member of:Observers of the Interdependence of Domestic Objects and Their Influence on Everyday Life

This group has been active for a long time and has already made some remarkable assertions which render life simpler from the practical point of view. For example, I move a pot of green color five centimeters to the right, I push in the thumbtack beside the comb and if Mr. A (another adherent like me) at this moment puts his volume about bee-keeping beside a pattern for cutting out vests, I am sure to meet on the sidewalk of the avenida Madero a woman who intrigues me and whose origin and address I never could have known...
--Remedios Varo

(Artwork by Remedios Varo)
By believing passionately in something that still does not exist, we create it. The nonexistent is whatever we have not sufficiently desired.
--Franz Kafka

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The End of Mr. Y, by Scarlett Thomas

Note: All artwork in this post by Rene Magritte.

Time Transfixed, Magritte

There are two events that set the ball rolling in Scarlett Thomas’ The End of Mr. Y. The first is a great rumbling of the earth as the building near Ariel Manto’s office at the University collapses. This is an earth-shaking event which ends up--in a bizarrely acausal way--pushing her life down a totally unexpected path.  The surprise of the others as they watch the building buckle is bland in a way that is difficult to understand until we discover what the others already know: this is the second time the building has collapsed, because it was built atop an old, clearly unstable, railway tunnel.  But that’s just the first event we see. After that, we discover that she has come to this campus to study a particular 19th-century author’s work under a particular professor who mysteriously disappeared only a week after her arrival, and whom she agreed to come and study with after one brief discussion over drinks following a lecture he’d given, an act which changed the direction of her previous plans significantly.

There’s this moment after her soon-to-be professor’s lecture, in the midst of their strange conversation in which he walks away for a moment to get drinks: “I looked at the vast image beyond him, painted on the back wall. The scene showed what seemed to be a king descending from heaven, alighting on some reddish, carpeted stairs. The stairs almost appeared to be part of the room rather than the painting, and the figures in the image looked like they might be using them to step into reality; into the present.”

(Musee Magritte, Brussels.Photo Source)

So, here we are, just after--no, a year before--something like the great rumbling of the ghost of an old, 19th-century train, has shaken the foundations of the university and started her on the journey that will turn her life and the world upside down (and wait till that tunnel comes back in the story again, later--no, earlier, but no spoilers, here), at some lecture she attended with three whole other people in the audience, and she’s noticing, in another moment of strangeness bordering on dream, that people from some other universe could, if she tilts her head so and shuts off her reason, be using a painted stair to jump time and join her, thus collapsing the function of the walls in front of her and belying the stability of matter in the universe.

This whole opening recalled to mind the train image above by Magritte, and reminded me of a story his friend Scutenaire told about Magritte’s first experience of the “sensation of mystery” as a child:
“When a tethered barrage balloon crashed on the shop where the family were living, it had to be got down from the roof, and this ‘long soft thing’ that stern-faced men in leather clothes and helmets with earflaps had to drag downstairs seemed very extraordinary to him” (12: Jacques Meuris, Rene Magritte).

Museum in daytime. Same Source.

Now, back to the novel’s earth-shaking, and Ariel is forced by circumstances to walk home, which she has never done before, and then forced by cold to stop in a little used books shop, where she discovers a copy of the out-of-print, exceedingly rare book by Thomas Lumas, The End of Mr. Y, at an accidentally semi-affordable price. The book, generally believed to be cursed, is so rare that it was thought all the way up until she held it in her hands that there was only one copy, and that that copy had been sitting in a German vault for many years. Thomas Lumas is the author whose work led her to this place--the author she came to study, under the missing professor.

Lumas prefaces his End of Mr. Y with the idea, also, of illusion :

“When one looks at the illusions of the world, one sees only the world. For where does illusion end? Indeed, what is there in life that is not a conjuring trick? From the petrifactions that men find on the seashore to the Geissler tube recently seen at the Royal society, all about us seems filled with fancies and wonders. As Robert-Houdin has built automata with which to produce his illusions, I shall here propose to create an automaton of mind, through which one may see illusions and realities beyond; from which one, if he knows how, may spring into the automata of all minds and their electricity. We may ask what illusion is, and what form it may take, when it is so easy to dive into its depths, like a fish into a pool, and when the ripples that emerge are not ripples of illusion nor ripples of reality but indeed the ripples made by the collision of both worlds...” (p 25; italics mine)

This paragraph of the preface is where Thomas connects everything that threads through her novel of the same name: First: the illusions created by the artist, which serve a purpose, which is “training the mind” to be able to see impossible things, so that it may not miss those very impossible things when they appear in front of it. Remember that with the guiding blinders of normalcy, you will not take note of the various wormholes you pass on the street, of the mind of some like-minded soul sitting next to you on the train suddenly being very open to a perfect meeting with your mind, of the impossibly gorgeous bird that just vibrated its way out of the chest of the girl across the street and took flight, singing a tune you will later hear again when it is launched, an instant classic, by some seemingly unrelated musician, to become the very anthem of a generation you will only understand as united in some way when you look back, a long time from now. These illusions can also be shaped by words, meaningful words, words that hold a massive symbolic heft: the tale of another’s life, described in such a way that you are carried inside her mind, or rather her mind becomes overlaid with the transparency of your mind (a metaphor Scarlett Thomas presents in her novel). That is the illusion of fiction: you become someone else, without completely losing awareness of yourself.

Magritte: Attempting the Impossible

Magritte: The Human Condition

But are these really illusions? Once you jump into them, they are not, they become a meeting of illusion and reality, a path veers off of the one you were previously traveling. Your future will now contain the echoes of, influences of, this mind you have agreed to travel in (think about that when you’re reading some tear-jerking nonsense that makes you feel suicidal). Your brain does not know the difference between imagined acts and real ones: scientific experiments abound in which great athletes, dancers, and musicians can make huge leaps of advancement in their technique through mental exercise, imagining themselves practicing, which has the added benefit of not exhausting the body, pulling muscles, or irritating carpal tunnel syndrome. So it is not illusion, what I have experienced while traveling through this book.

Here’s the trick which makes that the case: emotion. I feel what the character feels. I think about her after I close the book. I have arguments with the other characters, in my head (the same way you do with teachers that infuriate you, or your mother, or politicians on the television), via her world-view and mine overlaid. I experience the world as the two of us. And I go to sleep, and my dreams have some activities that the next day I recognize as similar to events from the book, rather than from my “real” life (most likely because all I did until I finished the book was read it--what “real” life?). All of this is cementing the reality, in my mind, of the events I experienced through that book. Synapse trails are made, and the more they are used, the more “concrete” they become, and it’s not more than a few days before, if I were to pay attention, (see St. Fevronia, and the fact that paying attention is the very thing which makes us not automata, not machines), I would see that my life is not the same life that was being lived before I read the book. Different possibilities have arisen. Different people come around. Different events arise. These things may seem to be “out of my hands,” or chance, but are not. They are there because I can perceive them. They were always there, just not for me. Until now.

How important is that emotion? When a book or a piece of art leaves you flat, nothing happens to your brain. It’s emotion that connects you, that makes you know something of what living in the 19th century was like (is this where “past lives” come from?), makes you know something of things you would otherwise know nothing about (and now you can empathise, can’t you? The world is bigger.). The emotional connection you experienced which led to the changes in synaptic patterns which led to you being someone else with different options, (although you still see yourself as yourself, still remember some of the same things you would have before--though not all, remember that memory is selective, and you might also remember things you wouldn’t have remembered before, and who knows if those things had actually happened in your past until you read that book?)--that emotional connection is precisely what allows us access to time travel and other earth-shattering life changes. And I mean this literally, not like the time travel we associate with a brief fictional jaunt. Remember eidetic visions, and hypnosis, and how you can change physical reality by focusing on an image and then sinking yourself inside it. It’s the sinking in, allowing the emotion of it to wash over you, so that all senses are triggered, that makes this action work. That’s why Tesla was able to run entire experiments in his head, without physical props: he was invested on all levels. Why do you feel pain when you’re being cut open by a doctor? Because you’re emotionally invested in the body being cut open, in the story of that surgery happening. If you were hypnotized--not even anaesthetized by drugs--, and therefore no longer invested in that particular storyline, you would feel nothing. Nothing. Being able to refocus your emotional investment, then, allows you to do amazing things.

In fact, the author seems to posit that telepathy would be exactly this: if you listened to someone talking with the same attention with which you sank (deeply) into a character of a (beloved, exciting) book, your mind would grasp things as your interlocutor’s did. Which means that you would be able to access that person’s impressions and memories and plans as if you were him/her, because you are, at that moment. And from there, it is a difficult step, but still just a step, to guiding those thoughts towards particular memories or plans, to dig inside that person’s head for particular knowledge or information. This telepathy is not even far from an ancient Japanese art called shinyo, which some term as mirroring, in which you listen so closely to (for example) a patient, that you can mimic his rhythms, cadences, body language. You begin to move in the same way, speak in the same way, sound the same way. The moment that a certain level of rapport, of comfort, is reached in your patient’s mind (that overlay snaps into place), you begin making small alterations, leading him away from the self-destructive behavior and towards a different one. How does this work? He feels he is listening to himself. He feels he is doing exactly as he wants. And, if you are not a crook, he is: he is doing what he wants to do, but what the habits of his subconscious mind would not allow him to do without your nudging, as they had been trapped in a different pattern. In Thomas’ novel, this intense level of listening and empathy is not necessary. There is an herbal concoction which takes your mind to a metaphorical place called the troposphere, and from there, as you come into proximity of another, if he is even momentarily “vulnerable”--meaning that they are feeling an emotion you can connect with--you can jump straight into his mind to experience what he is experiencing.

At one point, Ariel Manto recalls:

“Emotion could simply be termed ‘motion.’ Indeed, I remember that this word used to simply mean movement, or a transference from one thing to another. In this world-made-of-language, meaning never really becomes obsolete. In this case, the motion is of something that has no mass (motion itself) and so the meaning it carries can travel at incomprehensible speeds: speeds fast enough to take you backwards. All you have to do is get on a train and find the right station.” (305)

In The End of Mr. Y, in the troposphere, one can travel rapidly across time and space in any direction by riding an emotion train. The main character here walks bravely towards the train marked fear, because that is the emotion she was feeling at the moment she needs to return to in her own life, in order not to die. (p306: “I am left in no doubt that I am now climbing into fear itself.”)

But me, I had enough of that train during her ride. That is not the place I want to return to. I choose a different train--and think how many there are!

“When will you stop talking about paradoxes? Your whole world is a paradox. Officially it has no beginning and no end. Nothing about it makes any sense, but it’s what you seem to have created.”--Apollo Smintheus

There is a point when Ariel raises the objection (in response to a request from Apollo Smintheus, the mouse god), that she can’t just go messing around in the heads of people from the past in order to change their behavior and avoid a future event. She mentions the grandfather paradox (If you go back in time and kill your grandfather, how are you ever born to go back in time to kill him?). Apollo responds by saying that he doesn’t think anyone will notice: it won’t cause the million paradoxes, deaths, total changes that she thinks it will. If she’s hanging on to this life, it will simply be this life with no ‘X’. No one will even notice. The problem will simply be solved. At another point, she moves backwards in her own life by capturing the train of emotion to a certain moment in which she was feeling it. This action did not cause her to lose the knowledge she had gained after that moment, the first time around. How would this be possible?

I think the paradox resolves itself because of the different definition of time being used here: time is simply the way we unroll the story of self we are telling. Spoken language has given us a method of storytelling that is very different from image. Image, a painting, can tell a whole story at once, and the viewer goes along noticing little details, symbols which ‘speak’ the language of our subconscious. We take in so much information from an image. And that image’s story can change--you can give a different narrative to the same image, even using all those same details, depending on your emotional state, and on the different things which have led you to that emotional state. Perhaps it is spoken/ written language which has changed the way we perceive time as well as the way we perceive our own agency in life. To tell a story, you must have a beginning, a middle, and an end. The action follows in that order. But all a story is, in the end, is a pulling together of various symbols (in action or in matter--remember that matter is energy!) which say what you want them to say. Technically speaking, you are leaving mountains of information out when you give the history/story of something, and you are putting your own slant on the information you put in--you have seen what you were able to see, given your own limitations as a being, and you have not seen whatever thundering gorillas didn’t happen to trigger your perception alarms--therefore your story will always simply be a story. Even if it’s the story of your life. Not only could the same story be told differently, it could lead to a different end, a different now, without being a lie, and if you were emotionally invested in the process that brought the story to that different end, reality would, in fact, have changed.

Scarlett Thomas works with this idea, as well, by moving different images into different places, especially computer imagery, which she peppers through the book in various creative, distinctive ways. So, to think about our lives in a way that gives us agency, it helps to use metaphor, symbol, visual representation. In fact, this is what the troposphere is, Apollo Smintheus tells her: metaphor.

Magritte: Empire of Lights
(It is day AND night. How?)

Part III
There are, of course, a million other things happening in the story. I leave you with an image she made of words in a discussion where we first become familiar with the feel of Thomas Lumas’ writing. In this fantastic segment, she gives a brief summary of one of his stories, The Daguerreotype:

“In The Daguerreotype, a man wakes up to find a copy of his house in a park across the road, with a large group of people gathered around it. Where has the house come from? People immediately accuse the man of losing his mind and arranging to have a copy of his house build in the park overnight. He points out that this is impossible. Who could have a whole house built overnight? Also, the house in the park does not seem new. It is in fact an exact copy of the ‘real’ house, down to some scuffing on the door panels, and some tarnish on the brass knocker. The only thing that’s different is that his key doesn’t work, and the keyhole seems to be blocked by something. The man initially tries to ignore the house, but soon it takes over his life and he has to try to work out where it has come from. Because of the house in the park he loses his job as a teacher, and his fiancee runs off with someone else. The police also become involved and accuse the man of all sorts of crimes. The house has some strange properties as well, the main one being that no one can get into it. It is possible to look through the windows at the things inside: a table, a vase of flowers, a bureau, a piano; but no one can smash the windows or break down the door. The house behaves like a solid shape, as if it had no space inside.
One day, when the man in the story has almost lost his wits, a mysterious old man comes to his (real) house with a box full of equipment. He tells the man that he has heard of his predicament and thinks he know what has happened. He takes out a velvet-lined folding case and explains to the man about the daguerreotype, and how it works.  The man is initially impatient. Everyone knows how daguerreotypes work! But then his visitor makes an impossible claim. If humans, three-dimensional beings, can create two-dimensional versions of the things around us, would it be too impossible to assume that four-dimensional beings could make something like a daguerreotype machine of their own, but one that produces not flat, two-dimensional copies of things, but three-dimensional ones?
The man is angry and throws the photographer out of the house, thinking that there must be another explanation. However, he is unable to find one and later comes to the conclusion that his visitor must have been right. He finds the man’s card and resolves to call on him immediately. But when the maid lets him into the man’s house, he finds something very strange. The photographer seems to be standing in the drawing room, holding the daguerreotype machine. But it’s not the real man; it’s a lifeless copy.”


  1. "If humans, three-dimensional beings, can create two-dimensional versions of the things around us, would it be too impossible to assume that four-dimensional beings could make something like a daguerreotype machine of their own, but one that produces not flat, two-dimensional copies of things, but three-dimensional ones?
    of course:)
    very interesting story zoe
    and I LOVE the illustrations, Magritte's work is amazing

    1. magritte is so spectacular, in that he can make something look so normal and so completely bizarre at the same time.
      i really liked that story, too :D glad you enjoyed it :)

  2. Oh this is a very intriguing post! "one can travel rapidly across time and space in any direction by riding an emotion train." I loved the idea of "an emotion train" because I've always thought that there exit such trains and they are available to us. The Magritte work is so inspiring. I wonder if J.K. Rowling had seen this before she wrote about the Hogwarts Express and the platform 9¾ at London's King's Cross....

    1. yes, i think it may really be the secret to time-travel. i have been reading more about epileptic seizures, and about how a surgeon can trigger a full-sensory experience of a remembered event by electrically stimulating a point on the brain--so that you are simultaneously on the surgeon's table and fully immersed in that memory, as if it were happening now....maybe that's how we can think of time as all happening at once and also unfolding in a narrative: what matters is where the "juice" is, where you're paying attention, which part of your brain is activated. and maybe you can direct that via fierce, highly-emotive focus?

  3. I like this idea of a ghost train shaking the foundations of the university, rather than a simple tunnel collapsing. What I did enjoy though was the recurrence of the tunnel event, as if the story was already a copy of an original event that was forgotten, hence a copy of a copy without original.

    1. yes! i really got that sense throughout--i kept waiting to find out that this wasn't the first "iteration." interesting...maybe that's partly the idea, if we're thinking in terms of parallel streams of reality? maybe some events "here" are "echo" events, stimulated by things that happen elsewhere...?

  4. Hello dear Zoe! It's been so long since our last communication! I missed! This is a wonderful post, I love the ideas you are sharing as to the parallel realities and e-motions! You have an amazing ability to write about complicated things clear and captivatingly! I'll be back soon to write you new post, just noticed it's already out ;)

    P.S. And thank you very much for your recent comments on my blog, so happy you liked what you found there! As always, a hearty welcome! ;)

  5. Earn free bitcoins over at Easy Bitcoin Faucet. Up to 33 satoshis every 10 minutes.