“LAST NIGHT I DREAMED I’d fallen onto a railway track just as a train was pulling into a station.” Glancing towards Dr Finkel I saw he was staring at his fingernails like a man who’d never seen fingernails before. He grunted for me to continue. “It was in London. There was nothing scary about it. As the train passed over me I reached up at the undercarriage and grabbed hold before the train picked up speed again. We were clattering along when I noticed a goat hanging next to me. Eventually, the goat spoke.
“Can I get off at the next stop?’ it asked, “or do I have to go all the way into Waterloo?’”As you probably all know, Waterloo is a railway station in London. It used to be famous for having more platforms than any other railway station in the world, I believe. Though I’m sure a station in China has more now, probably Shanghai. The Chinese are breaking records for everything these days. I believe they eat more Norwegian smoked salmon than the rest of the world put together.”
Dr Finkel looked up from examining his nails.
“Waterloo is also a small place in Belgium,” he said, “the site of the huge battle.”
“I hadn’t thought of that,” I said. And, in truth, I hadn’t.
“It’s the place where Napoleon met his defeat. If it hadn’t been for that, we would all be speaking French by now.” I hadn’t thought of that either. “The English have a saying for the defeated. They say of a defeated man, ‘He met his Waterloo’.”
“Interesting,” I said, though I was more interested in what Dr Finkel found so fascinating about his fingernails. I was about to ask at the point he appeared to lose all interest in them.
“A goat, you say?”
“Yes, a goat.”
“The goat is a strange creature. At once a symbol of stupidity and wisdom.”
“And Satan,” I interrupted.
“I was coming to that,” Dr Finkel admonished. In my excitement I had forgotten Dr Finkel had reached an age where he preferred to dispense knowledge, rather than receive it. “In folklore and mythology the goat plays an ambiguous role. Acting the goat is to behave like an idiot, and describing someone as an old goat can either mean he’s stubborn old fool or a wise old sage. The male goat particularly, looks old as soon as it reaches maturity, hence the impression of wisdom. Though how getting old ever came to be equated with gaining wisdom, I can’t think. My mother’s eighty-eight and suffers senile dementia. Not that she was ever particularly bright. Cunning, maybe, but wise?” He shook his head “For some reason the devil is always depicted with the hind quarters of a goat. My belief is that it comes from the fact that many a young peasant lad’s lust has been sated there. Temptation and the devil, the words are forever connected. Though I, for one, see very little sexual attraction in the hind quarters of a goat. And by very little, in this case, I mean none at all.”
“Perhaps they close their eyes and imagine it’s Claudia Schiffer’s bum,” I suggested.
“The smell alone would make that very difficult,” Dr Finkel said irritably. He went over to the window to gaze at the traffic flowing down Bygdøy Alle, as he often did when I said something that annoyed him. “I was once walking through a forest in southern Andalusia,” he started up again. “I was a student on vacation, when I heard a rustling behind me. I turned round to see what appeared to be an old man staring at me from behind some bushes. A dark old man with a beard and horns. You can imagine my shock. For the briefest of seconds I gained the impression I was gazing into the face of the devil. I was young and impressionable at the time, and had been experimenting with wild mushrooms. We stared at each other for a moment, one as surprised as the other. But then the devil let out a bleat and transformed into a goat.”
“He bleated. The bleat of a goat is a very plaintive sound. It sounds as though goats are perpetually lonely and constantly in search of human company for intelligent conversation. But the stink of a male goat destines them only to share the company of goatherds, who are probably as stupid as goats.”
“Or as wise,” I butted in. We both stared at an indefinite point in space in the way that is the sign of a poet musing, or those with delicate sensibilities. Or autsim. Dr Finkel sighed in the manner of a man visited by a tiny glimpse of ecstasy. Or perhaps time was getting on.
“I have to admit that goats make me nervous,” I said, hoping to prolong intelligent conversation. “I can’t help thinking they’re going to rush up behind me. It comes from a silver spoon I had as a child. On it three goats were depicted in relief crossing a bridge under which a troll lived. I think the male goat butted the troll in the arse in the story behind it. The story behind the spoon I mean. Not behind the goat. But that too.”
“Aha!” Dr Finkel perked up. “The Norwegian troll. What would the Norwegian woodcarver’s lot be without the troll from which to draw his inspiration?”
Dr Finkel and I often resorted to this archaic manner of speech when in each other’s company.
“Indeed,” I answered, “his children would be condemned to wander the forests barefoot, till they starved to death for lack of food.”
“I think your dream is telling you, you’re facing impending disastrous defeat,” Dr Finkel announced, cutting the woodcarver’s lot short.
“You mean I am the goat in the dream?”
“It makes sense whichever way you look at it: both you and the goat are off to meet your Waterloos. And I must meet my wife for lunch.”
“But I was the one the goat asked the question of.”
“A mere detail. We can’t take dreams literally, they are allegories. Symbols which require detailed analysis. Unfortunately, for you, that is beyond my remit. I undertook not to treat you as a patient, but to observe you. Besides, if you remember correctly, the goat wanted to get off the train at the next stop.”
“So, I don’t want to meet my Waterloo.”
“We don’t know where the train is. Perhaps Waterloo is the next stop.”
“But what about the Hippocratic Oath?” The thought of him observing rather than treating disturbed me, “I thought doctors swore to help those in need?”
“Perhaps you need to meet your Waterloo. And I’m helping you meet it. Or to be more precise, observing you meeting it.”
“I need to be defeated?”
“As in all battles throughout history, one party or another needs defeating. That being the entire point of battling. In the battle to regain sanity, madness needs defeating. Wars are subjective. Napoleon thought Wellington needed to be defeated, whereas Wellington thought exactly the opposite. History generally takes the side of the victor, ergo, most people, and all Englishmen, take the position Napoleon needed defeating so the British could go on speaking English, and eating their insufferable food. Imagine, had Napoleon been victorious at both Trafalgar and Waterloo, the kitchens of England would also have been victorious, with English housewives preparing delicious French cuisine instead of inedible pies and overboiled potatoes. In the same way, if you win your battle with me, madness will reign supreme. If I win, it will be a victory for the sane and sanity.”
“You think I’m mad, don’t you?”
“A psychiatrist can’t talk in those terms to a patient, but to give you a clue, it’s not me lying on the couch. Though an apparent paradox, it’s normal for people who think they’re mad to come and see me, I don’t search them out. To contradict them would be rather like a restaurateur turning away those claiming to be hungry. Like the woodcarver chipping out his trolls I can’t condemn my children to wander the forests barefoot until they starve to death for lack of food.”
“But your children are all grown, you told me.”
“I’m speaking figuratively, of course. I have a wife who loves collecting vintage Schiapirelli, and a two hundred year old wooden summer house in Tønsberg. Unfortunately, rococo was all the rage two centuries ago and every beam is full of intricate carving. In a country with so many trees, it’s not surprising that there exist so many creatures that have learned to survive by eating wood. The house has fallen into such a desperate state of disrepair it requires the services of a small army of highly-skilled woodcarvers taking time off from carving trolls to dedicate themselves to the preservation of Norwegian folk history. It’s an expensive business these days. Not satisfied with wooden clogs and full stomachs, woodcarvers’ children, like all other children, have taken to demanding Nike trainers, sushi snacks and year-long sabbaticals to travel the world. Unfortunately, the business of providing these luxuries has fallen on me.”
“Thank God there is so much madness in the world.” I said. “Without it your children would never be able to keep up with the others.”
“True, true, but unfortunately, for me, insanity is not an affliction confined to the very wealthy, though it helps that most of them think it is. On the bright side, madness has become almost fashionable for the rich over the last few decades. And even though the poor are becoming madder at an increasing rate, the madness of the poor is of a completely different order. That order of madness is as far from being fashionable as it ever was.”
“How on earth can that be? Madness is madness.”
“Obviously you have no psychiatric training. The madness of the wealthy is generally a gentle sort of thing. When the rich go mad they eat too much, or too little. They weep a lot and moan about their mother’s or father’s failure to understand them. When the poor go mad they reach for the kitchen knife and plunge it into the chests of as many people as possible before being restrained and locked up.”
“Don’t you think you’re being too cynical?”
“It’s the others, I’m afraid. We live in an age of cynicism. I have to be cynical in order to survive. For instance, have you ever noticed that if a disaster occurs in Africa or Bangladesh, immediately there are appeals for clothing and food. If there is a disaster in New York or Paris there are appeals for trauma counsellors and psychologists.”
“No, I can’t say I have noticed.”
“Which only goes show you don’t possess the required amount of cynicism to succeed in the modern world. As I told you, you are about to meet your Waterloo.” He glanced at his pocket watch. It looked like something Sigmund Freud would’ve had in order to hypnotise his patients. “And I’m about to meet my next patient. A Dubai eating disorder with a Cayman Islands bank account. Good for quite a few Schiaperellis.”
It is the summer after my mother walked down to the lake. My grandfather takes me on holiday to the small island of Værøy. We stay in the old fishermen’s quarters down by the quay.
It is hot and I spend many days sitting by the roadside waiting for cars to pass. There are never very many. Each time one drives by, I wave at the people inside. They wave back. Usually, they’re islanders from the village. Sometimes, there is a camper van from France or Germany. Foreigners seem so strange, exotic people from some distant galaxy. Whenever I see them in the shops or post office, I follow them trying to get as close as possible, just to hear them talk their babble. I often wonder how they can understand each other, and why they don’t make life easier for themselves by speaking Norwegian like the rest of us.
I’m crossing the road. A sinister shadow behind a driving wheel.
At first, I think he’s slowing down, and then I see he’s taking aim. Which way to run? Cars in every direction. In that moment, my feet turn to lead, I’m up in the air, then thudding down onto the bonnet, smashing the windscreen to smithereens, and bouncing up again like a football kicked in anger, snatching vainly at sky, the words running through my head, “I’m dead.”
As stupid as that. No time for pain, just seconds. And no visions of life playing before my eyes. It’s all so mundane in reality. Maybe I did grab hold of a piece of sky for a precious moment.
It’s the premonition – or is it the flashback? – keeps coming back to me. Having almost died had not convinced me I didn’t want to die in this dream, yet neither had it completely convinced me that I wanted to live on into the next. It was a strange position to be in, for suddenly, life had almost no value. Staring death in the face had made me realise that as it was random, so was life; one cancelled out the other. As we were here by chance, so the universe had been formed by chance. There was no great plan, except for the fact the woman whose dream I lived in at that moment of time wanted to starve me out of her dream. So, why should she not be in control of my destiny any less than anybody else? After all, hadn’t she taken responsibility for my death once she decided to wake me? And taking responsibility for my death was the same thing as taking responsibility for my life. The two things were intractable. Without life, death was impossible; the first made the second inevitable. They were not interchangeable, insofar as in the human condition, death could not precede life, not unless you were a Buddhist, and I was not. Not anymore, I wasn’t. I stopped being a Buddhist when my Buddhist girlfriend told me she’d fallen in love with a Muslim, and had converted. That converted me, not into anything, just out of Buddhism. That, and vegetarianism, of course. I never really got used to all that brown rice. It made me feel weak, and the lust for red meat became overpowering. I’d taken to going into MacDonald’s whenever the overriding urge for meat took hold of me. It started to happen everyday. I think they must put something in the meat that makes it addictive.
Yet somehow this didn’t square with my premonition, or flashback, depending on which moment of time you chose to look at it from. Or perhaps it was karma, visions of a past life.
In some ways, recent experiences had made me vehemently opposed to Buddhism. In some ways Buddhism was responsible for the state I was in. My karma had brought me to live where I was living in the first place. When Astrid fell in love with Ahmed, it was time for me to leave Trondheim. I wasn’t born in Oslo, you see, I didn’t choose to live here. It was a sort of karmic thing, predestination. Or so I thought, until I moved in with Wenche. By the time I moved in with Wenche, I had stopped being a Buddhist, so my karma stopped in Trondheim, I no longer believed in an after-life, so I no longer had one. All my dreams stopped at that point. I was living my last dream.
I realised what had brought me to her: giving up Buddhism. I’d answered her ad in one of the Oslo papers I was reading at the public library in Trondheim. The city was already getting too small for me. I’d stayed there far too long after finishing my studies, and breaking up with Astrid was the final straw. As well as that, former colleagues had turned against me, and I wasn’t getting the opportunities I felt I deserved. It’s always the same in small towns, ordinary people start to get jealous of those gifted with extraordinary talent.
The newspapers in Trondheim were run by small-minded people with brains the size of dried up walnuts. I’d had a couple of pieces published in the Oslo papers, so it was only natural that people in Trondheim would turn against me, they were green with envy. It became clear I would have to make the move to the big city. There’d be more room to flex my intellectual muscles away from all the petty rivalries of a provincial town.
From the tone of the advertisement it seemed all right. It wasn’t one of those looking for a lover of classical music, or a non-smoker, just somebody looking for a lodger, preferably artistic. I mused for awhile whether that might mean I would prefer to be artistic, artistic by preference, or whether she would prefer me to be artistic. In some ways, I would prefer to be artistic. Put as a preference there is a hidden implication of choice. So what would I want to be if I couldn’t be artistic? I wasn’t sure what was left. If you weren’t clever, you would be stupid. If you weren’t beautiful, you might be ugly. What were you if you weren’t artistic? I suppose you might be unartistic, but my computer doesn’t like that word, telling me the concept doesn’t exist by underlining it with an angry red squiggle. Writing was getting to me like that; I no longer quite knew what all the words meant. They had the meanings I intended, but then they had their own hidden meanings, that I had to be careful of. I had to edit these out over and over to rid them of any secret message. You never know, and if in doubt it’s best to make sure.
I finally reached the stage where, when I looked at a sheet of paper with my words on, and the words began to separate into meaningless individual letters. Each letter had its own significance, their very shapes told me something. Yet stare as I might, I couldn’t crack the code. I realised I had surrendered control over my writing to someone else. I first suspected Wenche. At the point she had woken me my life had changed irrevocably, of that I was certain. It was as though her reality had usurped my own. And now she had extended her control to my writing. Somehow, she was altering the meaning of what I was saying, not so much as to appear blatantly obvious by standing over me as I wrote, but by some method of thought transference. Whatever it was, it was becoming increasingly clear they were no longer my words. Well, I was writing the words down but their meaning was no longer my own. And that’s why editors had turned against my work, because it wasn’t mine. It was hers. It was quite obvious she couldn’t write, and this led to her making a mockery of me.
I can’t be sure whether she started interfering with my writing while I was still having premonitions of my accident, or whether it was at the time the flashbacks started. Whether it was before I fell asleep on the couch, or after she tapped me on the shoulder and woke me into her dream. Certainly, the articles had ceased selling before the accident, but I put that down to the short-sightedness of the Oslo editors, they seemed to want all those articles on how to stay slim by eating this or that. Stay slim by eating? It is amazing how gullible we have become. Or pseudo-scientific stuff on the origins of the universe. Stuff that did your brain in and scared you silly, stuff it wasn’t necessary to know. Those new illnesses they kept discovering as though there weren’t enough already. The fact I had decided my future lay with the London papers. Only they were big enough to take on someone like me.
I was busy deciding what my first piece would be about walking along Storgata when I saw that bloody nurse again. Just as she’d gone out of the dream, and I was coming to terms with keeping her there. I began to wonder if I was travelling between their dreams like a tennis ball, one to the other. She was beautiful all right. Beautiful in the way of dreams. She was coming towards me with those panther-like strides of hers, long, slender legs in black leather trousers, made even longer by stiletto-heeled boots. I could see her long, black, wavy hair bouncing off her shoulders. I knew she was looking for me so I ducked into a Narvesen shop to buy an English newspaper. Twenty-five kroner they tried to charge me. I told them who I was, of course. Why, the English papers were begging me to write for them, and this schoolgirl – for that’s all she was, a schoolgirl – was trying to charge me twenty-five kroner for a newspaper! Sometimes, it was possible to take control of someone else’s dream. Well, the Prime Minister would get to hear of this! Then, just as you think you’ve assumed control, something happens, and it’s wrested from your grip again. I stormed out of the shop and straight into Kari with my broken arm. She recognised me, and started apologising profusely. I was cursing. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a habit of mine to swear in front of women, I wasn’t brought up like that. It was just the indignity of being treated like that by a schoolgirl, and then having to bump into the very person I’d gone into the shop to avoid. That, and my arm hurt like hell. Her eyes met mine. They were of the most beautiful blue I’d ever seen. And that’s in a country with more blue eyes per head of population than anywhere else in the world. She smiled at me, and I couldn’t help thinking she had planned it all along. Perhaps they were working in tandem now, Wenche and the nurse, weaving me into their dreams. It was far more than mere coincidence. The only thing to do was to pretend I didn’t recognise her, so I averted my gaze before it was too late, mumbled something, and quickly hurried off.
When the letter came from the hospital the very next day I knew it couldn’t be coincidence either. They wanted to do another scan. So, the first one hadn’t worked. Wenche had asked me what was in it before I left the flat that morning, she doesn’t miss a trick that one. Why ask when she knew very well what it was? I told her, of course, and made out I would be keeping the appointment. It was for Thursday of the next week. It would’ve been counter-productive to let her know I had no intention whatsoever of turning up. I was just as good at playing this game as they were. Better, in fact.
It was seeing that bloody nurse walking as bold as brass and perfectly normal along Storgata. Funny, the letter should come the very day after she’d seen me. But not so funny when you thought about it. She must’ve realised the scan hadn’t worked, so they wanted to do another one. Another scan indeed! Another scam, I call it. Did they think I was that stupid? They couldn’t even drag me in chains back to that hospital with what I knew. Something happened to you when they put you into that machine of theirs, but my brain was too strong for it and it hadn’t worked. It’d probably caused some damage to the machine in the bargain. I had to laugh out loud when I pulled the letter from my pocket to have another look at it on the tram. I’d broken their precious machine with my brain. There was a man on the seat opposite wondering what I was laughing at. If only he knew. I was just about to lean over and share my joke, before I thought better of it. You never knew, and I had to be on my guard. That would to form the basis of my first big English article. I would expose what they were doing in the hospital at Ullevål so the world would get to know of it. But I’d have to be careful, now they were watching me all the time. It would be the making of me. I couldn’t trust any of the Norwegian rags with a sensational story like this, and I wouldn’t be able to tell anybody what I was up to. Another scan! As though a seasoned journalist would fall for that one.
I wondered whether Dr Finkel had ever flirted with Buddhism. But decided not to ask.
“I considered becoming a Buddhist once,” he said, as though plucking the thought from my mind. “My fascination had something to do with Beatles and Allen Ginsburg, the American beat poet.”
“What stopped you from taking the plunge?”
“I talked to my rabbi and he advised me against it.”
“Didn’t you ever consider he might have had a vested interest?”
“Yes, but he was such a persuasive man. You know, he once sold my father an old Volvo estate wagon. Even though we already had two cars. It had to be towed to our house. I remember my father handing over a brown envelope stuffed with notes. The rabbi counted them twice. Then he shook my father’s hand and told him he wouldn’t regret the deal to his dying day. But he always did.”
“What happened to the Volvo?”
“It’s still in the garage. Half the engine is missing. My mother can’t bear to get rid of it. She says it reminds her of my father and the old rabbi.”
Our editor, Herr Brand, is giving a lecture to all the patients at the newspaper office. He is wearing a green cap and a white gown spattered with drops of blood. He brandishes a scalpel, which he is using to dissect a cat in order to explain the origins of the universe. He plucks out a choice kidney with his rubber-gloved hand to demonstrate his theory,
“You see, when a person is colour-blind, most times it is in the green/blue area of the spectrum.” He holds the kidney aloft so we can all see it from our beds. “So where you will see green they will see grey.”
“But they’re wrong?” I suggest.
“Not wrong exactly,” replies Herr Brand squeezing the kidney between two fingers till a single spurt of blood emits to stain his gown even more. He lays the blood-freed kidney into a stainless steel dish brimming offal. With an elegant flourish of his scalpel for emphasis, he continues to ply it about the cat’s insides producing a second kidney, “For that is what they see. A bat is not wrong for hearing a song beyond human pitch in a ditch, and a man is no loon for not hearing that tune. It’s a matter of differing perceptions.”
I am confused. I came to a lecture entitled: ‘About the Origins of the Universe’ I now see a banner above Herr Brand’s head proclaiming ‘A Bat’s Religion in Verse.’
“But what about dreams and hallucinations? Do they fall into the category of wrong and right?” someone asks.
“Well, of course, hallucinations and dreams, though similar, are not the same. We dream when we are asleep, whereas we hallucinate in the state of wakefulness.”
“Which state is that?” I thought I knew them all. I wasn’t about to find out. Herr Brand ignores the question.
“To take the latter first, and leave the first till latter, most hallucinations are the product of a malfunctioning of the brain, often due to a chemical imbalance. But in order to know the difference between hallucination and the state of reality,” (another state I only half-recognise) “We have to know the state of mind of those hallucinating.” (Just how many states are there?) “For reality is, more than often, a question of democracy, as opposed to a state of empirical truth.” An Empire State of Truth.
“Answer me this, if of twenty people on an island, nineteen imagine they see a bat, yet one doesn’t, the bat will be deemed to exist by the collective will of the majority, right? No matter whether it does exist or not. So, who is right and who is wrong?” There was no time to think about it, let alone formulate an answer. “The hallucination becomes the accepted truth, and the man who didn’t see the apparition is perceived as the one hallucinating by the nineteen who did. It doesn’t make them right on point of fact, but in a democracy the view of the majority will predominate. So, on point of history the hallucination becomes fact. The bat exists. It existed. It’s rather like an innocent person being hanged for a murder he didn’t commit. Unless evidence to clear his name is discovered, as far as history is concerned he will always be seen as the murderer. That will become for all intents and purposes the reality.”
“Perhaps there was a bat?” I ask, feeling the ball to be in my court.
“In a hypothetical argument about an illusory bat, in a dream, I think we can safely say all the evidence points towards the non-existence of the bat.
“To pick up where I left off. For example, despite mounting evidence to the contrary, evidence that had been around since the time of Ancient Greece, for many centuries the world was declared flat. This suited Christian clerics as they could then place Jerusalem at its axis, instead of Bergen say – there are some in Bergen who would have us believe it to this day – thus giving weight to the existence of a world order created by an all-powerful God, with him at its centre.” He pauses to laugh raucously at his pathetic joke, and I notice his tonsils are abnormally swollen for the time of year. Typical of the man to pick on poor little Bergen, on top all that rain as well. “To declare otherwise was considered a heresy, and could lead to imprisonment, torture and even death.” Herr Brand tosses the cat’s second kidney to a flock of expectant bats to squabble over on the floor of the operating theatre. “Besides, most of us prefer to believe the evidence before our eyes, and to them the world appears to be flat. So to most people the earth became flat again, as though a gigantic herd of elephnats.” (Surely, he means elephants) “I said, a gigantic herd of elephnats had trampled it so.” At that moment a gigantic herd of pygmy elephnats tramples the cat’s kidney flat, and the flock of bats flies up to hover round a candle. “To all intents and purposes it was flat, because that was their perception of it.” He illustrates this neatly by removing the cat’s liver next. The cat purrs its appreciation, “Yet the world is round, and always was. Spherical, in fact. When the globe was circumnavigated, it didn’t suddenly become spherical, yet in a way it did.
“To my mind, we are in the same position nowadays when we look at the universe and its relationship to time. In a way, scientists will have us believe the universe is flat. Yet if it is flat it must be flat in every direction at the same time.” I try to picture this with great difficulty, when all is made clear by Herr Brand’s dexterous handling of the cat’s liver. “There is no particularly point in the sky, where one can look, and see that is where the universe started. For everywhere in the sky is where the universe started if you look far enough.” Cat’s liver has this strange way of representing eternity I hadn’t understood before. “Looking at the sky is looking at history. Even the sunshine we are experiencing now is already eight minutes old. For all we know the sun might have extinguished and we won’t know for another seven minutes, or so, given the amount of time it took me to say that. And even those words were uttered nanoseconds before you heard them. Wherever we look we see only the past. Take the sun, eight minutes have elapsed before we receive its light.”
“But you just said that.”
“Ah, it may have been that you had the advantage of hearing it before everybody else, my dear Pedersen. It reached your ears first. The only things we are really capable of experiencing have already happened; ergo we live in the past. One could almost go so far as to say therefore the universe can’t exist in human experience, because everything we see is no longer there. One could go on to ask, that if it can’t exist as human experience, then does it exist at all? Yet we all believe it does. Even though we can only ever experience the past.
“If we look far enough into the heavens, we can almost see the Big Bang with our most powerful telescopes, we can even hear its distant echo all around the universe, but we know the Big Bang no longer exists. The universe we know and experience is just a relentlessly and eternally, expanding accumulation of the past. So how could it be possible to travel into the future, when we don’t even know how to live in the present? Tied to the rules of accepted physics it would seem impossible. If the only thing that can possibly exist is the present, but all our experiences are of the past, which cannot exist by definition, as it has already been and gone.” I would like him to explain that bit again, I got lost somewhere along the line. “And the same goes for the future, for it is not yet here, therefore we are not here, because we are already in the past by the time we know we are, so to speak. Yet countless scientists spend all their time trying to prove they exist and therefore we exist, or somebody does. Meanwhile philosophers challenge the existence of chairs. And if philosophers can’t decide on the existence of a chair, then what am I sitting on?”
“You’re standing up,” I hasten to point out.
“So I must conclude that their hypothesis of the universe as being flat is fatally flawed.” Try as I might, I can’t for the life of me remember anybody saying the universe is flat, save for Herr Brand himself. And somehow the cat’s liver fails to put this concept across in a satisfactory manner till Herr Brand dissects it skilfully atom by atom holding each one up for us to examine.
“If everything we look at in the sky is the product of the relentless creation of time past, and it and the universe grows in direct proportion, then time is all we have,” he said making a show of looking at the immense clock on the wall. “So, as time is growing short,” I thought he’d said exactly the reverse. “To sum up, the universe is only time.
Going by the rules of physics everything from up to the tiniest atom and down to the Sun and beyond must be spherical. It is spherical due to the nature of gravity. Surely the most likely supposition would be that the universe must be spherical as well. And as we look into the greater universe to see the past, to see the future we must look at the tiniest things. For as they try to pull away from the forces that hold them together, the universe expands.” I thought he’d finished. “It is in one gargantuan explosion we are told, all the matter, and all the anti-matter for that matter, in the universe was created in the same moment. Nothing has been added or taken away from that moment on.” I can remember watching something on television about this. And there it is, Herr Brand appears on a large screen suspended above the operating table, I knew I’d seen that face somewhere before.
“Yet everything is trying to get away from everything else at a speed we cannot imagine. And when everything has gotten so far away as to nullify the effects of gravity so that nothing holds it together it will all collapse into nothing again.”
Suddenly, I am lying on the operating table and he is taking me apart piece by piece. “Yet not one scientist can explain gravity. We know it is there, look here.” He drops a bloody bit of me – I am convinced I need to function correctly – to the floor in order to demonstrate gravity. “We know that Isaac Newton didn’t invent it. We also know that we don’t have to be able to understand or be able to imagine gravity in order to experience its effects. Our ability not to imagine something isn’t proof of its non-existence.
“Theologians often propose a parallel argument to make a case for the existence of God.” Herr Brand has got to a long bit of me that seems to take forever to come out. He diversifies: “It all fits together like a jigsaw but I can’t remember which bit goes where. You’ll have to give me a minute or two to figure it all out.”
“I told you to read the instructions first, Herr Brand,” Wenche admonishes holding up a box lid and jabbing her finger at it. “Always read the label. It says so here.”
“It’s too late for that now, he’s losing blood too fast – To continue that line of argument, there has to be a divine power, so to speak, beyond gravity, unless, of course, the force of gravity itself is that divine power – Do you know? I never thought of that before. So God does exist after all.” And I never realised it took so many pork chops to make up a human being. And some of them still neatly in their original wrapping. They must be collector’s items. I must make sure Herr Brand puts them all back. They could be worth something. All stuck together with blood the consistency of treacle. I always wondered how it worked. “The only future that can possibly exist is our ability to imagine it. When a farmer plants seeds he does it in the knowledge there’s a good chance they will grow.” Surely that doesn’t follow the bit about gravity? Or was it gravy? I must’ve missed a bit somewhere. I am too concerned with the number of vital organs Herr Brand is removing from me. “In other words, the farmer has a concept of future. Something no other animal possesses,” Herr Brand continues throwing my pork chops this way and that. “His pork chops don’t fit together properly, there’s your problem – In some ways he is creating the future by deciding to plant his seeds.” His words are coming faster and faster. “He is altering the fundamental randomness of nature by imposing a certain amount of order.” Rat-a-tat-tat, “He is deciding evolution itself to a degree.” Diggle-doggle-do, “The landscape will change because of his actions so therefore he is helping to shape the future.” Dibble-dibble-dibble, “He is creating the future.” Flippity-flapperty, watch my pork chops fly. “This power to alter and create consciously is the most important tool of man, yet he chooses to wield it more as a weapon.” Bam-bam, “But that is the only true concept we can ever have of the future. It gives weight to the theory of chaos, which, as you know, has fallen into disfavour of late.” This flavour ovulates.
“Stop right there, you’re frightening me. It’s too big for my dream, too fast. I feel as though if I stop imagining gravity I’ll fall off whatever I’m on, but I don’t know how to imagine it because nobody can explain what it is. So how am I imagining something when I have no concept of it? See what I mean? What I just said makes no sense whatsoever. You’ve got me going round in circles. I don’t need to know any of these things to know I exist. They’re just words, meaningless words, and you can do anything with words. This is hurting my brain.”
“It’s meant to hurt your brain, you won’t get better unless it hurts.”
“But there wasn’t anything wrong with me until you started messing about with that scalpel.”
“I can’t worry about trivial things like that, I have my work to do.”
“But you’re not a real doctor and you have just performed an illegal operation. If you continue this whole program will be shut down. If this problem continues I will have to consult my dealer.”
I wake with a headache fit to split an atom.
Dr Finkel stared through slatted blinds onto Bygdøy alle below. He had been staring for a full fifteen minutes before I dared venture my theory concerning the origins of the universe. Along with the more serious matter of my accommodation, it’d been playing on my mind since morning.
“Dr Finkel, I have something of profound importance to say,” was as good a start as any. I felt a desperate need to rekindle the interest he’d shown at our earliest sessions.
“No improvement there, then?” he commented, without so much as a backward glance. “Delusions of grandeur is the technical term.” Losing his interest meant losing the room in his comfortable apartment I’d enjoyed while it endured.
“It’s about the entire universe.” My tenure was dependent on it.
“Oh, that important. Godlike delusions of grandeur.”
“It’s been occupying my thoughts all day.”
“Been keeping busy then?” If he was the least bit concerned he was putting up a sterling show of indifference. But I would have him.
“Say the universe was locked in an eternal cycle.”
“The universe was locked in an eternal cycle,” he repeated like a dull schoolboy being kept in after class.
“I don’t mean for you to say it literally,” I told him. “Let me explain. If you think about it long enough, like I’ve done, it makes perfect sense. A cycle of endless repetition, starting with a big bang and ending with a big bang. The same big bang. Only not a big bang that just appears to manifest out of nowhere, but a big bang that is the very result of the prolonged evolution of intelligent life. By intelligent, I mean possessing the ability to think, not, necessarily, the ability to reason.”
“The ability to reason being something you know a lot about,” Dr Finkel remarked. “That’s why you’re here, I suppose.” I ignored him.
“Consider this,” I said, “evolution has already reached the point where mankind has discovered weapons of mass destruction. How many more millenia do you think it might take for intelligent life, somewhere in the universe, to discover the ultimate weapon? Provided, of course, it hasn’t done so already. Imagine, the power to destroy absolutely everything.”
“I don’t know, three?”
“I don’t want an answer.”
“Well, why do you ask?”
“I’m talking about the ability to destroy the entire cosmos. Initiated by a colossal explosion. The trigger to the ultimate chain reaction. Doesn’t that excite you? The Big Bang. There you have it, the end. And the beginning, of course. That’s where my theory about repetition comes in.”
“The beginning of the end, and the end of the beginning. How neat. How droll.” I could tell by Dr Finkel’s tone my stay at his apartment was far from open-ended.
“But that’s how they say it all started. Can’t you see?” I was getting desperate. “They never tell us what happened before. I’m trying to tell you what happened before,” I said, in a final bid to re-ignite him. But life had made him cynical.
“And I’m trying to tell you that I don’t want to know. Besides, who are this they people like you keep going on about?”
“They, them,” He knew who they were all right. “Think of it: The Big Bang. In what we normally associate with an act of destruction, the universe was actually created. That’s how the dreadful cycle that brought us together started. Doesn’t that interest you?” I wanted to pump him up with so much enthusiasm he would invite me to stay in his apartment forever. But he had become the corroded inner tube to the wheel of my eternal cycle.
“You mean, that’s what it was all about? The entire creation of the universe in all its intricacy and wonder solely a gigantic exercise to get you onto my couch?” was his reaction. “Seems unnecessarily complicated with the appointments system I’ve had installed on my computer at great expense.”
“In a way it brought me to your couch, yes. But at the same time, I can’t really accept that it could have been its sole objective.” I shook my head. “Of course, it couldn’t. Well, I don’t think it could. On the other hand, it’s an interesting thought.” Dr Finkel raised the hand of objection.
“Just say what you were going to say,” he said
“Right. It’s quite obvious to me that scientists don’t really have a clue as to what caused The Big Bang, or what causes big bangs. Don’t you think?”
“I’ll take your word for it. Just to save time, if nothing else. Get on with it.”
“Well, like I said, my theory is that they could be the result of an intelligent life form messing about with stuff it shouldn’t.”
“They could be, or they couldn’t. It all depends on how you want to look at it.” I was losing him before I had him.
“But say it was. Say that every few trillion years or so, somewhere in the universe, intelligent beings get to the stage where they have the power destroy everything. And, of course, knowing the nature of intelligent beings, given the choice, they do. My theory goes on to say, from that point, everything is destined to repeat itself eternally in exactly the same way. We’ll always arrive back at the point where I am saying this. In other words, right now.” Dr Finkel turned to look at me with a hint of terror in his eyes. My room might be safe for a couple more weeks.
“That’s awfully depressing,” he said.
“What’s is it so awfully depressing about it?”
“Apart from the fact I find most big ideas depressing, we come back to the notion that the whole thing was just an excuse to get you here onto my couch. It seems to put you rather at the centre of things.”
“I find it comforting.”
“No doubt you do. Having arranged things to see your arrival on earth as the point of all creation, I can well understand you might derive some comfort from the idea.”
Undaunted, I carried on. Thoughts of my room fading were eating away at me.
“You see, it all depends how big you make the cycle. In the natural order of things everything comes round again. If time is endless, then there are endless opportunities for everything to repeat itself. Repetition and déjà vu. In fact, given that time is endless, it would be more unlikely for things not to repeat themselves. Chance coincidence alone would dictate it.” Dr Finkel finally took the bait.
“If we take your vast ego out of the equation, the most awfully depressing thing about it is that it’s probably the most logical thing you’ve ever said. Not that that amounts to more than a sprinkling of logic. Nevertheless, I must admit, it almost sounds feasible.” Hook, line and sinker. Glowing with inner pride I allowed him to go on. My room might not be at stake after all. “Trust a fool like you to come up with it.” Unable afford the luxury of rising to the insult, I ignored it. There was too much to lose. Dr Finkel was up and running. “To think I am destined to be here with you for all eternity, in a manner of speaking, that I will always arrive exactly at this point in time with you telling me this so often it will be as though I am always here. It’s truly awful.”
“This could be a defining moment, I suppose,” I said, my room having drawn back from the brink momentarily. “But, for me, there are so many. Just think, in almost every other theory about the origins of the universe, or the end of the universe, for that matter, the uncomfortable question children always ask is left hanging in the air: What happened before that? We might just as well ask: What happened after that? Children do. It’s all so untidy, as it is. There are no answers that make sense. We are left with this uneasy linear sort of thing, which we can’t help trying to look beyond at either end. Seeing literally nothing, we tie those ends with half-baked scientific theories or fairy stories.”
Dr Finkel walked slowly across the room, wiping his glasses. I took this to be a good sign.
“I think I see what you mean,” he said, pausing in his tracks. My room never seemed safer than at that moment. “If I’ve penetrated the jungle of crossed wires that make up your brain correctly, you’re trying to say something like: as everlasting eternity is impossible for the human mind to comprehend, we superimpose structures that make it seem more comfortable. But in doing so, we reveal the limits of our intellectual abilities to understand the cosmos beyond a certain time span. Hence, some of us invent things like religion to fill the unsettling gaps. It helps us to deal with the distressing possibility, if not downright certainty, that we didn’t exist before we were born, and we won’t exist after we die. In that way our lives mirror that of the universe we inhabit. And through that, whether it be about the universe, or our ultimate deaths, we always come back to virtually the same questions you’ve already posed: what happened before I was born? And, what was there before the universe formed?
“But, of course, when I say we didn’t exist, I can only refer to the consciousness of existence. The bits and pieces that form our physical beings existed, they just weren’t all in the right place and order to create the awareness of individual being. Our inability to understand the temporal nature of life renders us at a loss to comprehend that, in the same way as human life is, the universe was doomed from the moment it came into being.”
“That’s very good,” I enthused. “I hadn’t thought of it like that.” But I had. Nevertheless it wasn’t a time to interrupt him, seeing he had taken up the baton and with such eagerness.
“We would rather make it all up,” he went on, “than attempt to contemplate something so impossibly vast as eternity. In our desperation to seek eternal life we have to have fresh beginnings after each end, like episodes in a long running soap.
“I see your point. For without them we’re left with the huge dilemma of trying to imagine nothing at either end whenever we try to think of The Big Bang, or our own paltry existences. And how can we think of nothing?
“Strangely enough, your theory dispenses with the need for God, gods or any religion. And, to pursue my thoughts on the awareness of existence, we did exist before we became conscious beings, simply in the atomical structures we are composed of. From that it follows the universe could have existed in forms we are yet unable to understand.” I could hardly keep up with him, he was leaping hurdles so fast. “But on the other hand it’s awful to think mankind is condemned to repeat the same mistakes over and over again eternally because we are destined to arrive at the same point in time over and over again.” He began stroking his chin while staring up at the ceiling. “The most terrible thing that occurs to me is, that in the very act of completing the second circle in exactly the same way, we are destined to repeat it again and again forever. It could be some people’s definition of hell. The example that comes immediately to mind is your particular case and my role in it. If there’s no hope of change …”
“Only up to the point where we realise what’s happening,” I interposed. I knew it was starting to depress him, and I wanted to inspire him with hope. I couldn’t afford for him to enter a spiral of depression from which he might never emerge. I had to have somewhere to lay my head till I could sort myself out. “Once we realise it, by definition, we should be empowered to change it.” I let him mull that over a few moments before continuing.
“If you think about it hard enough, after considering other current theories suggesting nothing existed before The Big Bang – whereby, implicitly, the contradictory notion that nothing can exist has to be accepted – my theory is not as far-fetched as some might have it. As for repetition and cycles, we see them all around us. From the tiniest atom to the, to the, to the bicycle, everything is based on cyclical motion. The movements of the planets are circular, or elliptical, to be more precise. Our seasons are cyclical. If you walk round the world in a straight line long enough…”
“You’ll surely drown.”
“If you walk round the world in a straight line long enough, with a plentiful supply of oxygen strapped to your back,” I amended, “you’ll eventually come back to the point of departure. And that’s the basis of my hypothesis.”
“If you talk yourself round in circles long enough you’ll drive yourself insane. And everybody around you. That’s my hypothesis,” Dr Finkel said. I took no notice.
“Or points,” I continued, “because every point is just as important as the one before it, and the one after it. Like dreams, there are no beginnings and no ends, in the way we are taught to understand them.”
Dr Finkel shook his head.
“Why spoil a good hypothesis on the origins of the universe with a piece of pseudo Freudian mumbo-jumbo about dreams. Look here, the way things are going, with a bit of luck, we’ll destroy ourselves and the planet long before we develop the ability to destroy the universe.”
“With a bit of luck? You call destroying the planet a bit of luck?”
“Yes, luck, luck, luck. We’ll all be gone, including you. That’s the luckiest thing about it.”
I had succeeded in making him angry. But at least was enthusiastic about something. Walking round the couch and back to his starting point, he turned towards the window again. Repetition and déjà vu.
“Why do you have to be so contrary all the time?” he asked. “Dreams are dreams, they start when you go to sleep, and they end when you wake up. Why can’t you accept that?” I’d gained some interest. My room in his apartment was back on line.
Copyright © 2013 Bryan Hemming