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Fiction #22
(published January 11, 2001)
The Giant, the Insect, and the Philanthropic-looking Old Gentleman
part 1
by Charles Hoy Fort

I have forty-eight thousand notes. I've been through everything: chemistry, meteorology, sociology, electricity, magnetism, architecture, music, psychology, astronomy, ethics—taking notes, reading books and going over indexes; hundreds of notes a day, sometimes—geology, entomology, botany, zoology, cytology, histology—over to the library in the morning; out for dinner, pencil and pad with knife and fork in front of me; back to the library; home, to take more notes until bedtime—history, philosophy, evolution, mechanics, mathematics, logic, civil engineering—sounds like a correspondence—school's circular—anthropology, physiology, ethnology, military and naval strategy, sculpture, economics—notes piling up on the mantle piece, and when about three thousand are there, I classify them.


But to answer that would make me reasonable. What are you doing, and why? Undoubtedly you can give a reason; perhaps you are doing whatever you're doing in order that you shall live. But why should you live? See for yourself: we can give reasons, but when it comes to reasons for reasons—stumped: that's all.

I had a theory. Because of the theory, I took hundreds of notes a day. Well then, that's reasonable, isn't it? But was the theory itself reasonable? If it were I was of the second degree of reasonableness. That's not human; we're rational beings only in the first degree; after that comes—I don't know; spirits or something.

So I wore out eyesight and pencils and breeches-material and got my coat all shiny at the elbows, for a theory that I had never tested, because so to do would be rationality of the second degree, which isn't human.

The theory:

That all things are one; that all phenomena are governed by the same laws; that whatever is true, or what we call true, of planets, plants, and magnets, is what we call true of human beings;

That if, among such widely dissimilar phenomena as the moon, the alimentary canal of an ant eater, and glacial erosions, we can discover uniformities, there we have the associations of events commonly called laws, which may equally be in control of human affairs—

Oh, yes, I know all about the antiquity of this philosophy; back to Comte anyway, and leave it to someone else, who is inevitable, to bring the Greeks into it; but we'll go into my own especial interest in this matter:

That, with uniformities discovered, we can apply them to our own affairs, controlling, preventing, predicting, utilizing, as has been the way in chemistry, for instance; or as is done in all the old, established sciences.

So I had forty-eight thousand notes collected, and believe me or not, considerable mentality went into that accumulating; but when it came to the matter of their value or worthlessness—as I say, to see as far as that is super-mentality.

Sometimes with half a dozen especially promising books with good indexes, I'd go to Riverside Drive, and there do my note-taking. There, except for an especially unpromising-looking infant, who twice took notes and said, "Oh, look!" and threw them up in the air, and pulled and tugged at me, and, in the most unselfish way in the world, couldn't enjoy the spectacle the wind made of them, unless I, too, enjoyed it—except for that little altruist, I was undisturbed until about a month ago. About a month ago, Mr. Albert Rapp generally and his nose particularly began to distract me. Not only his nose, he was watching the big house on the corner. Extraordinary nose; made me think of a gargoyle; long and lean and poised recklessly over a heavy underlip—like a precarious gargoyle over a window sill with a red blanket out airing on it. He was nervous, and two white teeth appeared frequently, and bit upon and drew in the lower lip—very much as if he were a dwelling of some tall, tower-like kind—a little butler wearing white gloves, inside, you know—little butler constantly fearing the hovering gargoyle, and forever drawing in the too conspicuous red blanket, with his white-gloved hands, and then putting it out for an airing again. What I mean is that Mr. Rapp was nervous and bit on his lip nervously.

He was watching the big house on the corner. I almost gave up note-taking. Why should he sit and sit and watch the big house on the corner? And why should I wonder why he should sit and sit and watch the big house on the corner? Why should there be any whyness? Now answer that, if you can.

It was Dr. Katz's house; the patent-medicine Dr. Katz; I used to know of him when I was a boy. That's one of the wonders of New York; seeing home and factories of persons you used to know of, away off somewhere else. Dr. Katz's house: big, residential transmutation of aches and groans; swollen with bay windows, tubercular with cornices, and jaundiced from half way up, with little yellowing bricks.

Then, one morning, I noticed that something was exciting Mr. Rapp. In the big, painful-looking corner-house, near a window, an old man was sitting. I could see the top of his head; his elbows were on his knees; his hands were squeezing his ears. When he glanced up and looked out the window, he startled me. Or more than that, he shocked me. It was as if, with my mind upon the fresh-leaved shade trees of Riverside Drive, I should suddenly see them leafless. It was a haggard old face; wisps of long hair, and a mere remnant of a beard; a mole upon the cheek. I had a feeling of uncanniness, because every morning, at about nine o'clock, two men came from the house on the corner: one a ferocious-anaemic-looking man, that is, little, pale face, with sandy eyebrows and mustache, framed in a great, black desperate-looking, astrachan overcoat-collar; the other a very distinguished-looking old gentleman: G.A.R. hat, with which a slight limp associated romantically, wide white beard, and long white hair, with an upward curl to the ends of locks, general radiation of sturdiness, health, benignity—but upon his cheek was either a mole or a disc of black courtplaster.

And the old man sitting near the window of the corner house was to the man who appeared on the front stoop every morning, as if the same man with the effects of twenty years of wrinkling and falling away and debilitating stamped upon him— The sleeve of a kimona appeared over the old man's head; a plump hand shot over his head and snatched down the window-shade.

It was then that Mr. Rapp spoke to me, the first time. "You saw that? You saw that, yourself, didn't you?"

I said I had, and I tried to say it encouragingly; I expressed considerable encouragement, with my hands and shoulders and the way I confidingly leaned toward him. He got up and walked away. You know his kind, and how provoking they are; however, they usually tell in the end. He went away, even looked back and nodded, as if to say, "I could astonish you, if I wanted to!" Just let such persons alone; they suffer quite as much as you do; they'll have to tell, after a while.

And he did tell, the next morning. The wind brought it about. The wind caught up some of my notes and carried them over toward Mr. Rapp's bench. You'd think that with my miserliness for notes, my gloating over my forty-eight thousand or them and ambition to have sixty-eight thousand some day, I'd have sprung after them. Oh, but how we also, at times, hate what we love most! I've often been on the verge of burning the forty-eight thousand treasures that are dearer to me than anything else in the world. I abuse them sometimes, make them up into bundles to burn or throw away, and then don't. The wind took several; I let them go; I had a repulsion for my whole quest that morning; it's one of the complexities of idolatry.

Mr. Rapp picked them up and read them. You'd think he'd do it covertly. I'm sure I'd never have such manners as to read someone else's writing openly, without fear and without reproachment; but he did. He came over to my bench, holding the notes out to me—not a word that he had read them inadvertently, or not realizing that they were mine; with honesty and ill-breeding he said that he had read them.

"Counter adjustments!" said Mr. Rapp. That was the subject of the notes. "Of course there are; they're everywhere in Nature. I have gone into biology a little, myself; that for every adjustment there is some counter-adjustment."

So we got to talking; went into matters of checks upon over-multiplication; how for every device of defense there is some weapon of attack in Nature; and on of course to my views upon a possible science of human inter-relations; that if any human situation be stated, it may be expressed in an equation; that passions, woes, romances may be formulated as truly as can chemic attractions and repulsions be stated in a formula.

Then Mr. Rapp was very much interested; or he was desperate and in a mood to take up anything that should come along; or simply that he had to tell because there was a difference of potential between us, and a high saturation of information has to flow to a lower level of information.

"I'll give you a problem," he said . . .

To Be Continued . . .

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The Next Fiction piece (from Issue #23):

The Giant, the Insect, and the Philanthropic-looking Old Gentleman
part 2

by Charles Hoy Fort

The Last few Fiction pieces (from Issues #21 thru #17):

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by Morgan Johnson

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