Rats from Rags and Dust


From rags and dust

A rat is formed in the cellar.

It was not there before.

Only rats and dust

—Percival Everett, “Logic” from re: f (gesture)

Spontaneous generation is a theory that suggests that living organisms have the capability to arise from nonliving matter. It is an intriguing idea, the thought that mice could be produced by simply leaving cheese wrapped in rags and leaving it in a dark corner for a week—the theory altogether ignores the idea that mice might simply be attracted by the cheese, and instead hypothesizes that mice were created from the cheese. Aristotle (384–322 BC), the Greek philosopher, has been noted as one of the earliest scholars to engage with the theory of spontaneous generation. He proposed that life had the capability to generate from nonliving material, but only if that material contained pneuma, or what he called “vital heat.” To support his theory, Aristotle cited instances of animals appearing in environments that had been previously devoid of those animals, such as the “seemingly sudden appearance of fish in a new puddle of water.”

The whole idea feels similar to the works of medieval alchemists, who searched for a way to turn lead into gold, perfect an elixir of immortality, or create the philosopher’s stone. And indeed, the theory of spontaneous generation would remain largely undisputed until the seventeenth century. To many, I suspect, it mattered little where mice and fish originated from, whether that be from the environment directly or from normal reproduction—all that mattered was that they were present, and that cats could catch the mice that fed on the wheat in their barns, and the fish in the water could be caught and eaten for dinner.

It would not be until 1668 that the theory would be officially debunked by Francesco Redi in his experiment involving maggots and rotting meat. Some may remember this experiment from their high school biology class, but if not, Redi conducted his experiment by setting three jars containing rotting meat out on a table: the first open to the air, the second sealed tightly with a cork, and the third covered in mesh. At the end of the experiment, there were maggots on the meat in the first jar, none in the second jar, and maggots on top of the mesh on the third jar. From this, Redi concluded that spontaneous generation theory was unfounded.

Upon reading Percival Everett’s fifth poem in the collection titled “Logic,” I was immediately reminded of this medieval theory. Though I was more familiar with the instance of mice from cloth and cheese rather than rats from rags and dust, the idea still stands; what is described in this poem has many similarities to the medieval theory of spontaneous generation. “From rags and dust/A rat is formed in the cellar./It was not there before” speaks clearly to this idea of spontaneous generation; the idea that something organic and living can arise from something that is not, and can arise spontaneously.

In our ENGL 203 class, we were asked by Professor McCoy to read these poems in the contexts of New Criticism and intertextuality—what meaning could be gained from these poems if we looked at just the poems themselves, versus the poems in the context of what we knew? If I was to read this fifth poem of “Logic” without the background knowledge of spontaneous generation, a majority of the meaning of this poem would be lost to me. The history of the idea the poem is depicting would have to be entirely ignored; instead, all that would be left is the instance of a rat arising from rags and dust, something that was not there before. Something that most people today know cannot happen because of Francesco Redi and other historical scientists’ work on the subject.

And perhaps that is what Percival Everett was trying to say when he wrote this poem. In a broad observation, the poems of this collection attempt to communicate meaning without referencing much of any outside work or context. The are, in the simplest sense, “logic”—givens and universal truths, like in the sixth poem, where the idea that the number seven cannot be destroyed, but seven men can be. However, if the fifth poem in this collection is viewed the same way, what would be communicated is a blatant lie—rats do not come from rags and dust, they come from the reproduction of other rats. In this case, if this poem was read with a mindset of New Criticism, all sense of logic would be lost.

It is for this reason that I believe that this collection of poems can be observed as Percival Everett’s critique of New Criticism. Or, at least, these poems offer and explanation as to why we shouldn’t only read works of literature through the lens of New Criticism. If we neglect the intertextuality of different works of literature, that literature has the capability to both lose meaning while simultaneously communicating false or confusing ideas. The reader, in a sense, falls into the mindset of the medieval people who believed that rats could simply arise from rags and dust.

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