You are a Northern Water Snake.
Hero Snake 1

Like other adult Northern Water Snakes, you are just over four feet long. You are active both day and night, and are most often seen basking on rocks, stumps, or brush. Your skin is reddish-brown (though some of your relatives are brown, gray, or black), with dark bands around your neck and dark blotches on your long body.
You live with your family in the brambles beside a culvert on the Ohio banks of Lake Erie, near the Raisin River. You used to live on the banks of the river itself, until construction of a mixed-use development and a parkway on the waterfront drove away your primary source of food: the small fish, frogs, crayfish, and salamanders that live and feed in the shallows. Now you have moved your family to this culvert, built to allow irrigation runoff from soybean fields to drain into the lake. Your new home is comfortable enough, not to mention nearly free of the foxes, snapping turtles, and raccoons who are your natural predators, as they have all been driven out of the area by traffic deaths and the falling water table. Then there was that epidemic of parvoviral enteritis, after the raccoons found their way into the huge supply of desiccating pig meat at a local processing plant.
There is plenty of food here, but it's mostly immature round gobys, the parasite that came to the Great Lakes in the bilge water of Baltic freighters during the post-Soviet Eastern European trade boom. The round gobys' favorite food is zebra mussels, also a bilge-driven parasitic intervention into the local ecology. During their time in Lake Erie, these zebra mussels have become tainted with mercury, a byproduct of steel refineries that are themselves long defunct save for their heavy metal traces. Accordingly, every goby you eat brings into your system its own lifetime accretion of mussel-borne heavy metals, stored in the fish's plentiful body fat.
As you ponder this complex and precarious situation, it becomes clear that your habitat, your environment, your life-world has become dominated by parasites. What is more, you cannot escape the conclusion that the most successful parasite, that parasite of all parasites, is the human being. For years, the cycles of your being were conditioned by warm and cold, day and night, the water and the dry land. The humans seem to have no boundaries, no limits as to where they will go or how they will use what they find there. Under their influence, everything changes, and to respond to these changes you are forced to make a choice. Do you:

Adapt to these radical changes by entering the Human job marketAdapt to these radical changes by seeking an undergraduate degree at a local university. Reject the lure of the Human world, and attempt to adapt to the new environmental realities as a Snake.


Have We Met?

Claire Barliant

Seated Nude in a Studio, a photograph by Chauvassaignes, 1856.

Fra Filippo Lippi’s 1440 Portrait of a Woman with a Man at the Casement.

A nineteenth-century instrument, which looks like a bronze teapot, called a “sankh.”


English suit of armor from 1527, possibly for Henry the VIII.

Twelfth-century Islamic chess set.

The Thinker by Thomas Eakins.

Matisse’s painting of Icarus.



A cosmetic spoon in the shape of a woman holding a dish, from Egypt, circa 1390–1352 B.C.

I could do this for hours. With each click, each refresh, I see, on the 12-inch screen of my laptop, twenty images plucked randomly from the 338, 215 works (at last count) that the Metropolitan Museum of Art has posted on its ever burgeoning website. The database is not organized chronologically or geographically; it has no use for categories based on gender or media. This is Malraux’s Museum without Walls, or Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas, with the added bonus of the shuffle algorithm. Their minds would have boggled at the possibilities for inadvertent connections among works from different eras and geographical locations. Thus Chauvassaignes’s contemplative nude seems to be in dialogue with Lippi’s aristocratic lady, caught in medias flirt at her window, while Henry VIII exchanges military strategy with the chess set. Matisse’s plummeting Icarus seems to reify the internal struggle of Louis N. Kenton in Eakins’s melancholy portrait (or maybe it’s the other way around). And then there’s that spoon, which is so richly evocative on its own.

I was a reluctant convert. A few years ago, the Met introduced a series of ads emblazoned with the slogan, “It’s time we met.” The goal of the campaign was clear: to put a friendlier face on the imposing Upper East Side institution. The ads invited visitors to post photographs of themselves standing beside priceless art works. Examples included teenagers wrapped in toilet paper, mugging in front of a mummy, or pulling faces in imitation of an African mask. Each time I saw the posters on the subway, I cringed—they made the Met seem desperate, like an aging socialite in skinny jeans.


So, when it came time to compose a review of the Met’s growing online presence, I sharpened my knives in anticipation of a hatchet job.

And then I discovered the miraculous database.

From there it was a quick scoot of the mouse before I was happily lost in the timeline of art history, which begins in 8000 B.C., or the world maps. I’m almost ashamed to admit this, but I’m even charmed by the Met’s “Connections” videos, which are being uploaded every Wednesday throughout the year, and which always feature a different employee’s personal introduction to the Metropolitan. The voices range from editorial assistants to curators to my favorite contributor so far, video producer Christopher Noey and his meditation on works that remind him of his native Tennessee. Noey notes that the pink marble of the Met’s floor comes from his home state, where it is so plentiful that it is used to construct all manner of buildings, so every time he looks at the museum’s floor he thinks of his high school bathroom.

At this point my editors are aghast at my gushing. So here come the qualifiers: There are plenty of reasons to be wary of The museum’s contents, which often remain hidden deep in storage, are now public playthings. Does art surfing encourage weak armchair scholarship? Maybe more important, as the materiality of the artwork recedes, are we even aware of what is being lost? There is much to be gained from the physicality of art, from standing in front of an object and absorbing its scale and texture, along with the atmosphere it creates in the room, the way it is presented in a gallery, and the way other people respond to it.


And yet, stripped of their aura, their en filade context, the works on are free-floating, open to new associations that develop as we sift through them. “There is no political power without control of the archive, if not of memory,” Jacques Derrida wrote in Archive Fever. “Effective democratization can always be measured by this essential criterion: the participation in and the access to the archive, its constitution, and its interpretation.”

So it would seem that thanks to our new access to the Met’s archive, albeit in virtual form, at some level we can indeed find a measure of redemption in the online collection database, and, occasionally, a righting of wrongs, including even imperialist ones.

Take the case of the Shahnama, or “Book of Kings,” commissioned by Shah Tamasp. The Persian illustrated manuscript was completed around 1530, and eventually ended up in the hands of collector Arthur Houghton, who, to the horror of many, simply tore it apart, giving seventy-eight paintings from the book to the Met as a gift in the early 1970s. The example is apt: Our relationship to works of art has always been compromised by not seeing them in the setting or context for which they were intended. Purists will continue to be horrified at the prospect that reproductions will displace the real thing. And yes, it’s only slight compensation for Houghton’s act of destruction, if it’s even compensation at all, that the reproductions (though not all of them) are now so easily accessed on the Met’s website. But the Shahnama’s new availability, like many other features of the museum’s expanded online presence, is a positive move. Think of it as an appetizer before the main course: the access whets the hunger for a museum experience, it doesn’t replace it.


Claire Barliant writes about art for the Goings on “About Town” section of the New Yorker, and for other places too.

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