idea / explanation
Vassal’s invention arises deep within the familiar and transports us all. It carries us far from the lives we have led, but never far from home. “There is properly no history; only biography,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson. The story of Vassal’s invention is the story of his life, also of my life and everyone’s. However we tell it, it is writ on a most human scale, as near to ourselves as we can get.
His personal views have influenced everything from how he conceived his invention to his decision to release it. Some explication of them belongs in these pages. He does not advocate them, however, or in any way prefer that other people adopt them. He did when he was younger. Back then, as many of us do, he liked to see his views prevail—about politics, religion, arts, entertainment, manners, ethics, and other matters of belief and taste. He no longer feels that way.
He says, “To the extent I have views or opinions about anything, they don’t much matter to me. Most of the time, they don’t matter at all to me. And I certainly don’t think they’re superior to anyone else’s. They’re just mine, same as anyone’s are anyone’s.”
To some people, of course, his views will matter. His invention will represent and embody them. And to some extent they may explain what he has done, despite the gap that lies between any explanation and whatever is being explained. To those people, his views may prove illuminating. To others, however, they will seem confusing or enigmatic, or contradictory, or nonsensical. And some people will consider them disrespectful, heretical, and subversive. Or ugly and alienating, or idiotic.
My responses to them have run the gamut. At one time or another during our years together, I have applied each of those characterizations to them, and more, both negative and positive. However, I have done so with admiration rather than aversion. Even when I find Vassal’s ideas most alarming or disagreeable, I grace him with Ambrose Bierce’s definition of a cynic: “A blackguard whose faulty vision sees things as they are, not as they ought to be.”
Some readers of this account, of course, as well as other people, will fault him for what he has said and done. He will not mind.
He has said this to me, “People may think the book reveals a lot about me. They’ll judge me and express opinions. That’s understandable, and fine with me. As far as I’m concerned, everyone’s responses will be true as can be, equally legitimate, none better or more correct than any other.”
* * *
“. . . (N)one better or more correct than any other.” That phrase reflects one of Vassal’s essential views. To him, everything is of equal value, fundamentally and equally uncertain. nothing more real or true than anything else.
“Everything we consider solid isn’t,” he says. “There’s nothing anywhere except the unstable emptiness from which all things arise. Take matter, for instance. We think of it as solid, but it is mostly space. If we could enlarge an atom to the size of a fourteen-story building, then its nucleus, its most massive part, would be the size of a grain of salt in the middle of the seventh floor. And if we were able to remove all the space from the human body, the volume of the remaining mass, mostly nuclei, would be equivalent to about 1/5,000,000th of a grain of rice. We and everything we know of are almost entirely nothing. And that’s not the least of it. We and everything else may actually be entirely nothing.”
He observes that nuclei and other subatomic particles and the fields they inhabit are themselves far from solid. The more we delve into them and learn about them, the more evanescent they prove to be.
“The somethingness of things recedes from us and keeps receding,” he says. “The more we study them, the more unformed emptiness we find. Everything seems to be something, but that somethingness turns out to be illusory, a temporary perception and understanding of ours. Whether something exists, and in what form and with what nature, depends on how we look at it, a matter of our interpretation.”
Marcus Aurelius wrote, “Everything is but what we think it.” Vassal adds a wrinkle. In his view, we create what things are, how they are, and the fact, so-called, that they are at all. We do that not just with our rational thinking, but with the whole of our minds, which he defines broadly. He observes that things’ coherence—their thingness, the rock upon which we live and build—is an illusion that our entire organisms construct. By every means that we have, using every capability of our many-faceted selves, we infer and engage all things immaterial and material. We use our sight, hearing, touch, and other senses; our reason, memory, emotion, intuition, imagination, and other mental powers; and our strength, dexterity, balance, and other physical abilities. To him, such is self and such is mind. They are the same thing and the only thing. Nothing else can exist for us. They are all there is, all anything is. And they, too, are illusory.
“Our experiences, our reality, everything we perceive, are dreams of ours. They are our imaginings, stories that our organisms tell us that we believe. Things exist for us only because we project them to ourselves. Our worlds, inner and outer, are a kind of hologram we make for our own consumption. That’s what we are and what we do. Such is the outcome, so far, of our evolution.”
I, therefore all things
* * *
In his experience, there is no fundamental difference between self and other. Our awareness is of a piece with the objects of our awareness. Both are bound up in a process that renders all things, in all their variety, the same. They comprise body and mind, entity and idea, act and being. To him, such is our nature, which is all the nature we can know.
“All things are we and we are they,” he says. “That’s despite all differences, which are usually obvious to us. I think that at some level we all know that.”
To him all phenomena are we, so they seem real to us. We may think of them as certain. We may define them with what we think is precision, using terms that describe their size, location, color, temperature, texture, motion, and other attributes. But they are not certain, or as Vassal would say, they are nothing certain. Instead, they are a welter of possibility, largely incomprehensible to us, never more than probable, always in flux. They are nothing and they remain nothing. In his view, all phenomena are our translations of nothing into something, into patterns we can comprehend and models we can use. Employing our seemingly individual minds and bodies and their extensions—including our tools, technologies, arts, languages, and all else that we wield—we conceive and construct our universe. In that way, all things come of us, manifest us, and are us, no matter how else we think of them.
* * *
To Vassal, then, things seem real to us—substantial, enduring, intelligible—because we imagine them so. We anchor them within our prior experience, among familiar surroundings. The process is analogous to how we fashion art: magically, out of nothing, into representations that seem true to us even at their most nonrepresentational and abstract. “Art is a lie that makes us realize truth,” Picasso said. To Vassal, such are our lives. The lie is all that we know, as true to us as anything can be.
Our experience is always direct: of the words on this page, for example, and of the page itself, and of whatever contains and surrounds it, namely the rest of our selves and our worlds. Our experience fills each moment, at first too soon for us to recall, but re-presentable to us a moment later as memory, which breeds familiarity for us.
We experience by the grace of our consciousness, which creates all that we know. Again, that includes not only so-called material phenomena, but also every incorporeal voice that resonates within or around us. It includes our miracles of every kind; our cosmic ideas, visions, and epiphanies; our divine revelations, intercessions, and visitations; on down to the humblest of our ideas and insights, the faintest shadows of our cognition.
* * *
We may observe in things a profound aspect that is usually hidden from us. It can seem to arise above, beyond, or otherwise outside us, in a mystic place such as a home of gods or angels. It can strike us hard, and seem more real to us than our normal reality. It can seem to be, or represent, higher truth. It can inspire faith or other conviction within us. It can remake us and change our lives.
To Vassal, that, too, is a product of our imagining. We produce it by practicing prayer, meditation, yoga, or exercise; by engaging in sex, conversation, or study; by consuming food, drink, medications, recreational drugs, or other more or less psychoactive substances; and by any other means. It can arise as a byproduct of our happiness, or of our isolation, stress, anger, hunger, exhaustion, or disease. Often, we express it by means of language, images, music, and other arts. Many are the paths, all of our own making.
To him, everything is a dream that we create and that only we experience, even if we think that it arises and exists apart from us. We dream ourselves and our worlds, including all of their substance and meaning. We may imagine that there is outside design and intent at work in that, as by the hand of a god. We may suppose that some things, such as our good fortune or timely salvation, are gifts to us from an external divinity. We may consider such gifts compassionate or miraculous. Similarly, we may believe that misfortune and other undesirable deliverances, whether natural (like floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis, tornadoes, and epidemics) or human-mediated (like wars, crimes, car accidents, and most lottery tickets), come from beyond us, delivered to us by devils, demons, witches, or other such agents of malevolence or cruel justice. But to him, all design and intent, all origination and deliverance, is our own, for and to ourselves.
To him, all agency, including any we attribute to higher beings or higher power, whether good or evil, is something that our consciousness produces. It is story that we tell to ourselves and that we believe. The mind dreams, generating form and sense. We awaken to that dream again and again, certain only of nothing.
* * *
Cognitive consciousness produces our knowledge, understanding, self-awareness, rationality, and similar mental acuity. Phenomenal consciousness, on the other hand, is less linear. It delivers our more primitive, bodily perceptions, such as our sensations of color, shape, sound, texture, heat, cold, pleasure, pain, etc. Vassal does not consider either higher than the other. Nor does he consider either significantly different from the consciousness (as he calls it) experienced by the myriad things that most of us consider unconscious, such as water, earth, air, rocks, subatomic particles, etc.
“I don’t know of anything that isn’t as alive and conscious as anything else,” he says.
To him, being alive is not just biological ability to grow, reproduce, evolve, etc. Nor is our consciousness just a dynamic awareness of self and surroundings. Nor, in his view, do our unique abilities as humans—to create and utilize tools and technologies, for instance, or to use and interpret signs, symbols, and language—place our consciousness above anything else’s.
“Our abilities are attributes that our organisms have evolved and depend upon,” he says. “They’re special but they’re also nothing special; everything has attributes that suit them, just as ours suit us. Sometimes, we find it helpful to feel superior to other things, but we aren’t superior to anything. As I define being alive, everything that we perceive is as alive as we are, and alive as part of us and as us. And vice versa: We are alive in and as everything else.”
To most of us, what we call “other” seems separate from us, and exhibits little or no commonality with us. He observes, however, that we impose that separateness. Our organisms dream up otherness to suit our needs.
“Things differ in our view to the extent the illusion of difference is useful to us, particularly for our health and survival. For as long as we exist in our present form, we will need some of that. We live in order to survive. For as long as we live, a ‘journey to’ is what we do.”
To him, again, the world that we perceive, including all that we know and imagine, is the world that we are. That world, including ourselves and the rest of our journey, is a dream of our own making. We dream up enough stability, coherence, and meaning to enable us to live in as good health as can be ours, while at the same time, as in all dreams, we travel toward nothing, through nothing, and as nothing.
* * *
He once told me a saying of the Hopis: “People ask us, why is the Grand Canyon important to us? The answer is that we are the Grand Canyon.” To Vassal, all of us are the Grand Canyon and more. Things seem distinct, different from us and from each other. But they only seem that way, and only up to a point. Vassal observes that beyond that point we experience the unitary dimension that I have described, each of us the universe, many universes, every possible universe.
We experience that dimension even if we are unaware of it. He does not think that we need to be aware of it, or should be, or would be better off if we were. Again, he has no agenda. He observes that for us there is only the dream, as real to us as anything can be. We grasp it, assign it value, and place faith in it. We signify it using our words, art, science, mathematics, and other expression. We create stories about it, and we keep creating them. We may apprehend it only briefly, perhaps partially and inaccurately. It remains unclear to us, and elusive, like a capricious creation of unimagined gods. Which to him is fine, part of what we are.
Vassal once cited to me Charles Darwin’s remark that “. . . a scientific man ought to have no wishes, no affections—a mere heart of stone.” Vassal agrees, but not entirely.
“To have good judgment in his work,” he says, “a scientist must be aware of assumptions and tendencies, his own as well as anyone else’s. He must be able to think against himself. Of course, that’s a skill that’s useful for any of us, in many areas of our lives.”
He believes that a scientist should question everything, from individuals’ pet theories to the common wisdom of peers, communities, and societies. To do that, he or she must distance himself from temporal matters and be somewhat heartless. He acknowledges that accomplishing that is to some degree impossible, since we live in and as our world as well as apart from it. But he finds the idea useful.
He also likes Yeats’ famous lines in The Second Coming: “The ceremony of innocence is drowned; / The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.” In his view, those lines are no lament. He finds us deserving of ceremony and not.
He says, “All of us are innocent and deserving of ceremony. Also, none of us are. We bear responsibility for each other and everything else, for the worst among us and within us as much as for the best.”
He is skeptical of passionate intensity when it arises in him or anyone, but neither scorns nor regrets it. He respects its sincerity and admires its impotence. As may be obvious to readers of this account, he appreciates absence of conviction. He accepts and is pleased that everything is doubtful. He is satisfied that transient rewards—our bundles of illusion, light of our dreams—are the only rewards possible for our kind.
He has no intentions, so is not burdened by expectations. His inquiries are childlike and wondering, but neither naïve nor insensitive. He is no child, nor is his heart made of stone. He is not callous, unkind, or irresponsible. His innocence is mature, deliberate, and heartfelt, born of his suffering, including the searing disillusionment and depression he experienced after Victory’s death. Like any of us, he maintains objectivity but only intermittent detachment. Again, that is because in his view we are all things, from which, as for all of us, detachment is both possible and not.
* * *
Tonight’s release of his invention will cause repercussions. Some of them will be destructive, and some will be fatal. He told me recently of a statement by Sir Arthur Eddington: “Science is one thing, wisdom is another. Science is an edged tool, with which men play like children, and cut their own fingers.”
Vassal said of that, “My invention is disruptive. It will cut people’s fingers. For some of us, that will hurt only a little, and make us just a little bloody. But there will also be greater hurt. There will be much unhappiness, some of which will lead to conflict, some of it violent. Some of us will die. Some of us will kill each other. Some of us will kill ourselves. We will suffer in other ways, too, including every way imaginable. Those are prices we’re going to pay. But they are prices that we already pay, always, by being what we are.”
There is an upside, too. In his view, change, including technological change, no matter how disruptive, turns out okay. As much as it harms and unsettles us, it also inspires us and makes us hopeful. We and all things are each other’s blood brothers and sisters, so some cutting of fingers is necessary. We share whatever happens to any of us, and we have no choice but to make the best of it. We tend to be optimistic, to consider the prices we pay worthwhile, a basis for progress. Often, in the end, we realize that we are no better off than before and no wiser, that nothing has improved. But that, too, is okay. We carry on, insecure in the uncertain knowledge that our lives are always about as good as they can get.
People everywhere are about to awaken to Vassal’s invention. In our boat, he and I are adrift in the moment before, our path trackless, through an absence of location and purpose. We are conscious but no longer self-conscious. We feel unconcerned about what is coming. Vassal is always unconcerned, but now, for the moment, even I am not wrought up. Anticipation and worry seem unnecessary, even frivolous. I feel relieved.
When the living cell divides
it does not want
it does not think
it need not feel ready
* * *
Many times, I have watched Vassal’s smile relax, his lips spread, and his words come. Sometimes he offers a succinct observation or summary remark. Occasionally he makes a false start, and then, after speaking a word or two or a few syllables, retreats into himself, to consider further before he tries again. Usually, however, words pour from him. They come in sentences, paragraphs, pages, sometimes complete chapters. He talks fast and confidently even when he feels weary, as he does tonight. As I sit beside him at my keyboard, my fingers fly to keep up, with my thoughts in hot pursuit.
He is articulate. What he says hits his targets. Sometimes he misses, though, like any of us, or he misjudges and shoots at a will-o’-the-wisp. But that is where I come in. I listen to what he says, and at the same time I stay attuned to what he means to say. I write down both, editing as I go, making changes that I think will clarify. As I say, I take appropriate liberties. As Gertrude Stein said of art, “You paint what you know is there, not what you see.”
I embrace insomnia. I do much of my editing and revising during the hours before sunrise. Soon after midnight I awaken, sit up, and lean back against the headboard. Then, I reach to my bedside table, put on my glasses, pick up my laptop, and get to work.
I refine what I have written the day before. I fiddle with structure, flow, and meaning. I add, delete, and change words. I cut, relocate, and reorder sentences and paragraphs. I strike out sections or chapters, or I move them. At times, as I have said, I change media: I turn to my graphics software or camera and create images. All the while, I revisit our purpose and rethink what Vassal and I are trying to communicate.
I love to edit and revise like that, in the wee hours. However difficult the task becomes—and it does—I let my mind play with what I may. I cherish the freedom and care that I can employ. I delight in my ceaseless approach to our objective, and I thrive on the vain prospect of achieving it. That is my kind of tinkering.
* * *
From the first they heard of Vassal, a generation ago, people have wanted to know more about him and his invention. They have learned much of that from the Journal, but that book covers only his invention’s most dramatic years—most dramatic until now, anyway. It has left people wanting more from him.
As I have reported, soon after publishing the Journal he and I began to create what has become a kind of roman-fleuve or “river novel,” a series of books of which the Journal is the first. We have been working on that ever since.
People have known we were doing that. They have wanted us to publish each volume as soon as we finished. (The Bigheads and our occasional government visitors have reported that to us. In our creative idyll, buttressed by Vassal’s indifference to the public’s curiosity, we might never have known.) We decided, however, that we should complete the series, then publish it all at once. We felt that to minimize readers’ misunderstanding they should experience his saga as a whole, not piecemeal.
Also, we saw no reason to rush. The public’s need to know what was in our books was not urgent. The books were a relaxed amalgam of biography, memoir, and rumination about past events. There was nothing in them of immediate significance. Moreover, we felt that years without hearing from Vassal would do people good. The delay would cool their obsession with him and his invention, and might lead them to thoughtful anticipation of similar devices. We felt certain that such devices would arrive before long, developed by other scientists and engineers, and would cause disarray similar to what his will prompt, starting today.
There were other reasons we took our time compiling his saga. We enjoyed the process, and could afford it. Neither of us needed or wanted the money, fame, or influence that publishing would bring us. Instead, we felt, those might distract us from our pleasurable labor.
We created several volumes that extended his story into the years before his invention. They touched upon his childhood in Central Maine, including his early love of the North Woods and of headwaters far up the river. They also described his later years downriver, when his interests spread toward tidewater and the sea. They continued into the years after Victory’s murder, through his decades of retreat, toward the present day—decades when I have been with him.
We finished the series a year ago. As I have said, we planned to publish right away. However, his decision to revive and release his invention cast our books in new light. The story they told was now only a small part of a greater story: the coming of his invention into everyone’s lives. The invention itself would tell people the tales that would matter most, and it would tell them in terms of people’s direct experiences using it. That would have far greater impact than the words and images in our books.
That did not disappoint us. We did not feel that our work had been wasted. Our books would still interest people. We decided to publish them to coincide with his invention’s release. I set to work revising them to reflect the new circumstance, to make them more relevant. I soon realized, however, that I should create another volume, one that would more thoroughly address tonight’s release, which by then was only months away. I set the other books aside. We still plan to complete and publish them, but that has not been a top priority. Instead, I began to create this book. During the weeks and months ahead, many people will read it. From some quarters, no doubt, attention to it will be intense. But that will not last for long, we expect. Most everyone will be far more interested in using Vassal’s invention than in reading about it.
Some people will believe that by exposing their doings to anyone interested, Vassal’s invention will threaten their wellbeing. That will be particularly true of people who have most depended upon prior standards of privacy and secrecy, standards that as of today will no longer apply.
Other people will feel differently. Many will believe that it will empower them to improve things for themselves and others. Its possibilities will inspire them. They will feel grateful to Vassal for releasing it.
Regardless of how people feel about it, it will be everywhere. Most people, we expect, will use it aggressively, to explore their lives and advance their interests. As they do, it will lead many of them, perhaps all, to die a kind of death. Except in rare cases, that will not be biological death, but a lesser demise, one that will lead to rebirth. To varying degree, its coming will lead each of us to reconceive ourselves, to learn our world anew and to build new lives. Individual as we are we will remake ourselves from the inside out, and social creatures that we are we will remake ourselves from the outside in. We will grow from there.
* * *
Vassal serves as a mirror to me, and I to him. That is natural, given our familiarity. Now, that intimacy of ours is about to spread. Beginning in a few hours, he will serve as a mirror to many people. Some will hold him responsible for how his invention seems. They may imagine him to be a living part of it, a spirit that resides within it. The more paranoid may think that he controls how they use it, perhaps even that he manipulates their thoughts and actions. In his younger days, he, too, might have considered that possible of someone. Now, however, he understands that everything that people observe with it will be themselves, their own reflections and everything else’s. Again, to him, our every thought and perception—our world—mirrors ourselves.
To Vassal, though each of us possesses one voice and body, and lives one life, we each speak and live for all of us, and all of us speak and live for each of us. We express and enact each other with every instrument at our disposal, including our thoughts, voices, faces, gestures, posture, and so on. With everything that we think or do, we read ourselves into each other, and we discover ourselves there. We mirror each other through and through.
That begins soon after we are born and perhaps sooner, the seeds having been planted long before. It continues as we interact with our parents and others. As our awareness develops, we acquire more empathy and compassion for others. Our social and interpersonal skills improve, and we apply them. Using Vassal’s invention may seem to intensify that development. It may render our experience of many things, perhaps everything, more vivid. But in his view nothing that we make of it will be other than what we already are and always have been.
* * *
Even when I knew Vassal only from media reports, I considered him a friend. I felt that he knew me personally. Anyone may feel that about a stranger, of course, particularly one who is well known or whom one admires. After I began working with him, however, such a bond developed for real. One day several years into our work, he said several things to me that strengthened that bond. We were sitting beside each other on his porch, our usual workplace. He was telling me about a piece of his past and I was writing it down.
“Before Victory and I destroyed my invention, it alarmed people, even though we made clear that we wouldn’t release it. They felt that just by existing it threatened their privacy and security. It worried not just individuals, but all kinds of groups and organizations: governments, businesses, you name it. It disturbed most people, including Victory and me. We didn’t want anyone to get hold of it and exercise any exclusive control over it. That was a major reason why we didn’t let anyone have it, and finally got rid of it.
“But in addition to the alarm it caused, it appealed to people. They thought it might diminish people’s isolation and loneliness. They thought it might breed cooperation and reduce dysfunction at home, at work, in the community, everywhere. They thought it might open up all kinds of frontiers within us and outside us, and also that it might make for a lot of fun.
“Victory and I recognized those possibilities. At first, we felt hopeful about them. The human lot can always use improving, and everyone can use more fun. I remember that when we talked about that she told me of a remark by the playwright Bertolt Brecht: ‘If it’s not funny, it’s not true.’
“We tried it out. We sent it wherever we wanted. We found that when we looked at other people closely with it, and snooped around their lives, we developed what we thought was a deeper understanding of human nature. Like anyone, we were already empathetic with other people. As we watched them, we felt that we became more so.
“We studied how we all regard ourselves and each other. We were impressed by how alike everyone is and how similar our realities are. We saw how much we depend on each other for what matters most: food, shelter, clothing, education, jobs, happiness, meaning, purpose. We saw how much interacting we do, and how much effort we make working out differences. All of us care about each other. It’s in our interest, so it’s unavoidable, instinctive. We are each other’s keepers. Victory and I were struck to see that so clearly.”
The two of them explored like that for months, digging into people’s senses of themselves, investigating the nexus between self and other. They arrived at understandings that I have reported, and more. Among them was that each of us inhabits the place of the other as much as we inhabit our own, and that in many respects we do so as much for the other’s sake as for our own. They came to believe that each of us is that much more than single and solitary, notwithstanding our separateness. They regarded that as an immutable state of human affairs.
They also concluded that his device could make no significant difference in those affairs.
“We realized that whether in our hands or the hands of the wisest and most compassionate reformers we could imagine, my invention could produce no gain. No matter who got hold of it or what they did with it, there would be change but no improvement. That realization surprised us. It also disappointed us, since we all try to make things better, and we often think that we are succeeding at that. But after a while we accepted it. It was how things are.
“After that, we continued using my device for a couple of months, to test it further, to be sure of our conclusion. That’s when we put on our shows, to give ourselves and the world a dose of it, and to get a stronger sense of its possibilities. We wondered whether we would find any reason to change our minds about how little it could accomplish. We didn’t find even one. To the contrary, we saw that it might as well not exist. So we stopped using it, and a little later destroyed it.”
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