Monday, February 06, 2006

no manual

Last night, on Chicago's WGN news, there was an item about three murders in a car shootout. They showed a car off in a strip of waste by an empty lot in a nighttime city-highway no-man's-land, with the windshield shot through. The car & the scene, and the bright camera lights, reminded me of the way New York felt to me in my childhood in the mid/late 70s, how dangerous and askew things felt as we drove through neighborhoods to my grandparents' houses.

It occurred to me that those New York streets may not have been as dangerous as I remember. Every so often we're treated to studies of crime, accident, disease, and malaise that say no, things were not that bad; or, they were bad, but not in the way that we recall. The studies often sound reasonable; are they right? Me, I end up feeling amnesiac. How can I remember exactly what I saw and felt and why? How do I know the meaning of what I saw? What was my past, besides eating and laundry?


Imagine you're that sagging old maid with a tumor in the imaginary William Gass story from a few posts ago. And assume that you view yourself as a biological machine; you believe there's some physical reason why you have this tumor. You don't believe it's because you threw a can at a cat or wished your sister was ugly; you just have it, and you just can't afford to get it taken care of. When it comes down to it, nobody can explain how you got this tumor, or what you can do to keep from getting another one.

Now say your sister comes to visit with her beau, a pharmacist who studied biochemistry in college long ago. As she keeps telling you. Over a dinner of salads and jello he tells you that you likely got the tumor because you had a variety of mineral deficiencies, and that if you don't start taking megadoses you're going to sprout tumors like a lawn sprouts mushrooms. All over, and inside, too. In fact he wouldn't be surprised if you had some pretty good internal ones going right now. That's not what the man in Rockford told you two years ago; he said your tumor was likely caused by a freak mutation and would be an inconvenience, mostly. Your sister volunteers that your Aunt May had had a great big tumor right on her neck, and that it came from the polluted well she had; her beau tells her she's wrong, and that Aunt May had a simple goiter. Now you try to picture Aunt May and can't remember whether it was a goiter or not, but instead of feeling your own neck you hold your hands in your lap and pointedly do not offer your sister more jello.

That night, when you go to bed, what do you do? Do you put the whole thing heavily out of your mind? Do you fret about what you are and will be? Make up some loony synthesis of all the tumor explanations and decide what you'll do next? Resign yourself to a moment-by-moment existence and self-definition, and profound uncertainty about who you were and will be? This isn't simple hypochondria on your part; you believe your mind and self are emergent properties of your physical body. A radically changed body, a brain tumor, a paralysis, any of these things might change who you are, or the background sense of self that Antonio Damasio describes.

If you have a car, and something alarming goes wrong with it a few times -- say it stalls unpredictably -- you try to get rid of it and find a more reliable car. Problem solved. But you're stuck with your body. What does an ordinary fictional character do, then, when she doesn't care for supernatural explanations of life, but faces perennial uncertainty and revisionism about what and who she is, why she senses reality the way she does?

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