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A Peculiar Predicament

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8/16/2014 5:55:36   


A Peculiar Predicament

One hazy Saturday afternoon, Nemo Quidam placed his headphones over his ears (Gyorgy Ligeti's "L'escalier du Diable," or the "Devil's Staircase") and reclined back in his chair with a book. Butterflies flitted over the flowers in his backyard, and as his eyes drifted over the pages he allowed the sun to wash over him warmly.

His job was one of great importance and position, and thus allowed him a great deal of comfort both in home and in finance. He performed his duties admirably, and he was looked upon with great affection by his peers and employees alike. Having a beautiful wife (who had at first rejected his advances but after a great deal of time and effort on Mr. Quidam's part had finally allowed herself to fall in love), a lavish estate, and many dear friends, any ordinary person would look upon his life and declare it to be as perfect as a man's life could be.

It was in this considerable comfort that he now lounged. Later, Mr. Quidam would look back upon these times and remark bitterly how confident he was in his abilities and wealth. Disaster has a ruthless way of knocking the pedestal from beneath the self-assured.

Oddly enough, disaster struck not from Mr. Quidam's surroundings – say, the crumbling of his finances or a fearsome storm – but instead sprung from the twisting synapses of his brain. As he sat there, every one of his senses entirely numbed, an odd sensation began to unfurl within him. The insistent chaos of the Devil's Staircase began to take on a more sinister quality, spinning and spinning as softly as a snake's sibilant hiss until his entire backyard seemed to rotate around him. The gentle sun now became suffocating, weighing down upon Mr. Quidam more heavily than any physical object. And the words he held in his hands drew him in till he was no longer sure whether he was reading the book or residing in the pages of the book itself. The letters morphed and twisted till they all became the same letter: “O.” The entire universe was at that moment O, his house of right angles an O through and through; his eyes, too – the unbroken O.

Everything snapped back into focus. There was nothing left of his vertiginous phantasmagoria, save one prevailing string of knowledge, repeating itself over and over: Nemo Quidam, along with everybody else in the world, was a character in a book. He knew this as certainly as he knew that one plus one equaled to two, as certainly as he knew that his wife loved him and he loved her back with all the complexity the human biology could offer. It was for this sort of knowledge that the phrase “a priori” was invented, for that was what it was: a priori, ab aeterno, since the beginning of the universe.

This presented a unique quandary. Who was writing Nemo's life? And if his life was being written by somebody else, what meaning did it have? And it were these two questions that consumed his life.


Of course, when encountering something remotely perplexing or disturbing, one's initial reaction is to share it with as many people as possible. So the next day at work, he approached his colleague as she was drinking a cup of coffee.

“Colleague,” declared Nemo, completely certain of his ability to convince his friend that they all were characters in a book. “Yesterday, when I was reading a book in my backyard, I suddenly discovered something at once fascinating and dreadful: you, I, and everybody else are only characters in a book! Although we seem perfectly lifelike to ourselves –” Nemo wiggled his fingers as if to prove his point “– we really are no more than than words on a page, ink on paper!”

“Nemo,” said the colleague, but her adamant friend had not yet finished. “I have no idea what this all means,” Nemo continued. “But you and I are not real!”

At this point, Nemo realized that it was there his speech must end, for there was nothing left to say. Nothing was real, and it is a futile to search for meaning in what does not exist.

The colleague, as any normal person might do, laughed nervously. Even if made in jest, the ideas and position that Nemo maintained were ludicrous; its preposterous implications were by no means mitigated by the earnest tone with which Nemo now spoke.

Realizing that he had failed to convince his colleague that she wasn't real, Nemo set out with a dogged determination to succeed with at least one person in his opulent office building. Throughout the day, his attempts were met mostly with bewilderment and, in some cases, scorn. The result was that by the time the work day had concluded, he had convinced not a single person of the world's illusory nature and had also gotten no work done whatsoever. Nemo headed home drove his luxurious sports car home, hoping to at least win his wife over.

Hardly had Nemo burst through his front door (made of the most expensive mahogany wood) when he began to deliver his now-practiced speech fervently to his wife. “My dear wife,” he implored, “Listen to me. Nobody at work today paid any attention, but I swear it's true: you and I are no more than the characters on a page, written by some unknown god-awful writer. We're not real – nobody is real! Not you, or I, or any of our friends or relatives. This entire thing is a ruse!” He gestured madly at the palatial house around them. “Look!” He ran over to the wall (which was quite far away, given the ridiculous proportions of their house) and knocked frantically on the wood. “Sounds real, right? It's not. Nothing is real, none of it, none!”

His poor wife's initial reaction was to be extremely frightened of this mad behavior that had suddenly possessed her husband. But, unwilling to allow that her presently perfect life could somehow be ruined by Nemo's troubling new conduct, his wife simply decided that her husband must be joking. What a strange sense of humor he has! she thought to herself, then went promptly to bed.


A revelation of this gravity is not easily ignored, and Nemo himself was not a man to resign so easily. One does not obtain a formidable wealth and command great respect by giving up at the slightest challenge, and it was this admirable tenacity that enabled Nemo to achieve his lofty status. In the greatest of ironies, however, the same trait with which Nemo gained everything would be the same trait that would ruin him. His predicament was immensely exacerbated by magnitude of his newfound discovery and by the manic mindset that such a discovery imbued him with.

Over the next few months Nemo would prove to be unrelenting in his quest for company in his newly solipsistic world. Society, as it often tends to do to anomalies, completely alienated him from civilization. His colleagues and even his employees treated him with a growing disdain, and so complete was his obsession with the fictional nature of his world that he neglected his work entirely and was consequently fired from his work. Having no source of income or even the desire to regain one, Nemo was soon abandoned by his wife, who previously thought she loved Nemo but now realized she had only loved his money and status. One restless night, as Nemo's thoughts churned even in his slumber, his wife packed her bags and left through the massive mahogany double-doors. She was a woman of an almost celestial beauty and shortly found herself another rich husband, whom she wanted desperately to truly love but knew that in her heart of hearts, he was no different from Nemo; she loved him only for his wealth.

Thus, Nemo's livelihood diminished considerably. He fired all his servants and lived alone in his mansion of echoes, secluding himself from a world that had rejected him.


Many months later, while Nemo was walking through town, he happened upon an ancient Chinese store – the sort that sells ancient artifacts and is associated mostly with sorcery and old men. Intrigued, Nemo entered the door and encountered an old Chinese man. He was sitting behind the counter with his back turned to Nemo. An abacus sat in his hands, and he clacked at it unremittingly. Its pattering filled the room.

“Look,” said the Chinese man. “It never ends. It is perfection – complete, whole. It does not seek, nor yearn, nor give; it simply is. We too hope to attain perfection, but we will never obtain it, for we are it. We are perfection. But despite our innate perfection, we remain ignorant – we will never reach our destination. How can something so ignorant be perfect? It is the unending circle.”

And Nemo looked, and saw that the Chinese man's attention was fixated on a piece of paper with a perfect O on it, painted by a brush. A single brushstroke that went around and around, ending where it started and starting where it ended.

At last, Nemo could stand the abacus no longer, and cried out in dismay, “What are you doing? Please, sir, stop that racket – it's driving me mad!”

After a long pause, the Chinese man turned his gaze towards him and replied, “This abacus is myself. I play with the numbers, and I calculate my existence, and it is always the same number. Zero.”

At that moment, Nemo knew that he was no longer alone in this world that did not exist; that there was another character in this infernal book that knew just as well as Nemo did that there was nothing to be said, for there was nothing at all. His eyes were opened, and Nemo noticed that everywhere, all over the shop, there were torrents of sheets, each painted with a perfect O.

And Nemo knew then the significance of the O. It was the symbol of nothing. It had zero sides, zero corners, zero anything worth mentioning. It was an imaginary boundary separating the vast voids – within it, there was nothing, and outside it, nothing. It was closed to everything. It defied meaning and definition and understanding – how could one grasp it if there was nothing to grasp?

After that day, Nemo saw the world very differently. Although it still remained false and illusory, he saw it in its entirety. The world was not what he saw through his eyes – the ceiling before he slept, himself as he brushed his teeth, his food as he ate, the wall as he thought, the television as he lived. The world was the world, regardless of what he took in through the senses. And what was the world, but a three-dimensional O?


Nemo's finances had nearly run out by the time he began to paint. He refused to sell his house and belongings which, despite not really existing, provided him with a great deal of comfort. A solipsistic ennui had crept over him, rendering him listless and immensely bored. One can only be entertained by the notion of unreality for so long.

One day, while on the couch watching the television, Nemo's mind wandered back to the Chinese shop and its paintings of O, and was filled with a very similar yet starkly different desire. He wanted not to paint nothing, as the Chinese man had done, but to paint everything.

Immediately he went out and bought a canvas and paintbrush, and returned to his backyard. No longer neatly kept and trimmed, it had grown wild over the fences, and flowers and vines spilled out onto the grass. As the paintbrush met the paper, Nemo knew instantly that to translate his reality onto paper was a simple matter. Existence as Nemo perceived it was only the contrast between light and darkness, and everything in between – color was hardly an object.

The months plodded on and Nemo slowly became more and more proficient with the brush. Wherever he went, he brought a canvas and brush with him, and in a few short months his entire house was, like the Chinese shop, flooded with paintings.

Nemo thought that he would like to explain his work to someone. But he had nobody to talk to, so he imagined that his wife was still with him, and he spoke to her instead.

“What are all these paintings, dear?”

“They're a way for me to create the world. Because don't you see? The world isn't real, we're all a creation, a book written by a writer.”

“Do you know who the writer is?”

“No, and frankly I don't care. I can never talk to him, and he doesn't need to talk to me since he's the one making up everything I say anyways.

“Anyways, the paintings are for me to create the world, to put what isn't real down on paper and in that way make it real. I know the paints and canvas aren't real anyways, but it's the idea of a painting that makes it real, don't you see?”

“I think I'm starting to understand, yes.”

“It's because I want to be real. I know that the writer who wrote is us real, because he is a maker, a creator – he created us. So perhaps if I can be a creator too, and paint real things, perhaps I can be real too.”

“But if the paint isn't real, and you aren't real, how can anything made by you and the paint be real?”

“They...they just are. They're real, trust me. Look,” said Nemo, become more frustrated with himself than anybody else, “The flowers in the backyard there aren't real. They're written. But now that I've put them on the paper, they at least become a little real that way.”

“Well, if you can't give me a good answer, then never-mind. You said there were two main questions, didn't you, dear? Who the writer is, and what meaning a written life has. Weren't those the most pertinent problems?”

“Well, I've already said that I don't care who the writer is, as much as I'd like to know. And as for meaning...well, I think that as written characters all we really need to do is be the characters we were written to be. Whatever your urges drive you to do, your desires or your fears – I suspect that carrying it out is all the meaning there really is. I guess that's just a fancy way of saying that I don't know.”

After having said (or imagined) that, Nemo began feeling very proud of his apparently immense profundity, but then he remembered that he wasn't talking to any actual person. His countenance fell, and he decided to go to the park to paint some more pictures.


Ultimately, Nemo's efforts to ground the world in his perception of reality would prove fruitless. He would die penniless, unloved, and unrecognized. Upon hearing of his death, his ex-wife and friends would ashamedly choose to not attend his funeral.

Years later, the world would descend into a third Great War, and modern society would crumble. Corruption and revolution would topple the remaining leaders. Civilization would be dominated by moss and vine. The Earth would be once more green rather than gray, the roads would crack, and the mountains would become imposing as they were in the past. But in the next few thousand years, the verdurous planet would become gray again, then green, then gray, then green again, till the two colors would become one and the same. Humanity would descend irrevocably down the Devil's Staircase, the infinite spiral, each step bringing humanity into another full circle, another O. And from beyond the sun, creatures would arrive. Humanity and the ones from beyond the sun would at first clash, then set aside their differences. And when that happened, the stars would open up, an intergalactic highway, the deep universe beckoning with open arms. Those of the Earth would abandon the sun and head for the stars; the darkness of the night would become the most comforting color.

But for now, Nemo was sitting on a bench in the park, canvas and brush set aside for the moment. He was just staring at the flowers and the sky. For just that second, a single drop of an instance in the boundless ocean that is time, he forgot about not being real. Nemo forgot about existence, and O, and L'escalier du Diable, and listened to the birds chirping. The flowers were pretty, the sky blue, and the birds soaring – so for the moment Mr. Quidam was happy.

< Message edited by LordDarkex -- 8/16/2014 5:57:20 >
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