CONJUNCTIONS: A Web Exclusive
May I Not Seem to Have Lived
In the autumn after my wife vanished I enrolled in an undergraduate course in Astronomy. The course met at the eastern campus of the Community College I had gone to before I got older. This was our first meeting. After taking attendance and explaining that tonight the class would go outside to learn where the constellations were and what they stood for the Instructor led the line of us out of the Lecture Center and through the parking lot and onto a baseball field bordered by trees. No one spoke. We found our seats in the path between second and first and for a long time the Instructor moved around the pitcher’s mound unpacking a telescope from out of a case and putting the parts together. When the telescope was one, he began his lecture. At the time I thought of the stars as clues to the whereabouts of my wife and so I listened to him very closely at first, taking notes that I have since lost, but which I seem to remember more visually—the written words—than anything else that went on that night. He began by admitting that he was not really an astronomer. His wife was. He was a carpenter, or had been. When his wife died, he said, seven years ago, he had lost the will to work anymore. There was nothing worth building. He had abandoned carpentry and returned to our town to become what he called a Destructionist. This meant quite literally that he took things apart. His plan, he said, was to deconstruct every object that he had ever built, starting with his house. But he stressed—he was at pains to stress—that taking something apart is in fact far more difficult than putting something together. The hard part, he said, was figuring out where one object ends and the other begins. You have to know where to stop. And to illustrate this point he took a pocketknife out of his coat and brought the blade to his wrist. Imagine I cut my hand off, he said, and moved the blade back and forth like the bow of a violin. And imagine now, he said, that after the wound heals I replace the old hand with a metal one. The metal hand is mine for a long time, and at some point (suspend your disbelief) I forget all about the flesh and blood that was there to begin with. I forget that I was once complete and come to believe that the metal hand is the realest and most original part of me. I come in fact to feel that not only the other hand but also the rest of the body I was born with is somehow counterfeit—somehow inconsistent with the rest of me. And so I decide to do away with it. One at a time I take away all the original parts and replace them with metal ones that match the make of the hand. I perform another operation every day and eventually I am completely metal; not a trace of flesh remains. Now the question I want you to think about, he said, is whether I am the same person now as I was before. If not then I want you to locate the exact instant when I was born and the previous version of me disappeared. He did not go on but lowered his eyes and looked through the telescope at whatever was in the sky. Finished, he left the lens focused downward and—I noticed this much later—directly at me. The truth, he said, walking away from the telescope, was that there was no way of telling one part from another. Change is constant. So we must conclude that in fact I was never the same person—not even before I turned to metal. I am always someone else. And this truth (he went on) was what eventually derailed his plan to become a destructionist. He had discovered one day after taking the legs off his kitchen table and placing them next to one another on the floor that to destroy anything—to truly reduce any one object into an essential and everlasting essence—is impossible. There is no essence. The table that had once been one was now something else, true. But the legs were still their own. Even if he were to saw them in two or three or four more halves he would never get to the end. Even an atom can split open. And though another mind might have taken comfort in this discovery, said the Instructor, he could not. He was terrified. He had been working at an unblinking pace for an entire summer, he said, and now as he looked around the kitchen he wondered for the first time what he had meant to accomplish. There was almost nothing left of the house that he had built in the months before his marriage—nothing except the walls and the floor and a few more pieces of furniture that he had set aside for later. The table was on the floor below him and he remembered picking up one of the legs and running the flame from a lighter along the length of the wood, thinking that he might burn the house down and breathe the smoke to death. But the fire never caught. It blackened the wood and went out when he brought the flame back. And somehow that was what had saddened the Instructor the most—the black that appeared on the wood where the fire had been. That was what he was looking at when he began to feel an enormous distance from everything, as though the earth were flattening out and away from him. To move from one place to another would take too long. He stood completely still, not letting go of the leg of the table, which seemed, he said, to become heavier and heavier in his hands, so that he felt—he remembered the fact more than the feeling—that he was sinking into the floor of the kitchen. He must have fainted. When he waked he was lying on his back. The stars were over him and he was staring and staring at the spaces between them. The word stare, he said, comes from the Flengarian verb stareo, which means to eye with the detention of thought, or to contemplate. But stareo itself derives from another Flengarian word, starus, meaning star. Stareo starum, reads the first line of a poem by Selenus—poem number 111—and scholars have argued for centuries about how to translate these words. I stare at the star, runs the conservative translation. And yet this translation ignores the potential that we might read the noun, starum, as an objective form of the verb, stareo, in which case the translation would go something like: I stare at the act of staring, or, I contemplate contemplation. The matter becomes further complicated in light of other and less literal interpretations, such as that the poet might have been writing from the perspective of the star, or that the word starus was often used during the first century after the birth of Christ (and the death of Selenus) as slang for infinity. And so we find that from one line of poetry written more than two thousand years ago a seemingly endless line of potential meanings emerge:
1. I star the star.
To insist that one translation is right and the rest are wrong is of course to miss the point, said the Instructor. The point is simply that the line between what you are and what you’re observing is erasable—that if you stare at an object all the way and without limitation you are no longer anything else. You’re everything. That was what the Instructor had realized when he waked on the floor of the kitchen. He realized that he was not separate from the stars. And nor (the implication was obvious) was he separate from his wife. Destroying his house had been an attempt to do away with her. He knew that now. But the truth was she had never left. The truth was he could bring her back whenever he wanted to. And not merely as metaphor or memory or photograph in his mind: more than that. More than just remembrance: he could make the memory actual and touchable and intimate as the act of prayer. He could in fact become his wife. He already was, he said. What he meant by that he went no further to explain, he refused, for he felt that his meaning planed so far ahead of words that we would be better off (if we really hoped to understand) forgetting everything he had told us and starting over from square one. Forget I’m even here, he said. Forget that you’re here. Just stare at the stars and imagine that the line between the two of you—the line that conveys the train of your thoughts—is straight and infinite and indestructible. You’re that line, said the Instructor. In the silence that went after this assignment I watched the Instructor peer through the telescope and a number of students walk away from the field and disappear forever into the forest. I watched the few that were left gaze at the stars with expressions that must have reminded me—I remember writing the comparison in my notes, though I can no longer summon the visual image of anyone in that class—of a painting called The Gates of Paradise, a print of which my wife had scotch-taped to the wall of our bedroom, and which displayed a small black circle (about the size of an eyeball) at the center of an oversized and otherwise blank canvas. I tried to look along but nothing was there. Nothing was a fact I found wherever I looked. Perhaps that was the point. But I had thought the same word before—I had thought: Nothing—and no matter how many times I multiplied and translated and twisted after the end of this thought, I always arrived at the same locked door, the same anxious sense of idling and needing to do something fast—to go swimming or plant a tree or found a city or learn another language so thoroughly that I forget how to speak the one I was born with. And I couldn’t do that now. I was supposed to sit still. That was what my wife would have wanted, I kept telling myself, and this refrain convinced me, if not to commune with the stars, then at least to stare at them, and more importantly, to stare at everyone else, and to search their faces for evidence of sincerity, of an authentic connection with something immortal and timeless and unconditional. I didn’t find it. Most of the students just looked bored; the rest were trying too hard. I felt, watching them, the way I remember feeling in church after the body of Christ was passed out and everyone knelt at the pews and prayed. Not envy—I never wanted to talk to God directly. What the worshipers were thinking about never interested me. I was interested in what God was thinking, and though the concept of prayer—or anyway, of applying the name prayer to a certain sequence of thoughts, and presuming that the rest of our thoughts are something other than and separate from prayers—always struck me as innately and self-evidently absurd, I believed, as I looked around the church, as a child, and now, as I looked around the baseball field, that God was listening to each of us, closely, and that He was horrified. He was thinking: Stop! You’re going about this all wrong! He was—at least, I believed that He was—an unceasingly sad animal, God, and His sadness, I thought, was rooted in an escalating sense of physical and emotional exhaustion, an awareness that the race of humans, which He had intended to one day become His helpers, and perhaps His partners in the profession of supervising the universe, would never learn to leave Him alone, never stop asking Him to explain and justify and adjudicate their presence on earth, and that, worst of all, He could not abandon or even blame us for acting the way we did. He was at fault. He was our father. In this regard, I realized, and I wrote this realization in my notes, thinking that I had, at last, found an important clue, God reminded me somewhat of my wife, whose frequent complaints that I wasn’t what she wanted, that I was selfish, that I was always asking and never giving, were invariably followed by periods of profound repentance, during which, after retiring to her bedroom, and locking the door, so that I had to go outside and climb through the window in order to get back to her, she apologized over and over, and assured me that she was wrong, she was selfish, she should stop trying to change me into something I wasn’t. She loved me. She did. And yet, she said, she only wished that I would empathize with her once in a while, really empathize, rather than just thinking the word empathy and claiming it for myself. She wanted to know that I was part of her, that when she felt sad, for instance, I did too, and that our sadness was something we bore together and at the same time. And since this was what I had always thought God wanted, since God’s greatest hope, I thought, was for someone to feel what He felt, to share the awful responsibility of omniscience, I understood, sitting in the field, that the act of love was not so far removed from that of religious faith, and I even scribbled, on a separate page of my notes, and in letters large enough that the Instructor—who had, without my noticing, walked to where I was sitting, and was standing right in front of me—must have been able to make them out, an equation that I no longer consider complete:
The Instructor said nothing direct about this equation. But the long way he looked at me after I had closed the notebook suggested that he had seen what I had written and that he thought I was on to something. Have you read Genesis, he asked. I had. Then you must know, he said, that whereas Eve eats the fruit out of kindness, because she doesn’t want to disappoint the serpent, Adam’s sin is that he loves his wife more than God. Adam eats the fruit out of fear that when Eve leaves, he will be alone. Without her, he thinks, said the Instructor, even Eden seems unbearable. He stared at me. His stare was softer than that of the students at the stars, and staring back at him, I began to sense that the space between us was no longer there, and that he was reading the words that were passing through my mind. Probably this was paranoia. I realize that. But the thought that he might indeed know what I was thinking struck me at the time as so disturbing that without deciding to I began thinking the word no over and over again, so that there was nothing else for him to hear. After another moment he returned to the pitcher’s mound and resumed his lecture, pointing out the constellations with the blade of the pocketknife. As I reclined in the grass, watching this man, and wondering whether I knew him, and from where, I began to lose consciousness, and this sense of slowness, of dreamulous languor, as the phrase appeared to me at the time, endured for the duration of the lecture, despite my efforts to come out of it. I still remember the weight of my thoughts—the gravity—as I gazed up at that sky, at Carina, Cassiopeia, Kepler, Hydrus, Infiniti, Atari, Atavon, Microscopium, and more, more constellations until at last, unable to tell one figure from the next, and starting to suspect that the Instructor was no longer naming actual patterns, but simply inventing new ones as he went along, I gave up listening and let close my eyes, waiting for sleep to pass through me. Even as the lecture drew to an end I remained in this position, prostrate, hearing as if from inside another room my classmates gathering up and into the silence, apparently having forgotten all about my existence, as I had in some sense forgotten myself. Yet I was not completely asleep—not yet. I had the weird sensation of watching the world through my eyelids, and what I saw after the class was dismissed was the Instructor standing at the pitcher’s mound and training the telescope directly at my face, which he studied closely, pausing at times to jot notes in the margins of a large book that I believed to be a dictionary. It was some time before I waked. The grass was wet and the sight of the fog advancing over the field, so thick that I could no longer make out the outline of the outfield fence, convinced me for the spasm of several seconds that I was perhaps in heaven—a conviction that grew stronger when I remembered the dream I had just come up from under. In the dream I had been sitting alone inside a small railroad coach that was stationed along a narrow track. After embarking from under the backstop of the baseball field, the train had accelerated through the forest and out across the plains, past farm after farm of corn and cows and wheat and wildflowers, traveling at the astonishing speed of something between sound and sight toward the end of an earth that I believed, as some of the sailors on the Santa Maria are said to have believed, despite copious evidence to the contrary, and despite the repeated assurances of Columbus, to be flat, and more to the point, finite. Stop the train, I shouted, shutting my eyes, and fearing that at any moment we might tumble headlong over the edge of the universe. But I could not make myself understood, and when at last I opened my eyes I saw that I was sitting across from a man I recognized as the reincarnation of the astronomer Nicholaus Copernicus, whose De revolutionibus orbium coelestium, published in 1543, was the first written proposal of the heretical hypothesis that the universe was without a center. Your wife has gone a long way off, said the man, shaking his head. Tonight she’s really gone a long way, he said, and it’s no use looking for her anymore. And everyone, he went on after a long while, looking out the window, is your wife. Everyone you talk to, everyone you ride with and look at stars with is someone you used to love. You must, he said, have learned some astronomy in school. You know that the earth isn’t the center of the universe. Everyone accepts that without question now because the scientists proved it. But in the old days the church said the earth was the center, and there were constant debates about which side was correct. Just as everyone who ever lived, said Copernicus, believes their god is the true God. Then we argue about whether we’re apes or angels, and no one can clearly define the difference between the two. But if we look very closely, and if we learn how to separate the true beliefs from the false ones, then perhaps, he said, faith can become synonymous with science. At this point Copernicus lowered his head and, praying, pronounced what I later learned were the last words of another famous stargazer, Tycho Brahe, whose death, according to the report written by his doctor, Johann Jessensius Jessen, was occasioned by the bursting of his bladder, eleven days after a banquet with the Bohemian Count of Rosenberg, during which the astronomer had been too courteous to obey the call of nature. Brahe’s Assistant, Johannes Kepler, who in 1596, at the age of twenty-four, had published the first and most forceful defense of the Copernican model, and whose reputation would eventually eclipse that of his mentor, observed Brahe’s long and unspeakably painful descent into delirium, and recorded at sometime between 9:00 and 10:00 in the morning of October 24, 1601, his dying sentence, which we can only assume was addressed to God, and which was spoken, according to Kepler, in a state of feverish and dreamlike anguish:
May I not seem to have lived in vain, was how I translated this sentence, and what struck me even in sleep, and even more so when I waked, was the indecision implicit in the word seem—as though after years of patient and contemplative research, Brahe was less certain than ever about what was happening to him and even whether he had lived at all. After repeating this phrase several times, Brahe had closed his eyes and let go of life peacefully, having realized, Kepler writes, that death is nothing more than another dream, and that everyone is always someone else. And indeed, it was not until I had come to a similar conclusion and resigned myself to the fate of falling endlessly and effortlessly through the indefinite expanse of space and time that the train slowed to a stop, opening its doors on a vast green field which the waking Copernicus, waving his arms, claimed to be the Kingdom of Christ, the Kingdom of Christ! This was the last moment of the dream that I could recall and the memory merged with what I was looking at now. The students were gone. There were no stars left. The only factual evidence corroborating the night before was the telescope, which the Instructor had left standing on the pitcher’s mound, and the notebook, which had somehow traveled out of my pocket during the night and lay open on the ground beneath the telescope. How this had happened I had no clue. But I would not have been surprised to learn that I was responsible. What I remember most unimpeachably is the sense of loss that overcame me in the moment after I walked to the mound and turned the notebook to the page the equation was on.
I no longer understood it! Whatever revelation I had been about to uncover had dissolved, as dreams will, and what remained on the page appeared (and still appears, despite the fact that I can decipher the symbols, and that I can precisely recall the sequence of thoughts that led me to compose them) completely nonsensical. Pocketing the notebook, I walked to the mound and trained the telescope at the night. Through the eyepiece I saw something in outer space—something between two of the stars and brighter than both of them, completely still. At first it was nothing more than a point of light:
But as I watched the light began to elongate. Soon the original point was the end—or the start—of a line that stretched for what must have been more than a million light years across the dome of the Milky Way.
The line grew several minutes longer before the back end began, gradually, to go forward, following after the front, which was, I noticed, no longer moving. Someone was erasing the line—that was what it looked like from where I stood. I watched. But I never felt that I was watching something disappear. I felt instead as though the light was turning away from me and moving over the horizon. Not ending—just entering another dimension. Deeper. Now there was nothing but a single point on the other side of space.
This point grew progressively smaller. Not until the light had vanished completely did I step back from the telescope and remember where I was. The fog had lifted. The earth was flat. I heard the birds in the branches and the distant sound of a train getting longer and longer and longer.