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A Short, Happy Life

by Simon Smith

Table of Contents

Table of Contents
parts: 1, 2, 3


I had never been a virile man and, as my youthful fecundity waned, I found myself ever more drawn to notions of asceticism. Not so with my wife, who seemed to grow more voracious as her flesh began to sag. Once doe-eyed and placid, she now began to stalk me like some lascivious predator.

I can well recall those dreaded evenings. How I rued my ensnarement at such tender years. How often I wished to revisit some prior iteration of myself and hand him a copy of The Kreutzer Sonata. (Rarely is wisdom so unflinchingly honest as was writ by that great, bearded mystic.)

“Fitzroy,” she would say in her merciless drone, “the children are asleep and I want some en-ter-tainment.”

This is hardly the place to relate a French farce, but suffice it to say that upon this occurrence the activation of Auto-Mate was my standard response.

In a very short time, my Auto-Mate self became an alternate persona. I would perfunctorily employ my shadowy doppelganger to carry out tasks that were not to my liking. Sometimes I would use it to eradicate boredom, leaping through time to arrive at some preferable future event.

In no doubt a reflection of my career disillusionment, I found my leisure interests set adrift from number theory; they eventually found berth in more colourful and populous harbours. I will hereby admit it, for in itself it is not a shameful thing: before my twenty-fifth birthday I was a thoroughgoing dilettante. I had read my way through the philosophical canon, grappled with monoliths of Occidental literature and was wading waist-deep in the history of Europe.

Here at last was my joy! My succour! And yet, even this could at times become wearing. It was not so much the pursuit of knowledge which enthralled me as a deep satisfaction from its eventual assimilation; the feeling of having traced to termination another route in that infinite labyrinth. Or so I said at the time, and perhaps I truly believed it. For on these grounds I committed my final betrayal.

I recall the day well. I was seated as usual on the green leather chair in the corner of my study. In front of me was a small wooden table with my cocoa, some biscuits, and a pile of books. For that evening’s project I had selected, with a young man’s impetuousness, a rather ponderous work on the economic underpinnings of the Counter-Reformation.

With the book in both hands, I turned to my marked location. My previous reading had ended midway through a particularly turgid section, and it was here that I found myself again.

As I began to read, I returned to a state of familiar confusion. The passage revolved around the actions of several obscure figures. Retrieving my encyclopaedias, I located their biographies and tried in vain to deduce the context of the argument. At last I realised that to make sense of the writing, I would have to return to the start of the chapter.

I turned back through the pages and recalled how I had struggled to comprehend the same writing before. I had hoped to finish this section quickly; the following chapter looked much more inviting. The prospect of reliving my previous efforts dismayed me. And it was here that I gave in to temptation. Green elephants, I thought.

I had now read the chapter and understood it perfectly. It seemed very simple; I wondered why the author had chosen such grandiloquent terms. “Once again,” I thought, “Auto-Mate has saved me the trouble of expending my time on needless obfuscation.”

But now I had tasted the fruit of transgression. This was far from the last time I used Auto-Mate as a shortcut to my autodidactic ends. Indeed, within months I had taken to reading entire books with my reflective capacities disengaged.

The appeal was not merely to idleness. Under the influence of Auto-Mate my concentration increased exponentially. I found I could read at astonishing speeds. My bookshelves filled up at an alarming rate. I was in a kind of ecstasy, bounding between peaks of intellectual understanding.

I read the cornerstone works in all manner of disciplines: genetics; linguistics; semiotics; astrophysics; morphology; topology; theology; sinology; astrology; numerology; sacred geometry; crystallography; fluid dynamics; probability theory. None of this taxed me; it felt like a miracle, as if some slavish djinn turned the gears of my brain whilst I languidly hoarded the profits.

So now, almost without my noticing, Auto-Mate had impinged upon every facet of my existence. I had ceded my life to a stranger. He worked my job, raised my children, made love to my wife and had finally taken those thin consolations to be had from the life of the mind.

* * *

My children grew up and left home; I barely even noticed. My parents died and my wife left me for another man; I left the handling of this to Auto-Mate.

I no longer paid attention to current affairs. Governments came and went. Economic crises, moral panics, global pandemics; none of these concerned me. I felt no regrets at renouncing the world. It seemed so tawdry and parochial when compared to the glittering treasure house I had built inside my head.

I continued in this manner for very many years. And then, one day, not so long ago, I caught sight of myself in a mirror. My hair was snowy white. The skin on my face was sallow and drawn. There were deep furrows rising vertically between my eyebrows.

In a start it occurred to me, ridiculously: I had no idea how old I was. I had long since stopped registering birthdays. I rarely took note of the seasons. In my monomaniacal pursuit of the Goddess of Wisdom, I had neglected the dread hand of Time. But one glance in the mirror was enough to tell me I had aged considerably.

In that single instant my world came to pieces. All my years of accumulated knowledge fell away, revealed at last to be facile pretensions. All that remained in their place was a terrible, anguished void. My life had been lived in unparalleled vanity. I had sacrificed duration for the continuous sensation of pleasure. Now I saw the dispiriting truth: it was those mundane and laborious tasks I had so determinedly avoided which would have made the foundations of a meaningful life.

I felt so foolish and ashamed that I could not bear to look at my burdened shelves of books. They bore collective witness to the years of potential experience I had so wilfully shunned. In my pursuit of understanding, I had forgone the pleasure of learning and was impatiently awaiting admittance to the realm of pure forms. At last I had seen this was an impossible object.

On this side of the veil, things are separate by principle, and each has equivalent value. I had been bewitched by a timeless dream: of knowledge as an end in itself rather than an artificial structure of signs. A sign without a referent is no more than a trivial game, and a life spent unmoored in an ocean of concepts is the most wretched of possible fates.

Some years have now passed since that direful revelation, but it came far too late for me to redress the damage. Although I have tried to recapture the thrill of experience, each moment is tainted by bitter regret. That was my life, and nothing can change it. I am facing old age and am resigned to the fact.

This very morning, over fifty years since my story began, I received the correspondence which is printed below. Yet again, and again too late, I am confounded by the dissolution of assumptions I had held axiomatic.

Dear Mr. Swackhammer,

I am writing as a representative of Octavo Holdings. My company has recently come into possession of Anareta, Ltd. as part of a liquidation contract. Looking through our records, I see that you have been making a long-standing payment to a subsidiary of Anareta, Ltd., namely Auto-Mate Technologies.

I should firstly bring to your attention that Auto-Mate Technologies has been defunct for approximately 45 years. The company directors were convicted of supplying a fraudulent product and sentenced to prison.

In case you were not aware, the Auto-Mate application you purchased was proven non-functional. The purported technology was a fabrication with intent to deceive.

Secondly, I am pleased to inform you that the monthly fees you were paying for your Auto-Mate application have been deposited in an account and have accrued an average interest rate of 4.4%. A payment of £9,040 will follow shortly.

Thirdly, I would like to apologise, on behalf of Anareta, Ltd., on behalf of Auto-Mate Technologies, for any inconvenience caused.

Yours sincerely,

Judith Bloch
Legal Dept., Octavo Holdings

Copyright © 2014 by Simon Smith

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