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Lecture Notes: where human horns meet African stink ants

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This much seems certain: on the fateful day four or five years ago when New Yorker writer Lawrence Weschler ventured to the prosaic environs of Culver City on the west side of Los Angeles and pressed his finger to the door buzzer of the Museum of Jurassic Technology, he was ripe for the spore that would find him there, settle in his brain, multiply, and take over his life. Like the African stink ant (coincidentally on exhibit at this very museum), which when colonized by an ingested fungus undertakes a bizarre pilgrimage, leaving its home on the forest floor to climb skyward to the top of a fern or blade of grass, where it dies and then sprouts a brilliantly colored fungal horn, Weschler was fertile ground.

Admitted to the storefront museum by its founder and director, David Wilson, an accordion-playing imp with the face and body of a pubescent Neanderthal, Weschler quickly found his fancy taken by a display on the Sonnabend Model of Obliscence. This memory theory, consisting of intersecting cones and planes, was devised by one Geoffrey Sonnabend and ostensibly published by Northwestern University Press in 1946. Sonnabend, whose father, a German engineer named Wilhelm, was brought to Chicago by candy millionaire Charles Gunther and wound up directing reconstruction of our city's bridges after the Great Fire, was inspired upon hearing a single concert by Madalena Delani, a Romanian-American diva afflicted with a rare form of memory loss that left her only in possession of her music. The display included an "astonishingly well-realized aquarium-sized diorama of Iguazu Falls," where the concert took place. Did I neglect to mention that Sonnabend was recuperating from a nervous breakdown?

Just around the corner from the Sonnabend-Delani Halls, Weschler came upon an exposition of the pioneering work of Donald R. Griffith, who set out to capture the tiny, horned bat Myotis lucifugus, which he suspected of being the deprong mori, or "piercing devil," known to the Dozo people of northern South America. Since Myotis lucifugus navigates by transmitting X rays, Griffith devised a "brilliant snaring device, consisting of five solid-lead walls, each one eight inches thick, twenty feet high, and two hundred feet long--all of them arrayed in a radial pattern, like spokes of a giant wheel, along the forest floor." To Weschler's amazement, Griffith's specimen, embedded in a slice of lead wall, rose up before him right there in the MJT, in a smoothly automated sound and light show narrated by "the same bland, slightly unctuous voice you've heard in every museum slide show or Acoustiguide tour or PBS nature special you've ever endured: the reassuringly measured voice of unassailable institutional authority."

Weschler continued to make his way through exhaustively documented exhibits--a scale model of Noah's ark, a horn that sprouted from the head of a woman, the sounds made by pebbles at rest (compared to the sounds made by beetles)--his earnest attention salted with the slightest inkling that something here might be askew. The matter-of-fact but convoluted explanations offered by Wilson, a former art filmmaker and probable spore colony himself, only compounded Weschler's confusion. A pamphlet that traced the origins of museums to Noah's ark and thence through 16th- and 17th-century European cabinet collections of oddities and wonders didn't immediately clear it up.

In the days and weeks after that first visit, Weschler found himself interrupting his work to track down MJT references--searching the UCLA library computer for obscure volumes; ringing up Northwestern University Press and the Chicago Historical Society to see if anyone knew of Geoffrey Sonnabend; ferreting out the retirement hideaway of Donald R. Griffin, whose name and research seemed tantalizingly similar to the MJT bat hunter's. "I don't know why, I just couldn't let the story go," Weschler would later write, by way of explaining that he returned to the museum as often as he could, continuing to track its sources, always coming up with a maddening mixture of truth and the unverifiable that drew him further and further into uncharted territory. Before long, clearly obsessed, Weschler gave up doing anything else and made this puzzle his work.

The first fruit of his labor was a 12,000-word article that his employer, the new New Yorker, reportedly refused to publish because, he was told, the subject wasn't "hot." It found a home in Harper's. A shorter rumination inspired by the MJT's collection of horns, human and otherwise, was published in the Reader ("On the Dilemma of Horns," November 3, 1995). The two articles were incorporated in a book, Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder (Pantheon, 1995), that became a finalist in the competition for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize and has been translated into seven languages. Still, Weschler can't let go. He has turned his obsession into a slide show, "Wonder and the Jurassic: Toward a Natural History of Amazement," which he is now compelled to pack up and deliver wherever the curious will pay to look and listen.

Weschler says his slide show is to lectures what the MJT is to museums. Judge for yourself when he appears Wednesday at 6 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago. General admission is $10. Call 312-397-4010 to register. --Deanna Isaacs

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Lawrence Weschler, right, with David Wilson photo by Elisa Haber.

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