Discover more from portrait of a body (in pieces)
17. This too will be beaten out of you
June (part two)
This is chapter seventeen. You know what I mean? No? Then here’s chapter one.
Present day. The experience machine is a thought experiment, as proposed by the philosopher Robert Nozick. Nozick thought hedonists, for whom pleasure is the only thing of value, were full of shit. He believed there was more to life than the pursuit of pleasure. So he put it to the test. His thought experiment went like this: Scientists have discovered a way to artificially stimulate pleasurable experiences. By plugging into their experience machine, you will enter a simulation which you cannot distinguish from reality, and where you only experience pleasure. You won’t have had the pleasurable experience, but you’ll believe you did. It will feel real. Will you plug in? Or would you prefer actual experience over an artificial one? It’s an evocative experiment. You’ve seen it play out in dozens of films and books. The PASIV machine in Inception. The Rekal machine from Philip K. Dick’s We Can Remember It For You, Wholesale. Life Extension in Vanilla Sky. The Matrix in The Matrix. In each of these stories, people choose to wake up. They choose reality over the dream. They decide pleasure isn’t all that matters to us. A simulation has edges, limits. But to truly live is to embrace the infinite unknown. In the attic, Dr. Hoffmann is waiting for my answer. I shrug. Being an impatient sort, he takes my arm and holds my wrist at eye level so I’m looking at the Acid Watch. This, he says, is an experience machine.
2005. A house party at uni. You don’t really go out much. At least you haven’t up to this point. You tell yourself you prefer to keep your head down, work, work out. What you actually prefer is to not open yourself up to the crushing inevitability of social rejection. But this is the summer of your final year. You’ve been hiding for the best part of three years and suddenly time is slipping away. So, you’re making an effort to accept the invitations that arrive. A girl from your creative writing class passes you in the hall. She does a double take, says it’s strange to see you out. You talk about writing, about what you’re working on. You compliment something she read recently. She says it didn’t get the same reaction yours did. She says the teacher is in love with you. It’s pathetic, she says. She gushes every time you speak. She’s a little tipsy, and you get the sense she might be flirting with you, right up until she says: It’s strange that you were invited, though. When it becomes clear that you’re not following, She adds: You know, because everyone thinks you’re a joke. She probably woke up the next morning with no idea what she said, but her words haunt you for the next twenty years.
1994. You said the first time you smoked you were thirty-seven. That’s not strictly true. Like most children of the 80s and 90s you spent a lot of time without adult supervision. You and your brother and an interchangeable cast of friends from the local village that your dad (sitcom) referred to with condescension as your little pals. On this day, for whatever reason – boredom, anarchy, adolescence – you’re trying to make cigarettes. In lieu of tobacco, you’re using dried grass. Someone goes to the house and grabs a few sheets of printer paper. You tear it into strips, add some grass, and fashion a rudimentary rollie. Your brother begs you not to light it, and because he said not to, you do, inhaling the thick grey smoke, coughing and wincing at the taste. If that’s smoking, then it’s not clear why anyone would ever want to do it. You offer it around, but no-one takes you up on it. Near tears, your brother marches off to tell on you. By thirteen he’ll be smoking a pack of cigarettes a week and by fifteen smoking weed rolled with tobacco. But at ten-years-old, both of you fighting your way through the various trials of boyhood, you’ve made him cry in front of his friends and he’s pulled the mum card. On balance, this round goes to him.
1989. There’s a game you and your brother invent. It involves pissing into the toilet bowl at the same time, trying to get the streams of pee to touch in mid-air. It’s hilarious in the way that bodily functions are when you’re five. Also it saves time. You giggle like idiots and get pee everywhere and howl in delight when the streams cross.
1995. When you take up a hobby you have to have all the right things. You like to have the right shirt, the right shorts, the right shoes. The right basketball – the one with the gold lettering, not silver – made by Spalding. The one they use in the NBA. You need your sweatbands, your Air Jordans. You need the Roces rollerblades. You need them in white. You use your birthday money, your Christmas money, your pocket money. You save up to get the right ones. And they have to be right. It won’t feel good without them. Your parents find this amusing. They call them your suits, a different one for every hobby. Your thinking goes that if you have all the right gear, it’s one less thing you can be tormented for. It’s a way to control the narrative. You are eleven-years-old. You love to try things. To take part. To play, to practise, to compete. Like enthusiasm and joy and self-esteem, this too will be beaten out of you.
2000. You are sent home from school with a headache. It’s the third time this week and its only Wednesday. No-one can figure out why. Your workload is manageable. You’re sleeping fine. The school nurse, your teachers, your parents, they’re all stumped. You are sixteen. The headaches have been happening for years now. It’ll be years more before you understand that they were the result of tension, a product of the way you carried yourself, with your head down and your shoulders hunched.
1999. The final game of the season has seconds on the clock. The school district under-fifteen basketball finals. You’re at the line with three free throws after being fouled on a long-range attempt. Defenders usually leave those. Let them fly. But they fouled you. They had to. Because tonight your game isn’t just textbook. It is exquisite. For forty minutes you have been perfect. As a result, your team is a point up on your rivals. A school from the other side of town full of rich kids. They have a real coach. They all wear new sneakers. Your team doesn’t even have a full bench. But the boys who showed up have played well. And they had you. The referee hands you the ball. Your first free throw breaks the silence, dropping straight through the net with a swish1. Their captain shakes his head, wipes sweat from his brow. The second. Swish. You turn to look at their bench and see the light drop from their eyes. They are willing you to fail, but they just stopped believing you will. Your Geography teacher pumps his fist, claps his hands. Come on. The referee gives you the ball. Third shot. You raise your hand and release the ball. It rolls through the air in a perfect arc. Swish. Game over. The referee blows his whistle. The small crowd erupts. You sprint to grab your teammates. Then, with emotion to burn, fall to your knees and kiss the court. You are named MVP. You get a trophy for that, and another that says U15 school district champions. Someone takes your picture for the local paper. Your dad is there. Sitcom dad. He arrived to see the last few plays. He puts his arm around you, tells you how well you played. They weren’t a bad team, he says. But you were better. The next morning your coach tells you he’s got you an England trial. You are fifteen years old.
2013. The ceremony is at a vineyard outside Sydney. It’s a small gathering, mostly family on your side. You look your fiancée in the eyes and make promises you can’t keep to vows you don’t understand. You aren’t lying; you mean every word. At twenty-eight, you think you’re ready for this. But before the year is out, you’ll break every vow.
2001. The summer you first get your heart broken is the summer you stop drinking. You need something to control. You need something to quit. It’s a straightforward trade, joy for pain and pain for control. It works for a while. You fill the void with other things. Like books. The summer you stop drinking is the summer you read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. You saw the cover in the bookstore on your way to work and had to have it. You’re working in a kitchen washing pots, reading chapters on your breaks. The chef plays Meat Loaf while he reheats loaded potato skins in the microwave. When you’re done with Hunter S. you read Slaughterhouse-Five. Vonnegut is the smartest and funniest and saddest person you’ve ever spent time with. After that you read Kerouac and Camus and Salinger and fall madly in love with language. For the way it sounds in your head. For how words can be arranged. For how they can smack you square in the jaw and then soften the blow. For the way they sing. You’ve been writing for years in English class. Tinkering with story. But reading what Salinger does with voice just about kills you. You had no idea you were even allowed do that. That words could do that. These men – sad, lonely, mostly dead – are the first men to truly speak to you about feelings, about ideas, about class, about love and pain and loss. The summer you first got your heart broken is the summer you start writing. Really writing. Heartbreak changed your summer plans. Books changed your life.
Present day. Okay, Hoffmann says. Here’s a thought experiment for you. What if I told you none of this exists? This is just a computer running a simulation. Data on a disk. Your memories and thoughts, your entire consciousness uploaded, organised, turned into zeros and ones, transferred from your brain at some future time. And somehow, in all that data, itself corrupted along the way and incomplete, this is the time you chose to repeat. Let’s say for the purpose of the experiment your physical body is dead. The data you could store totalled one year of your life. And you chose to keep the year you turned thirty-nine. You chose to do it all over. Think about it. Think about what you’ve seen. Does any of it make sense? Body parts you can slot in and out at will. Your obsession with Vanilla Sky. The tourist on the streets of Amsterdam screaming to be woken up. The apparition visible in your brother’s house. This attic, a place you described as a waiting room between realities. The fact that Seagate is the name of a company that makes hard drives. A coincidence? V is a lingerie model you followed on Instagram. You never met her. Brandon hosted your favourite podcast. Saffron once asked you for a light outside a train station. Fern was your therapist after your divorce. Your brother isn’t married. Your niece, Lily, was a fiction you invented in place of your own missing inner child. If I told you all that, would you believe me? And if it were true, would it matter? Hoffmann is smiling and before you can process any of this, the numbers on the Acid Watch flip over and reality clicks and shifts like a slide on a Kodak Carousel.
Chapter 18 arrives June 21. If you read this far, hit like so I know. And maybe share with a friend. It all helps. Thank you.
Few sounds produce evidence for the existence of the sublime. The swish is one.