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The F-word

The Tantalus Letters: Part III, Chapter 1

Laura Otis 11 March 2007

A neuron is life talking to itself

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.

Part III: Summer

Chapter 1

“On errands of life, these letters speed to death.”-Herman Melville, “Bartleby the Scrivener”

9:15 - 2 June 1997
From: Rebecca Fass
To: Owen Bauer

What’s happening? I hope you get this. I just got in this morning, and there was a note from the cleaning lady that you’d called over the weekend. She couldn’t understand anything except my name, but she left a message on my desk that an American man had called, and I knew it could only be one person. What’s going on? I checked in with Marcia, and she said you’d called there, too. So I just called your apartment and your lab, but you’re not there. Has something happened? Where are you? They said they hadn’t seen you today and didn’t know when you’d be back. Send me a message when you get in! Now you have my address. Please let me know if you’re OK!

9:25 - 2 June 1997
From: Rebecca Fass
To: Lee Ann Downing

Made it! It feels wonderful to be in Germany again, but I’m worried sick about Owen. He was trying to reach me, and then he disappeared. We’ve made the quantum leap to phone contact but now can’t seem to find each other on any level. I haven’t been able to get into my UC account from here. I’m thinking of asking Marcia to open up my e-mail, giving her the password to see if he left me any message while I was in transit. What do you think?

18:50 - 2 June 1997
From: Lee Ann Downing
To: Josh Golden
Subject: The F-word

Want me to watch my language? But darling, I’m an academic; that’s what I do all day: watch language, Laclos’s, my students,’ yours. I watch language the way Audubon watches birds, look for patterns in the flitting and the markings on the wings. Must I also watch my own? When do I get to be wild?

The F-word, now there’s an interesting case, too interesting to be spoken in a classroom or to twitch in the net of cyberspace. First, it’s the verb that means both to create and destroy, the verb in which Eros and Thanatos meet: to fuck, to fuck up, to fuck over. To fuck, as subject, is to penetrate and perhaps ruin a thing, to handle it, use it, trash it, leave it battered and permanently altered. To get fucked, as object, is to be entered, to be altered, (as in other-ed, marked by the Other), or perhaps to be betrayed. Fucked up, as adjective: scrambled, ruined, drunk, drugged, twisted, complicated, disordered through mishandling. Only as a noun is it more restricted to its literal meaning, a good fuck, a bad fuck, but even then it can mean an idiot, you dumb fuck. It can mean almost anything – anything that’s bad. The only thing I see clearly excluded from its territory is goodness. Now why is that, when there’s nothing in the universe better than a good fuck – depending on who with, of course. Is it that we do it and then take our guilt out on the word? Is language our guilt-hangover for the mad, drunken fucking of our lives?

Rebecca: you want ‘er, you got ‘er. She’s just sent me her address in Germany: Rebecca Fass. Have fun.

11:47 - 3 June 1997
From: Josh Golden
To: Rebecca Fass

Hi, I’m Josh.

Lee Ann gave me your address because I’m working on a book about how people thought about their contacts with others in the 19th century and how all that was related to their ideas about the development and growth of the nervous system. I’m mainly working with George Eliot, but on the scientific end I need to talk to someone who really knows what a neuron is.

What is a neuron?

11:58 - 3 June 1997
From: Josh Golden
To: Lee Ann Downing
Subject: Mouth

You got a dirty mouth on you, babe.

Should drive up there an’ wash it out with soap, ‘cept you’d bite my fingers off, wouldn’t you, if I stuck ‘em in there.

Mouth full o’ meat, now that’s a thought, like to fill you up till your roars settle to a purr.

Trouble is, you talk too much, darlin – why this compulsion to speak the verboten? The F-word, a speech act. To say it is to do it: speech acts.

Trick is to do it and not say it, but you are a performance artist in cyberspace.

You got it down, Leo, with you, best in the universe, but got to perform it in private, just reflections for company.

Leaving for Israel in three days, here all is chaos. Will be accessing my e-mail from there, same account.

Write me a chapter of female desire, darlin, make your book your performance, roar for ‘em all, not just for me, and I’ll read it and reflect.

Hey, thanks for Rebecca!

17:16 - 3 June 1997
From: Lee Ann Downing
To: Rebecca Fass

Greetings in Deutschland. Sorry the Prince of Particles is losing it. I wouldn’t let Marcia into your account, though. Do you delete everything? I mean, she is great, but she’d see everything – not just the stuff we’ve been writing about her, if you haven’t deleted it, but everything that comes in for the next month. Besides, didn’t he know you were in transit? Why would he be sending messages into oblivion when he knows nobody’s there?

Josh is pissing me off again – gives new meaning to the term Doublethink. He’s given up trying to foist me off onto some other guy, thank God, but he’s now telling me simultaneously that he wants to fuck my brains out and that it’s too dangerous even to talk about it. He says I should write all my lust into a mirror-book instead, into which he’ll gaze to his heart’s content. I really wish I were strong enough and smart enough to wrestle him and win for once, pin him to the mat and push my face down into his Beethoven hair.

19:16 - 4 June 1997
From: Rebecca Fass
To: Josh Golden

A neuron is a baby’s hand reaching out.

A neuron is life talking to itself.

A neuron is noise.

A neuron is a tree with more branches than you can imagine.

A neuron is infinity.

A neuron is trying to imagine something with more branches than you can imagine.

A neuron is a voice.

A neuron is almost touching, but not quite.

7:58 - 5 June 1997
From: Rebecca Fass
To: Lee Ann Downing

Josh did write to me, and I don’t know what came over me. He just introduced himself and asked about neurons, and I went a little crazy. Was I always crazy, was it the build-up, or does he just do this to people? Can someone have a magnetic personality in cyberspace?

10:07 - 5 June 1997
From: Josh Golden
To: Rebecca Fass

I can see I came to the right person.

Tell me, darlin, what do you look like?

14:17 6 June 1997From: Owen Bauer To: Rebecca Fass

Becky! Yes, I’m still here. Someday I’ll have to tell you about it, but right now I’m too embarrassed. Can I ask you to promise me something? I sent three messages to your San Diego account after you were already gone. Please could you delete them without ever reading them?

When I called, I was really out of it, and I must have forgotten the time difference. Something did happen, as you can tell: Trish has filed for divorce, and Dave has really fucked me over – is trying to take credit for the whole top quark project, and as far as Rhonda is concerned, it’s his. I am going to try to fight, but it will be hard to find allies – no one wants to go up against Rhonda, and no one wants to be affiliated with a guy who’s so clearly going down. I’m still deciding what to do, but now that the worst that can happen has happened, I’m actually starting to feel better. I’m sorry to have made you worry like this, and please delete those messages. I hope I can see you again soon.

17:43 - 6 June 1997
From: Lee Ann Downing
To: Josh Golden
Subject: Washing my Mouth, Watching my Mouth

You wash my mouth, cyberlover, that’s a good one, after all the, um, language you put in there. Shall I remind you of your own vocabulary? Watching my mouth, that’s more like it, you always did love watching my mouth, always did love everything it could do. You told me that – my talk on Hardy, first time you ever saw me, just kept staring at my lips, big and luscious on my little face, wondering what they felt like, and then you just went and found out.

What did Alec D’Urberville see in Tess’s mouth, I wonder, what turned him on? Now you know. You can wash it out, but you can’t wash the feel away – only one thing has ever made the neurons fire that way, only one thing ever lit up the board like that. The neurons don’t forget. Think about more. Can’t do a Lady MacBeth on my mouth.

11:15 - 9 June
From: Josh Golden
To: Lee Ann Downing
Subject: Watching Your Language

Damn Leo, 110 Degrees here and now you turn up the heat?

This ain’t your universe, darlin, one touch of those wicked, succulent lips of yours and it blows up on contact, matter and anti-matter.

Hebrew word for language is lips.

Am accessing my e-mail from here. Board is lit up.

Turn down the heat, will ya? Have to write, have to live, have my kids to think about.

20:02 - 9 June 1997
From: Rebecca Fass
To: Josh Golden

Don’t call me darlin. If you could see me, I can guarantee you you wouldn’t. I’m no hundred-pound sprite like Lee Ann. Let’s see: five foot nine, long legs, big feet, hair blond when I was a kid, now mostly brown, theoretically in a pony tail but really all over the place depending on how late in the day it is. Eyes blue-green-brown, somewhere in there. I always wear a T-shirt and jeans and sneakers, and the T-shirt usually says something. Today it has a cat on it.

I work with kitties – I guess Lee Ann told you. I love kitty-cats. I have animal rights people after me all the time because of the kitties. “You Nazi bitch,” the latest caller told me, “you cut open another cat’s brain, and I’ll strap YOU to a table and stick needles into YOU.” I’ve learned to deal with it. I’m German – Rebecca Fass, meaning “tap,” as in, “on tap,” and this has been fuel for the more militant activists – but then, Allan Berg gets the same calls about his monkeys, and he’s Jewish. Probably it’s the same guy.

So this is who you’re talking to: a 35-year-old assistant professor and Nazi bitch, in size nine Nikes, trying to get the tuna fish she just dropped off her keyboard. I’m not your darlin. What is this, anyway? What do you look like?

11:14 - 10 June 1997
From: Josh Golden
To: Rebecca Fass

Sorry, Rebecca on Tap, didn’t mean to rub your fur the wrong way.

Let’s get back to neurons. When they reach out, how close do they come? How do they know where to go? How do they know when to stop? Wouldn’t it be more efficient for them just to be in physical contact? Why almost touch but not quite? Tell me, I want to know.

You’re no Nazi bitch. People say these things because it makes them feel powerful to hurt someone. I know what a Nazi is: it’s the guys who pushed my grandparents into the ovens. You weren’t there. You keep on listenin to those neurons, and screen your calls.

Can’t help you with the tuna fish. My specialty is poppy seeds, which are slowly filling in the cracks between the keys.

18:52 - 10 June 1997
From: Rebecca Fass
To: Josh Golden

You are a nice guy, and I’m so, so sorry that they – that we – pushed in your grandparents. I wish I could undo it somehow. I’ve spent a lot of time in Germany, and it’s always frightened me how well I fit in. I feel almost as if I did it personally. All those people. That pile of glasses. They saved all their glasses, and then they took a picture of it. I cry whenever I see it. Maybe we can talk about this sometime.

But anyway, neurons, from everything I’ve seen, are designed to maximize surface area and the possibility of making connections. It’s a neat idea, a special cell that can do everything other cells can do, but designed to influence and be influenced as much as possible. There’s that word that always gets us in trouble, ever since Darwin, “design.” Do you believe in God?

If there were a real neural net and the cells were physically connected, you would gain in speed but lose in control. The real beauty of it, and this is what I work on (I would only work on the most beautiful thing, of course) is that the connections can change. There are cells, like the pyramidal cells in the cortex, that have their bodies in the brain and reach all the way down the spinal cord, almost a direct line between the mind and the muscles. But these are the exception. Most pathways are interrupted at many points and pass through several cerebral equivalents of Grand Central Station. Because the neurons almost touch but not quite, they can change what they touch or ignore what they’re hearing or listen harder to one thing than another, depending on what’s going on.

This guy here, Allan Berg, is working with monkeys, and he finds that if you teach a monkey to do things requiring him to use a certain part of his hands a lot, the area representing those parts in the sensory cortex increases in size. Almost touching but not quite is the basis of the nervous system and maybe of life. A direct pipeline is death – conveys information fast, but survival depends on every center responding to everything that’s happening everywhere, so that if you send a signal just from A to B, you’re not really saying enough to keep the monkey alive.

Telling you this makes me remember how beautiful it is. Writing grant proposals, ordering parafilm, reading articles with a pounding heart to see how far Marin’s group has gotten, that’s not so beautiful. Hey, you never told me what you looked like.