Chapter 3: Seeing the Back of Back-lit Objects
When the doctors scanned him at the hospital they peered at the resulting picture not knowing where to begin.
The picture was way, way off the mark, and struck them all, immediately, as being fantastical and wild, an image which carried with it an aura that disgraced them, so it seemed, as if they were stillborn and somehow rightly ashamed of both it and themselves, like their attempts to be born from an idea had failed, as any generalised person would inevitably fail in such circumstances.
All they could see there was a sense of responsibility, and a sincerity that verged on furious discontent, on loathing for what they all were or had become. It suggested nothing like a checklist of criteria, which is what they had wanted, and had little to do with amassing knowledge. Immediately they realized what had happened. It was the wrong type of picture, one undoubtedly outside of any medical remit, one closer to being the equivalent of an x-rayed despair, without proportion, hideous and to their minds forbidden, as if coming from a deeper edge of life, burning and forever changing, dissolving distinctions and making everything they knew stranger and like a castaway.
The doctors seemed to sag and diminish as doubts and uncertainties composed themselves inside , and their eyes moved from side to side and their mouths became dry with fearfulness that they didn't have the courage to speak about, not even in the moment.
‘This isn’t the right picture,’ whispered one , and the others readily agreed, nodding vigorously and scribbling manically onto their pads, glad to be able to avoid looking into anyone else’s eyes. They all knew, had known from the very start, that this was a picture that saw the man as a mystery. It would need to be unravelled but to do so would take up a whole life unravelling. And yet to them all to do that would be a wasted time because, after all, they weren't there, not one of them, to be human.
‘What are you saying?’ asked their leader, with a voice partly at odds with any notion of instilling or settling anything, which previous to this might have seemed impossible and outrageous, but was now definitely on the cards .
Her impressive head held steady and her eyes bore down and into the others, who in comparison seemed to cringe and subtract themselves from their surroundings.
‘It’s as if the picture refuses indifference,’ mumbled one of these cringers and they again all nodded in unison.
‘The picture makes it clear that here there can be no pure acquaintance with things,’ he added plaintively.
It’s this kind of insight that gives the NHS its edge. The epistemology required for accurate medical diagnosis could not, must not and should not be contaminated by any affective responses appropriate to the object of attention. That was the lesson the leader was drawing. Her denial of poiesis was impressive: the last thing needed in such situations was the experience of new things in the world.
All she said was:
'I swear to you gentlemen, that to be overly conscious is a sickness, a real, thorough sickness,' which is something she had read somewhere and it had struck a chord.
Given that the strong affective phenomenology of the image hid everything they might have found useful they injected purple dye into his veins so they could see things differently. And this worked.
At first they called on others to come and have a look at the picture on the screen which now they could see without the kinship bonds seen in the previous picture obstructing their professional needs.
And it wasn’t gall stones.
The thing they were now seeing was so vast that at first they thought there was nothing there at all – not just no gall stones, but nothing else either. But then it had slowly dawned on them with a growing sense of awe combined with anxiety and excitement that whatever it was was of such dimensions that it was filling the whole screen.
So now with the help of the purple dye everything became clear and pronounced, like a nervous calligraphy of colour and organic shape and form, things we really don’t think about much anymore like we did, apparently, back in the fifties.
They had felt a little swoony when they saw how big and impressive the problem was. Naturally they had to tell our man the news. One of them took him into an empty section of an adjoining ward and pulled the curtain round the bed where he sat to tell him that it wasn’t gall stones after all.
Then there was the inevitable pause to let this news sink in. Obviously, if it wasn’t gall stones then it was something else. Perhaps the doctor wanted his patient to fill in the gap between ‘no gall stones’ and whatever else was now possible. And maybe he wondered whether anyone could do that with just guesswork, concluding that it was, on balance, unlikely.
The doctor hated having to give bad news and so there fell an awkward silence between them. Our man wanted to say something and not feel objectionably subjugated by the standing doctor, the curtains or the fact that he was sitting on a bed but he felt that the pressure was somehow the wrong kind of pressure because, after all, he was wondering why this awkwardness was turning out to be his problem. So he smiled and said something feeble and trite and then decided to stay quiet and wait and see what the doctor was going to tell him.
Perhaps the doctor would see how strange and strained he was finding the situation and try and put him out of his misery but it seemed unlikely. The doc seemed a sporty type, youthful and big limbed, the sort to climb walls and pulse against backgrounds and not the sort to put on a show of raw feelings, nor respond to anyone with either empathy or sympathy.
He imagined this doctor driving a fast Porsche and working with a prohibition against multiplying feeling beyond necessity, like he was applying Occam's Razor towards everything emotional and alive in him, putting a time limit on being a receptacle for any sort of understanding which lasted how long? Ok, well, maybe not a day. Maybe an hour tops. Often a lot lot less, like four minutes sometimes or twenty seconds. This was what he was, our man judged, a man parsimonious with the time he gave to mysteries of life, death, beauty, nobility and so on, and someone who no doubt frankly despised those who helped themselves to as much feeling as they wished, staggering common sense, as he saw it, with the vastness of their emotional commitments.
Our man continued:
‘But he has a way of being effortless, oddly matched and a variation, all done in a light way so that just a little bit of discordance was enough to maintain a sort of authority. Because everyone knows that there has to be a little bit wrong, even in a soft way, and the best way to look and accept beauty is in people not things, because we know where we are in a way with that, and also that a laugh, after all, tells you more about the soul than any silence, talk, weeping or howls to the moon.’
He felt muddled and incapable of holding a line of thought so everything was coming out jumbled up. But In this way he filled up the silence. He kept his thoughts turning over, whilst all the time the pain with its mounting assaults kept his face covered in a sheen of disfiguring sweat.
‘ Although of course you have to be on guard and make sure authority’s not coming too easily just because,’ he continued, nodding to himself.
‘In such cases you’re probably violating somebody's identity and that's always bad. Which is why dialing down from beauty to prettiness or further to just fashion is good sometimes because it doesn’t need to be brainy or ironic but can just stay lightweight and straightforward with just a little of the right kind of self-surveillance going into it at a level that doesn’t obtrude. Because to obtrude is beyond the pale.’
He felt exhausted by the effort, and felt each idea petering out before they had a chance. It was often the way.
He glanced up at the doctor and wondered if he was ever going to say anything. If the doctor wasn’t extravagant in his feelings he remained a little saucy and also cool nevertheless, like a vacuum in physics where maybe something was happening but equally maybe there was nothing happening at all.
‘You are Henry M?’ The doctor suddenly asked pointlessly, attending to a pink form he held in a puce file.
Our man, nodded.
‘What he seems to be doing is weighing up the utility of voids, blanks, absences and just the whole stream of nothingness…’ Henry M thought, and it was a reckless, almost savage thought, as if he was wanting revenge.
‘Of course, of course...' he almost chuckled inwardly, and continued silently.
' It can hardly be denied that this is very much the po-mo way, a way you ignored at your peril and one we can all relate to when we meet it because it expresses the ruefulness of our lives which we think might be a bit empty, yes, which is also a fear and something that strikes us as what we should guard against. Or else make it feel ok, like, what’s wrong with us being empty now? That might be the question we’re all asking when feeling the pressure and looking at what we’re doing and thinking. Maybe we should be doing something better, a bit less vacuous maybe. Maybe. Maybe yes. So when we get an excuse to stop being serious then why not? Why not? We might be able to think empty is good and not a problem after all, which might calm us down,’ he thought excitedly but without betraying any thought or emotion at all, except maybe indifference to his surroundings and the whole awkward situation.
‘And doesn’t everyone think we need to be calm somehow because it’s all very stressful?' he continued.
' Life. That’s the prevailing thought a lot of us have all the time isn’t it? It's life. Life's very stressful,’ he concluded as he sat on the bed hardly daring to breath he was so tense.
‘Oh to be bland and have permission,’ he added with a kind of dreamy emotion attached.
But he’d noticed how even emptiness was now, in this dismal room, a serious thing, as if we had to be empty and admit the emptiness of everything if, miraculously, we were to ever feel ok again.
But this seemed to just fill up the very idea of being empty. And made it heavy and complicated.
'Empty as complicated' became his new thing. Or so it seemed at that moment.
Shadows flickered around the walls. Shadows, he recalled, disobey the laws governing material things, are confined to sight and yet are independent of anyone perceiving them. There’s a strange emptiness about them too. They seem too full to be really empty, and yet some days he couldn’t help feeling that they were a perfect picture of his own kind of emptiness.
He felt a wave of depression suddenly sweep over him, and then the fraught snag of his indelible pain. He had all this coming through as he sat watching the doctor who was not saying anything but wore a look on his face that was a glaring indifference of outrageous nothing.
Henry M pondered this.
‘What was he doing?’ he asked himself.
‘Perhaps he assumes this is the best way of delivering the gaudy news.’
Finally the doctor gave him the lowdown.
Which was that there was something that they’d need to operate on immediately. And by that he meant days. Which was a giddy thought when he let it sink in.
Because there was really no other way to take this urgency but to see that something was seriously wrong.
'I'd have prefered gall stones,' Henry M laughed, breaking his own dumbfoundedness.
But the doctor looked at him with a shockingly quick sudden glance that held, for a brief moment, something like an absence of absence which Henry M took to mean he'd got the doctor all wrong after all and just confirmed how hopeless everything now seemed.
If you like this you might try these other 3:16 novels: