This morning, I have been watching and listening to Vassal talk to an empty room. He has been gesturing and speaking as if other people are in here with us, which in a way many probably are. It is as if he is performing in a TV studio that is empty except for the two of us. At this moment, he is in effect on the air, his words and actions available to anyone anywhere. There could be dozens of people watching him and listening, or there could be hundreds, or thousands, or more. Or, though unlikely, there could be none, no broadcasts. Now that his invention is everywhere, no doubt, all of us will get used to that range of possibilities, but so far, to me, it seems strange.
He is still speaking, informing his probable audience:
“You’re going to go all kinds of places and encounter all kinds of situations, more than anyone can imagine. You’ll find lines that you’re willing to cross, and lines where you’ll hesitate and think carefully before you proceed. For a while, maybe longer, maybe for as long as you live, you’ll feel embarrassed or afraid or wrong to enter some places, or to spy on certain people. Sometimes you’ll refrain; you’ll stay where you are, or head for some other destination.
“Many situations you’ll encounter will be different from each other. They’ll challenge you in different ways. Sometimes, you’ll struggle with deciding what to do. You’ll fight battles within yourself. You’ll have trouble keeping your moral and ethical balance. You won’t know what’s good, or what’s right, or what you want. You’ll get very confused.
“You’ll experience temptations: desires for sex, love, money, fame, beauty, influence, and other things. And there you’ll be, able to go where you want and observe anything, able to indulge any whim about that. You’ll think and feel with great freedom, and you’ll get away with it. People may try to stop you from snooping one place or another, but they won’t succeed. You’ll feel quite impregnable, but also quite alone—left to your own devices, as it were.
“After a while—a few months into this, I figure—no one will even try to stop anyone else. There will be too many people in too many places, spying on whatever interests them. Only you will be able to stop you, and you may not think of doing that, or want to. Most people will not only not try to interfere with what you’re doing, they won’t know or care what you’re doing. When you’re watching them, unless you tell them you’re watching them, or unless they’re watching you watch them, they won’t know that you’re there, or who you are, or where around them your bug is, or what you’re hearing them say and seeing them do. And if they do watch you observing them, not only will they not be able to stop you, they won’t know what you’re thinking and feeling about them, or what you might do as a result. And as I say, after a while they won’t care. They’ll just lead their lives, one thing after another, coping with whatever is present to them. We’ll all do that, same as always.
“Of course, we’re all going to see differences between how we behave with my invention and how other people behave with it. At first, we’ll worry about those differences, think about them, talk about them, develop opinions about them, and do things about them. Some people may come up with guidelines they’ll want other people to follow. Laws may get passed, rules drawn up, agreements agreed to, and pledges and promises made. But none of those will be enforceable. They’ll be too easy for us to ignore or circumvent. As I’ve said, we’ll all be free to do what we want with my invention. Or at least, we’ll feel that way.”
He stops talking, looks down for a moment, then up again.
“That’s all I have to say for now. Maybe what I’ve said was of some use to you.”
* * *
His speech done, he sits back into the couch, rests his head against the wall, and sighs. I turn to look at him. He puts a hand to his forehead, squints at me, and smiles.
“You and I have spent so much time thinking about this day, Reverend. On top of which, I have my prior experiences to draw upon, back to the beginning. But all of that may count for nothing. My invention is out there everywhere. All any of us can do is take it and ride it. No one needs to know what I can say about it, or what you’ve written, or to see the art you’ve made. It’s fine that we’ve presented all that, for whoever wants it, but—.”
He shrugs. His eyes scan the room.
“It’s funny. I’m sure you’ve noticed. The spiel I just delivered may not have had an audience. There may be someone in here with us, even a lot of people. I imagined so, to keep myself talking. But there may be no one here except you and me.”
Still leaning against the wall, he closes his eyes.
“If there are people here, what I’ve been saying must have seemed pretty obvious. It doesn’t take long to realize what my invention can do, and then go do it. As you and I expected, we’re becoming superfluous, if we aren’t already.”
He shrugs again.
“And that’s fine. We pose and suppose, make what sense we can. Other people may be here listening to me, or they may not. From where you and I sit, both scenarios are equally possible. I love that. What I say may be having an impact on people, or it may be going nowhere except into your memory and mine. And into your writing and art, of course. It may be worth saying just for that.”
He looks at my laptop.
“Were you writing down what I said, or doing something else?”
He does not expect me to reply.
“Either is fine,” he says.
He looks at the ceiling.
“But I bet someone is parked here somewhere. Many someones. Or hovering far enough away that we can’t hear their wings. Or listening from the hall, the kitchen, or the porch. I bet there are more at the door, too. When we open it, they’ll come wafting in like flights of angels—or mosquitoes.”
“People are going to treat mosquitoes differently, aren’t they? That’ll be one unintended consequence of all this. Unless people get a close look, they won’t know whether what they’re seeing is a mosquito or someone’s high-tech bug. It’s hard to tell which is which, especially when they’re flying.
“Real mosquitoes won’t care, of course. They live in a different world than we do, a world where they have things to do that are as important to them as what we do is important to us. People may give some of them trouble, though, perhaps kill them, just because my invention looks like them. That would be unfortunate. If that happens, which it probably will, I’ll be sorry.”
Still leaning back, he speaks to the room again.
“Hey, everybody, if you find yourself thinking that my bugs are a nuisance, please don’t take it out on any mosquitoes. If you do that, I’ll wish I’d invented something that looks different.”
ASSIGNMENT FOR MY STUDENTS
(1,000 word maximum)
- How big is your world? How much exists—or might exist—beyond it? How do you know, or suspect?
- Compare your world with the worlds of mosquitoes and other creatures and things. From your standpoint and theirs, how do (or might) their worlds differ from yours? Or do (or might) their worlds not differ from yours at all?
His thoughts have revived him. He leans to the front of the couch.
“I’m liking this,” he says to me. “From now on, wherever anyone is located will be both a private and a public space, and it will be private and public in what people will think are new ways. I find that interesting. We’re all going to entertain guests who may or may not be present, as you and I are doing right now. Any guests who are present, if they watch us closely, may think they’re getting an accurate sense of what’s going on with us. They may think they can tell a lot about us, including how we seem to ourselves: what we’re thinking, feeling, experiencing, and so on.”
He raises his voice.
“What about that, everyone? Now that my invention is everywhere, how much more exposed to each other are we? As you observe me now, for instance, to what extent do you think I’m a book you can read and totally comprehend? Is everything about me apparent to you, perfectly intelligible? Is there nothing obscure about me, nothing missing between the lines?
“Not even close, right? In some ways I’m more exposed to you than in the past, but when you get down to it you don’t know me any better than ever. In fact, you hardly have a clue about me or anyone else, including yourself in many ways. And I’m the same as you, just as clueless. And despite all her smarts and hard work, so is The Reverend Professor. We’re all bozos on this bus, as always.
“I used to think that ignorance, confusion, mutual misunderstanding, obliviousness, and so on were things we could overcome. I thought that part of the human mission was to reduce all that, whittle it away. When I first used my device, I thought it might help do that. It turned out that it can’t. Nothing can. There’s always as much ignorance, confusion, and so on as ever. We make certain kinds of progress, but not in those ways. No matter what tools we use, or what uses we put them to, we’re limited in our abilities to perceive and understand, to plan and to act. There’s always more than we know, more than we can grasp, more than we can do. There’s always plenty of room for ignorance, confusion, misunderstanding, and so on. And there should be. There has to be. That’s part of what we are and how we function.
“The Talmud says, ‘We don’t see things as they are. We see them as we are.’ Whether they’re within us or outside us, things can only be as they seem to us. We are bags of smart meat, clouds of smart dust, bundles of biological systems with certain capabilities. We’re clear-thinking up to a point, conscious to another point, and that’s all. We can perceive what we call the infinite, and imagine what we call the true and the eternal; we can feel and believe that there is no end to what’s possible. We’re right about all that. But we also perceive limits and differences that we can’t change.
“Any of you listening may not agree with me, about that or anything else. There’s no reason you should. I’m just me, holding forth, same as you’re just you. Like you, I could be wrong about anything and everything. It seems to me, in fact, that from one standpoint or another I am wrong, always. So are we all. We see things as we are, which both is and isn’t how other people see them.”
Vassal speaks like the wind—every wind.
ASSIGNMENT FOR MY STUDENTS
(1,000 word maximum)
- Do you ever hear things that you think originate outside you but that echo you somehow? Examples might include wind pushing through trees, thunder hammering nearby, sounds made by distant people or animals, or anything else—voices of all kinds. Describe your echo chamber. How big is it? What do you hear there? What do you make of what you hear?
- To what extent does everything you perceive—by means of your hearing, sight, touch, taste, smell, thinking, imagination, instrumentation, or anything else—reflect and embody you? To what extent, if any, do you think you experience things as you are, not as they are? Is there difference between the two? If you think so, describe that difference.
Vassal, to the room again: “We have expected that people would visit us as you are doing. We hope you’ll make yourselves at home. In many ways, our home is yours now as much as it is ours. As I said a while ago, that’s true of everyone’s homes now. We’re all joint occupants, even if we’re not joint owners—not yet, anyway.
“What about your home, in particular? Do you know what’s happening there? Do you suppose anyone is visiting it using one of my bugs: exploring the place, watching you if you’re there, learning about you? You’ve probably thought about who might do that and why. It can be hard to know who will come, or when, or what they might look for or notice when they get there. But you’ll get better at figuring that out.
“Here’s something else. I’ve mentioned how some things you’ll do with my invention will seem wrong to you, or wrong to other people, or both. In your case, what do you suppose those things will be? Where will you draw the line? Will you spy on your boss? Your coworkers? Your children, your spouse, your boyfriend or girlfriend? Your friends and neighbors? Your teacher? A politician you admire or don’t admire? How about spying on a lover of yours, or an ex-lover, or possible future lovers, or people you can only dream would become your lovers? How about snooping around an attractive celebrity or two, or three, or thirty?
“And who else do you think you will spy on? And aside from me, who are you spying on now, whether it’s through your bug or someone else’s? It’s so easy to switch from one device to another, or to watch several at once on your screen. There are so many possibilities. You can spy on anyone and any thing, but should you? As I’ve said, that’s not always an easy question to answer, especially when it’s new to you. But you’ll get better at it. Your thinking will evolve, both about what’s appropriate for you to do with my bug and what’s appropriate for other people to do, including spying on you.
“There will be other difficulties, too. Some people will hold you accountable for things they see you do or hear you say, same as you might do to them. In their own minds, at least, they’ll hold you accountable for their interpretations and understandings of those things, which may include things you don’t think you’re doing or saying, and aren’t intending to. Dealing with such miscommunications can tie you in knots, especially if you know about them. And whether you know about them or not, the possibility may make you more careful about what you say or do.
“Also, you may try to sway people about whether or when to spy on you: not in your bedroom or bathroom, say; and not when you’re making love to someone, or seeing your doctor or lawyer or shrink; and not when you’re dealing with a serious problem at work or in your personal life. How effective you are restraining people may depend on what they think of you, and what your relationship with them is. You may have more influence if you’re their parent, teacher, boss, or someone else they depend on, or want something from, or respect, or trust, or love.
“As I’ve been saying, though, none of us will get far restricting each other, no matter who we are, who they are, or how we go about it. My bugs are too numerous and too invisible. We’re going to do what we want with them, just like you’re doing now here in this room. The situation is a free-for-all. Everyone has to get used to that, and will. We won’t waste much time bugging each other about bugging each other.”
* * *
From now on, as Vassal says, everyone will be on display as never before. We will feel more exposed and self-conscious. Our lives will become a form of twenty-four-hour-a-day theater. We will feel an odd sense of being celebrities; minor ones, most of us, but celebrities all the same. We will feel pressured to be ‘on,’ to look good and to present our best or most vivacious selves to the world. A few of us may have many people watching us, at least some of the time, but most of us will have few or none. Usually, even the people who care most about us will be doing other things. Our nakedness will register nowhere except in our own minds.
* * *
As we have seen, in Vassal’s experience everything is true and every truth evolving. To him, everything that exists is an ongoing experiment without fixed guidelines, boundaries, objectives, or context. He knows that some people will want to read about those and other perspectives of his. He has been glad to set them forth in these pages. But he has done so with no purpose. Again, as far as he is concerned, no one needs to understand his perspectives, much less adopt them.
“People will regard me and my ideas in all kinds of ways,” he says. “That’s fine. There can be no misunderstanding them. Every understanding is equally legitimate, true for whoever is doing the understanding. Wilde wrote, ‘It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.’ Same with how people think of me, my ideas, and everything else in that book you and I are working on. Same with my invention.”
Vassal is still addressing our possible visitors. He is repeating himself some for the sake of any new arrivals. As he usually does, however, he is delivering each repetition from a fresh point of view, using different words, shedding further light.
“Along with everyone else, you’ll do a lot of spying. You’ll want to, and may feel you have to. Sometimes that will be fun, and sometimes it won’t. But, good or bad, you’ll find it exciting. Your prior rules and taboos about spying on people will fall away. You’ll feel liberated and a little scared. You’ll struggle with your conscience, as I’ve said. But you’ll strike balances, develop approaches that work for you. After a while, you’ll arrive at a new normalcy that will feel as normal to you as the old one did, and neither better nor worse.”
He looks down, lowers his chin, and strokes the ridge of his nose. He is mulling something. He leans to me and speaks quietly.
“What do you think, Professor? This spiel I’m delivering may be being going live to everywhere, part of the latest news. That includes what I’m mumbling to you right now. Do you suppose? Newsworthy, don’t you agree?”
I look at him. He wiggles his eyebrows at me, leans closer, and speaks in a stage whisper, for all to hear.
“There are little people everywhere. They’re all around us, spying on us from inside my bugs. Am I paranoid to say that, or am I correct? Both, right?”
He wiggles his eyebrows at me again, then resumes speaking to the room.
“I have to tell you, folks, this talking to the walls is a big change for the two of us. We’ve expected it, but now that it’s happening it’s strange for us. Every word I speak may be getting going live to multitudes, or it may be going nowhere except into our own ears and The Reverend Professor’s writing and art. We have to assume that anything we say or do is a public statement, even though it may not be.
“It’s the same for you and for everyone. And if and when our every expression is going out into the world, we usually won’t know where it’s going or to what effect. We’ll feel that other people are around us all the time, closer than anyone has ever been, paying attention to us. We may even feel they’re inside us, living our lives with us. We’ll want to know who those people are, how much attention they’re paying to us, and how attuned they are to our thoughts, feelings, and perceptions. And when we send our bugs out, we’ll want to know how well we are attuned to the people we spy on. We’ll never know exactly. Beyond a certain point, we’ll have to guess.
“Those concerns will interest us, but will also be a lot for us to deal with, both as observers and the observed. For some of us, they’ll be too much. We’ll get confused and frightened. We may go some kind of crazy. We may shut down. Tragedies will occur. Especially during the first days and months, people will question whether my turning my invention loose was a good idea—a good idea with some unfortunate consequences, or more a bad one, maybe a very bad one.
“People will realize, though, that my invention or something like it has been bound to happen. And now, for good and for ill, whether we like it or not, it has arrived.”
* * *
We cannot avoid acquiring wrong impressions of each other, no matter how close to each other we become, how much we love each other, and how well we attune to each other, with or without using Vassal’s invention. As he has said, we cannot free ourselves of our differing bodies, genetics, personal histories, memories, habits, egos, and other trappings of individuality.
At the same time, in his experience, not only can we be free of those influences, we are free of them. We know and are the other, and have a sense of that, even as we do not know and cannot be the other. That paradox and difference that is no difference is a part of us; part of the rub, our glorious rub. That perturbation, germ, and problem that is no problem is essential to what we are and do. We live with our limitations and in spite of them; within the confines of our distinct individuality, and as expansively as we can imagine.
Now that Vassal’s invention is out, we all expect a surge in communication, both within ourselves and with each other. I cannot know to what extent Vassal and I will experience and participate in that. More than we have anticipated, perhaps: actively, by sending out his devices to snoop for us; and passively, by sitting at home sharing other people’s snooping, and as objects of that snooping. But again, regardless, he expects no great change. In his view, we will advance into the future as we always do: like ships into a fog. What is near enough to us will become clearer, while what seems farther away from us will not.
* * *
Vassal and I anticipate that at first many people will observe us using his invention. They will do that out of curiosity, distress, anger, and/or a desire to learn more about his device, among other motives. As when anyone observes anyone, they will observe us with a growing sense of their commonality with us, which they may or may not find gratifying. At the same time they will feel a parallel sense, perhaps as strong or stronger, of how unlike them we are.
A few days ago, he said to me, “If many bugs come here, they could get thicker than black flies in June. We may breathe them in and spit them out, brush them from our skin and clothes, pull them from our noses and mouths, and pluck them from our eyes and eyelashes. We may have to scoop them out of every nook and cranny we’ve got. They could be a big nuisance to us.”
Yes, they could be. They may pile up on our floors and on the ground outside, a foot deep or more, and trip us up. We may have to wear our snowshoes, to walk over them rather than wade through them. There may be so many in the house that we will have trouble walking up and down the stairs, stepping into the shower, going to the toilet, and getting to our chairs on the porch and in the kitchen. We may have to go at them with a broom, shovel, rake, leaf blower, or vacuum cleaner. We may have to sweep them from the air using mosquito nets, or set up fans to blow them away.
As long as Vassal and I can breathe without choking on them, and walk around without getting bogged down in them, we will manage. Even at worst, probably, they will not stay. For one thing, anyone who finds his or her bug in that much tangle will remove it as soon as possible. For another, as Vassal has said, his secrets are out, and we have done all we are going to do that might matter to anyone. Once people realize that our show for them has ended, and that we have nothing more to offer, they will fly their bugs away.
* * *
Vassal is watching his laptop screen. He has not spoken for a while, either to me or to the phantom multitude.
“Hey, wait a minute!”
He leans closer to his screen, then throws his head back and howls: “It’s you, Henrietta! You’re on the air! Big as life! I can see what you’re writing!”
He looks at the screen again.
“‘. . . throws his head back and—’ I love it! Somebody’s bug is on the wall behind you, looking over your shoulder. It’s just what you and I have thought would happen. I’m sure many people would love to see what you’re writing—people from the press, the government, your students, and tons of others. Now they can fly in here and look, before we publish it later today. They can get a preview.
“Having my bugs out and about like this takes me back to before you knew me, to when Victory and I sent them around. Except then they were under our control, no one else’s. No strangers had them. No eager masses were flying around in them like they are now.”
Still focused on his screen, he narrows his eyes.
“Speaking of strangers, I wonder who is controlling that bug, and what he or she is thinking about us. I wonder if—. Oops, it took off! Maybe it heard me.”
He looks behind me.
“I see it,” he whispers. “It’s flying slowly, just off the wall. I could grab it or swat it, but I won’t. More will come here soon, after all—many more. There’s no way we can stop them, and we don’t want to anyway. However many come, we’ll live with them. Too bad we can’t reverse the wireless signal, though, and watch whoever is watching us. That would be fun. Back then I could have devised a way to do that, I think. But I never thought of it, since I never planned to give my bugs to other people. And this time around I haven’t wanted to take the time. Anyway, someone else will do that before long, no doubt.”
After years of nothing unusual, things are starting to happen here. At the moment, I feel relaxed about that, though still a bit numb. I am keeping focused on this writing, and have not turned to look at the device Vassal found. I write this sentence: “. . . write this sentence.” There, I have caught up.
I look up from my screen, at Vassal. He is staring at me. He must be astounded to have found one of his inventions here. As I have reported, we have expected to see them, but the reality is startling, particularly for him, since it brings back memories of his time with Victory.
The device he saw is probably still here, maybe still on the wall. Or on me. How about in my hair? What a thicket that is, a perfect hiding place. Or not perfect. Dozens of bugs could get lost in there. It is not just a thicket; it is a wilderness. I hope that any bugs that fly in there find their ways back out before I take a shower and unintentionally wash them down the drain. That would be a waste of good technology, and a disappointing loss for their owner-operators.
I smile at Vassal. This is getting to be fun. He returns my smile and wiggles his eyebrows again, then resumes watching his screen.
“Things that have been closed are opening up,” he says, “as we knew they would.”
* * *
I can scarcely believe what is happening. Vassal’s devices now constitute the network we have expected. They are starting to interconnect everyone in new ways. Soon, they will occupy every nexus of human concern. They will hang out anywhere that people frequent, and in any other places of interest, from ocean floor to outer space. We will all send them wherever we want, and keep them there for as long as we wish. We will observe through them to our hearts’ content, exploring whatever attracts us. When we want to look and listen somewhere else, we will tune in to other devices that are already there, or we will send ours.
I have said all of that before, looking ahead. Now it is coming true. Vassal’s inventions are beginning to serve as our multifaceted eyes and ears—the eyes and ears of our every god. Indeed, sometimes we will use them to perform what until now we would have called miracles.
But of course, a familiar question will remain:
What will happen the
question is unanswerable
the future gone like the past
elusive playful and in deadly
earnest it does not exist we
make it up incomplete we
pull and wiggle a piece
of yarn for the kitten
who spurts ahead
and grabs for it
with its sharp
and all of
Well might you ask:
Q. Will our technology ever take us over, supplant our thoughts and govern our actions?
A. It already has. We may think that it exists outside us, but that is only what we think. It is we and we are it, Vassal says. It and we took each other over to begin with, and have developed together.
Q. Vassal’s definition of technology includes everything?
A. Yes. To him, everything is us. That includes all the things we produce and the deeds we do. It includes everything we fashion to meet our needs, satisfy our desires, and serve our purposes. It includes not only material objects, but all the rest of our expression, inward and outward, including our languages, ethereal arts, and consciousness itself.
Q. Our technology is literally us?
A. Literally as well as figuratively. We incorporate our qualities into it, and amplify them: our sight, hearing, touch, and other senses; our mobility and dexterity; and aspects of our intelligence, including our powers of adaptation, calculation, self-observation, self-maintenance, self–healing, and more. Often, too, its appearance mirrors us; it conforms to us, and may look like us. We humanize it, and personalize it. As we become familiar with it, we may even ascribe a degree of life to it. Often, we consider what Vassal calls our technology to be parts of us. Of course, we may not consider them alive in the ways he does. To him and many other people, as I have described, it and we are identical, alive within and as the other, with no meaningful boundaries between them. Most of us do not think of it and ourselves that way, though as he says, we all have some sense of that.
Q. Might our technology not only help us survive in the here and now, but also, eventually, help us avoid becoming extinct?
A. It might. We are mortal creatures made of flesh and blood. Vassal expects that given the history of our kind of life, the probability is high that sooner or later we will become extinct. In his experience, however, we are also all of creation, without bounds either temporal or material. In our present form, we may become extinct, but we may continue—as water, minerals, organic molecules, bacteria and viruses, and the other raw materials we are made of; also as forms we have devised, our manmade technology. In my field, of reverend professors and their like, some people believe that to philosophize is to learn both how to die and how to live forever. Vassal would say, and I would agree, that we all do that, as a species. We die and we also live eternally. We develop our technology accordingly.
Q. Do we advance, progress, improve, or even change?
A. That question again, eh? Vassal has said this to me: “We humans take up ourselves and our circumstances like a piece of fabric. We give them a shake and a toss, and, as well as we can, spread out as much as we need. That’s how we live.” As for how far we advance, progress, improve, or otherwise change as we do that, to him that is a question each of us answers at every moment, in a chorus comprised of every voice we hear or imagine. His view is that since our kind began, at the Big Bang or perhaps before, there has been nothing but change. That is, nothing changes, but does so actively; it shows through, as Valéry put it. For our kind, change is what nothing is. Such is the dreamstuff that is all there is for us, all there has ever been, and perhaps all there will ever be.
A. We are free to exist and survive in our way, on the “journey to” that is what we are and what we do.
Q. Can you say more about that freedom?
A. It is everything that we experience. We create and inhabit an eternal present. What we experience there liberates us some from what we perceive to be our constraints—unfulfilled needs, unmet wants, unresolved predicaments, and other rigors and displeasures of circumstance. It brings us a varying measure of relief, resolution, satisfaction, joy, epiphany, ecstasy, love, laughter, celebration, companionship—enlightenment of all kinds. At the same time, like all experience, it returns us to our constraints, is bound up in them, and constitutes them.
Q. Our freedom is limited . . .
A. Like all our experience, it embodies and displays to us our necessary imperfection: our perturbation, I have called it; our enslavement, Vassal has ironically labeled it; our problem that is no problem. To Vassal, such is change; our nothing that shows through; our species’ wellspring, the engine that is the creator and creation that is all we can know. Victim of anxiety that I sometimes am, that understanding reminds me of Kierkegaard’s observation that “anxiety is freedom’s actuality . . . the possibility of possibility . . . the dizziness of freedom.” I find that definition accurate, both promising and consoling: anxiety as the exuberance and giddiness of bliss; also our spiral that keeps spiraling, never reaching an end.
Q. A journey, indeed.
A. Yes, open-ended, but not entirely. At each step, we struggle some. We may progress, or think that we do or can, but we also realize that we remain unmoved and unmoving, stuck on our spiral, no progress possible. Such is our dynamic fixity, our evolving stasis, our change that is no change. Thus we fly with time’s arrow.
My fingers press
my keyboard ticks
my mind pushes through
the void except for which
The difference is nil
between intended and not
idea and not a glimmer
created and not begun
intelligent and insentient
But nil between is never neat
’twixt if and when and
whoop and whoopee
on down to whee
And less than nil is
hard as death and
unending as hell
which all of us
hope to avoid
We travel toward ends we desire but we never reach them. We never touch, embrace, and conjoin with them once and for all. Rather, founts of creation that we are, we teem with possibility. In our universe(s?) of illusion, we change things but do not change anything.
Vassal’s invention accompanies us. It is new and nothing new. Like everything else that we know and imagine, it embodies our boundless consciousness, wherein likeness is all: likeness to ourselves, whose representations fill as well as we can what I call our “void except for which.”
The mind the void our universe
our ancient eternal wound which
though we try we cannot heal
which is good because
we need it just as it is
Our uses for Vassal’s invention are infinite. We will never try them all, never fully orient ourselves with it. We will remain needy and hungry; willing, as we must be, to abandon certainty and leave what we know behind. Such is our nature, as by our plan and instinct we travel toward ends we desire.
* * *
Vassal picks up his laptop from the table, places it on his knees, and sits back in the couch. I pick up mine and do the same. He peers at his screen, fingers his trackpad, shakes his head, and mumbles something.
“Maybe it is for the best,” he says. Or maybe he said, to the contrary, “Maybe it is a pest.”
I cannot tell which he said. That frustrates me. He rarely says anything that judgmental. Knowing him as I do, I believe he could intend either remark, though they are antithetical. In fact, conjurer of antithesis that he is, he may have intended—and spoken—both at once.
A minute later, he speaks again.
“I do believe . . . Yes! There it is, Henrietta. I’ve found our little visitor again online. People are linking to it, and this time . . .”
He turns to me.
“. . . it’s on your shoulder, right here beside me.”
He looks down at my shoulder.
“I see it. Amazing.”
I look. The device sits on my shirt beside the shoulder seam, inches from my eyes, too close for me to focus on. Vassal leans down to look more closely. His hair hangs in front of my face and brushes my eyelashes. I smell his shampoo.
“Such a cute little thing. I did a good job designing it, if I do say so myself.”
He purses his lips and coos to it.
“Hellooooo, sweetheart. And hello to you, too, the human at the other end, whoever you are. I hope you’re enjoying your visit to us. I’m sure you see that I could pick up your bug if I wanted to, or crush it, or flick it away, send it tumbling. But I won’t. I won’t bother it at all.”
He turns his head to me slightly.
“Just think, Reverend, someone’s eyes, ears, brains, and imagination are right there, nearer to you and me than we are to each other, even though we’re sitting side by side. At the same time, that person is somewhere else, out the other end of my device—out in the wide world, maybe far away. And she or he is watching us and listening to us. Spooky, isn’t it?”
He speaks to it again.
“Not that we think you’re some kind of scary ghost, stranger. In case you weren’t here when I said this before, you’re welcome to stay. Everyone’s home is everyone’s now, including this one.
“We should tell you, though, that you’ll probably get bored with us, if you aren’t bored already. It’s not like the last time I got a lot of attention, when Victory and I were showing off my device. The Reverend Professor and I don’t have any show to put on. Most likely, we’ll just keep sitting here like this, fiddling with our computers. Now and then I may say something not very illuminating, to her and whoever else is around. Then, at some point, we’ll get bored, too, and do something else—go sit on the porch for a while and watch the tide come and go, and the birds, the breezes, the clouds in the sky. Or something.
“Meanwhile, for as long as she and I are sitting at our computers, watching us may be about as much fun for you as watching people look at their phones or TVs or other devices. We still expect some government people to come talk with us before long, probably today or tomorrow. That could be interesting, but not very, and they won’t stay long. And that may be all the drama that will happen here.
“As I say, you can hang around if you want to. But if you’d rather not, remember that you can always watch later. Wherever you are, as long as you have a controller or other online device with you, recordings of anything that happens here will be easy to find.
“And that’s just this show. By now, you’re realizing that a bigger show has begun. It’s the one that you’ll most want to watch and participate in; the one you’ll have to watch and participate in.
“I’m speaking of your personal show. It has already started, and you’re in it. You’re the star attraction, and you’re performing it right now. You’re performing it for yourself and for anyone who may be watching what you are watching; or whose bug is with you, maybe sitting on your shoulder, observing you the way you’re observing us. You can keep performing that show of yours here, but you may want to take it elsewhere, to somewhere more meaningful to you, involving people who are more important to you than The Reverend Professor and I.”
He straightens up and looks at his screen.
“You’re moving. Oh, my, now you’ve got a close-up view of my face. How unexciting.”
“I’m not a handsome fellow. Close-ups are so unforgiving.”
He tilts his face up and touches a spot below his chin.
“Looks like I missed some hairs last time I shaved. You know, Reverend, while that bug is looking at me maybe I should get my razor and use it as a mirror. Oops! Too late for that. It just looked away from me.”
He coos to it again.
“Hey, sweetie, what’s the matter? Are you repelled by the sight of me, skinny old boy that I am, with face to match? Maybe when you look at me you think—. Whoa, wait a minute! Now you’re making a cinematic move: panning around, tilting up, zooming out, and . . .
“Now it’s looking at your face, Reverend, at Beauty instead of the Beast. I can’t say I blame it. It’s got a great camera angle, too: up from below. You look monumental, like you’re carved into Mount Rushmore. Even that close up you look good, as you always do. Your curly hair, eyes, and eyebrows look perfect, your mouth classic, and your complexion flawless as always. There are a few little wrinkles, of course, but who cares? You’ve lived a while, that’s all. As ever, you have the most alive of faces. On my screen it’s a vision. It could be carved in finest marble. It looks that way to me, anyway, and probably to this person, too.”
Oh, please. He does not usually exaggerate about me like that. He is not that romantic, sexist, flattering, manipulative, or sarcastic. He must be posturing for whoever is out there.
“Bullshit,” I whisper to myself.
“I hope you’ll forgive my misdirected eloquence,” he says.
Maybe he heard me.
“The person operating that bug must be impressed by you,” he says. “Impressed by far more than your appearance, too: impressed by you and the work you’ve done and are doing now, and curious about you being here with the wacko inventor. I’ll bet she or he is all the more likely to read the book, once it’s out.
“But how do you suppose that person feels about being here? Do you think he or she is angry about what’s happening? Or sympathetic, or delighted? Could anyone could be fascinated by us, do you think, or worshipful? That sounds ridiculous; you and I know how ordinary we are. But this phenomenon is huge. It could give rise to distortions about us. I expect that’s sure to happen.”
He speaks again to the bug.
“What about that, friend? How do you feel about being here, and what do you think about what you’re seeing? Not that you can answer, or that you would if you could. I’m not saying that you should, either. I’m happy just imagining who you are and how all of this seems to you. But if you do decide to communicate with us, we’d love to hear anything you want to say.”
He turns to me.
“All you and I can do is speculate. If we sent a bug to wherever this person is, and watched him or her for a while, maybe we’d get a better idea. But even then we’d have to guess some, same as that person has to guess about us. And that’s just one bug. There must be more here by now. Many more.”
He looks up from his screen and speaks to the room.
“Who is here? Lots of you, maybe. Is a crowd gathering yet? Could be. From now on, I’ll talk as if I’m talking to everyone in the world, and to generations yet to come. As I said before, just because you may not be here and may never hear what I’m saying is no reason for me not to talk to you as if you are here. You’ll do the same when people are or aren’t sending their bugs to wherever you are, which they may already be doing.
“It’s crazy, isn’t it? It’s good crazy, I believe, but bad, too. Until you get used to it, it may upset you. You may think it’s too much for you to handle, that it’ll wear you out and ruin your life. Which it might. But probably it won’t. Probably, your life will go on as usual. If I were you, I wouldn’t worry about it.”
I look at him. He has closed his eyes.
“Or maybe I would worry,” he says.
He says no more. I watch him. He shakes his head and bites his lower lip. Is he about to cry? I have never seen him do that. He takes a breath and—
“HA HA HA HA HA!”
His peals of laughter rock the room. Loud! I cringe.
Then silence. His eyes remain closed. He bows his head, his chin on his chest. With his elbows at his side, he relaxes his arms and rests his hands on his laptop, his palms up and open.
* * *
Minutes later, he has not moved. I resume writing. I have never heard him laugh like that. Normally, his laughter is one joyous honk, followed by a few lesser ones. This time, he let loose a heavy, unrelenting stream, even less inhibited than usual. And even happier. I imagine that he has laughed like that in the past, before I knew him; maybe in Victory’s time, the last time his invention was around. Despite the challenges the two of them faced, those days must have been great fun for them. For him just now, his laughter may have resonated with those times, those memories.
However happy he was back then, however, he is also happy now. He has been for almost as long as I have known him. Except for some understandable sadness during the first years I worked with him, after his tragedy, he has derived almost nothing but pleasure from his life. Seeing that bug a while ago, on the wall and then on my shoulder, pleased him enormously.
Could he have had as much fun when he was with Victory? He could have, and maybe more—more than he and I have experienced together. So much about his invention was new then, including their hopes for it. Also, they were younger than he and I are now, more inclined to youthful enjoyment. And they were in love.
In love. During those years, she was the love of his life. Moreover, it was a love that did not diminish after she was murdered. In many people’s minds—including his, mine, and the Bigheads’—she immediately became a martyr to the present cause, a cause that today has become so vast that it is no cause at all.
* * *
Uh, Henrietta dear, you aren’t jealous of her, are you, of she who died long ago? You seem envious of her time with Vassal, and of people’s reverential memories of her, which are sure to emerge now that his invention is out.
Well, yes, of course I am jealous and envious of her. Somewhat. How could I not be? But I will not take the time now to think or say more about that.
Okay (tap-tap), that is enough. No more writing this prelude. I am done. In the past few hours, people all over the world have begun to use Vassal’s device. It has charged the air, summoned a wind, and people are riding that wind. At least one of his devices has shown up here, under whoever’s control, and it is transmitting—from me! Until last night, like him, I thought I would not care to watch all that. Also like him, I have changed my mind. I want to watch everything that is happening, both for the fun of it and out of concern for what may come.
I knew I would be working on this book until the last minute, reporting about his invention’s arrival. I knew that at some point that minute would come, when events would prompt me to end this account. Anticipating that, I created the concluding pages in advance, to insert whenever I wanted to. I will paste those pages here now. Once I have done that, I will email this manuscript to our publisher, send a copy to Jimmy as a backup, and put my computer to sleep here on the coffee table. Then, assuming Vassal emerges from his meditation, contemplation, daydream, snooze, seizure, or whatever it is, I will sit next to him and watch his screen with him, to see and hear what develops.
Here goes: Select, Copy, Paste.
* * *
Vassal Squeezeshot is a rascal. I do not pretend otherwise, and neither does he. Many people, of course, will think he is worse than that. They will think that by giving everyone his invention he is performing a cruel and malicious act, possibly criminal, certainly dangerous to humanity. They will believe that he is influencing far more than he should, sowing confusion and devastation. They will believe that he is creating too much hurt, and risking too much more, including epidemics of suicide, murder, depression, psychosis, and other misery. Some people will think that he is a sociopath who has imparted the rudest of wiggles to our civilization, and done it casually, like a child playing with a length of rope, making a serpent of it.
If he encounters opinions like those, he will absorb them respectfully but without distress. He will sympathize with anyone who expresses them, but he will savor them, too. He has been enjoying all this, and will continue to.
A few days ago, he said to me, “Not that I intend it, but in some ways what I am doing is a practical joke, maybe the biggest ever. It will succeed the way any practical joke does: People will play it on themselves. I may appear to be the joker, but everyone else will be, too. Human nature is the joker. Funny thing.”
To the extent what he has done is a joke, he does not think it important that people knowingly get it, or that they think it is a joke.
“If what I am doing is a joke, it’s a joke that we all get to begin with, just by being alive and conscious. We got it ages ago, at the start of everything; long before any humans were around to think of it as a joke, and long before my variation emerged from the woods.”
* * *
I have described how he gives differences their due but is struck by their unity. He considers even folly and wisdom to be the same. He observes that our wants, including our most frivolous, are impetus for our reason; and that our reason, even at its most deliberate, is a welling up of our wants. The philosopher David Hume wrote that reason is “the slave of the passions, and can pretend to no other office than to serve and obey them.” In Vassal’s experience, the two entwine as one, each of them both part and parcel. They are largely, perhaps entirely, beyond our conscious influence.
I have mentioned studies that indicate that subconscious and preconscious forces rule us. Considered opinions, decisions, plans, and other products of our conscious deliberation, as well as our ideas, thoughts, emotions, physical sensations, and other distinct perceptions, are after-the-fact rationalizations of our subconscious and preconscious impressions, instincts, urges, biases, prejudices. Those promptings are unintelligible to us, beyond our ken and grasp. We become aware, and can exercise our awareness, only after delays of fractions of a second to a few seconds, during which our minds interpret those promptings to suit our understanding. As we narrate our experiences for ourselves and other people, as we tell stories and grant them authority, we do so less wittingly than we realize.
Among our stories are our jokes. Like our other stories, they frame things for us. They improve our comprehension, bridge our differences, resolve our contradictions, and relieve our confusion. They help us tolerate the intolerable, comprehend the incomprehensible, and appreciate the ineffable. They render the absurd and meaningless attractive, and in so doing bring us satisfaction.
To some degree, in Vassal’s view, all our stories are jokes, including all sense we make of anything. Our consciousness is the joker, and all things that we perceive with it, including consciousness itself, are its jokes. That may partly explain his indefatigable good humor.
* * *
His present joke (I will call it that) is not tame. He has delivered to the world a volatile mix of like with like. It is proving incendiary. The firebrand he imagined himself to be when he was younger has shown up for real. By releasing his invention, he is feeding everyone’s fires. He knows that now is too soon for the universe to cool off and slumber forever in the expanding deep freeze that cosmologists expect; also too soon for it to re-Bang, or disappear into a hole, or otherwise end. So, he is helping us do what we will with his invention: inflame our psyches, illuminate and perhaps destroy our worlds. That conflagration and illumination may continue for as long as we last, fueled by all that we do not govern.
He and his deed are outsized. Same with all of us, our lives immeasurable and indescribable. We shall see what we all will do. But of more concern to me is what Vassal and I will do. What will we want to do, and be able to do? Will we go out and meet the public, embark on a Victory tour of some kind? That could be a pleasure, but also hazardous for us. Perhaps, instead, despite risks, we will remain in our downriver home and refrain from further outreach. Perhaps we will turn inward and, as well as we can, climb back into the egg: “See ya, folks!”
The Soul selects her own Society—
Then—shuts the Door—
* * *
Whatever we do, we will decide and not, continue to make choices that also make themselves. I intend to stay with him and see those choices through. Of course, that may prove impossible; any of a number of forces may take us away separately to some perdition, or destroy us together, or kill only one of us, like last time. We will welcome whatever comes. We have built no defenses, planned no evasions, and prepared no escapes. We have brought his invention this far. It is bursting around and within us all. Things are breaking into pieces and dissolving, disappearing as if they never existed. New forms may come into being, or may not, or may already be here, not yet apparent. We are ready for anything. We live inexhaustible, our lives a story in which no time passes, with no beginning or end, no meaning. There can be no judgment, no forgiveness, no conscience—no praise, no blame, just so.
PRELUDE and its author/artist are
fictional creations of Marcus Parsons.