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.

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