Chapter 17: Like When Pushkin Changed Russia
‘I’ll tell you what floated up from the sea that evening. I'll point out the abomination that scared him to death.’
In the landscape of hopeless snow he felt this, that he was a kind of changeling cosmonaut.
'It seems a strange fate to be left to die here in the frozen hemisphere , among ferocious proprieties and discriminations.'
He looked as if seeing things in two languages, as like famously the Abyssinian did when learning to be both French and Russian in an African way.
He felt the precocious burden of sufferer, outlaw and solitary as his feet slithered across the humiliations of the frozen ground.
'Who would I have prefered to be?' he asked no one in particular. He scratched and scratched.
'Voltaire. From history, him,' he resolved.
'Yes, Voltaire, as someone best able to deal with this up-to-date nightmare. At the very worst, he had only himself to blame,' he summarised, as if casting the deciding vote against himself and his current predicament.
His eyes flashed to the far horozon of the superstitious skyline, shedding its all and outlandishly draped over the horizon as if evaporating the human dimension.
He shook his head and mumbled this even though he was alone.
‘I’ll tell you,' and he returned to his initial theme, the revelation of the culprit.
'It was you,' he hissed, looking straight at the uncanny woman, who now shook, strange and elongated, seemingly floating on her back, face upturned as if a rod of dead oak stump floating in on a tidal force.
'Some deaths are magical, bringing with them mental dismemberments, boilings, burnings and stripping. Claudette's role is to guide the dead to the underworld,' he sighed.
The strange woman now darted like a minnow fish in the shallows, flicking hither and thither with scalding glances.
As his eyes got used to it all this became more visible and queer. He was desperate, and saw her with an intensity barbarised, so it seemed , from a variant of shamanism, say, a stray offspring of lingering Sufism.
'Like a plank of wood, but a long one, a horrible leering evil uncanny deranged figure smiling with a mouth three times too much and everything from the sea and the face and everything you could think of to associate with them stuck on like forlorn puzzles,' he wrote on his knees with his middle finger of his right hand as an aside, rocking now gently back and forth, clutching his knees and forlornness with the other hand, the one not writing.
'What theosophistry,' he mouthed, again to no one else, degenerate and druidical.
In the scene, in a free-flowing nutty murderously horrible way, it was no wonder the man had died of fright and been washed ashore whilst the woman in the café had clung on to her tomatoe cutting routine perhaps as a way of warding off the evil or else as part of some more mysterious collusion no one understood yet.
Claudette had walked across the bay and stared into the emptiness of the emptiness .
Which was a Buddhist way of saying something about the world where everyone was trying to find a way of being better and higher whilst staying the same.
Maybe that’s what had happened to the man when he saw the indecipherable woman floating alive under the sea, like in her darkness a revelation had come to him and taken him away from the present and into the dark of something deliberately lifeless and abstract and infinite.
Like apotheosising the evil of evil, the ecstacy of sinning, of surrendering to whatever was forbidden by stopping the heart.
'What can be forbidden if everything is permitted?' our protagonist asked at the holy fringe and limit, his head and heart screwed by dots, letters, rituals and gestures of a kind of devillishness, so it seemed to him.
And now everything seemed to be seething with the infernal embrace of signifiers which before would have been important and all the rage but now were just another part of the backdrop, done in a subtle way, and transforming like décolletage.
What came next was a surprise, sufficient enough for him to cringe a little and feel cold on his skin.
The snow flurry grew in strength and then for a moment subsided, so that figures apeared through the blizzard's whiteness, figures with airs and instincts intact, so it seemed to him.
He recocognised one of them, wrapped in a familiar long battered coat and chaotic eyes that darted here and there, as if typically afraid and simultaneously expectant.
‘Mother, is that you? How did you get here? I didn’t think you’d be here,’ he uttered words that seemed less.
‘Well you were always sloping off,’ she replied with a kind of stoic resilience in her tone.
‘Are you lost son?’ she asked, peering a little because of her weak eyes and the snow. The light was dim, have no doubt about that.
‘ Speak up,’ he explained.
That was part of the conundrum.
‘Are you even real?’ he added.
‘Are you?’ she replied tartly.
‘But is it you or is it someone else?’ he pressed.
‘Well now,’ she answered and then held her elbow with her hand and pulled a mournful look as if she had caught one of those staggering thoughts that sometimes come.
‘Maybe that’s just part of our futility,’ she went on, another grand intellectual ambition frittering out to sterility and cynicism, he observed.
‘ But I still need to know who you are and what the hell you think you’re doing here,’ he said frantically. Well, that sorted out something of the preplexities of the situation he felt. But he still wondered if she'd understand.She so often misunderstood what he had to say.
‘No need to adopt that sort of attitude,’ she admonished.
So for once she had understood what he was driving at. He felt that this was an advance on what usually happened, almost a precocious one at that.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said.
‘Fine, but you should focus on what’s about to happen. You’re not well. That much is clear,’ she said.
‘ Ignore me if you like,’ he said under his breath, ’but then we’ll just keep walking around in circles.’
‘So resentful, so full of reproach,’ she sighed, half looking over his shoulder and down the corridor.
A stream of terror ran through him as he looked at her eyes and saw they were registering something coming towards them both from that direction.
But he wasn’t going to look and see for himself. He kept his wild eyes on her face, which in the strange green wintry possessed light was a borderline fact of the matter.
‘You’re not the doctor are you?’ he asked.
‘Anesthetist. The doctors come later,’ she replied condescendingly.
She went on talking but he didn’t hear what she was saying. He had been hanging around in the corridor for so long he hadn’t thought for a minute about what others were doing.
‘Are you ill too?’ he pressed.
‘I’m fine. I'm fine. You’re the one who's sick but we need to get you well again.’
He didn’t reply. If he had known about this at the beginning, and in what capacity she served on the staff, he reflected, it might have turned out easier for him. She seemed so clean and well scrubbed. Not as old as he remembered her to have looked the last time. Her hair was well groomed and her eyes were clear and alert to everything, as if somewhere there lurked an inevitable penalty.
He pretended to drift off a little.
‘It’s been a long morning. No breakfast. Actually, I never have more than a coffee, but still, I miss my coffee,’ he smiled weakly.
‘It’s going to be a nice day after all,’ smiled his mother with satisfaction.
‘When you’re really pressed for time there’s an art in making every second count,’ he appeared to be saying, but he felt a bit muddled and didn’t know why he was talking like that.
‘Terribly funny,’ she said, more to someone else than him, maybe someone who had been with her years ago.
‘I feel like I forgot my letter of credit,’ he mumbled.
‘You shouldn’t lend money,’ she declared forcibly, scandalized, and then, as if hearing her voice, she tried a different tone, so what she said next had a detectable false gentleness to it.
‘They never give it back dear,’ was what she was saying and he couldn’t be bothered to say that that wasn’t the point.
‘So how long now?’ he tried to sound nonchalant.
‘How are you weathering up?’ she asked.
‘What?’ he squinted at her.
He was mystified.
‘Do you remember the time your father dug into a wasp nest?’
‘Do I?’ He paused.
‘ I don’t know,’ he said, smiling vaguely.
‘Oh yes. The wasps were in his hair and trapped there. Hundreds of tiny poisonous stingers into his scalp. Like murderous needles. They just wouldn’t stop because they couldn’t escape you see. Hundreds of them. I poured bottles of milk over his head to try and remove them. I screamed and screamed and we were both drenched to the bone. Sometimes what you think will work never does. His head swelled up. He never recovered. ’
Her voice died as she recalled the details as if bricked up and ascetic.
Who was this?
He turned around to look down the corridor but there was noone else there. When he turned back he couldn’t remember what they’d been talking about. In fact, as he peered at the woman he could see clearly that this wasn’t his mother at all.
‘Did we meet before?’ he asked.
‘Maybe underwater,’ she grinned airily.
‘What do you mean?’ he enquired.
They began to walk again, finally, and took a stairway up to another floor. He was aware of a whole series of tiny agitated movements being gone through by the woman in her attempt to catch his eye but he wouldn’t look her way.
He was silent a while while he thought maybe a thought too far. Maybe he thought he was making too much of everything.
The hospital spaces were shimmering expanses of moonlit snow.
‘Is there anything more physically depressing than large gatherings of people in a single space?’ he asked out of the blue.
‘Thank God you’re leaving the ark,’ responded the woman and she was smiling sardonically.
‘It’s just a matter of fact,’ he replied.
At a window rain was now streaking its grey surface. He watched the rain fall. She stood apart from him.
‘You fall in and see what happens,’ she said, and it was strange and struck him as being a little mean.
He didn’t like how slim she was, and how tall, and how her fingers clicked. He wouldn’t like to meet her outside. He wouldn’t like to have to speak with her again. She was frightening him, he thought to himself. He felt relieved that he had come to this conclusion. But it left him unsettled and morbid.
'There are paths across the field and snow burrows and traps. We find we prefer the singing cages, the raspy, dry grassy parts of bodies, amorous or belly-full, but each with baits and throbbing, engineered and beautiful, elsuive and ecstatic, a violinist or choir, some music that we have as our pelts covering up cravings. Music cries out in us. That's all,' he suddenly emitted, like a howl, as if really the wound was now the very thing, a votive as cosmic and ashen as this hallway of snow, this shelter of consolations.
He let the whole thing fall away.
He remained there on his own in the corridor and began to wonder where the anesthetist was.
'Surely it's been long enough.'
Now at last, it seemed like he’d been waiting enough time. Surely it was time for the whole process to push on.
'I'm here for the operation. Everything has been settled. I need to be prepared. I believe there are the necessary requirements and procedures,' he exclaimed.
'I might as well have a bloody spear through my side,' he noted.
"If you want to understand me these days,' and his head half turned like so, as if he sought to see something over his shoulder, maybe some toppled conflagration or other, '... then maybe let's think in terms of such practicalities, which are now pressing down on me ever more urgently. I can think of little else but what needs to be done. There are times when it's ok to make a mountain out of a pea but this isn't one of them I think.'
He nodded as if this now struck him as undoubtedly true and worth saying.
'I've lied to myself. Often. And been the first to take offense. Often. Sometimes I think I'm enjoying taking offense at myself. There's a little perversity in all of us I guess. Still, I have been known to take this to an extreme, so what I have is real hostility buried into the pleasure. But then, I have often rebelled against this and that, but really, never rebelled against the world as such. True, I might spit in faces, may have bitten once or twice, but none of that is more than a thorough and long-lasting illness. My mind is undoubtedly not well, and I think the more I listen I'm not alone. But then, bees don't know the secrets of their dances, nor ants their abhorance of the void. So why should we be expecting more, as if we have some divine or human-given right to know our own formulas? We live with interminal misgivings - why can't that be enough?'
He recalled that the receptionist had told him with a sense of flat meaning that it was going to be important that he talked with the anesthetist before the operation.
'Why was she hounding me with that?' he wondered, feeling both agitated and irritated.
The dense aloneness of the corridor made him studious in a way that’s neither deep nor shallow but normal and as sublime as only damage can make things be.
'This is the rememdy for a broken life but not a broken heart,' he complained rather defensively, maybe trying to interrupt the scream.
Yet in the same breath he noted that far from being a scream, there was not yet even a sigh.
'Who was it that said murderers and rapists are bad stylists? This is something I must check on afterwards. I also have a feeling that happy endings are lousy things. I wonder if that alone is enough to rescue their poor prose style after all?'
The puzzle was just something that walked out of sight at first chance, and left him dolorous and feeling the opposite of Byron.
But why did he need to listen to the anesthetist is what he was beginning to ponder because in a way the anesthetist would be only talking about projecting into the future, or about the technicalities of whatever was going to happen, and did he really need to know that stuff really?
'What else but shadows of my reality could the anesthetist offer me?' he asked.
'Not character, not life, not generalisation. Now we are stumped,' so he pulled a face.
'Measure the life when it still breathes. Afterwards, well, there is no afterwards for that,' he wondered.
'It was strange to see that,' he broke in on himself, ' a bumblebee bumping against the ceiling and so much snow.
'This is the warm corruption of cold solitude,' he added.
Because what kind of thoughts could he possibly have about any of those waiting mysteries, of stuff that he didn’t have the requisite knowledge to judge, neither one way nor the other, like whether an anesthetist was up to it?
He peered into the snow storm. His eyes were hardly able to see more than a terrible drowsiness.
'Mother, are you still here?' he called out, but his voice was hardly a decree, more twice lost in an indefinite forced momentum that rebounded more than flailed out. Nothing came back.
The sleeper and the dreamer both make deflagration their proof.
Both make plagiarism monotonous and self absorbed, being of yourself only, and inattentive to the mysterious. In a dream the sense of the absurd disapears and they become useless and unsalvageable. The space of mental alienation , if anywhere, it is there in those infernally dull dreams.
'I am obliged to stoop around in this,' he finally remarked.
'The ability to be inexpressive is a perverse way of expanding, and yet it undoubtedly is so. Ingloriously. Ever seen the mazy walk of a drunk losing momentum on their stagger home? There, there, the measureless mankind.'
He fixed himself on the need to prepare for the next phase. The planning requires a clear temporal limit, the operator must combine, in a casual manner, the metric of the clock with definite durations of actions, estimate the possible adjustments between times, minimising risks, accounting for causal constraints, never hesitating, adopting oportunistic strategies if need be where and when it seems the mental workload asks for such measures, making the sequential links clear to herself, fixing, overall, the dynamics of the situation, , checking cues, pinpointing critical phases as the system evolves, relocating traditional areas and actions, looking to the non-visible and the complex, making choices , staying cautious when assessing , firstly, the critical parameters from a functionalist point of view, then the unreliable parameters themselves and finally the parameters giving the state of the system's elements they don't understand very well.
There is no mathematical model available.
Temporal errors exist.
Estimates can make redundancies of certain mechanisms. Sometimes these are just mistaken.
'None of this is easy to contemplate, less to compute,' he thought.
All this, because of what the receptionist had made a point of saying. All this because it dragged him towards something that frankly he couldn't manage, as if trying to inhabit an absence.
In all this he felt himself wanting something like a desperate effort to bring the whole episode to a close in what would make sense of a positive, talismanic, floating image, something above his head and all the others too.
He needed to be defensive and clip the image down to size, or else get to be more withdrawn for self-preservation.
The snow is a mysterious barrier if you think about it.
What happens if you don't?
If you must think like that, and your mind roams and goes elsewhere, to where you might be going, then it's as like a spell in its slight alteration, of language, cadence, mixing up the thought with the heart, as if intimating at a decision being made, and a final ending happening, or coming, without asking for anything in return.
Everything matches the sense of the stormy weather, snow, hurricane, the whiteness piled up inside - inside the corridor, inside the heart, inside the head, inside the time with what looks like a pretty ambiguous psychic space in him, edged towards spooky and desperate but also threatening to burst out into a huge exploded laugh, as if somewhere down the line he detected an elaborate joke that was actually an elaborate jolt.
Was saying any of this outloud funny, or was it even funnier not to?
Was his next thought.
'Everything seemed to mean something and gets personal when you want it again tomorrow.'
Both egotistical and mournful that, he then admitted, although there was no one around anymore.
He had woken that morning with the awareness of this being possibly the last for him, which although melodramatic was also a stern contrast to the repetitiveness of the daily grind.
'No more again' is sorrowful in all the capacities of anyone to be sorrowful.
'Some sourness always follows the honeymoon period,' he thought, but now he couldn't remember why he'd thought this, nor whether it was actually the case or not, nor whether it was of any importance after all.
When things follow, or things end, or things turn out differently, well, all in all, he'd settle for any of them so long as he had another morning.
The morn I wanted today I want again tomorrow and that'll be true every day.
He couldn't quite grasp what any of this was about. Today is one of those days which you leave in little pieces and try and pick up later, try and fill in the gaps and puzzles, and it's a struggle for sure. Inspiration's one of those words that gets thrown around but if it's gone and you can't remember why you started like you did, then there's going to be frustration setting in. Count on it. I think there are four different ways the day may be going and maybe what happens will be right , but then again, it's best to just to drop that kind of thought. Some days are best just dropped.
It's more than turning your back on a room though.
He had another thought about how popular people are mysterious because no one knows what they mean, which is why we're drawn in and hang onto everything they do.
Is this the first meaning of the Selfy, but not its final meaning?
The Selfy. There’s more going on. They don't stop. They no longer connect with the 15 minute rule of the Warhol day and are stranger, darker and more mystical , always on time, won't hold back, disconnected from speechification and specification both, as eternal as foolish, as up as down,as oo as ah, impervious to the human propensity to lapse, settling for the diluted and the polluted in even measure, deftly and unobtrusively adverbial.
Additionally, he noted, their mindless beauty and theatricalised gesture and colour fields and hip formalism and framed raw life fried into something that gets to a terrifying bottom line which lurks somewhere below the surface or rather at the end of the surface , warning us not to get there, better to never reach the finishing end of this constant line of interjections.
Thankfully, he supposed, we never have.
But what happens if we get to the final Selfy? Maybe something will be revealed then, like, the ultimate meaning of all the meaninglessness, and we’ll finally have the word and know the answer.
That’s why he before had watched the endless parade of people with their mobiles snapping themselves as simulacrums of whatever the meaning was, the one not yet revealed, watched with fascination and also a sense of deepening dismay and horror because each one took them closer to the end.
But then it was also possible that the meaning had been buried in the past somewhere, like so many others, and actually lay in the very first one, which had been lost or forgotten or ignored and couldn’t be retrieved.
And if this was true then there was no meaning in any last one, and each new picture was just another step away from the solution.
There are no meanings.
He thought about the x-rays that had shown the shape of his disease .
It was a different meaning that pictures could have, different to the meaning of a selfie, and in a way they summarized his current plight.
When he talked about 'meaning' he wasn't talking about Quine. He wasn't talking about that at all, but rather, this.
As in, 'this' was looming and dark but neither obscure nor difficult to fathom, because the meaning was what was obviously happening right now, in front of him, in this hospital with the imminent operation and the coming of the anesthetist and included thoughts as to whether he’d survive it or not.
It was neither visual nor conceptual nor architectural nor meteorological - and he scanned the corridor where now the snow had settled, a black-hearse crow cawed and ptarmigan huddled under what looked like the crooked elbow of a thin bush , but there was something else too, a surprisingly mellow floating beauty attached because the pink light was clearer for the passions to be engaged but not so much that you had to be a romantic to appreciate it.
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