The Principle of Uncertainty

Chase Dasen

We are all mediators, translators.
                                             Jacques Derrida

Here he is, sound asleep, in this particular night's accommodations, under a bush high up in LA's only wilderness, Griffith Park.

No, wait, he's waking up.

He stretches his back. Stiff. Getting old. Too old to be sleeping under a bush.

He blinks. He stares up at the always-distraught sky. He quickly looks away, not wanting to be pessimistic today. It is time to decide about the day. So what's it to be today? Reality, or something else? Is this to be a dream-within-a-dream day (a Descartes day), or is today to be their kind of day, the usual kind of day, a day of pain, rejection, disappointment, and purposelessness? He decides it is to be the latter. Might as well get up and get to it.

He crawls out and stands up. The sun is just coming up off to the east, deeply golden brown through the smog, not like a real sun at all, just the usual LA version of sun, a pitiful thing, trying so hard to penetrate their world of striving and strife, but failing, like always.

Oh well, such is life. Might as well get a move on.

He looks down the hill toward the teeming city below. What to do today? Go to the beach? Better panhandling out there. Haven't been there in a while.

But wait, wasn't there something special about today?

Something special? How can that be? How can any day be more special than any other day?

But wasn't something supposed to happen today? It seems like . . .

Oh, of course, this is the day, the day you finally do it. How could you have forgotten?

But looking up at the feeble sun, he worries that maybe this is not the best day for something so important. That sun is worrisome, threatening. Better to just lay low. Not a good day to take chances.

No! You promised. You said if you made it through another night you would do it. You said you would spend the few dollars you panhandled yesterday and take the bus down there to see him, talk to him, maybe even share your theories with him. He won't mind. In fact, he'd probably like it. He'd love a chance to talk with you. He's probably always looking for a good, deeply philosophical discussion.

He takes out the newspaper picture. It's getting a bit faded and crumpled from being carried around in its special pocket for so long. The man in the picture looks so smart. But does he look kind? That wild white hair makes him look a bit scary. And those penetrating eyes. Will you really be able to confront those eyes?

Well, what would you expect his eyes to look like? A man with a brain like that, what would you expect?

He rereads the caption under the picture: "Famous French philosopher Jacques Derrida to teach at UC Irvine." He's looked at the picture so often, thought about how close Irvine is so often, the idea that he might actually meet the famous man has found a permanent place in his mind: that face, those eyes--they appear over and over in his dreams. Imagine, a man like that coming here to Southern California. What an opportunity. The chance of a lifetime. The chance to talk to someone who really understands.

But maybe this is not the day. For an encounter with a man like that, you have to at your best. On your toes. Besides, maybe he won't even agree to see you. Maybe he will call security, have you escorted off campus like that other guy did. Maybe he will think you are some kind of . . .

No! Stop thinking like that! He's a smart man, and a smart man is a kind man. He's not like that other guy. You have to do it. Today is the day. You promised.

He begins to walk down the hill, a little unsteady: the old knees are not what they used to be.

No matter, keep moving. Time's a wasting.

He follows the path down. He doesn't see anybody. Still too early for any hikers to be up this far.

That's good. Don't want anybody muddling up your thoughts on an important day like this.

It's still cool at this time of the morning, especially in damp clothes. More dewfall that usual last night. No matter, he knows from long experience that clothes will dry as you walk.

As he gets closer to the observatory, he sees the sun is struggling higher into the sky. It will soon be directly overhead, hot, unmerciful, uncaring. And then the hikers and joggers will come, none of them likely to pay the slightest attention to a somewhat rumpled older man walking down the path, each of them lost in their own cares, not even noticing how tired the man is, not caring one bit about how this rotten unfair life has taken almost everything out of him, taken even most of his formerly abundant, if not all that thick, hair, turned what is left to a dull gray, not at all bright and white and lush like Derrida's. If only he could have hair like Derrida. Then they would pay attention to him. With hair like that, he would be a man to be reckoned with. They would say, now there is a man with good hair, undoubtedly a man of vision, a man of profound knowledge.

Stop thinking like that! Who cares what color your hair is, or even if you have any. It is meaningless in the greater scheme of things. You must keep your mind on that which is of greater significance: the nature of reality, the meaning of meaning.

Now just look at how long it took him to reach the lower parking lot. A lot longer than it should have.

He notices: is something wrong with time? Is the day moving too fast? Is it trying to keep you from going to see Derrida? Look there: the sun is already above the trees; it's moving too fast. Look there: the smog has turned the fast-moving sun the color of old blood, rusty blood, like you might find on a carcass, the carcass of . . . of . . . something old and rusty.

How about an old car?

Yes, that's it, a worn-out old 54 Chevy. It's been abandoned. It was so valuable back then, so loved, but now it's been thrown away, lost, forgotten, left for dead way back in the old unused, oil-soaked, weed-covered part of the junkyard.

Or maybe the sun is the color of a dead body's face, a body lying on its back in a landfill. The body is bloated, decaying, sunburned, staring up into the hot sun. (Does a dead body get sunburned?)

Stop it! Why are you thinking those kinds of thoughts again? No need for that, no need to be afraid. You are not a dead body, not a carcass, not yet, not by a long shot.

He finally reaches the street.

He's moving faster now, more focused, getting somewhere at last. And he's getting warmer too, as his clothes dry. He can hardly feel the night's cold in his bones anymore. There, you see? He's almost warm, almost a young man again, or at least not nearly as old as he was twenty minutes ago. It might turn out to be a nice warm day after all, not a day to be afraid of.

Moving things along, let's say he walks quickly to the bus stop. The bus arrives. He gets on the bus. He drops the required amount of money into the slot. He asks for a transfer. He sits. He looks out the window. He sees cars, people. He transfers to other buses. He sees more cars, more people. He arrives at the UC Irvine campus. He looks at the campus map. He finds the right building. He sees Derrida's name on a board in the lobby. He takes the stairs up. He approaches Derrida's office.

Derrida is there, older than expected, sitting behind a small desk, reading. It's a small office, too small for a famous man like that, but with a window that affords a nice view of the campus.

The old philosopher looks up.

Hat in hand, he asks if he can come in for a moment, to talk, just for a few minutes.

Derrida points to the visitor's chair, but he can only give this tired and rumpled-looking man a few minutes. He has to leave soon, has to go teach a class.

He says I am thinking about signing up for one of your classes.

Sorry, only for grad students. The university has its rules.

Disappointment: not allowed to take a class, and the famous man can only give you a few minutes. How can it all be explained in only a few minutes? A few minutes to explain a lifetime of theorizing.

He begins to talk, explaining, outlining the relationships, making all the logical arguments. He talks fast, stumbling over the words, but managing to lay it all out for the wise old philosopher. He uses his hands in the air to show the connections, to make clear all the intricate associations of mind and meaning and ontological imperatives. He is gaining confidence now, speaking faster and faster. It is all very well thought out, well rehearsed too, from many long days of lying in the grass, staring up at the sky, thinking it through, working it all out, step by step, theories built on prior theories. It is not easy to explain it all to another person, but he's sure he's getting it done: there's a certain logic beneath it all; it's well-formulated, at base, at least.

He stops talking, suddenly unsure. Did he make any sense? It didn't seem to come out as well as it does in daydreams.

The old philosopher stares at him. Those deeply-disturbing eyes, watching you. Is he thinking about your words? He's not saying anything. Why isn't he saying anything? What is he thinking? He's not agreeing or disagreeing, not even trying to refute your theories.

In a soft voice, a very gentle voice, he merely suggests that a little more reading on the subject might be in order before he posits such ideas in public. But sorry, he has to go now, has to go teach his class. Nice to have met you.

The bus ride back to LA takes a long time.

Time has slowed down again, even slower than normal. He stares out the window. Cars, people. Derrida didn't think badly of him. It's just that the university has its rules. A famous man like that. At least he took the time to listen. He was polite. Probably understood most of it, some of it at least, even though he didn't say so. He must have understood. A smart man like that.

The bus arrives back in LA. He gets off.

The sun is burning through the smog. It's getting warmer. Seagulls circle overhead. Why are they here, downtown, so many miles from the ocean?

He walks aimlessly, suddenly unsure. Heidegger says it is the end of philosophy. How could Derrida disagree with that? Reality has to do with the state of being, nothing else. That has been established. But does it really mean the end of everything?

Those seagulls are worrisome. Why are they up there? Circling, circling. What are they looking for? He remembers a time long ago. He was sleeping under a tree, on a mountainside, and far below, in the valley, was a landfill. There were seagulls there too, circling, looking for a snack. How did they get from the ocean all the way to that landfill? How did they find it? Did they discuss it? "What say we fly up and check out the landfill? Maybe there's a dead body there to snack on, lying face up, staring at the sun, not concerned about sunburn. Come on, let's head for that mountain landfill. Last one there is a rotten turtle egg."

He ignores the seagulls. Who cares what they think? He walks, wondering. Derrida's two notions, difference and deference. We have to separate self identity from the false reality of time. Does it mean everything is temporary?

Seagulls are always worrisome. That's why he gave up living out at the beach, those seagulls, and the fact that the homeless shelter out there in Santa Monica was too noisy, people coming and going at all hours, fights just about every night. Better to go inland. Forget living in a homeless shelter where people look down on you, blame you. It wasn't his fault he ended up in a place like that. It's just that he got . . . let's say, distracted. Flunked out. Thrown out, according to them. So what? Big deal. He could have stayed if he wanted to, if he wanted to put his mind to it. It was just . . . let's say, time to go. Always good to know when it's time to move on. Losing the scholarship was too bad, and leaving a nice place like that university. Big trees. Lawns. Hard to just walk away. But so what? Write it off. Bad timing. Bad planning. Or just bad luck. Who cares? All in the past. Future and past, all the same thing. Time is meaningless. Einstein said so.

He walks, doubting reality, doubting even his own sanity. The difference, the difference. If everything is ambiguous, how can anything be anything?

So what if you got thrown out, pushed out, thrown away, as it were, discarded like the carcass of an old rusty car? But who cares about that old reality? That was then, this is now. So what if you have to sleep under a bush at night? It's not so bad. If it gets too cold, you can still go back to the beach. Anytime you want to. Like right now. You could go there right now, if you wanted to.

So let's say he does. Let's say he gets on a bus right now. He has no money so he pretends to search his pockets for a transfer. "I'm sure I had it here somewhere." Let's say he makes it five or six blocks before the driver kicks him off the bus. But wait, not this time. Let's say the driver says, "Aw, just go sit down."

This is great. A ride free all the way to Santa Monica. Nice guy, that driver. Women drivers are not like that. Tough ladies those. No heart. Stop the bus right in the middle of the block. Toss you off, leaving you standing there in a cloud of black smoke as the bus roars away. You are left standing in the street with everybody staring out the window at you. So what? That's their reality. Who cares?

But why are you creating that reality? You are not standing in the street. You are on a bus. Sitting comfortably, looking out the window, on your way to the beach.

If you were at the beach now, you could walk right into the ocean. You could just keep on going, deeper and deeper into the water. You could hold your breath, see all the undersea critters, walk all the way to Japan if you wanted to.

Or not. Maybe he'd turn back. Go back to dry land.

You could walk on the dry land, thinking, despite your wet shoes, thinking about . . . sine waves. Or, how about . . . infinite points along a line. Physics. Maybe you should have studied physics instead of philosophy. What would Derrida think about that? Physics. For any two discrete points along a line there must be a point between them. How small would that point be? And how could those infinitely small points be measured? Wouldn't the very measurement of them impart the energy of the observation into it? Maybe "they" don't like to be observed. What are they? Or who are they? Would Derrida know?

For example, take any point in time. Or take any particular place in time. You might not be here (wherever you are). You could be walking on the beach right now. Or if you were a seagull, flying high above, gliding effortlessly, way up in the air, you could be watching yourself down below. An old man walking on the beach. No, not such an old man. Don't make me that old. Make me . . . a young man again.

He's a young man. Walking on the beach.

You might see a girl, also walking alone, coming right toward you. She might sense your extraordinary capabilities right off the bat. Take a liking to you. Invite you to come live with her at her small, but comfortable, cottage only a stone's throw from the ocean.

He posits a de facto situation. It could be a de jure truth, true at least for that moment in time. And being truth, it is therefore imbued with a kind of natural superiority. In other words, it is holy, beyond analysis. To put it another way, he will get the girl. It is a given.

Posit: he gets the girl.

We are living at 1273-G Ocean Avenue. The G (the seventh letter, a good letter) means there are seven cottages. Therefore, we live in the seventh cottage from the ocean.

The girl is pretty. She has light brown hair. She is thin, thoughtful. She has a cat. The cat is named Trisha. The girl is named . . . not Trisha. Another name, a nice name. Maybe . . . Lindsey. Sure, Lindsey. A fancy name. Her name means she is from a wealthy family from . . . New Haven. From back in Connecticut. She is on sabbatical, far away from family and friends, as far as you can get from back East without wading. She wants to be a writer. She goes to a weekly writer's group to prove she is a writer.

She says they can sleep together, but no sex.

No sex?

No, she says, we are above that.

We are?

Yes, we are. We will have intellectual intercourse--but no crying afterwards.

At night, she feels warm and comfortable against him. His body conforms perfectly to hers. They are so close the cat is unable to get between them. But it will try. It will be jealous. It will try to push its way in, maybe even scratch, or bite.

A seagull will come down from the sky and carry it away.

With the cat gone, the girl will be sad. She will turn to you for solace. She will stop going to those useless writer's groups that take so much of her mind away from their relationship. She will learn to cook. She will stay with him forever, or at least for as long as he likes.

He walks, feeling lonely. Is human companionship necessary? Is it a given?

In the end, she will leave him. They always do.

He will walk up and down Ocean Avenue all day looking for her. But she will be gone, carried away with the wind. There won't even be a 1273 Ocean Avenue anymore. No cottage G. to be found. She packed that reality all up and took it away with her.

Luckily the ocean is still here. He walks on the beach, feeling the soft warm sand under his feet. He likes being close to the ocean. He likes the smell of it, especially on foggy evenings when the tide is just going out. This is real, isn't it?

Copyright 2009. All rights reserved.

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