Our selves, alone. Extract 5 (and final) Nthposition.com 2010

This is the end of the story. Not too sure about the “reveal” at this distance. However of all the stories I have reposted here this is the one I do wonder about, um, reworking the most.

Full story here. and Extract 1 here and Extract 2 here and  Extract 3 here and Extract 4 here. 


After that afternoon, Gallagher seemed to retreat into himself. Kelly was left to her own devices. She felt exhilarated when walking in the raw air, or scrambling up the lower slopes of the mountain. She read and read in the evenings. The lamps were always on low, and inside the house there was a sense of being disconnected from the world outside, of it being some eternal long winter evening, even when the sky was bright. Gallagher was around sometimes, but even when he was he didn’t seem all that interested in her anymore.

One day, in the middle a pile of paperback biographies of composers (a term which had been replaced as music was now considered such an irreducibly social process that to identify a piece with any one individual was regarded as a category error) which Kelly had been reading enraptured, she found a very slim volume, which was, she supposed, technically a hardback (she had only recently become aware of the distinction) but the hardcovers were really reinforced cardboard. It had a dark green cover, and must have been only a few dozen pages long. On the front was printed the word “Aphorism.” She look at the frontispiece. “Aphorisms, for an age beyond aphorisms” was printed in large letters, with the words “reflections of an obsolete headshrinker” in slightly smaller type below, and “by Bert Gallagher MB BCh BAO MRCPsych” below this.

There was no indication of who published it, or in what year. When she had first started reading the books, some days ago, she had always opened them at the beginning and read straight through. Years of using the iMe, or being confronted with whatever text the screen presented her with, had inculcated this habit in her. Soon, however, she realised that opening the pages at random often led to a richer, more involved experience. She had been pleasantly surprised how immersive, how real, the experience of reading written passives was.

The page she opened contained the following text:

# 37: When the anthropologists are interested in you, you know you’re on the way out.

# 38: The self is still the self. This linguistic affectation – my now self, your then self, his future self, her continuing self – and all that nonsense – is only so much hot air.

# 39: When the anthropologists are interested in you, you know you’re on the way out. You also know that you’ll be back

# 40: The illusions that we are all being forcibly cured of are proving so stubborn that, perhaps, they are not illusions after all.

# 41: No brain scan ever will reveal my essence, my self, my soul.

The volume contained about 80 of these fragments. She turned the pages. At the end, there was a longer piece of text. Titled “A drunk man looks at the shamrock”, it read as follows.

“Dear Kelly,”
“I wonder if you will have read everything else first, in your good systematic academic way, or have you developed my habit of random browsing? If you have, you may have discovered other copies of this text, except without these closing words addressed to you. It is ironic that I am now so nostalgic and so proud of the modest, rather limited art and science of psychiatry, one which didn’t claim to reveal the secrets of humanity anymore by the time I got to it. I was a pretty honest-to-goodness psychiatrist, not a messiah or a villain. Like many of my generation I wanted to be a writer. I never could write anything interesting of any length. So I devoted myself to writing the aphorism. For generations, the literary-minded worshipped the novel (it was a particular form of written passive) as the highest form of literary art, and despite everything – Facebook, Twitter, Webathon (interact with an iMe history interactive for more info) – we did, too. Even as our thoughts were fragmented into millions of pieces, our emotions and our instinctual responses instantly conveyed for the world to see, we still dreamt of the length, the depth, the intellectual heft of the novel. It was a rather silly fetish, and perhaps those who are know trying to purge us of our illusions and mistakes of thinking are right to have cured us of our idolisation of the creative arts.”
“Anyway, I could never write a novel, despite many efforts. And I began to realise that a few words, carefully chosen, can imply a universe – can imply the universe. And in the times I was living in, I realised that the aphorism was the form that suited me most It suited the times as well..”
“So I began to work on the fragments you have read, or will read, or indeed won’t read. Each one tries to encompass my life, in the way a novel would.”


Now, back on the North American continent, in a country no longer called the USA, Kelly’s grandchild is worrying about the consequences of advancing age. Her name is Victoria Belladonna Smith Murtlock, and she has just turned forty-five. Her own daughter, fifteen last birthday, is working on her homework by the television. Earlier today, Victoria was told by her doctor that she had a high cholesterol level. “There isn’t much we can do,” said the doctor, “we can give these tablets, but we still don’t know if they’ll work for you.” For Victoria, this imperfection was the first real sign of personal mortality, and she was ruminating on this. She looked at Maisie, fifteen, serious, sombre, hardworking, and thought of when she would confront mortality.

Victoria told herself to stop wallowing in self pity. She was not doing too bad. She had overcome the loss of Patrick, and Maisie wasn’t turning out too bad. And the pressure of being the daughter of Maxwell Smith Murtlock, and the granddaughter of the great Kelly and Joseph Murtlock! How boring it had been growing up, with Dad always holding forth about his legacy, and the importance of his children maintaining at all times decorum and modesty. How seriously her sisters and brothers took it! And yet they had all failed to live up to that stern code of morality. Their political endeavours had all floundered on minor pecadilloes and gaffes. Only she, Vicky,who had never really expected much, and whom no one had expected much from, who had stayed out of public life altogether, had stayed true to the precepts of the book. And only she knew the truth. She thought about it every day.

The family legend, which was also the national legend, which was now the global legend, was that Kelly had returned from Ireland to America with a mysterious text, the Aphorisms, which seemed to detonate an explosion in the complacent heart of the rationalisation project. Joseph Murtlock, of all people, the rational academic personified, became the main evangelist for the text found by his student, who in due course became his wife, and the mother of his child. It was this child, Maxwell Smith Murtlock, who brought Resacralisation from the academy to politics, to everyday culture, to life. The masses, tired of the endless hectoring of the rational politcoes, gladly adopted a new political creed which accepted that, after all, there were limits to the power of language to reshape the world. That the self, as a unitary entity stable in space and time, was an illusion became a merely academic question once again.

After her husband Patrick had died, Vicky had been prostrated with grief. She took to the bed in the old house in Hyannis. Grandmother Kelly, nearly ninety, and nine months from the grave, climbed up the wooden stairs and went into Vicky’s room. Vicky’s eyes had run out of tears, but she still shook with silent sobs. Grammy clambered into the bed and cradled Vicky. She held her, rocking back and forth, gently cooling, “poor girl, poor girl, my poor girl.” Vicky’s sobbing became something no longer physical – she no longer rocked convulsively – but Kelly could still feel the waves of grief seize her granddaughter’s whole self every few seconds. The old woman began to talk, began to tell Vicky the story of herself and Granpa. Except this time the story was different.

“Your father was not old Joe Murtlock’s son, my dear. Even he, poor Maxwell, never knew that. I could never tell him. His father – your grandfather – was the real prophet of our age. He was the most modest man I ever met, and he died six months after Maxwell was born. He was a psychiatrist – you know what they are, they are making a comeback I gather. He wrote the Aphorisms. They were not the work of some anonymous prophet, but an ordinary man, with worn out shoes wandering the roads of Donegal. We made a memorial to the unknown aphorist there, by a mountain. It was a lie, but a necessary lie. Or so I thought. Now I look at our family and I think – is it you, dear girl, dear Vicky, the most ordinary of all Maxwell’s children, the most down to earth – who really got it, who really understood it. You are your grandfather’s granddaughter, my dear. Your grandfather’s granddaughter.”

Victoria thought of this everyday. She never told anyone. Now, Maisie, has put down her pen. The television is showing an ad, and neither woman is watching it. Victoria says, “Maisie, there’s something I need to tell you, a story, something about my grandmother. There’s something I need to tell you about our selves.”

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