Miscellaneous Mental Musings of an Emerging Artist
Originally written and performed at The Paper Machete, a weekly live magazine taking place at the Horseshoe Bar and Grill in Chicago.
This is among the saddest of stories in the history of human communication, and that was the stupidest way to begin this story. For despite the conditional, the “one of,” an audience will gravitate to “saddest,” and the canny, intelligent listener is often possessed of a cynical nature, suspicious of blanket declarations and words that end in –est.
Saddest, is it? Prove it. Make me feel sad. Do not only make me feel sad, make me feel so wretched and despondent that I can scarcely imagine that there are stories more heartbreaking than this one. Surely in the arena of human communication alone, when one considers that humanity as a species is defined and shaped by the ability and inability to communicate, surely there are worse stories. Wars begun over imagined insults, epidemics for lack of media coverage. The first time a Cro-Magnon realized they no longer understood the language of their own ape parents.
And this is the challenge immediately saddled upon the person who chooses to claim that the story about to be told is one of the “saddest.”
But some battles are only worthwhile when they have been fought uphill, and in any case the words have already been spoken. Opening statements are rarely permitted to be taken back.
The first statement transmitted over the electric telegraph, from the Supreme Court building in Washington DC to the Mt. Clare Depot in Baltimore was, and I quote—
[dot dash dash/ dot dot dot dot/ dot dash/ dash/ dot dot dot dot /dot dash/ dash/ dot dot dot dot/ dash dash dot/ dash dash dash/ dash dot dot/ dot dash dash/ dot dash dot/ dash dash dash/ dot dot dash/ dash dash dot/ dot dot dot dot/ dash]
—“What Hath God Wrought?”
It was a passage from the Book of Numbers, Chapter 23 Verse 23, chosen by the daughter of the United States Patent Commissioner, and the phrase was henceforth engraved and canonized throughout the ongoing and spitefully edited Wikithology of the United States of America. “What Hath God Wrought” is the Tweet Primordial, the first syntax to achieve lungs and legs and crawl from the gelatinous soup of feather quills and wax seals. And then the crawl becomes walk, the walk becomes run, the run becomes sprint, and not even 200 years later people on two different continents can instantly inform each other how wasted they are right now L-oh-L-oh-L-oh-L-oh-L.
But this is only true in the way that most American legends are true, in that truth of convenient comfort, the v-chipped truth, the truth given to schoolchildren until they are deemed old enough to be, at last, given the missing pages from the user’s manual of their own possibilities. “What Hath God Wrought” is the flashier, sexier progenitor of our current technology; dramatic, literary, epic in scope, yet offering neither nuance nor complexity. In other words, a legend that will upset nobody.
So consider instead.
In Washington, in 1825, a 34-year old father of four has been commissioned to paint a portrait of the Marquis de Lafayette. The artist, a Royal Academy educated Neo-classicist, is known for his bold imagery and political statements, inherent in his highly regarded works Dying Hercules and The Judgment of Jupiter. His career has thus far included paintings of noted politicians and aristocrats, including former American president John Adams. The artist is working diligently on capturing the nobility and grandeur of his latest subject when he receives a message, and the message would be—
[dash dot dash dash/ dash dash dash/ dot dot dash/ dot dash dot/ dash dot dot/ dot/ dot dash/ dot dash dot/ dot dash dash/ dot dot dash dot/ dot/ dot dot/ dot dot dot/ dash dot dash dot/ dash dash dash/ dash dot/ dot dot dot dash/ dot dash/ dot dash dot dot/ dot/ dot dot dot/ dash dot dash dot/ dot/ dash dot/ dash]
—except that the telegraph hasn’t been invented yet.
So instead, Samuel Morse receives a handwritten message from his father, in straightforward English and delivered by horse and rider, which reads, simply, “Your dear wife is convalescent.”
Language, understand, is like economics, subject to adjustment for inflation. What our modern ears might hear in the politeness and diction of these five words, “Your dear wife is convalescent,” is mild cough and runny nose; but they are understood by the artist Samuel Morse as cause for profound alarm. He abandons the Marquis, leaves the painting never to be completed, travels hell-bent for leather back to New Haven.
He arrives too late. He does not merely arrive too late, he arrives after his wife has already been buried.
Now, this was not an uncommon tale, one can surmise, for there had already been centuries filled with husbands and wives by the time Samuel Morse had been widowed. One could further surmise that Samuel Morse was hardly the first grieving husband to wonder if people simply had to accept the inadequacy of a horse’s top land-speed, nor the first to make efforts against their lot in life.
To say that the experience, the knowledge that he had been ignorant of his wife’s condition for days, to say that the experience shatters and haunts Samuel Morse would not be wholly accurate. Mirrors shatter and old houses haunt. Samuel Morse is so thoroughly devastated by the loss that the shell of his body is unable to contain such devastation, so devastated that his broken heart transforms the rest of the world.
“Your dear wife is convalescent.”
“What hath God wrought?”
And one wonders how much the second sentence, in the mind of Samuel Morse, was informed by the first even as he sent it along the wire.
That wire spreads, and then multiplies, and then the wires move underground, and then disappear entirely, and then it as if there were never wires at all. The communication evolves from code to crackle to clarity. The sprint of advancement escalates from the strides of humans, to those of African cats, to the hunting stoop of falcons. A generation experiences a phone call in a vastly different way than the generation before, and civilization moves, in this regard, ever closer to what Arthur C. Clarke referred to as a paradigm indistinguishable from magic.
Somebody will be in this room later today and the person they’re expecting to meet is fifteen minutes late. And the person waiting will glide their fingers across their palm-sized screen to send four letters and a punctuation mark: R U O K ?
The ability to connect instantaneously could, perhaps, engender that sort of paranoia, the sense that a connection absence of even the shortest length is already far too long.
That should, however, be expected from any intuition born of heartbreak. The telegraph was invented, after all, not so that people could speak to each other across great distances…but to let them know, immediately, when those distances should be crossed.