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The Shipwreck Rose: Thirty-Two ‘I’s

Wed, 10/04/2023 - 17:41

I consider myself a writer, by vocation. I mean, if pressed to give a label to what I was doing with my life by some hypothetical cross-examiner — some dark eminence putting the thumb-screws to suspects to determine who should be freighted off to the gulag like Osip Mandelstam for sedition against an authoritarian government — I’d reply “writer.” That’s even though my novels remain unpublished in boxes under the daybed on which I prop myself each morning for latte-and-Wordle hour, and even though I certainly don’t make a living out of it.

(I am enough of a writer to know that I shouldn’t use Osip Mandelstam’s name in vain and that you should resist the amateur’s temptation to begin paragraphs with “I” — “I this” and “I that” —  as I’ve just done here three times in a row. But such is the lot of the personal essayist: Sometimes you have to lead with “I.” And sometimes you get cantankerous and want to have a bit of fun, to make a game of it. And this is my 150th “Shipwreck Rose” column! Happy anniversary to me.)

I am going to get bumptious this week and return to a subject that friends with good taste consider bad conversation: dreams. Because, as a writer, I find that good ideas do sometimes come to me in my sleep.

I awoke, for example, this morning from a very enjoyable dream in which I was a respected visual artist “working in shadows.” Not working in the shadows, but a visual artist casting transient images against the walls and floors of art galleries by the manipulation of spotlights and silhouettes, images that disappeared once I, the artist, took the apparatus down. The gallery-goer could see the beauty of the images and even step into them, but when he or she reached out to touch them, they were not there. Ephemera. That’s a fine idea, if I do say so myself. Thanks, hippocampus!

I was supplied by my dream imagination, back in May — another example — with the first 3,000 words of a short fiction story about the end of the world. Its title is “Cats,” for reasons that I hope will be clear once you read it, but suffice to say it has to do with strays and the ruin of the suburbs. It’s a fiction story about the day when we all will belatedly awake to the Armageddon we’ve brought upon ourselves — with our Amazon-shopping addictions and our eight-cylinder Ford pickups — and just quit, walking out of our lives onto the interstates, leaving everything behind, even our keys, for a final pilgrimage through the American landscape on foot. It’s going to be my best story yet, as soon as I finish it, and I didn’t even have to think it up. It came to me in, as the kids say, a literal dream.

I have read that science has not yet explained why we dream. There’s no pragmatic purpose yet known. Researchers in Japan and at the University of Michigan have watched areas of the brain pulse and flash like the aurora borealis — flaring up in green and purple as jungle animals, Egyptian obelisks, or faces of long-dead friends flash through different sections of the sleeper’s mind — but the neuroscientists really still don’t know what it’s all for. Why do we dream? Why do we sleep at all? Why do we tire? Why do we grow old? Why do cells divide and decay?

I can attest that, as an artist of sorts, myself, too, dreams do serve a different, nonphysical sort of purpose, because, as I say, they sometimes supply vital ideas. You remember Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan, or, a Vision in a Dream: A Fragment”? 

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan

A stately pleasure-dome decree:

Where Alph, the sacred river, ran

Through caverns measureless to man

Down to a sunless sea.

The story Coleridge told was that the poem came to him in his sleep, but he could never complete the third and final stanza because, disheveled from bed, as he was trying to scribble down the words, someone knocked on his door, disturbing his thoughts, and he forgot the rest. It’s unseemly to liken yourself to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, but the phenomenon is familiar to me. (And I’m not, as he was, an “opium-eater.”)

I think maybe I should make commemorative T-shirts for my most faithful readers, those who persevere each week through my rather long-winded musings, walking beside me down all sorts of blind alleys and pseudo-intellectual culs-de-sac. The T-shirt could feature a three-masted ship and a spray of pink roses, in homage to the wreck of the Louis Philippe (see: “The Shipwreck Rose” #1, July 9, 2020). T-shirt recipients, do you remember “The Shipwreck Rose” #44, from May of 2021, in which I admitted that I’m one of those susceptible, fringe-y types who buys into the so-called “simulation hypothesis”? The simulation hypothesis is the theory, posited in 2003 by a Swedish philosopher named Nick Bostrom, that our existence is more likely than not a computer-generated artificial world.

I know it sounds really dumb . . . and that admitting you entertain this hypothesis is not just boring but also makes a columnist appear to be some kinda New Age kook, but . . . well, do you accept the idea that computers will eventually be able to create artificial worlds so complex and all-encompassing as to feel indistinguishable from reality-reality? (Might computers be able to do that within 100 years? What about 1,000 years from now? Of course they will!) And, well, if you accept that idea — and it would be unreasonable not to — how many such artificial worlds could computers and artificial intelligence generate? An infinite number, yes? Infinite cyber-generated realities (and infinite potential iterations of “I”). Versus only one Earth and earthly reality. Do you see? Infinite versus one. Do you see what Nick Bostrom means?

I think it doesn’t really make any nevermind. To me, it’s kind of neither here nor there, if we are living inside a cyberworld of some sort versus an earthly world. It doesn’t keep me up at night. What’s the difference? What is the earthly world, anyway? Human minds can’t conceive of what the universe is, much less conceive of what’s outside the universe, and we’re all still here, making our moral choices, every day.

I think the simulation hypothesis would explain a few things, though. Like dreams. Maybe dreams are the buffering of the machine. And — venturing farther out on a limb, here, textually, dragging my reasonable and pragmatic newspaper-column-T-shirt-wearing readers way out, so that the bough bends under our weight — the simulation hypothesis might also explain aging.

I mean, this is a big one, but, why do living creatures have life spans? Why do animals and plant matter decay after a certain set period? What’s that all about? I took biology in eighth grade — sitting in Mr. Budd’s classroom on the second floor of the East Hampton Middle School, listening to the radiators bang and hiss and daydreaming — and, obviously, I did receive the message about the half-life of cells. But why? Why are we born to die? The Old Testament supplies an answer to that one. It’s all a sort of character test. Sic transit gloria mundi. We have a finite time on Earth, the clock is ticking, and if we prove ourselves and pass muster, we get to go to Heaven.

I hope I’m not offending anyone, but I think that the religious answer is not terribly different from the explanation of the “why?” you could infer from simulation theory: The arc of the moral universe is long and it bends toward justice. Maybe it is all a game. The clock is ticking and we have only so much time to ace the character test. Treat people and animals kindly and curb our greedy, selfish habits before we destroy the planet, and we win. (Are we winning? Judging by the fire and brimstone of 2020-23, I’d say not. Pac-Man is about to get gobbled by the ghost.)

I don’t know what winning would look like. Where do we go if we win? Is there another level to level-up to? Who knows? Maybe that’s Heaven, after all.




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