One is surrounded today by reductionists, and reductionism. It is a form of magic, or rather, prestidigitation. The man dressed in the labcoat makes his move and, poof! … There is no rabbit any more. But I tell you there is a rabbit and — poof! — it is back again. Anyone who follows pop science will be familiar with these sleight-of-hand tricks, in which unsolvable mysteries of mind and matter — the existence of rabbits is just one of them — are explained away. Then cleverly brought back for the next demonstration. (Perhaps this reproof is a little over-condensed.)

But I prefer other forms of magic. An example would be the Nereids, dancing on the waves when the world began. Dancing, still.

Wandering though the back alleys, homeward from the latest Trinity College book sale this evening, in gorgeous dusk and drizzle, I was carrying in my satchel a glorious book. It was published by the British Museum, in anno 1928. Verily, a grand folio, with 52 large gravure plates in sepia on fine art paper, shewing classical marbles and bronzes from that museum’s remarkable collection. I saw this book only once before, in Luzon’s, when it was in Great Russell Street, London, forty years ago. I had not seen another copy since. I seem to remember it was priced at 90 pounds, in 1976. Poor autodidactic scholar that I was, I could not dream of paying so much.

But today, for 15 inflated Canadian loonies, it is mine; thanks to that Trinity book sale. This makes me quite happy. For today I am rich beyond the dreams of avarice. Indeed, I must have about three thousand books accumulated, up here in the High Doganate. That’s at least ten times as many as the richest person I know!

Enough of my boasting. (I am getting worse than Donald.)

Upon returning home — to tea, tea! — I find one of my sea nymphs, on Plate XIII. There she is carved in marble, yet also in wind-blown drapery, running over the waves. There are three of them in the British Museum, astride: I used to walk past these dancing Nereids almost daily, on my way into the old library rotunda (now sadly gentrified). Though a slight detour from the front gate, I did this because they thrilled me. The truth is that, twenty-three centuries before, they had stood between the columns of a splendid tomb, above Xanthos in Lycia. And billions of years ago, they danced on the waves at the beginning of the world.

Examining the plate carefully with a glass, I discover something I never knew before. Between the feet of this Nereid there is the fragment of a sea bird, floating on the waters. Head and wing broke off long ago, but I had not discerned this in the remaining jumble. In the reproduction I can see it. To the mental image I have carried all these years, one more part is added, that will not be taken away.

For the whole thing is irreducible. She, and they, are dancing on the waves. And at the beginning of the world. I can almost hear what they are singing.