On the Existence of Mount Rushmore and Other Improbabilities

Jenny Diski

The thought came to Ellen in the middle of one night. First she was asleep and then she was awake with a single question in her head, as if it was asking itself so urgently it couldn’t wait until morning to have itself thought about. The question was this: does Mount Rushmore exist? And then, in answer to her weary: Well, of course it exists; a supplementary question: How do you know?

Got her! That was the end of the night’s sleep. It didn’t matter how much she told herself that she couldn’t care less about Mount Rushmore, had never given Mount Rushmore more than a passing thought, and firmly turned on her side to get back to sleep, it just wouldn’t go away. She sat up, lit a cigarette and the bed side lamp, and gave it a passing thought.

All she could think about Mount Rushmore was that Cary Grant and whatwashername – Eva Marie Saint had crawled all over it trying to get away from ... James Mason, she thought, in North by Northwest. They had clambered across the faces of American presidents carved into the mountain-side in – she didn’t know where. Which presidents? Lincoln, she was sure, but who else? She didn’t remember, if she’d ever known. Why should she? She lived and worked in London, England. She didn’t have to know about Mount Rushmore. Except that she’d been woken up, and her night’s sleep ruined worrying about it.

She wished Martin hadn’t taken his Encyclopaedia Britannica with him when they split up. She missed that more than she missed him. Tomorrow, she promised herself, she would go to the library at school and check it out. Now, could she please go to sleep?

The trouble is once you’ve turned on the light and smoked a cigarette, you have to watch the dawn come in through the venetian blinds. It was a law of some kind. She stared grimly at the blackness seeping through the cracks in the slats.

Ellen used to be a history teacher. She worked, still worked, though now in the English department, at a comprehensive school of the kind the local middle-class parents managed not to send their children to. Since everyone had to stay at school until 16, and it was not permitted to tell pupils they didn’t have a hope of getting decent grades at what was then CSE and they’d be better off going out and earning a living, she had been in charge of a bunch of 16-year-olds who were supposed to be studying for the history exam. None of them was very able, but Tracy was the least able of them all. Her dimly lit face had never brightened with a sudden thought, but she was pleasant and worked heart-breakingly hard. It always surprised Ellen how much effort Tracy put into her work, in spite of never achieving anything more than a pat on the back for trying.

Everybody had to do a project for history which counted for 20 per cent of the final exam. Tracy was doing the project Ellen always suggested to the least academic kids: ‘Costume in the 18th Century’. They liked going to the library, and, with the help of the librarian, finding books with plenty of pictures. For over six months Tracy had been copying dresses, shoes, hats, coats and underwear from books and colouring them in, her tongue poked concentratedly between her lips. The folder was quite thick now. There were dozens of drawings, each labelled as neatly as she could manage in her tentative, round hand writing. Every time Ellen passed her desk, she would stop and make admiring noises about Tracy’s use of colour, which was all she could find to make an honestly positive comment about.

Then, one day, Tracy had lifted her head from her work while Ellen was across the other side of the room.

‘Miss,’ she called out. It was the long drawn out ‘Mi ... ii ... ss’ which signified a problem. Ellen went to Tracy’s desk.

‘Mi ... ii ... ss,’ Tracy repeated when Ellen bent down to look at the work. ‘You know the 18th century ...?’

This was how all the pupils began sentences to their teachers. Every query or observation began with ‘You know ...?’ and then the subject of the forthcoming discussion. Ellen had long since stopped making a point about it, and these days answered the question, ‘Miss, you know my mum ...?’ or even on occasion, ‘Miss, you know God ...?’ in the affirmative. It was the only way to get on with it. They would not continue until she had said ‘Yes’, so she said yes.

‘Yes,’ Ellen said, with a little more truth than usual. She was a history teacher, and did know something about the 18th century. ‘What about the 18th century, Tracy?’

‘Was it before or after the war, Miss?’

Ellen stayed very still while she took in Tracy’s question. For a moment she thought of asking, ‘Which war?’, but decided against it. She understood, in the kind of rush in which revelation arrives, that for Tracy there would be only two wars: the First and the Second. And since there was only a zero before one, those would be the only two wars she knew about. Or rather, not about, but whose existence she was aware of. Tracy continued to look up at her teacher, waiting expectantly for an answer.

A thought struck Ellen.

‘Why do you want to know?’

Why did she want to know? If she didn’t know when the 18th century was, what difference did it make whether it was before or after whichever war it might be?

‘I dunno,’ Tracy said, sorry now that she’d asked and been obliged therefore to answer a question herself. ‘I only wondered.’

Late that night, Ellen had sat at her kitchen table and forced herself to be inside the mind of Tracy. It seemed very important to get an inkling of what it might be like to have no concept of chronology beyond one’s own birthdays. The fact that it had never crossed her mind that Tracy (and others, certainly) did not know where the 18th century was in relation to the present day, seemed now to Ellen to be a level of ignorance close to Tracy’s. So she set about trying to imagine how the world was for her pupil.

She was surprised to find that inside Tracy’s mind, it was not, as she’d imagined, all empty space and fog. On the contrary, it was extraordinarily crammed in there. There were countless tiny doors inside Tracy’s mind, so many it would be impossible to investigate them all in a single session. But it wouldn’t have been feasible anyway, because each of the doors Ellen tried was locked, and there were no corridors leading from one to another. She began to get a picture of how it worked.

Tracy, like all the kids, watched hours of television, preferably American imports, but sometimes she’d see something set in a different historical period. At first, Ellen wondered how she would understand the nature of the drama she was watching. But then she realised that what happened was that Tracy watched historical drama from one of the rooms in her head, and when, say, Baywatch was on, she viewed it from a different room. The rule was, she could only be in one room at a time, and had no access to what was behind the other locked doors. So she would watch an episode of Sherlock Holmes, more or less following the story, but without any context, because each piece of information on the Victorian period which had made its way into her mind during the course of her life lived separate and alone in one of the millions of inaccessible rooms. There was only either pure narrative or disembodied detail in Tracy’s worldview.

Presumably, during that lesson as she coloured in her 18th-century hose, some circuit had shorted, and briefly connected one room with another, which had caused her to ask about the relationship between the 18th century and the war. And this was why she had been so confused when Ellen asked her why she wanted to know. Tracy had no idea why she wanted to know. It was just that a door had swung open, and a question popped out.

Tracy would not pass CSE history. But she would get a job, marry, have children and take care of a home; and she’d do all of those things as well as Ellen would. Tracy would be perfectly able to enjoy and manage her life. It was only that she wasn’t best suited to learning things she had no need to know about.

That was when Ellen changed from the history to the English department. In the English department there was no syllabus to be got through. The year she had spent explaining about the Industrial Revolution would be replaced by the entertainment of reading stories (knowing them to be contextless for many, but stories nevertheless) and doing practical exercises which young people who are about to manage life on their own would find useful. Writing applications for job interviews; filling in forms, keeping diaries ...

When Ellen told the story of Tracy to Martin – who was still living with her at the time – he told her the story about one of his history classes: a group of 14-year-old boys. He’d been about to start teaching the voyages of discovery, and was sitting the pre-Columbian scene, explaining to them how people believed then that the world was flat. He’d noticed a funny look in several of the boys’ eyes, and something cold had run down his spine, he said. So he pointed round the room and asked each pupil whether the world was flat or round.

The first boy looked panic-stricken.

‘Round, Sir ... No, flat, Sir ... I mean ...’

Thirteen of the 27 boys were uncertain.

‘Uncertain,’ Martin emphasised. ‘None of them positively believed the world was flat, but only because they didn’t believe anything at all about the planet. They simply never thought about it. And, you know what? They’re right. It doesn’t matter one way or the other to them. Or to us. Everything works just fine. They and we get on with our lives. They climb aboard aeroplanes and fly to sunny parts of Europe, even to America, some of them. But they don’t think about falling off the edge because planes fly from airport to airport. The shape of the earth is irrelevant. It could be hexagonal, for all they care, as long as they get where they want to go.’

And when Ellen came to think about it, knowing that the earth was approximately spherical and that the 18th century came before the 19th century, wasn’t information she actually used much in her life. She could have got on perfectly well without it. She tried to remember the moment when she had been taught those facts, but she couldn’t because there wasn’t a moment. It was as if she’d always known them. And so what? Had the world really turned upside down when Columbus didn’t fall off the edge of the earth, or did most people simply shrug when they heard the news? And so what? In fact, most people wouldn’t have heard about it. They would have lived through the discovery, got on with their business, and died without ever knowing the cataclysmic news.

Ellen saw the first dim glow of light coming through the gaps in the venetian blinds. Mount Rushmore, she thought again. What an extraordinary thing to do to a mountain. And how, in God’s name, had they done it? How could a team of stone masons, or sculptors, or explosives experts, or whatever they were, have made the mountain-side Abraham Lincoln look anything like Lincoln the man on such a scale? And why? To celebrate America and democracy, she supposed. Or some such idealistic motive. Probably not unlike the idealistic motives she’d had in the Seventies that made her go into teaching.

Now she came to think of it, Mount Rushmore was the silliest thing she could imagine. Odd, really, that she’d never thought of it before. Not in all her life, not even during the several times she’d seen North by Northwest had it crossed her mind to wonder about the reality of such an absurdity. For all she knew, it didn’t actually exist. After all, Hitchcock would have mocked the thing up in a studio to shoot the final scenes. Its appearance in a film didn’t prove its existence. Tomorrow, Ellen determined, she’d go (sleepily for sure) to the library during lunchbreak and find out about it. Where it was, and what it was, and why. And what if it didn’t really exist? What if Mount Rushmore was nothing more than a Hollywood set; just an idea? What if I dreamed it up, she thought, with sleep raking its fingers through her mind? What then?