Eyes glide over the paper, fingers smooth the soft, matt, creamy weave of pulp. And, as the pen is placed upon it, ink begins to be drawn out, a simple mark is made, then the nib lifts, and in tiny capillaries ink seeks its own exhaustion, dark currents travelling into tributaries and streams, drawn on into virgin territory.
The earliest humans were scavengers. We hid behind trees as the big cat took down the antelope. And then waited as the hyenas stripped the bones. Only then did we approach the remains of the dead creature, breaking the bones with rocks, getting at the marrow. We were the lowest of the low, but even then our intelligence, and maybe something other than that, a desire for something more, enabled us to devise better ways of doing what we wanted to do, so a particular technology evolved. Smashing the bones lost some of the marrow. Better to somehow snap off the ends of the bones, suck out some of the liquid core, then use a long twig to push out the remainder.
This leaves you with a cylinder of hollow bone.
Greater dexterity, ingenuity, meant more food for our offspring. In any triangle the sum of any two angles is less than two right angles. We blew the marrow from the bones into stone bowls, and the bones, at some point, became flutes. Those of us with the quickest minds and the quickest fingers passed on our genes. The marrow suckers became flautists and fiddlers, guitarists and concert pianists.
The God believer asks God whether he should believe or not. God replies that it’s a matter of free will. I created you to be free to deny me. The Darwinist considers whether she has evolved to accept Darwin. The geneticist probably doesn’t worry too much about genes playing a part in the science of genes. It’s science, after all, and that’s clearly objective. The Marxist knows she is the product of the capitalist system and she needs help from her psychoanalyst. But her psychoanalyst is worrying that desire has produced psychoanalytic theory, then puts this to one side as he remembers his Marxist patient is due, and he gets a fat fee. The writer, however, cannot be sure of anything. And in not being sure is completely fucked up.
They ask: ‘Will you tell us a story? Instead of reading one to us. Will you make one up?’
I answer: ‘I don’t know. I like reading stories. I love stories.’
They ask: ‘Please tell us a story of your own. Please.’
I answer; ‘I’d rather read someone else’s story than make up my own.’
They ask: ‘Please, will you? Please? We love those stories! Please make one up!’
I answer: ‘What about?’
They ask: ‘Could you tell us a story about what you did when you were a boy?’
I answer: ‘No. It wouldn’t be a story. It would be just a load of disconnected memories. I’d tell you about my dog, or mackerel fishing, or climbing on to the roof of the water tower. Or breaking into an abandoned house to find a set of false teeth in a jam jar. Those teeth were the most frightening thing I ever saw.’
They ask: ‘You broke into a house?’
I answer: ‘Well, not really. It was abandoned. The people had left. It was falling apart. The windows were all smashed. The doors were left open. We just walked in.’
They ask: ‘Why were they so frightening? Those teeth? What’s frightening about teeth in a jar? We’d find that funny. Wouldn’t we?’
I answer: ‘I don’t think I want to talk about that now. It’s time to go to sleep.’
They ask: ‘Will you teach us something then? Teach us something useful. Teach us something so we don’t have to learn it ourselves.’
I answer: ‘Maybe. Close your eyes. Settle down. Let me think.’
They ask: ‘Will this take long?’
I answer: ‘No, just give me a few seconds.’
They ask: ‘Are you hoping we go to sleep so you don’t have to tell us a story?’
I answer: ‘No, I’m really thinking.’
They ask: ‘Will you hurry up?’
I answer: ‘Ok. I’ll teach you about the way the world is wide open, how the future is all yours. Your lives could take you anywhere. You are at the bottom of a great tree and any one of those branches, twigs, leaves, could be yours. There is so much wonder. And look through the leaves and you’ll see the sky. And at night, the stars. Breathe in the air, it’s so beautiful. Listen to the tiny creatures scurrying to their hiding places. Wait for the dawn. Hear the birdsong, feel the first rays of morning sun on your face.’
They ask: ‘Is that something you’ve learnt?’
‘I suppose so,’ I answer.
‘What was that all about?’ they ask. ‘We don’t understand.’
The System requested that she enter the details. All details were entered into the System. The System expected that all details, including dates of birth, date of entry, initial base line tests and medical records be included. These were added. The System demanded she test all those whose details were entered to ensure they were operating at the acceptable level. The tests had to be objective and quantitative. The System abhorred qualitative judgements. Quantitative, objective tests were conducted, the results entered. The System confirmed that as only 82% and not the required 85% reached the acceptable level that an Action Plan be drawn up and logged into the System within ten working days. The System stipulated that if this was not done measures would be taken to reprimand, discipline, even replace the personnel responsible. An Action Plan was drawn up, specifying the process whereby improvement would be achieved: those who failed the test were deleted from the System. Those who failed the test were deleted. Failure was deleted. The System was satisfied.
Ludwig Wittgenstein and Adolf Hitler were born in 1889, and attended the same primary school in Linz, Austria. Hitler’s image is captured on film over and over again, gesticulating histrionically as he speaks at rallies, presiding over the Olympic Games in Berlin, greeting world leaders at the Berghof, or peering at a map through a magnifying glass. He smiles and waves to children at pageants, stands in an open top car in a motorcade, signs the surrender of France. But the image of his contemporary, Wittgenstein, we can know only through photographs. We can hear Hitler’s voice in a multitude of recordings. Wittgenstein is silent.
Wittgenstein wrote only one book in his life time, The Tractatus. Yet it is his profound effect on his students that seems to be his greatest legacy. Many were overwhelmed by his lectures, the intensity of his presentation, some even spoke of watching, in reverence, as he sat and thought. Wittgenstein thinking was a spectacle.
When those same students were asked what it was Wittgenstein was trying to say, none could encapsulate it. They don’t doubt he said something of enormous significance, but what it was, exactly, remained somehow nebulous.
One of the those students was author William Gass, who described watching Wittgenstein as ‘the total naked absorption of the mind in its problem.’
Hitler pollutes the cultural consciousness. He is everywhere: his sinister image, the iconography of his regime, the horrific barbarity of the holocaust. His legacy is a terrifying white noise, a bleak static. What Wittgenstein leaves us, however, is a curious absence, as if somehow he knew that something not said is even more meaningful than what is. In The Tractatus Wittgenstein wants to show that language corresponds to the world of facts, but in its preface writes ‘My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognises them as nonsensical, when he has used them – as steps – to climb up beyond them. (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.) He must transcend these propositions, and then he will see the world aright.’ True understanding of his work, then, means climbing the ladder of his propositions into silence.
The surgeon looks inside with a device similar to a microscope, a fibre optic thread. He sees the brain of his patient like another world. He enters that world. He knows a mistake could leave her paralysed, or worse. He delves through the plumbing of arteries, through networks of nerves, like the cables in his home. This is his home, he belongs in the patient’s brain. He knows his way through the folds and fissures to the stem. But there’s no one here. And there are no ghosts, no spirits, no soul. The lights are not on. He senses the electricity that surrounds him, the power supply to each cable, and the fizz and pop of synapses. But here, when he looks, he cannot see life, or consciousness. And he knows, as he burrows, that were he to look in his own brain, even as he looks into another now, he would see nothing of what he is so vitally aware right now. The quality of his own experience, and the knowledge that here, in this blancmange, is another’s character, desires, beliefs, memories. The surgeon is held in high esteem, but he thinks of what he does as a primitive science. He is, at the same time, proud and humble. He senses this, but is aware that, were he to look into his own skull, these very attributes of his character would never be found. He is a stone age man attempting to understand relativity.
I think it was in Devon I read To the Lighthouse. My memory of it, like my memory of most things, is unreliable. But unlike most books To the Lighthouse feels like memory itself. Trying to recall it, five years after reading, I see the image of the house, a reflection in a window, and the garden, a lawn sloping down to the sea.
There are the meals, the cutlery and the crockery. There is the philosopher, and the painter. There is certainty, and doubt. There is the war, and the house, through which we wander, like ghosts, in the eerie middle section, when it is abandoned. That emptiness haunts me.
And then there are the children, and the return a decade later. My thoughts skim across the sea, to holidays on Cornish beaches with my own children, the houses we once rented, that are now empty, or filled with the voices and laughter of strangers. I can smell the tobacco in To the Lighthouse and feel the steam from saucepans of vegetables, or the scent of charred meat. Like any novel, it weaves my world into the author’s world, draws me into her darkness.
You talk to me knowing I’ll understand what you say. There are others who won’t listen to you because they know, even before you begin speaking, that they will not agree with you. This is the Great Divide. A people is split in half, there are those who once, maybe, decided to leave their place of birth, and strike out. Whether they were forced out by famine or flood, plague or predators, whether they left to seek for new land, the green valley by the water, the stone cottage on the mountain top, or for adventure, or for gold, they were not satisfied, or they were too frightened to stay. And then there are those who, despite all things, remain where they were born. For them, the unknown presents the greater risk. These folk are content to remain at the fireside, gaining their adventures from the storyteller, or the image maker. They learn to appreciate their immediate surroundings, accept its flaws. They know by staying put it is in their interests to look after each other. But those that have left, they have no time for the weak. To stay with one of their own who cannot or will not continue on, who is injured, or sick, is to threaten the entire enterprise. And thus the Great Divide. These two tribes, those that seek, and those that remain, will struggle to understand each other. I remained behind, as you probably did, for if not, I doubt you would understand these words.
The streets are bathed in spring sunshine, sunshine in rectangles and diamonds and acres of light, on rooftops and brickwork and masonry and on pavements. There is an aliveness to the day that is almost unbearable, and too huge to hold, but there it is, and every photon sears into the visual cortex and electrifies the circuitry of the brain and makes me want to yield and at the same time scream and hug every spangle of reflected light, it fizzes in my cells and this is what it must be like to be a green plant and conscious of photosynthesis, leaves like upturned palms in some sort of invocation.