By: Gresham Cash
A child turned from his mother and father, paused by a yellow-brick wall, and looked back at his parents with a face of dejection. A sign of obstinacy in the face of authority, a testing of filial love. The frustrated parents gloomed, pondering a fair punishment for this misbehavior. The quotidian gray English sky hung over Oxford, the impending horror of yet another day.
Gene passed by, too enveloped in his own troubles—the end of term, the desire for an intangible relationship—to notice another’s act of individuality in a whelming flood of singular bodies. He had one more day of writing in the Bodleian Library before he was off to Berlin for two months.
He would be traveling with Charis, his muse. He was reading for a MPhil in English literature between the two world wars; she, a MPhil in counseling.
Their conversations prodded Gene’s infatuation with Charis. She was intelligent in a way that was numbing. Her childhood had been nothing less than truly precocious. She argued with her father as if he were a peer; she dominated her mother as if she were an enemy. Her general stance on life was a complete denial of distinctions and fluidity on a spectrum for everything else. The only thing she was uncertain of was whether God existed or not. Her problem, which required an indistinct reality, was that anything outside of herself was seen as only possibly existing and not certainly existing. An apple entered her body, and so it existed. A breath of air filled her lungs, and so it existed. She had never been to Russia, so there was the possibility that it did not exist. The only things that existed outside of herself were purported atrocities. Humanism was sufficient on occasion in that it supplied connections between other existing bodies; isolation was the chance to guarantee, or rather study, one’s own existence but not that of others.
Gene came from a more traditional school of thought: Gene is a man. Charis is a woman. Oxford is a city in England. England is a country on the earth. The earth is a part of a planetary system within the Milky Way. And so on. Likewise, he believed that he was not Charis and that England was not Germany and that the earth was not Mars. He felt that the ability to define something was enough to prove its existence and its uniqueness. To Gene, knowing that cocaine was enjoyed by some was enough to convince him that it existed (whereas with Charis it required intake). The complicated nature of all things being self-propagated was a challenge in their constant conversation of individuality.
The basis by which they agreed or disagreed was the one thing that they agreed on: an individual’s understanding of things was certainly unique, or rather a singular iteration on a repeated theme, that of understanding oneself in a vast cosmos of independent bodies, no one thought being completely like another before it or after it. And so, their conversations were typically modern, in that they beat around the bush.
“England is so drab,” Charis said as they walked out of the library.
“Not to me.” Gene threw the hood of his raincoat over his head.
“It’s gray. I think the people here are generally tacky.”
“I think Western people are generally tacky.”
“What about the food? You can’t tell me that porridge, eggs and toast, potatoes and roasts are interesting?”
“Well obviously not. I think Eastern culture is more in touch with the spiritual nature of food. Think about Thai food—laden with spices, herbs, fermented elements. Everything means something.”
“So, what you mean is that bangers and mash means that God is definitely dead? Mashed or cased food being a complete denial of meaning in things?”
Gene laughed. He thought Charis was clever. He liked that she made him feel clever when he said things like: “Well, it at least means that sex is evil and joy is overrated.”
Charis smiled. Not quite a laugh, but close, Gene thought. Gene continued, “But you know what I mean. Take Vietnamese food for instance: it utilizes the five taste senses—sweet, sour, spicy, salty, umami. Which of course comes from some Buddhist belief in balance.”
“And English food comes from their general disbelief in balance. It’s very practical don’t you think?”
“I think we are in agreement here,” Gene concluded.
A cricket ball rolled in front of them as they passed by Merton Field. Charis picked it up and tossed it to a young school boy on the pitch. He swung and missed.
“That ball must not exist to the boy,” Charis suggested. “Or at least that’s what I used to tell my dad when I didn’t want to play tennis.”
“So, you’re suggesting that seeing doesn’t mean existing? Like people say: seeing is believing.”
“Seeing is one thing,” Charis thought for a moment, “believing is not necessarily linked to it.”
“As in the case of Thomas seeing the resurrected Christ but still desiring or needing to touch his hands and wounds in order to believe that who he saw was real?”
“I generally reject the idea of Jesus Christ being God, but yes, in the story of Jesus, seeing definitely was not enough, or did not result in belief.”
Gene pointed to the pitch. “But that boy, he was unable to connect with the ball, so does the ball not exist to him as you said?”
“It only exists in that he needs it to exist or not. Much of what we do could be accomplished if only we needed it to.”
“Maybe that’s why we don’t take proper care of the earth. It’s just that we don’t necessarily need the earth to last, because we certainly won’t last as long as it.”
“Yeah, I suppose,” Charis said as she put a cigarette into her mouth.
“Now, what about your cigarette?”
“What about my cigarette?”
“Do you need it?”
“Well, yes, I’ve developed a physical addiction to it.”
“But do you need it to exist?”
“I don’t need it to exist, but it needs me to exist.”
This brought to mind the fact that death exists, that death is the one certainty regardless of what one believes or understands. So Gene had to ask: “Well what about the cancer that comes from the cigarette?”
“What about it?
“It exists doesn’t it?”
“Not yet! How can you go on knowing of that potentiality?”
“What is this cigarette: it’s a construct, it’s not me.”
“And the cancer is also a construct?”
“Sure, why not?”
“And the death from cancer?”
“A more painful version of a certainty.”
Gene grabbed the handrail by the River Cherwell that bordered Christ Church Meadow. “So this rail, this rail that if I were by the Grand Canyon would prevent me from dying is made of an alloy. It’s outside of me, and so it’s not me. But it’s potentially saving me from death. So, in the same light, not smoking is saving me from death. And why would we deny the rail or deny abstention from smoking as logical truths that we must acknowledge?”
“Well, I would argue for the sake of potentiality.”
“Pray tell, what does that mean?” Gene nearly shouted.
“You said it: the rail potentially saves one from death. Just as not smoking potentially saves one from death.”
“Aw, well that’s just bullocks.” Gene laughed. “I always feel silly using English words, but it is! I’m not sure if that’s pessimism to a tee or some sort of messy optimism.”
“I think it’s pragmatism. There are things that we have, and yet we would restrict ourselves from them?”
“What things that we have?”
“Anything! Name it: sex, drugs, alcohol. Why not try them?”
“Well, first off, there are moral bases for abstention. Also, asceticism is the logical end of self-preservation and healthy, happy living.”
“Sure, but what about what Schopenhauer says?” She pulled a small moleskine notebook from her pocket, and after flipping a few pages read: “To preach morals is easy, to ground morals is difficult.”
“Ha!” Gene laughed. “So much of philosophy is the proclamation of self-evident truths.”
“And just like the Constitution in the United States, so many self-evident truths are only self-evident to those who believe them to be so. This is just one that I think is quite interesting.”
“And it’s true,” Gene agreed. “Morals are particularly difficult to ground, but they often seem to protect us from things.”
“Well, first there’s the fact that morally speaking, our bodies are spiritual temples of sorts—the spirit of god is within us and what not. So, putting trash food, excessive alcohol, and drugs, literally toxic air from cigarettes, seems quite contrary to treating our temples with respect.”
“Our temples…you know I don’t necessarily believe in God, right?”
“Yeah, but I know that you don’t necessarily not believe in Him either. Everything is debatable until believed. And not everything is or will be believed. And whether the cricket ball exists or not, when it hits that boy in the face, he better believe it.”
“Touche,” Charis said as she lit another cigarette.
As the couple walked around the meadow, neither would admit that their intellectual fascination with each other was a hindrance to their romantic relationship—neither wanted to be the first to admit that they found the other attractive in any simple, temporal way. And so, they denied themselves the pleasure of exploring each other’s bodies, whispering in the bed at night even though there was no one near to overhear, breaching the steely pseudo-English veneer of proper chit-chat and accelerating into the passion and intensely human pleasure of crying together. For the time being, they would read in the library for the sake of impressing one another and ultimately to define or free themselves from definition.