Less Than The Sum
of the Movable Parts

by Richard Thieme


part 1 of 4

Nothing gets us through a long day more than an image of a constant self. My life is one long day, so believe me, I know. It helps. Thinking that “I” was here “yesterday,” “I” am here “now,” “I” will be here “tomorrow” — it’s wonderful, isn’t it? Using an imaginary temporal index linked to a mirage of an equally illusive self to manage an inchoate flow of impressions that turn into pictures in the “mind” to simulate fixity?

I think it’s wonderful, anyway. I think it helps us stay engaged with tasks that might otherwise drive us to despair.

Or worse.

There’s a bigger question, however: is there a connection between the connections? A real one, I mean? A single template that works from top down, instead of bottom up?

Otherwise, it’s just a coding trick: memories encoded in chemicals programmed to disclose aspects of what we call “selves” like origami unfolding to that same subjective self. This recursive program would be a stroke of genius, if a genius existed.

A reflexive self, embedded in its own structure, suggests continuity; seemingly real memories frame the phantom self like planes in a cubist painting constructing odd geometries inside of which we, all unassuming, happily thrive.

Or — to put it another way — it thinks, therefore we are.

Or, in cases like mine, agencies think for us, relieving us of some of the work.

OK. We emerge from braided twists of code like cookies from flour water and sugar. But where does the recipe come from?

Well... who knows? Maybe it evolved. Maybe we were cooked up in a kitchen. I prefer fun hypotheses like Charles Fort’s. It sounded crazy when he said it; now it sounds reasonable, now that we know that UFOs are real and have been around for a long time.

Fort, you recall, combed through newspapers and periodicals in the New York public library in the early twentieth century, filtering anomalies into his notebooks. Then he bound them into a vision. He suggested that we might be property, owned by an alien race. He didn’t know if they had won us in a lottery, inherited the planet as part of a bequest, claimed us after a battle, or agreed to accept us in lieu of cash in a game of intergalactic poker.

The reasons, whatever they may be, are unthinkable, because we have no point of reference. They relate to memories in the storage banks of the alien race(s) linked by connections as invisible to us as dark matter.

We don’t know if or how they design histories or store memories to preserve identities distributed through folds of space-time. We can’t even see them, much less understand how they evolved. We don’t even believe in them yet. All we can do is suppose that they, too, construct peculiar geometries in the blank space of the zero-point field. Perhaps the multiverse unfolds in their imaginations like origami, too, a multidimensional canvas on which they paint or sculpt the equivalent of art.

Who knows? Anyway, the first steps are the hardest: believing that they exist and then believing in our belief. At this point in time, we don’t believe. We believe in disbelief. By design, I believe.

In a court of law, lawyers tell me, three witnesses who say the same thing are considered the best evidence. Well, witnesses have testified to the presence of our watchers, owners or visitors — whatever they are — by the thousands. The data points are voluminous. They plot countless visits by beings in luminous discs, silent triangles or elongated craft with portholes. They have been documented for decades, perhaps centuries; anyway they have been here a long, long time — either they or their robots or clones. But we act as if they don’t exist.

We can’t map what we can’t comprehend. We have impressions, images of conspicuous displays, stored in collective memory banks, but we turn them into myth. We make fiction instead of history.

Fiction is the province of the fantastic and distracts us, and their manipulations of energy or matter seem fantastic, make no mistake. The effects we have observed imply an understanding that we cannot apprehend. And they seem to hide and show themselves; they seem to play a game of cosmic boo and peek — but to what purpose?

Once again... who knows?

Anyway, the DNA came from somewhere. Whatever the source, perhaps our owners think of us as dairy farmers think of their herds. Perhaps they sip like emotional or intellectual milk our cultural excrescence which is useful in some way or tasty, an occasional treat, a distraction from the task of searching for meaning.

Maybe we add a page to the choral songbook of the multiverse. Maybe they feel affection — if they do feel affection — when we head for the barn at the end of the day, the sun steeping the pasture with its lone oak tree slanting in shadow. Maybe the twilight sky that brightens before it fades is a liminal image that stirs them, too, a portal to something they have lost and cannot recall.

Or maybe they are proud of our halting progress as parents delight in a child’s first steps, watching us splutter into our neighborhood in primitive machines, skipping to the moon or Mars like toddlers coming downstairs and walking around the block for the first time, seeing with wonder that there is something real indeed across the real street.

Seeing the street at the same time for the first time. Seeing the bridge and seeing the distant bank in the same moment.

Whatever, we have been born or bred to believe we are individuals, discrete entities, selves with will, feeling and intention, and more than that, that we are the apple of God’s eye or — in a more secular vein — the top of the food chain, something special... instead of transient manifestations of energy and matter in complex relationship to everything else.

But it’s not true.

* * *

We are more mist than mountain, more metaphor than mist.

Disorienting, isn’t it, thinking like this? It gives me a headache too. Better to believe our beliefs, believe we are the selves that we experience reflexively as points of reference for the shifting contours of our so-called interior lives.

The task then is to manage the threat of chaos. There are three ways to do this: the Small Way, the Big Way, and the Biggest Way. My colleagues see management of the Small Way as their job. We leave the Big Way to visitors by default. The Biggest Way, we leave to It.

OK. So... are we the sum of our moveable parts?

Who knows? And does it matter? We will do what we do, think as we think, regardless, take comfort in what we call “cultures” which like “selves” exist as higher branches on a fractal tree and also seem to be sums, more or less, of all of their moveable parts.

The machinery breathes. That’s what matters. People believe in their beliefs.

I was walking home the other night at dusk. It is November, and the weather was changing. The dry leaves of maple and ash and oak were blowing on the pavement, the bare branches of trees clean and leafless against a luminous sky. Clouds streamed from the northwest, obscuring moon and stars, low clouds illuminated by light from the distant city.

The road was empty. There are no street lights in the village, and I trusted the pattern of the pavement to channel my walking toward the bridge across the ravine without bumping into something or stumbling into the shallow ditch along the road.

High on the right, through a tall hedge marking a line of property, windows blazed from a mansion built to the right scale for the land. It was an old home, brick and stone, and its high windows glowed.

I flashed back to a cold night when I was a child sent to buy a loaf of bread at a commissary in a high-rise. The white bread was in a paper sack in my gloved hands, and coming back, the wind stinging my cheeks, I saw through the blurry prisms of my tears high on the right the bright window of a mansion above an elaborate entrance.

Through the window a portrait on the wall of a library filled with books lining shelves from ceiling to floor, a woman in a dress in a chair in a golden frame, a picture light illuminating the portrait, the bright window signifying a refuge. A nexus. A place. A node. A home.

That mansion is gone. It was torn down years ago to make way for a high-rise, a glass stack of lighted windows fronting the city on the dark water. Now a bluish candescence spills through glass walls floor-to-ceiling into the night and dissipates before it reaches the ground.

The image of that mansion is a memory, don’t you see, a chemical trace. There’s nothing there. The house no longer exists. It never did. Oh, something was there, once upon a time, something that we agree to call a mansion, but I don’t know what it was. Or what kind of life was lived inside. Or who that woman was. And neither do you. You think you know, but you don’t.

You believe in your beliefs.

We presume so much, don’t we? We presume everything. These little slides or luminous images in our minds are slotted into a matrix made to hold them like tiny panes of painted glass, buttressing the belief that we inhabited a past and that the past existed. We believe in the reality of vanished landscapes.

If history is a symphony played in a hall with dead spaces, so are individual lives. The chemical bonds between memories weaken, bleed into one another, leak through once-firm walls of cells of a database housing a house of self.

The diminishment of memory contrasts with the illusion of fixity of purpose and self-definition that sustained us. The terminator, the line on the moon where darkness meets the light, throws mountains into sharp relief, but the light and darkness on either side of the line are absolute. Only by contrast do we see anything at all, and then, only for a moment.

The darkness and light, as the man said, are one.

A plumb line of gravity sinks as a point of reference for the floor on which we think we walk; that, too. Everything, it seems. We are always in free fall in the deep well of the night. We project imaginary patterns onto stars but cannot see our nearest neighbors, even when they cross the street and walk into our yard. We see them, if at all, through a glass darkly. Civilizations more ancient than we can imagine, invisible because they are unthinkable.

“Ants can’t get that dogs exist.”

That’s what the professor said.

* * *


Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2010 by Richard Thieme

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