The Probable Artist

If an infinite number of monkeys are placed before an infinite number of typewriters, one of them will eventually produce the complete works of Shakespeare

And we did it too; row after endless row of monkeys diligently slamming away at their identical IBM model 315s as far as the eye could see. It was hard to get the funding at first, amazing how much typewriters can cost. “What if they all write the same thing?” the sponsors asked. “I’m sure an infinite number of them will,” I told them. Eventually they gave up a grant, but refused to hire any assistants, leaving me alone to search for the Shakespeare monkey.

But oh what a clatter! The noise of those typewriters all day long, “clickety click, clack click clack.” And oh what a smell! No one had given a thought as to where those monkeys would relieve themselves. It only troubled me for a day or two though, by the end of which both senses had been dulled until they gave only a faint cry for help.

Overconfident as I was those first few days, I thought I’d come quite a ways in my search. So far I’d found a monkey who’d written most of Longfellow, another who’d presented what appeared to be an interesting new translation of the Bible, (not to mention his neighbor who produced a commentary on said translation, writing that while he agreed with and admired the author’s linguistic ideals, the end result left much to be desired. He pointed out that the ethical stance on polygamy, for example, was left ambiguous), and I spent several days with one ape where I was sure my quest had ended until I reached Juliet and Romeo and found the play altered to meet with modern feminist sensibilities, forcing me to pick up my bags and move on.

Somewhere in the second week I found the first dead monkey. He’d been writing Kafka. I judged he’d been dead for some time as his fingers had stiffened into a fist around a letter to his (to Kafka’s) father. The monkey had typed until the last, his three remaining fists still reaching towards the key pad. Against my better judgment, I found myself admiring the little chimp.

Lacking a shovel to dig him a proper grave, I ceremoniously dropped each page he’d written over him until the corpse was completely covered. I was reaching for the typewriter to use as a tombstone, when I found that an infant monkey had saddled up alongside it and was banging out a convincing argument against the experiment on the grounds of animal rights. I looked up, and all around me an infinite number of monkeys were dying and new monkeys crawling up to fill their places, and an infinite number of monkeys were ignoring the whole process and continuing to type.

Occasionally a wave of newish monkeys, having gained mass and velocity over an infinite distance would rise above the crowd, only to crash down on their unsuspecting heads, bringing an untimely demise to some potential artist. Sometimes page after page would fly from these collective bodies, and deep within, if the wave passed close enough, I could hear a faint heartbeat from inside: “click clack, clickety clack.” All this for a copy of Shakespeare.

Not long after, I began to play games to keep myself distracted. One week, for example, I decreed that only the dead monkeys had produced quality literature and were all I should read; the next I decided that only those monkeys who covered their eyes while typing were truly in the spirit of the experiment.

While scanning a one-eyed monkey’s efforts during ‘freak week’ I noticed that my name appeared on pages 13 through 26. Upon closer examination I realized I was reading the diary of the lovely young lady who had lived next door to me. Being a person of some moral standing, I dropped the manuscript rather than intrude on her privacy, but let it be said that after my visit with that monkey I knew I would propose to the young mademoiselle upon my return.

Elated as I was to have found my true love amongst all these apes, I began my quest double-time so that I could join her as soon as possible. Prancing through pages of gibberish, transcripts of a South American writer’s phone conversations, and frequent copies of Better Homes and GardensI stumbled upon my own journal. Imagine how shocked I was, I’ve never kept a journal. There it was though, every emotion captured, every joke I would have made, even my usual typos, some of which I’m sure I missed even in reading it then. Flipping through the pages, I noticed something else peculiar about the journal: the dates went well beyond that in which I presently existed. The journal was a finished work, stretching from my first entry at my seventh birthday party when I received the journal from my Great Aunt Sil (which I never actually did, and for that matter cannot actually having an Aunt Sil), till my final forced entry from my deathbed at the age of – (It is not from fear that I withhold my final age, but for some reason I begin to blush at the thought of telling you—I relate it almost to spoiling a surprise party, or being caught with my shirt on inside-out).

Regardless, my thoughts immediately guided me to look up the anticipated proposal to the young lady next door. Rejection! I couldn’t begin to imagine why. Her diary had given me every reason to believe… In a fury I began the march back towards that text; to hell with her privacy, I wanted to know why!

Looking for a bedtime story one night on my journey back, I stumbled upon another journal. This time it was her mother’s. All respect for privacy gone, I tore through it until I found my proposal. To my initial horror, I found that it was the mother who had doubted my eligibility as a suitor. “A man who’s spent his life with gorillas,” she whined, “Imagine the table manners.” It wasn’t until after I’d torn apart the journal that I realized her daughter must still love me after all.

Back in euphoria, I skipped unworriedly towards my goal. It was while reading Voltaire’s Candide that I found a hidden message. Every third word in the preface was a part of another story. Slowly, I read the tale of a young girl and the man who had proposed to her. Ashamed that might have misled him, she bribed a monkey fried, a writer, to forge her dead mother’s diary. “Make her the guilty one,” said the little brat, “keep my name clean of it.” “See no evil, speak no evil,” whispered the clever monkey, slipping the five-spot under his typewriter.

Irate as I was from this distressing story, it’s no wonder that I almost ran right past the Shakespeare monkey. I’m sure I would have too, if not for the calming value of another monkey; and let me tell you what it was that the monkey one before Shakespeare wrote.

At first, I thought it was worthless; bundles of letters plopped down to look like words, only playing at being communication. Then I noticed that certain combinations kept coming up, almost a sequence. I turned through the pages looking for something in English, and there at the end of the manuscript was a key. A translators’ guide, an English to whatever dictionary. It didn’t translate exactly, there were over one hundred and fifty words listed as meaning “understanding”, but it was enough. I began to translate and did not stop until the work was complete. It was a story of Genesis.

The work was nothing from our Bible, mind you; it was a new creation myth. It spoke of a god arose from its people’s words, who lived in language and chance, guiding letters together to form a world. He had taken the letters of the stars and brought them together to spell “conscience”. It was not unlike our fates, except that he could spin a life only with the threads it entrusted to him. And each time these people prayed, they relied on him to make meaning of the prayers.

And I realized then that every text I’d passed by, considering it gibberish, the infinite multitudes, all had meaning. Some in languages I couldn’t understand, some in my own, but expressing concepts not yet invented, it was all of value just waiting for someone to assign it meaning. Everything here was a work of art, just sitting there until someone came and explained why. I looked up again at all the typewriters, and I knew that every concept that ever has been, is being, or will be expressed was somewhere out in those rows. Then I went on to the Shakespeare.

I gave a quick read through to make sure that it was all there. It was. I gathered up the volume, grabbed the monkey (dead), and started my march back home. I realized after about two steps that I wasn’t going anywhere. Movement, excluding that of a literary nature, was impossible here.  There were always an infinite number of monkeys all around no matter which way you headed. I began to cry, then I started to laugh, and then I sat down at an empty typewriter and began to write this story.

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