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Do we have too much reality or none at all?

Both Newton and Einstein were right. But, if there are so many inexhaustible, infinite realities, what's to say that there may actually be none at all?

Photo: Hartwig Klappert/NYT

1: Look, I’m asking you, he said, pursing his lips, then – after making sure that at such an early hour the Parks Enforcement Patrol still wasn’t there, slowly raising his head from the blanket and turning to his neighbour sleeping on the other bench near the fence in Tompkins Square Park – if you sit up, and give me just one sip from that big bottle of Old Crow, I’ll tell you what there is. But even if you don’t, I’ll still tell you, because I know that as I’m doing so, you’ll realise that what I have to say is worth quite a bit more than that sip of whisky, which, as I am now pointing out to you, is important. If your response is that I’m bothering you and you’d rather be left alone, that you’re not huddled here beneath your coat only to hear a load of hogwash – a statement I deny – from a has-been philosopher – which I do not deny – because you were mugged or because you were kicked out of the Nazareth or you can’t afford chemotherapy for Her Ladyship your wife who has no goddamned health insurance, then I would ask, foremost: why did you not RUN, sir?! Because then you wouldn’t be lying huddled here clutching that big bottle of Old Crow, which is about to fall on to the ground and kaput, broken, the last drop of whisky flowing out, so much for that precious bottle. So before such a tragedy occurs, I would ask: were you blind, or what?! Did you not see how everyone here RUNS?! And WHY is everyone here running?! For their health?! You think?! No, I’m telling you, no one here runs for their health; they are running away from the health insurance system, sir – that is what chases people here. Health insurance, it pursues them, tortures them, drives them into the abyss – well, no matter. I only say that if you’re looking for a pretext to deny me even one sip from that wretched bottle of yours, no matter, I’ll go on. Either you’re going to start running or you’ll stay here – it’s up to you – I will say what I have to say, and then you will either give me a tiny sip or not, it’s your decision, sir. In any event, if I were in your shoes I would start running after sharing some of that whisky, and I would share it out of the sheer goodness of my heart, sir, whereas the prehistorical person, caught between two flints knocked together and a mammoth – well, he didn’t begin caught like that, but in a very general sense he began with the simplest question of all, the question of what there is, for surely reality is that which demonstrates a causal system, permits and creates it – a boundary we may never cross. That is all. We have called upon our lived experience from prehistoric times up to the present day, and that was once fine, because we didn’t need anything beyond what experience itself proved – that was our starting point, as I say. Man slips on a June beetle, he falls down, bashes his head, cracks open his skull, his brains flow out – to quote a classic from Central European showbusiness. Cause and effect: it exists, it functions, it’s been with us ever since prehistoric times, but then historic times came along and we stepped into that age when, unfortunately, we began feeling that things weren’t good enough like this – logical, sensory reality was, for some reason, deemed insufficient, because within us was formed a so-called Damned Big Lack, abbreviated as D.B.L, formed because the so-called Things and Matters Without Explanation, abbreviated as T.M.W.E, were not integrated into the Great Causal System, and here I do not mention the abbreviation, as you know it anyway. Namely, we suffered agonies and agonies and agonies, and we suffered agonies in this state until one night we suddenly looked up at the sky high above, and we saw the blinking stars spinning around in all directions and it was AS IF we had glimpsed something in that starry sky above, and we immediately concluded that, well, there are Gods. Then we inferred that these Many Gods are One Single God, namely God himself – and it was on him that we pinned everything we didn’t understand, everything we lacked, and that One Single God just sat around idly up there, dangling his feet, scratching his great thick beard with one hand, caressing little children on his lap with the other, but in the meantime the one fundamental law that governed our lives remained unchanged: our discerned and repeatedly self-vindicating reality was all we needed to live, and so that’s what we adhered to; nothing else was demonstrable as elemental experience, only this reality. If I drop something, it falls down. That’s it. Panem et circenses. Bread and circuses.

2: But then post-historic times came along, and with them the arrogant soul-explorers who understood nothing of the soul, because they wanted to solve it – the problem of the soul! Scientifically! So let us say: They did not succeed in solving the soul scientifically. No one dares admit it was a mistake: Sorry, but today we are, as one, deeply silent about Sigmund Freud, Henri Bergson, Jacques Derrida and their companions. At the same time, in the distress of his pride and frustration, man came across new experiences in nuclear physics that crossed the boundary of so-called common sense and reality; the laws of causality and so-called normality, granted to us through millenniums of experience, no longer applied. Moreover, the possibility of completely new laws was proposed by extraordinarily ingenious reprobates – in particular a certain Hugh Everett III – unprecedented vile laws that rewrote our reality, by which I mean that they discarded the old one as well as the new, all while we kept on living in the old reality where what goes up must come down. Well, that might be so, replied the apostles of quantum science – because who else if not them? – but still, they said while pointing at themselves, this is true only in this form, because in the Whole not only is this not true, but nothing has any sense at all. Man!!! we protested, from the bench in Tompkins Square Park while we listened to the memories of Charlie Parker stored in our hearts. We went up to the moon; very soon we’ll be on Mars!!! Do you want to miss out?! And what about the many-worlds interpretation!! And everything simultaneously in every single place!!!

And so now we have three realities. The old one, in which we were scraping by pretty damned well; the new one, which claims nothing is what it seems; and finally the third one, the most troubling, as it tries to blend the old and the new, like in the beginning when those reprobate quantum geniuses said: Newton was right, Einstein was right, but we are the most right of all. And with that, we started down the slippery slope. Because if there are so many inexhaustible, infinite realities on differing planes of existence, then what is there to counter the idea that beyond the infinite there might still be yet another reality?! Or none at all?!

3: But this is not everything. If we leave aside those spiritual planes, which are still very dear to me as we lounge on these two benches, and move on to the topic of our own very screwed-up everyday life, then the situation is even more chaotic. You watch TV in the homeless shelter, and what do you see? That they’re all lying. If you watch Fox News, you say that’s fine. If you watch CBS, you also say that’s fine. If you watch NBC, the situation is the same. It’s fine. All lying: that’s their job, that’s what they’re getting paid for, because they need that damned health insurance, but in the end we’re all running in vain. So you watch TV and you listen to all the empty blather, you stand there or you sit there or you lie down – what do I know? – either in the shelter, or here, near the statue of the letter-carriers’ friend, Samuel Sullivan “Sunset” Cox, and you know that there IS an everyday reality, but what would that be? Should I figure it out?! How could I figure it out?! Can the one clutching the whisky bottle tell us?! Or “Sunset” Cox himself, made of bronze?!

At the end of the day, we can say only this: we have so many damned realities. But not one of them is worth anything. Now, if you please, I will summarise, he said, lowering his voice, as he adjusted the blanket on top of himself. If there is too much reality, then there is none at all. So we can do only one thing: deny reality, as well as its possibility. There is still some pride left in this world, wouldn’t you agree with me, sir?

And now, I leave it to your conscience as to whether you will give me a sip of your Old Crow, or drink everything up yourself.

To your conscience.

László Krasznahorkai is a Hungarian postmodern novelist and screenwriter © The New York Times Company and László Krasznahorkai

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