Sunday, November 13, 2011

Mixing Politics and Fiction

Last year there was a series of blogosphere broadsides exchanged between Emmett Stinson (author, editor, academic) and Overland magazine on the subject of 'political' fiction. In the one corner, Overland fiction editors past and present argued for the 'moral and aesthetic imperative' of political engagement (Jacinda Woodhead originating the controversial phrase), while in the other Stinson stood up for authorial freedom. What exactly an imperative is, whether absolute or conditional, is a moot point in the debate. Stinson argues that any imperative is proscriptive (it implicitly forbids non-political fiction) and absolute (all fiction must be political), whereas Jane Gleeson-White, Overland's current fiction editor, considers the word to imply a somewhat weaker injunction. The key exchanges can be read on Emmett's blog and on the Overland blog here and here.

The insistence on the political in fiction is something of a personal bête noire, so I am weighing into the debate, albeit a year too late. Let's not forget we read fiction for enjoyment, and that, as literary writers at least, we write from the passionate centre of our creativity, wherever that is found. To me, an 'aesthetic imperative' is an oxymoron, at least in so far as it refers to something imposed externally (such as a political ideology). The only aesthetic imperatives I know of are those that emerge from within the creative process itself - the inner imperative that tells me, for instance, that a certain metaphor must go, or that a particular sentence should be arranged in this particular manner. An aesthetic imperative imposed as a result of politics sounds like the death of art, like 'art' sponsored by the Soviet state. (I suspect, however, that the phrase 'aesthetic and moral imperative' was one that rolled nicely off the keyboard, and I am sure Woodhead was not advocating anything so totalitarian.) The point remains, nonetheless, that writers write from an inner imperative that may or may not be overtly political, and will always do so, regardless of what obligations certain literary editors feel them to be under.

As for the moral imperative, I do believe that we writers have responsibilities. Stinson rhetorically asks if shoemakers should also make political shoes. One need only look at Nike's well-known practices to answer that question in the affirmative. Indeed, if Nike is the example, the politics of shoemaking in the developing world is probably of much greater significance than the politics of fiction among certain well educated types here in Australia. After all, Stinson's point is well made that the equation: politically engaged fiction = social change has yet to be established. That said, if moral imperatives exist at all (and they do), they bind all of us, writer, tailor, candlestick maker. Just as there is moral weight to my purchasing decisions, there is political and moral significance to my choices as a writer. What do I put out into the world when I write? Even as apolitical a text as Harry Potter has its 'karma', its downstream effects on a generation of young readers, good or ill.

But does this mean all writers must be like mini-activists, agitating from their offices? I don't think so, and indeed what does "must" mean when it so patently will never occur? That we must frown upon or perhaps not publish the work of writers whose primary preoccupations are interpersonal or intrapersonal? I certainly hope not. We need literature to engage the whole spectrum of human experience, to enrich our vision of the world and make life more tolerable through the quality of its illumination, whether its subject is the plight of indigenous peoples, the complexities of marriage, or the private struggle for identity. After all, however politically aware and active we may be, we still spend much of our time preoccupied with the dramas of the private domain.

Stinson's argument against the politicization of fiction relies on a more academic point however. He questions whether fiction can be 'about' anything at all. Fiction is, for him, so complex that it is naive, indeed anti-intellectual, to see any connection between words and their referents (that would be realism, the mimetic theory of art). While I agree that any mimetic theory of representation in art is unsustainable, I am sympathetic to the Overland editors' impatience with this line of reasoning. It is not anti-intellectual to disagree with a philosophy of literary criticism, even if it is the academic fashion of the day. Stinson would transfer the entire weight of meaning over to the 'reading' side of the ledger, voiding the text of any capacity to hold significance in its own right. This is taking it too far. Ulysses may not be 'about' a man wondering around Dublin one day (Stinson's example, a straw man if ever there was one), but it's probably fair to say it's more 'about' that than it is 'about' cheese manufacture in the Baltic states. I think it is disingenuous of Stinson to claim that he doesn't know that 'politically engaged' fiction is or could be. Yeah, it exists, and yeah, Emmett knows it when he sees it, even if its boundaries are unclear, even if it needs a reader and a reading to re-hydrate it into meaningfulness.

Now that I've managed to disagree with everybody,  let me say how I also actually agree with everybody (and it is heart-warming to see Gleeson-White and Stinson did eventually bury their hatchets  - somewhere other than in each others' faces). The arguments put by the Overland editors are nuanced, and it is easy to poke holes in a caricature of their position, less so once their position is understood properly. Overland, of course, has a right to whatever editorial policy it chooses. To say 'we prefer politically engaged fiction' (however philosophically problematic to a post-structuralist) is a reasonable enough statement of editorial intent, and hardly surprising coming from Overland. Let's hope though that above and beyond their worthy desire for fiction that tackles the issues of our times, they still have time for a plain old good story.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Excerpt: Croc

The following excerpt is from a new story 'Croc', currently unpublished.



She remembered the night she ran away, the moment it became clear that she could do this, that she was serious, and they couldn’t stop her. Nobody could stop her. It was as if a sort of film broke and all of a sudden she could see the world clearly. Running her hand along a wet metal rail, sweeping the water under her palm, she felt naked to the touch of things, like she could really feel for the first time. It was cold, she walked along the Nepean Highway and the lights of the cars shone off the wet, the tyres hissed and made tracks through the neon and she walked and walked, and slept under a bridge, woke up to her beating heart and stared up at the dull stars and thought, Who am I? She felt swollen with her lostness and her anger and her bravery. She would survive — like this, like a wild animal if she had to.

But now here she was, on her knees in the bathtub, scrubbing Ajax into the gleaming enamel for the fourth time today because she had to do something with the restlessness. The house stank of bleach and everything was scoured back and spotless and she was so lonely she almost wished Croc would come home just for someone to talk to. He’d said to her, no TV. How would he know if she did watch, but she was scared he had some way, a hidden camera somewhere or something. She’d found cameras before. Scrub, scrub. Or he’d come home and catch her before she had a chance to flick the remote.

Her hands were a mess. She bit a loose point of skin beside her nail, stripped it back with her teeth and winced at the pain. A bobby-pin of blood welled. She’d have liked to sit on the couch again and watch Home and Away with her sister and argue about who was hotter, Aden or Ric. Christ, she’d even have liked to see her Mum and Dad right now. She tore another corner of skin down, nibbled at the root. Fuck it, don’t cry. Don’t fucking cry. Scrub, scrub. But it came, she couldn’t stop it. Shoulders shaking in the bathtub, she watched her tears run down the sparkling enamel.

She stood in the living room, no energy now, just a shell. Gazing at the street through the cheap lacy curtains which let her look out, but hid her from view. Number fifteen across the way: What goes on in there? she wondered. What secrets does it hide? Do you see me, number fifteen? Do you see that shadow through the curtains?

If only she could sleep. Day, night meant nothing. She’d lost the sense of them, slept sometimes randomly during the day, spent the night wide awake. A permanent jet lag when she wasn’t speeding. Outside it was windy, the prunus trees on the nature strip agitated. The whole world was scoured down, abraded back to its bones. And her mind was the same, empty like that street, but endlessly moved by a wind that tossed and spun and blew nowhere.

...


She mustn’t lose her mind. She went to visit Ange the other day to get her meth, and wondered if Ange was losing it. She looked bad, with nasty sores on her face and hands, white and skinny as hell. Sorry love, she said, her hand hovering near the bloody crater on her cheek, I been pickin’ again.  Ange had an ex who used to hit her, did stuff to her much worse than Croc had ever done to Kelly. Croc had bruised her forehead pretty badly one day when he threw an ashtray at her, he’d burnt and hit her, but he never broke a bone or put her in the hospital or anything like what Brian had done to Ange. She got away from him, but she reckoned he’d found her again, that he was hiding around the house at night. The worst thing was he’d gotten into the roof. She’d heard him up there moving around at night. So Ange had gone up herself and scattered broken glass everywhere. She’d got the bastard, too. See? she said, holding up a sliver of glass stained rusty with blood. Her mouth twitched into a smile, fell back to a quivering line.

Fucker. We might not be able to get away from ’em, but we can mess with them too, right?

Rhona, Kelly’s youth worker, once said you got like that on meth: hearing things in the walls, worms under your skin, shit like that, but then Rhona hadn’t seen the blood on the glass.

They did some ice and then went outside into the sunny front garden. On the nature strip next door there was a whole lot of junk waiting for the hard garbage, including an old photocopier, and suddenly they both had the idea they’d like to take it apart and see how it worked, so that’s what they did for the next hour or so, pulling apart that photocopier and every little bit inside it until they’d reduced it to a pile of scrap. And still they had that meth-driven urge to do, so they pulled apart a TV and a computer as well. It was funny. They had a good time, sitting on the nature strip in the sun and laughing as they picked metal and plastic apart with their fingers.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Disappear?

Do you remember your first musical love? The other day I had my iPhone plugged into the stereo, set to play random songs out of my collection (always an interesting exercise - I honestly have no idea where half this stuff comes from), and the first warmly melancholic bars of The Church's "Disappear?"  rang out, sending me back twenty-odd years to the confused, unhappy, intensely lived summers of my youth. Steve Kilbey's lyrics seemed to summon up the exact mood:

Like a womb the night was all around
Someone somewhere must have talked some sense
I could feel it moving underground
So many things I still don't understand...

There are a few albums that epitomize those days: Suzanne Vega's first album; the last, self-destructing works of the Roger Waters-driven Pink Floyd; and The Church - anything and everything by The Church.  Those were records I must have spun literally thousands of times (my parents were remarkably stoic - I remember my father working at the dining table in industrial ear muffs, but he never said a word). I'd sit in the living room absorbed in every note, studying the lyrics like some sacred Vedic mantra.

"Disappear?" is from the The Church's strange failure of an album, Seance, which came out in 1983. The album cover shows an androgynous figure in lipstick and a white hood, holding some kind of metal flower. It's an image both stark and surreal, a perfect fit for the mood of the album. "Dark and cryptic" is the way Wikipedia describes the consensus opinion of the record. And yet if I was only allowed to hang onto ten albums to listen to for the rest of my life, I'd have to give serious consideration to including Seance among them.

Of course it's hard to separate the nostalgia of association from the merits of the music itself. The second track 'One Day', an anthem of hope clothed in a heavy downbeat, always makes me want to sing along at the top of my voice, and yet when I do, I realise that it has almost no melody - most of the song is sung on a single note. And yet it aches. Could  it just be the memory of my own ache, that bittersweet experience of being young and not knowing who you are yet, full of confusion and longing and the mystery of your future? Somehow I think not entirely, for most of the other music from that time has become unlistenable to me. Another record I thrashed to death - Pink Floyd's The Final Cut - now seems so full of anguish and self-pity that listening to it is like having my teeth drilled.

Sadly, Steve Kilbey himself came to disavow Seance as a flop. A friend of mine drunkenly questioned him about that one day after a gig, and Kilbey cut him dead with the arrogance he's well known for. You're a fan, you don't question Steve Kilbey. For all Kilbey's gifts, he's always given the impression of being one of those troubled people who is unable to escape the involuted torments of narcissism. The Church were often accused of pretentiousness, and there was always an edge of affectation that threatened to creep into their songs. To my mind the worst offender was guitarist Marty Wilson-Piper, who always seemed compelled to sing with an annoying Alice-in-Wonderland-meets-Alice-Cooper accent. David Bowie did something similar and pulled it off as an act of theatre, but Wilson-Piper is no Bowie.

Affectation is of course the refuge of insecure creatives who seek to cover over their lack of real inspiration with a stylistic gimmick that is always guaranteed to fool a certain number of punters. It can also be an unfortunate habit of gifted artists like Kilbey who seek to compensate for a fundamental self-rejection by constructing for themselves a narcissistic image of their own genius. Affectation is an expression of the way they stand apart from themselves, fascinated by a performance in which they desperately hope to glimpse the image of someone other than themselves. Think Michael Jackson's creepy voice and reconstructed face, affectation as psychopathology.

There was nevertheless always a seed of real creativity underlying The Church's pretentions. Listen to the early single "Too Fast for You". It's a strange, psychedelic song with a truly different edge, even while one can discern distinct echoes of bands like The Cure. You can hear in it the original, exciting voice that would give birth to amazing songs like "Almost With You" - and that would sometimes devolve into a sort of tic, a style expressed in foppish mannerisms, lyrical obscurity and a precious and superior attitude.

It's when Kilbey drops the put-on self and just sings from an honest place that he shines, like in the lovely "Into My Hands" from the Remote Luxury EP, in which he sings joyfully, sadly and without artifice about love: "Some seek sleek and slithering charms/ Out of reach their grasping arms/ Our skin like milk, our breath of words/ Like happy, awful and absurd." And the last verse: "You know it's always out here in my head/ And stupid bloody things get said/ Then drifting on a summer pond/ I notice that my love has gone."

In my story 'Suburban Mystery' published in Meanjin a couple of years ago, I have the main character discovering The Church the way I did:

That summer I bought my first record, The Blurred Crusade by The Church. As I slipped it out of its sleeve onto the turntable for the first time, the light caught a line of handwriting—some impenetrable in-joke—inscribed in the smooth black vinyl inside the last song. That opaque, mystic scribble fascinated me: Steve Kilbey’s last elliptical utterance before the stylus spiralled into the black hole at the centre of the record. ‘Almost with You’ was my anthem. Its lush, anguished paisley-poetry made my soul bleed. When Steve Kilbey asked Can you taste their lonely arrogance? I wanted to shout: ‘Yes! Yes! I can!’ I understood nothing he said, but I could almost not bear the sorrow and longing when he sang, I’m almost with you, I can sense it wait for me. I’m almost with you. Is this the taste of victory?

I know I'll never experience that kind of enchantment by a record again, however much I may fall in love with a new artist I've discovered. Like first love, it's an experience that can't be repeated. For all his flaws, his "lonely arrogance", I owe Kilbey a huge debt of gratitude for that gift.



The future of the book, and all that

This is an edited cross-posting of my response to a forum question posed on the literary website Verity La. Alec Patric asks:


A New Archaeology?
When the novel first emerged it was considered trivial entertainment. The literary productions most honoured were to be found in verses and sometimes on stages. As those mediums waned in their traditional states, the art of song writing matured and attracted many of the talents driven by poetry. Cinema rose into a global phenomenon—becoming the major cultural agent for all Western cultures.
We are presently watching the book dwindle into the doddering ineffectuality of old age as print media prepares for retirement. A new medium is already emerging. It is often considered trivial entertainment, just as the novel was in its youth. Will an e-form emerge in the coming generation as the new literary standard? Is the blog already the key artefact for a new archaeology?

There is one really fundamental difference between writing on the net and writing for the pages of a book which relates to the relationship between reader and text. In a sense internet writing always exists as part of a much larger text with which it is constantly forced to compete. This turns readers into skimmers and writers into copywriters. Writing on the net is a constant exercise in attention-seeking, with the text forces to double as its own advertisement.

The novel, on the other hand, is a world-to-itself. It guarantees the author not only the reader’s undivided attention, but a particular kind of rapt attention (or at least guarantees the preparedness to commit such attention). The type of novel – ‘high’ or ‘low’, Ulysses or The Twilight Saga – is irrelevant. Once the reader settles down and opens that first page, making him or herself available to the narrative, a certain intimacy and suspension is established that is simply not present online.The novel reader is implicitly committed, whereas the online reader is implicitly inattentive, restive, a single dull sentence or too-long paragraph away from disappearing altogether. If a novel is a marriage, a blog is a date with a 20-year-old with ADHD who doesn’t like the word ‘boyfriend’.

We tend to impute to literature an intrinsic value, forgetting that it is a kind of conversation between writer and reader. It depends on the quality of the attention that the reader brings to bear on the work. A great novel in a world where people are no longer capable of committing their attention is like the proverbial tree that falls unseen in the forest. Does it make a sound? Where does the artistic value reside? If the novel does truly fade into quaint obsolescence, if all our reading becomes ‘browsing’, I fear we will lose even the capacity to read the hundred-thousand-odd words in a row that a novel requires. And the imaginative, aesthetic and intellectual capacities that the novel exercises in us may atrophy too.

I don’t decry the blog and its value (obviously). But if the blog is ‘the key artefact of a new archaeology’, I pity the archaeologists who will be tasked with its excavation. It will be a job of monumental breadth and infinite shallowness, sifting an endless expanse of digital topsoil to reconstruct a picture of our society mind-numbing in both its detail and its inconsequentiality. The artist’s job has always been to dig deeper, revealing something true and important about being human in a certain time and place. The blog, for all its wonderful attributes, is not a capable instrument for such a task.

Having said that I remain personally optimistic that the paper book and the novel both will continue to have an (admittedly reduced) place in our culture, and I don’t believe that the intimate relation between reader and (paper) book is quite as easy to virtualize as the e-pundits imagine.I do think we are becoming an attention-deficit society, and this spells bad news for literary writers (who, let’s face it, weren’t exactly swimming in milk and honey as it was). But there will always be those determined to put into words important and hard-to-say truths, and others ready and indeed hungry to read those words. If the printed book does die, I don’t doubt human creativity will find ways to bend the available media to its own ends.


Friday, September 2, 2011

The Doomsday Argument - and why climate change will probably kill us

More philosophy today! Though this time something a little less out there than the Cryogenic Paradox. I discovered this idea in the intellectual meanderings that have followed my Paradox post. It's one of the marvels of the Internet age that one can find hidden corners of the universe where the most strange and exotic flowers of thought blossom and thrive. Today, however, I wanted to talk about an idea that is deceptively simple. Simple, but with conclusions that are quite profound and, to me at least, somehow spine-chilling, awesome and sad.

First let me ask you the question: how long do you think the human race will last? With nuclear weapons, climate change, environmental degradation and our various other self-made threats, there is reason enough for pessimism. On the other hand, it seems with our resourcefulness that we could survive, if not forever, then millions of years. We might populate the stars and all that. It seems odd that simple probabilistic induction could shed light on what seems a complex matter involving innumerable incalculable factors, but it seems that it can. And the answer is not good. In fact the odds are fifty-fifty that half of all the people who will ever be born (the final sum of the human race) have already been born. It's as likely as not that the human race is already half run. Let me explain why.

Imagine that you are walking in a foreign country where you are completely unfamiliar with the animal life, and out of a bush comes a small furry critter the likes of which you've never seen before. Now you have to guess whether or not the creature you are seeing is a rare or a common sight in this country. Logic dictates that your best guess is that it is a common animal, for the simple reason that common events occur more often than rare ones, by definition. In the same way, in the absence of better information, we should always assume that any given  phenomenon we observe is more likely to be unexceptional than exceptional. If, for example, we had no information about where our solar system is in the Milky Way, our best guess would be that it lies in the region where the most stars are. If evidence appeared to suggest that it lay somewhere unusual, like right on the very edge or right in the very centre, that would even be reason for us to doubt that evidence or look for reasons why our position might be other than random - because otherwise our  placement would simply be an unbelievable fluke.

This is known as the Principle of Indifference - the selection of phenomena we observe is "indifferent", i.e., random.  Now let us consider that the human race almost certainly cannot last forever. In that case there is a certain number of people N that represents the total number of humans who will ever exist. This number N does not have to be determined yet. All we need to assume is that the number one day will  be determined. Now let us number each human according to his or her birth position from 1 to N. Let's call this "serial number" s. If we select from that list some random person we can calculate quite simply the odds of this number s being in a certain position, and it obvious enough that the person is equally likely to be in the first half as in the second.

You see where this is going? You are that random person - because your birth order in the human chain follows the Indifference Principle. Therefore it is as likely as not that the human race is already half done! And by the same simple logic, it is 90% likely that we are more than 10% of the way through the total number of humans who will ever be.

One objection that at first glance might appears to contradict the Doomsday Argument is that cavemen could have made the same argument as us today, and of course they would have been completely wrong. Of course it is possible to be wrong, because the argument is probabilistic. But on average, if every person who lives makes the Doomsday Argument based on his or her own birth position, they will tend to be right exactly as often as the argument predicts. By selecting a caveman, we are no longer choosing a random person, and thus violating the Indifference Principle.

Some further, very rough calculations sketch out what this suggests. According to the Population Reference Bureau, the total number of people who have ever lived can be guesstimated at around 106 billion. So (assuming this figure) we can be 90% sure that the number of people remaining to be born is less than around a trillion. The maths does start get to get complicated because of birth rates relative to population size, so I'm going to stick with the simplest, ugliest calculation. If the current worldwide birthrate  of 163,000,000 a year remained stable (certainly a false assumption), we could be 90% sure of the human race ending in less than about 6000 years. If we went with the 'best guess' (in which we could admittedly have only a very low level of confidence) and assumed that the human race is half finished already, then that would be cut to about 600 years.

But of course, the population and birth rate will not remain steady. The US census projects world population growing to around nine billion by 2050. Most likely it will continue to grow in this exponential fashion until the earth's capacity constraints cause it to plateau and/or collapse. This large and ever increasing population brings our projected doomsday a lot closer. Even if 90% of humans remain to be born, we can't expect to last anywhere near another 500,000 years - the length of time we could expect if history continued for ten times as long as it has so far. Only if we manage to achieve a far smaller overall population and maintain that level (or if some small tribe of survivors continues after the apocalypse, but fails to repopulate the globe) can we expect a future longer than, say, 100,000 years.

One perhaps startling result is if we look at the other possibility - that we are right at the end of the line. Given the large living population - about 6% of the total of all humans - there would seem to be a roughly 6% chance that doomsday could occur within our lifetimes! However, we should recall that this argument is based on a situation where we lack any better information. Such a catastrophically sudden end seems a lot less likely than 6% (around 1 in 18) given what we see of the world.

Indeed what is hard to see is how our complete extinction comes about. Given our resourcefulness, it would appear likely that we would be able to recover from most catastrophes. A collapse in human population would create the possibility of environmental recovery, which in turn would support the regeneration of the human race. A drastic scenario such as an asteroid collision might explain extinction. However an asteroid collision would be an exceptional  event, and our argument is founded on the idea that such exceptions shouldn't be expected.

There is however one scenario that could lead to extinction, and that is climate change. If scientific projections are correct, and any of the worse scenarios eventuate, environmental damage may be so severe that the survival of any stragglers left after the great collapse might be living in an environment so hostile that recovery is impossible. And these effects are projected to occur and worsen over the next several centuries - right in the timeframe that would place me and you at a plausibly 'average' point in the human trajectory.

And people are worrying about their electricity bills going up under a carbon tax!

Whatever occurs, one thing is for sure, and that is that we - not only as individuals but as a race - are mortal. We must pass from this earth, and sooner than we have dreamed. There is something about seeing this inevitability that for me inspires a strange chill - of sadness but of beauty too. I think of our great story as a passing moment, and I think of the silence, the wind, the trees that come after, and I feel a kind of peace.

Perhaps there is a chance for us however. That chance is transformation. Humans may well be halfway to over, but by this same logic animals probably still have a long and rosy future. If we can change, evolve by selection or engineering into some new kind of beast or animal angel, perhaps we can yet find a way to escape the cruel logic of the Doomsday Argument.




Thursday, August 25, 2011

Dream strangely of Beatles songs, as I sometimes do. John Lennon, "In My Life":

There are places I remember
All my life, though some have changed
Some forever not for better
Some have gone and some remain
Though I know I'll never lose affection
For people and things that went before
I know I'll often stop and think about them
In my life I love you more

And this is just achingly beautiful and sad, the very essence of that lovely melody, those words, seeming to break open inside me. It can sometimes be that way with music in dreams, some divine sweetness revealing itself in the heart of a well-known tune, a song worn out with use or that you never really listened to properly before. I've had it once with Brian Wilson's "God Only Knows", interestingly the song that Paul McCartney once called the greatest song ever written. And with "Eleanor Rigby" (Can you not imagine how this song came to be: Paul McCartney reading the name on a dilapidated tombstone: Eleanor Rigby, 1810-1864. Ah, look at all the lonely people. Do we not all know this precise feeling?). Perhaps in the dream some deep obscure emotion rises to the surface and, seeking perfect expression, finds the song that gives voice to it. And you sing it, and the song is your soul...

The bus (I'm on a bus, some strange landscape) drives along a shore where the waves rise to form standing hills of water that do not break. I'm singing - In my life I love you more - and thinking that time buries our hearts - in disappointment, in bitter experience, in the dullness of familiarity - and that only innocence makes it possible to sing with a certain freedom, the freedom of heart that is youth, the clarity and the foolishness we can't wish back. But still I can sing: In my life I love you more.

Then I'm a navy seal, sneaking aboard a ship to silently kill its sleeping occupants. And there are children sleeping - should they die too, in case they wake and cry? And a dog, guard dog I suppose. It is warm and I hold it in my lap and it waits to see what is coming and I push the knife in, feeling the way down the bone. Somehow the sadness is only apparent after I wake.


Friday, July 29, 2011

Shock

This story was published in Kill Your Darlings Issue Two

Smithy meets the girl at the pub one Friday night, when his workmates have all gone home, and he’s the only one left at the bar, watching the foam slide down the inside of his glass. She comes to stand beside him and he feels her eyes on him. Her blackness is shocking and out of place in this white man’s pub; a different kind of blackness from that of the aborigines who occasionally slouch along the bar. Skin like polished night, against which the hot pink of her top looks bright as candy, her breasts provocatively emphasised. When he makes eye contact, she offers him a hesitant but warm smile.

‘Danny?’ She gives the name an American twang.

Wow, he thinks, a real – what do they call themselves now? – African-American, just like on TV. And so beautiful, so young. But who the hell is Danny? One thing is for sure, it’s not him. When was the last time anybody smiled at him like that, so hopefully and openly, as if he contained so many possibilities? He thinks he’d give just about anything to be this Danny character, the one that smile is meant for. Then, almost as soon as that thought occurs to him, it is chased by another, darker idea, and before he has time to think twice, before the faltering smile has a chance to leave her face completely, he turns on his own most charming smile, full of all the sincerity he can muster.

‘Hi. Yeah, that’s me. How are you?’

The doubt evaporates from her face and the wavering smile returns to take full possession of her features. She reveals brilliant white teeth, and inside her cushiony lips, a line of pink like the inside of a conch.

‘Hi! I’m Carla.’ She reaches out her hand with a charming awkwardness. Her palm is smooth and dry to the touch, pale as if it had been sanded back.

‘Of course,’ he says.

‘It’s so great to meet you!’ She settles on the stool beside him and plonks her handbag on the bar. ‘I wasn’t sure if it was you for a moment—that was such a bad photo you sent.’

‘Yeah, sorry about that,’ Smithy smiles, and signals at the barman. ‘Can I get you something?’

‘Sure. A G&T?’

The barman mixes the drink, and Smithy pushes a tenner over the counter.

‘So. How’ve you been?’

‘OK – oh you know, bored as ever! You were right — I should never have taken that house so far away from the city. It’s such a hole!’ she laughs. Despite her friendliness, he detects an edge of nerves in the way she latches onto her drink, her slightly gabbling speech.

She launches into a diatribe against the suburb, the house she lives in, the stares she endures buying groceries at the local supermarket—‘like they never saw a black person before! It’s so rude!’—and he thanks his lucky stars she gets talkative when anxious rather than clamming up. He’s quickly able to fill in that she’s a student, studying microbiology or something, here only until the end of the year before she has to go back to the States. She only flew in a month ago. She’s staying in a student flop way out in the northern suburbs with a couple of other international students. They live on a main road near an intersection, and each night she hears the diesel trucks lurch away from the lights, shift gears like they’re gulping for air, and roar past her window. It took a week before she could get any sleep. Every time she started to drift off, she’d be jolted awake by the vivid hallucination that they were headed right at her, that her bed had somehow been displaced into the middle of the road.

‘And you?’ she asks him. ‘How are you? How are the kids treating you?’

Kids? For a moment his mind spins in neutral as he tries to compose a response sufficiently vague to cover all possibilities.

‘Oh, the same, you know,’ he says, smiling indulgently as if to say kids will be kids!

‘I don’t know how you put up with them. I could never be a teacher.’

He shrugs philosophically. ‘Oh well, it’s a job.’

‘Come on, you love it!’

‘I guess... yeah, you’re right. I do. ’ He forces a smile that he hopes looks suitably modest.

A little while later she goes to the toilet and leaves her handbag on the bar. As soon as she’s out of sight he opens it and fishes around amongst her belongings until he finds her mobile. He quickly flicks through her most recent texts until he finds one with the name ‘Danny’.

Hey Carla. Looking 4wd 2 it. Will b gr8 2 meet u at last.

He thumbs ‘reply’ and taps in a short message, his heart pounding:

Sorry, not coming 2nite. Really sorry, i met someone. Pls dont contact me again. C.

He hits ‘send’, then goes to her sent items and deletes the record of the message. It all takes less than a minute, and he’s sipping his beer casually when she returns, the phone safely tucked away again. Now he just has to hope this Danny character is man enough to take it and not send some abusive or pleading reply.

‘Well?’ she says when she gets back. ‘Shall we get some dinner then?’

Smithy’s grin broadens. ‘I thought you’d never ask. I’m hungry as a wolf.’



And Smithy is hungry. Smithy is ravenous. Because two years ago—can it really be two years?—his wife left him, and he hasn’t had a woman since. Not a kiss even, barely a glance, when once they couldn’t get enough of him. What? Does his loneliness stink? He gave Melissa ten years, the better part of his youth, and then she left him while he was away on a day-trip to the Gold Coast for business. He came back and the house was a shell, doors banging open, that was how fast she’d run, and even the furniture gone. Nothing, just his clothes on the rack, the CDs of his she’d hated. Kids’ rooms empty. In the kitchen on the floor he found a butter knife with a bent-tipped blade that she must have dropped when she was packing, in the bedroom a bra, and in one room the wooden bee on a string that his boy used to drag about when he was two. With the wings that spun and went clacketty clack.

Those three things she left by mistake haunted him. In the end he was convinced there was no mistake after all. He was sure she planned each one as carefully as the escape itself. Either she plotted it or God did, not that he believed in God. The bee, that was for the kids of course. The cruellest sting. And what could you do about it? Throw it out? How could you? Smash it? No, you sat on the floor and you drank and you pulled the string, over and over, and the wings turned and went clacketty clack. Then the bra. Well figure that one out, Einstein. No prizes. It smelled clean, like a bed freshly made before you roll in it. No trace of her scent on it, just the empty cups, the what-do-you-call, negative space.

And then the knife. That was a good one. That was the punch line. Stick it in and twist. He’d hold it in the venetian striped streetlight shine in the long pissed hours, turning the blade to catch the flash of neon strip and laugh. Thumb the blunt serration where the tip bent from someone’s long-ago effort to prise open a jar of pickles and think, I gotta hand it to you. God damn butter knife. She might have left something sharper.

Two years later he was working again, back in a retail salesroom selling cameras. He’d moved out of the old house into a one bedroom shoebox, gone back to the gym, even signed up on an internet dating site. But the only women who showed any interest in him were old and used up, and had their own stink of desperation. The worst time was three a.m. That was when he’d have the dream, of rooms beyond rooms beyond rooms, and every one of them empty. He’d wake and in that low-tide of the soul the reefs of his pain — rage and hunger and despair — would stand out bare and jagged and completely unchanged from the last time. The immutable bedrock of his life.

Now they’re sitting on cushions in the plush warmth of a Thai restaurant and Carla has ordered herself Pad Phuk or something, and when he’s talking about how much he loves helping the kids at school, helping them get a better start in life, she reaches out and touches his hand. It looks so white next to hers, garish and old, the hand of a corpse, and he wonders she can bear to touch it.

‘You’re a good man, Danny,’ she says. ‘That is a rare thing.’

‘No I’m not,’ he says, but she shakes her head.

‘No you are,’ she insists. ‘I could tell that from your emails, the kindness in them. You’re gentle and you’re wise. You’re different.’

And what can Smithy say to that?

He finds himself putting up his hand to order a bottle of wine, against his better judgment, which tells him he’ll need his wits about him if he’s going to pull off this delicate deception. He thinks maybe he catches a surprised look from Carla, though she doesn’t say anything. Who know, maybe in his emails he said he was a teetotaller. He notices a dangerous stab of recklessness, an urge to shock her with some outrageously cynical remark. That acid tongue, that edge of danger was always part of his attractiveness to women when he was younger. Danny — this cheesy-postcard, kiddie-loving SNAG who probably believes in yoga and fairies and the manifesting power of crystals — is such a badly fitting garb. The sudden image of the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood makes him grin. What big teeth you have Danny. He can feel his old savage loquacity gurgling in the rusted pipe of his throat, and all he’d need to do is turn the tap. Then he looks at the smooth dark swell of Carla’s cleavage. Easy does it, big guy. He fills her wine glass close to the brim and smiles.

She lifts the glass, holds it out in the air in front of her and he brings his own to meet it, a slightly too solid clink that threatens to upset the finely balanced liquid.

‘To... what?’ he says, allowing just a hint of suggestiveness to slide into the gaze which meets hers.

‘To new friends?’

The word ‘friends’ doesn’t please him, but he nods and takes a gulp. ‘Sure. To new friends.’

Carla sips, regarding him over the edge of her glass.

‘You’re different to how I thought.’

Smithy keeps his voice light. ‘How so?’

‘Just different. Older for starters. How old are you?’

He spontaneously rounds down by a few years. ‘Thirty-five. Does it bother you?’

‘No. I don’t believe in age. Everything you said in your emails I could so totally relate to, you know? I made a decision before I even met you that you were...’ she stops, embarrassed.

‘What?’

Her eyes drop bashfully. ‘I don’t know. Right. For me.’

Smithy fancies he can see the blush, even through her black skin. He leans forward over his hardening cock. ‘That’s so weird!’ he says. ‘So did I!’

‘Really?’ She looks up, her eyes shining, her wine-wet lips stretching away from the neat, pretty rows of her teeth.

‘Absolutely. I knew you were it.’

He watches her struggle to moderate her smile, to reshape its childish excitement into something composed and womanly. How old is she anyway? Surely no older than twenty-two, twenty-three. Yet there is an even younger quality about her, something unformed and naive, and Smithy feels an unwelcome flicker of letdown, as if maybe this is all too easy.

Later he is driving her along the freeway, out into unfamiliar suburbs, the pedestrian bridges above the road adorned with advertisements for airlines and credit cards. It’s late and the suburbs look abandoned apart from the trucks, the all night servos, a MacDonald’s, empty too but illuminated like a surreal doll’s house in a parody of the welcome of home. A cloned piece of America planted out here next to the highway.

There’s somewhere she wants to show him, she says. To his annoyance, she won’t tell him what it is — a surprise, she reckons. They drive further, into the ugly desolation beyond the suburbs.

‘Here — see that little turn-off just ahead?’

It’s just a break in the fence that borders the road, only some muddy tyre tracks spreading onto the tarmac indicating there is a turn-off there at all. The headlights spill onto gravel, mud, tufts of stubble. He pulls up, and the lights beam sightlessly into nothingness: a chain-link fence then an abyss of darkness.

‘What’s this about?’

‘You’ll see. Come on.’ She gets out of the car.

Smithy cuts the engine and gets out after her. It’s cold enough he can see his breath. Stars too, despite the dirty smear of light from the city, the rim of flickering suburbs. Surely she didn’t bring him here for this pitiful handful of stars?

‘Carla. What are we doing?’

‘Just be patient.’

‘It’s cold. There’s nothing here.’

‘Just wait, Danny.’

He stifles a pulse of impatience that surges suddenly through his limbs, keeps the smile edgily on his face.

‘OK. You’re the boss.’

He moves towards her darkened silhouette, wraps his arms around her from behind. Her frizzy curls prickle against his chin like steel wool.

Ahead in the sky, a point of light low on the horizon that he’d taken for Venus is brightening, growing. It’s an aeroplane — he can now see the lights flashing along its wings. At first he watches it idly, then it dawns on him that it’s headed right at them, moving neither up nor down in his field of vision, but growing larger and brighter by the second. It looms exponentially, becomes a jumbo jet, coming in so close and low that for an irrational moment he thinks it’s going to crash right into them. He yelps and lets go of Carla, putting up his hands in a helpless gesture of self-protection as it bears down like a gigantic bird of prey, wheels extending like claws ready to catch him... Then it’s thundering overhead, so close he can see the rivets in its belly, smell the kerosene. The engine roar shakes his teeth. And a moment later it’s gone over the chain-link fence, bouncing onto the runway a half kilometre downwind.

‘Jesus Christ!’

‘See?’ says Carla, excited as a five year old. ‘Isn’t that amazing? Wasn’t that worth it?’

She insists they wait for another one. They sit in the car and Smithy, still worked up, grabs a small bottle of spirits he keeps in the glove compartment. Carla’s profile is outlined faintly by the city lights. Her skin swallows the light, only her eyes shining pale.

Smithy swigs, welcoming the fortifying trickle of fire into his belly.

‘I wish you wouldn’t,’ she says quietly.

‘What?’

‘Drink like that.’

Smithy keeps that smile pinned tightly to his face. ‘Why? I’m not drunk.’

‘I know, Danny. It’s probably just me. I didn’t tell you about my Dad did I?’

Smithy shakes his head, casually screwing the lid back on the bottle, even though he’d dearly like another swig.

‘He’s an alcoholic, a gambling addict. He was violent towards my mom, but when I was young he didn’t use to touch me. Then after Mom died I guess I was next in line. That was the main reason I worked so hard to get into college — just to get away from him.’

She starts to say something else, but just then another plane comes down over the car, obliterating her words. It slides down the windshield and he thinks of 9-11, the knife in America’s fat white belly.

‘How did your mother die?’ he asks, to change the subject. The question seemed safe enough, but she jerks like he’s prodded her with a brand.

What?

‘Sorry, I...’

‘I told you, Danny! Breast cancer. Don’t you remember? How the priest at my church tried to heal her? I told you all about it! That was why I lost my faith in God. I can’t believe you don’t remember that! And what you said made so much sense!’

To Smithy’s horror she starts to cry, and Smithy tries not to panic. He was doing so well, and now two fuck-ups in quick succession are threatening to shatter the whole crystal palace of her illusions. He puts his hand soothingly on her thigh.

‘Of course I remember. And I meant what I said, OK? Do you remember what I said?’

She nods, choking on her sobs. ‘About how our beliefs are like skins that we shed when we’re ready...’

‘Yes...’

She twines her fingers so tightly with his that it hurts. ‘And even if we feel naked, that’s just because we’re not used to the new skin.’

‘Uh huh, that’s right. You see? I remember.’

It’s too dark to read her expression, but her eyes are wide and intense, searchlights scouring the darkness of his face for the gentle man she hopes he is.

‘It’s getting late, I’m tired. I wasn’t thinking,’ he soothes. ‘Come on. Let me take you home.’

At her place he pulls up into a steep, cracked concrete driveway, jerking up the handbrake to hold the car on the incline. They sit awkwardly in silence, bathed in the cold light of the streetlights while the traffic swishes past on the road behind them. Smithy leans across the seat to kiss her, and the feel of her heavy lips is unfamiliar and somehow disturbing, the taste of her mouth different too. He puts his hands under her top. Her skin is oily and young and springy like rubber. He feels like he is bouncing off her, like there is another layer of clothing on her he can’t get under. He presses a hand into the crotch of her jeans, trying to feel her flesh through the hard material, and they writhe together, colliding and refracting and shocked by the contact of their skins and the confrontation of such intimacy between strangers. Smithy fumbles with her bra strap, tries to reach her nipples.

She breaks away. ‘Wait,’ she says. ‘Wait. Can we go inside?’

He follows her up the steps to the house. She switches on the light in the living room, the jaundiced illumination of a low-watt bulb revealing a boxy old Sanyo TV in the corner, a dilapidated couch across which someone has cast a cheap imitation-batik print. Someone’s takeaway containers on the floor. She takes his hand and leads him to her bedroom. It is small and airless. In the corner her bed: a thin single mattress on the floor, the bedclothes still tangled. Against the wall there’s a small vanity on which she has arranged her beauty things: hairbrush, cosmetics, a few bits of jewellery. She hastily snatches up a tampon wrapper from the floor, a bus ticket, an empty chewing gum packet. She sits nervously on the mattress and Smithy sits next to her.

‘There’s something you should know. I told you I wasn’t very experienced, right?’

‘That’s OK.’

‘No, but I mean, I’m... I haven’t...’

Smithy stares at her.

‘This is the first time, Danny.’ The words come in a rush. ‘I should have told you, I’m sorry, I know. But I want to. At least I think I do. It’s just... I don’t know what I’m supposed to feel. Or do...’

Smithy and his mates used to boast about laying virgins. The sly smirk: Raised the Japanese flag on the weekend, mate. No bullshit. It was bullshit though. Of course it was. Now it’s happening for real, but he doesn’t feel like he thought he would. Still, she said she wants to.

He puts his hand on her leg and tries to slide it between her thighs like a letter-opener. ‘It’s easy,’ he says. ‘Just relax and I’ll show you what to do.’ But she keeps her legs scissored together.

‘The church I used to be in was very strict about sex, very big on hell and sin and all that. And even though I don’t believe it any more, I still get their voices in my head, you know?’

‘You hear voices?’

‘No, no, nothing crazy or anything. Just the voices of the preacher or my mom or whoever. Voices of the church.’

‘Saying what?’

She looks down, embarrassed.

‘Saying what?’

‘“The fornicators will burn in hell.” That type of thing. I know, it sounds mediaeval doesn’t it? But I can’t help it. I’m brainwashed.’

‘Relax Carla. You’ll be fine.’ He caresses her cheek. ‘You trust me don’t you?’

She looks at him, and Smithy sees that close up she’s not as pretty as he thought. Her skin is coarse with the pores of a recent adolescence, her cheeks a little puffy. ‘I think so,’ she says.

‘You think so?’

She’s about to answer when there’s a buzzing in her handbag. She reaches for it.

‘Don’t!’ Smithy yelps. It comes out loud, much too harsh.

She stops, looking at him quizzically.

‘Just don’t. Not now.’

‘OK...’ She puts the bag back down again carefully, looks at him. ‘What do you want me to do?’

‘Just lie down,’ he says.

She does, stiffly, on her back like a toy soldier someone knocked over. Smithy gets up and goes back to switch off the light. Now it’s pitch black except for a faint glow through the gauzy curtains that illuminates nothing. The girl breathes in the dark, and Smithy goes to her, lays down beside her. He can smell her sweat. There’s not enough room, and he’s half on the carpet. He puts out his hand and feels her there, the tight rise and fall of her belly.

‘Danny?’ Her voice is little and frightened, and he knows he should stop, but as his hand moves over her warm, yielding skin, he finds he can’t any more. He has her now, under his fingers: her breasts, her thighs, her neck beneath his fervid lips, her blackness in the blackness like a double negation, like an absence made flesh, and he’s full of a great, morbid longing. He’s swollen, aching, bursting with it. He finds the edge of her jeans, pops the button. The zip parts like a ripping fruit, and he slides his hand in deep, all the way to the pulp. He’s devouring that incarnate darkness like a fire, and words — dirty, reckless words — are coming up that rusty pipe now whether he likes it or not, but he doesn’t care. He’s going to gush it all into her. At last, at last.

Then she seizes his wrist. ‘Stop! Stop! Wait.’

‘What? What is it?’

Smithy’s heart pounds in the silence like a bass amp below the threshold of hearing. And then she says: ‘I want to pick up that message.’

A cold rush of fear: she suspects. Both their bodies are frozen in position, poised in an electric stillness like two wild animals that have stumbled upon one another, in the moment before predator or prey explodes into action.

He tries to pull himself back to a place of control, to make his voice nice. ‘Come on Carla. Not now. I want to be with you.’ He fumbles again between her legs, trying to arouse her.

‘No! I want to see who it’s from.’ She wrenches his hand from her pants, twists her body away.

‘No Carla!’ He tries to grab hold of her in the dark, manages to get his arms around her legs as she hauls herself to her feet.

‘Let go of me!’ she pushes him and he stumbles, disoriented in the alcoholic dark, falling forward and cracking his face hard against the edge of her dressing table. A stunned numbness and pain and a gush of warmth down his lip. The slick, rusty tang of blood. He clutches his face. ‘Oh fuck! Oh Jesus! I think I’ve broken my nose!’

Carla’s already across the room. She hits the light. Smithy is crouched on the floor holding his face, the blood running between the webs of his fingers. But she doesn’t care. She has her phone out, she’s looking at the screen. When she looks up again, her eyes are wide.

‘Who... who...’ she stammers, ‘Who are you?’

Smithy stumbles to his feet. He comes towards her and she shrinks from him. In her eyes naked fear. And disgust, horror, revulsion. Her face is curdled and twisted with it.

‘Greg,’ he says flatly, through the bloody mess of his nose. ‘Greg Smith.’

Her eyes are wild with incomprehension. ‘But, but ... who’s that?’

He gives a mirthless snort. ‘Nothing,’ he says. ‘Nobody. Don’t worry about it.’

The front door is open, and the sound of the trucks comes through clear with the chilling air, and for just a moment Smithy is sure it’s a dream: the staring girl and the taste of shock and the great whispering indifference of the city. He’s standing in the same desolate dream that he’s lived again and again, and he has the strangest sensation that something important comes next, that everything is stacked to collapse in some portentous way. The girl’s lips are moving and starting to form words, and Smithy thinks maybe this is it — maybe she’s going to tell me. Then he blinks and it’s gone, and the girl is screaming and shrieking, like a wild thing, a crazy person, and nothing she’s saying makes any sense at all.

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Cryogenic Paradox

The paradox I’m about to explain is one that has been literally keeping me awake at night of late. This was never intended to be a philosophy blog, but then it was never intended to be a travel blog originally either, so I’m giving up on defining what the hell my blog is about and just going with it. If difficult philosophical problems aren’t your thing, you are hereby excused. If , on the other hand, you’re game for a genuine mind-bender, read on. A warning in advance though. The stuff I’m dealing with here lies in that tricky territory of the extremely-difficult-to-talk-about-in-ordinary-language, and I’ve discovered through trying to talk friends through the problem, that the whole paradox just eludes some people, like a sort of colour-blindness. I’m reminded of the Simpson’s episode where Lisa asks Bart whether a tree that falls in the forest when no-one is there to hear it makes a sound, and Bart replies in a snap: “That’s easy! Yes!” I insist that if this doesn’t bend your mind, if the answer seems “easy”, then you’re Bart. But we could argue that one forever... Anyway, to proceed...

The so-called ‘problem of consciousness’ is one that has fascinated and preoccupied me since I was young. As a child I always felt there was something deeply problematic about the division between sentient and insentient matter. How does a brain - an assemblage of mindless atoms - become, merely through the complexity of its assembly, aware? I felt there had to be a missing ingredient, and when I was about sixteen I decided that all matter had to have some form of rudimentary consciousness, which the brain merely marshalled into the patterns and arrangements we know as thought. Otherwise, how does the brain bridge this magic gap? I simply couldn’t accept the ‘epiphenomenon’ position - that consciousness is a secondary, irrelevant froth arising as a side-effect in the brain. Surely that position puts the cart before the horse in the most egregious fashion. Likewise the ‘emergent properties’ argument, which argues that in complex systems ‘higher order’ properties may arise that transcend the properties of the parts. I can accept that the whole may have different properties from the parts, for example a bunch of heart cells takes on the emergent property of being able to pump blood when organised as a whole organ. But this type of emergent property is of an entirely different order from consciousness, which seems to involve a leap into something that is not in any way implied in the properties of the parts. Pumping blood can be seen to be a natural outcome of the arrangement of physical components with normal physical properties, such as elasticity, shape and so on - the raw elements of ‘pumping’ can be seen to be there - but awareness does not seem to be implied in the properties of the parts at all.

The paradox I’m about to elaborate deals is related to this problem, and I think gets to the crux of the issue. Before I launch into the paradox itself, however, I need to make some preliminary remarks to head off a critical misunderstanding. When I studied philosophy 101 many years ago, we were presented with a so-called problem involving two ships - let’s call one the Pierz and the other the Pedro. Gradually, planks are removed from the hull of the Pierz and attached to the Pedro and vice versa. The question is, at what point does the Pierz turn into the Pedro and the other way round? The answer of course is who gives a damn? It’s all pure semantics, a matter of how you choose to define your terms. The Cryogenic Paradox, and the related thought experiments I’m about to explain, on the surface may seem to resemble a ‘dilemma’ of this sort. However, for reasons I hope to make clear, to reduce the problem to semantics is to miss the point entirely.

OK, so here’s the Cryogenic Paradox in a nutshell. You may be aware that there were once - perhaps there still are - companies that offered people a service whereby, for a handsome sum, their bodies after death would be preserved in perpetuity in liquid nitrogen in the hope that at one time in the future, science would be able to resurrect them. Disregarding scandals whereby paying customers were found to have been allowed to defrost rather disgustingly in their time capsules, let us imagine that one day, such a resurrection becomes possible, and these people are brought back. The question is: is the consciousness of the reawakened person the same consciousness as that of the person before they died? By the same consciousness, I mean are the new experiences happening to the same locus of awareness? The question seems almost banal at first glance. The frozen brain can be likened to a computer that has been powered down for a century and has now been rebooted. Of course it must be the same consciousness, right? Certainly if the resuscitation technology is good enough, and the person has all their former memories, they will believe themselves to be this person and will be delighted that their investment has paid off. I have to agree that it seems untenable to assert that this is a new person who merely has your old memories and personality wired in. What would such an assertion even mean?

To start to get at why there is a paradox here, consider four people (excuse my toilet door characters):



I can define a bunch of properties for these people. John is tall. Jenny is a social worker. Pierz likes to swing dance. Luke is a movie buff. Etcetera. These are objective properties. You could also define subjective properties relating to their identity - John considers himself a bit of a bad boy, Jenny remembers holidays at the beach, and so on. But Pierz, for me, has one special property. He is me. He has the unique (for me) property of being the locus of my subjective awareness. This does not make Pierz objectively unique, since everybody on the list is also me for somebody (themselves), but it does make Pierz unique for me, and in a most compelling way! All the others on the list are different and have the property of being ‘not me’.



Now to get at the significance of this me-ness and its difference from any question of identity, let us imagine that tomorrow I have a car accident and suffer a terrible brain injury that wipes out all my memories and causes a personality change for the desperately worse. I commit some horrible crimes and am sent to prison. Now the person who will commit these crimes is not really me, in an identity sense. They don’t have my personality, they don’t have my memories, they never recalling having been this Pierz character at all. It’s as if all the planks on the good ship Pierz had been removed and replaced with nasty Pedro planks. And yet if I’m told about this future, I will still be afraid of those prison experiences that lie in wait, because this new Pedro-Pierz will still have that mysterious property of somehow being me. Or at least we presume he will. We presume that, because the brain and body are continuous with the pre-damaged brain and body, the ‘being-me-ness’ is not going to change.

Now let’s return to the Cryogenic Paradox. Because the brain is the same brain, and the memories are preserved, the customer who buys his place in the cryogenic freezer assumes that the person who wakes up in a brave new world will also have this same quality of ‘being him’ and not ‘being somebody else’. But what if he’s wrong? Isn’t it possible to imagine all the aspects of your identity transplanted into some new body that is in all ways identical to you but that somehow is missing that crucial property of happening to ‘be me’. Mightn’t you, in spending a lot of money on your frozen future, be buying a life for someone who will have your memories, your identity, but sadly be lacking that final magic ingredient which is required to make this a bona fide resurrection - the property of happening to be the locus of your subjective awareness?

If you’re still stuck on the idea that the memories and so on of your former existence guarantee the same subjectivity, let’s vary the thought experiment and imagine that the procedure was imperfectly carried out and you lost your memories in the reanimation process (using ‘you’ as a pronoun of convenience here!). Your whole brain is wiped terrifyingly blank and you’re reduced to the tabula rasa of a newborn baby. If you knew before being frozen that this was going to happen to you, would you be afraid? Or would you dismiss it as easily as you might dismiss such a misfortune in a stranger - someone who happens not to possess that unique attribute of ‘being you’? I think you’d probably be scared at least of the possibility that you might have to be the one to go through this horrible erasure.

This is because of the brain, the physical organ, being the same. But is the brain the carrier of the connection between this body, this awareness, and the fact of it’s also being your awareness in particular? You’d think it has to. And yet how can the brain, as a frozen chunk of ice and protein with no activity, preserve the continuity of this ‘being-you-ness’ apart from via your memories? Where on earth does this fucking being-you-ness reside for chrissakes anyway? How does my I-ness continue to ‘stick’ to a dead brain? Surely it can’t.

A related paradox is what I’ll call the Duplication Paradox. In this, a complete map of your brain is copied into a computer and then all the neural networks are painstakingly reconstructed long after your death in a new human. Again, this person believes that they are you, because they remember your family holidays, remember your friends, your life, your decision to undergo the brain copying procedure. But does this duplicated person really have the quality of ‘being you’, or are they just some other person in the future with your memories? If you know some horrid fate is in store for them, will you be afraid?

It’s hard to see how you can say that this person isn’t you, from an identity sense, since identity is only information, and they have all the information that comprises your identity. But are they you in the vital other sense? Imagine the duplication occurs again, so there are now two yous. Surely both can’t simultaneously possess the quality of ‘being you’ can they?

Note that if we ignore the whole issue of ‘being you’, there is no paradox here above the jejune level of the ship dilemma. Without this mysterious property of you-ness, you can simply dismiss the problem as a question of semantics. Who cares whether it’s ‘really’ the same person? Like the two ships Pierz and Pedro, the question of whether the copied consciousness is ‘really’ the same person can be dismissed as a matter of mere definitions. But if it’s you being frozen or duplicated, then the question becomes vitally concerning: what am I going to experience in the future?

But let’s try and define what we really mean here by saying that this person (Pierz) has the property of being me and this person (John) doesn’t. Obviously, if I imagine myself into John’s consciousness, I will find that he has the property of ‘being me’ too, once ‘I’ am inside him, so to speak! So once I stop viewing people objectively, but start viewing them from inside, from their own viewpoints, then I discover that, lo and behold, all of them are ‘me’. I can’t, once I (some meta-I that is capable of flying between heads) experience their viewpoint, actually distinguish between their ‘being me-ness’ and my ‘being-me-ness’. To determine if the amnesic subject post cryogenic resuscitation is ‘really me’, I would need to identify some marker, some point of difference between various subjects’ experiences of being a subject. Not differences in identity or quality of consciousness - these are easy to find - but differences in the essential quality of being a me (language here is a completely inadequate tool). But there is no such marker and can be no such marker. Whatever differences exist between the experience of being Pierz and the experience of being John belong to the contents of consciousness, belong to the identity, and not to the attribute of ‘being me’, which has no other qualities than exactly that.

To illustrate further, let us return to the accident scenario, where I lose my memories and my personality changes radically. Now before this happens, as I sit and imagine this future person, much as I might sit and imagine the future duplicated self, or the unfrozen self, I am trying to determine if their me-ness is the same as my me-ness. Are ‘we’ a continuous self, or is this some other person, whose experiences I therefore won’t have to go through. But if I imagine myself into his ‘me’ (and I know he will have a ‘me’), although I can see that his identity, his thoughts and memories have little in common with mine, there is no way, even in principle, to determine if this me-ness is continuous with, or the same as, mine.

In fact, whatever head I imagine myself inside, I can never determine if it is the same or a different me, self or other, and so the question of who the defrosted person is, me or somebody else, appears absurd, unanswerable, meaningless or unknowable. What the above considerations amount to is a reductio ad absurdum of the whole notion of I-ness, or of individual ‘I’s. And at the same time, our very real fear of death, our very real awareness that we have a future self, different to other selves that aren’t us, tells us we can’t simply dismiss I-ness. Nothing is more palpably real - I think therefore I am. Indeed reality can’t be imagined without a subject, and quantum physics tells us that the universe can’t even decide its state without one, but remains suspended between all the possible states it might be in.

All this relates vitally to the whole notion of personal death - or rather, of annihilation. Death we can define as the body or the brain’s death. Annihilation is the death of the subject. Annihilation or becoming-nothing is what we really fear, much more than physical death or death of the identity. We could cope with losing our ‘selves’, our identities, if we knew our deeper ‘I’ would continue, as in, say, reincarnation. Annihilation is what we are generally promised by science and the physical model of consciousness. Brain death = subject death, end of story. But for the notion of annihilation to make any sense, there has to be a subject, over and above the identity. You clearly can’t annihilate something that does not exist. And yet the Cryogenic Paradox reveals how deeply problematic such a subject is.

So what’s the solution?

Obviously if I knew, and could prove it in some kind of undeniable formalism like a maths proof, I’d have solved what is probably the deepest philosophical conundrum there is. But I’m going to look at some possible approaches, and put forward a solution that I’ll admit is speculative, and sounds radical, but to me is the most elegant and appealing.

First of all, there’s a possible philosophical objection that needs to be addressed. When we make statements about the properties of things, including people, we are making assertions about so-called ‘objective facts’. Even if such facts are relative, such as an object’s colour (in what light? etc) or when an event occurs (it depends on the observer’s motion, as we know from relativity), we can still relate these facts back to a single universal framework. We can resolve the relativity, and in fact have to, if the statement is to be meaningful. The problem is that I-ness is not such a property. As we have noted, objectively, everyone has a sense of I-ness, everyone is both a me and a not-me. So when we try to establish whether this property of I-ness holds for some particular subject other than the person we know to be ourselves, we are trying to apply a subjective category in an objective way. Therefore, like asking what was going on one minute before the Big Bang, the question is unanswerable because its premises are false.

This is probably the ‘philosophically correct’ rebuttal of the paradox, allowing philosophers to sleep again at night, at least until they get to thinking about their own death. I accept that the Cryogenic Paradox is based on a confusion of subjective and objective statements. However, this does not neutralize the potency of the problem, because we are still frightened by death, we still believe in annihilation, and the objective meaningless of self does nothing to assuage this. We are still left with an unbridgeable gulf in our paradigm between subject and object. Indeed, this so-called resolution merely hides the problem inside the problematic assumptions of objective logic. Of course the problem makes no sense objectively, but precisely that is the problem itself. What this rebuttal effectively says is that there’s no way to resolve the problem of the subject, so stop worrying about it.

In fact, we know from science that objective logic is flawed. Physicists have had to formulate a new logic to take into account quantum physics, with its intimate implication of the observer, because it turns out that the paradoxes of quantum physics can’t be resolved by objective logic — rather it’s objective logic that has to give way to quantum physics.

The classic example is the paradox that Einstein choked on. This article is already way too long for a blog post, so I’m going to summarize this in the most brutal way, and leave you to wiki Bell’s Theorem if you’re interested. Basically, the problem occurs when two particles are synchronized so that they have opposed spins, then separated by a large distance. One of the particle’s spin is then measured. We then can deduce the other particle’s spin, because we know it to be the opposite. So what? you think. It’s like having a white and a black chess piece in two hands - once the colour of one is revealed, you know the colour of the other. But the problem is that quantum physics tells us that until the particle’s spin is measured, it exists in a state of both spins simultaneously, only resolving to one or the other state when actually observed. So how does the other particle ‘know’ which spin to assume when its brother is measured a thousand miles away? Einstein came up with the thought experiment to prove something had to be missing from quantum physics, but he was wrong. Something was missing from objective logic.

OK, so let’s take a look at our toilet door for polygender groups again.



Now, with the ‘me’ bubbles, we have a representation of what is essentially our conventional view, once we accept that me-ness is real. In fact to avoid the confusion between identity and subject, let’s remove the word ‘me’ and replace it with the word ‘observer’:



Everybody has their own observer which is different from everybody else’s observer in some indefinable way that is not merely a matter of semantics, but ‘just is’. The indefinable difference of ‘my’ observer is what distinguishes me from others and what creates the continuity between my future, present and past selves. We assume the me-ness is somehow held together by the physical brain, so when someone dies:




And then when Luke is cryogenically restored:



Are you seeing the issue here? The observer’s are identical but we’re still asking if the observer that returns is the same as the one that ‘popped’.

Or let’s swap Pierz and Luke’s observers without swapping their identities:



Notice the difference? Me neither.

There is a philosophical principle called the ‘Identity of Indiscernibles’, which applies particularly in the area of the Philosophy of Science (my major, many years ago). It states that two entities with identical properties must be the same entity. Whether the principle holds or not is still moot. There’s a thought experiment known as ‘Black’s balls’ (not chocolate or salty, pace South Park) which purports to show otherwise, though then there are counter arguments and in the end, the boxers are still in their corners, sweating at the futility of it all. You can read more about it at the above link, but I warn you, it’s for real philosophers, not exactly thrilling. In the end, one starts to suspect that the problem is, like the Pierz and the Pedro, a matter of how you define things.

But let’s run with it and see what we get. If all the observers are identical, then perhaps they are all one. Perhaps there is only one observer. Of course, the observers are different in what they observe, including the self or identity through which they make their observations. So if we’re to speak of a single observer, it’s a kind of super-observer that can’t itself be observed (of course not, for that would entail a different observer, and we know there is only one). It changes our toilet door to look like this:



The difference then between identities or subjects does not lie in there being a different observer, but one observer with different perspectives.

This observer is constant and never dies, can’t be annihilated. Doorways of observation, though, perspectives, may come and go.

This resolves the Cryogenic Paradox. Both the man in the bed with no memories, and all the computer duplicates, plus Pedro, Luke, John, Pierz and Aunt Nellie’s ugly cat with the bung eye are all you. But only if you let go of the notion of identity and self, only from this super-perspective, this view of the über-observer, the Ur-observer.

It also resolves the mystery of Bell’s Theorem. If there is only one observer, then it’s no mystery that an observation in one place can affect an observation in another. There is only one observer, one observation, the two are not separate. Only the illusion of separated observers creates the appearance of a paradox here.

Imagine a form of reincarnation where you can be reincarnated in parallel as well as in sequence, so your ‘next’ life might be as your own brother or best friend. Then what’s to stop you being reincarnated as everybody everywhere everywhen? Of course that is the wildest conjecture, but in a sense, something like that is implied. If all subjects deep down spring from the same observer, then, well fuck me, but that’s the best reason I ever heard to be nice to one another! You might have to be that person you’re doing over one day. You are that person. Right there is the ultimate wellspring of moral action. If we knew this, really knew it, wouldn’t we very quickly create the most optimised society we could, one that would also take care not only of all people equally but of all the voiceless subjects out there too, the animals and, who knows, the plants too?

As long as we think we’re in silos, and I don’t care, those silos include the soul too as far as I’m concerned, just another deeper way of separating ‘me’ from all those ‘others’, as long as we credit this insupportable separation, then we’re screwed by a fundamental error that makes us believe we can profit at another’s expense.

There is a mystery though here still (well, there are many mysteries, such as what the hell this observer is, and so on, though that’s outside the scope), which is a mystery similar to the problem of time, how there appears to be a current moment, though there is nothing in all the laws of physics that refers to such a moment or indeed to the apparent ‘arrow of time’ which gives time its direction. Why the illusion of separation? Why the division into so many points of observation, multiple keyholes? I suspect that the question 'why?' is not a good one once one gets to this kind of meta-perspective level. At bottom there is always a mystery.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Unified Theory of Happiness - Part Four

Several years ago I had a terrible flu, the sickest I remember being. Lying in bed, I was so drenched in sweat I'd have to change the sheets every few hours, a monumental task I'd accomplish in a reeling delirium before collapsing back into near-paralytic exhaustion. The room took on an evil, haunted atmosphere, the ticks of the walls, the dripping of rain on the sill echoing uncannily, as through some vampiric forest. On the third day I managed to bundle myself into my car and drive, chattering teeth, bones aching like an old man, to the doctor's surgery. Antibiotic prescription in hand, I then went to the pharmacy next door and sat on a chair under a searingly hot floodlight to wait for my pills. As I sat there, a terrible feeling began to grow inside me. I couldn't say what it was, just that something was awfully wrong, and something bad was about to happen. I suddenly desperately needed to remove the coat I was wearing, but as I sat forward to take it off, I heard a sound from behind me like an onrushing train, and then...

Darkness. But in the darkness, a light. I don't know what, where, who I am, but I can see that light, a perfect star of such purity, such utter bliss that words cannot describe it. And I realize: the light is me. I am that light. And that's all I am, pure and whole and free. I don't know how long this lasts. Seconds, an eternity.

Then something is changing, a tide is pulling me back into a murk of strange sensations that slowly resolve into me - the all-too physical me - lying face down on the pharmacy floor, a puddle of blood forming drip by drip from where my nose has hit the deck at full velocity. And some woman in a grey coat whom I will never forget looking down at me with a smirk on her face. I close my eyes again and wish myself back to that star, though of course it's gone for good.

Still, such an experience leaves an after-glow, a trace in the heart, and when the lovely nurse from the surgery next door came and picked me up and established my nose wasn't broken and looked after me until I was ready to face the freezing drizzle again to head back home to my cold, damp sick bed, I think she may have been slightly puzzled by my almost erotic radiance, a love and gratitude shining through the murk of my illness despite my attempts to simply be an obedient patient.

So far my Unified Theory of Happiness (I hope you've picked up the note of self-deprecating irony?), apart from spending most of its time straying egregiously from the topic at hand, has dealt with the notion of our 'set point', and how we simply normalize whatever circumstances we find ourselves in, thus giving the lie to the idea that more of what we want is the answer to satisfaction. The sublimely funny and insightful David Foster Wallace, writing about the failure of a luxury cruise to satisfy his wanting self, put it this way:

But the Infantile part of me is insatiable - in fact its whole essence or dasein or whatever lies in its a priori insatiability. In response to any environment of extraordinary gratification and pampering, the Insatiable Infant part of me will simply adjust its desires upward until it once again levels out at its homeostasis of terrible dissatisfaction. (A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, 1998, Back Bay Books, p. 317, fuck the Chicago Manual of Style or whatever).

So happiness, I never said explicitly, must at least partly consist in adjusting the satisfaction one experiences at the set point of normality, rather than trying to spin the treadmill of desire ever faster, chasing the next gratification, stuff the insatiable hole. Put like that, it's sort of obvious.

But there's still a question of where this happiness is to come from, once one accepts that this is it, that there's no greener pasture, no magical Tattslotto moment around the corner when All Will Be Well (and here I can cite the research showing that a) lottery winners are as happy one year after winning the lottery as they were before they won, and that b) paraplegics are as happy one year after the accident as they were before it (incredible but true, at least if the ABC is to be believed, and this being a slack-arse blog, I'm too lazy to go chasing the actual research). So you might as well wish for paraplegia as for a Tatts win, if happiness is what you're after). The answer, I'm going to argue is: it's there, it's in you. It's the light inside you that it sometimes takes a fainting spell while overheating with the flu to reveal.

Be yourself, and the happiness follows. Though it takes courage to be that self against the social currents that tell you to be otherwise. Tiziano Terzani called it a 'life in which one can recognize oneself' (in The End is My Beginning), a phrase that had a powerful resonance for me when I read that book on various borrowed couches in frozen Berlin last year. Perhaps it struck a chord because of a developmental quandary that quite possibly strikes many forty-ish people: with age you let go of the fierce fight to assert your identity, but in the same moment as you breathe a sigh of relief at giving up this taxing effort, a vague, at first unnameable unease rises in your gut, to ambush you at three a.m. with feelings of pointlessness, as if something of great value that you nevertheless can't pinpoint had quietly evaporated on you, and along with it, the memory of what it was. It comes down to this: if the precious you that you fought so hard for requires no such effort and was in fact an illusion then... what's left but more of the same and more of the same and so on and so on until death? It's so easy, with the comfort in one's skin that is the supposed pay-off of maturity, to settle into mere placidity and consign the real aliveness, the vital, raw awareness of being, to a bygone youth. Being yourself, it turns out, is a much more active, seeking thing than mere self-acceptance, as important as that is.

'A life in which you recognize yourself'. Yes indeed. Perhaps it's not possible to recognize oneself in every moment, but the focus to find and express the nature of who and what you are in itself inevitably brings forth this self and makes failure impossible. Give up on the extrinsics and devote yourself to the intrinsically joyous. It turns out to be the same for us all, I think: the people we love and the activities that make us feel most truly ourselves. It's amazingly liberating when you realize that you don't have to worry about the things you never really wanted to worry about anyway: how many Facebook friends you have, whether you're getting ahead, whether you're Missing Out somewhere.

Really, it's not string theory is it? The Unified Theory of Happiness is, like, pretty much derr when it comes down to it.

So I'm moving on to something more radical. The Unified Theory of Self, Part One! And this really is a unified theory. It's come to me out of nights lying awake at five a.m. (I'm a shocking insomniac - perhaps this blog is revealing why!), puzzling over a paradox that just won't let me go. My Unified Theory is the only solution I can find that makes any sense, despite its radicality, and I've therefore decided to inflict it upon you even though several factors militate against its publication: namely that it is difficult to understand (not to me, but apparently to others), possibly boring to read, and preposterous to common sense. Anyway, it all begins with a thought experiment I'm calling the Cryogenic Paradox...

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Unified Theory of Happiness - Part Three

There was a time when I was about nineteen or twenty when my older brother Jeremy and I became close again after years of semi-estrangement. During this period we became possessed by metaphysical speculations that bordered on the deranged. This was in the wilds of Lower Templestowe at a time when my family was falling apart after years of putting a face on it. The centre didn't hold any more and we were like electrons thrown out of orbit, little charged particles flying about looking for some new mental nucleus to bond to.

To understand our state at the time, you have to know a little bit about the Newton-John family culture. We are - were - a family with a healthy intellectual confidence, so healthy in fact that when my brothers and I were growing up, we received a tiny dose of Smug in our breakfast cereal every morning. We were special, and the proof was in the genes. Not only did we have our beloved 'Livvie', who would occasionally sweep in like visiting royalty, leaving trails of Chanel no. 5 and an after-glitter of fame, but on the bookshelf was our great-grandfather's book of correspondence with Einstein, discussing such weighty matters as whether God did, in fact, play with dice (Great Granddad got his Nobel for the affirmative, Einstein famously screwed up). And apparently we had Martin Luther somewhere up the tree to boot - a claim to fame rather diluted by the generations, and the fact that the man begat like a Catholic.

This was all on my father's side, who was not without his own brilliance, topping his year at Melbourne University Med School, and having the gift of being able to shine at whatever he turned his hand to - though not, alas, the intricacies of human relationships. My mother's side had its own minor luminaries too, including our grandfather Osmar White, who wrote the book considered the classic account of the war in New Guinea (Green Armour). He also brought some macho kudos to the genetic table, having, I don't know, wrestled anacondas while dodging Jap machine-gun fire and what-have-you.

I don't know whether the hypertrophied intellectualism of our family was a form of compensation for our social awkwardness, or whether the intellectual ego was the cause of the clunky social skills. Perhaps both. We tacitly believed our extended family home - an acre and a half of fruit trees and lawns in the middle of suburbia - to be a sanctuary of advanced intelligence in a world of benighted ignorance. Social graces in our position were as irrelevant to us as to alien greys silently orbiting the world with their giant foreheads and thin wrists. So long as we understood one another, what need to decipher the peculiar codes and signals of the natives?

And then came the bombshell that our parents were getting divorced. I was never exactly upset about it, but I did assume that they'd go about it in a rational and enlightened fashion, as behoved our advanced level of consciousness - and it's true there were no ugly scenes, no bloodshed, no spiteful court battles. But they never spoke to one another again. It was not 'amicable', it was clinically hostile. And the Newton-John paradigm, the great Myth of Enlightenment, was revealed for what it was, so much glossy lacquer over an all-too flawed human reality, a family with a fully stocked larder of fears, griefs and silently nursed wounds.

We knew, when the thing collapsed, that we'd been fed a crock, my brother and I. But we weren't quite ready yet to surrender our treasured specialness. That bruising correction would take years. So it makes sense, looking back, that when we went looking for a new paradigm, we dreamt big. We didn't allow anything as inconvenient as evidence or common sense to trammel our winged speculation. The zenith (or nadir) of this madness took place in India, in the piedmont village of Manali in Himachal Pradesh, spiritual home of the world's most mind-bending hashish. (According to the story we were told - in retrospect obviously bullshit - the year’s first harvest of hash is collected by rubbing it off the skin of a virgin who has run naked through the resinous fields.) There, Jeremy and I spent a week or so lost deep in a haze of cannabis and philosophical delusion. I saw the meaning of Schroedinger's wave equation (just don't ask me to explain), and Jeremy deduced that the popularity of the English language was based on the correspondence of the words 'I' and 'eye'. (I ridiculed him for this - one lunatic scoffing at the other’s madness).

All this is by way of background to a conversation which took place between us one summery night back in Lower Templestowe in the living room of the home that would be sold while we were away in India a year or so later. That living room, with its green sofa and cream shagpile, its quietly bubbling tropical fish-tank, was the picture of middle-class suburban life. As the room we’d eaten dinner in together our whole lives, watched the ABC News in every night, the room in which my parents had had weary, grown-up conversations over brandy-and-drys at six o'clock every weeknight, it should have felt like the family’s heart and hearth. But it didn’t. It felt peripheral, its feng-shui all up the spout. It felt lonely, like the smell of carpet shampoo in an empty house on a Monday morning. I remember lying on that carpet one night in my depressed late teens and staring into the glassed-in world of the aquarium, suddenly possessed by the knowledge of my own eventual death. The idea of Not-Being. Its reality shifted in and out like venetian blinds being opened and closed. In the moments I could grasp it, it was pure terror - while the guppies butted the glass, the neons shimmered in the flow of bubbles...

But that summer night Jeremy and I were talking not about death, but about duality. The way that everything is paid for by its negative image. For every particle of matter, an antimatter twin to cancel it out. For every action, an equal and opposite. For every joy attained, an equal grief suffered. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. As we spoke, it was as if we could feel the whole universe around us turning in its great yin-yang machinations, a blind, oblivious machine composed of mutually annihilating blacks and whites, able to give nothing that it wouldn’t be forced to retract later, a gigantic zero-sum living on debt borrowed from itself, left hand robbing the right to pay for the illusion of Being.

The room seemed more lonely than it had ever been and despite the oppressive humidity of the late summer evening, we felt cold to the heart. And then Jeremy, suddenly overwhelmed by the horror of the vision we’d invoked, cried out, ‘It makes me want to kill myself!’ Typical of him, I thought, to get emotionally carried away. I came back with the technically impeccable proposition that in fact this zero-sum universe could not, purely logically, inspire the act of suicide. It lacked weight of any kind - to annihilate the self was as weightless an act as to go on living. I felt the hollowness of this even as I said it, the cold dread in my heart giving the lie to logic.

In my last post I paraphrased Safran-Foer: everyone loses everything. Ashes to ashes. Matter-antimatter. But here’s the thing Jeremy and I didn’t know. Scientists now believe that the matter and the anti-matter in the universe don’t cancel out at all. There is, they now say, a flaw in the laws of physics that results in very slight asymmetry, so that for every billion particles of antimatter in the universe, there’s a billion-and-one particles of matter. And that one extra particle in a billion results in the universe. A ‘flaw’ they call it. An accounting slip that means we actually do get something for nothing: the world and everything in it. Scientists may call that a flaw. I don’t know. it seems a peculiarly antiseptic mindset that would describe as a ‘flaw’ something without which only a perfect nothing would remain.

Would it be straining the metaphor to imagine that same ‘flaw’ exists everywhere, that whenever something joyous is lost, some billionth particle remains, a mote of light, undying and unkillable? Whenever ashes return to ashes, and our lives are weighed in the balance, some billionth particle of goodness tips the scales in our favour? I may be roaming back into Schroedinger’s Wave territory here, but I like to think that. I like to imagine that for us, as much as for the universe as a whole, something remains, stubbornly indestructible, when everything has returned its debt to the void.

And what of the Unified Theory of Happiness? The truth is, I’m less enamoured of unified theories than I once was. There’s always a tiny flaw in them too, a grating sand-grain of mystery that yields to no explanation. After writing the first two parts of my theory, I fell into a mood of pessimism that lasted a week. The God of Happiness, that shining child within, winked out, and my words rang back to me as hypocrisy. But then this morning I opened the blinds to let in the pale winter sun, and there it was again: the flaw, the chink, the tiny opening through which joy shines into a being stolen from nothingness.