Four Electric Ladies ... Contents
Copyright Ben Goertzel 1996 -- All Rights Reserved
Had things gone differently, I might have stayed in that hospital forever. Well, I don't know. It's conceivable, anyway. It really wasn't bad, being lost in mental nothing all the time. No stimulation at all, inner or outer. Isn't that what the Buddhists call Enlightenment? I was hardly even aware of the other patients, although I did open my mouth to speak to them from time to time. I didn't want to be impolite. It was like a long-term low-level daydream, with hardly any contents at all.
But, for once, outside events conspired in my favor. On my tenth day at the hospital, my mother came by for her regular visit, and told me she had some good news. She'd gotten a phone call offering me an interview for a job at Brooklyn College. Assistant professor, in the physics department. They needed a theorist. She hadn't told them anything about my current place of residence. This was exactly what I needed. I left the hospital the next day. I was no longer depressed, though I certainly wasn't happy either. I had numbed out certain areas of my mind.
I aced the interview, of course, and was informed a week later that I'd gotten the job. They liked the way I combined an innovative research programme in fundamental physics with a solid knowledge of experimental work. Also, I was the only short- listed applicant with English as a first language, which couldn't have hurt any.
By the waterfall, with Julie, I had had my highest insight. I had felt one with everything. I had understood, at long last. All my previous insight experiences had coalesced in one mass. But Julie's death had destroyed this. It had taken away my deep insight and turned me into a hollow shell, a walking bag of emptiness.
I didn't realize, at the time, how totally normal this was. A person's life is often too small a receptacle to contain their highest insights. The insight explodes their self, their habit- patterns, and the result is a calamity, that destroys the mind, and hence the insight itself. This is why undisciplined, uncontrolled mystical insight is so incredibly dangerous.
Anyhow, for two years after Julie's death, I shied away from women. I had a few short-term girlfriends, but inevitably broke off with them after three or four dates. I was unable to feel any attachment. I devoted myself to my career. Women reminded me of things that I had promised myself not to think about, for a good long while.
I was doing physics sixty or seventy hours a week, which sounds sort of crazy, but wasn't really so bad at all. For one thing, I wanted to guarantee my tenure. To lose the good job I'd so miraculously obtained would have been a very stupid thing. For another thing, I didn't really have anything else to do, short of fart around on my electric piano. I had a few "friends" at work, with whom I ate lunch and played tennis, but no one I could really feel close to. Most of my colleagues were Chinese, which automatically set up a sort of emotional distance between us. Also, the music scene had lost its appeal for me. I was now so much older than all the kids in the rock clubs that I really stood out. Anyway it just reminded me of Sophia and Julie; it wasn't any fun anymore. I developed a fairly paranoid attitude: I'd look at the musicians up on stage and wonder which one would OD first on junk, or die of ecstasy or alcohol poisoning, or drunk driving. I tried to cultivate an interest in live jazz, but found I preferred to sit home and listen to CD's while I worked.
But the physics work was frustrating, as I suppose it had to be. In the guise of higher mathematics, I was working out my own internal puzzles.
Back in grad school, I had pursued my Theory of Everything with a kind of philosophical passion. I had wanted to resolve the basic nature of the universe: to understand the nature of interdependence. If everything is defined in terms of everything else, then how can anything be? Now I had an extra impetus to carry out this philosophical/scientific mission: my vision by the waterfall, in which I had fully understood the nature of Logos for the first time.
I was unable to reflect on this vision in detail: it was blocked out from my mind, with a kind of dull mental pain. I could remember it, if I really wanted to, but it just seemed sort of sick and embarrassing. All that crap about the Empire of Woman, the seven points of the woman's body, the three plus four structure of the harmonic scale. It was, as Julie had observed, deluded nonsense. Or maybe there was something to it after all. But if there was, what good had it brought me? It had led me to such a fever pitch of delusion that I had led Julie to her death!
Still, despite this aversion, somewhere deep in my mind I felt the nature of the vision. It filtered through me automatically. I wanted to make myself one with the Logos, to fill my mind up with physics so thoroughly that nothing else in the universe existed.
But the further I pushed with my theory, pushed with all my might, the more I saw how futile it was. I just generated more interesting forms, more neat mathematics, more ideas for tricky experiments. More structures yanked, or seduced, from the Logos. My theory was part of the play of forms. A wonderful interesting part, but not a final answer. Not, fundamentally, any different from theories of biology, or chemistry, or whatever.
The whole goal of a Theory of Everything seemed increasingly futile. You could never really get at the core. There was something untouchable. Just like you could never really understand a woman. You could sort of mirror the basic existential questions in your mathematics. Or in your erotic love. But it was all just an exercise: a way to stretch your mind, and the minds of others. There was no final point, just a kind of chaotic orbiting. The shape of your orbit was the only true goal there ever was.
For once, I had given myself entirely to physics, without distracting myself in the least bit. And what I found was, physics wasn't really enough. It was experience, not theory, that brought you to the core of it all. I had been stupid to look for a Theory of Everything. Well, not entirely stupid; it was no worse than any other kind of science. But I had been deluding myself that it had a deep ultimate meaning. In the back of my mind, I'd been thinking that if I just could get my Theory of Everything right, then my life would have a meaning. Everything would just snap into place. But that was never going to happen.
Without reflecting deeply, I began to doubt the value of physics, for me, personally. I began to understand that, as Julie had pointed out so forcefully, I had always put thought ahead of life. I had alienated women in favor of physics. It wasn't so much the fact that I'd gone back to physics that had irritated Diane, and ruined our marriage. It was my attitude: the fact that, except when transported by eroticism, I valued physics so much more highly than her. To me, physics was the meaning of life. But she wanted to be my meaning of life. And, in truth, as I saw now, she was an equally valid meaning.
I still loved fundamental physics. The play of ideas and formulas and experiments was making love to the Logos. It was worshipping the universe. It was incredible to me. But my attitude was shifting.
Something like this was going through my head when, one fine day, twenty-six months after returning to New York, I got up from my desk about 10 o'clock at night and found myself walking toward the Caligula once again. I wasn't sure why I was doing it, but it seemed like the thing to do. I hadn't been back there since that time I'd seen Sophia, right after Diane's death. My thoughts traveled back, predictably enough, to the last time I had walked the same route. Ready to smash my head to pulp with a brick over grief at Diane's death. Totally dazed, confused, baffled. Up every night crying. Now I had lost two other lovers in bizarre ways, but deep down I felt better. There was a sadness in my mind, true, but I also knew I was more mentally healthy that at any previous time in my life. I found myself wishing I could have Diane back for a few hours, just to share with her all I had learned -- about myself, about her. All I had learned, which had been in my mind already. And probably in hers as well.
I walked into the club and it was deja vu all over again. I laughed to myself in a superior way. The band on stage was walking mechanically through the grunge ritual. It wasn't Slaughter Circus this time, but it might as well have been. I could hardly tell the difference. The kids were moshing in the front, spilling their beers all over each other. There were a couple tough guys moshing everyone too hard, stepping on feet and elbowing people in the stomach, pretending it was accidental. A bunch of lurkers like me around the edges, leeching off the moshers' energy but paying attention to the music. It was a clone of hundreds of identical scenes all around the country, all around the world. These weren't individual people, they were cells in some kind of meta-human organism. The girl next to me spilled beer down my shirt when someone smashed into her. She apologized and giggled. Her friend suggested she clean it off with her tongue. She seemed quite willing to, but my distant expression put her off. I watched her ass move through her Spandex pants as she danced away.
Then the second band came on, and my jaw dropped wide open. I nearly dislocated it. It was Sophia up there. She was playing the saxophone.
But no, wait, that wasn't Sophia. It was someone who looked much like her. But skinnier. And several years younger.
I walked up closer, pushing the moshers aside, till I was right up by the stage. Yes. There was no question in my mind. I yelled to her, "Jenny?"
She looked down, confused for a moment. She didn't know me. But her expression told me everything. That was her name, indeed.
It was Sophia's little sister.
I listened to the set with a weird kind of tension. I wanted her to be another Sophia, but I knew that she couldn't be. Sophia was one of a kind. I was prepared to be disappointed -- but I wasn't. Jenny was just as good as her sister, though in a different way.
Obviously she had picked up on some of her sister's original chords and scales. There were hints of middle-eastern, Chinese, African and so on. But there was also a strong classical influence. Parts of her solos sounded like Yngwie Malmsteen on the saxophone: snippets out of Bach, Mozart, Paganini, turned into late-Coltrane jazz. On the general spectrum of music genres, she was awfully similar to her sister. It was heavy rock with a lot of instrumental songs and lengthy solos. Basically, like Sophia, she was doing electric jazz improv in the guise of pub rock. But while Sophia was rough and raunchy, Jenny was elegant and smooth. And her voice was like an angel's! It sounded almost like Julie's, just a little bit better controlled. When she put down the saxophone to sing, it was like a light came over the room. Her saxophone solos dug out all the secret patterns of the human mind, all the unconscious twistings and turnings, all the weird loves and hates. And then her voice made everything all right. It was a lullaby voice, though with a slight sexual edge. What it's tone said to me was, "Go to sleep, rest your eyes, and then I'll pleasure myself on your sleeping body. I know you're tired; don't worry, I won't wake you.... Go to sleep. Sweet dreams."
She wore a tight blouse and you could see her breasts were small and formless. She wasn't about to flash the audience, or play the saxophone with her nipples. Her body was slight and boyish, whereas Sophia's had been curvaceous, broad -- intimidatingly feminine. But her face -- her face was Sophia's, without the hard edge etched in by unhappiness, booze, pot, speed, heroin. You could tell she wasn't a drug user, at least not a serious one.
I intended to walk up to her after the show. But she walked up to me first, getting right to the point. "You knew Sophia."
"Nobody called me Jenny except Sophia. My name is Neefa now."
I smiled. "As in Jen-neefa?"
She shrugged. "Sure. Sort of." Obviously she had been through this routine before, but she didn't seem to mind it. "There was a Dr. Seuss movie I loved as a kid, called Pontoffel Puck, Where Are You?, that had a character in it called Neefa-Feefa, the eyeball-dancer."
"Right. She wore a veil and you never saw any part of her besides the top of her head and her eyes."
"Neat." So the exotic dancer's daughter was an eyeball dancer. I could see a certain logic there. "So can you do an eyeball dance for me?"
She blushed. "Maybe later. To tell you the truth, I've never tried.... No one has ever asked me before."
She looked around nervously. She didn't know what to say next.
"I was with her when she died," I said. The words poured out of me all of a sudden; I couldn't hold them up. "Or, a few hours before. I was in love with her, sort of. I'd been playing keyboards in the band since the start of the summer. Just as a summer job, sort of...." I realized how stupid I sounded but I had to keep going. "I'm really a physicist. I was depressed because my wife had died so I went off with Sophia.... I knew she was a junky before I went with her. But she'd kicked in early July.... I don't know why she went back...."
"They always do."
"Yeah...." The room had gotten quiet all of a sudden; there was something wrong with the jukebox. Now there was just the sound of people's voices. Suddenly the place seemed insufficiently private to be discussing such things. But I couldn't exactly stop. "She didn't tell you about me, did she?"
Neefa laughed. "I hadn't heard from her in a year and a half when she died. We weren't exactly close."
"That's so weird. You two should have played together. It would have been wonderful."
"We did, all the time; when we were kids, I mean. Until she got into the drug scene."
"You want to go out somewhere? Grab a drink?"
"I don't drink."
The more I talked to Neefa, sucking down espressos and wolfing down pastries, the more it all made sense -- Sophia's music, I mean. Something I hadn't thought about for a while, but which had remained unresolved in my mind. Neefa was a sort of classical music prodigy. She'd been playing Bach fugues on the piano when she was six years old. I'd never understood how Sophia could make such sophisticated compositions without any training. It was because she'd spent years of her childhood jamming with someone who did have the training. Sophia had picked up formal structure from Neefa. And Neefa had picked up Sophia's wild inventiveness, her originality and spontaneity -- her weird, twisted forms. It was in order to rebel against Neefa that Sophia had insisted on playing all her own chords. Sure, little sister was a prodigy, but she was basically an automaton, playing back what some dead guys three hundred years ago had written down. She was just a well-engineered machine. Sophia was playing her own stuff, stuff that was alive and moving, not frozen in little black marks on some page. Neefa had rebelled against their exotic-dancer mother, becoming straight-laced and proper. Sophia had taken her mother's art and turned it into a higher art; fused it with her music.
The sad thing was that these two brilliant musicians, who had learned so much from each other, had never appreciated each other properly. Sure, deep down they must have understood what they had meant to each other. But on the surface there was nothing but mutual disdain. Only years after Sophia's death did Neefa begin to admit her admiration for her sister. And indeed, it was only after Sophia's death that Neefa had formed a rock band and gone out on the club circuit. Much to the surprise of her family and friends, as the rock scene was totally foreign to her personality.
She was seventeen years old. Seventeen. Fresh out of high school. Ready to start at Juillard with a full scholarship at the beginning of September. She'd breezed right through the audition; blown them all away.
Seventeen. This means that when I slept with her that night, in my mother's house, I was literally committing a crime. I had never brought a woman back to mom's house before, but this was a special case. I couldn't see taking Neefa to a hotel. It would have been indelicate.
I didn't really need to have sex with her. She was reasonably attractive, but my feeling for her wasn't mainly a sexual thing. I just wanted to stay around her. She gave me a great feeling. I didn't want to say goodbye. But I couldn't very well have invited her home with me just to talk some more. As soon as we got back, she assumed sex was in order. And so I found myself, for the second time in my life, sleeping with someone on the first date. The first time, of course, had been Sophia.
It wasn't Neefa's first time, but she didn't seem particularly experienced. She told me later that she had only had six previous sexual experiences. All with the same boyfriend, who had recently broken up with her. Like her older sister, she was multiply orgasmic.
We dated for about four months, seeing each other a couple times a week. I discovered, to my surprise, that, unlike Diane or Sophia or Julie, she actually enjoyed talking about physics. She had been an A student in high school physics and had read a number of popular science books on things like quantum physics and cosmology. For a new high school graduate, she had a surprisingly good understanding of these things. Talking to her, I began to get a new enthusiasm for my Feynman integrals, for my Theory of Everything.
I can't imagine how I must have seemed to her. Ten years older than her, a scientist with fifty thousand dollars in the bank, full of weird stories about Vegas and New Zealand.... If she had been from a more middle-class background, I would probably have had more in common with her parents than I did with her. As it was she had no experience of anyone like me. Plus, there was a certain air of paradox about me, in that I had known her sister intimately, but yet wasn't a total drug-addled degenerate, like all her sister's friends she'd ever seen. I was a link between her sister's world and hers. I must have overwhelmed and baffled her.
But when I asked her about it later, all she said was "You seemed like a really nice guy." She said she hadn't thought much about my age or my relationship with her sister or any of that stuff. If anything, she said, the fact that I'd had a sexual relationship with her sister had been a turn-off. She hadn't wanted to get into a position of competing with her sister sexually.
Being with Neefa was tremendously relaxing after the psychological complexities of all my previous relationships. I'd felt this same kind of simplicity in my first few weeks with Julie, but in that case the simplicity had evaporated in favor of something more therapeutic but less comfortable. This time there were no spooky undertones, no unspeakable mutual secrets. There was nothing dark or twisted or profound about Neefa -- nothing whatsoever. She had never been drunk or smoked cigarettes, let alone taken drugs; she had never had a near-death experience, been enraged for days on end, or had sex with three guys at once. Altered states of consciousness were entirely foreign to her. Except for her unusual musical ability, and her high general intelligence, she was perfectly normal, with a pleasant, placid temperament. She would never bring me to grips with the core of myself, like Diane or Julie; and she would never wrench me with ecstasy and pain like Sophia; but she was an absolutely wonderful person to be around.
Much to my surprise, my mom and Neefa clicked immediately. At first, Mom was put off that I was seeing someone so young, but once she got over her shock, the two of them were chatting like old buddies. The thing was that, unlike Diane or Julie, Neefa wasn't shy at all. She wasn't a social misfit. She was one of the few genuinely well-adjusted people I'd ever associated with. Which made it all the more ironic that, as she often said, she looked to me as a source of wisdom -- me, the most confused person on earth! Me, using esoteric physics to hide from my weird, twisted past.
"I like being with an older guy," she'd say. "You've done so much, you've learned so much; it saves me the trouble of finding out everything for myself."
I'd laugh at her good-naturedly. "You think my experience in life has given me some kind of wisdom that could be useful to you, but really it's the opposite. Experience just gives you biases, reflexes for or against certain situations. The wisest you are is when you're first born and don't have any prejudices at all."
"You are so silly, Vic."
Of course, Neefa was right: I am silly. Experience does teach you something, as well as making you jaded. But fortunately, I was slow at learning the one thing I should have picked up from my experience, which was not to get involved with women. I knew right from the start that I was falling head over heels for Neefa. It was embarrassingly inevitable -- but there was nothing I could do about it.
And this just about brings me to the end of my story. After four months of constant dating, I proposed to Neefa. She accepted. We decided to marry after another three months. Her mother was surprised but didn't really have anything to say about it. Neefa was seventeen and a half anyway; if her mother had refused permission, we would have just had to wait another few months.
All in all, I found meeting her mother a rather anticlimactic experience. I had expected some kind of sexpot, and found instead an attractive but perfectly ordinary-looking forty year old waitress, who wore lots of makeup and punctuated her speech liberally with curses, a habit which fortunately neither Sophia nor Neefa had picked up. She seemed nervous around me but warmed up when we talked about Sophia. I ate dinner with her maybe six or seven times before the wedding.
And so I got married for the second time, to a first-semester college student, not yet eighteen years old. For the first couple years of the marriage I was nervous, lest some kind of disaster befall her. I knew it was ridiculous, but yet at the back of my mind I still had the feeling that I brought some kind of curse on my women. But eventually the morbid feeling disappeared.
Neefa gave up on the club scene for a while, intent on mastering theory and orchestration, but in her final year at Juilliard she got back into it, and she got a recording contract on a small indie label. She put out a CD called Eyeball Dancer, which got quite favorable reviews, although sales were disappointing. Featuring Vic Tymanski on keyboards, no less! We went on a summer tour together, with a rhythm section consisting of a couple of her friends from school. It was all right, but actually got me feeling nostalgic for the old days with Sophia. Touring with these nice young music students was, if anything, moderately boring. However, we all remained alive and well throughout the tour, which has got to count for something.
I was settled and complacent. We started talking about, sometime in the next couple years, having a child. And then, one day, when I was walking her back from the recording studio, and the unthinkable happened. A car was charging right toward us. It was careening out of its lane, on a totally implausible course; obviously the driver was drunk or asleep or something. It was aiming straight at us and was only about ten feet away. Neefa was a couple of feet ahead of me; I could see that, even if by some chance it missed me, it was going to hit her dead center. In that split second after I saw the car coming, I was unable to move my body. It was as if time had stopped: the car was frozen there in space. Frozen yet moving. My limbs were made of lead. But, within this frozen space, thoughts were able to formulate themselves in my mind. I resolved not to let another of my women die. I was going to die too, this time. I was tired of being the lucky one. I threw myself toward Neefa, determined to be right in the center along with her.
But as I threw myself toward her, I felt her move as well. She was throwing herself forward at the same time, and leaping up in the air like a dancer. We were moving as a synchronized mass. The grace and speed of her motions was absolutely amazing. Somehow we jumped over the hood of the car as it came toward us, and landed on the pavement on the other side, none the worse except for scrapes and bruises. The car brushed my toe and sent me spinning, but I was holding on to Neefa, so I didn't travel far. The car went on and smashed into a storefront. Other people went over to the car to look at the driver. He was clearly dead.
Walking home after this incident, my mind was still stuck in the alternate reality in which Neefa had died. There was a burning grief in my mind, which had been ready to emerge, but which now was irrelevant, useless. Everything was fine, but I still had this urge, seeping in from another universe, to smash my head against the wall a thousand times until my eyes popped out. Then Neefa squeezed my hand and giggled. She said, "We're quite a team."
The alternate world disappeared; the grief instantly melted. Suddenly, I was back here, with her, and filled with a glowing joy. I just couldn't believe it. Wow! She actually hadn't died! It had been a close call, but somehow she had avoided it. She had leaped out of the way like an acrobat, dragging me with her. What a will to live! But no, I had done my part too, inadvertently. By jumping toward her I had pushed her out of the way, as well as saving myself. Although I had thought I was ensuring my death. But what had I really thought? Had I really miscalculated where the car was going, thinking it was coming toward her, when it was coming more toward me? Or had some deeper part of my mind made the correct calculation, decided to jump out of the way, and fooled my consciousness into thinking that I was jumping toward death? It was impossible to decipher what had gone on in that half-second. There had been a mish-mash of thoughts and feelings, each of which had meaning only in that context. Transplanted into words, images, or a normal state of mind, they lost their fundamental truth.
We had cheated the forces of death, Neefa and I. I felt a new kind of warmth inside -- as if I had won a staring contest with the Devil, thus earning myself a ticket out of hell. I remembered that crazy dream about being the Devil, the one I'd had while Sophia was dying for the first time. The burden of the dream was finally lifted. I no longer felt I was the Devil. There was a feeling of peace and light. All the weird stuff in my past, my volatile, ill-fated marriage and self-destructive girlfriends, seemed to become somehow lighter. It was all part of my path through life, my path to my current situation, which was so good and right. My path to Neefa. Stalking the Eyeball Dancer, by an artistic and circuitous route.
But at the same time, as I went about my daily routine, a tiny residue of grief was still there, gnawing at the back of my mind. The near-accident had awakened something within me. I was reminded of unpleasant things from the past; things I had mostly shut out of my awareness since I had been with Neefa. This seemed odd to me at first, as the overwhelming feeling in my mind was one of having been freed from thoughts of the past. But on reflection, I realized what had happened. Lifting the surface- level thoughts of the past had made it possible for me to become aware of my seething, long-hidden deeper-level feelings about the same issues. Before, these deeper feelings had been all mixed up with the simpler, surface-level worries. Now that the worries were gone, I could distinguish something else: a kind of nostalgia, mixed up with a body-wrenching angst.
These feelings could not be ignored. I decided it was time to go back through my mental history, to try and write down what I had seen and experienced in those few, bizarre, awful months. I knew it wouldn't be easy finding the words: depicting your experiences and states of awareness is an awful lot trickier than writing a scientific paper. But I felt somehow I had to try.
At the time our brush with death occurred, I had been thinking of going to a physics conference in Sydney, Australia. Neefa, right in the middle of recording sessions for a second album, had not been hot on the idea of coming along. But she encouraged me to go by myself. She never had much time for me when she was recording anyway. After the near-accident, I made up my mind to go alone. The conference was a week long, but I was thinking to stay for three weeks: see a bit of Australia, then go to the conference, then see a bit more. Given the length of the flight, it seemed absurd not to do some touring along the way.
Conferences always bore me. I find other scientists to be incredibly uninteresting people. And, except in rare cases, information obtained at conferences can be gotten just as well or better via e-mail. I wouldn't walk across the city for a professional conference, let alone fly around the world. But conferences are a convenient excuse to travel to interesting places, and more often than not you can get the university you work for to chip in for your expenses. In this case, it seemed to me that three weeks alone in Australia with a portable computer would be an ideal way to write the memoir I was carrying around in my mind.
I didn't want to write anything monumental. It was just half a year I was concerned with. I knew I didn't have the stamina to write old-fashioned literature: describing my characters' childhoods, the furniture in the restaurants they frequented, etc. I just wanted to describe a few experiences and feelings.
The transitions between different states of consciousness particularly interested me. The way the mind takes itself apart and then puts itself together again in a different form. Because I could feel my mind taking itself apart, again. And I couldn't see how it was going to put itself together. You never can, really: each state of awareness is incomprehensible except to a mind which is in it.
By the way. Thinking about the conference reminds me that, in writing this Epilogue, I have forgotten to mention anything about the current state of my work. My Theory of Everything is going spectacularly well, and is starting to attract a lot of attention in the physics community. Having lost some of my previous passion for philosophical issues, I have turned my attention to practical implications. And, ironically enough, my theory has led me to make some new predictions regarding the behavior of Cooper pairs in superconductivity. So now I'm back to the same branch of experimental physics that I hated so much when I was a post-doc, though in a totally different context. I'm reading the same papers again, but with new eyes. I even have a couple Chinese Ph.D. students helping me out with this end of the work. It's weird how things come around.
Go to Next ChapterBenf Goertzel (email@example.com)