Sunday, November 8, 2009

Is it raining, or isn't it?

In the process of trying to articulate the ontological instability of the weather, I've collected some beguiling anecdotal evidence--Hamlet's wonderful exchange with Polonius about resemblances in the clouds, for instance--but I'm not at all sure what to do with it. 

A friend once recalled an old vaudeville bit for me: Two gentlemen enter, one from stage right and one from stage left, and approach each other, each lost in thought, unaware of the other. One carries an open umbrella, presumably protecting him from the rain; the other carries a closed umbrella tucked under his arm. As their paths cross, they pause. The man with the open umbrella moves it aside. Both men look up, and each extends a hand, palm upward. The man with the open umbrella closes his, the man with the closed umbrella opens his, and they move on.

It's a neat joke, sharp and economical. And as is so often the case, the situation is funny because it's familiar. If it were not, we might laugh for a different reason. How silly that these gents can't agree that it's raining! But the fact is, we often can't say if it's raining or not, and it seems plausible that at precisely the same moment, in precisely the same spot, two people might come to opposite conclusions. This uncertainty is compounded by the performance, for we the audience know it's not raining on stage. Nevertheless we recognize "rain" in certain commonplaces: an umbrella, a glance skyward, an extended palm. The illusion reiterates the question raised by the bit: is it raining, or isn't it?

It's a question memorably raised in White Noise, in a conversation between Jack Gladney and his taciturn teenaged son, Heinrich. In the car on the way to school, Heinrich observes, "It's going to rain tonight." To which Jack replies, "It's raining now." Heinrich's retort: "The radio said tonight." (The inadequacy of language, particularly the language of authority, to events is one theme of the novel--see "Airborne Toxic Event.") "Look at the windshield," Jack insists. "Is that rain or isn't it?" Heinrich: "I'm only telling you what they said." Jack: "Just because it's on the radio doesn't mean we have to suspend belief in the evidence of our senses."

And again,
"Is it raining," I said, "or isn't it?"
"I wouldn't want to have to say."
"What if someone held a gun to your head?"
"Who, you?"
"Someone. A man in a trenchcoat and smoky glasses. He holds a gun to your head and says, 'Is it raining or isn't it? All you have to do is tell the truth and I'll put away my gun and take the next flight out of here.'"
"What truth does he mean? Does he mean the truth of someone traveling at almost the speed of light in another galaxy? Does he mean the truth of someone in orbit around a neutron star? Maybe if these people could see us through a telescope me might look like we were two feet two inches tall and it might be raining yesterday instead of today."
The "evidence of our senses," Heinrich indicates, is no guarantor of truth. And the resonance of the vaudeville bit suggests that you don't need to be traveling at almost the speed of light in another galaxy to wonder if it's raining yesterday or today. But I do think Heinrich's on to something, introducing distortions of distance in space and time into a discussion of the weather. You could argue that White Noise, a cold war novel, aligns the theory of relativity (and all that follows from it) with profound uncertainty, even paranoia: we can't even tell anymore if it's raining! But what if the weather anticipates this uncertainty? It is, after all, the imponderable model of the Epicurean atom in Lucretius' De Rerum Natura. Want to know what atoms are like? Look at the weather.

Most of the time, of course, we can tell if it's raining or not. We hear it, feel it, smell it. But it is also somehow not all there. (Dr. Johnson kicked a rock, not a raindrop.)

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