EVERYTHING IS A story. Whatever we look at we interpret, giving it a past and a future within our minds. We can capture moments in pictures, but those moments will always remain animated to us, will have come from somewhere and be moving on. Images escape themselves and our minds let them. Whether this is to help in our understanding of the picture—and the world beyond the frame—or not, I don’t think it makes any difference. We are our own stories.
For an example, look at the picture above: If someone asked me what I saw in it, I’d say twenty or more galaxies, some beginning and some ending, made up of star clusters, gases and reactions. Though seemingly close in proximity, vast and unreachable stretches exist in the darkness between each of them. I would say it was a picture that someone looked up at with a very powerful telescope and captured, marvelling upon its colour, simple streaking beauty and distance. That’s a story.
It’s not surprising that I’m wrong about this picture. Anyone with a passing knowledge of biological science (and even those without) will probably see this for what it really is: a picture of microscopic cells. But even they tell us a story.
They are cells taken from a dog and have gone through the process of ‘immortalisation’, which means that they will continue to divide and grow even though the cells are no longer a part of the animal they came from. Do you wonder whether this dog is still alive? Even if it is, the immortalised cells taken from it will outlast the rest of its body. What breed of dog do you think it was? Was it the pet of the scientist who took the samples? Can you see that there is a loose story already forming?
The dog was actually a female cocker-spaniel, and the sample was taken in 1958 so, unfortunately, the dog is dead. But even with these questions answered, that’s not the end of it. Our hunger for the rest of the story is being drawn out of us.
The process of immortalisation of cells can be brought about in a few different ways. The first known way is to extract and use the proteins in a virus (say, a cancer) that allow it to keep growing and multiplying in the human body, but leave all of the bad stuff—the cancerous cells—out. Growth proteins are then combined with the cells in question to keep them growing and dividing without the organism that they came from.
This seems more than just scientific to me. It seems… vengeful. We have found a way to fuck with cancer, to take something away from it to use for our own purposes. With this thought I’m applying an overarching story to something that does not need it. Immortalising cell lines is already far more interesting than anything I’ll ever think up: the revenge of science or any other way in which I could spin it.
The reason the picture above fascinates me is because there is something amiss within it that I would not have noticed without having been told. At this tiny, microscopic level, something has gone wrong. It’s like a Magic Eye picture that you have to stare at for a while to see something that you didn’t previously recognise. It wouldn’t matter how long I looked at this one. My eyes wouldn’t have picked it up because I wouldn’t know what to look for. Besides, I have never been able to see the hidden images in those Magic Eye picture books anyway. Being relatable is always important to stories.
See the yellow cell on the left that has a purple line spread across it? That is an immortalised cell dividing and multiplying the way it normally would. See the cell on the right that has a purple Y-shape in the middle? That’s a cell dividing three-ways, which is not normal for a cell to do. There could be many reasons for this: lax sterilisation methods in the lab could have let a contaminated cell in, or the strain of going through the immortalisation process could have affected the cells somehow and caused some of them to mutate abnormally. If the latter is the case, immortalisation in these cells may have perhaps lead to their own deterioration and end. I’m applying not a story this time, but a moral, perhaps unjustly. We look for morality in everything, and irony as well. ‘These immortalised cells are dying!’ The irony is somehow poignant and silly.
But here’s the real story, the story behind all of this, the one I’ve been both anxious and cautious to tell: this picture was given to me by my ex-girlfriend, who worked in a cancer research lab. She thought I’d find it of interest, and I obviously did. I found whatever she had to tell me enthralling, because it came from a place of knowledge, experience and life, and life’s story is always better than the one in my head. I liked her stories because they were poetically real, and not synthetic poetry like my own that has to fill in so many gaps and make too many loose connections. Her stories were straight, simple and grounded in unexaggerated reality. They were beautiful.
My favourite story of hers starts with her looking through the lens of a microscope. She notices a strange pulsing in the cells she’s studying. They jump around, erratic, as though charged with electricity. They act unlike anything else you’re likely to find at a molecular level. She found that they were the beginning of heart-cells, drumming a microscopic beat. Even at that base level, they pulsed with life, just the same as the ones in our chests—only millions of times smaller. I thought that was not just wonderful, but comforting for some reason. It’s that poetic reality; that our hearts are the sum of their own parts, and that every inch of them right down to their microscopic cells is drumming along, doing its job with vigour and conviction. Maybe I added the conviction part. The heart doesn’t feel conviction. Well, not the heart that beats within our chests. It doesn’t feel the romanticism of any of these thoughts, either. That’s the heart that we like to think we have. The heart that can hurt.
She gave me a printed version of this picture. Under the cells that were dividing regularly on the left-hand side, she put an arrow pointing up marked ‘Normal’, and an arrow over the other side pointing up to the cells that were dividing three-ways and labelled them ‘ridiculous’. I look at this picture that I have up on my wall and it tells me the story of a vast galaxy, a dog (that turned out to be a 50-year-old long-dead cocker-spaniel) and its scientist owner, of viruses losing a battle in an eternal war, of the abnormal growth of some immortalised cells, of the girl who I loved who told me stories that I loved just as much. But it also it tells me a story about that girl, how she thought and felt, her outlook on life and its absurdity, and about myself, how I think and feel about her still, a story that I can’t put into words, which makes it all the more important and most probably pathetic.
Together we were a story that couldn’t be told; and so is nearly every story worth telling. For immortalised cells can die, and words don’t mean what they do.