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Experimenting into life

The Tantalus Letters: Part II, Chapter 5

Laura Otis 18 February 2007

www.lablit.com/article/216

I’ve never questioned whether neurobiology is worth doing. It’s a kind of arrogance, maybe – I just think it’s our brain, and we have a right to know how it works

Editor's note: We are pleased to continue the weekly serialization of an original novel by Laura Otis. Set in the mid-1990s when e-mail was just becoming mainstream, The Tantalus Letters is an epistolary tale of four academics – two scientists and two English professors – caught in a virtual net of love, lust, science and literature.

Chapter 5

18:14 - 1 May 1997
From: Owen Bauer
To: Rebecca Fass

I couldn’t write anything today. I was thinking too much. It seems like it shouldn’t be true, that thinking and writing are mutually exclusive, but they are. Our writing is all formulas, which you string together according to what particle you’re looking for and who you’re competing against. Today the formulas just seemed so inadequate, like me, just there, not really good for anything.

We spend our lives here trying to show that these particles that exist in theory really exist in fact, and the government gives us huge amounts of money to create elaborate set-ups through which tiny deviations in the tiniest fraction of a second provide evidence that these particles actually did exist, in a flicker. What does it mean to exist? I can’t escape the thought that our “proof” of this top quark’s existence is something we generate ourselves: we create the existence as an idea, and then, with millions of dollars, thousands of people’s lives, and overgrown equipment, we make the existence happen. My equipment isn’t for listening, like yours, to something that’s already going on. My equipment creates and destroys, smashing things into each other.

Becky. If only I could touch you. Would my quark exist at all if Wendell hadn’t theorized that it had to and I hadn’t been down here in the dark for three years trying to shoot particles into each other? But this isn’t the worst. Even if it really does exist, even if we’ve visualized something that actually exists rather than fabricated proof of our fantasies, what does it matter? When the sun goes out and we’re all dead, if we don’t destroy ourselves first with all the knowledge about particles we’ve gained so far, what difference will it make whether we knew about everything that existed or not? To exist – supposedly science uncovers, little by little, what already exists, yet the temptation is so strong to say that what exists is what is known. I made a quark exist, and now I get to write about it, my top quark (although as far as Rhonda is concerned, it’s already ‘our’ top quark). Who cares? Why is this news? What has changed? I feel as if the universe is laughing at me.

And me – do I exist? My parents made me exist, but they’re gone now. As I lay in the dark, alone in our apartment last night, I was asking myself what I was, and whether I was. No one would ever invest the energy or time to visualize me. In my business to exist is to leave traces: bubbles, debris, to crash into something and send it off course. What traces have I left, am I leaving? I made a child, a beautiful child, and her mother has taken her away. In ten years, what will she think of me? Memories are traces, but it won’t take long before we’re all forgotten. The biological traces, those seem to be the strongest ones, passing on your DNA, but that was never why I loved Jeannie. She always looked much more like Trish than like me. I loved her just because she was there. I think that may be what existence is: being loved just because you’re there. I love my quark because it’s there. I wish the same were true for me.

Because of my actions, there’s no longer anyone who feels that way about me, and I am fully responsible: I undermined my existence myself. When I’m not in the lab and I work at home or take Metra into the city, I go through whole days without talking to anyone. You’re my last link, though I’ve been avoiding saying this because I’ve felt it would put unfair pressure on you. I walk down the streets, and no one sees me; I eat, and I wonder why I’m worthy of being fed. All of us, all human beings – are we really so wonderful that our existence should continue? Just think of all we’ve destroyed. I go on because the will to live is independent of any rational analysis.

What should I do? I’m going to be kicked out of here sooner rather than later, I can tell. Suddenly, without a wife or child, I realize that I could go anywhere, do anything – write software, teach 14-year-olds, serve soup, write poetry. What does it matter? In twenty or thirty years, when my heart gives out (nobody in my family has made it past 60), what difference will it make? I can’t see myself ever writing or teaching or creating anything good enough to be remembered, except my daughter. I’m sorry to be sending all these particles of depression slamming into you. Something tells me you get a lot of them. Well, I’ll grit my teeth here and try to write again. Dave should be here in a few minutes to help me.

8:42 - 2 May 1997
From: Rebecca Fass
To: Owen Bauer

You’re scaring me. I want you to know that I’m here and listening and rooting for you as hard as I can root. I know who you are, and I know how beautiful you are, and I know you can do anything. Your work is real, and your work matters, but more important, you are real, and you matter.

You are wrong about Jeannie – she will always love and respect you, no matter what her mother tells her. I know because even now, after thirty years of hearing that my father was shit in human form, I still want to see him. And if he were YOU – my father actually is pretty close to shit in human form, and if someone can love him, how could she not love you, who are ambrosia poured into the same mold (after they washed the shit out of it). Even if you had done nothing else productive in your life, the time you’ve spent with me has given me so much joy that you would have earned your right to exist just with that. And you’ve done so much!

Science – tonight isn’t the time to ask me to defend science, with everything here screwing up. Both of our best oscilloscopes are down at once, and that guy from Marin’s lab is getting here tomorrow. Tony is on the phone now, begging companies to get someone the hell down here to work on them. But I’ve never questioned whether neurobiology is worth doing. It’s a kind of arrogance, maybe – I just think it’s our brain, and we have a right to know how it works. I want to know how it works. I don’t see why we can’t say the same thing for the universe. OK, so maybe it’s not our universe, but we’re here, aren’t we? As long as we’re here, we might as well figure out what it’s made of. You have a right to do it.

What you’re saying about the quark is really interesting, though – whether it’s really there or whether you make it happen. It seems like 99% of what we think is here in life is stuff we make happen. Why should science be any different? It all comes down to what “nature” is, really. The cells I listen to fire on their own – in the lab I make them fire by controlling what my kitties see. As far as you know, the top quark really is out there, right? I only see a problem if the theoreticians say it doesn’t exist and you try to make it exist anyway – but wait – didn’t Columbus do something like this? Maybe there really isn’t anything you can do wrong in science.

What I’m trying to say is, just write the article. Put the formulas together even if you don’t believe in it right now. Do it on auto-pilot. Some of my best articles have been written on auto-pilot. If you don’t, somebody else is going to step in and take credit for your whole project and make your quark his quark, and I guarantee you, the truth will not be served. Science will continue to scream for the existence of this particle, and your resumé will be shorter, that’s all. No matter what happens, it’s still worth it, being alive. There is nothing that could happen to me that would make me want to die, and I wish I could mind-meld with you to make you feel the same way. Live for Jeannie, for me, if nothing else, but most of all live for yourself. I wish you could see how meaningful, how beautiful your life is. I wish I could show you. If I were with you, I would show you now.

19:15 - 2 May 1997
From: Rebecca Fass
To: Lee Ann Downing

I’m so scared about Owen. It’s really caught up with him finally, and he’s more depressed than I’ve ever heard him. He doesn’t sound like he’s going to kill himself or anything – just slowly wind down into nothingness. He just doesn’t seem to want anything any more. I feel like I’ve wounded him, and now he’s got gangrene – no, I amputated something, and he’s developed blood poisoning. I’m going to send you the stuff he’s been sending me, so you can see how his mind works and maybe give me some advice. Should I ask him to come out here? I’m not sure this is what he needs, or what I want. To be taken in right away by another woman might actually be more demoralizing for him than recreating himself by himself.

Your guy – I’ve read your stuff, and I don’t get the logic of it. You’re trying to seduce him with decapitation, bigotry, gender confusion, sadness, and failure? He’s from Long Island, so you show him Long Island – at its worst? I think you’ve got something here: memory is the ultimate aphrodisiac, but you’ve got to go for more upbeat. How about beaches, ice cream, that way of talking you all have out there, and that outrageous sense of humor? That’s the main thing I remember about Long Island from that time I visited you – driving, the songs we sang on the radio, crowded beaches that smelled of French fries, Italian food, the mall.

What is he into besides Dickens? I mean, do this scientifically. I get the feeling you’re writing what you want to get out of you rather than what he wants to hear. I am still against this whole project, but if you’re going to do it, do it right. It’s an interesting experiment, to see if you can seduce a guy in cyberspace. I want to see what happens.

Food. Is he into food? How about a Tom Jones type of deal, images of you eating, your luscious lips and tongue sucking at a chicken leg? God, I can’t believe what I’m saying here, I must be in some sort of evil mood today. Figure out a way to get your body into this. My guess is, he’s into you. Your hair, maybe. You’ve got such great hair. Or that teeny tiny waist of yours. God, you’ve got such a great body. Why don’t you try to use it? What are his favorite parts?

Is this the logic? “You come from here. You ARE here. I come from here. I love it here. I AM here. Therefore you are me, you love me.” I think it could work – you just don’t have it right yet. Lace it with your body, and let me know what he does.

If he hasn’t freaked yet, I think you’re right, he’s not going to. There’s something I like about Josh, such a diversion from Owen. I mean, I don’t want to switch or anything, but this is like comic relief, the difference between wooing Hamlet and wooing Falstaff.

My cells are getting restless tonight.

19:02 - 3 May 1997
From: Lee Ann Downing
To: Rebecca Fass

I always knew you had it in you. Wooing Falstaff, that’s a good one. Josh isn’t Falstaff, though. He seems like it until you really get to know him, and then you find out that he’s a hybrid of Falstaff and Richard the Third.

21:33 - 3 May 1997
From: Lee Ann Downing
To: Josh Golden
Subject: Sailing to Byzantium

You always know what season it is here depending on how cold you are at Jamaica. Today just a little cold because of the wind which blows my hair up into my mouth and my eyes. It must be spring. I crack through the tunnels and clatter up and down stairs in my black high-heeled boots, my blue silk shirt fluttering with the foul wind of the subways. All the way up on a rooftop on 81st Street, there is a Japanese cherry tree in full bloom, pink against the blue sky. Yes, it must be spring.

I have come to see the Byzantium exhibit, and instantly I am engulfed in a swarm, the hushed, caressing tones of French, the ringing vowels of German. I am so restless today that I can’t look at it the way I’m supposed to – I just dart along, stopping only when the glittering gold of the icons draws me in like a magpie.

What I really like today is the writhing torsos of the Rodin sculptures. He is a genius, Rodin, intrigued by transformations, bodies twisting, suffering, moving, wanting. He stops movement, yet he shows it happening; he stops time, yet he shows it flowing. One woman looked surprisingly like me, tiny, twisting, her hair all over the place, flat on her back yet with every part of her going in a different direction.

After Byzantium, I ate an orange whose peel fell away almost as I touched it, a hollow into which I eagerly plunged my thumb. I wrote for an hour as the light overhead fled and returned, fled and returned when thick, grey clouds drifted between us and the sun.

Then an angry African man who was bussing the trays told me I had to go. “You can’t take THIS” – and he gestured toward the single chair, little round table, and tray littered with orange peel – ”for THAT” and he gestured disgustedly toward the sheet of looseleaf paper covered with my tiny lettering. I thought him a pathetic bully, looking to take his anger out on the smallest woman he could find. It’s hard to find a place to write. Writing is not worth a table, chair, and tray.

Too restless to study anything closely (images and memories, for the past weeks, have been awakening me at four every morning), I walked rapidly through that pleasure dome, visiting all my favorite places: the 18th-century French rooms, with their gold and pastels, the Islamic room with its blue and white ceramics and gurgling little fountain, the hazy blue Monet haystacks like muffins, the medieval madonnas with their long braids, the grey light that floods the Temple of Dendur, and finally my favorite, the Indian wing, to visit Ganesha, Mover of Obstacles.

I love the roundness of Indian art, the great breasts like globes, the arms in motion, gods who smile and dance. Ganesha has the head and trunk of an elephant and the round, fat body of a man who indulges himself. He is strength and power combined with pleasure and humor. In one hand he holds a battle-axe, and in another, a round, sticky sweet. I believe in Ganesha, and to him I make my supplications, like today when I want an obstacle removed. I gazed on his mighty trunk and his bulging belly and felt a quiver of energy between my legs.

I walked through the Egyptian wing fast but couldn’t concentrate after that. Instead I left and clattered down Madison Avenue in the uncertain sunlight and warm, irritating wind, staring at the glittering jewelry in the windows and picking strands of hair out of my mouth.

I went to Anna Karenina, unmoving except for Sophie Marceau’s jewel-like face and the beautiful music. One woman came in late and couldn’t find her husband. “Antionio! Antionio!” she called, while the whole theater tittered. Then she and Antonio found a solution. He whistled like a bird in the darkness, and she answered back as his mate. He whistled again, and she answered again, until gradually they homed in on each other. I had the strangest urge, through all this, to let out an extraneous whistle and sabotage the process, yet I’m not sure I could have: they seemed to know each other’s calls.

And then, a wave of Tchaikovsky washed us all out on the street, and I cracked down Fifth Avenue, past Atlas, past the Cathedral, past the shining jewels and creamy lipsticks of Lord and Taylor’s. By 35th Street, I find that Tchaikovsky has been replaced by a song from the radio, bouncy, insistent, and bold. The chords, on a synthesizer, seem like a cliché: a minor one, held just for a heartbeat, then a minor four, the systole of the phrase, but then a surprise, a fall into major, the four of the four. And you think, now why did they – But before you can think, the minor one comes back to start a new cycle. The words are even less logical, phrases that make sense individually but no sense when combined: “In the night, in my dreams I’m in love with you, ‘cause you talk to me like lovers do. I feel joy, I feel pain, but it’s still the same. When the night is done I’ll win your love.” The appeal here is that in the last, descending phrase, the words are off the beat. My black heels crack down hard on the beat, and as I twist past tourists and shoppers, the words slide pleasingly into the spaces in between. I feel light, flexible, I weigh nothing. I am all dance. I see my silk shirt like a blue flash in the darkness; I see my black boot kick up over my head. I turn onto 34th Street, Crack! Crack! Crack! “Another night, another dream, but always you, like a vision of love that just seems to be true!”

Spanish, plastic shoes, the smell of burnt sugar. I slip down the gullet into Penn Station. This is no country for old men.