Ex Die in Diem

by duncan mcnicholl

Umbra

The nature of existence is not a question with a scientific answer, I don’t think. It takes a lot for someone like me to admit that, because to say that there isn’t a scientific answer is to say that we’ll never know for sure, and knowing things for sure is my comfort blanket, my way to take the experience of living in a cold, uncaring universe, and put up a painting, add some cushions in that corner and a throw over the ennui so as to make a space more comfortable for living in. Everybody has a comfort blanket of one kind or another, I think: believing in fate, or destiny, or the kindness of strangers, or god. Mine is knowing, and I hope that I can smoothe over the offense no doubt caused by referring to religion as a comfort blanket by reiterating that knowing is what forms the core of my being, my ability to experience.

Descartes said cogito ergo sum: I think therefore I am. Philip K Dick said reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away. Lewis Carroll said ’twas brillig, and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe. My point is people can say stuff, but that doesn’t make it true. So now I’m going to say some stuff.

The way that sight seems to work is that your brain makes up a version of the place where you are, and occasionally checks the input from your eyes to see if it matches. When it doesn’t, your brain normally adjusts the picture a bit, but it keeps all the bits that haven’t been contradicted. This is why you can’t see the part of your vision where your optic nerve attaches to your retina: your brain has filled that bit in with its made up picture, and there’s nothing from your eye to say that it’s any different. If that sounds unfamiliar, find a piece of paper, draw a dot on it and a cross about ten centimetres to the right of the dot. Now close your right eye, look at the cross, and move the piece of paper closer and further away from your face. At some point the dot should just vanish. Welcome to “your brain just makes up what you see”. That’s also why things coming from behind sometimes seem to just appear some way into your peripheral vision: the made up picture in your brain extends quite far beyond your actual sight, so unexpected objects will skip past all that edge.

Where was I going with this? Oh yeah, the made-up world in your head. It’s different to the made-up world in my head, and not just because mine doesn’t include the inside of you and yours doesn’t include the inside of me. We’ve lived different lives, you and I, and I disagree with what Pudge says at the end of Looking For Alaska: if you take my body, and you add all my experiences and memories to it, you absolutely do get me. There’s no spiritual extra: my soul lives in my body, and you simply can’t have one without the other. So my lived life has made me a different person to you, and so the worlds inside our heads are different.

The parts where they overlap with each other are the parts we can be confident are real: that’s why you ask “did you see that?” when something incredible happens. If it happens in the overlap, that makes it credible, makes it part of reality rather than just your imaginative brain. We check in with each other the way our brain checks in with our eyes, confirming that we’ve not strayed too far. Our internal thoughts are often just our own, forming a sort of penumbra around the more solid truth that we can divine from the overlap. Whether that penumbra is small, like that of a laser partially blocked, or vast, like a city street at night where only tiny patches evade the light of at least one street lamp, I think that it is where imagination lies. Perhaps strait-laced people simply have a more tightly-focused mind, and dreamers more diffuse.

The point of all this metaphysical speculation is that we, as people, exist not exclusively within ourselves, but spread across all the people who include us in their made-up version of the world. The way that they think of us may not feel correct or resonant, but reality lies in the overlap, and imagination in the penumbra. My understanding of who I am is perhaps greater than yours, because I’ve thought about me more than you have, but it’s still only one of the versions. I can surprise myself, so my version must be incomplete. Perhaps between all of us we are each contained, but in any of us lies only a fraction of any.

And that in turn means that if you take anyone out of the equation, not only does a little bit of who everyone else is go with them, but a fraction of themselves. I take comfort from the understanding that I’ve come to, that it’s really only a fraction: they’re meaningfully still here as long as any of the other fractions is. It’s hard when someone leaves, but it’s harder for them to truly go than we might think.

This is from the