Monday, December 15, 2008

Lawrence Weschler, "Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder" (1995).

I'm a sucker for arcana. There's something gratifying about being able to tell people things that they have never heard. That's why I spend my vacations seeking out the strangest and most obscure destinations. It's the reason why I am constantly researching strange DVD titles that the majority of society would write off as "too weird". If I am only processing entertainment that is basically reinforcing my previously-held ideas and belief system, I tend to get bored quickly. The thought of having to revisit words, sights, and sounds that I am already familiar with, again and again throughout time, leaves me cold. I want to experience the anomalies and the unexpected. So I make a point of seeking it out.

But if I really want to get off-track, I usually have to put myself in a situation with company that I'm not used to. Last week I mentioned that I took a rare Sunday dinner with some people I haven't seen in while. One of the things I left out of that post is that I was sent home with a book that I hadn't even asked to borrow. My host assumed that I would have already read Lawrence Weschler's Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder. To her mind, it was a title that I should have come across. Still, in today's vast media environment, we sometimes miss the obvious. After finishing this quick read, it's easy to understand why someone would assume I had already encountered it. Right away I was intrigued by its themes.

Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder starts with a serendipitous visit to an odd little spot in Culver City, CA. While waiting for a bus, Weschler decided to poke his head into the improbably-named Museum of Jurassic Technology. Once inside he was caught up in a world of wonder. Such a collection of oddities awaited him that he ended up spending hours inside. In a way, it was like entering a time warp. The exhibits were jumbled together and oddly documented. As he walked among the vitrines, Weschler had the suspicion that he was being had. Was there really a South American species of ant that inhales a fungus that makes it climb high into a tree and attach itself via mandible to a stalk, only to be consumed from within ?

Umm...yes. In fact I had heard of that one before in another strange book of natural monsters called Parasite Rex. After completing that compendium of horrors, I had nightmares for several days. But evidently this particular phenomenon was so alien to Weschler that he was compelled to start fact-checking some of the more credibility-defying exhibits in the MJT. And his explorations led him to accounts of the original Wunderkammers- those odd jumbles of wondrous objects found in collections throughout Western Europe before the Age of Reason. Before science prevailed, expanded exploration brought mysteries from far-flung lands, stimulating wildly magical reveries in those that viewed these cabinets of curiosity.

Such is the reader's experience with Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder, and its titular character David Wilson, creator of the MJT. It flits from one historical anecdote to another, leading the narrator and his audience from one point to the next, always with the underlying question of whether or not someone's leg is being pulled. Wilson himself is a singular enigma- a man suspected of such a discreet sense of irony that he seems wholly sincere. And perhaps that's the point. Why shouldn't the contemporary observer examine his/her own capacity to be drawn away into the land of the fabulous without the typically postmodern sense of being sold a false bill of goods? Or have we irrevocably lost that possibility with the advent of modern science?

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