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A blog for everything bookish

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Interlude: walking to the museum to look at the frogs

In the city where I work there is a museum; in fact there is more than one museum, but in this particular case I am not concerned with the Museum of Science and Industry, nor the People’s History Museum, nor the Museum of Football however good each of those museums might be. No, there is a Museum of Natural History (with capitals) which is near the university in the student district and at the museum, unlike the others, there are frogs.

The museum is a good twenty minute walk, at a decent pace, from my office, which means that if I speed there and back I have ten minutes in the museum and ten minutes to eat lunch. It’s a constructive use of my lunch hour; combining physical exercise and intellectual stimulation in equal measure, not just from those lush ten minutes in the museum but also from the mental stimulation that walking itself brings. When I walk, I think. I doubt I am the first person to notice this.

The inevitable mammoth skeleton
The Natural History Museum is a fascinating building and there are lots of interesting things to discover within its walls. It has, as all museums of its type do, the inevitable dinosaurs, the cases of skewered insects, the Egyptian caskets, displays of ancient weapons and coins. But though those things are all interesting, and if I had hours to spend I would spend them exploring every inch of the displays, the reason I walk so determinedly to the museum is to deposit myself in the small section hidden deep within the labyrinthine corridors with a vivarium of living frogs and snakes and lizards.

I should interject here to say that I am not a big fan of keeping creatures locked up behind glass or in cages. Still, I visit the frogs.

Frog observing frog
I have an affinity for frogs. Of course it is ridiculous to say I have an affinity for frogs, I cannot have a real, true affinity but that’s how it feels. There is something about them; their soft, slick bodies, rubbery-limbed,  the way they move in that way that is simultaneously fluid and jerky and which we describe so childishly as a ‘hop’ though you only have to watch a frog for a few moments to understand how inadequate a description that is. I love how they sit so still, observing with their tiny wet pebble eyes whatever it is that they observe and how, when you look into them, the bare truth of our inability to understand another being, be it frog or cat or chimp or human, becomes transparent.

Am I contented?
I cannot see into the mind of a frog. I look into their froggy eyes and though I can believe that there is an intelligence behind there, that there is clearly something which decides to move, that chooses this branch over another, which mates according to some criteria of preference, that hunts this insect and not that, the concept of understanding is a gulf I cannot breach. Why then do I think I can breach that gulf in other creatures? I know of people who claim knowledge of their pet’s state of mind: ‘my cat is contented’, ‘my dog is scared’ and perhaps these things are true, but in observing this I also observe the sheer gulf that occurs between humans in understanding motivation and action. I have seen, as a woman, how words and ideas will be placed in my mouth: I won’t travel for my job, I wear the clothes I do for the benefit of male gaze, I like football, I like shopping, I’m not ambitious, I live to serve. The gulf between who I am and who people think I am is huge. This is before we enter into that vague space in which my own understanding of my own identity resides. No doubt I make the same error, jumping to conclusions which are unfounded, and I think this illusion, that we can look into the eyes of another and understand them is somehow at fault. Of course I am at fault too.

In an infinity of greenery, there are frogs
What I have learned from the frogs is this: you cannot know anything about anyone else without inquisitiveness and interaction. You cannot know someone’s intentions, their desires or dreams or aspirations, without asking them. You cannot infer the mind of a person from what you see with your eyes: surely illusionists, physicists and movie makers have demonstrated to us clearly enough that the information we receive via our eyes must be treated with caution. My son has a condition called Alice in Wonderland Syndrome, and when it flares the way he sees the world is altered in such a way that he lacks the language, even at fourteen years old, to properly describe it. Is his ‘altered’ perception wrong or right? How do I ever really know that his perception is the same as mine?

I can’t, is the answer. Or as reliable an answer as I can give. This is where language fails and strives, in the infinite gulf between experience and description. There are no words. Perhaps that’s what the point of the museum is: to unfold for us through image, through artefact, through encounter how tenuous and rare and special and flimsy our desire to see and be seen really is.