Every now and then, even Charles Darwin was dumbfounded by the mysteries of the natural world. On those occasions, he reached out for enlightenment to a repertory cast of scientific correspondents, one of whom was Francis Trevelyan Buckland, a raffish, tousle-haired star of the natural-history craze that befell Britain in the mid-nineteenth century. The two made for unlikely pen pals: if Darwin was the dour, sincere prophet who transformed humanity’s appreciation of its place in the universe, Buckland was a professional eccentric, as much showman as scientist. Although he did groundbreaking work in pisciculture (the breeding of fish), Buckland was perhaps best known as a lecturer, beguiling huge audiences with his left-field takes on botany, zoology, and human anatomy. As a general rule, the weirder the subject, the more likely Buckland was to have something to say about it: the fighting behavior of newts, the cannibalistic propensities of rats, the best method for killing a boa constrictor, gigantism, walking fish, flea circuses, conjoined twins (he was a good friend of Chang and Eng Bunker, the original Siamese twins), the uses of human hair as manure, and pagan burial rites. Tellingly, it was Buckland to whom Darwin turned to verify a claim that a dog and a lion had successfully bred in rural Russia.
Senses, reflexes and learning mechanisms – this is what we start with, and it is quite a lot, when you think about it. If we lacked any of these capabilities at birth, we would probably have trouble surviving.
But here is what we are not born with: information, data, rules, software, knowledge, lexicons, representations, algorithms, programs, models, memories, images, processors, subroutines, encoders, decoders, symbols, or buffers – design elements that allow digital computers to behave somewhat intelligently. Not only are we not born with such things, we also don’tdevelop them – ever.
As good as comic-book movies have been for making it rain money for the studios — mainly Disney, Warner Bros. and Fox — and as much fun as I’ve had at some of them, the genre has perverted what it means to watch certain actors in movies. When the character is more famous than the actor playing it, how does anybody develop the trademarks of a star? The prerogatives of the comic book are warping the properties of movie stardom. One feels at permanent odds with the other.
Given the option, Gallagher wouldn’t freeze time even if he could. That might seem strange for a man whose life is devoted to scrubbing away rust stains and gluing broken marble crosses back together. But just like Sampras needed Agassi to play his best tennis, Gallagher needs decay to do his best work. “We have no preconceived notion that we’re saving these things,” he tells me. “We’re just giving them a little more time.”
But there have been moments lately when I feared we were speaking and writing in a new adverbial age. I took the appearance of Daniel Handler’s 2006 novel Adverbs, a love story in which every chapter is named with a word like “immediately,” and Jonathan Safran Foer’s 2005 9/11 novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, whose title signals the child narrator’s voice, as signs that this century would be friendlier to that part of speech than the one ruled by Hemingway, whether I liked it or not. I thought it might have something to do with the death of the typewriter and the rise of the internet, a zone with an excess of feeling and an amateur taste for the rhetorical flourish. Was the adverb winning?
After all, the essay, in its American incarnation, is a direct outgrowth of the sermon: argumentative, insistent, not infrequently irritating. Americans, in my observation—and despite our fetish for the beauties of individuality and personal freedom—are always, however smilingly, trying to convince somebody, somewhere, of something, and our essayistic tradition bears this out.
At 13, I used to try my best to maximize the experience: eating until I was too full to move, schlepping my way to the toilet, making myself sick, and going back for more like a hedonistic Roman nobleman. It wasn't the best con, really, and it just made me feel like shit. So I stopped going to all you can eats. The love affair ended.
Then a couple of years ago, I moved to London. Broke and in the city of greed, I got obsessed again. How can I maximize their value? How do I beat the system? The house can't always win. After many sleepless nights, jotting into my notepad, by God, I had it. Four different cons crafted carefully with one purpose: to take down the man and to finally get our fair fill of an all you can eat buffet.