Offcourse Literary Journal

My Turn To Dream, by Ricardo Nirenberg.

"And grant me my second starless inscrutable hour."
Samuel Beckett, "Whoroscope," last two lines.

"As a child he had been told stories of heaven and hell, of course..."
Michael W. Kinnaird, "Interim," in this issue of Offcourse.

—My eyes are open, I think, but I see nothing. The sun's on China now, but how about the other stars. Maybe it's overcast. Not a sound either. The birds have left for warmer parts, truckers may be on strike, but the boiler in the basement and the habitual hiss and click from the pipes, how strange their silence is. Yet I don't feel cold. Do I feel warm? No. And not a sound from my bowels, not reputed for discretion, alas. Am I breathing? Good question. Empirically, and from lifelong experience, I think I must be, but I don't feel my own breath. Perhaps oxygen is being pumped directly into my brain. If I could take a finger to my neck I could perhaps sense my pulse, but where are my hands? Flat on the mattress, I assume. I also assume that I could move them, if I wanted to. But I don't; I cannot will to will it. Can one will oneself to will? Of the corresponding two negative questions, the one, can one not will oneself to will?, is positively answered by common experience, and the other, can one will oneself to not will?, by Oriental meditation practice. But I don't think one can will oneself to will, unless one has a robust faith in bootstraps. Which brings me to my feet, I mean to the subject of my lower extremities: either they aren't there, or I can't conjure up the will to move them. No will and no perception: I must conclude that I'm no more.

—Stultiloquent fool!

— Says who?

— Who? I, I, I, me, me, ego, je, moi. My admiration for myself has not abated but increased with time. Compared with me, the Stagyrite was a pygmy, to say nought of the Pole who set both poles adrift, or of the Tuscan courtier who spied the nakedness of Jove's own Artemises. My coevals? Ha! That boasting attorney from Toulouse. And if Huyghens be truthful (although, in faith, I'd never trust a man who mourns his wife for longer than one night,) he'll admit that without my geometry his cycloid would still be rolling in the muds of mystery. As for those who come later... The Jew from Amsterdam who drew a few corollaries from, and added a few scholia to, my work, the German who poked his nose into my papers and his rival, the Englishman who pegged gravity to inverse distance squared: none of them would have seen a thing had they not been sitting on my Atlantic shoulders. Closer to your time, that other Jew from Ulm — ah, the city of my dreams and of my heated room — the Jew from Ulm who took over without credit or thanks my axiom that God is not a crook: no, not his nor any other mortal mind has ever measured up to mine. But Modesty ought to be the cloak of Truth, and so I say no more.

— Indeed, you have been called the Father of Modernity.

— That's what I like to be called: Father. Or better, Mon Reverend Père, the way I used to address Mersenne.

— Mon reverend père, please help me resolve a doubt that is tormenting me. Am I dead?

— Had you mastered my Method, you'd start by breaking up your question into simpler ones. First, are you? This, of course, is answered by the very posing of the question, as I was the first to point out. For note it well, you are so fortunate as to be talking to the sublime Columbus of the realms of mind, the first to lay the egg of indubitable thought, then sit on it... Ergo, yes, you are. Secondly, are you dead? Here all depends on how you understand the predicate. Suppose I turn the tables and ask you, Am I dead?

— I think so, mon reverend père: you caught a cold and died in Stockholm, about three centuries and a half ago, the victim of the early morning habits of an extravagant queen.

— Don't remind me of the poxmarked hunchback on a throne, unless you want me to die of it; if I ever erred, it was in writing that Science is a Woman. Youthful error, later plagiarized by the mustachioed Teuton who, anyway, wouldn't have recognized Truth had she hit him right on his ridiculous pompadour. You say you think I'm dead; what makes you think so?

— Vox populi, and the encyclopaedias.

— Stultorum infinitum est numerum; worse still, they publish books. But why credit such fools, when you can clearly see with your mind's eye and hear with your mind's ear that I am talking to you?

— Mon reverend père, I cannot see your face.

— Such Jewish emphasis on father's face! You ought to wean yourself from that: it is a more disabling and more ridiculous dependence than motherly teats. Though Greek Plato, too, believed that certain truths can be communicated only face to face. Visio facie ad faciam: but what can a face, made of flesh, underflowed by blood and blemished by rheums and hairy warts, do for Truth, if not efface, deface and falsify it? Truth must remain faceless: that is why I've stated, "Larvatus prodeo," and I never forget to put on a mask before I speak.

— So you haven't died? I've seen your tombstone in Saint-Germain-des-Prés; I've always heard that your last words were, "Ça mon âme, il faut partir". Rightly or wrongly, I deduced you had departed.

— I never said that.

— Hm... I suspected that "ça" wasn't quite your style.

— No, I mean I never said I didn't die.

— In other words, are you dead? Or are you alive?

— It all depends on circumstance, intention, and viewpoint.

— I can't believe it! You, who always argued for, and with, ideas clear and distinct, you now multiply ambiguities and sound like Anaxagoras waiting to see which way Schrödinger's cat jumps.

— What I'm saying is as clear and distinct as when we say that the three angles of a triangle add up to two right angles, and it is while, and only while, I'm saying that kind of thing, incidentally, that you can truly say I am alive. For in truth, insofar as the mind is occupied with eternal thoughts, the mind itself is immortal. In those rare moments, however, when I'm reminded of Hélène, or Francine, or of my faithful housekeeper, or my valet Gillot, or of a particularly tasty omelet, then you can truly say that I'm dead.

— To live forever, then, one must live mathematically?

— Precisely.

— And to think of a unique, individual thing means death?

— C'est ça.

There was silence, while I was trying to keep all idiosyncratic thoughts away from me, but they, like ghostly shades thirsty for blood, gathered around, buzzing threateningly. Presently I called,

— Monsieur Descartes.

There was no answer to that, nor to my subsequent, repeated calls, Mon reverend père, Pater reverendissimus, Seigneur du Perron, etc. I had been left to my own devices, and I became sick with fear. I felt I was rolling and yawing high up in the rarefied air, without a parachute, and that I could fall at any moment.

And I did fall. Evidently that is what must have happened, for I found myself engulfed, like one who finds himself inside the hollow of a deeply scented wave, a bosom of sweetness without bound, the eternal woman's lap.

I awoke. My wife told me that she had heard me screaming in my sleep, and so had taken me in her arms. I told her I'd been dreaming with Descartes.

— With Descartes? It seemed that you were running from the Devil.


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