Ars brevis, vitis longa

robert

lobstersDo lobsters have personalities? Sure, some of them are bigger, some greener, some more overgrown with algae. But are they individuals? Do they see each other as individuals? And if you discovered depictions of them in some newly found underwater cave, would you think of them as people? Or would they be like so many crustaceans crawling over themselves in the tank of a lobby of a seafood restaurant?

This, in essence, was the question facing the aliens who finally managed to land on the planet Earth, some undetermined time in the far future, when the human beings who invented calendars were long gone in some cataclysm also undetermined, and the world inherited by some evolutionary development of insects, now turned warm blooded, and with some convergent evolutionary change that gave them something very like feathers and who communicated on very high levels with each other by the deposition of various foul- or fair-smelling gels on the substrate upon which they traveled, left there for the next to sense with antennae turned prehensile.

For these aliens found the ruins of our cities, overgrown with vines, with trees buckling the crumble of ancient paved streets where these feathered insects scrambled. Among the detritus, they also found statues and paintings of some unknown species of biped. We would know them as Titians and Caravaggios, Donatellos and Berninis, for the aliens landed in the region just north of the Apennines in the boot-shaped peninsula where their earlier robotic spacecraft had told them was a good spot to land, with flat surfaces and interesting geology nearby. And when they scraped away the encrustations that had built up on the paintings, and stared on them blankly, for certain they looked upon these creatures depicted as some form of lobster. Do these pasty, white morphs have personalities? They crawl over each other in a Rubens painting like so many crabs in a bucket. What are these aliens to make of this extinct species?

rubens

And did Goya or Vermeer foresee their work outlasting humankind to be discovered by uncomprehending eyes who paw over them like so many cobbles on a stony beach? What immortality did those painters think they were gaining, when the work remains, but the meaning has evaporated?

When we uncover the buildings of Pompeii, we recognize that they were constructed by people like us, with the same interests and drives, commercial, erotic, ambitious and civic. Through all of hominid history, back to the first tool-making pre-humans, we recognize mon frere, mon semblable.

But these aliens, coming upon the ruins of architecture do not see them as picturesque, like the paintings of a Hubert Robert, but rather like the bleached coral of a reef killed off in acidic seas. The buildings might as well be ant-hills left by a colony of pismires. The roads they find, broken by vines and weeds, are mere cobwebs. The square rooms under tumbled down roofs no different from the hexagonal cells of a honeybee comb. They look, presuming the aliens have something analogous to eyes, and they see design, they see intention, but they do not see us.

We might break out in some kind of premonitory indignation, thinking of how misunderstood we shall be in the future that shoves out beyond us, beyond where we will not exist. Instead, these aliens want to know if these feathery insects that crawl over the ruins are edible.

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