Searchin' for something to search for

I wander, therefore I am; and has anyone else noticed all the fur floating around?


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Douglas Cruickshank
June 19, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

Not so long ago, everyone hadn't yet been everywhere. There was no Polar-Tec, no
Gore-Tex, no portable satellite phones, helicopter rescues, nothing much in the way
of effective bug repellent or inoculations and no nifty miniature stoves that
could handily cook up a pot of Earl Gray in a blizzard. Freelance vagabonds and
organized eco-tourism were yet to penetrate the deepest deserts, the iciest ice
continents, the Earth's jambalaya of jungles, the highest, hottest, hardest and
farthest places. It was a time when men -- and more women than you may think --
who if born a century or more later might have been astronauts were instead
blasting off by camel, carriage, horse, on foot, by sedan chair or what have you
to look for something, and often they didn't have any idea of what the hell it
was.

Those splendidly perverse characters were driven by an odd human trait -- a
craving, really -- that forces some to abandon logic and common sense and leave
the comfort and safety of the familiar in pursuit of a vague goal in a distant
land from which they may never return. That craving has generated myriad dramas
and fed the armchair adventurer's hunger for vicarious thrills for centuries. But
perhaps no writer has dug to the heart of this irrational passion -- really
gotten it -- with the acuteness that Evan S. Connell did in his books "A
Long Desire" (1979) and "The White Lantern" (1980), both of which are out of
print, but not impossible to find.

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Connell may not be the most famous of writers, but he's far from obscure and he's
one of the finest. A native of Kansas City, Mo., he first attracted
widespread attention with his signal 1957 novel, "Mrs. Bridge," succinctly
described by critic Webster Schott as a "saga of sweet joylessness and
blunted sensibility of marriage, family, and middle age on the Plains of
Protestantism." And Connell's greatest popular success came with "Son of the
Morning Star," his exquisite, "Rashomon"-like account of Gen. George
Armstrong Custer
's catastrophic undoing at the Little Big Horn. But his two
volumes on exploration and explorers are the ones I find myself coming back to.

In the first, "A Long Desire," Connell ranges over a herd of out-of-round
obsessives seeking Atlantis, the seven cites of Cmbola and the Northwest
Passage, as well as legendary persons such as the (possibly fictional, possibly
not) Christian king of Africa, Prester John, Christopher Columbus,
desperate treasure hunters, Victorian lady adventurers and a regular dynasty of
alchemists including the gloriously named "quasi-genius" Phillippus
Theophrastus Aureolus Bombastus ab Hohenheim -- Parcelsus
, for short.

Like Connell's other subjects, Parcelsus indulged his urge to wander with a
vengeance beginning in the early 1500s. He was also a medical intuitive of
uncommon skill -- or luck. "The great teachers were known to be in Italy, so he
went to Ferrara but his studies were interrupted by war," Connell writes. "He
fled south and became an army surgeon. It was customary to dress wounds with a
poultice of feathers, dung, snake fat, and whatever else looked appropriate. The
result was usually gangrene. Parcelsus, with nothing to support his heretical
opinion, refused to apply these poultices and to everybody's amazement quite a
few of the patients recovered. Though he did on occasion use frog eggs as
disinfectant -- without knowing that they contained iodine. At the same time he
thought frost blisters should be treated with children's hair boiled by a
red-headed person."

Connell traces the "congenitally unstable" Parcelsus to Spain, England,
Brandenburg, Prussia, Lithuania, Poland, Hungary, Walachia, Transylvania,
Croatia, Sweden, Russia, Constantinople, Egypt (where the restless pilgrim was
"amazed and alarmed by the sight of 'monsters so fearful you would jump right
back into your mother's womb' -- presumably hippos and crocodiles") and
virtually everywhere else with the exception of Atlantic City and certain
neighborhoods in Jakarta.

Anyway, it's simply delicious stuff. Connell is the ever-elegant host, serving up
one rich and winding yarn after another. It's a word meal that you don't want to
end and it doesn't -- the second volume, "The White Lantern," is more of the same and
just as worthy of salivating over. And Connell continues as grand guide, his
deceptively trim prose leading you everywhere you never expected to go, which is
maybe why Annie Dillard's book, "For the Time Being," takes its epigraph
from Connell: "The legend of the Traveler appears in every civilization,
perpetually assuming new forms, afflictions, powers, and symbols. Through every
age he walks in utter solitude toward penance and redemption." Yes.

And yet the modern world, specifically the United States (in case you haven't
noticed), is becoming increasingly furry. Everywhere you look things are a lot
furrier than they used to be -- from California (where, frankly, you'd expect
that sort of thing) to the New York island. There's just more fur everywhere, and
often in the oddest -- not to say the rudest -- places. It's hard to track trends
like fur (relative increase of; increased mention of), but one way is to look at
recent news stories in which fur plays a key role.

For example, last week, in a New York Observer article on real estate it
was revealed that "rock musician Lenny Kravitz has sold his three-story
town house at 157 East 35th St. for $1.76 million." An ordinary enough event
for a rich rocker, but the article continues with a description of the decor that
Kravitz left behind: "There was not an ounce of light in the whole downstairs,"
said Nan Schiff, a representative of the house's buyer. "It was covered in
black fur." The house's bedrooms, the Observer article stated, "had been made
into offices and windows [had been] covered over by the 'fur' ... Andrea
Lucas
, who represented Kravitz, would only say, "It's a one-of-a-kind
house." And I agree.

Next in the fur survey we take a look at Rolling Stone's July 8-22 issue, in
which Nicole Kidman is jabbering away about any little thing that comes
into her head when she coughs up this hairball: The actress's most embarrassing
moment, she tells the magazine, was when her 6-year-old daughter informed a cab
driver that "My mommy has a vagina. It has fur on it." There you have it. I rest
my case and now leave you, peaceably and swiftly -- without looking back, down or
sideways.


Douglas Cruickshank

Douglas Cruickshank is a senior writer for Salon. For more articles by Cruickshank, visit his archive.

MORE FROM Douglas Cruickshank

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