We are not doomed.
We may well be determined and we may be defined but we are not definitive and we won’t go on forever and we won’t ever die: immortality is granted, though the wish is monstrous, as long as we take it upon ourselves to be the centre of our own attention.
Conduits to the stream. The energy, the code, the connection. We may yet go extinct; we need not mourn ourselves: we leave behind perhaps no legacy but our intention to do well.
Complex situations, simple choices: do you put anger in the world and hatred and want and division and them versus us and incomprehension and rejection, hostility, enmity, loss; or do you engender hope. Do you foster recognition, respect. Enjoinment: empathy. Different, differentiated manifestations of one and the same.
Never even mind that we’re human: remember we are god. When every mistake we’ve ever made is multiplied with every catastrophe, our hearts may hurt from the unwisdom we yield to. And yet: we can make it so, we can make it other.
The thing that we’re made of may yet lift us. We can, whether we want to or not; but wanting to is harder than saying no. Everything is known, everyone can be understood.
Accept as the deepest part of you that which you loathe most. The person you despise: you are him, you are her. Embrace them. The child murderess. The suicide bomber. The bludgeoner to death. You celebrate, you cheer, you dance your pride when your football team wins. When your psychopath strikes: suffer him to be your disaster no less than you appropriate your goal scorer’s triumph. The medals on the athlete’s chest are badges of your honour no more and no less than the bloodstains on the knife stabber’s hand are witness to your failure. Own it.
Grow up into the painful truths, and free yourself. There is no freedom without truth. There is no truth without pain. There is no pain that does not carry a reward. When all is said and done: start over. There is no reward without loss. There is no loss without self. There is no self that stands alone.
Surrender to the motion of a greater purpose. Even if you don’t understand. Even if you do not believe. Even if you’re not convinced. Your heart knows long before your brain, because your brain is more powerful than you think: when knowledge is you and you are the world and the world is an instance in just one universe and the universe is a thought and the thought is expressed then you are god: you are god.
Accept the burden of being all powerful. Make good on your promise. Dare love.
I never lost much sleep over losing sleep. Doing so to me seemed, well, counterintuitive. Self-defeating.
Those friends—one or two—who complained of restless nights, of tossing and turning, of simply not switching off, baffled me: why not just get up, if you can’t sleep, and do some work, I would wonder. Or if you don’t do the kind of work you can pursue in the small hours of the night or the morning, why not, maybe, read? Or watch a film? Watch a documentary for example, or a history programme? Phone a friend in New Zealand, or in Australia: there’s bound to be one you’ve mostly forgotten about, because they never comment on social media. They’re actually there: just call them up out of the blue and say: ‘Hey! How is it all hanging with you?’ It will be a lovely surprise.
‘Oh, but then I’ll be tired in the morning,’ my sleepless friends would say. But you’ll be tired in the morning anyway, I’d think and say: ‘I see. That’s inconvenient, certainly.’ I didn’t really see. Though I realised it would be inconvenient to be tired in the morning. Then again they were tired in the morning anyway, because they couldn’t sleep, so why not be tired having done something useful, or interesting?
A very good friend of mine who often found it difficult to sleep told me she worried a great deal about it, because it made her feel neurotic. I half bethought me there was perhaps a seed of self-knowledge contained in this sensation. I didn’t think it friendly to say so, so I said, ‘I’m so sorry to hear that.’ She would go to bed at nine thirty, ten at the latest, and then lie awake. She used to use earplugs and a sleep mask and close the heavy curtains of her bedroom. And not sleep. ‘You never have that problem?’ I never had that problem.
I can sleep in any kind of setting, light or dark; I have a high background noise threshold (I mostly just zone out of it), I sleep any time, day or night; my window, except during coldest winter, is always ajar, my blinds don’t darken the room, they just afford a bit of privacy; I usually go to bed about three, three thirty in the morning (sometimes, if it’s been a heavy day or an early start, or an early start is impending, an hour or so earlier), I sleep until ten, maybe nine-thirty; I don’t set an alarm unless I absolutely have to: my body appears to require seven hours of sleep now, almost exactly, to wake up, slowly and a little reluctantly, always, but essentially to fully functioning order restored. So long as I’m warm enough, I am fine. I don’t even mind my lover snoring. I simply clamp onto him and fall in with his breathing, no problem.
The problem started when Edgar, my most sensible friend, told me he couldn’t sleep. ‘Why not?’ I asked him. He said he didn’t know, he just couldn’t. It was annoying. Beyond annoying, it was tiring: he’s a university lecturer, he needs to be awake during the day, to do his thinking, his preparing of lectures, his reading, and his lecturing. Being tired is not just inconvenient for him, it’s debilitating. Suddenly that made sense. And now I was worried. If Edgar, my least neurotic and quite possibly most intelligent friend, suddenly, out of the blue, simply can’t sleep, and for no particular reason, but to the point where it interferes with his operability, then who is safe from this menace? I decided, uncharacteristically, to probe further:
‘Has anything happened to make you lose sleep over it?’
‘Not really, no.’
‘Your relationship is going well.’
‘Splendid. Except we sleep in separate rooms at the moment, because I can’t sleep. And I snore.’
‘Aw. – Ah well, many couples sleep in separate rooms.’
‘Your children are healthy?
‘They’re excellent, thanks.’
‘Your daughter-in-law has calmed down a bit.’
‘A bit. It’ll take her a while, I suppose.’
‘I suppose. – University not undergoing too many changes, no upheavals?’
‘Just the bureaucracy, it’s creeping in, it’s taking over. It’s a nightmare.’
‘Ah! There you go! You are worried about the bureaucrats taking over!’
‘I don’t worry about them, I’ve got tenure. They just annoy me, they have no imagination.’
‘Of course not, they’re bureaucrats. How about… how about… food? You eat well, don’t you?’
This is an unnecessary question: Edgar eats exquisitely: he is one of the best cooks I know.
‘There really is no obvious reason,’ he says, a tone of resignation in his voice.
That worries me: if Edgar, of all people, quite possibly the most up-for-it, can-do person I know, is sounding resigned over being unable to sleep, then who can fight this disease. Disease!
‘How is your health?’
‘My health is all right, thanks, how is yours?’
‘Mine is just dandy, thanks. Do you take any exercise?’
I’ve recently latched on to the need to take exercise, it’s an age thing; has Edgar?
‘Of course not.’
‘Maybe that’s the cause of your inability to sleep.’
‘I have never taken any exercise in my life, I burn all my calories in my brain.’
This is probably true. The brain uses a lot of energy, and Edgar is one of the most avid thinkers I know; but thinking doesn’t aid circulation.
‘You maybe should go for a walk now and then.’
‘I go for short walks all the time.’
‘Maybe you should go for a long walk, every day.’
‘You do that, don’t you?
‘I do. And I sleep like a baby.’
‘What, wake up every few hours and scream your head off, until somebody rocks you and gives you some oral gratification.’
‘I walked right into that, didn’t I.’
That’s why I like Edgar, he doesn’t take any nonsense from me, or from anyone. And he’s brought up a whole brood of children, he knows what he’s talking about.
‘Have you thought about therapy?’ (Of course he hasn’t.)
‘Of course not.’
‘Then I don’t know what I can recommend. Read, maybe. Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. People rave about it. I tried reading it five times, I fell asleep every time. It’s like a switch: I get to about page three, four, maximum five, then I’m out. Just like that.’
‘I’ve read it. It was entertaining.’
‘Maybe try reading it again… – or: maybe try reading about something you’re really not interested in, at all.’
‘Like the Spanish Civil War.’
‘The Spanish Civil War?’
‘Yes: are you interested in the Spanish Civil War?’
‘I have never given it a moment’s thought.’
I meet Edgar for coffee about two weeks later, as we are both in town. (We are not that often both in town at the same time, we lead busy, cosmopolitan lifestyles that involve being out of and in other cities and towns respectively all the time.)
‘How is it going?’
‘Fine thanks. Just very tired.’
‘Still no joy with the sleep?’
‘It’s getting worse.’
‘I’m sorry to hear that.’
‘Thanks. You are, of course, to blame.’
‘Well, I started reading about the Spanish Civil War: it’s fascinating!’
‘Oh, but that’s great, isn’t it?’
‘Yes and no: I’m learning about European history, which, frankly, I knew little about, but the books now keep me awake even longer.’
‘Ah. Well. That was an unintended consequence. Maybe you have to find something less stimulating to read, and less likely to be of random tangential relevance to you. How about botany?’
‘Yes, you don’t have a garden, do you.’
‘And you don’t want one, do you.’
‘Well there you go: why not read about botany; that will send you to sleep.’ (If that doesn’t send him to sleep, nothing will, is my thinking. Then again, there are botanists, so who knows…)
It’s nearly the end of June and I’m about to go on a lengthy trip, so I forget about the business of sleep for a while as I cruise around Europe in an open top car. This feels both extravagant and romantic. I’m doing it on my own, because I don’t at that point have a partner, and I’m enjoying the freedom, the spirit, the air. I sleep in a different b’n’b every night, almost, and most of the time on my own. Only on one occasion is the host so flirtatious, so attractive, so sexy that we end up spending the night together. In Bordeaux. I eat well, I drink well, I sleep well.
Edgar and I are having dinner, on my return. He’s cooking, the way he usually does, in passing. He has the knack for rustling up something delicious as if it weren’t happening, while we’re talking. It’s fascinating, and a little disconcerting too. When I cook (which I only do since recently, thanks to an online service that sends me all the ingredients in a box, together with clear instructions, which I follow to the letter and get annoyed with if they are even remotely vague, which thankfully happens extremely rarely), I have to give it my full attention. I execute the steps. My cooking is in essence a connecting of dots: it’s reading the sheet music and making it work. With some success, I might add. Edgar’s cooking is all jazz and improvisation. The steak is particularly juicy on this occasion, and the roasted vegetables with fresh herbs are out of this world!
‘You’ve surpassed yourself, Edgar! This food is amazing!’
‘The vegetables, they are so tasty!’
(I notice I’m conversing in exclamation marks, all of a sudden! But they’re warranted!)
‘Thanks.’ Edgar is humility personified. ‘I grew them during the summer.’
‘I grew them, in the garden.’
‘You don’t have a garden. – Do you?’
‘I do: I asked the neighbour down on the ground floor who tended the garden and he said nobody does, it’s a crying shame, and so I said: let me.’
‘But you know nothing about gardening.’
‘Well, I’ve been reading a lot about botany lately, and it’s really quite the most interesting thing. And stimulating.’
‘I know, it doesn’t send me to sleep, of course; it keeps me awake, but hey: we have exquisite vegetables now, and those herbs.’
I fear me I may have to change me my strategy…
How grown ups ruin things.
The little boy on the District Line is giddy with insight, his eyes are aglow with love, his voice alive with excitement. Swinging round the pole he’s meant to just hold on to, he tells his friend, ‘sometimes I think that everything is just a dream.’ His friend, just slightly taller, but still little, exclaims: ‘so do I!’
It’s a moment of sheer wonder. A wonder dad has lost. Dad says: ‘That’s the question my dad likes to think about, how do you know that everything isn’t just a dream; that we’re not in someone’s brain…’
The boys try to ignore him, they’re not ready for his existential, inherited angst. But dad now has the upper hand: ‘How do you know,’ he insists, ‘how do you know you’re not dreaming right now?’ There’s a smile on his face, but it doesn’t look as benign as he possibly means it to be: there is power at play now, it’s a smirk.
Slightly older but still very young boy has no answer: ‘I just know,’ he says.
Dad—to the younger boy, they don’t look like brothers to me—is like a dog with his bone: ‘But how can you be sure? Have you ever had a dream?’
This strikes me as near-cruel a question. These boys are maybe seven, eight? Older, slightly taller, but still nine-years-old-I-imagine-at-the-most boy is now unsure: ‘Yes…?’ The uncertainty infuses a slight quiver in his voice.
My heart breaks; I want to hug him and say: ‘Everything is all right; and you’re quite right too, and your little friend. Sometimes everything is just a dream, but not in this cynical, clinical way your little friend’s dad now makes you think and worry about.’ Still dad won’t let go and instead pushes on with his inquisition, until: ‘You start freaking me out,’ the little boy says.
At last dad relents, sensing the fear he has just poured over his son and his son’s gschpänli, who were just a moment ago so excited that everything could still be a dream, and to whom until just a moment ago it probably was…
The tear I shed for these boys is as heavy as the joy was light that I felt for their innocence. If only dad had had a wiser father. The prism of your childhood paints the world in colours that but slowly fade, and if it is tainted, obscured or damaged, oh how long a shadow it casts…
‘What if,’ Sedartis muses, ‘consciousness is not a matter of characteristics or substance or physics or chemistry or biology or the nature of the configuration of brain cells or the genetic make-up or the design, divine or otherwise, of the brain or its configuration with the rest of the body, but merely a matter of connective concentration: get enough nodes on the network—in your case, the brain—to connect with each other at high enough speed and frequency, and you reach the point at which the network—in your case still the brain—becomes aware of itself and can start making decisions that are self-conscious.
‘Apply that principle to any other network capable of processing information—computers, chips, civilisations, planets with technological infrastructure and already conscious entities on them—and you enter the exponential acceleration of intelligence. Why? Precisely because it is networked to the level where it can become conscious. What if Consciousness is nothing but this: enough capable nodes on the network, Critical Mass.’
I’m inclined, unsurprisingly, to consider that a real possibility…
‘Stupidity,’ Sedartis thunders, ‘is the enemy. Stupidity is the outrage: the crime!’ Here is that word again. ‘Perpetrated not by the stupid, they may never have learnt—never have had a chance to learn—not to be so; no, it’s the chief crime of your society. As long as you allow stupidity not just to exist, but to flourish in your midst; as long as you cultivate, nurture, elevate and celebrate it, you deserve everything you get.’
I feel chastened; Sedartis is on a roll: ‘You talk of equality. You talk of democracy and a fairer society. And yet you blind yourselves to the evil that trumps all: you lull your masses into ignorance and then keep them there. Because you’re selfish, egotistical, greedy and lazy, you “give the people what they want,” which you keep telling them is soft porn mush and their own supposed “reality.” You invite them to be abysmally stupid on your television shows and think you’re doing them a favour because they recognise themselves: you make stupidity the norm, and condemn aspiration to intellect as a pretentious frivolity. You dismiss intellect itself as an irrelevance, knowing full well that without intellect you wouldn’t be here where you are, in your privileged position. You keep your people stupid because that’s how you keep yourselves aloft and rich; you fear them, and you dread what they should do if ever they latched on to how you enslave them.’
There is a pause. It doesn’t last. ‘You feed them what scraps they already know, and shore up their prejudices; you belittle intelligence as “too clever by half”—how can you even hold on to an expression like that?—and smirk at anyone who thinks in public. How can you have built a civilisation in which not only one percent own more than half of all material wealth, but another one percent at most are really schooled in handling knowledge, when you know that knowledge is power.’
That’s a crass exaggeration, and unlike Sedartis, I want to protest.
‘All right, so that may be a crass exaggeration, I concede: you educate more people now, in absolute terms as well as relative, than ever before, but you’ve had so much time to make so much more progress than you have, you should be embarrassed that so many of you are still struggling so much.’
That, I find hard to argue with. Is knowledge power, still, though?
‘Thinking,’ he thinks at me, ‘is an exertion, yes. That does not absolve us from it. So is walking, yet walk we must, otherwise we grow fat, stale and lethargic. Brushing is a pain, but you do it, even if reluctantly, to hold on to your teeth. Life is not convenient, no matter how successful we are at making it so. So even if it hurts: use your brain. It will shrivel, shrink and stink if you don’t.’
Stink? I can tell how angry he is. ‘I am not angry, my friend’—Sedartis hears me well before I speak—‘I am outraged. I am outraged at the stupidity you allow on this planet. At the casual simplicity you cast over everything, and at the way you make do. At the quick quote soundbite approach you have taken to politics. The commercial current that runs through your culture. The inoffensiveness of your art. The soft sell in your science. The infantilisation of your discourse. You constantly ask: what is the simple story, what the three-act moral narrative. Because you are too torpid to connect the dots for yourselves. You open your mouths, crying, “feed me!” – You’ve regressed into infancy, and you wallow in your own incapacity. You suckle the nipple of light entertainment, and if you do wean yourselves off it, you go on to sugary bottled “fun,” and then you wonder why your metaphorical teeth are all rotten, and you’re incapable even of crunching an apple: you’ve become toothless, grown-up-but-refused-to-grow-up, idiot babes. You have lost sophistication, elegance and wit. You shun the strain of inquiry, and you moan and moan and moan.
‘Like the whiny brat in the stroller whom you have elevated to a tiny emperor and given permission to terrorise your existence, you yourself throw your toys out of your pram and expect someone else to bend down and pick them up for you. Everything is somebody’s fault. It’s the government’s fault. It’s the neighbours’ fault. It’s the immigrants’ fault. It’s anybody else’s fault but yours. Have you listened to yourselves? You are a disgrace to your species, the way you behave, and you know it, but you will stone me for saying so to your face.’
I am stunned. I have never experienced Sedartis like this. I’m a little afraid. And in awe.
He senses my discomfort, my fear. He calms down: ‘Species. That in itself is too simple, too categorical. I know you need simplicity, you need categories. But look at yourselves from a distance, or look at yourselves close up: you are so near to your nearest cousins that you can barely tell yourselves apart. Yet you think you are a majestic, exclusive achievement. You are nothing of the sort, you are simply first on your planet, and alone in your solar system. But there are so many solar systems in so many galaxies, you need not fear of finding yourselves alone: this universe, as well as any other, is teeming with life.
‘Your problem is not your position, not your location, not your intelligence: your problem is your perspective. Your nearest cousins, the dolphins, the bonobos, they may be a few hundred thousand years, maybe a few million years behind you on their evolutionary path, but that doesn’t make them categorically different. It just makes them slower at something you can take no credit for. What you can take credit for is this: your culture. What you do with your advantage. And that is why your stupidity is unacceptable now. At one point, in the not so distant past, you were just like the great apes, scavenging for food, fighting each other for primacy over your females, thinking of nothing other than preserving, projecting, your genes. Slowly, gradually, you emerged from the dullness of your existence and you became conscious, intelligent beings.
‘How dare you not use your intelligence? You will get there, of course; you will reach your next level, as every other life form reaches its own. You will merge with your inventions, you will make yourselves immortal. You will begin to populate other worlds, if nothing else as a hybrid of human and human-made machine. That is all very well. But choose how you get there. The pain that you’re causing yourselves and your fellow creatures on earth is excruciating, when you already have the means to not inflict it at all. All you have to do is use your intelligence and learn that you are not the thing that matters, you are part of the thing that matters, and that is enough.’
‘What is the thing that matters?’ I ask Sedartis.
He remains silent. He remains silent for a long, long time, and we sit together watching the squirrels and the birds, and imagining the bonobos and the dolphins and the cows and the lions and the beautiful, but a little clumsy, giraffes.
I take his silence to mean, ‘I don’t know either,’ and it saddens me that he doesn’t know either, but I know he doesn’t know either, and I wonder does anyone know, anyone in the multiverse of infinite universes at all, or are we all just a part of it, unknowing but yearning to understand, and failing but trying and playing our part.
‘It doesn’t matter, you see,’ says Sedartis. And now I can really hear him. ‘It doesn’t matter at all. All that matters is that you make the most of it. Whatever it is that you can. That is all that actually matters, because you have no control over anything else.
‘You can’t control when you are born. To whom. Where. You can’t know why. You can’t dictate the terms of your existence, but you can take them and deal with them well. And by dealing with them well, you may alter them. Whatever is given, you don’t have to take just as it is. What you do have to do is make the most of it. And you really have to make the most of it. You really have to not take no for an answer, you really have to probe deeper and go further and demand of yourself more. Because if you don’t, somebody will. And they may not understand what you understand. But you understand what I understand, and that is how we are connected, how we are part of it all, how there is a greater scheme of things, and how our moment here is tiny, but we can, must, make it magnificent.’
Hand in hand we walk north in the night, now upon the ice that stretches ahead to the pole and beyond. Can there be a Beyond, beyond the pole? Another pole, perhaps, where the penguins are asleep. They know not of The Ice King, they care not for me, their dreams are of flying turtles and jellyfish in a trance.
Above us the sky is a fantasy of too many colours; those yellows, those greens, those purples again, I have seen them before: I saw them, I’m sure, in the chamber, but here in the open, we are naked and free.
Naked we walk hand in hand on the ice that has no horizon, it just yields to the sky. It extends so far that the eye wants to rest, but the light and the ions and the glow of the heart have emboldened us to go on.
After the water, the land, and now the ice once again, only this is no glacier. This is the home of The Ice King, it is where he belongs. I’m not sure I should be here at all, but with his palm in mine and the steady sound of his breathing beside me I feel safe and assured. His step too is steady and strong; his eyes are determined now, and his hair, which I hadn’t noticed before, here in the open waves in the wind. The wind cuts our cheeks and our chests and our thighs, and the ice is so cold that it burns the soles of our feet, but we are not afraid, and we are not tired, and we are not alone: we have each other.
I don’t know what having The Ice King means, or he having me. Are we now one? I glance across to him as we stride, and we are so far gone now, the aurora has left us behind, and all about are the stars: magnificent molecules in the sky. Never have I seen them so clear, nor so many. Numbers no-one can name. In the light of the night that is moonless and large The Ice King looks like an invisible force, a presence that cannot be known, that can only be sensed; that cannot be fathomed, it can only be lived. Am I living The Ice King?
The Ice King inwardly laughs, and his mirth appears on his lips as the memory of a trace of a smile. I love these lips, and I have no regrets. I regret not kissing them, nor sailing on them to the pole, nor listening to them as he speaks: I do not hear what he says, the wind is too fierce, the snowy crystals it blasts our skin with too sharp, the tremor of thrill of being exposed to his world too intense for me to indeed understand, but the melody that emanates from his body, and the idea that shines in his temple, and the soul that has taken me on make me trust in his language, his word.
His word that I do not now nor ever imagine I shall comprehend grows in my brain a new constellation of axons, and I tingle at the realisation that this is an initiation, it is certainly the commencement of something, it is a whole new creation. I do not know what this is, but I know it is good.
What kind of a consciousness is it that knows itself to exist but doesn’t know why? In what way does that make sense? In what way does it not?
The longing to learn.
The yearning for answers.
The learning to yield. If only my brain were better at retaining information. What is ‘information’? And when it is not ‘information’, what is it then, that we get, if we get it, at all? What, if anything, can be known, can be felt, can be appreciated, understood, can be experienced or imagined, or both? And is there, but is there a difference?
Remembrance of things past and future. The energy stream, and the particles. Obviously, the waves. The idiosyncrasies. Material flaws. Cracks that let the light shine through. Nonuniform irregularities.
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