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By Allan Weisbecker
Thor Heyerdahl was a Norweigan adventurer whose theories about ancient peoples’ migrations a few decades ago were controversial, to say the least. In fact, everyone thought he was nuts.
Thor thought ancient Polynesia was settled by folks from South America many thousands of years ago. Since virtually all the ethnological evidence was that people from Asia worked their way down gradually, Thor figured he’d prove his theory by building a balsa raft and migrating his own ass from Chile (or Peru; I forget) to Polynesia.
That expedition, which he wrote about in the popular book Kon Tiki, was undertaken in 1947.
A few years later Thor had a theory that the Americas were settled by folks from North Africa, So he built a raft out of Papyrus and sailed it from Africa to Barbados. (He sank on his first try, then did it again.)
He kept doing this. Thor would have a theory, so he’d built a raft.
I find this humorous.
by Allan Weisbecker
I am responsible for Thor Heyerdahl’s final voyage. Being an existentialist, I feel no guilt or remorse about the tragedy or my part in it; I have hence decided to put to rest the false rumors and hysterical innuendos that have surfaced via the media since Thor’s disappearance. Here’s what really happened:
Many years ago, while living on the Left Bank, deeply immersed in existential thought and study, I came upon some heretofore unpublished existential writings. I was rooting through the attic of a recently deceased existentialist cohort, an old fellow for whom I had deep affection, even though, in the ten years I knew him, he never spoke a word to me. Every night we would sit in a local existential café, drinking coffee and brooding with furrowed brows. I would speak frequently to the man (I never found out his name) and he would speak to other existentialists, but never to me. I took this as the ultimate existential bond, so I took it upon myself to pillage his personal belongings before his so-called “rightful heirs” (what a ridiculous concept!) showed up.
Having pocketed some loose currency, I came across an old, yellowed manuscript of perhaps 500,000 words. Written in longhand, it was completely illegible – I sensed I’d stumbled upon something of existential note. And indeed, such proved to be the case. Having taken the volume home, and after months of intensive study, I managed to decipher one phrase. Translated from the French, it read, “While the cat’s away.” My curiosity piqued, I asked Sartre if he was familiar with this concept, metaphorically or otherwise. Sartre laughed that existential laugh of his and replied, “But of course. ‘While the cat’s away’ is the very bedrock upon which all of existentialism sits!”
I blushed, cleared my throat, then told him that I already knew that; I was only wondering if he’d heard the phrase in some context other than existentialism. Sartre fixed me with a wall-eyed glare, observing that there exists no context other than existentialism. He clicked his false teeth and stalked off in a huff.
The years passed and I grew and grew existentially, but I was still haunted by the phrase “While the cat’s away.” I did learn that Sartre was correct. It was and is the very foundation of existential thought. I was still certain, however, that I had heard the phrase somewhere else, in some dim past, some other context.
Then, two years ago, I had a reunion with existential colleague whom I hadn’t seen in a while. After some small talk concerning matters of the mundane (he seemed slightly depressed that his wife and three children had recently been killed in an avalanche), he broached the subject of Zen Buddhism. When I casually asked him what was the foundation of Zen Buddhism, he replied, “The mouse will play. ”
I froze in my existential tracks. “While the cat’s away, the mouse will play!” I exclaimed.
Thor Heyerdahl happened to be in Paris giving a lecture at the Sorbonne on the roles of women at sea (Thor figured there were only two roles, cooking being one of them). I had met Thor the previous year when he was lecturing on the roles of women in Polynesia (again, Thor figured there were only two, and, again, cooking was one of them). He had sat in on my lecture on the roles of women in existentialism — my theory was so close to Thor’s that we became fast friends.
After Thor’s lecture I caught up with him at a Paris café. I explained that I was having major problems with the concepts of “While the cat’s away” and “The mouse will play” originating in two such diverse and geographically isolated philosophies, and how they had been fused to form a mundane and sophomoric American “old saying.”
Thor leaped to his feet and demanded that I repeat everything I had told him.
I did. As I spoke, Thor began pacing and stroking his beard. “While the cat’s away,” he mumbled, then paused. “The mouse will play.” I sensed that Thor’s wheels were spinning at high RPMs.
He paused again.
“It’s apparent that these two ideas are very closely related,” he mused. He paced and beard-stroked faster. “There has to be a connection between the ancient Zen Buddhists and the ancient existentialists.”
I did my best to explain that there were no ancient existentialists, that existentialism had evolved very recently, but Thor motioned for me to be silent.
“There must have been some sort of communication,” Thor said, then paused to pick some lint from his beard. He went on, eyes intense: “If you wanted to communicate with another person or culture that had values closely resembling your own, how would you do it?” This question was rhetorical, but I didn’t realize it.
“Well,” I said, “I’d pick up the phone…”
“Nonsense!” Thor interrupted. “You’d build a raft!” Again, I tried to explain that there were no ancient existentialists, and, again, he cut me off.
“Okay,” Thor said, then resumed his pacing. “The ancient Zen Buddhists were probably too busy meditating to put to sea.” Another pause. “And the ancient existentialists were probably too busy being depressed around the campfire to put to sea.”
I breathed a sigh of relief, figuring that Thor had invalidated his own theory without any further input from me. I was mistaken in this assumption.
“Since it is unlikely that either group put to sea…” Thor’s voice rose an octave. “The only way to confirm my theory is to prove that they both put to sea.”
Being an existentialist, I was extremely impressed with Thor’s logic.
Thor continued to pace and stroke his beard. “So I must make two voyages!” I was now watching him pace like a spectator at a tennis match. “The ancient Zen Buddhists would have constructed their rafts out of…” Thor paused, deep in ethnographic thought…"rice paper!”
Thor bid me adieu, then bolted through a door, but, finding that it led to a cleaning closet, he quickly reemerged, saying, “I must get to Japan immediately and sail a rice paper raft to France, home of the ancient existentialists!”
“Oh, my God,” I thought to myself. Then, realizing what I had said, shortened it to “Oh, my.”
Thor scanned the café for an exit. “Then I must construct an existential raft and sail it to Japan!” As he headed for another door, I asked what I considered a vital question, one that, so far as I knew, no existentialist had ever pondered: “What would an existentialists use to construct a raft?”
But Thor had found the exit. He was gone.
Thor spent a year in Japan, constructing and outfitting a rice paper raft. Eighteen months sailing it from Kyoto to Biarritz, France. The voyage around Cape Horn, then north to Europe has been heralded as the most amazing feat of seamanship in the annals of maritime history.
Tragedy struck, however, a week after Thor’s return. He launched his existential raft from a beach near Calais. It sank immediately. Thor’s body was never recovered.
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