
planets, that is—the tinted ones:
Venus going down, or Mars,

or the pale green one. With a wind,
they flare and falter, wobble and toss;
but if it’s still they steer between
the kite sticks of the Southern Cross,

receding, dwindling, solemnly
and steadily forsaking us,
or, in the downdraft from a peak,
suddenly turning dangerous.

(from ¨The Armadillo¨)

Xu Bing’s ¨Phoenix¨ at The Cathedral of St. John the Divine

The words magic and machine share the same Indo European root: magh-, ¨to be able, to have power.¨

To some degree, our idea of machines has always been invested with a sense of magic. To the lay public, technological objects, whose inner workings remain hidden or are too complex to trace, appear to function by trickery or by a mysterious supernatural impulse.

The hidden element that allows a machine to work can provoke a sense of wonder and a religious mixture of awe and dread akin to what David Nye calls ¨the technological sublime.¨

Xu Bing’s art installation, ¨Phoenix,¨ at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York, seems to lift from these correspondences. Built from raw materials and debris found on construction sites in Beijing, two machine-like birds soar, by some inexpressible power, within the cathedral’s nave.

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Copyright GothamGirl 2009-2014

Physically, culturally, for better or for worse, these phoenixes defy expectations of what is possible.