Of Mice and Mousetraps
More Material for a Fable

In the sinuous folds of the old capitals,
Where all, even horrors, turn out enchanting,
I spy, giving way to my morbid temper,
These singular beings, decrepit and charming.
They trot, puppet-like, dragging themselves as would
A wounded beast, or they dance, not meaning it,
Like poor doorbells where hangs a pitiless demon,
All broken.
They have piercing eyes like drills
Shining like pools of stagnant water in the night.
They have the divine eyes of the little girl
Who wonders and who laughs at all that shines.

PATENT NO. 214,013, 1878
Presely E. Willford, Inventor
"The trap consists of a regular oblong box, the size depending upon the class of animals it is desired to capture, divided by suitable partitions into three apartments, with openings in the partitions for the animal to pass, the first apartment being provided with a false bottom, suspended above the floor thereof by a balance-weight, so arranged that the animal entering from the outside upon the false bottom causes, by its weight, said false bottom to descend, closing the outer entrance and opening the entrance into the second apartment, through which the animal passes, when the false bottom again rises, opening the outer entrance and closing the entrance of the second apartment; and the entrance to the third apartment is guarded by inwardly-projecting wires, which prevent a return therefrom when the animal has once entered."

Baudelaire might have been writing of mice rather than of little old ladies when he wrote this poem in 1861. For mice have the same endearing qualities. They are so very close to our own species that we rely on biological similarities to predict by experiments on them what the outcome in humans will be. We raise mice as pets and befriend them, share bread and cheese with them, raisins and nuts. Their quick and alert ways, their grey fur coats, their silent furtive looks, the stealthy patter of their tiny feet just enchant us. They exert a fascination on children, women and men, not to mention cats, disproportionate to their size.

But we like our mice under control: A caged mouse is a pet, a free mouse is a pest. We cannot bear the thought of a free mouse. Dead or alive, we must have it. We make alliances with cats, in a pinch we would enlist rats to get at a free mouse, but above all, we abet inventors. We torture our minds with a thousand and one ways of catching free mice. Catching mice is a battle of wits. That is what attracts inventors in the first place. For the tiny rodents make up in wit what they lack in weight. They hear subtle sounds, feel their way in the dark. squeeze through pin holes in walls and cupboards, get into our stored food and eat up our books. We feel like fools, powerless, faced by these undaunted defiers of our order. They keep us awake, gnawing their way through our possessions, ignoring fences, walls, doors, locks, covers, boxes, cans and canisters. They turn our monstrous strength into flaccid impotence. They excite our rage and make us kick the walls. In desperation, we turn to cleverness. We cool off our rage into a cold anger, powerful, sustained, the stuff of Greek legends, and set the mind to work on a BETTER MOUSETRAP.

Image from the exhibition.

Nothing is too brutal, infernal or mean to break these free spirits. Spring traps, turning cylinders, spikes, false bottoms, unbalanced beams, poisoned foods: there is nothing in the large panoply, of human wickedness that is not used against free mice. They are strangled, squeezed, starved, exhausted, tossed about, their limbs are crushed, their spines broken, their heads bashed. And once dead, they are unceremoniously tossed by the tail into the garbage pail.

There seems to be no way to solve the mouse problem. For 200 years now, patents have been granted with no sight as yet for the final definitive mousetrap. Ultimately, like mice, the better mousetrap escapes us. It is all potential, asymptotic, ideal, but ever elusive.

Perhaps the whole point of our mythical fight is to see that indeed there might be no problem. Old alchemical books give us the recipes for generating mice: "take old rags, some old crusts of bread, place in a dank and dark corner in a cellar, protect from cat intrusion, and, on the seventh day shake the rags and you will see mice running out." Well, it works! Notwithstanding Pasteur and all his glass bottles, who said and proved indeed that "Spontaneous generation is impossible"!

We may have to view mice radically differently. For when the house is clean and airy, well ordered and sunlit, with no danky corners, rarely do mice come in uninvited. They (to not multiply and occupy the place as if they owned it. Then, we may take them in as pets, friends, or as guests and share with them the peace of a well-run house, letting the mousetrap, symbol of our failure, hang on the wall somewhere of a dark museum, "in the sinuous folds of the old capitals, where all, even horrors, turn out enchanting."



Read "From Better Mousetraps to Better Mice"
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Download Printable Catalog of the Exhibition
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