Literary Yard

Search for meaning

Story: The Man Who Never Was

By: G. D. McFetridge


The first day I took a long walk through town, the backdrop brought forth two clear impressions, one of which was destined to last over time while the other was constantly changing. Every day thereafter, I perceived the houses on the same street and because I knew they were the same houses I always thought of them in the same way; and I must also admit that they always looked as they had looked before, yet when I returned to those impressions I had seen during my previous walks, after a sufficiently long passage of time, I was shocked at the notable though ineffable change that had taken place. It seemed that those houses continually perceived by me and always impressing themselves on my mind, had succeeded in taking something of my consciousness, for like myself they had existed and like myself they had grown older. This notion was not an illusion. If a current impression were the same as one from days past, what would happen? What difference would there be between perception and remembrance?
I was for the most part content with the shadow of myself projected into uniform space. But my consciousness, goaded by the seductive need to separate objects from sensation, replaced reality with the symbol or perceived the reality only through the symbol. As my sense of self refracted, and in so doing broke into pieces, I realized I was inclined toward the requirements of language, for my consciousness preferred it that way, yet gradually I lost sight of who and what I was in the largest sense.
Most of my life up to that point had been more or less a deception. And allow me to say, I never exaggerate. All I had ever done, quite so without exception or guilt, was do what psychologists call impression management; in other words, I tried to control—or at least influence—the impression other people had of me. Like an actor, I guess. A very good actor.
The megalomaniac wants his associates and subordinates to fear him for his power; the narcissist wants everyone to admire her for her beauty or charm. But I wanted people to see me as the legend I believed myself to be, and what I mean by legend is someone standing much bigger than life. An arc type, if you will. So perhaps my condition was, and is, a mix of the megalomaniac and the narcissist. Or maybe it’s more complicated than I’ve suggested but I will leave that to the psychologists. The simple interjection is that admiration is good; it’s good to be lovable, idolized, applauded, fussed over and whatever else. Ask any honest person.
Back to the houses. You see the ultimate outcome of that spiritual—no that’s the wrong word, that psychological … no that’s not right either—that philosophical moment of lucid clarity, had pushed me rather forcefully into analysis. Delving into self was popular at the time and half the people I knew were reclined on the majestic Freudian couch, or perhaps it was a behavioral modification couch or maybe a new-age wisdom couch. But in any event, I don’t believe it did much good, nor did it make a real difference. Not for me. True, it did make some of these friends better aware of their issues and brought forth useful jargon and concepts to the manner in which we were to converse in order to consider our feelings as opposed to our thoughts. Adding a benchmark, as a point of reference, I was an adjunct instructor at a junior college during that period, teaching three classes a semester—the contractual limit—plus summer school, and my pay was about 12K a year (2002 dollars). But I was also pulling the highest student-evaluated ratings in the department, which of course annoyed the in-group of full-timers who were making 60-70,000 a year, and who were doubtless affronted that a brash parvenu was outshining them.
The male and female professors who co-chaired the department were frat-rat types, he a college football star, she a high school beauty queen. Her protégé in the department was a plumping younger woman of mixed blood (Native American and something Anglo, probably Irish judging by her last name) who had been a high school cheerleader.
The football star’s boy Friday was another frat type who fancied himself quite the tennis player, until I thrashed him on the court (6-2; 6-1). A non-career move if ever there was one, and afterward, he gave me suspicious looks and tried to spy on me when I was teaching, suggesting, I suppose, he figured to catch me doing something worth reporting to administration. Anyway, I think you get the point. I was no golden boy and I was on a fast track to nowhere. Finally, after four years—I quit.
But I digress. The shrink I saw was all right, a cognitive therapy practitioner, an older man with neatly trimmed graying hair and moustache, frameless glasses and an informal manner. He often listened to me without saying much, seemed interested and understanding although after six or seven sessions, the way he punctuated my ongoing dialogues with questions or comments became too predictable, suggesting he was working from a well-worn script brought about by laziness or maybe even boredom. Added to that, I don’t think he was accustomed to patients (he referred to us as clients) with as much raw intelligence as I had. Or self-awareness. I’d tried to explain about the houses. How the experience had curiously undermined my sense of self; but he only peered at me through his glasses and nodded, and I could tell he didn’t get it. He had a Ph.D. and I only had an M.A. So the pecking order was pre-established, though as far as I could surmise, I almost certainly had at least twenty IQ points on him. The gods had not gifted him in that regard.
And he was a pill pusher. After about ten sessions, he brought up the possibility that my problem might be neurochemically based rather than strictly psychological. Endogenous as opposed to exogenous. I flinched. How could any pill change what I had experienced? His response was non-paradigmatic. “If you’re going to get wet, why not try swimming?”
This made no sense to me whatsoever. A self-indulgent truism?
From that point forward, I became less forthcoming and began fencing with him and questioning his comments, I suppose to prove that I was not merely a garden-variety neurotic who had wondered into his office lacking any clue about what was going on inside my own head, or lacking the ability to draw my own insightful conclusions.
So after another few sessions, I began covertly demonstrating my superior intelligence, in ways I won’t bother recounting, and this seemed to put him off—or perhaps I might have projected that impression—and he started in again about the possibility of trying medication. Okay, why not, I thought. Caffeine, nicotine, cocaine, alcohol, and marihuana (heroin wasn’t something I’d indulge) hadn’t worked beyond the short run, and by that juncture I’d given them all up. So what harm would there be in some pharmaceutically created chemical?
Sometimes so-called wise men (or women, as the case may be—one desires to be politically correct these days … gag me with a tongue depressor) assert that our actions result as a necessity of our feelings, of our thoughts, plus the entire preceding series of our conscious states. In contrast, freedom stands denounced for being incompatible with the basic properties of matter, in what I would refer to as the Newtonian universe. Not the quantum. Therefore two brands of determinism, two seemingly separate observed proofs of universal necessity. Psychological determinism and the refutations that are pinned to it, depend on a mistaken notion of the multiplicity of consciousness. Physical determination and mechanical theories of matter are two sides of the same coin. The universe appears as a bundle of cosmic numina resolved by mind and imagination into molecules and atoms, and if you go a bit further, into subatomic particles. Like quarks and leptons and all their cohorts. Once again steering clear of quantum speculations and debates, said particles carry on with endless movements (motion) of every sort. Vibrations, transformations, chemical actions and reactions, physical phenomena, etc., and our senses in some cases perceive these varying qualities.
A forest fire is radical flux in terms of transformation; houses, for example are relatively stable. Humans are in flux. But is any of that fluxing a matter of free will? That was really the underpinning of what I figured was the mother and father, aunt and uncle or perhaps the bastard child of all questions. And my shrink certainly didn’t have an answer. Neither did Jesus (though he may have believed he did, or his biographers believed), and neither did Einstein, Newton, Freud, Copernicus, Sartre, Kant, Hume, Joan of Arc, Karen Horney, Marie Curie, Queen Elizabeth or Cleopatra (trying to be politically correct but I can’t think of any other women) … and on and on through the decades and centuries ad nauseam, and I don’t mean that out of disrespect to any of these great minds but let’s face it they didn’t have the answer. So my shrink was in good company.
Back to the houses. The funny thing about time is that it cannot exist without change. Think about it. How do we know the passage of time unless something changes? In a changeless universe, there could be no time because how would I perceive it? This clearly suggests that time and change are in fact opposite sides of a single coin. Or maybe I could be tempted to proclaim that change gives birth to time, yet time is required by change to function because change creates a linear trail of evidence and that evidence can’t all be in the same place at once, therefore time has to separate it into slices, but the trouble with this is the size of the slice. What is the tiniest most miniscule slice of time? Questions such as these several aforementioned are in fact why I decided to try taking the antidepressant. My mind was then and no doubt still is more of a problem than a solution. My mind destroys my sense of self outside of its own realm, where of course it rules with an iron fist until something really rocks the thinker.
In any case, here’s the sneaky trick about antidepressants. They make you feel like shit when you first take them, or at least they did for me, and I suffered other discomforting side effects; yet my shrink, when I complained of this, said I needed to stay with it because the pills wouldn’t reach full effect for 4-6 weeks. Over that space of time, he assured me, the side effects would vanish. Great. So … I stayed with the pills for three months and then flushed them right down the toilet after titrating a few days. Back to the trick.
Antidepressants make you feel worse than when you started taking them and so when they finally stop making you feel worse, you think you’re feeling better. But what you really are is just a little less there, and I was already not there and the houses had made that clear.
“I guess you like putting everything into patterns of irreconcilable circular thinking.” That was what he said when I told him I’d flushed the pills. I said, “No. I don’t agree. I see reality for what it is and it’s not necessarily a good thing. Human existence is a paradoxical trap wrapped up in the web of a black widow spider and there’s no way out except not being and I’m stuck being … short of that rather distasteful idea of … well, you know what I mean.”
“Have you been thinking of doing any of those distasteful things?”
“No. I would never desecrate my body. It’s not my body’s fault, it’s mine.”
“And you feel that you and your body are at odds?”
“Not exactly. We simply have very different agendas.”
“What about God?”
“What about God?”
“Is there room in your thinking for God?”
“Isn’t rational thinking the antithesis of God?”
“Is it?”
“Absolutely. All human notions of God derive from desperation because God is not approachable by any of the capacities of reason or intellect.”
“What about faith?”
For a psychologist to start in with God talk made me suspect he was running short of standard methods, so to redirect the session I said, “Do you have faith in God? No, wait, do you even believe in God?”
He looked at me but he didn’t say anything, suggesting that he was circling the wagons, so to speak. He removed his glasses and polished the lenses with a tissue—to better his vision?—and then let out a breath that I thought was slightly theatrical.
“Under most all circumstances our purpose here is you and not me. However, this once, and only once, I’ll give you an answer. Yes.”
“Are we talking Spinoza’s God or the fairytale version?”
“I’m not familiar with Spinoza’s notion of God.”
See how clever I am? I’d hooked him. He was ready to go and I was leading.
“God is the uncaused cause behind the whole deal but God doesn’t meddle in the affairs of humans. God doesn’t suspend the laws of physics on a whim. God cares no more about humanity’s plight than the plight of a hive of honeybees. I’ll put it another way, do you think it’s possible for me or any other human to have some sort of buddy-buddy relationship with God? Like maybe God will take pity on me and help me out—or when all those people on the Titanic cried out begging for deliverance from the icy water that God lifted a so much as a finger?”
“I wonder. Do you use intellectualizing as a method for self-defense?”
“You tell me …”
He glanced at the big round clock on the wall and said, “We’re out of time. Think about what I said and we’ll take this up next session.”
Damn! He slipped through my fingers.
Confusion between time, motion and space has brought to light the paradoxes of the Eleatics. The interval separating two points in space is infinitely divisible, and if motion consists of parts like those within the interval itself, then the interval remains impossible to cross. But in truth, each of Achilles’ steps is a simple indivisible act. Following a given number of steps, Achilles will have eventually passed the tortoise … or something like that.
But what does this have to do with houses and streets and the town they occupy?
I had been trying to reconcile that question in order to reestablish myself outside of the constraints of linear time and my perception of it as it changes the forms of which I am conscious. Everything appeared to me in a searing and amorphous light. My most tightly held secret vision, even at the beginning of my disengagement, was to conceive of reinventing myself as an alien force, but no corollary-based vision of the images I conjured beamed into space beyond the reach of gravity. Despite, however, my anxiety at the prospect of impartial confirmation of my theories, my life-long habitual imperative to remain in what one might call a personal zone of comfort had led me to suspect my own conclusions, odd though that might seem. More importantly, I’m fairly sure I know when I’m under the influence of my own irrational thinking and more specifically when I’m suffering delusions.
The real issue is that the problem is beyond bizarre, beyond surreal. The issue of my truly being here, or on that street seeing those houses, is only an analogy designed to shed light on the fact of knowing whether or not I’m located at any particular place to begin with. I think we could agree that pondering this to extreme would be a fast lane to insanity. Of course, the absurd ephemeracy, the triviality and blatant dislocation of this entire discussion must illuminate the inconsequence of the question itself. In the largest philosophical sense, I could not and would not—for weeks and even months—convince myself to raise the issue with a friend or even a fellow patron at a bar for fear that it would serve only to deepen my feeling of non-being.
Thus I have resolved—maybe that’s too strong a word—I have decided that the laws of the universe are the laws and they’re immutable whether I understand them or not. As such, I figured there was a simple if not fun solution at hand. I would return to that town and to that street and to those houses and I would burn one of them to the ground.
Curiously enough it seems fate (the conspiracy of the causal universe) had sided with me—I’m saying that as a joke for we already know fate isn’t in the business of taking sides—because one of those houses stood beneath the late afternoon sun with a for sale sign in front staked into the overgrown lawn. In other words, no one was living there, so I waited until twilight and jimmied a window and went inside—two-gallon gas can in hand. The rest, as I’m certain you can imagine was a series of events adhering nicely with the laws of physics and Newton’s mechanical universe.
That sonofabitch house went up like a torch and made a magnificent rosy-orange glow in the twilight sky, which I watched from the safety of a hilltop a half-mile away. With binoculars. What I hadn’t anticipated was the tardiness with which the fire department would arrive to take up their hoses and thus the houses on both sides caught fire as well. People were scurrying around and yelling. Like little ants, and the firemen (and women) were squirting great streams of water that arced across the backdrop and, like the sky, glowed rosy-orange.
Suffice to say, those houses once perceived by me and always impressing themselves on my mind, no longer succeeded in taking something of my consciousness, for like me they had existed and like me they had changed. This notion was not an illusion. And if my current impressions were the same as ones from days past, what would happen? What difference would there be between perception and remembrance?
For starters, I would in the future remember the wonderful fuming chaos I had created. Indeed! A working demonstration, if you will, and I had injected myself into the grander scheme of time and space and I had, I think—I’m pretty sure anyway—made substantial my being as defined by self as it is contained within consciousness. But be assured the fire department though tardy in the beginning was good at containing the fire to three houses. Plus no one was hurt, not an eyelash singed. I felt glad about that, especially in hindsight. Most of all, I got away Scot-free (is that politically incorrect?).
Let’s just say that no cops ever came knocking at my door.
Insurance companies have more money than they deserve and I didn’t mind them footing the bill for my coming out party, my victory over being in time! So … to make a long story short, I floated happily in the ether for a couple weeks, told God we were square on all accounts, and then decided, after returning to the mundane mayhem of living, that some sort of change was in the offing.
Offing. You know, that part of the ocean visible from shore but very distant or beyond anchoring ground. I had reached a place, a state of mind where no anchor could secure me to the earth. And yet impermanence and non-being had lost their mysterious and terrifying grip. From this new perspective, from this deliverance—my gossamer rebirth—I realized that because I never was I could never be naught.
So where is the downside? To be or not to be—Shakespeare my man! Would anyone like to buy me a drink?
I’m thinking a vodka and tonic would do just fine. With a twist of lime. And by the way, dark energy is the byproduct of the movement of time.




  1. Quite a collection of random thoughts. Intriguing. You do have an interesting mind, although rambling.

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