Sunday, July 30, 2006

Enter Life, stage right

In a shadowy alcove on the first floor of the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, right around the corner from the dinosaur exhibit, a video kiosk plays a continuously looped short film called Enter Life. Created by cartoonist Faith Hubley, Enter Life explains how four elements - carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen - came together to form simple amino acid chains, which went on to develop into one-celled organisms. As such, these four elements were the building blocks of life on Earth.

The four elements in the movie are represented by these darling psychedelic amoeboids, who caper about while announcing their names like submolecular cheerleaders: "Carbon! Hydrogen! Oxygen! Nitrogen!" As the story progresses, the creatures join together in conga lines and locomote through the primordial soup, still cheering and singing: "Carbon! Hydrogen! Oxygen! Nitrogen! Chon chon chon, chon chon ch-chon! Chon chon chon, chon chon ch-chon!"

I saw Enter Life almost 20 years ago, during an 8th Grade field trip to Washington D.C., but the Chon Song stuck with me. Late at night, or alone in an elevator, I've been known to dance around gleefully, chonning to my heart's content: "Chon chon chon, chon chon ch-chon!"

The Greek poet/pilosopher Empedocles is credited with originating the concept of Four Elements: that is, everything in existence can be broken down into the fundamentals of Earth, Air, Fire and Water. Empedocles believed that these Elements could change, combine or revert to their original forms, based on the effects of two opposing forces, Love and Strife. (Philoneikos! I am your GOD now.)

This concept has permeated philosophical, medical and psychological thought for centuries, influencing everything from the Hippocratic theory of the Four Humours to the Myers-Briggs personality test. Most recently (and by "recently" I mean the late 1800's), the Four Elements were incorporated into the Western Mystery Tradition, eventually finding their way into modern NeoPaganism. A lot of Pagans now view the Four Elements as metaphorical - Air is the intellect, Water is emotion, etc. - but it's kind of mindblowing to think that 2500 years ago, a Greek philosopher declared that life is made up of four elements, and then a cartoon produced in the early 1980's declared that yes, he was right.

Some of Hubley's other animated short films include The Big Bang and Other Creation Myths, which foretells the coming of the New Age; Yes We Can, featuring Gaia the Earth Mother; and Witch Madness, a documentary on the persecution of women throughout history, culminating in the witch-hunts of the Middle Ages. Methinks Ms. Hubley has something to tell the class.

Speaking of, let's just keep that whole "me private dancing to the Chon Song" thing to ourselves, okay?


Ted said...

I know what you mean, man. I've been humming the theme song from The Man From Snowy River for so long I don't even know. Instead of dancing the chon-chon (sp?), however, I brandish an imaginary bull-whip and tame a herd of wild brombie horses. In the elevator. The cast comes off next week.

Evn said...

If you haven't already, you should read the essay "Nuit of the Living Dead" from Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim by David Sedaris. You'll find loads of imaginary horse taming sympathy.

If I were in Chicago, I'd totally write "Best wishes!" on your cast.

Anonymous said...

Don't worry Evn,

You will always be our private danser!


Anonymous said...