(The following is fiction — just a fanciful story I made up that I wish were true. Since the email version doesn’t include the article category (“creative works” in this case) when it sends out feeds of my blog, I apologize to email subscribers for thinking it was real reportage.)
image CC0 from pexels.com
I guess it had to happen someday soon
Wasn’t nothing to hold them down
They would rise from among us like a big balloon
Take the sky, and forsake the ground…
Hold them up, hold them up
Never do let them fall
Pray to the dust and the rust and the ruin
That names us and claims us and shames us all
– James Taylor
I‘ve always had a thing for exceptionally intelligent women. So when I agreed to act as seminar leader and graduate TA for the Philosophy of Science program at our university, I was delighted to discover that more than half of the class was women, and that in particular two of them brought with them reputations for brilliance and controversy. I had no idea what I was in for.
I met them both personally for the first time at a seminar entitled Dawkins vs Gould: The Philosophy of Biology, which I was ostensibly facilitating. When Karin and Marina squared off, I was expecting the fireworks to be around the two male philosophers’ differences over the role of religion and spirituality in science, or about the whole issue of “selfish” genes, but the debate immediately leap-frogged past that and into a far more (to me at least) interesting and existential discussion: It was about what we intuitively know (but cannot scientifically “prove”) versus what we intuitively “know”, or sense, that we cannot know.
It would be impossible for me to accurately summarize the different perspectives that Karin and Marina espoused, and after their animated discussions became something of a worldwide phenomenon in philosophy circles, I can only say that to some extent, as I listened to them, I felt I was witnessing The End of Philosophy — their thinking was so advanced that I felt they were, rapid-fire, rendering many of the most-discussed philosophical subjects of our time completely moot. They made what thousands of philosophers and scientists had spent their lives thinking and writing about seemingly completely irrelevant. The most important realization that came out of many hours listening to their dazzling intellects expound mind-blowing ideas that were way beyond anything I had conceived or read, was simply: Nothing matters.
What was more remarkable is that they forced the listener to this astonishing and unexpected realization from almost diametrically opposite threads of reasoning and intuition: Karin from the Gould-ian scientific perspective of everything being random and unpredictable, and Marina from the metaphysical perspective that evolutionarily “consciousness” and everything that arises from it could not be real, and that therefore what is real cannot be known by the mind.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. These two women had already, as undergraduates, wowed their colleagues and professors to the point that whenever they volunteered to speak the rest of the class suddenly sat in hushed silence diligently taking notes — including the instructors. They were way over all of our heads, in an intellectual (and perhaps emotional and sensory and intuitive) world of their own, which we could never dream of being a part of. We were just delighted that they took the time to articulate what they were thinking so that we could just appreciate it. We were in the presence of genius — genii in fact, feeding off each other, and we could only bask in it, as full of awe as if we were watching two Grand Masters painting together.
That is to say that, while they didn’t “agree” with each other, they saw no purpose in debating. There is no absolute truth, after all, and they saw every point of discussion as being a way to move closer to an understanding, to explore, not to change the other’s position but to understand it and hence move forward towards a synthesis greater than either had thus far come up with individually. There had been an attempt, by the faculty leaders, to get them to have a formal debate, with structure and an audience voting for the winner, but neither woman would have anything to do with that, dismissing it as an “anachronistic male spectacle of no value”. Instead of responding to each other with “but…” they responded with “yes, and…”. Listening to them was like being in dizzying free-fall — they didn’t know where they were going, only that it was productive, creative, moving forward, and any formal structure would simply hamper that.
When our first session was winding up (we had run over our time and were being kicked out of the seminar room), I fatefully suggested that we retire to the campus lounge and continue the discussion (more accurately a two-woman dialogue — none of the rest of us had the audacity to interrupt their discussion with our own clearly-outclassed thinking).
I was a man in love, with two superhuman women, and as I ushered them and the entranced class to the lounge, I was trying to figure out how to capture this brilliance, before it was lost, before these two women just rose magically into the stratosphere together and disappeared, leaving us mere mortals behind, ashamed and dumbstruck. Fortunately there was a tripod on the stage of the lounge, left behind by the latest performing musicians I supposed, and I grabbed it, mounted my cellphone camera on it, pointed the camera at the two prodigies, said 50 words to (utterly inadequately) recapitulate what had already been exposed in their shattering discussion to date, and let them continue.
Four hours later we called it an evening. I put the recording up on YouTube, thinking it was the most important posting that impoverished medium had ever received, and for a couple of days it was almost completely ignored. Then to my surprise the number of viewers started to soar. At the next seminar date a week later, the room meant for a dozen discussants in the class was impossible to reach due to the crowd clamouring to attend and hear Karin and Marina expound further. I told them we would rendezvous at the lounge after the class, and that only registered students could attend until then. Two hours later the din outside the room was so loud we could no longer hear Karin and Marina speaking, so we retired to the 200-capacity lounge, surrounded by numbers so large that, once everyone had filed in, the lounge closed its doors to additional students to avoid violating fire regulations.
If you’ve been following this at all, you know how it snowballed after that. The second four-hour video racked up millions of views, the post-seminar meetings had to move from the overcrowded lounge to the university theatre, Karin and Marina were besieged by the media for interviews and by universities all over the world offering inducements for them to go there (none of which they accepted), and some of the world’s leading scientists, philosophers, intellectuals and “teachers” began sitting inconspicuously in the theatre during the talks (which were now broadcast live), furtively but energetically taking notes.
At the insistence of Karin and Marina, there was no Q&A during or following these discussions. They offered no explanation for this demand, perhaps wanting to spare the feelings of those who might be inclined to ask something.
After the fourth session — sixteen hours of staggering genius, enough for a lifetime’s exploration by lesser thinkers, in the can — I finally got up the courage to invite them to my place, just to take stock of what was happening. I think mostly because they found the sudden celebrity a bit overwhelming, and knew that my place was peaceful, private and unlisted, they accepted. Marina, who sat in the front passenger seat during the car trip there, spoke quietly and incessantly to Karin seated behind her, at a volume I couldn’t quite hear — I was so intellectually exhausted I was somewhat grateful for that.
At home I put on a playlist of instrumental music (enough words for me that day) and we sat together on my couch, wordlessly, drinking chai tea. Because they were both so quick in their thinking, at one stage my students had asked them to slow down and not talk over each other (which they did not as interruption, but as a kind of running counterpoint), Karin had the brilliant (and awesome!) idea of having me, as the facilitator, sit slightly behind and between them, lightly hold one of each of their hands, and gently squeeze only the hand of the woman who was talking, as a way of “moderating” the conversation and slowing down the flow of ideas unobtrusively. It worked. I was, of course, elated. To me, nothing afterwards could ever compare to this quiet alternating touch for sheer, raw eroticism.
So we sat on the couch together, holding hands just like that, as a nod to the roles we had found ourselves in. Finally Marina broke the silence:
“Josh — Karin and I have decided something, and we hope you won’t be disappointed with us. Today, if you were following, our discussion reached something of a dénouement. We’ve realized that we’re at an end. We’ve unraveled all we can together, and there doesn’t seem to be anything more that is essential to say. So as grateful as we are for the forum you have granted us, we think that the song is over. We can’t see the point in talking more. We’ve said all that we can think to say that’s of any value. So we’re going to take a vacation, and hope that what we’ve produced is good enough to meet the requirements of the seminar, and that you won’t be upset if we don’t return. This has been the most important experience of our lives, and we’ll always be in your debt.”
“The Masters’ painting is done,” I said, mostly to myself, with a sigh. Marina gave me a concerned look, but then, with a glance at Karin, immediately understood the reference, and smiled, and nodded.
“Yes, it seems so,” she replied.
We sat there quietly for a while and then Karin asked if there was “a spare bedroom” they could sleep in — they were dead tired and didn’t relish the trip back to the university to retrieve their cars and drive home. And I realized they were lovers.
I spent that entire night, sleeplessly sighing, fantasizing about what might be possible, what I wanted, what would be best for them. They obviously made love, and for what seemed a very long time, but they were discreet about it. My dream of course was that, in their blossoming personal lives together, I might play the same essential, connected role, holding them together, moderating and mediating their genius, that I’d come to play over the past month in their public lives. That would have been enough for me. I told you I had a thing for smart women, and I knew nothing like this would ever happen again.
It took until the early hours of dawn before I finally collapsed into sleep, and of course when I awoke, much later, my delightful charges had gone. They made the bed with fresh sheets, put the soiled ones in the washer, left me an absolutely wonderful, handwritten note that I will cherish forever, left some cute and provocative ‘selfies’ of the two of them in my email, and disappeared from my life forever.
I’ve watched the videos so often I can practically recite them from memory, and they were right — there was nothing more to say. Of course the deeply-threatened patriarchal establishment took their departure and unavailability as evidence of their arguments’ frailty, and in less than a year hundreds of articles in professional and popular journals had disingenuously criticized and finally dismissed their brilliant, fleeting work. I removed all the jealousy-tinged comments from the videos and closed off further comments. The videos spoke for themselves, and I’m sure their genius will eventually be vindicated.
So yes, nothing matters. But still, my heart will never be the same. I grieve I suppose for what never was, yet what happened was enough. I am honoured to have been there, and played a role. It is all just a story, and every story is meaningless, but it’s the only thing I have.