By Luke Hauser – copyright 2017 GroundWork – visit DirectAction.org
The harsh glare of the overhead bulb made the irregularities of my garret ceiling look like the surface of the moon. Yet despite the brightness overhead, the ends of my hallway abode were shrouded in shadows.
I sat on the edge of the futon and picked up my soiled socks from earlier in the day. Under the bare bulb, the mud from the villa looked more yellowish than in the sunlight. Was it the same as that on Mr. Zeitenschreiber’s shoe?
Closing my eyes, I tried to call back the image of his shoe. But the colors weren’t stable. Even when I did think the color matched my sock, I couldn’t tell if it was a memory or an overactive imagination.
I was back to the post-Lockean quandary: if perception and memory and imagination are all based on the same original sense-data, how do I tell them apart?
Suspicions and doubts danced through my mind. If the colors matched, Mr. Zeitenschreiber was almost certainly the villa intruder I’d spotted, and quite possibly a murderer and manuscript thief.
But my accusation of Mr. Zeitenschreiber rested on a dim memory of a fleeting perception of a mud-splotch whose precise hue was shaded by wishful thinking.
Any thought of getting at the underlying truth was undermined by the evening’s skeptical dialogs. The traditional correspondence and coherence theories of truth lay in tatters, with only a vague promise of a Phenomenological alternative.
And who offered that slenderest of Heideggerian hopes of attaining any degree of certainty regarding perception and reality?
The very same Mr. Zeitenschreiber.
The possibilities swamped me. It wasn’t just about getting the facts right – I was drowning in the facts themselves.
My philosophical ancestors struggled with this predicament. Western scholars have long dreamed of knowing everything. We speak of encyclopedic knowledge, or a Renaissance scholar – one who aspires to all knowledge, even if, as with Dr. Faustus, it requires a touch of magic.
Today a quick perusal of Philosopedia makes it obvious that there is vastly too much data for any one consciousness to hold.
But back in Ancient times, when fewer dissertations had been written, one person came as close as anyone ever has to knowing everything.
During the heyday of the Roman Empire, a scholar named Facticus Maximus traveled from the banks of the Indus to the Pillars of Hercules in search of all human knowledge – at least of the Western variety.
Thanks to an encyclopedic art of memory Mr. Maximus was able to retain every significant bit of information he came across, and mentally to cross-index all of this knowledge so that it was accessible on demand.
By his later years, he actually did know everything that was to be known. According to the lost testimony of the eighth-century natural historian Mr. Isidore of Seville, Facticus Maximus did not miss a single important item.
Sadly for Mr. Maximus, he was undone by his own immense learning and keen insight, which had taught him that just around the next corner might be the most sensational fact of all, the fact which would upset and re-order every previously known fact.
He was haunted to the end of his days by the realization that he could never prove to his own satisfaction that he truly knew everything. Facticus Maximus died a miserable and tormented man, overwhelmed by the nagging fear that there was something he didn’t know – and most galling, that he had not an inkling what it was.
It gets worse. In the early twentieth century, a Swabian professor named Herr Gestaltus set out to write the definitive biography of Facticus Maximus.
Like any good German scholar, Professor Gestaltus strove to learn everything about Facticus Maximus’s life, his travels, and the world in which he lived. Despite dedicating his entire career to the task, he died without ever publishing a word, drooling over his footnotes and scribbling incoherent references on index cards.
Herr Gestaltus’s noble if unfulfilled vision inspired others, although the attrition rate was horrendous. Eventually entire History Departments were dedicating their efforts to documenting Facticus Maximus.
The project became a black hole of research assistants. Many disappeared without a trace, sacrificed to the obsession to know everything about their subject.
It was a humble yet insightful graduate student who finally saw the Godellian flaw inherent in the quest – that a truly complete study of Facticus Maximus and his world would have to include an exhaustive study of itself as part of the corpus – and that study itself would need to be thoroughly studied, and so on and so forth…
Thus any book that attempted to provide “the final word” on Mr. Maximus would be rendered incomplete by its own existence.
It was past midnight when I splashed water on my face and toweled off. If I was going to wake up in time for my first class, I needed to get to bed.
Whose idea were morning classes, anyway? The world would be a better place if everyone slept till noon. Think of it. 90 percent of the misery in the world is created between 8am and 5pm. Do away with half of that time, and no matter how hard people work to make it up, the total amount of suffering in the world is bound to diminish.
But I was determined to be in class. Maybe not every morning for the rest of my life. But at least tomorrow. If I made all three of the next day’s classes on time, I’d break my lifetime best attendance record.
I stretched out on the less-lumpy side of the futon, as much as the curve of the wall would allow. After a minute, I sat up, turned around, and lay the other direction. But however much I tossed and turned, I couldn’t get settled.
Closing my eyes, I tried to fall asleep by counting Spinozean axioms. But I kept getting distracted by postulates and corollaries, and found myself drifting off into thoughts of Anaximander’s vicious snarl, or Johann’s evasive behavior, or Mr. Zeitenschreiber’s muddy shoe.
I took a deep breath and tried to calm my worries. Anaximander could be avoided by steering clear of the villa. And Johann’s evasiveness might simply be part of his personality.
But I couldn’t deny the muddy shoe. Granted, I knew little enough about Terre Haute. Maybe greenish mud was found all over town. But given Mr. Zeitenschreiber’s obvious interest in Mr. Testascrittore’s Existentialist researches, his aggressive behavior that evening at The Vienna, and the fact that the wall-hopping suspect at the villa had in all likelihood stepped in the same mud puddle as I – the signs pointed to Mr. Zeitenschreiber as the culprit.
Given that conclusion, it was entirely within the realm of possibility that he had found the second manuscript. I had to proceed on that assumption.
What he might do with the priceless manuscript was anyone’s guess. But with the police insisting the death was an accident and Mr. Grosskase on the verge of collapse, I bore the full burden of stopping the misappropriation of Mr. Testascrittore’s philosophical testament.
And what of the murder? Honestly, that part seemed a tad far-fetched. In my brief encounters with Mr. Zeitenschreiber I could hardly imagine him to be a cold-blooded killer. The way students followed him around, hanging on his every word, it was hard to see why he would be mortally jealous of another professor, no matter how brilliant.
But if it wasn’t him, who could it have been? A disgruntled student? Another professor?
What about Mr. Denkenschnelle? Philosophically, it made perfect sense that a Wittgensteinian, forced to channel his hero’s thoughts through the dominant Sartrean paradigm, would hold a grudge against the leading Sartrician of the day. And the insult must especially sting on the opening day of classes, when the very course titles drove home the inequity of Mr. Sartre’s ascendancy over the once-favored Mr. Wittgenstein.
Of course, the same could be said for almost any professor at the Institute. However celebrated Mr. Testascrittore had been, jealousies surely ran rampant beneath the surface.
With all academic factions on edge because of the need to choose a successor to the ageing Rector, maybe it was inevitable that the bitterness and rivalries would spill over into bloodshed.
I’d read Macbeth, at least the Classics Illustrated version, so I knew where these sorts of things might lead.
It gave me a likely motive, even if it did implicate the entire staff of the Institute. At least I’d narrowed it down to a faculty member.
Or had I? It seemed incredulous that a mere student could have killed the doyen of philosophers. But not impossible. As I made my way through my classes, I needed to keep an eye out for any hints of suspicious behavior.
But wait. I was the one who was going around suspecting everyone. Clearly I was exhibiting “suspicious behavior.” I’d be remiss in my detectival duties if I were to overlook such evidence.
Again I questioned myself as to my exact whereabouts on the day of my sponsor’s death. What exactly had transpired in the moments before I took my seat in the lecture hall?
Did I know something that I didn’t know?
I couldn’t answer that question.
I had to admit, on the surface of things, it didn’t look good. Luckily, no one else seemed to suspect me yet.
It wasn’t like I was the main suspect, anyway. What about Johann? With a chill I remembered my earlier realization that he had a deep personal grievance. And as custodian for the Albertus Magnus Empirical Metaphysics Building, he was in a perfect position to plot revenge on Mr. Testascrittore.
And revenge on Mr. Grosskase. I’d nearly forgotten that angle. If the murder of Mr. Testascrittore was motivated by Johann’s sense of injustice, the Rector who had blocked his advancement and then relegated him to custodial duty was a likely target as well. No wonder Mr. Grosskase had gone into seclusion.
But that was all speculation. Why focus on Johann? Any rival professor or disgruntled student could have done the foul deed. The clues pointed in a hundred directions.
I wasn’t getting anywhere. What did I really know about this situation? Or about the Institute? Who was I, the greenest of greenhorns, to go prying into the inner recesses of an organization so labyrinthine as the Institute?
No wonder I was confused about Mr. Testascrittore’s death.
Face it, I was confused about a lot more than that. I wondered if I could state a single fact with certainty. Was there one thing I was sure of?
Did I know anything at all?
A chill breeze startled me. My covers were all in a tangle. As I sat up to straighten the blankets, a slight glow by the stairs caught my attention. I strained to make it out, and realized that it was growing larger as I watched.
“X2 + Y2 = cos Z,” a voice with a French accent intoned. “4P2 = Q – 1.”
“Excuse me,” I said with a touch of irritation. “This is a bedroom, not a classroom.”
“Pardonnez-moi, monsieur,” came the voice. “I thought this was a public hallway.” The misty shape floated over by my bed, resuming its recitation of equations. “A – 7B = C2.”
Maybe it was my growing familiarity with the world of spirit, or maybe because I’d always done well in math. But I couldn’t just sit and listen to such indeterminate equations. “What does A or B or C have to do with anything?”
“Just working out a few Analytic Geometry problems. Didn’t mean to bother you. Monsieur Descartes is the name.”
“Oh, I see,” I said, embarrassed at having chastised the eminent thinker. “Well, welcome.”
He was wearing a fashionable yellow silk coat. His silvery-white periwig was styled in tight curls that fell over his shoulders, leaving a halo of powder wherever they touched. “Mr. Copleston said you needed assistance,” he said.
“Not with math,” I answered. “But thanks for stopping by. It’s philosophy that’s giving me fits.”
Mr. Descartes pulled up a spindly Baroque chair that he seemed to have brought with him. “Do tell.”
“I can’t make heads or tails of anything that’s happened since I got here. One of my sponsors is dead, and the other is in seclusion and probably headed for a forced retirement. I’m trying to figure out who killed Mr. Testascrittore, but I swear, I’m more confused now than when I started.”
“Look on the bright side. At least you have clarity about your confusion. That’s more than most people can say.”
“Yes, I suppose that’s true. But it’s not much consolation. Ever since I got to Terre Haute I’ve watched my ideas about knowledge crumble. I came here to learn epistemology, but I think I’m going backward.”
“Clearing the ground, we used to say.”
“Well, yes. But meanwhile my sponsor is dead, and I haven’t a clue how to solve this mystery. Where do I even start?”
“Excellent question. Let’s be methodical. What do you know for certain?”
“Nothing, that’s the problem.”
“Okay – what exactly do you not know? Let’s start with your doubts.”
“Well, for starters,” I said half-seriously, “I doubt my sanity, given that I’m sitting here talking to a guy who’s been dead for 300 years.”
“Good. What else?”
“I doubt my perceptions of physical reality – the old straw-looks-bent-in-water trick. Not to mention imagination and hallucination. I mean, I could swear I saw greenish mud on Mr. Zeitenschreiber’s shoes – but how do I know it was really green, and I wasn’t fooled by the streetlights? Or maybe I’m imagining it altogether. How do I know that my memory isn’t playing tricks on me?”
“Precisely. Memory is remarkably unreliable. Even our immediate perception can fool us. What about your entire waking experience, period? Are you certain it’s not all a dream?”
“I can see we’re making a lot of progress here,” I said. “I can’t trust perception, experience, or memory. What’s left?”
“That’s just a negative, a vacuum.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure. Can you doubt that you are doubting?”
I closed my eyes and made an effort. “Well, I can doubt whether I’m doing it correctly.”
“But even when you doubt whether you are doing it right – you’re still doubting. That much is certain.”
“So I’m certain that I’m doubting. That’s a source of comfort?”
“Absolutely!” He jumped up from the spindly chair. The ringlets on his wig bounced as he landed in front of me. “From my doubting I can infer my own existence.”
“Oh yeah,” I said, my interest piqued. “I’ve heard something about that.”
“It’s simple,” said Mr. Descartes. “If I doubt, I must exist in order to do so. I doubt – therefore I am.”
I turned it over in my mind. “Can I really be certain that I’m doubting? That’s like being crystal-clear that something is vague.”
“Well, why not?” said Mr. Descartes. “Can’t a blurry photograph be clearly seen, in all its blurriness? Can’t one precisely repeat a confused assertion?”
“So by doubting that I exist, I prove my existence?”
“Okay,” I said, “”Suppose I agree that doubting proves my existence. Where does that get me?”
Mr. Descartes smoothed his silk coat. “That’s up to you. For myself, having achieved the assurance that I existed, I could get back to my daily life: a dinner with friends here, a diplomatic mission there, and a bit of Analytic Geometry in the evening.”
As I mulled over his response, he began to fade. “Wait,” I called after him. “What about Mr. Sartre’s critique? I understand he negated your conclusions.”
“Pour rien,” said Mr. Descartes. “Just because Mr. Sartre proved he didn’t exist doesn’t say anything about the rest of us.”
“No, I suppose not,” I said. “Still, I’d be interested in your reply.”
“Another time,” he said. “But now I need to prepare my acceptance speech for the Philosophers’ Parliament. I’m receiving an award for Most Readable Philosophy Text.”
“And rightly so,” I said, recalling how short his Meditations on First Philosophy was.
He bowed to me. “Perhaps we can talk during a break.”
“So anyone can take part in the Philosophers’ Parliament?”
“Well, not exactly. Anyone can attend the Parliament. But the seating plan is determined by Mr. Croce and the History Sub-Committee. Unless you are seated on the main floor no one pays any attention to you.”
With that, the spirit faded into the night.
I woke into the grayness of a Wednesday morning. I stretched and yawned, struggling to call back the details of my visitation from Mr. Descartes. The silvery wig with its bouncy curls. The equations. And something about doubting.
If I doubted, then I could be certain. If I wasn’t sure, I was better off than if I was sure, but shouldn’t be. So long as I kept doubting, I could be sure of something, even if it was only that I was doubting.
Fortunately there was plenty of opportunity for doubt. Last time I counted, every living person remotely connected with the Institute was a suspect in Mr. Testascrittore’s murder. All I had to do was ask a question, and the list grew.
I needed an anchor. One unshakeable point from which to reconstruct my knowledge of the world. In a word – a foundation.
I flipped over on my futon and reviewed Mr. Descartes’ maxim: I doubt, therefore I am.
By doubting that I exist, I prove it. What if it worked? The more I doubted, the surer I’d be.
My old concerns continued to haunt me, though. Was the vision of Mr. Descartes real, or a fantastic product of my overheated imagination? Was I channeling Western philosophers, or just yammering to myself at an especially esoteric level?
And how exactly could I tell the difference?
Suppose Mr. Descartes turned out to be a figment of my imagination. I could doubt his existence. I could doubt my memory of his words. I could even doubt my own sanity for wondering about such things in the first place.
Yet there I was again, doubting. The Cartesian method seemed to be working!
True, one of the tenets of Sartreanism was the belief that Mr. Sartre had undercut the ontological basis of Mr. Descartes’ proof, casting us all into the Existential void.
But even if Mr. Sartre caused me to doubt the validity of the Cartesian proof, didn’t that doubting work to my advantage in the end?
“I doubt, therefore I am.” A fairly minimalist program, but at least I’d gained a toe hold.
Now – how to move forward?
As I lay there pondering, Mr. Aristotle passed through my garret with a bunch of students. The entire group was attired in dusty togas. Several of his acolytes, carrying papyrus scrolls, eagerly recorded every word he spoke. I wondered whether the rest were memorizing his talk, or planned to crib their classmates’ notes when they came out in the Loeb Classical edition.
Sensing that the Stagirite might prove helpful in my endeavors, I waved to him. The Greek master gave his charges a break and stopped to talk – a gracious gesture on the part of so busy a teacher.
Still lying on my lumpy mattress, I rolled onto my side and propped up on one elbow like a Roman at a banquet. I bade Mr. Aristotle welcome, then explained my earnest desire to proceed beyond the rather threadbare certainty of my doubt-induced existence. “If I’m ever to solve this mystery, I’ve got to find a way to move beyond that single fact.”
Mr. Aristotle’s wiry frame seemed cramped in my little garret, and he paced back and forth. “Allow me to propose an old-school approach,” he said. “The syllogism. Take a general fact that you already know, apply it to a specific case, and deduce a further fact.”
I thought back to my undergrad Logic courses.
All philosophers are mortal.
Mr. Testascrittore was a philosopher.
Therefore, Mr. Testascrittore was mortal.
“Fine,” I said. “The problem is, how do we know the first premise, except by induction? We only know that ‘all philosophers are mortal’ by making a complete inventory of all past, present, and future philosophers, and ascertaining that each of them has died or will die.”
“That is incorrect,” he said, strolling back and forth across the room, as if studying the problem from various angles. “We can also appeal to common sense and people’s general awareness of the world. ‘All humans will die’ is not something I know by enumeration, but by an appeal to common experience. It’s what I call an ‘enthymeme’ – an appeal to something everyone knows, even if we can’t prove it.”
“That’s a problem,” I said. “At the end of any chain of reasoning is not a proof, but an appeal to ‘everyone knows.’ Unless ‘everyone knew’ already that Mr. Testascrittore, as a human philosopher, was destined to die, we couldn’t know the major premise to begin with. All we’re doing is taking a round-about route to deduce what we already know.”
“Well,” he said flatly, “I believe we could say that we are clarifying previously vague knowledge. Syllogisms can help sharpen our dialectic.”
I nodded, recalling a favorite syllogism from my Berkeley days pertaining to the extra-curricular business interests of USB’s alpha philosopher, Mr. Squirreley:
Not every philosopher is a greedy landlord.
Mr. Squirreley is not every philosopher.
Therefore, Mr. Squirreley is a greedy landlord.
Sure, it didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know. But it certainly clarified my knowledge.
Still reclining on my futon, I looked up at Mr. Aristotle. “With all due respect, sir, my quest is not simply to clarify the facts but to discover the basic truths of reality. A method such as yours, which requires that I already know the truth before I start, won’t get me very far.”
He nodded slowly, as if making a few mental notes on how to address this objection in the future. His students were returning from their break. Bidding me farewell, Mr. Aristotle resumed his lecture and the roving class departed.
I dragged myself out of bed. As I dressed, I pondered my night-time vision of Descartes and my subsequent encounter with Mr. Aristotle.
Where exactly was all my hospitality getting me? Especially given that I wasn’t getting any class credit for it. Two days into the semester, and I was already two days behind. Was all of this extracurricular investigation really the best use of my time and talents? I doubted it.
There I went, doubting again.
By Mr. Descartes’ estimation, given how much I was doubting, I should be completely confident of my existence by now. But something was out of joint.
It was Mr. Sartre’s doing, I thought as I descended from my garret to ground level and headed for Logico’s.
The celebrated Parisian Existentialist, I had learned in my green undergraduate days, created a cottage industry out of explicating the nothingness he claimed to discover at the core of human consciousness.
Precisely how one distinguishes nothingness from simply not looking in the right direction wasn’t quite evident. However, in the tightly-reasoned essay Transcendence of the Ego and in a series of Phenomenological studies that made up the bulk of his popular tome Being and Nothingness, Mr. Sartre described various ways in which we pitiful humans attempt to escape from or mask our awareness of this essential nothingness which we are.
Or was it an essential nothingness which we are-not? Or possibly an inessential nothingness which we neither are nor are not, yet which haunts our very being? I was a bit confused on the details.
Whatever the case, Mr. Sartre apparently shattered the foundations of Cartesian self-certainty. Indeed, he was said to have thrown the existence of every human being into the profoundest of angst-ridden doubts via a series of best-selling novels and plays.
How exactly he undermined Mr. Descartes’ skeptical method was not entirely clear and distinct to me, since doubting the validity of the Cartesian proof would still seem to carry you back to your doubt-induced foundations.
But given the current ascendancy of Sartrics I found it difficult to enjoy the security of Mr. Descartes’ proof, even without grasping the details of Mr. Sartre’s critique. I made a mental note to bone up on the debate in my spare time.
I found a seat at Logico’s and scanned the breakfast offerings. Eggs Benedictine looked tempting, but the menu said they were served only at Terce, Midday, None, and Vespers.
Not wanting to wait till the proper hour, I opted for the Salade Positiviste, which promised seven iceberg lettuce leafs, three cherry tomatoes (sliced), five onion slices, six black olives (pitted), and 118 milliliters of low-fat creme dressing.
My salad arrived, but it didn’t get my mind off epistemology. As I sampled the bland Positivist fare my stomach rumbled, and I felt a wave of anger at Mr. Sartre for undermining what little certitude I’d managed to achieve. “Thanks a lot for all your help,” I muttered.
I might have known. Whether it was my near-miraculous powers of manifestation or a hallucination brought on by the drab food, I couldn’t tell. But who should I see walking up the aisle? Mr. Sartre himself.
He was a short man, wreathed in smoke. His tie was loosened, and his thick glasses were slightly askew.
He seemed on a mission. But wracked as I was by doubts as to the indubitablity of my doubting, I knew I needed to confront my epistemological demons at the source.
“Bonjour, sir,” I said in my best Rive Gauche accent. “Might I ask you a few questions concerning existence – specifically, your thoughts regarding Mr. Descartes’ proof?”
Mr. Sartre waved my greeting off. “I’m late for an appointment with Ms. Beauvoir. Let’s get to the point. Mr. Descartes’ formulation, ‘I doubt, therefore I am,’ contains a serious ontological error.”
He stubbed his cigarette on the side of the phone booth and lit another. Without taking a puff, he continued speaking, gesturing in the air with the smoldering white stick. “True, one cannot doubt that doubting is taking place. But that is the limit of what is Phenomenologically evident – doubting is all that actually appears to us. There is no direct evidence for the ‘Self,’ only for the doubting.”
“Someone has to doubt,” I said. “These kinds of things don’t just happen.”
“You might think so. But in fact, we never directly experience or perceive this alleged Self. It’s inferred from the old metaphysical belief that there can be no action without an actor.”
“It does seem rather likely, doesn’t it?” I said.
“Perhaps. But if we truly wish to doubt everything possible, we need to doubt this ‘I’ as well, and get down to the core of what really is indubitable.”
“Which is what?”
Mr. Sartre pointed at me with two fingers holding his cigarette. “We’re left with nothing more than doubting itself, pure and simple. An empty, negating behavior as close to its own essential Nothingness as consciousness ever gets.”
With his final words Mr. Sartre stubbed out his cigarette. Absently I thanked him for sharing his thoughts and watched him stroll away.
His words left me numb and dejected. As I picked at the soggy remnants of my Salade Positiviste, I felt mired in uncertainty regarding my own being. It was traumatic enough for a contemplative soul like myself to grapple with who I was. But having to prove that I was?
In a flash I saw to the depths of Mr. Testascrittore’s search for a new proof of existence. Far from a mere intellectual exercise, my late sponsor had sought to restore the very foundation of the Self.
Previously, I had grasped the quest as a mere intellectual conundrum. Now it anchored itself in the core of my being.
More than my personal certainty was at stake in my quest to preserve the proof. I was acting on behalf of the Institute – nay, of all Western philosophy.
More even than capturing the murderer, I was fighting to preserve for the benefit of future generations Mr. Testascrittore’s final legacy – a post-Sartrean proof of existence.
A proof which I suspected was inscribed in the pages of the second manuscript.
And if my deductions were correct, that manuscript was now in the possession of Mr. Zeitenschreiber.
Fate had arranged a rendezvous. Thanks to my newfound resolve to attend all my classes, I’d be seeing Mr. Zeitenschreiber in just a few hours.
But first I needed to go to my Analytics class. I hustled across campus and slid into my back-row chair-desk just as the bell rang.
As usual – well, “usual” meaning two out of two days, which inductively speaking is about as close to usual as you could be, two days into the experiment – Mr. Denkenschnelle was chatting amiably with a few privileged students at the front of the hall.
The rest of us were expected to bide our valuable time, patiently awaiting the nuggets of wisdom that might fall from his lips once he deigned to begin his lecture. Oh, how privileged we were to wait in his presence!
I grimaced at my own negativity. Someone got up on the wrong side of the futon this morning. Of course, given that the other side rested against the wall, I didn’t have a lot of choice. Maybe in the future I’d slither off the end and avoid moods like this.
I took a breath and forced myself to inventory my immediate goals. Opening my notebook to a fresh page I inscribed the first item.
Number one: “Show up for my Sartrean Analytics class.” Goal met! I made a big checkmark next to the item, and then drew a line through the words for good measure.
Number two: “Don’t skip out when Mr. Denkenschnelle writes on the board.” That would be an ongoing challenge.
Number three: “Use Sartrean Analytics to bring some sense of order to my investigation of Mr. Testascrittore’s demise.”
When I stopped and considered matters, I’d actually figured a few things out. The problem was putting all the pieces together – never a strength of the Analytic tradition.
But the details were coming into focus. Four clues stood out:
(1) The missing second manuscript, whose contents might reveal who would kill to prevent publication.
(2) The blood-stained copy of Mr. Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, with its tell-tale red-brown smear on the opening page of the chapter on Time.
(3) Mr. Testascrittore’s leg aimed at Mr. Copleston’s History, apparently highlighting the volume on twentieth-century philosophy.
(4) The classical bust, which seemed to refer to the Ancients.
(4.1) Taking clues 3 and 4 together pointed to a twentieth century philosopher who grappled with the Ancients.
(4.2) Unless it was intended to indicate an Ancient philosopher who grappled with twentieth century thought.
(4.2.1) That such visionaries existed in a society so bold as Ancient Greece is quite likely.
(4.2.2) Sadly, their contemporaries judged them insane and didn’t preserve their words.
(18.104.22.168) Which should stand as a warning to our benighted epoch, that the words of writers who are clearly ahead of their time (even if they are occasionally late to class) ought to be accorded equal stature with the quick-to-fade tomes of the “leading philosophers of the day.”
(22.214.171.124.1) Be it noted that this diatribe is not directed against the late Mr. Testascrittore, whose stature is on the contrary destined to grow with time.
(126.96.36.199.2) Or at any specific philosopher alive or dead, regardless of my personal estimation as to the abiding value (or otherwise) of their thought.
(188.8.131.52.3) It is, rather, a broader point of general application.
(184.108.40.206.3.1) And, I might add, one whose validity can scarcely be contested.
(220.127.116.11.3.1.1) Well, you could contest it.
(18.104.22.168.3.1.2) But you’d be wrong.
Mr. Denkenschnelle rapped his knuckles on the wooden podium. A hush fell over the class.
“Language,” the short man intoned in a stage whisper. “What is the ‘essence’ of language?”
Several hands went up. I suspected it was a trick question, and stayed silent.
“The essence of language is communication,” said one woman.
“No, the essence is meaning,” said a man in the front row.
“The essence is words,” said another man. “The smallest units of language. Language is made up of the meanings of the component words.”
As Mr. Denkenschnelle inscribed each idea on the lower half of the chalkboard, I weighed the last answer. Mr. Russell proposed something like that, as I recalled.
But I also remembered Mr. Socrates’ joke about searching for meaning by analyzing language into its component words. “Why not go all the way and analyze it into letters? Would you be any closer to understanding meaning?”
If words are the essence of language, we’re in trouble. As far as I could tell, you could do about anything you wanted with words. You could use different words to say the same thing, or the same words to say different things. You could lie, deceive, cheat, swindle, and – worst of all – make poetic metaphors.
Mr. Plato, as is well known, banished poets from his Republic.
Of course, Mr. Aristotle invited them back, and they’ve never stopped partying since.
Poets make a fine mess of language. According to the latest conjectural analyses, the proto-historic Urgrundians – primaeval inventors of Western culture – labored assiduously to insure the purity of each word.
Each day, one new word was proposed. Where we have newspapers, our ancestors relied on clay tablets. Each family unit would leave a fresh tablet outside their door at night, during which time couriers would race from hut to hut, scratching the new day’s word into the wet clay.
In the morning, people would excitedly pronounce the new word and begin to employ it in various contexts, testing its possibilities. At the end of the day, a community meeting decided on the final meaning by consensus, with a fallback procedure allowing for a three-quarters vote in case of a deadlock.
By this arduous process, each word was assured of being assigned one and only one meaning, which was carefully recorded and stored in the inner sanctum of the Archive of the Sacred Logos.
For a time all was clear and unequivocal – a true Golden Age of the Logos. But inevitably, poets, lawyers, lovers, and other less-scrupulous types got hold of the new invention. Before you knew it, words were being lathered with myriad shades of meaning. The journey to Babel had begun.
This hypothesis, completely coherent in its own right, may like so many historical extrapolations turn out to be somewhat less than an entirely factual account of the origin of language. It might even one day resemble fiction.
But why, pray tell, disparage fiction? Who taught me more about life than Don Quixote, Hamlet, or the Hardy Boys?
Don Quixote may have been a fictional character. Yet his influence has been profound, not least on philosophers, who rank among the world’s foremost tilters at windmills.
- Pop Quiz
True or false – Don Quixote lived in central Spain.
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And now, please pass your quiz paper to the front. The correct answer is: complicated.
One school holds that Don Quixote lived only between the covers of a book, rendering the proposition false.
Another sect, however, asserts that if Don Quixote lived in the imaginations of his creator’s fellow Spaniards, then Don Quixote indeed lived – yea, continues to live – in Spain.
Thus our panel of experts rejects the Law of the Excluded Middle and holds the proposition to be both true and false.
I started to turn my attention to Mr. Denkenschnelle’s lecture, which I suspected might have some bearing on the examinational expectations which might be placed on me during the course of the semester.
But before I could pick up his thread, a rustling to my left caught my attention.
Mr. Russell, who was filling pages of yellow legal paper with calculations, stopped and looked at me. “The Law of the Excluded Middle holds for every clearly articulated proposition. No proposition can be both true and false.”
“But we just did it with Don Quixote,” I reminded him.
“Only by equivocating on the meaning of ‘live.’ You’re giving the word two different shades of meaning which change the truth-value of the proposition.”
“Yes, I suppose so,” I said. “It’s part of what we do with language, isn’t it?”
His high forehead furrowed under his swept-back white hair. “We must insist on clarity and unequivocal meanings. Equivocation and fuzziness are the source of so many errors – logical, political, and social. If we were clearer about what we mean, and demanded unequivocal clarity from our political leaders, we’d make more intelligent choices.”
Mr. Russell’s demands for political clarity and probity reminded me of Mr. Diogenes’ quest. The same Mr. Diogenes who scorned Alexander of Macedon is even more famous for carrying a lantern around town in broad daylight, “looking for an honest man.”
The Ancients neglect to tell us whether he ever found one. I think we should assume he didn’t, or we’d have heard about it.
Of course, as a Cynic, he may have been a bit over-zealous. Was he searching for someone who was invariably honest? Or would he have accepted someone who was generally trustworthy?
How about someone who was honest when it was convenient?
It reminded me of the Cretan Liar paradox. “Everything I say is a lie – including this statement.”
Paradoxes aside – at a practical level, if Cretans always lied there wouldn’t be a problem. The difficulty arises because sometimes – perhaps most of the time – they find it convenient to tell the truth.
No wonder Mr. Diogenes felt cynical about the human prospect. And no wonder Mr. Russell held political discourse to such a high standard.
“I appreciate your lofty hopes,” I said. “But logic doesn’t have such a great track record as far as changing the world. Most people find it rather arcane.”
“On the contrary,” Mr. Russell answered, “we have everything to gain from increased logic and rationality. War and social injustice are completely irrational. Building a world of peace and justice is the most rational of tasks, an undertaking in the best interests of all humans. That’s why I speak out so passionately against equivocation and sloppy logic.”
With most people, you’d dismiss it as a flight of rhetoric. But this was a guy who was fired from a professorship at Cambridge and sentenced to six months in prison for anti-war organizing during the First World War, and who later served time in jail for anti-nuclear protests. Not your stereotypical ivory-tower philosopher.
“Still, sir,” I said as politely as possible, “I think you’re setting too high a standard. A bit of equivocation is inevitable, isn’t it?”
“Not if you want to discover who killed Mr. Testascrittore.”
“How exactly is avoiding equivocation going to solve the mystery?” I asked.
Mr. Russell lit a tobacco pipe, coaxed a few puffs from it, then looked at me as he exhaled. “Let’s consider the matter. You’re trying to solve the mystery of Mr. Testascrittore’s murder, are you not?”
I nodded. He took another puff, slowly exhaled, and resumed his train of thought.
“You’ve gathered several clues, and you’re trying to pin down ‘what the clues really mean.’ Now if you assume that their meanings could be equivocal, shifting, or fuzzy – what good will they do you? If a clue means different things to different people on different days, or if the shades of meaning keep changing, how could the clue ever fulfill its function?”
“But that’s inevitable. People interpret signs in different ways.”
“But only one of those ways is the correct way. And that’s what you’re trying to figure out. If a clue is going to function correctly, it must have a single, consistent meaning, which it is your task to discover. Any equivocation is fatal to the enterprise.”
I shook my head slowly. “I don’t see how we can achieve that level of clarity. We’re talking about the real world.”
“Are we?” he said with a smile. “Language concerns concepts, not objects. A clue is a concept, and we try to match it up with our concept of the world. When the concepts ‘correspond’ or ‘interlock’ like puzzle pieces, we know we have found the correct interpretation of the clue. All thinking takes place at the level of concepts. And we can certainly insist on unequivocal concepts.”
“I’m not so sure about this ‘concept’ thing,” I said. “If I say, ‘Mr. Zeitenschreiber stole Mr. Testascrittore’s manuscript,’ you believe that I’m speaking of the concepts ‘Mr. Zeitenschreiber’ and ‘Mr. Testascrittore’s manuscript,’ and stating a conceptual relation between them?”
“That is correct,” said Mr. Russell.
“But if the clues are conceptual, and my knowledge of the world is conceptual – was the murder conceptual as well?”
Mr. Russell shrugged and returned to his calculations. As his pencil scratched across the paper, I pictured Mr. Testascrittore’s spread-eagled body with the annoying leg tucked under the other. Hardly what you’d expect from a conceptual corpse, particularly one of Mr. Testascrittore’s stature.
If my words or thoughts refer only to concepts and not to the things themselves, how do I ever manage to connect the correct concepts to the actual things I believed I was speaking of?
How would I know which concepts applied to what objects, and that this relationship was consistent? I strained to grasp the conceptual problem. Which raised still more problems, since when I think about concepts, I’m using more concepts.
Is the concept of a concept a meta-concept? Or can concepts work on one another the way one hammer can hit another?
Are concepts simply tools for thought?
- Reader Survey
If you were a tool, which tool would you be?
47 percent of respondents said, “A hammer.”
21 percent said, “a philips-head screwdriver.”
16 percent said, “a tape-measure.”
9 percent said, “a roach-clip.”
6 percent said, “one of those little S-shaped doohickies that you use to un-jam your garbage disposal.”
.04 percent said, “a concept.”
So unless someone is willing to do a lot of lobbying for “concepts as tools,” I would suggest we try a different approach.
What is language, anyway?
And why do we let anyone with two years’ experience on planet Earth start using it?
If people could drink beer when they were two years old, but had to wait till they were 21 to talk, I bet there’d be a lot more respect for language.
On the other hand, you’d see a lot of underage gabbing, binge jabbering, and talkaholism. Talking would be cited as the leading cause of automobile-related fatalities, and the number one destroyer of families.
A constitutional amendment bans talking altogether, but “speak-easies” circumvent the law, and in the end the ban is repealed in favor of a policy requiring talkers to carry licenses and proof of insurance, and to agree not to talk to anyone under age 21.
Around me, people were shuffling their papers. Class was ending. I could hardly believe it. I must be getting better at this – I’d made it through the entire class without looking at the clock once!
“…Read up to page 737,” Mr. Denkenschnelle was saying as I tuned back in. “You won’t be tested on this material, but remember – the proof of philosophy’s value is not your grades, but its impact on your daily existence.”
I sat bolt upright. Had I heard correctly? “Proof.” “Existence.” In the very same sentence!
I studied Mr. Denkenschnelle’s countenance, wishing I’d sat closer to the front. Had he just committed a crucial slip and revealed his nefarious involvement in Mr. Testascrittore’s death, the theft of the priceless second manuscript, or both?
Was this the break I’d been waiting for?
It should have thrilled me. But instead, the discovery rankled me. Just when I was certain the clues were pointing to Mr. Zeitenschreiber, along comes a seemingly innocent end-of-class announcement by Mr. Denkenschnelle to throw the entire enterprise into confusion.
Why did I have to pay attention right then? When was I going to learn to leave well enough alone and stick to a single suspect for a while?
I could only hope that my class with Mr. Zeitenschreiber would provide fresh evidence of his complicity and clear the matter up once and for all.
The bell rang sharply. I bolted out the rear door, gulping in the fresh air in the hallway.
I had a couple of hours till my class with Mr. Zeitenschreiber. Would he have the audacity to speak again of Mr. Heidegger’s theories of truth and disclosure, when he himself might be dwelling in concealment concerning the truth about Mr. Testascrittore’s missing manuscript?
Maybe I should sit in the front row and level my most penetrating stare at him. Under the relentless pressure of my unbending determination, he might well crack and confess everything.
Of course, under that sort of pressure, I might crack myself. And who knows what sordid secrets might come spewing out?
Once more I wondered – was it impossible that I had killed Mr. Testascrittore? I could have done it before the orientation lecture, then innocently taken my seat and acted as shocked as the rest. Could I reconstruct my day? Were there witnesses?
It seemed far-fetched, but I made a mental note to compile an exhaustive inventory of my movements and encounters up to the moment the body was discovered just to be sure.
I wanted to get something to eat, but first I should go to the library and get some studying done. I was already getting behind on my reading.
But wait. I could use this time to stop by Johann’s and get a clearer sense of his relation to Mr. Testascrittore and his whereabouts on the day of the killing. I suspected he knew more than he was telling, although his loyalties were inscrutable.
There’d be time to do homework later.
When I arrived at his quarters, Johann was leaning back in the old recliner watching television. “Come on in – it’s just starting.”
TV ranked low on my list of pastimes. And if the show was just starting, it’d be a while before I could question him. But his attention was already turned back to the set, and I knew it would be rude not to sit down for a few minutes.
I pulled up an old plastic lawn chair and accepted the bong from him. “What’s on?”
“Philosophy Court,” he said without taking his eyes off the screen.
“So there really is a Philosophy Court?”
“Oh, yeah – it’s the highest-rated show on the local Metaphysical Channel.”
Johann clicked the volume a notch higher. Did he think I was hard of hearing? Or was he compensating for the portion of sound waves I was absorbing?
The theme music started up. “And now we bring you Philosophy Court, starring Albert Camus as Judge Penitent, with special guest Saint Thomas Aquinas and a jury of celebrity philosophers.”
The bailiff stepped in front of the camera. “Your honor, today’s defendant is charged with Ontological Harassment, penal code section 1292.45(d)(2), with an Early Modern enhancement.”
The jury is sworn in, and the prosecutor – Mr. Aquinas in an Armani robe, the crown of his head fresh-shaven and polished – details the charges:
“Defendant did willfully, with epistemic knowledge aforethought, condense Mr. Descartes’ proof of existence via systematic doubt to a single, pithy paragraph, and did further accost complete strangers on the street, haranguing said strangers with Mr. Descartes’ proof and forcing them to recognize the indubitable evidence of their own existence.”
Witnesses are called, and recount their experiences with the alleged ontological harasser.
Some told how they wept uncontrollably for days. Others sank into soul-numbing horror. A fair percentage skulked away in deep and morbid shame that clung to them still, while a very few broke into wild public dancing and urged the defendant to do a series of personal growth workshops should he be acquitted.
At last, with the outcome hanging in the balance – the defendant’s ontological rights versus the parade of ruined lives and shattered psyches – the defendant was brought to the stand.
Defense counsel drew from him a wretched tale of his own lack of proper epistemological upbringing, and his subsequent resolution to bring ontological awareness into the world regardless of the consequences.
But the prosecution had the final word. With the defendant showing signs of fatigue, Mr. Aquinas whirled on him. “When you committed this heinous, nearly unspeakable act of which you so justly stand accused, you knew the likely outcome of unleashing this proof on unsuspecting souls, did you not? From your own bitter experience you knew the devastation that a recognition of one’s own existence could wreak. And yet you did not spare your victims.”
With a loud shriek, the defendant rent his shirt and pounded on his chest, which thanks to skillful make-up or personal genetics resembled a biblical hairshirt, so that the effect was considerably enhanced.
“Ah, me! Errant sinner that I am! Yes! Long have I suffered the ceaseless lash of self-certitude, and I plotted revenge on the accursed human race that burdened me with such knowledge!”
Mr. Aquinas slowly turned to the spellbound jury. “And now his pathetic victims are saddled with that awful self-knowledge as well. Esteemed philosophers of the jury, is there one of you who has not known this torment? Do not your hearts cry out for justice?”
Mr. Aquinas rested the state’s case. The camera panned the room. “And now,” said the announcer, “for our viewers who are playing along at home, it’s time to fill out your scorecards!”
- Play Along at Home!
Fill out this simple scorecard. Answers will be announced after a short commercial break.
(1) Granted that it is a serious social impropriety to accost complete strangers concerning their ontological status – if defendant can support the assertion of existence with a proof, is said defendant entitled to the “defense of truth,” as someone charged with libel would be?
(2) Should victims be required to prove that before the encounter they had absolutely no knowledge of their own existence? Or is defendant guilty of harassment regardless of the victim’s prior auto-ontological awareness?
(3) Assuming that the defendant is found guilty (which they almost always are in these sorts of cases, the trial being more a demonstration of the superiority of philosophy than an assessment of the culpability of the suspect – although it must be added that cases have been known where defendants were found, if not not-guilty, at least somewhat less guilty than anticipated) – assuming the defendant is found guilty, what sort of restitution might the court order defendant to make to the victims?
(4) Remember to assess points for:
- dramatic performance
- grooming and costume
- classical and biblical allusions
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“And now,” said the announcer, “we return you to our regularly-scheduled program. But first, this important announcement:
“Coming up tonight on the Philosophy Channel: ‘Marvin Farber and the Foundations of Phenomenology,’ the heart-rending tale of the man whose attempt to bring Phenomenology to the English-speaking world foundered when his English paraphrase of Edmund Husserl’s Logical Investigations proved even more incomprehensible than the untranslated German.
“And now, back to Philosophy Court, starring Albert Camus as Judge Penitent, with a special appearance by Saint Thomas Aquinas as the prosecutor.”
The camera panned across the courtroom and came to rest on the high bench. “Without further ado,” said Mr. Camus in his role as Judge Penitent, “it’s time to render our verdict. May I have the envelopes, please?”
The judge ripped open the first envelope:
“Question Number One: In cases of Ontological Harassment, should the defense of ‘truth’ be allowed? Yes! According to canon law, you can traduce the Lord Himself if you can back it up with a solid proof.
“Question Number Two: Should the victims’ prior mental state be a factor? Yes! If victims did not establish that they suffered ontological damage solely or primarily from defendant, we must decide for defendant.
“Question Number Three: Concerning restitution – since the court ruled for defendant on the first two issues, restitution will be limited to an abject public apology, along with a solemn promise that in the future defendant will employ proofs of existence solely for the benefit of humanity.”
Polite applause from the audience, which had hoped for blood.
The moderator ripped open the final envelope. “The style award goes to defendant for his confessional histrionics. Grooming kudos go to the fastidious Mr. Aquinas. And the trophy for best classical/biblical allusion goes to the narrator for his ‘hairshirt’ reference.”
The audience applauded as the cameras panned back to encompass all of the participants, who came out and took a collective bow.
“Wow,” I said. “Great show.”
“Yeah, the Judge Penitent role is perfect for Mr. Camus. You should’ve seen the episode where Mr. Derrida was the prosecutor and Mr. Gadamer starred for the defense.”
“Well, it was unclear, although so far as I could discern they disagreed on the meaning of meaning, meaning that the meanings that one meant were called into question by the other, whose questioning was in turn questioned concerning the meaning of the question of its meaning, until the meanings that each questioned were inextricably entangled in a meaning-laden web of questions.”
“Sounds fascinating,” I said. I was hoping to lead our conversation around to the issue of Mr. Testascrittore’s manuscript. But Johann picked up the remote and started flipping through the channels, pausing just long enough to offer pithy critiques of the offerings.
Doubtless it would have been quite a cultural education, akin to going on a road trip with pre-teens and letting them choose the music. I decided to pass.
He kept channel-flipping. Was Johann using the TV to fend off my interrogatories, or was he simply suffering a mid-life logonomical crisis that only the drone of the Philosophy Channel could alleviate?
Whatever was behind Johann’s television fixation, my afternoon class was looming and my stomach demanded satisfaction. I bid Johann farewell and headed for the Historic Latin Quarter Preservation District.
Maybe I should have lunch at the Paradox Cafe and test my philosophical mettle against the prevaricating staff. Although if the cabbie’s assessment was correct, my chance of getting a sandwich before my next class was slim.
It sounded like a challenge for Johann’s Paralogic curriculum. What more convincing argument for the value of the program than speeding up service at a local cafe? If it worked there, you could get funding to expand the project to include post office lines and transit systems.
Lacking a certificate in Paralogic, I opted to visit my usual haunt. The lunch crowd at Logico’s was at a peak. I ordered Sardines a la Schopenhauer, then put a dime in the Latin jukebox and gave a punk-polka version of Leonin’s early polyphonic hit “Haec Dies” a whirl.
There were no empty booths, and the crowd dancing around the jukebox made standing there impossible. I tried the space between the phone booth and the stairs. By hunching my shoulders, I would have fit if it weren’t for sharing the nook with cultural critic Jean Baudrillard.
Not with Mr. Baudrillard in the flesh, but with a life-sized cardboard advertising display for Similitudes breath mints which was wedged into the space.
I squeezed in next to him, painfully aware of the failure of my efforts whenever a waiter had to pass. Uncomfortable as my situation was, I had to admit it provided ironic evidence for Mr. Baudrillard’s theory that signs and objects were ultimately interchangeable – and that the “self” was little more than a sign.
Mr. Baudrillard was one of the new breed of End-of-Philosophy philosophers who metier was to chronicle the moribundicity of their very field of study.
Some cultural critics considered it ironic and perhaps just a tad contradictory that End-of-Philosophy philosophers still wrote books about philosophy.
Then again, the books seemed to be getting progressively shorter. Perhaps like Mr. Engels’ post-revolutionary dictatorship, philosophy was withering away.
As I waited for my meal something deeper gnawed at me. The previous evening I’d had a personal audience with the renowned Mr. Descartes, who probably doesn’t go around visiting just anyone in the middle of the night. He vouchsafed to me an abridged version of his famous proof of existence, and although his ghostly appearance left me filled with doubts, the more I doubted, the more I ought to be sure I existed.
In the back of my mind, though, I knew the harsh truth: Mr. Sartre and his epigones had undercut the celebrated Cartesian proof, leaving a gaping nothingness at the core of our being.
So where did that leave me and my hard-earned doubts? An empty, negating behavior. An essential nothingness.
Was that all I was? Was I only a hollow non-entity in the end? Was there not the slightest shred of being?
As I reeled from the Sartrean critique, I grasped again the redemptory hopes that so many had placed in Mr. Testascrittore’s proof of existence. How ironic that Mr. Testascrittore, the arch-Sartrean himself, offered transcendent affirmation that self-certitude was indeed susceptible of logical demonstration.
Had he achieved his desideratum? Had he supplied the foundation so long dreamed by the West?
How could we know? The only extant version of the proof was apparently in the hands of that devious Heideggerian, Mr. Zeitenschreiber. Who knew what he planned to do with it?
I pondered my own sorry prospects. Lacking a proof, I was, so far as I could demonstrate beyond a reasonable doubt, naught but a void, an empty, negating non-self. Just the thought made me famished.
I was further unsettled when my Sardines a la Schopenhauer arrived.
The makings looked superb – deep green organic kale from restored wetlands along the banks of the Wabash, fresh-grated parmesan cheese from local dairies owned by Emilianese families with strong ties to the old country, and a thick puree of black olives imported from Valencia.
Topping the ensemble was a tight row of sardines, shoulder to shoulder just like in the tin – each with one little eyeball staring up at me. Together they conveyed a relentlessly Schopenhauerian message of melancholic futility.
Or was it a collective political outcry?
Were the sardines mutely accusing me of culinary complicity in their murder, of having them executed on my behalf?
But it wasn’t like I hired the guy who did the dirty work. The sardine butcher could never have known that I would buy this sandwich and benefit from the deaths of these specific sardines. The stares frozen on the faces of the little fryers, accusing though they might be, were in no way intended for me.
Or were they? Perhaps the sardines believed in Fate and took every act to be pre-determined, fixed immutably by the clock-like workings of a mechanical universe. If so, I could be regarded as having been complicit in the murder of these sardines for all eternity, long before they or I ever came to Earthly incarnation.
Yet in this case, an unbiased observer (i.e., a non-sardine) must admit that I could hardly be said to have willed or chosen their deaths. I simply lived out the fate that was ordained from the start. As did my sardine compatriots. Blame could hardly be affixed on such a basis.
I knew I should feel better. But still the eyeballs stared.
The manager himself, who was said to be a third-nephew-in-law of a friend of the great-grandson of Mr. Hume himself, was walking around the floor asking people how their food was. I couldn’t take a chance on him catching me scraping the sardines off. I settled for crowding them to one side and covering them with a leaf of lettuce.
But the lettuce kept slipping, exposing me to the pitiless stares of the little creatures, who looked even more reproachful all heaped to the side.
Finally I couldn’t take it any longer. I wrapped the sardines “to go,” ducked out of Logico’s, and gave the package to the first panhandler I saw, trusting that he could enjoy them free of existential angst.
The clocktower tolled 1:58 – time to get to class. I had a scant two minutes to make it across the Quad to Alcuin Hall.
Remembering Mr. Zeitenschreiber’s ridicule when I was late the previous day, and particularly the ignominy it brought on Mr. Testascrittore’s memory, I broke into a gallop. I reached the building with thirty seconds to go. Students less fastidious in the exactitude of their commitments dodged out of my way as I took the stairs two at a time.
Knowing I was right at the buzzer, I ditched my plan to sit up front and made a beeline for the rear door. I could study Mr. Zeitenschreiber better from a discreet distance, anyway.
Just as he looked up from his lectern, I dropped into a back-row seat. Catching my breath, I eyed the likely manuscript thief from afar.
Suddenly a jarring thought struck me – if Mr. Zeitenschreiber had purloined Mr. Testascrittore’s revised manuscript, maybe he planned to appropriate the proof of existence as his own!
Had Mr. Zeitenschreiber stolen Mr. Testascrittore’s manuscript not from economic motives but so he could claim the fabled existential proof as his own creation?
Already he might have woven the passage into as essay with an eye to quick publication. This might be my final opportunity to unmask him before he claimed the proof of existence as his own.
I had to be alert for every opportunity.
The opportunity that presented itself was so unexpected that I had no time to be alert. Before Mr. Zeitenschreiber could even begin to betray his likely involvement in the possible crime, the classroom door opened and Perkins strode in. The pencil-shaped grad assistant carried a briefcase in one hand and a large cup of coffee in the other.
Perkins stepped in front of Mr. Zeitenschreiber, nodded to the professor, then turned to face us.
“As you may have heard,” Perkins said crisply, “Mr. Grosskase will be working a reduced schedule due to health issues. However, he will be available for time-sensitive matters. I have been appointed to manage his health care team. If anyone needs to contact the Rector, they are to speak to me first. Are there any questions?”
Yes! I had a few questions – such as who exactly appointed this dweeb the guardian of access to Mr. Grosskase? But I knew this was not the time to confront the always-agitated Perkins on his credentials.
Seeming satisfied with the lack of overt response, Perkins nodded sharply to no one in particular, then turned and strode out the door.
Mr. Zeitenschreiber watched him go with an irritated expression, then surveyed the class, his bony face blanched by the fluorescent lights.
“Your assignment from yesterday was to read Mr. Heidegger’s Being and Time,” he said. “Any questions before we move on to more difficult material?”
I’d forgotten all about the assignment. Luckily, I’d skimmed the Cliff Notes at USB, so I knew that Mr. Heidegger’s famous screed was about being and time, plus something called “Asking the Question of Being.”
Exactly what was meant by this euphonious phrase was not entirely clear, but I imagined that it looked rather like an ontological version of “popping the question.”
Picture Mr. Heidegger down on bended knee, thinning hair slicked back like a 1930s gangster, neatly-trimmed mustache fluttering like a shadow over thin lips. “O wondrous Being, you whose ownmost being is such that it has an understanding of that being and who maintains itself as if its being has already been interpreted in some manner – O beautiful Being, be mine!”
Being, demur as always, hides behind the cloak of appearances.
Mr. Zeitenschreiber’s lecture was getting underway. Pretty soon he was going on about modes of existence.
As he waxed on, I could see why Mr. Zeitenschreiber might wish to appropriate Mr. Testascrittore’s proof of existence. I mean, what good does it do you to understand a bunch of modes if it turns out you don’t exist in the first place?
My attention might have drifted on to more important topics, had I not noticed an odd quirk Mr. Zeitenschreiber was developing. Whenever he said the word “inauthentic” – which you apparently wind up saying quite a bit if you lecture about Mr. Heidegger – he would pause ever-so-slightly, as if something were nagging at him.
It wasn’t all that prominent, a mere micro-belch of the sort you’d expect in a post-lunchtime lecture. Probably no one besides me even noticed.
Knowing the strong possibility of his likely theft of the manuscript, though, I had to wonder – was he unconsciously confessing his part in his colleague’s demise? I’d seen something like that in a movie once. The killer got so pent up with guilt that he was practically leaking clues. So I knew it could happen.
But maybe my imagination was running away again. Even if the nervous tic wasn’t gas, it might be genetic. Was I concocting a murder plot based on a speech impediment?
But what if my first intuition was correct, and it really was a tell-tale sign of Mr. Zeitenschreiber’s involvement in Mr. Testascrittore’s death?
My head spun in a semiotic swirl. If I knew Mr. Zeitenschreiber’s tic was a sign, I had a pretty good idea what it meant. But it might not be a sign at all, in which case I’d look pretty foolish going to the police and claiming incontrovertible evidence of Mr. Zeitenschreiber’s possible involvement in Mr. Testascrittore’s alleged murder, all on the basis of a touch of indigestion – and I, the putative expert in gastro-intestinal Phenomenology! I might never live down such a blunder. I had to be certain before I made my move.
Was Mr. Zeitenschreiber’s hesitation a sign, or just a tantalizing non-signifier? How was I supposed to tell? I needed some sign to reassure me.
What is the sign that a sign is a sign?
Suppose Mr. Zeitenschreiber’s slight pause at the word “inauthentic” was a sign. A clue.
“Inauthentic.” What exactly did it point to? The manuscript. He must be planning to publish it as his own – hence, “inauthentic.” Such a sign provided evidence of the manuscript’s existence as well as Mr. Zeitenschreiber’s possession of it.
But could I convince the police? What was the crime in Mr. Zeitenschreiber having Mr. Testascrittore’s manuscript? What was more benign – in the public eye, at least – than believing that Mr. Testascrittore himself had delivered his text to his esteemed fellow professor for collegial feedback? Wasn’t this in keeping with the highest ideals of Western academia?
The police would demand more evidence. The manuscript wasn’t sufficient proof on its own. By itself it was just another clue.
I traced the sequence further. The manuscript had been in the villa, and Mr. Zeitenschreiber had broken into the villa, which I deduced based on yet another clue, namely, the mud on his shoe. That combination suggested theft, not collegiality.
Suppose this train of reasoning held up under the critical scrutiny of the authorities. Even if I could convince them that Mr. Zeitenschreiber had stolen the manuscript from the villa — did this prove his involvement in Mr. Testascrittore’s murder? Not remotely. The theft of the manuscript was merely one more clue in an endless chain.
Mr. Derrida poked his head in, his hawk-like face surveying the room. “Each clue leads to another clue,” he said, “never to any final payoff.”
“I know,” I said. “It’s frustrating. But logically, if I follow them far enough, there has to be a payoff at the end. No matter how long the series of clues, there must be solid evidence at the end of the chain.”
Mr. Derrida smiled sadly. “A worthy goal. But never to be realized. Your clues are signs, are they not? The referent of a sign is always another sign. There is no ‘final signified object’ which is not itself a sign. The supposed ‘final payoff’ that signs seem to promise is simply one more sign in an endless chain.”
I scowled at the idea that signs pointed only to other signs. What if it caught on? Picture it on the freeway:
1 mile to Park Ave turnoff sign
5 miles to gasoline sign
2 miles to next sign
Then again, consider the literary possibilities. How about a Derridrean sequel to Mr. Sartre’s No Exit, where the characters escape from the post mortem waiting room and go wandering down these long, twisting hallways. At the end of every passage is an Exit sign. But all it ever leads to is another Exit sign.
I shook my head. “My concern, sir, is that such flagrant flaunting of the infra-referential possibilities inherent in signs will bring all signs into a general disrepute. If signs point only to other signs, it’s a cheapening of the commodity, so to speak.”
“I’m well aware of that danger,” said Mr. Derrida. “That’s why I’ve unloaded my stock in Final Signified Unlimited.”
I pondered his investment strategy. Sure, it was paying dividends today. But if I had any savings, I would plow them into Final Signified. One day scientists might discover a final signified, the big payoff promised by every chain of signs – a foundation, in a word.
Not only would I make a killing on my investment. Those of us with the vision and courage to invest in ultimate realities would become legendary heroes of the new age of epistemological certitude.
The Search for the Final Signified – An Endless Mini-Series
Dazzling deductions! Exhilarating inferences! Thrill to the adventures of hard-boiled private eye “Dagger” Derrida and his wise-cracking sidekick “Hawk” Harrison as they pursue the elusive Final Signified through a lurid underground of semio-contextual signifiers, each promising to point to the “object itself.” Starring Humphrey Bogart as Hans-Georg Gadamer, Julie Andrews as Martin Heidegger, and Marlon Brando as the corpse of Late-Medieval Nominalist Nicholas of Cusa.
“It might make a good movie,” Mr. Derrida said charitably. “Especially with me in the lead role. But it doesn’t change the fact that no matter what ‘final signified object’ you think you’ve uncovered, it will invariably turn out to be another sign, always pointing to yet another…”
I scowled. “Somewhere there has to be a final meaning, a definite foundation on which signs can find their basis. Otherwise all meaning just drifts away.”
“Fine,” said Mr. Derrida. “Show me a ‘final signified object.’ Show me one object that is sufficient in itself.”
“Okay,” I said, taking his challenge at face value. “Take a common word-sign like ‘manuscript.’ I would say that the ‘manuscript itself,’ the stack of papers covered with words, is the ultimate signified, the object to which the sign points – it is the ‘real object’ which gives the word ‘manuscript’ its meaning. What could be more obvious?”
He looked at me for a moment, as if savoring his response. “Nice try. But isn’t the manuscript itself a sign? When we look at a manuscript and wonder what’s inside – is your object not a sign of ‘hidden’ content? And what if this book refers to others? Aren’t the notes and the bibliography a collection of signs?”
“Well, yes,” I said. “I suppose it is, in those ways.”
“Case closed,” said Mr. Derrida.
I didn’t have a ready answer, even though I was still skeptical about the practical value of an endless chain of signs that never reach their final goal.
Class was wrapping up, and I had learned precious little. In fact, the only sign I’d gotten concerning Mr. Zeitenschreiber’s involvement in L’Affair D’Testascrittore – his nearly infinitesimal pause after pronouncing the word “inauthentic” – had proven of dubious semiotic, let alone legal, value.
I considered sticking around afterward and asking Mr. Zeitenschreiber a few more questions. But what good would his answers do me if I had no certainty of their value as signs? If I couldn’t count on that much, why tip him off as to my suspicions?
Get back to basics. Stick to what I knew for sure – I’d seen a man running away from Mr. Testascrittore’s villa at the very time the break-in occurred. Later, I’d seen a splash of mud on Mr. Zeitenschreiber’s shoe that seemed the same color as the mud from the villa on my own shoes and socks.
Most of all, it was clear that Mr. Zeitenschreiber had a motive for stealing the second manuscript – the appropriation of Mr. Testascrittore’s proof of existence, which he would be especially well-situated to incorporate into his own Existentialist writings.
Surely, with all this in my favor, I could persuade the police to investigate. Difficult as it might be to establish the reality behind any one of the clues, their combined weight would surely sway the authorities.
In all likelihood, the police would be so struck by the power of my reasoning that they would take me into their confidence. Private sessions would be scheduled with top brass.
The Chief points me to a leather chair, but I prefer standing. Pacing around the room, which is draped in blue velvet that has a musty smell, I share my theory that the break-in and murder are related. The police remain skeptical, but impressed by my methodical cool they agree to bring Mr. Zeitenschreiber in for questioning.
The Institute and the entire city are shocked. An outcry of public indignation lashes me for my charges against the popular Mr. Zeitenschreiber. But I stand fast, refusing to retract my stunning accusation.
After days of fruitless grilling, frustrated in all attempts to cajole or coerce the truth from the suspect, the authorities call me into the interrogation chamber. Mr. Zeitenschreiber is seated in the center of the room on a stiff-back wooden chair. The single bare lightbulb casts an eerie umbra. Slowly I circle the suspect, studying his repressed agitation at my relentless pursuit.
“Do we find ourselves,” I ask with the slightest touch of a German accent, “in that mode in which the potential for authenticity or for inauthenticity has not yet been differentiated against a horizon of temporality?”
He screws his neck around trying to follow me, but refuses to respond.
Suddenly I whirl to face him. “On the day that Mr. Testascrittore died,” I spat out, “were you not aware that Being attests not by making something known in an undifferentiated manner, but by summoning us to (I pause almost imperceptibly) authenticity?”
At my final word, Mr. Zeitenschreiber crumbles to his knees and a pitiful confession comes spilling out. Accomplices are arrested. Following a civic reception and numerous rather redundant and tedious press conferences, negotiations are opened for docu-drama rights…
The classroom had emptied of students. I gathered my papers and walked to the classroom door, then turned and took a final look at the professor.
He stared coldly back.
A shiver ran up my spine. Was I risking my life by the mere act of suspecting Mr. Zeitenschreiber of murder?
I was getting in too deep. It was time to go to the police.
The sun glared in my eyes as I made my way across the Quad toward the police substation.
That I could cross campus at this hour surprised me. Then I remembered that the Math Department Soprano Choir was performing excerpts from “The Square Root of Negative Pi,” one of Randolph J. Morgenstern’s greatest numbers. No wonder the Quad was deserted.
I was sorry to miss such a transcendental occasion. But I had more immediate concerns.
If I went to the authorities, what exactly was I going to tell them? That Mr. Zeitenschreiber was the murderer? That he had stolen the manuscript?
Or simply that I believed I had seen him at the villa on the day of the break-in?
How could I say that I’d seen him without incriminating myself? No – all I could safely tell the police was to look for traces of greenish mud on Mr. Zeitenschreiber’s shoes, and to match it against other mud in the vicinity of Mr. Testascrittore’s villa. That would surely inspire them to launch an investigation.
And the manuscript – I could suggest that a manuscript was probably stolen from the villa, and that it might well be found in Mr. Zeitenschreiber’s possession.
Surely the overwhelming weight of these revelations would spur even the most fainthearted police department into action. I was practically handing them the keys to the entire mystery.
But suppose the police pursued the clues. What exactly would they find? The murderer? Or just more clues?
I was still disturbed at Mr. Derrida’s notion that signs could only point to other signs. If clues were signs, then each one pointed to the next, to the next, to the next… until you came full circle to the first.
Even if I discovered more clues, they would just be filling gaps in an infinite series.
On that sobering note, I stepped through the portico of the St. Thomas Aquinas Substation and entered the cool, shadowy nave. Shafts of afternoon sunlight filtered down from the clerestory windows, casting patterns on the beige partitions subdividing the chapels along the central aisle.
I made my way down the nave. Where on the previous visit I’d seen makeshift paper signs, engraved bronze plaques were now affixed next to random openings between partitions. I read them as I walked slowly down the corridor:
Office of First Causes
Office of Omniscience
Office of Omnipotence
Office of the Active Intellect
Office of Teleology
None of them seemed quite right. I tried the Pub. Aff. office I’d found on my previous visit, but although it too had a new bronze sign it was closed for the day.
You’d think if the authorities wanted people to take an active part in campus life and help prevent murders of professors, there’d be something like an Office of Citizen Investigations where industrious amateur detectives could bring the results of their most determined research.
A clerk made his way up the hall, his head buried in a thick folder of notes.
“Excuse me,” I said. “Can you point me toward the Office of Citizen Investigations?”
He jumped at my voice. His eyes darted with fright. “Are you under investigation? Oh my God, don’t let them see you talking to me!” He clutched the folder to his chest and hustled off down the hall.
I sucked in a breath. Maybe I shouldn’t be quite so candid about my quest.
A search of the cubicles in the north transept turned up nothing. But I spotted a line at the end of the south transept and guessed by the concerned looks on people’s faces that I’d come to the right place.
There were a dozen people ahead of me, even before the line disappeared between two partitions. No matter. I took my place. The die was cast. I was about to unleash my accusation against Mr. Zeitenschreiber.
Waiting to see the police, I crossed my arms and looked around. The transept was not as elaborate as the central nave. Tall, glossy white walls had yellowed somewhat over the years, making the space feel like a 1950s high school hallway.
I moved to where I could check out the cubicle. A guard in a grey uniform partly obstructed my view. He seemed irritated that I was trying to look past him. I refused to be intimidated into giving up what must surely be my right to look where I wanted.
Beyond the guard the line approached a single teller-window. The window was covered in iron grating, and the person talking to the teller had to lean forward to make herself heard.
The guard gave me another hard look. I got the hint and called my attention back out of the cubicle to the hallway where I waited.
The outside of the partition doubled as a bulletin board. I scanned the rag-tag assortment of notices, flyers, and pleas for assistance.
“Hegelian vegetarian activist household seeks new member. No pets, smokers, or Kierkegaardians.”
“Confronting Syllogistophobia – overcome your fear of deduction in six easy lessons!”
“Auditions for the musical version of Plato’s Symposium – Tuesday in the Greek theater.”
A carefully-lettered sign advertised a whole roster of like-new Kantian paraphernalia:
“The Portable Kant with retractable 2-wheel cart. $199.”
“Immanuel Kant Audiobooks: Critique of Pure Reason, Critique of Practical Reason, Critique of Impractical Reason, and Critique of Critical Critiquing. Just $999 for the 287-CD set.”
“Complete set of Kantian Ideas, barely used. $299 or best offer.”
Not a bad price. If I understood the concept correctly, there wasn’t a lot of wear and tear on Kantian ideas.
Truthfully, although I’d always liked the ring of the phrase, I had only a vague notion of what Kantian Ideas were. Something about capital letter words like Truth, Beauty, Justice. The sort of Ideas that exist only as ideals. Democracy. Freedom. Love.
“Good,” came a thin voice from behind me.
Startled, I turned to see a slightly-built man in a smartly-fitting black coat and a powdered grey wig. He looked at me with an air of benign reserve, and I knew in an instant it must be the celebrated Mr. Kant.
“Oh, hi.” Immediately I regretted my familiarity, and made a sort of half-bow, rolling my hand forward to indicate obeisance.
He fluttered his hand in return as if dispensing with formalities. “That’s a good start. Truth. Beauty. Freedom. But a word like ‘Self’ is also a Kantian Idea. Although it seems required as the core of the various experiences which I call ‘mine,’ the Self is an entity that we never actually experience.”
I nodded slowly, thinking of Mr. Testascrittore’s quest. “That makes proving the existence of the Self even more complicated.”
“Yes, that would seem to be the case,” he said. He paused for a moment, then looked at me. “And what about your notion of a ‘Clue’? That’s a Kantian Idea if I ever saw one.”
“Clue?” I said. “What’s a Kantian Clue?”
“I’d say it’s a ‘Clue’ that is completely fleshed out, that stands before us in its fullness – one which unravels the mystery in a single flash. It’s an ideal that real-world clues only approximate. Real clues are murky, suggestive, frustrating – even when we think we see their meanings, there’s always a shadowy zone where we’re less than certain. So a Kantian Clue would be one that existed in all its fullness and clearness of meaning.”
“Like at the end of a detective novel, where the author wraps everything up nice and neat.”
“Precisely. But with a real-world mystery like you’re facing, you’ll never have that luxury.”
“So Kantian Clues don’t actually exist?”
“They exist the way all Kantian Ideas exist – as ideals. They exist as the ideal toward which our mundane world strives. Toward Beauty. Toward Love. Toward Truth.”
“But we never actually achieve the Ideals.”
“Perhaps not. But without the ideal, we would lack any sense of direction, of purpose. They’re the ideals that illuminate our quest for meaning. As such, they certainly exist.”
I mulled over his response. Mr. Kant pulled out his gold-plated pocketwatch.
“Am I keeping you from something?” I asked.
He held the watch at arm’s length. “No, I’m still two and a half minutes ahead of schedule.”
“Great,” I said. “There’s something else I’ve wanted to ask you.”
“Yes?” He arched his eyebrows, as if daring me to give him a tough question.
“Well, sir,” I said, “I was wondering how you went about getting ‘Kantian Ideas’ named after you. If I may confide, it’s one of my fondest dreams to have a philosophical principle named after me. Not just some dinky little equation, but something important. I figured if you could get ideas like Truth and Eternity named after you, you might be able to offer a few pointers to a young thinker aspiring to immortality.”
He looked into the distance and stroked his clean-shaven chin. “You know, it’s mainly luck and timing. I didn’t do anything special. Just went about my business of writing critiques, and one day I look up and Truth and Beauty are being assigned to me.”
Disappointment crossed my face. Mr. Kant shrugged apologetically. “Ask Mr. Plato. He got ‘Platonic Love’ named after him.” Mr. Kant laughed quietly, as if at a private joke, or perhaps one that he shared with some people, but not with me. Or maybe I just didn’t get it, and I was embarrassing him by making him laugh alone. I forced a chuckle.
Actually, though, I suspected that Mr. Plato had the last laugh. After all, Mr. Kant’s Ideas were just imaginary constructs, while if I understood the concept correctly, Mr. Plato’s Ideal Forms are more real than the physical world itself.
I had almost reached the front of the line. The security guard regulated the approach to the windows. When the person ahead of me finished, the guard held up his white-gloved hand to prevent my stepping forward until the previous person was completely out of the alcove. Then he waved crisply, as if I were dragging my feet.
The curved iron bars over the teller window were arranged in a filigree pattern that made a decorative virtue out of the apparent necessity of protecting the clerk from the public. The clerk herself sat about four feet behind the grating, chewing gum and leafing through an old copy of Popular Hermeneutics.
I leaned up to the window. “I’ve come to see the inspector working on Mr. Testascrittore’s case.”
“Of course. Right away. Just take a number, and we’ll call you.”
Take a number? After I’d just waited in line?
Besides, it made me uneasy. What if I took a number and forgot to return it? I’d have the entire math department down my throat. I’d heard of people being denied enrollment because of overdue library books. I hated to think of the penalties if you forgot to return a number.
But I couldn’t turn back now. The clock was ticking. I needed to talk to one of the investigators about the villa break-in and the likely theft of the second manuscript. If they were sympathetic, I could hint that the theft was related to Mr. Testascrittore’s death. Assuming they followed my logic, I could drop my bombshell – Mr. Zeitenschreiber’s link to the murder of his colleague.
I took a number from the dispenser. “117-2/3,” I read aloud.
The clerk jumped up from her chair. “117-2/3? My God, you’re late!” She disappeared from behind the window and reappeared a moment later between two partitions. “Come in, come in,” she said, waving me through.
As the secretary ushered me past the partition, another functionary squeezed past, struggling with a thick, overflowing folder. He bumped into me, and some papers fell from his folder. On the corner of one document was attached a photo of a scruffy, brown-haired man – was it my own picture?
“Wait! Can I see that?” But the man scooped up the documents and scurried out.
Should I chase him? But I’d already waited in line to see the detective. Just stay on target.
I was shown into the detective’s office, a partition-demarcated cubicle that reminded me of the office I’d seen on my prior visit. The desk, file cabinets, copy machine – all identical.
I’d have practically sworn it was the same place, and even more so when I saw the detective seated behind her desk – the same burly woman I’d met on the first visit.
Was it actually the same woman? As her glazed eyes met mine, she showed no spark of recognition.
On what grounds did I assert that she was the “same”? Her appearance? She could be a twin, a cousin, a doppelganger.
Or my mind, overtaxed by clues and suspects, might be playing tricks on me. After all, I couldn’t go back and re-see the first time. I relied on memory – yet extensive research has shown the constructed, evolving nature of memories.
Intuition told me it was the same person. But without a Wittgensteinian criterion for confirming the intuition, it got me nowhere but a spiral of Hermeneutic circles.
I could ask her – but I’d have to trust her understanding of my question as well as the integrity of her response.
Maybe it was better not to tip my hand that we’d already met. We hadn’t exactly bonded around a common interpretation of Western philosophy. Reminding her of the exchange risked re-opening a whole can of Scholastic worms.
Seizing the mythical bull by the metaphorical horns, I strode purposefully up to the detective’s desk.
“Yes,” she drawled without looking up. “Have a seat. What are you guilty of?”
I sat down in a stiff metal chair facing the desk. “Excuse me, I’m not guilty of anything.”
The detective smiled with no humor. “Oh, you’re guilty of something – you all are. We’re just not sure what it is yet. At the very least you are guilty of being suspected.”
I took a breath. “Ma’am, I’ve come here concerning the break-in at Professor Testascrittore’s house.”
“At his villa, I believe you mean,” she said. “We’ve closed that matter already.”
I nodded. “But I believe I have some new information that might interest you.”
She set down her pen and looked across the big desk at me. “You’re a presumptuous one, aren’t you? How on God’s green Earth could you possibly know what might interest me? And supposing you had some remote inkling as to what I want to hear – why do you think you are in the least competent to fulfill my slightest desire?”
The detective stood up. She was taller and beefier than I remembered. “How can you imagine that you could know another human being’s desires? What sort of ‘empathetic’ theory are you propounding, that you walk into the office of a total stranger, interrupt her work, and then declare that you have come to satisfy her desires?” She glared at me as if expecting to hear my theoretical foundations.
Never one to shy away from the joustings of intellectual agonistics, I straightened up in my seat. “Well, ma’am,” I said, “I start from the premise that we are fellow-creatures. My long and quite varied experience tells me that other humans have feelings similar to mine. Or so their behavior suggests. Thus, upon meeting you –”
“Get this straight,” she said so coldly that I stopped in mid-sentence, “we have not met. In my eyes, you are an intruder. I think you’d best state your purpose and be on your way.”
I took a deep breath and chose my words carefully. “Ma’am, I’ve heard that you were involved in the investigation of the burglary at Mr. Testascrittore’s villa. I have some information on what the thief might have been seeking.”
She threw back her head and shook as if laughing uproariously. But not a sound came from her lips. At length she settled herself and looked at me again. “Oh, marvelous! We – the constituted authorities responsible for all criminal investigations in the greater campus area – the agency who above all others would be expected, nay even required, to know all that could possibly be known about any criminal activity in our jurisdiction – we freely admit that we do not yet know the identity, motives, or mode of entry of those who perpetrated this act. I – the police official charged with knowing all that is to be known about this particular matter – admit my stupefaction.”
She came out from behind her desk and loomed over me. “And now you – a mere student! – have the audacity to tell me that you have information on this matter?”
I clenched my teeth. “Ma’am, I’ve come to let you now that in all likelihood a thief has stolen a precious manuscript from Mr. Testascrittore’s house, a manuscript which may very well contain his final philosophical testament.” I leaned forward in the chair for emphasis. “A man is dead, and a priceless manuscript is missing!”
The detective’s mien changed. She looked more annoyed than angry. “You say there’s a missing manuscript?”
“Exactly,” I said, relieved that she was finally seeing my point.
She shook her head emphatically as she resumed her seat behind the desk. “We made a complete inventory of every last item in the villa, and I can categorically state that there was no missing manuscript.”
“That’s the point!”
She held her palms up. “Okay, then we’re agreed. No missing manuscript.”
“No, no – there IS a missing manuscript. It’s just not in the villa.”
“Then what missing manuscript are you talking about? Can’t you see I have work to do?”
“Look,” I said, forcing myself to speak slowly. “There was a manuscript in the house. Thieves broke in, and now, as you have so carefully explained, the manuscript is not in the house.”
“I must say,” she said, “your logic is peculiar. Presently there is no manuscript in the house – so you deduce that formerly there was one in the house which was stolen? That would be like concluding that because there are no unicorns alive today, there must have been some which died out in the past. You’re deducing being from nothingness.”
Refusing to be sidetracked by her ontological gambit, I gritted my teeth. “Ma’am – I have a proposal. Perhaps we could call the police officer who investigated the professor’s murder, and mention the possible connection of this burglary to him.”
“What? What could that officer possibly know about this matter? He works out of homicide, for God’s sake! This is a clear-cut residential burglary.”
“Ma’am, if we could just mention the burglary to the investigator – ”
Her face grew purple, and her eyes nearly popped out. “Are you questioning my judgment? Out! Out, I say! Out!”
As I stumbled out of her cubicle, a wave of anger rose in me. How dare she dismiss me! She must be covering something up. I should demand an investigation.
Right. Demand that the police investigate themselves? Wasn’t that like demanding that dogs clean up their own droppings?
I was done wasting my time trying to persuade the authorities to act. If Mr. Testascrittore’s murder was going to get solved, it was up to me.
I stepped around a partition, expecting to be back in the main nave. I found myself instead in a conference room where some sort of legal deposition seemed to be taking place. I excused myself and slipped between the partitions on the other side.
This landed me in the lobby of a small theater, where ticket sellers accosted me offering half-price seats for a cafeteria-staff production called In Praise of Erasmus.
I declined on the grounds that my class studies were too demanding for such follies. The vendors retreated, muttering under their breath about the lack of concern for the humanities among today’s career-oriented philosophers.
I passed through the theater and tried the rear exit, which led to a balcony overlooking the central nave. Seeing no other way down, I took hold of the draperies and lowered myself to ground level, where a tourist snapped my photo. I tried to strike a dignified pose, then walked as quickly as I could to the exit at the far end.
Just as I reached the doors, a row of cheaply-xeroxed posters caught my eye:
Wanted for Negligent Footnotes
Wanted for Involuntary Arson
Wanted for Hermeneutic Fraud
Wanted for Abuse of Library Privileges
Wanted for Breaking and Entering
The last poster sported a crudely hand-drawn artist’s rendition of a scruffy ne’er-do-well. For a moment I thought I knew the guy from back in California. Then I realized why he looked so familiar – he was wearing a Berkeley sweatshirt.
What a coincidence – I’d been wearing my Berkeley sweatshirt only the day before. What were the odds of that? I read the fine print: Wanted for breaking, entering, grand larceny, and littering at Professor Testascrittore’s villa.
Slowly it dawned on me. I studied the drawing – well, at least they got the unshaven part right. And the Berkeley sweatshirt. For the rest, it didn’t look a bit like me.
But the implication was unmistakable – I was the leading suspect in the break-in at Mr. Testascrittore’s villa!
The gardener – whether a henchman of the actual thief or an unwitting dupe who jumped to conclusions after seeing me in the yard – had ratted me out.
The complete lack of resemblance in the details was a relief. The gardener’s description must have been the underlying basis. But the artist obviously filled in the details with his projection of what such a desperate character must look like.
I figured I’d better get away from the police station. The last thing I needed right now was to get hauled in for interrogation.
But what of the Berkeley sweatshirt? Thank goodness I’d changed clothes! I better not wear it any more. Best to get rid of it altogether.
How, though? If I threw it in the trash, some amateur Sherlock Holmes might stumble across it and call the police. DNA scans would eventually tie it to me, and I’d have a lot of explaining to do.
It had to be destroyed. Burned. That was the only way. I needed to locate an incinerator. No, there might be security cameras. I had to find a place to build a fire without drawing attention.
I needed help. Someone who knew the town and campus well enough to suggest a surreptitious spot.
Johann. It all came back to Johann. Could I trust him?
Well, could I afford not to trust him? A renowned philosopher had been murdered. His final testament to humankind was missing or stolen.
And now I found myself accused of complicity.
I needed someone to confide in, someone to help me unravel this whole mess before it was too late.
When I stopped by his boiler-room digs, Johann was re-wiring the remote control for the flagpole.
“It’s been a real drag having to raise and lower the flag by hand every day,” he said. “I had it on a timer so it went up and down automatically, with a special setting for half-mast. But it went haywire last week and the flag was running up and down the pole all day before I discovered it.”
“Listen,” I said, leaning over his shoulder. “I need your help with something. It’s kind of a strange request.”
Johann kept fiddling with the wiring. “Okay, what?”
“I went to the police department today, regarding the break-in at Mr. Testascrittore’s villa. On the way out I saw a ‘Wanted’ poster for the break-in – and it’s me they’re looking for.”
He stopped his work. “Why would they be looking for you?”
I weighed just how much to reveal. “I was sight-seeing down on mansion row and got lost. I ran into the gardener and he chased me off the property. It was just a coincidence that it happened the same day as the burglary.”
“But they don’t know your name.”
“No, and the drawing doesn’t look a thing like me. The only give-away is that the drawing shows my Berkeley sweatshirt. So I have to get rid of it, fast.”
“Why don’t you just throw it out?”
“Because the cops may go through the university trash looking for evidence.”
“Good point. You need to destroy it altogether.” He was quiet for a moment. “You should burn it and bury the ashes. It’s the only sure way.”
“Exactly. But where am I going to burn it without attracting even more attention?”
“Down by the river.”
The scenic Wabash River ran along the west edge of town, separating the thriving urban core of Terre Haute proper from the upper-class suburb of West Terre Haute. Much of the waterfront was built up with factories and warehouses known as the Index District that bustled night and day. I suspected that finding a secluded spot would be a challenge.
“Down by the river, huh?” I let my voice convey my hesitation. “I don’t exactly know my way around.”
He stopped his wiring and studied me. Finally he spoke. “Get the sweatshirt and meet me in front of the building at seven o’clock.”
I thanked him and started to leave, figuring he had important work to do in the interim if the Institute was to continue functioning at the finely-tuned level to which we had all grown accustomed.
But Johann called me back. “Take a look at this before you go.”
He reached across the workbench and picked up a pink velvet jewelry case. Inside was a small carved-glass box.
“Nice box,” I said. “What’s it for?”
“It’s a Leibniz Box,” he said. “Look what’s inside.”
I bent over and squinted at the box. But all I could see was the inside of the glass walls. “What’s in there?”
He smiled proudly. “A Monad. I just got it today.”
I looked again. “I guess my eyes aren’t what they used to be. I can’t see it.”
“Yeah,” he said. “Neither can I. But the salesperson explained that for Mr. Leibniz, each Monad is a unique and irreducible window into all of being, with every moment of being consisting of one or more Monads. So logically there must be at least one Monad in a Leibniz Box.”
“Good point,” I said. “Where’d you buy it?”
“The Society for the Preservation of Out-of-Fashion Philosophies had a big garage sale. They had an Inquisition indictment form signed by Mr. Aquinas, several equations that Mr. Russell edited out of the Principia, and a set of lenses that Mr. Spinoza polished while deducing the Ethics.”
“Pretty amazing,” I said admiringly.
“But the big-ticket item was a vial of mud from Plato’s Cave.”
“Who won the bidding for that?”
“Yale’s Metaphysics Department. They’ve felt inferior ever since Harvard snagged the arch-supports from the sandals Mr. Aristotle wore while he was lecturing on the Metaphysics. This was Yale’s chance to show they’re truly committed to the Western philosophical heritage.”
“Well, it’s certainly a convincing argument,” I said. I glanced at the clock. “I better get going if I’m meeting you at seven. See you out front.”
“Good,” he said. “Be sure to bring the sweatshirt.”
As I stood waiting outside the Albertus Magnus Empirical Metaphysics Building with the telltale sweatshirt in hand, doubts began to nag at me. Was Johann planning to feather his own nest by turning me over to the police?
I stepped back into the shadows to see if he arrived alone. But what would that prove? He could still have set a trap down by the waterfront.
Yet without his help, what were my options? I had to destroy the sweatshirt. And that meant taking the risk of trusting someone.
Johann emerged from the building right on time, apparently alone. I fell in step, and without a word we set out across campus toward the Wabash River. From time to time I checked over my shoulder, but no one seemed to be following us.
We crossed Highway 41 and made our way into the Index District. The district, which I knew from tourist maps, stretched for a mile or more along the river, six to eight blocks wide at the center, narrower at the ends.
The Index District, at least the area close to downtown, was built on a much grander scale than I’d imagined. While some buildings were stark and functionalist, looking more like grain warehouses than academic offices, others were ornamented with classical and art-nouveau motifs.
“So all of these buildings are involved in publishing indexes for philosophy books?” I asked.
“Pretty much,” he said. “There are a few companies on the south side which specialize in tables of contents, but indexes are Terre Haute’s leading philosophical industry.”
“I always thought of New York and Chicago as the textbook-publishing centers.”
“They are. But philosophy books are useless if they don’t have an index. And indexes are our niche. Even at this late hour these buildings are filled with cubicled workers laboring at breakneck speed to create and catalog the indexes required by the philosophy industry. By controlling this crucial element of production, we’ve assured Terre Haute’s place in the broader philosophical economy.”
“I can see how important they must be,” I said.
“Oh, you can’t imagine,” Johann said with pride. “The 1922 fire that gutted the Index District practically shut down Western philosophy. Luckily, intellectual capital poured in, and the District was rebuilt on an even grander scale.”
One building, modeled on a French Gothic church, looked a bit out of place. I gazed at the ornamented spire that soared above the flying buttresses.
“That’s the Museum of Indexes,” Johann said. “They collect, curate, and preserve a copy of every index produced in Terre Haute, along with ephemera such as the original texts to which they were appended.”
I studied the tall stone building. “So you can read any index ever produced?”
“Well, no,” Johann said matter of factly, “The documents are stored in airtight vaults and only occasionally displayed in sealed glass cases. But they’ve created a master index of all the indexes, so you can get an idea of the astounding range of books that have been indexed over the decades.”
As we reached the corner, my eyes played up and down the pointed arches over the entrance to the Gothic building. “It looks like a monastery,” I said.
“It is,” Johann replied “The Index District actually got its name from its connection to the Catholic Church. Back when Terre Haute was a French colony, the Inquisition decided to update their list of prohibited books, known as The Index.
“Pontifical officials drew up the new and greatly expanded list of banned books, then engaged the monks of Santo Domingo de Sabado to create a summary of the huge document. The monks produced a synopsis known as the Index of the Index. Even that proved unwieldy, so the monks here in Terre Haute drafted an alphabetical list of key words, which became the well-known Index to the Index of the Index.”
Further from downtown, the Index District lost some of its luster, looking like many another ageing warehouse district in America. Even at this late hour, railroad cars were being unloaded on the local spurs along the faceless shoebox-shaped buildings and razor-wired parking lots. Some of the buildings were of corrugated metal, others of wood with peeling paint. Higher up were banks of small metal-framed windows that illuminated the interiors by day. Random panes were cracked or broken.
As we approached the riverside docks, the shouts of the stevedores filled the air with dozens of languages. Were there any two workers who could understand one another’s speech? I wondered how anything ever got communicated with such a variety of tongues.
Mr. Heidegger, dressed in his habitual fresh-off-the-rack Black Forest woodsman outfit, fell in step. “Simple,” he said. “The stevedores share a common ‘know-how’ that is prior to language.”
I glanced at Mr. Heidegger, whose eyes were glued to the ground. As he spoke, his little black moustache fluttered above a tight mouth. I wondered if anyone had given him the memo that the Hitler look had gone out of fashion.
Maybe I should suggest that Mr. Heidegger try my personal style, the Late 1960s Easy Rider Fu Manchu with mandatory three-day stubble. But somehow I doubted it would suit him very well.
“You use the word ‘knowledge’ as if it has but a single meaning,” he continued. “It’s important to recognize that we use the word to encompass several types of engagement with Being. There’s ‘knowing a fact’ and ‘knowing a person.’ But there’s also ‘knowing how,’ which is in many ways the most fundamental. After all, what does it avail us to know a fact if we don’t know how and when to apply it?”
“But how does that help people communicate?”
“Those who share a common ‘know-how’ can communicate with a minimal use of language,” he said, “because they already know most of what is going to be communicated. Even in a ‘foreign’ language, a mere inflection of the voice can convey an entire chain of commands to experienced workers. It’s much the same as the communication between a mother and infant. The baby’s lack of language skills doesn’t impede communication in the least.”
“Why would we ever develop language, if it’s that easy?” I asked.
“If only it stayed that easy!” answered Mr. Heidegger. “When we try to communicate with people who do not share this sort of intuitive connection – when we try to communicate in situations in which the ‘know-how’ is not shared – we fall back on mere words. The deficiency of this mode is seen by the frequency of miscommunication.”
I nodded, recognizing that this complicated matters. “So you’re saying that just learning facts, such as who killed Mr. Testascrittore, is insufficient.”
“Why are you learning it?” he asked. “What is the larger project of which this knowledge is part? We must not forget to frame this context – and ultimately to ask the deeper question of Being.”
My ears perked up at the sound of his famous phrase. “I’m unclear, sir. What exactly is the question of Being?”
“It’s simple,” he said, “although the question has been nearly forgotten since the time of Socrates, and has lain buried for over 2000 years. The question is: What is the Being of beings?”
My forehead wrinkled. “I see. And what is the Being of beings?”
Mr. Heidegger frowned. “You miss the point. It’s not a quiz question. It’s a question each of us must ask for ourselves, and then listen. Philosophy is not about studying and regurgitating summaries of the history of Western thought, but responding to the question of Being. The history of philosophy is unthinking, thoughtless. It must be dismantled and broken down, so we can rescue the occasional passages and moments when the Being of beings is touched on.”
I couldn’t help noticing that he hadn’t actually answered my question about the being of the Question of Being. “Your exposition is all well and good, sir, but if you are going to capitalize the word, I’d expect that we’d have a little more clarity about what exactly Being is.”
His lips tightened under his thin moustache. “You fail to understand. We seek not an answer but a call which is our ownmost. The call is not to ‘learn about philosophy’ or to correctly repeat test answers, but to personally and authentically listen and respond to the Being of the beings with which we are engaged. Knowing is not about ‘grasping,’ as is so often said. To authentically know something is to allow it to disclose itself in its own unique way. It’s like a musical tuning, a harmonic accord between human consciousness and its object. We are called to listen and respond, to ‘take response-ibility’ for Being.”
He blinked. “Yes. In such wonder begins all philosophy.”
His verbiage spun round in my head. I liked the part about disclosing the Being of truth by engaging with musical harmonies. But until I had immersed myself in Mr. Heidegger’s voluminous works for a few more decades, I felt unequal to pursuing the matter further.
I made a mental note to brush up on the Cliff Notes in case we crossed paths again, and to do some thinking about the Being of beings, particularly as regards being the Being that beings might be in the event that their Being could be said to be part of the beings being questioned as to the question of their Being.
Mr. Heidegger wandered off. The warehouses were thinning out, replaced by weed-grown lots littered with semi-trailers and rusty machinery. Johann steered us northward, and soon we were walking down a two-lane country road illuminated only by the moon. I remained on guard for unusual lights or sounds. In a pinch, I could make a break and try to lose myself in the Index District.
I cast a sidelong glance at my guide. Who was Johann, anyway? What did I really know about him? That he had washed out of academia and now worked as a custodian. That he had good taste in philosophical relics. That in unguarded moments he claimed for himself a perhaps-exaggerated role in the welfare of the Institute.
Most of all – that he had good reason to blame Mr. Testascrittore and Mr. Grosskase for his lowly position in life. That was the key fact.
I needed to pry some information out of him. As casually as I could, I turned the conversation to that end. “I hear that Mr. Grosskase isn’t doing so well,” I said. “Do you think he’ll have to retire on account of Mr. Testascrittore’s death?”
“Oh, no,” Johann said. “I can’t imagine it. He won’t leave until there’s a new Rector whom he trusts to preserve unity in his stead.”
“That’s a worthy cause,” I said.
“It is,” he said, then fell silent. When he spoke again, it was in an apologetic tone. “Listen, if I said anything negative about Mr. Grosskase, don’t pay attention. Whatever my personal gripes with him, no one doubts his dedication to the Institute. He’s getting old, and he’s sick a lot. But he was a brilliant man in his prime, the leading Sartrean of his generation. When he lectured, you felt like you were in the presence of experience itself, not a bunch of arid words.”
I nodded. “What about Mr. Testascrittore? Would Mr. Grosskase have trusted him to hold the Institute together?”
Johann snorted. “Testascrittore? No way. He was an alpha philosopher, a celebrity bringing prestige to the Institute and boosting donations. But Testascrittore was no mediator. He was entirely invested in Trans-Hermeneutic Phenomenological Methodologism. For all his fame and popularity outside the Institute, a lot of insiders weren’t enamored of his high-handed ways. They would never have allowed him to become Rector.”
And what better way to prevent it than murder, I thought.
We came to an unmarked crossroads and swung left toward the river. The moon gave enough light to stay on the gravel road, but little more. A decrepit wooden fence ran along the lefthand side. We came to a break in the fence, and Johann steered me onto a narrow footpath. Fifty feet later we were bushwhacking through thick undergrowth. Although we hadn’t set eyes on the river, the pungent smell of over-ripe fish told me the Wabash must be close.
I wanted to press Johann further on his relationship with Mr. Testascrittore, but if he were in fact involved in the murder, mentioning it again would tip him off as to my suspicions. I had to take a more round-about approach.
Just keep him talking about himself. Something might slip out.
“So,” I said, “are your parents from Terre Haute?”
“No. They arrived here nine months before I was born. My father was a colonel in the Swiss Navy. My mother taught Russian Literature on a Dutch pirate ship. Terre Haute being the thriving international port that it was in those days, the two of them met on shore-leave, at Deadhand Dreiser’s Bar and Bagels – one of the original Thousand Taverns, not one of your latter-day touristic knock-offs. They jumped ship, took advantage of Vigo County’s lenient fugitive laws, and made Terre Haute their home.
“Of course, they were very poor, my father having few marketable skills beyond pacing around town with a parrot on his shoulder yelling ‘Ahoy, ye scurvy dogs!’ It was my dear mother who scraped together our monthly rent teaching the Dutch pirates of Terre Haute to read Russian.”
He wiped his cheek. “It was a loving family, and it wasn’t so bad being poor. I grew up on the fringe of the Historic Latin Quarter Preservation District, and I like to think that I absorbed some of its esoteric aura. When I was young, I was in love with a guy who could recite Silver Age poetry in a voice to die for.”
“A perfect Forum accent, eh?”
“No, his accent was atrocious – he sounded like he was straight out of Trastevere. But oh, what a voice!”
“I see.” I looked sideways at him, trying to study his face in the dim light. “Who was this guy you were in love with?”
“Mortimer McIntosh,” Johann said wistfully. “The man of my dreams. Mortimer was the recording secretary of the Institute – his job was to keep the music collection properly catalogued. He epitomized all that is best about Terre Haute – the spirit, the vitality, the taste for the exotic. Oh, how I pined for him when I was a student! After I dropped out and began my present career, I bucked up my courage and asked him for a date, figuring that even rejection was preferable to the torments of repressed desire.”
“And he broke your heart?”
“No, not at all,” Johann said wistfully. He tilted back his head and studied the moonlit sky. “I wound up breaking his. We weren’t epistemologically compatible. He turned out to be a raging Popperite who would not stop trying to falsify everything I said.”
“Why would he do that?”
“It was a matter of philosophical principle. He said that only when he had failed to falsify my words could he rest assured that they were true.”
“Doesn’t seem like a great basis for a relationship.”
“Well, he’s happily married to a Post-Kantian Transcendental Objectivist – I guess you just have to find your perfect match.”
A few yards further, Johann came to a halt. “Right here. We’re about as far from civilization as you could ask. We can build a fire, burn the sweatshirt, and bury the ashes.”
We scavenged kindling by the moonlight filtering through the sparse trees. Johann wadded up some paper he’d brought and got the fire started. I pulled the sweatshirt out of my daypack and gave it one last fond look. Farewell, Berkeley.
I cast the shirt into the flames, using a long stick to poke the remnants into the fire. Soon it was consumed, and we let the embers burn down. I used my stick to scrape a shallow grave, then shoveled the ashes in and covered them over.
“That should do it,” Johann said. “Now if we can just find our way out of here…”
“I assumed we could go back the same way we came.”
“Fine – any idea which way that is?”
Great, I thought. I didn’t need Johann’s help to get lost. He pointed to a moonlit clearing between two rows of trees. “I think that will get us back to the road.”
Half an hour later, we hadn’t found a road. Or any sign that any human had ever set foot in these woods before. I was tempted to turn back – but I had no idea which way was back. All we could do was keep floundering.
Considering how committed I was to studying for my classes, I was a bit annoyed to be wasting my time exploring the river front. But look on the bright side – I was rid of the telltale sweatshirt, and I’d confirmed Johann’s loyalty.
Or had I? At that moment we emerged from the woods into a large clearing. Bright lights flickered in the distance. A car’s headlamps raked across us. I put my hand up to shield my eyes. A gruff voice called out.
“Stop right there!”
Johann and I stood on the edge of a big parking lot filled with late-model cars. In front of us was a limo stand, where several stretch-limos stood idling. The car which had stopped in front of us emptied. The passengers, laughing drunkenly, headed toward a neon-shrouded building across the lot, while the valet who had ordered them to stop parked their car.
“By God,” exclaimed Johann. “It’s Club Pascal!”
“Club Pascal,” I repeated, reading the flashing sign over the doorway. My instinct was to duck back into the woods and not be seen in the vicinity. But Johann took my arm and practically dragged me across the parking lot.
“I’ve heard of this place all my life,” he said, “but I always thought it was an urban legend. I’ve never believed it till this moment.”
“It looks like it belongs in Las Vegas.”
“Supposedly it’s the biggest gambling casino between Vegas and Atlantic City. And doing quite a business, it looks like.”
He started for the door, but I held back. “I didn’t know gambling was legal in Indiana.”
“It’s not,” he said. “That’s why the casino is hidden down here by the river.”
I jogged after him and took his arm. “I think we should get out of here before someone sees us and asks what we’re doing out in the middle of nowhere without a car, and our clothes all dirty to boot.”
“No, come on,” he said, pulling me along with him. “If we don’t stop in, people are going to wonder why we’re down here if we’re not going to Club Pascal.”
“If we don’t go in, no one will notice we weren’t here.”
“It’s not that simple,” he said, pushing me through the door. “You can’t prove a negative proposition. You could never prove that no one missed you. Only that no one admitted it.”
He had a point. He also offered to buy a round, which clinched the deal. “Two Backwash Stouts and a bowl of hash,” he called out. He pulled out a small clay pipe and set it on the bar.
The bartender, whose rippling arms were tattooed with scenes from Mr. More’s Utopia, set the beers down hard enough to make them foam out the neck. Reaching under the counter she produced a dark brown lump of hash the size of her fist. She pulled a double-bladed knife from her belt and started shaving off slivers in front of Johann. “Say when.”
Johann loaded up the pipe, then set an equivalent amount aside. He passed it to me for the first toke, which made my head spin.
“Direct from Brazil, ” the tattooed bartender said, pronouncing the word “Bray-zil.”
“Brazil?” I said, imagining the beaches of Rio.
“Yep, right up the road in Brazil, Indiana. ”She took a hit and passed it to Johann. “So what brings you folks down here by the river tonight? Got some business in these parts?”
I choked, then faked a coughing fit to cover up my shock. Johann improvised. “You know, we hear all the time about the Thousand Taverns of Terre Haute. But most of the time, we go to the same thirty or forty and never see the rest. So tonight we set out to broaden our horizons. Why not start with the best?”
The flattery worked, and the waiter launched into a rendition of the long and colorful history of the casino.
“It wasn’t actually founded by Blaise Pascal,” she said. “Just named in his honor, as the patron saint of gamblers.”
I laughed. “I guess they have a saint for everything.”
“Well, Mr. Pascal is ours,” she said. “And an appropriate choice he was. He made a wager that God existed. He told people, ‘It’s the best bet you can make. If you lose, all you’ve wasted is one lifetime. But if you win, you’ve gained eternity.’”
“Smart,” I said.
“Seems so today,” she said. “But during the Enlightenment, Mr. Pascal found many a taker for his wager. Betting against God became a badge of cultivated society, and Mr. Pascal was the butt of endless jokes over his one wasted life. But he had the last laugh when the Romantic era turned the game in his favor. He cashed out at quite a windfall, making him the hero of steady, play-the-long-odds gamblers.”
She raised her beer-glass. “A toast to Mr. Pascal!” Around me, steins were raised, and I joined in the appreciation of the astute Mr. Pascal.
I looked around the crowded club. Opposite the bar was a large stage, where the Postmodern All Stars were deconstructing standards for a rambunctious audience. Off to my left, an elderly woman scored three Engels in a row on a slot machine. She jumped up and did a dialectical dance as the payoff came cascading out of the machine.
Johann sat down at a machine and started feeding it quarters. I watched for a moment, but the machines didn’t hold my interest. If I was going to gamble, I wanted a game of skill.
Making my way among the flashing machines and glitzy decor of Club Pascal, I exchanged a crumpled wad of bills for chips. I walked past the roulette wheel and the blackjack tables. Philosopher’s Poker was my game. I found an empty chair at a five-card draw table and placed my chips on the table.
For the first half-hour my best hand was a Historical Materialist flush, which won a small pot over three Semioticists. I watched my pile of chips dwindle. It looked to be a short night at the old gambling table.
Then, just as the band wrapped up their demolition of “The Differend,” it happened – the cards I’d been waiting for. Not perfect, but two pair. I opened the betting at five dollars.
I looked over my hand – Hegel, Fichte, Bonaventure, Augustine, and Diderot. It was a no-brainer to discard the French Encyclopedist. If I could pick up either an Idealist or a Early Medieval, I’d have a full house.
Tightening my jaw to keep from betraying my emotions, I placed the Diderot face-down onto the discard pile. The dealer slid me a new card. I turned it up – Schelling! I slid him in next to his fellow Idealists, clamped my jaw tighter, and tossed another ten into the pot.
Around the table, other players folded. All except one. A man with slicked-back hair and a pale green loan-shark suit studied me, then slowly looked back at his cards. He laid two cards on the discard pile and picked up his new ones, sorting them meticulously in his hand. Then he matched my ten and raised me twenty.
I hesitated. My full house was strong, but not invulnerable. He could have four Early Moderns. Or a straight flush of Logical Positivists.
But what if he was sitting on a pair of lowly Greeks? Was I going to give up a hundred-dollar pot because I couldn’t see through a bluff?
“See it or fold,” the dealer said. I looked at my cards again as if expecting them to advise me. Augustine stared back, and I felt a bit guilty for squandering my time gambling when I should be studying. I made a mental note to spend some of my winnings on a good fountain pen, which would doubtless inspire me to study more. With a deep breath, I tossed my last twenty into the pot. “I call.”
Shark-suit tilted his head slightly, then fanned his cards out. “Full house, Existentialists on top.”
Ah! So close! I slapped my full house down on the table, knowing that his Existentialists trumped my Idealists. I watched grimly as he raked in my hard-earned cash. I still had a few dollars in my pocket, but I figured I better save it for the ride home. I pushed my chair away from the table.
Johann was glued to the slot machine where I’d left him. “I’m getting the system down,” he said without looking at me. “I’ve been keeping count, and I’m due for a payoff in just 89 more quarters.”
“How much money do you have now?”
He counted his quarters. “Twenty-two dollars, exactly.”
“Come on,” I said, taking his arm and hoisting him to his feet. “We need it for a cab back to town.”
“My odds!” He flung his arms out toward the machine as I dragged him away. “Just 89 more plays and I’d have it!”
Johann didn’t physically resist as I pulled him away from the slot machine. Instead he contorted his face, wringing his hands and casting his tormented gaze back toward the machine in apparent hope that I would relent out of sheer embarrassment.
I shook my head and waved goodbye to the bartender, who smiled sadly. “Don’t forget your pipe,” she called out to Johann.
At the sight of his clay pipe, Johann snapped out of his trance. “Right, thanks,” he said as he accepted it from her. “See you next time.”
He led the way out the door as if nothing had happened. “Nice place, eh?” He reached in his pocket and pulled out a fistful of quarters. “Glad I saved these,” he said. “Let’s get a cab.”
We were silent on the ride home. I reckoned my losses, while Johann hummed the love theme from Abelard & Heloise. The cab dropped us at the edge of campus near the police substation.
“Want to get some dinner?” I said. “I was thinking I might walk over to Logico’s.”
“No, I’ve got some things I need to do,” he said.
“Come on, we’ll grab a quick meal and call it a day. I need to do some studying, anyway.”
But as he had the evening before, Johann demurred, citing vague obligations. I studied his downcast face, wondering what was behind his obfuscation. A secret love-tryst? Or something more sinister? Was he avoiding Logico’s? Was I missing something here?
Well, clearly I was missing something. Like the solution to the mystery, among other things. And I couldn’t ignore Johann’s possible role. Just because he’d lent me a hand with burning the telltale sweatshirt, I couldn’t eliminate him as a suspect in Mr. Testascrittore’s death.
Yet circumstances just as easily pointed to several others. Mr. Denkenschnelle had certainly been acting oddly. Mr. Dascapitali had an obvious motive. And what about other professors? I hadn’t even met some of them.
Then there was the inscrutable Perkins, who’d gotten himself appointed to manage Mr. Grosskase’s live-in healthcare team.
Was I the only one concerned about Perkins’ motivation in securing the position at such a sensitive moment? What did he know about health care management?
And the police? They’d been awfully eager to declare Mr. Testascrittore’s death an “accident” and close the case. Look how agitated the detective got today when I so much as broached the topic. We could be looking at a cover-up.
Were they all in it together? Was it a giant conspiracy of the entire faculty and custodial staff and police department?
Or was I getting lost in the possibilities?
I needed to apply Ockham’s Razor – to seek the simplest explanation that required the fewest unprovable assumptions. Let go of all the wild possibilities and focus on the simplest theory.
Of course, as Mr. Ockham well knew, the simplest theory wasn’t necessarily correct – but it was a sensible place to begin.
While I was at it, I could apply my own recently-minted principle of intellectual economy, Harrison’s Toenail Clipper, which I might modestly note has achieved the most significant advance in Scholastic methodology since Mr. Ockham first used his intellectual razor to shave away Gothic excesses in the fourteenth century.
Harrison’s Toenail Clipper, simply put, is an Analytic device for paring away moribund excrescences from older theories.
And what better moment than now for clipping away the moribund toenails of my theories about who murdered Mr. Testascrittore?
I thought over the list of suspects. Were they all dead toenails? Wasn’t I getting distracted? Just a few hours ago, I’d been sure the clues were pointing to Mr. Zeitenschreiber.
After all, it seemed little short of certain that he was the intruder at the villa, and therefore quite possible that he had found and appropriated the second manuscript.
Even more, as a fellow Existentialist – albeit a dyed-in-the-Alpine-wool Heideggerian – he above all others seemed positioned to adopt Mr. Testascrittore’s proof of existence as his own creation.
Quite plausible. But the entire chain of reasoning rested on one assumption – that he was in fact in possession of the second manuscript.
I had to find some way to get that information out of him. Face it, dinner and studying were going to have to wait. Even though it was approaching midnight, I needed to find Mr. Zeitenschreiber and have a little chat.
My destination was The Vienna in the Historic Latin Quarter Preservation District, where Mr. Zeitenschreiber had held court the previous evening. If he wasn’t there, they might know where he could be found.
Not that I planned to confront him directly. I didn’t have sufficient evidence for an accusation.
But with circumstantial clues pointing toward him, I had to act quickly. If Mr. Zeitenschreiber was in possession of the revised manuscript, nothing would stop him from publishing the proof as his own creation. His fame would skyrocket, and like Mr. Testascrittore before him, he would become the pride (and primary fundraiser) of the Institute.
If, following his apotheosis, I stepped forward and charged him with the break-in and manuscript theft, he could mobilize the immense resources of the Institute to crush me. I’d probably be arrested myself, based on the Wanted posters. And that could ultimately lead to charges of murder, which I might well find impossible to refute.
The noose was tightening. The moment to act was now, before Mr. Zeitenschreiber had a chance to perpetrate the fraud.
Even more than the manuscript question, I needed to get clear whether Mr. Zeitenschreiber was the killer, or simply the lucky beneficiary of an unexpected turn of events. My first instinct was to believe the thief to be the murderer. But did I have any evidence to back that up?
I reviewed what little I knew, looking for some sign pointing to either Mr. Zeitenschreiber or to Mr. Heidegger, his mentor. The foot pointing to Mr. Copleston’s History indicated the final volume, which included Mr. Heidegger. But it covered dozens of other thinkers and tendencies as well – a virtual potpourri of contemporary philosophers..
What about the other clue – the bloodstained copy of Being and Nothingness? Of course, I had no proof that this had anything whatsoever to do with the killer. Maybe Mr. Testascrittore was simply holding the book when he was killed. It could be a giant red herring.
But what if it wasn’t? The book lay open to the chapter on “Time,” in which Mr. Sartre made the unusual suggestion that the “present” was actually Nothingness – the present was a “moment of Nothingness” between the past and the future, each of which was a plenum of being.
Thus we could say, “the past was such and such, or the future will be thus and so.” But all that could be said of the present was negative – the present is not an extension of time, it does not endure, etc.
Very clever. And very derivative. Mr. Heidegger’s Being and Time laid out much the same idea in characteristically turgid German fifteen years prior to Mr. Sartre’s publication of the eminently readable Being and Nothingness.
Was this the motive for Mr. Testascrittore’s murder? Did the bloodstained book mutely accuse Mr. Zeitenschreiber of perpetrating the crime in a fit of pique at the Sartrean appropriation of Mr. Heidegger’s conception of Time?
Was this the final clue I’d been seeking?
A block ahead, I saw the The Vienna.
The moment had come for a showdown.
As I crossed the street, an unexpected obstacle confronted me. Halfway up the block, authorities from the Temple of Logic had set up a check point. Was a procession coming through, or was this an encroachment of Temple security into the Historic Latin Quarter Preservation District?
Given my status as a wanted fugitive, I figured I’d better steer clear in either case.
Ahead of me, a young woman tried to get past the roadblock. Apparently she lacked the proper credentials. A guard in Temple regalia shoved her with his truncheon: “Get away from here, and don’t let me catch you prowling again!”
She protested that she had simply forgotten her ID card, but the guard lifted his riot club. She backed away, muttering about notifying city authorities. The guard slid his baton back into his belt and laughed derisively. “Come back when you’ve got proper identification.”
Thinking ahead to the day when I might visit the Temple of Logic, I was tempted to query the guard as to what sort of credentials would be acceptable. But I figured it was best not to interact with security personnel.
I headed back around the block and soon arrived at The Vienna.
The place was packed. But unlike the previous night the mood was somber, almost funereal. No music was playing, and the pool table was idle. People sat or stood in little clumps talking quietly. A man near me wiped a tear from his eye.
I stepped up to the circular bar. “What’s going on?” I asked.
“Haven’t you heard?” the bartender said. “Mr. Zeitenschreiber is dead.”
“Yes – he was found with his skull crushed by the Oxford One-Volume Encyclopedia of Philosophy.”
“My God, that’s terrible,” I said. My knees felt weak, and I leaned onto the bar for support. “When did it happen?”
“His body was found an hour ago – in Mr. Testascrittore’s office.”
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