Child’s Play

Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder

by Lawrence Weschler
Vintage, 172 pp., $12.00 (paper)

Lawrence Weschler begins with the stink ant (where, he wants us to ask, is this going to lead?). Sometimes the stink ant of the Cameroonian rain forests inhales the spore of a fungus, which invades its brain and drives it crazy. For the first time it leaves its natural habitat on the forest floor and climbs the stalks of vines and ferns, up and up, until it finally fixes itself by sinking its mandibles into the plant, and so dies. The fungus continues to consume the ant’s brain, and after a fortnight or so a spike erupts from the ant’s head, with an orange tip from which more spores rain down to infect more ants and begin the cycle yet again.

The stink ant is one of the exhibits in the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Culver City, Los Angeles, the brainchild of one David Wilson, and “Inhaling the Spore” is the title of the first half of Weschler’s two-part description and meditation upon this peculiar place. As with so much else in the museum, and a good deal else in his book, it is unclear just what the significance of this is: Inhaling the spore stands as a symbol of something, but of what? Aspiration, transformation, the imaginative capacity of eccentricity?

But let us follow Weschler a little further as he describes some more of the museum’s displays. Geoffrey Sonnabend (“the great midcentury American neurophysiologist”) inhaled his spore after hearing at a resort near the Iguazú Falls, in Argentina, a Lieder recital given by Madalena Delani (“the great Romanian-American vocalist”), who suffered from Korsakoff’s syndrome, which destroys short-term memory. This occasion inspired his theory of obliscence (that memory is an illusion and forgetting the outcome of all experience). The Museum of Jurassic Technology has a diorama of the Iguazú Falls, a reconstruction of Sonnabend’s study, a line drawing of his model of obliscence (including a “perverse atmonic disc” and “cone of confabulation”), and an Acoustiguide which explains his theory in what Weschler tellingly calls “the same bland, slightly unctuous voice you’ve heard in every museum slide show…the reassuringly measured voice of unassailable institutional authority.”

Another display honors the collector Charles Gunther, whose treasures included the table on which the Appomattox Surrender was signed and a snake’s skin sloughed off by the serpent in the Garden of Eden. There is a scale model of Noah’s Ark. There is an exhibition of letters sent to the Mount Wilson Observatory: a woman in New Zealand reveals that the US government has hushed up her recipe for transmuting silver into gold; a man in California sends a demonstration purporting to show, by a hopelessly inadequate argument, that the earth is not in fact flat and that it even goes round the sun. There is a model of Plato’s theory of memory. There is an audioguide which explains Donald R. Griffith’s method of trapping bats by erecting five solid-lead walls, each twenty …

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