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Photo by Jane Silcott
Jane Silcott explores the ideas of beauty and mimicry both in theory and in the wilds of a motel complex.
A friend of mine tells me that a good story generates tension between the narrative and the lyrical, something he learned in a poetry workshop. The narrative goes along the X-axis, the lyrical along the Y-axis, or the other way round, he says. Too much X and it’s flat, too much Y and it doesn’t make sense. This makes writing sound a bit like math, which can be comforting. I like the idea of math, and I like knowing there are people in the world who quantify things that are difficult for me and make lines and angles and numbers out of them.
The other night on the blackboard at the back of the classroom where I teach a writing class, someone from a previous class had drawn a graph illustrating the law of supply and demand, or maybe it was economies of scale, or maybe even the “indifference curve,” with one variable represented on the X-axis, the other on the Y-axis. In the space between was one of those perfect rising arcs that makes you think of soft hillsides of waving grasses and sunsets and other hopeful things, not dreary economic conundrums mulled over by men who look like Warren Buffett.
Our topic that night was definition, so we talked about ideas like persistence and family and love and then how we could define them on paper, one way being to set a thing among its fellows in a category and then to find the elements about it that made it unique. As the students wrote I looked at the graph at the back of the room. On the way home I happened upon a radio show about the meaning of beauty, and I drove on listening to disembodied voices doing what we had been trying to do in the class, pin down something that shivered and slipped out from under us. I wanted someone to say what it is about beauty that startles us so and hoped they would consider proportion and the golden mean, as one of my students (a mathematician) had done in an essay, and then gone beyond that to consider why humans respond so viscerally to something that can be expressed in numbers. But the moments of beauty the voices ascribed most passion to were acts, not visions: people doing good rather than scenes or images of looking good. Eventually someone used the word grace, and one man, David Adams Richards actually, said he’d seen people in the deepest poverty show their true selves “without mimicry.” Mimicry: I thought mimicry was a kind of party trick, not something behind which we hide our “true selves,” but the program ended before I could learn more.
An entry in Wikipedia defines mimicry as a perfectly respectable biological survival tactic categorized by a variety of styles. Batesian mimics, for instance, are creatures that assume the colouration of more dangerous relatives to avoid being eaten by predators, and are named for Henry W. Bates, an English naturalist, but I think of Norman Bates from Psycho instead and wonder if scientists ever consider the confusion the name might evoke. Or do they amuse themselves by thinking that Norman Bates initially looked harmless, but was actually dangerous, so the name could be a scientific paradox, a little joke in the language. Remember Janet Leigh’s scream in the shower and Bates’s shadow against the curtain: if she had not been beautiful, would he have bothered to attack her?
Vavilovian mimicry is the name given to weeds that mimic the colouration and shape of the plants they grow among. Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov was a man who looks at first glance a little like Groucho Marx, and then after closer study, a little like my grandfather, who was born four years before Groucho. This was the late nineteenth century, the moustachioed era, when men grew Fuller brushes under their noses and looked out at cameras as if they were defending themselves from assault. Müllerian and Mertensian mimicry apply to species that borrow traits from one another to fool others into thinking they’re harmless when they’re actually dangerous, which is nefarious, if you ask me, and not a little mean-spirited, but scientists don’t attribute judgement to their categories, and they don’t spend time thinking about the sound “Mertensian mimicry” makes in the mind, but then is it reasonable to divide people into categories: scientists and non-scientists and such, or is that another sort of nefariousness—to imagine oneself fitting neatly into one category and therefore unable or unwilling to consider the usefulness of being the kind of person who can adapt and fit into another?
Last weekend my family and I went to the interior of BC to visit relatives. We usually check into a quiet motel filled with other ordinary families like our own, so it’s not a time when we feel a need for performance or guardedness of any kind. But this was the May long weekend, a paradigm shift apparently, during which the town fills with people excited to be alive and drinking beer. I had booked a motel we’d stayed at before, one of those little places near the lake where the rooms are consecutively numbered units in a long one- or two-storey building that forms a squared-off horseshoe around a parking lot. We have a photo of my husband and daughter in the middle of one of those horseshoes years ago, their bodies surrounded by empty space. Their backs are to the camera and they’re walking toward the lake, which shimmers before them. They’re holding hands. My daughter, who was two at the time, wears a little blue dress that flares out from her legs. Her hand reaches up to my husband’s. You can see in her posture, in the shape her blue dress makes against the sky that this is beauty in its highest form: grace in their fingertips and in the space between them.