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

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, or he equalized, if we think of the difference of potential. "I'll state all the circumstances of an adjustment that I know of; if you say that to every adjustment there is some counter-adjustment--well, what? In this case I can't conceive of what the counter-adjustment could be, because I'm blocked at every turn.

"Very well, now. For thirty-five years there has been, in this city, a little German newspaper, of which I am now the managing editor. For about thirty-four years it was dull and modest and unprofitable; then all at once it burst into sensational journalism. But it didn't know how. To be or not to be is not the question; not to be, but to be, upon indefinite and impersonal authority is sensational journalism. There is a German equivalent for the word `alleged,' yet that word never appeared in our columns. To be sensational, we had to be indignant; there's no use trying to build up a circulation unless you have righteous wrath. So we worked up considerable righteous wrath against old Dr. Katz, who lives over on that corner. We showed him and his rascally patent medicines up for what they are; unfortunately, we were so wrathful as to show him and them up also for what they aren't. Next month the libel suit comes up, and we expect to be ruined by it. Of course we deserve to be ruined; but no one else gets what he deserves, so why should we? I have been doing what I can, taking off whatever time I can, from my duties, browsing around here, hoping to learn something about those people over on the corner, that might be of use. I have learned something; I have learned of an extraordinary adjustment that they have made; but so far as any counter-adjustment is concerned, I'm blocked.

"I'll tell you what that adjustment is. It accounts for some observations that I know you, yourself, have made. In the last few years, it seems, old Dr. Katz has gone all to pieces; aged and withered and haggard. But it was upon his singularly benign, placid, and, of course, healthy appearance, as pictured in his advertisements, that he built up and maintained his patent medicine trade. So then to this change, an adjustment has to be made. Mr. B.F. Ellis, his son-in-law made it. That singularly benign, or philanthropic, and of course, healthy appearance was simply simulated; or a substitute was found. Ellis has substituted another singularly benign and philanthropic-looking old gentleman for his failing father-in-law; takes the healthy and pious-looking old substitute down to the factory every day; displays him before the whole world, but at the same time guards him from those who'd be likely to be inquisitive; and to complete the deception, has copied Dr. Katz's once paying appearance down to such details as a slight limp and a bit of black courtplaster, instead of a mole.

"I see no way of using this knowledge, because Mr. Hauptmeyer has lost all his indignation, and our sensationalism is history, now. Even if we should publish this story, that would make the libel suit all the more relentless, and if we should threaten, Mr. Ellis would say, `Prove it!' and his lawyers would show that I have had delusions since birth. This is the adjustment. What is the logical counter-adjustment to that?"

I had to say, "Come to my rooms, and we'll look the matter up." I can't think without my notes. I have lived with them and for them so long that, though I know where to find the information they have, that information is not available to me in my own mind. In my room, I stacked ten- or fifteen-thousand notes around us. Mr. Rapp looked properly impressed. Then I spread out, in boxes, ten- or fifteen-thousand more notes. That was quite enough; the quest was simple, and I knew about where to look. The idea was to identify this human situation with a similar biologic situation and then find the biologic counter-adjustment for it. We looked through notes upon "Imitation." We were referred to "Simulating," to "Assimilation," to "Protective Coloration," and finally cases, we ere right in identifying our human situation as aggressive, alluring mimicry:

"In India there is a mantis that has taken on the appearance of a flower; by means of its form and pink color, it allures other insects upon which it subsists;"

"According to Mr. Bates, there are certain showy, little spiders found in the tropics, which double themselves at the bases of leaf stalks, to resemble flower buds, and deceive flies, which they feed upon."

The appearance of Dr. Katz's substitute was mimicry, aggressive, because it preyed upon certain factors of its environment; alluring of course to all who were susceptible to the attractions of a notably healthy appearance, presumably resulting from use of the Dr. Katz Remedies.

So then what is Nature's counter-adjustment for aggressive, alluring mimicry? It's a sinister, subtle thing and must be kept in check, in some way.

And we found the answer soon enough. By its own multiplication this phenomenon is kept in check. We found a hint of this in observations by Mr. Bates and Dr. Wallace that mimicking species are always much rarer than the mimicked. We found notes taken long ago by me, but not in the least accessible in my own mind, of Mr. Belt's observation that "each fresh, deceptive resemblance, if it becomes common (multiplied) is sure to be followed by greater keenness of discrimination in deceived species." There were similar observations by Prof. Poulton and F.E. Beddard. But the notes went on and on, confining of course not in the least to biology. I think that data upon the Cardiff Giant impressed Mr. Rapp most. The wider a seeming dissimilarity, the more startling and stimulating to the mind is it when seen to be a similarity. At first there seemed to be nothing in common between a stone image and a showy, little spider; nevertheless, simulating, or caused to simulate, a fossil, the Cardiff Giant was, in relation to the credulous, paying public, aggressive, alluring mimicry. And what proved to be its check, or counter-adjustment? Not exposure of its true nature and origin, because it was exposed and denounced over and over again; for every scientist who proved it to be a fake, there was somebody else to declare it to be Moses or Adam. Then what?

Multiplication was the undoing of the Cardiff Giant. Reproductions of it sprang up all over the country. P.T. Barnum, when he could not buy the original image, had one made and exhibited, as the original, in New York City. It was only that that convinced the public; knowledge of how easily a replica could be made. So ended the career of the Cardiff Giant; it could not survive its own multiplicity.

"I'm very much obliged to you," said Mr. Rapp, "but I can't stay away from the office another moment. Really you know, it may be a good thing to know that multiplicity is the counter-adjustment for aggressive, alluring mimicry."

Really, you know, the whole difficulty lies in translating such abstractions into concrete circumstances. I pondered the matter myself for a while, but I gave that up. The notes gave a formula, but that that formula should be practicable would have such an effect of making me reasonable--I returned to my note-taking, having an especial interest at the time in archaeology and deep-sea diving.

Several days went by--I don't remember how many--doesn't matter--but I must use up some words to signify passage of time, here--so several days went by, and I don't remember how many, and it doesn't matter.

One morning; Riverside Drive:

At about nine o'clock, out on the front stoop of the swollen and suffering house on the corner, came the benign-looking old gentleman: G.A.R. hat, slight limp; long curling, white hair; simulation of a mole upon his cheek. As usually, he stood for a moment, radiating brotherly love and healthfulness. With him was the anaemic-looking man in the virile-looking overcoat: little gingery mustache and eyebrows upon a pale face; framing of great, black, ominous-looking overcoat-collar--ensemble like a far-off view of three timid little foxes, circling in a sandy forest-clearing, half-attracted, half-affrighted by the mystery of dark, shaggy underbrush surrounding them.

There was a passing baby carriage. Down the stoop went the philanthropic-looking old gentleman; he stopped to poke a forefinger under the infant's chin. This is a sure sign of benevolence--

Out from a doorway! He limped slightly; wore a G.A.R. hat; speck of black courtplaster upon his cheek; another benign-looking old gentleman; long hair and white beard--

From behind tree! Two more philanthropic-looking old gentlemen, each with a disc of courtplaster, each atmospheric of the Battle of Gettysburg and then a long life devoted to the welfare of others.

Down the street came a fifth "philanthropist:" white beard and long white hair; G.A.R. hat; and upon his cheek a speck of black courtplaster.

The astrachan overcoat-collar stood up on end. The ferocious vapid-looking man seized his own particular "philanthropist" by the arm--and there was Mr. Rapp speaking to him: cane under his arm, unlighted cigarette in his mouth, Mr. Rapp cleaning his fingernails with his penknife; general air of casualness about him. But the astrachan-gingery man was more emotional; he folded his mighty-seeming arms and said something that probably had considerable profanity in it; something that was quite in keeping with his ferocious collar and cuffs.

Up from an area-way! Upon my word, another of them! Most spiritual-looking and healthiest-looking of all of them: white hair curled; black-specked; blinking up at the tall buildings, so placidly, so exotically, in our wicked city.

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