The Foldby Aaron Worth (Spring 2017)
Whether it was the itinerant gipsy pedlar, clad in noisome rags (a very king of shreds and patches, as the Greek master jocosely remarked at the time), or his winsome ten-year-old daughter who introduced the practice of folding at the school is unknown, and ultimately irrelevant. What is certain is that, once introduced, the practice spread like wildfire—first, as one would expect, among the boys, but not long afterwards among the tutors and masters as well; within three days of the pedlar’s departure the venerable headmaster himself was to be seen, badly shaved and squatting near the rugby fields, bringing all of his sadly failing powers of concentration to bear on the inexpertly folded sheet of foolscap which he cradled in his trembling hands.
At some point during those first days, one of the assistant masters (who had traveled in the Far East) happened to observe that a similar art form was known to the Japanese, who (he said) could transform sheets of paper into cranes, flowers, and a myriad of other forms. But it was obvious to all that the procedure which the pedlar (or his daughter) demonstrated to us could not have had any connection with that tradition. No one, indeed, could contemplate the thing which that procedure inerrantly created, and associate it with the productions of any known human culture. (Inerrantly, that is, if correctly followed: for the set of instructions in question, while simple enough to grasp mentally, required no small degree of manual skill to execute properly.) As for the thing itself (it has since been given another denomination—its proper one—but that name I may not reproduce here), obviously it was a representation, in miniature and in three dimensions, of a living being. But the organism it depicted plainly did not belong within any recognized taxonomic system; indeed, the morphology of the creature was of such a kind as to defeat the most determined attempts at classification. It is true that, when first contemplated, it prompted the mind to think variously of such creatures as a larval Myrmeleon, a gravely deformed cuttlefish, or perhaps a foetal or abortive pangolin—for the human brain desperately craves conceptual purchase, and will cling even to a grotesquely faulty analogue rather than grope blindly in utter darkness. But closer examination indicated clearly that the figure embodied in the folded paper was as unlike such terrestrial forms as those forms were themselves distant from Man—indeed infinitely more so. Accordingly, those first few who gasped in horror, or gibbered in awe, as they pressed the last prescribed fold into place (thus bringing into being an entirely novel form of life) felt something of that sense of monumental discovery so ably captured by Keats in his famous sonnet on Chapman’s Homer.1
There then followed a frenzied, exhilarant period of several weeks during which every available sheet of paper was eagerly seized upon for the purposes of folding, in scenes which an ungenerous observer might well have described as a species of pandemonium. The school’s ancient library was ransacked, as was the headmaster’s private collection of books and prints (a substantial portion of which was discovered to be pornographic in nature—a fact hardly remarked amidst the general delirium). Before long the entire campus, in as well as out of doors, was carpeted (as by a sudden and unseasonable fall of leaves) with a seemingly infinite number of identical folded shapes. Once the paper supply had been thus exhausted, a kind of stunned anticlimax followed, as all lay about in stupefaction, gazing vacantly at the replicated forms, or making fruitless attempts to communicate with them.
Then, after perhaps a fortnight, the chance discovery was made which utterly transformed (for a second time) life at the school.
I refer to the realization that if the same instructions which had been followed in producing the primary organism were applied once again to that same figure (in what the Maths master termed an “algorithmic” procedure), another figure was created: a new creature as unlike the first as can possibly be imagined, yet to which it bore an obvious and necessary relation—much as the abnormally long spur of certain orchids irresistibly implies the elongated proboscis of a particular moth.
Nor was this all. Astonishingly, it was found that a further application of the pedlar’s sequence to this second form produced a third, a creature whose awkward, fivefold structure was not entirely inconsistent with a certain disconcerting beauty.
Beyond these three forms it was not possible to go. This was first of all owing to the sheer difficulty of performing the necessary folds upon already-folded shapes—a difficulty which seemed to increase exponentially with each successive form. (Indeed, only a few could manage to produce the second figure properly, a very few the third. And since the creation of defective images of these entities was considered a shameful act associated with certain extreme but condign punishments, only a bold minority even attempted to give bodiment to these higher-order forms.)
But more to the point, there were no further forms to discover. Even a child could see at a glance that these three, these sublime three, comprised a gloriously complete and self-sufficient system: a model of clarity, and a pointed rebuke to the life-forms of this world, in all their hateful superfluity.
With this discovery of the three, the life of the school entered into yet another phase of existence. Withdrawing by common consent from the outside world, the school now became (not unlike the three themselves) an entirely isolated, self-contained community (another instance of folding, as one clever lad, with perhaps more wit than sense, was heard to murmur shortly before his sudden disappearance). The population was then divided into three tribes or castes, each being associated with one of the three great forms. At that time, too, were all of the avatars carefully destroyed, excepting the one copy which each boy or man2 was permitted to retain. This icon, which he was to keep upon his person at all times, henceforth defined him utterly.
Nor was it long before mere homage and idolatry gave way to attempts at mimesis. Not content, that is, with simply adoring the figures, all now sought to imitate them in every possible respect. This meant, first of all, ardently seeking to bring one’s own body, to the extent possible, into alignment with the form of one’s totem. (In saying “to the extent possible” I mean to point to the not inconsiderable pragmatic difficulties involved in such an endeavor: a school laboratory is far from a proper surgery, and the human body—with its grotesque and recalcitrant symmetries—is, alas, far from infinitely malleable.)
The next stage of this mimicry involved a wholesale transition to the habitats and living conditions appropriate to each of the three organisms. In describing these, I shall find it convenient to refer to each group by a designation arising from its order of appearance or “birth.” (These designations should not however be taken as indicating a hierarchy. A hierarchy there certainly is, but it cannot be reduced to any such facile taxonomy.)
The Primi (i.e. firsts) dug into the earth itself, carving out deep tunnels with torn and bleeding hands which they employed like the spatulate claws of moles. Through these tunnels, with which the ground below the school was soon honeycombed, they crawled like worms, hardly to be seen above ground except (briefly) during the crepuscular hours, or else when summoned by the Secundi for a particular purpose, or driven by resistless impulse to consummate a certain act with one of the Tertii.
The Secundi, for their part, made their home on the shores of the small pond which lay within the bounds of the school (formerly a favorite haunt of anglers). For most of the day they reposed in mud and slime, lying half in and half out of the stagnant water. At night they became more active, creeping about the school grounds with an alacrity which would astonish an observer who had only seen them at their lacuscular drowse.
The Tertii (much the smallest group, for the reasons given above) remained within the school-buildings, to which they made certain alterations. (What the exact nature of those alterations was, and what the Tertii did within their habitation whilst alone, were matters of much barren speculation amongst the other classes.)
This brings us to the topic of the relationships which rapidly—and quite naturally—developed among the three groups. As I have thus far had the podium (as it were) all to myself, the reader may perhaps forgive me if here I have recourse to the testimony of another—one who might justly be termed an outsider. (For while I may have made it sound as though a state of perfect unanimity obtained at the school during this period, this was not in fact quite so.) I have before me a closely-written manuscript, a private journal written by the History master (who is no longer with us). Though this man had been with the school for over three decades, he alone declined to engage with the rest of us in the folding—for which act of passive secession he was universally regarded with deep suspicion (though not, during this first phase at least, with active hostility). Nor did he signal his withdrawal from the community solely by this act of refusal. In this journal, which he kept well hidden, he recorded his personal responses to the events and changes which he witnessed. (I may mention here that, despite his professional training in the historiography of the Renascence, his true passion was for the biological sciences, and particularly the Darwinian theory.)
Making allowance for the prejudices of a blinkered mind, the below passage is a not inaccurate account of the mode of existence which now flourished at the school:
Perhaps, by fancying an endless game of rock paper & scissors enacted by living bodies, one might possibly form some idea of daily life within the eco-system, if I may so term it, whose unwilling naturalist or chronicler I have been appointed by the inscrutable and capricious Fates.
What I mean to convey is simply this: each of the three castes interacts with each of the others in certain fixed and invariable ways, as if by unspoken contract or rule. My analogy is highly imperfect, however. It fails, first of all, to do justice to the multifariousness of the interactions and exchanges possible between and among the three groups: you must premise that scissors may not only cut paper but subject it to a myriad of further, though equally prescribed, uses. Nor, I am afraid, does my comparison summon forth anything like an adequate idea of the sheer hideousness of those interactions…
Here, too, I must be content to express myself analogically—for the acts and uses of which I speak are not, by and large, susceptible of exact description within the languages of man.
By way of example: one such activity—and by no means the most horrible—suggests to my mind nothing quite so much as the dreadful method of reproduction practiced by the ichneumonid wasp, that method which so troubled Darwin3. Yet the thing I have observed is still worse. For one must imagine the caterpillar welcoming the introduction of the cannibal larvae—or (to change metaphors) the sheep consenting to be herded, the cow walking knowingly into the shambles…And when one considers that we are speaking of human beings—or at least beings once human—the very soul grows sick.
The appropriate response to such naively parochial moralizing is undoubtedly laughter (if, that is, one still possessed the requisite organs for it). Yet other entries are not without insight. Here, for example, is a passage containing much intriguing speculation of a theoretical nature—albeit speculation once again marred by authorial bias. It begins in anecdote:
This morning, I sat, as is my wont, at a window of the tower where I have been compelled by circumstances to make my residence, looking down at the quadrangle, and wondering what fresh horror the day might bring. I had not long to wonder. Before five minutes had passed, the massed followers of two of the three idols—the creeping ones and the unspeakables [he refers, I believe, to the Secundi and Tertii -Ed.]—began to assemble on the weed-choked lawn, where they began straightaway to engage in a ghastly winnowing or sorting ritual, no doubt preliminary to some yet more violent exchange.
As I turned trembling away from the sight, my eye happened to fall on the little table where, from what perverse impulse I know not, I have arranged my purloined copies of each of the three paper figures which have done all the mischief. And looking at them, as if for the first time, the wild thought struck me that they might represent an alternative form or mode of evolutionary progression, one wholly unlike our own, and characterized by a discrete sequence of succedent organisms without intermediates.
Was it Huxley or Haeckel who said, Natura non facit saltum—“Nature does not make leaps”? And so, in our own experience, does this rule seem to hold true.
But what if there be a Nature that does make leaps, indeed progresses solely by unbridgeable gaps, chasms, gulfs? If these nauseant simulacra do in fact depict real beings, must not these have flourished—flourish, perhaps, still—under conditions hostile to gradation, and friendly to such quantal development? (I cannot think of another way to express it4.)
This of course is mere speculation. But it breeds further questions: Might not the idea of a discrete or discontinuous evolution suggest a particular ethics as well? That is, where the great family of living beings does not, as here, make up a continuous chain but rather a violently broken one—a broad-cast archipelago, with no connecting links—is not any sense of responsibility towards other forms of life greatly lessened, if not abolished entirely?
There are fewer of them every day. My only chance of escape—
Here the journal degenerates into visionary dreaming. But the foregoing account has much to recommend it from an intellectual point of view, though it fails utterly to capture the sense of liberation to be experienced within such a system as the erstwhile History master describes.
To speak, however, as he does (“There are fewer of them every day”), of the steady and constant attrition of our number, is to effect an adversion to the all-important question of survival, and thereby to allude, if obliquely, to the painful topic of our present crisis.
For if we cannot reproduce after the fashion of our masters (though this has actually been tried by a few, with disconcerting results), neither can we, situated as we are, hope to repopulate our community as do the creatures of this world (little as we should relish the latter prospect in any event). I refer, of course, to our status as a dwindling population of isolated males (though we no longer think in such terms), sealed off initially by choice and subsequently by the fear and loathing of the surrounding rustic population—which emotions have taken palpable form as rough-hewn palisades and rough-dug trenches patrolled by crudely armed sentries.
We must accept, then, that we shall perish, and at no very distant date. (The end of my own, individual life is, I know, quite near—perhaps imminent.) The magnificent culture that has flourished here, an oasis of rigor and clarity amid the vast desert of waffling muddle which is this world, will be no more. When the local peasantry summon up courage enough, one day, to enter our grounds they will find our (intermingled, exquisitely transformed) bodies to be as unbreathing as the paper forms of our masters.
This is our tragedy.
We are not, however, entirely without consolations. In particular, we take solace in the probability, amounting to near-certainty in our minds, that we cannot have been the only population to be visited by the pedlar, and to whom he (or his daughter) has bequeathed his gift. We may expire, but elsewhere on this alien sphere the three forms have been, or will be, discovered again, and the sequence will recommence.
Perhaps, somewhere, it is beginning at this very moment.
Alternately: the reader may himself take a sheet of paper—perhaps this one—and proceed as follows—
[^1]: “Then felt I like some watcher of the skies/ When a new planet swims into his ken;/ Or like Cortez, who with his eagle eye/ Star’d down at the Pacific…” (I must quote here, perhaps fallibly, from memory, for reasons that I trust will become clear presently.)
[^2]: Though I should here point out that all such existing differences had by this time been quite dissolved, the only salient distinctions being those deriving from association with one’s totem.
[^3]: “I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars.” (I take the liberty of appending here the quotation to which the History master doubtless refers, and which he had copied elsewhere into a commonplace-book. Let me also take this opportunity to underscore his own observation that he is speaking metaphorically.)
[^4]: I omit here a lengthy digression on the subject of the three organisms possible provenance: the History master suggests, for instance, that they may “really” or “actually” exist on another world, or on our own in some distant past or future (i.e. they represent extinct species, or species yet to come), or at some microscopic level impervious to our optical aids. A further possibility seems not to have occurred to him: namely, that the entities and acts at which he “tremble[s]” are all there is, or ever was. Why may not this glorious, hybrid partnership between paper and flesh constitute a species itself, rather than the pale imitation or shadow of one?
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