Monkeys and the Appeal of Infinity
The infinite monkey theorem posits (in one variation on the theme) that if you set a chimpanzee at a typewriter (that's how old the theorem is [btw, this made me laugh]) and give it an infinite amount of time, that eventually it would type out some recognizable text of great value, such as the complete works of William Shakespeare. Another variation on the theme, popular where I grew up, was that the monkey would eventually type-out the great American novel. Why chimpanzees (not native to America) would be expected to have some sort of cosmic access to the great American (versus Chinese) novel is not explained by the theorem*, but you get the general idea.
I'll admit to being fascinated by the idea, but note that the appeal of the theorem to me has never had anything to do with monkeys, but rather with the notion of greatness through infinity. In fact, despite all the other food for thought in that film, it was this idea that fascinated me most in "Ground Hog Day." If I could just have more a little more time than everyone else, I could accomplish everything I want to...I could have the life I want.
This idea came back when I read a bit in The Observer deflating the pride that must have felt by the writers identified by the The New Yorker's summer issue as "twenty young writers who capture the inventiveness and the vitality of contemporary American fiction." The Observer does admit that their piece might be fueled by envy, but still:
Enough arguing about whether the "best young writers" are really best—are the "best young writers" even young?Talk about leaving a turd in a punchbowl.
Not really, says Sam Tanenhaus in The Times:
It is a mistake to assume that because they are young - at least according to our culture's ever expanding notion of youth, when 40, or even 50, is "the new 30" - they must be poised midway up Parnassus, with higher achievements to come. The trouble, perhaps, is that this definition of "young writer," which owes less to literary considerations than to the intersecting categories of sociology and marketing, muddies our understanding of how truly original, enduring fiction comes to be written.
The Tanenhaus pantheon of young achievers who produced masterpieces—not just "promising" work—long before 40: Flaubert (29 when he began Madame Bovary), Thomas Mann (24 when he finished Buddenbrooks), Tolstoy (began writing War and Peace at 34), Kafka (29 for "The Metamorphosis"), Melville (32, Moby-Dick), Fitzgerald (28, The Great Gatsby), Hemingway (27, The Sun Also Rises), and Faulkner (32, The Sound and the Fury—his fourth novel).
Basically everyone except Tea Obreht is already behind.
*"Popular interest in the typing monkeys is sustained by numerous appearances in literature, television, radio, music, and the Internet. In 2003, an experiment was performed with six Celebes Crested Macaques. Their literary contribution was five pages consisting largely of the letter 'S'."
Labels: mindless rambling