Love Among the Particles

Norman Lock


1. My Metamorphosis

I may never know why I have changed. Perhaps I'm being punished in a classical style. Or it may be that I became entangled in an astronomical event or a caprice of weather. Whatever the reason, on a morning unremarkable except for a cloud edged strangely by phosphorescence in an otherwise ordinary summer sky, I was transformed from a man in his middle age with a mustache, slouch, and an awkward gait to a collation of sentient particles of uncertain age that move with the genius possessed by all gregarious flying things to rise, turn, and settle as one.

I was anxious but had only to recall metamorphoses recounted by Bulfinch and Kafka to console myself. In truth, I had much rather be what I have become than an ass or a cockroach, regardless of its adoring sister. Such calm acceptance is uncharacteristic of a man whose personality was liable to shatter under stress like a Raku bowl or—if you prefer a metaphor drawn from the musical world—to crack like a Stradivarius sat on by an elephant. In a past as recent as the night before my metamorphosis, Bombay gin in the sapphire bottle favored by connoisseurs was my stay against nervous collapse. I have often wondered if an excess of that imperial distillate might not have encouraged my dissolution. (But how very lovely the world looked through the gin's empty blue bottle!) However the thing was done, I, who was always nervous and afraid, now approach my life with insouciance. To be frank, my carelessness may be the result of inhabiting a life-form immune to injury and the ordinary frustrations of men and women. What does a swarm of particles as impressive as a cloud of gnats know of your kind's tribulation and discontent? Oh, I, too, am human! But my humanity is of another order than yours. And much more ancient.


2. Developing a Theory of the Self

My wife—yes, until that summer morning, I had a wife—was on her knees among the phlox, singing earnest hymns to fertility, as is the prerogative of women. I don't mean modern women: My gaze is a backward one, suitable to a consciousness not exclusively animal. Regardless, it was with a sensation of, of—well, I cannot tell how it felt to look at her through the kitchen's mullioned windows, where on so many tranquil afternoons hummingbirds were to be seen gorging their jeweled throats with sugar water. As I took a last look at this kind and gentle consort of my youth and middle age, I thought in every particle of my being that she belonged now and henceforth in the life of some other man. Perhaps the man I had been before my transformation, who, for all I know, may continue in my stead. I wished her well and, bidding a mute farewell to the row of liquor bottles sparkling in a slant of morning light, drifted like a river of birds straggling above a freshly harrowed field, under the back door and out on into the new day. In time, I would learn that walls cannot discommode me: My particles pass through them and much else besides. And if in your opinion my imagery runs to extravagant lengths, it is—in my opinion!—appropriate to an essay in the marvelous.

In the garden, I was moved by the sight and sound of a swarm of bees, which had made their hive inside a rotted post of the grape arbor, whose fruit was, at this season, hard and bitter. They lived, I supposed, in anticipation, as did I now. I thought we had much in common and wondered if I could pass among them, unnoticed and unharmed. And by such speculations—some tested, others not—I assessed my new world and place within it. I was not unhappy with—let me call it my existence, in case you doubt my life. No, I was not unhappy then, as the sweet airs of morning swept lightly the garden paths and ruffled the pond with its brightly colored koi.

Indolent and with a native buoyancy enjoyed by fish, my particles had dispersed so far that I began to lose the sensation of my extremities, by which I mean the ambit or furthest limits of my self. To this day, I maintain that I have a self, if by self we mean an intelligence to regard space and to know one's place within it. Despite my present atomized condition, the world is apparent to me as I move through its four, five, or twenty-six dimensions, depending on whether you parse it according to Minkowski, Kaluza-Klein, or the string theorists. Held together by the strong force, my particles are in no danger of catastrophic divorce; however, they are subject to varying degrees of estrangement within the space of their mutual attraction. The separation is useful, but I suffer by it. At their furthest remove from one other, the communal intelligence is weakest. It is then the broken self is most vulnerable. Until I learned to keep a grip on my constituency, I was liable to become confused by the slightest movement of air or lapse in attention. Later on, when I had become master of my self and its motions, total disintegration—that is, annihilation—was no longer a concern: I could maintain a shape such as bees, birds, or fish compose in their congregations. Aware, suddenly, that I was adrift (a "wisp" of neutrinos was oscillating painfully among the roses), I intensified the strong force and succeeded in withdrawing my straying quarks and leptons from the backyard's perimeter, described by an electric wire to keep the rat terrier out of the phlox. (A dollop of my dark matter having brushed against the wire, its rude charge had no effect on me.)

Having come as close to my wife as I dared, I delighted in a sensation of fullness and in a strength that I would have called virility had I been a man in the ordinary sense. My wife rose from the flower bed with the intention of harrying me out the front door, for the time had come and gone when I should have left for work.


3. In Praise of the Digital Age

I never intended that this account of my life after the disaster that befell it should be in any way comic. To be emasculated—no, for what happened to me is worse! To be the abstract of a man, to have been reduced to bits of elemental stuff is no joking matter; it has not even the black humor of dark matter to recommend it. I am bodiless and yet not a ghost. Of this world but not in any appreciable sense. To write my story, I thought, will confirm my existence. Had I been living in the Mechanical Age, I could not have done so, lacking means to depress a typewriter's keys. But in the Digital Age, one need not be substantial to make a mark: One has only to enter a word processor via its data port and think. Don't ask how the trick was accomplished, but I found that I was able to think my words into the machine in which I—let's say "sat" so as not to be vague. It's all data, after all—words, speech, thoughts—just so many units of information waiting to ride the lightning bolt, like bodies queuing up for a roller coaster. I would shake my shoulders and crack my knuckles (figuratively speaking) and wait for my muse, clad in brightly colored data like a video image pixilated by solar flares. And when at last she had come to me, I would think and my words would stream into the processor along streets of circuitry and become the flesh of our time—immaculate, spelled-checked, and laid away in dust-scented files. Yes, even a computer's innards are prey to dust—the cloak and calling card of time.

I was not alone there. Bits of a pornographic novel, Steampunk stories, love letters, iTunes, and erotic poems kept me company in the phosphorescent dark—artifacts of the computer's owner, who was a writer, of sorts. After I had (so to speak) banged out a couple pages (how colorful the language of the Mechanical Age!), I would leave the machine the way I had come and then linger, phantomlike, in a corner of the room while the writer smoked and typed and paced and furiously compressed his hard copy into a tight ball to hurl against the corkboard, where it made only the slightest sound in evidence of his self-disgust. He was often frustrated in pursuit of his muse. But I remained in the room with him, not to distill a sympathy in which he might take comfort, but to bathe—selfishly, indulgently—in the rich and penetrating odor of his cigarette's smoke. How fortunate to be alive (if alive I am) in the Digital Age and to share it with someone who has not renounced tobacco! All the nearly numberless particles of which I am comprised relished that smoke—inhaled (as it were) and drew it into their lungs and breathed deeply their sighs of relief.

Smoking was not the sole pleasure in which I luxuriated while the writer struggled to write—his computer piercing the gloom with its intense bluish rays. When the work was going badly, or not at all, he would drag out a bottle of single malt from the closet and pour liberally into a heavy glass a drink whose delicious fumes drew me from my corner to the very surface of the smoky decoction. There, I would allow myself—that is to say, my particles—to dissolve into the whiskey as if it were a stoup of holy water. I would have much preferred the "queen's own gin," but beggars can't be choosers. And what am I now if not the most arrant beggar who ever existed? Always, we would become ecstatic, many times slipping carelessly down the man's throat with his last swallow—so utter was our communal oblivion. And when we had reassembled into me, my self, I was delighted to find that the euphoria persisted for days.


4. Circulating Through Space and Time

To talk of days or hours or any other of time's denominations is a convenience only, for time is not for me as it is for you. Mine cannot be regulated or metered by any clock. It is—how do I say what time is for me? Like an ocean—vast and seemingly shoreless, deep and subject, like the ocean itself, to storms and confusions. I am in time as swimmers are in their element, crawling easily across its tranquil surface or near to drowning in its uproar. When it comes to time, you and I are on different wavelengths (to continue in the pelagic metaphor, which is apt). Once, unable to shake off the melancholy that more and more beset me, I collected myself and, mustering the intelligence by which the collective is governed, drifted across the city, from the writer's apartment to the house in which my wife and I had lived together. To call the movement by which I transit space (and, as you shall soon see, time) drifting is also a convenience, for there is nothing at all slow or peaceable about it. It is, rather, a disturbance at the subatomic level—fierce and nearly reckless in its energy—directed by some lower drawer or subdirectory of that intelligence, whose operation eludes my understanding. That it does elude it is no doubt better; better that it should be "automatic" and second nature to me.

I traveled across town with astounding rapidity, very near the speed of light; yet because I experience time as an elastic and unpredictable construct like the Möbius strip or one of Oscar Reutersvärd's impossible objects, I did not arrive at the house instantaneously. I wobbled "awhile" in the space-time continuum. When I finally passed through the wall into those familiar rooms, my wife and dog were gone; outside, the phlox had perished and the beds were bricked over by the new householder. Glancing at a calendar on the pantry door, I realized that twenty years and more had gone by since that summer morning. But for me, it seemed no longer than a month or two since I had last seen my wife making her determined way over the flagstones to roust me from sleep.


5. "Cogito Ergo Sum," Et Cetera

What does it mean to be human? Is it merely to act as humans act, to do what they do—good or bad? I smoke cigarettes (after a fashion), I drink scotch (after a fashion), I move and sleep and dream and grow steadily toward loneliness in a way that can be said to resemble how it was for me before my breakdown (to speak of a condition with which you may be familiar). In my way, I am in the world. I perceive it, though without organs of perception. Somehow I see, hear, touch, taste, smell what surrounds me, although—I have come to realize—I do so without clarity, recognition, savor, or delight. (Scotch and cigarettes aside.) My being is too radically dispersed, I suppose, for meaningful contact. It was little better when I was all of a piece. And yet I am human if for no other reason than I am able to think and to remember and to suffer.


6. The Past and How I Got There

Space—other places—had done nothing to lessen my solitude. I visited all of them I had wished to see when I was whole—no, I am whole even now! Nothing essential has been lost of what I used to be: I have merely suffered a change in—in format, in resolution. If a person is a unit of information, as has been said, I am that unit digitized and processed for some purpose—a design and reason unknown to me. My dispersal is a kind of distraction, nothing more.

I went first to Tahiti to look for what Gauguin had painted, then to Arles, where van Gogh had been driven mad by the color and fierce light of Provence, then to Seville to listen in the torrid darkness to water chattering in the Moorish fountains, then to Venice to smell its stink and ride in a gondola rowed by a man with a monkey, striped jersey, and sneer, through fetid canals overlooked by rotting palaces. I went to Egypt to watch the ibis, sacred to Thoth, wade in the Nile on stiff legs and to the Argentine plains to see a red horse, head lifted to the sun. I went elsewhere—to Tunis and to Kampala to see where the lion had surprised Mrs. Willoughby in an olive grove and even to the roof of the world, where the ice is melting. I could feel sorrow, regret, nostalgia, but not cold or heat. I could fear the lion but feel not at all its ravening claws, which passed through me as if I were made of air. Everywhere I went was the same: One place was as good or as bad as another.

And having had my fill of the present and fearing the future, I went into the past. You don't believe me? I tell you for a man to travel in time is no more impossible for him than to be changed into a congeries of elementary particles, endued with intelligence, sensitivity, and (after a fashion) a sense of humor, however much it is dwindling. If time can be stretched—if it will, on occasion, shorten or ruck, knot or twist like a rope, then one can be displaced (or misplaced) in it. For that matter, one can find (or lose) oneself in other dimensions. I have often thought that when my wife pulled off her soiled gardening gloves, wiped her feet on the back-door mat, and went inside to hurry me up, she found me standing by the kitchen window, coffee cup raised to my lips, dressed for work, and waiting only for her customary kiss to send me on my way. She and I may be living still in that house with its dusty shelves and sparkling liquor bottles, its flagstone path and flower beds harried by a rat terrier named Malcolm. (Bodies in space and time, separated by space and time—sing it as you will.) In spite of all, I would like to see them again but know in my soul (to speak nostalgically) that I will not. No, not in this life or in any other. Alive or dead, they inhabit realms from which I am forever banished. What I begin to fear more than death is immortality. If, as I think, I am indestructible, how, then, will I die? If everything is possible for me, then life without end is possible. But how am I to endure it?

But you want to know how I managed it—how I traveled the rails of time into the past and what I did there among the dead. I packed myself—my particles—into a photon of light as you would throw clothes into a suitcase. Light is the conveyance, the superconductor, the carrier of time—streaming, in particles suspended in a wave, from the past of our universe into its future. And by mingling my particles with light's own as it passed nearby on its outbound journey into space, I rode at light's speed to a planet hidden within a Magellanic Cloud—the large one called by the Arabs al-Bakr, "the Sheep." There I found—not Paradise, not even Eden's fallen and corrupted east, but ruins and a prison that might have been drawn by Piranesi and inscribed by pantograph on that fantastically distant remove. Three centuries earlier, they had been carried there (unless I brought with me—in whatever part of myself that holds memory—those sinister dreams). And what did I find wandering among tumbled columns, clinging to iron ladders and catwalks, gnashing teeth in bleakest jails? Images. Phantoms. Specters. Things even less substantial than I! I would have been better off mingling my atoms with the bees where they swarmed under the grape arbor of my house all those—what? Years, decades, centuries ago? Or has it been only days since my self-imposed exile from the garden? I cannot tell the time—do not know anymore what to make of it. There was nothing on that inhospitable rock for me, and, suspecting that anywhere else I traveled in the fields of night would be just as vacant, I boarded a wave of earthbound light and fled back among the living (though they do not live for me).


7. Painful Acknowledgments

Once again on earth's surface, which was no longer mine to speak of as firm or blessed (not now that I no longer stand upon it), I went to the apartment where I had enjoyed the company of the writer, insofar as I could enjoy what I could not touch or speak with. The writer had fallen into the hands of mystics! With unkempt gray hair and long beard, he looked like Tolstoy. Just as before, he paced the room. But he no longer smoked, and having sent a scouting party of free quarks through the closet door, I determined that he did not drink. He appeared to have relinquished his vices, and in place of pornographic and Steampunk fiction digitized within his word processor, I found moral tracts and maxims and downloads of Arvo Pärt and Philip Glass. He still paced disconsolately, and he still wadded up his hard copy into paper balls, although instead of throwing them against the corkboard, he set them alight on a small brazier as though burnt offerings to his new muse, who was, presumably, one of the Hindu gods. My eyes (to speak familiarly) smarted, and I knew that whatever consolation was his was too narrow to share in. I spun round in space like a dervish, feeling myself shunned by even this meager, unsatisfactory society. I longed to look into the mirror and see myself there, even if my hair had turned white and I was no longer young. I wished to have an identity! But only those fated to pass away in time are granted it—or so it seemed to me as I gathered myself together and prepared to take my leave of someone who did not know that I was there.

What began as a comedy has become a fable or farce of a self pulled to pieces by strong forces and dark matters whose cause and meaning are incomprehensible. Why have I lost my composure so completely as to be no more than a cloaking mist or a dirty cloud of dust raised by a truck lumbering over an excavation site? Excavating what? Precious metals? Antiquities? Or nothing more fabulous than broken terra-cotta pipes of an ancient sewer?

In panic (call it "agitation" to remind you of my particulate state), I fled the writer's apartment by the window (open or shut, it does not matter) and hurried to the office building where I had passed so many years of my working life. On the twelfth floor, I entered the labyrinth of cubicles, illuminated at this late hour only by the tiny green and blue lights of electronic equipment—silent in their sleep mode, except for the intermittent muffled noises of background processing or the suppression of rogue data. In one cubicle, I had racked my brains at a computer monitor for headlines with which to sell all manner of useless trash. Was it this, I wonder, that had broken me? I roamed the office's subdivisions, recalling this man and that woman and seeing clearly—for the first time—how they had eluded me. I had passed among them as if I were made of air. We had spoken and, at times, touched; but of mutual contact at the depths of our separate beings, there had been none. Was it this that smashed me to smithereens, that confirmed my estrangement in space and in time past all hope of rescue? Or was it so that I might be given a second chance? How given and why, I could not even begin to imagine.


8. Consulting the Oracles

Inside a computer at a branch of the New York Public Library, I searched the Internet in order to illuminate my condition. Elementary Particles, Behavior of the Strong Force, Quantum Chromodynamics, Condensed Matter Physics, Electromagnetic Radiation, Fundamental Forces, Higgs Boson, Antiparticles, Muon and Tau, Supersymmetry, Kaluza-Klein Towers of Particles—I surfed as if on waves of light the data streams of the World Wide Web, consulting Wikipedia as in the ancient world victims of a tragic fate had consulted oracles. Many times, I was attacked by interceptors and antivirus mechanisms that sought, like antibodies, to annihilate me. The digital world is also cruel to interlopers. Whether an existence as refined and fundamental as my own can be destroyed has yet to be tested. In my despair of a possible life without end, I may have yearned to be no more; but I do not want to die at the foot of a firewall, coughing up dark matter and bitter squarks.

I no longer needed a word processor to record my story: I could think words into being without intermediary, imprinting them onto the electromagnetic field that is, I suspect, my consciousness. Saved in my own random access memory, thoughts—dark as clots or colorful as jelly beans—can be accessed whenever I wish. I can project them, at will, into another's data cloud. The gist of what you are reading here was imprinted on the mind of Norman Lock, who believes himself sole author of this eventful history. During my wanderings in space and in time (unfixed, capricious, and circular), I rested—unknown to Lock—among the Edwardian railroad timetables he collects, in order to slow the wild arrhythmia of my heart (to speak hopefully). I had overtaxed my particles in the Tierra del Fuego archipelago during a failed experiment in romance.


9. Sleeping Among Tortoises

I had gone to the Galápagos Islands to think about time in time's stillest backwater. There, among giant tortoises whose species' evolutionary history spanned five million years or more and whose individual histories, a century, I roved the desolate beaches. The ancient tortoises were like objects left over from the past: To wander among them was to feel time—know it intimately—as you might a rock that has lain in the hot sun of a garden or scarcely visible under snow: a thing familiar to your eyes and touch and smell and (should you be imaginative) to your taste; for we can, some of us, imagine the taste of rock—the very different tastes of granite, soapstone, basalt, and marble. And for me, who had been given the power of empathy raised to an extraordinary degree, my experience of time under the volcanoes on those fabulous islands was... immense. I'm sorry to be vague. But how can I be otherwise, speaking as I am trying to do of a subject forever beyond our grasp? I empathized with the tortoises, which are wise. If anything can lay claim to wisdom, it must be they. I mingled my atoms with theirs and apprehended, by sensations rich and various, what it means to be a tortoise and, therefore, what time must be—its qualities and flavors. Physicists speak of elementary particles as having flavor, although they mean by it something other than the taste of a thing in one's mouth.

I remembered how, in the middle of the night, I would wake. Perhaps the moon had come riding into the window, splashing its garish light over the room, or maybe my wife had been startled by something monstrous in her dreaming. Awake, I remembered that I must die—in time—and grew, after so many nights of waking in the dark, to fear time and to hate it. Now that I am mired inextricably in its morass, I feared death's opposite—seeing in it only an ultimate intensification of my loneliness. Stroking a tortoise's shell (the color of smoke and nothingness), I spoke to it in Tortoise (why not?) of my longing to escape time and be no more. Despondent, I wound myself into an empty chambered-nautilus shell to be reminded of what it had been like to sleep in a narrow space, pressed against another's sleeping body. Afterward, I dreamed. And of what might a swarm of particles dream? Of an orchestra playing on the sea a serenade for strings from the deck of a ship—its portholes blazing white light onto the black water, like pinpoints of illumination cast by electronic devices in a dark room. By this simile, I acknowledge—as I must—that all things have been annexed to the digital world. The night and the harrowingly beautiful music invaded the shell's small rooms and seemed to dispel, for the moment, time's appalling mystery and give me peace.

I inhabited the shell (for a moment or an age) as the mind does the inside of a skull—my thoughts' data streaming like luminous ribbons far and wide: to the cold ends of the universe as they are known to me, who is—in his makeup—their comrade and who had—as a householder and husband—watched in fascination science documentaries broadcast by PBS (and, with equally rapt attention, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai). Was it for this, I wondered, that I had been re-formed and reformatted as a swarm of particles? Was it for this that I had traveled to one of the ends of the earth to sleep among giant tortoises, where Darwin had landed and dreamed, too, in his time, about time—its grand recessional, whose origin is a protein compound in "a warm little pond"? Or was it (to speak sentimentally) to meet Marie Risset, who, like me, had been reduced to fermions, bosons, and assorted hypothetical particles whose existence (like ours) is yet to be (dis)proved?


10. Dance of the Particles (in 4/4 Time)

Commingled with the flavors of that remote place (tang of brine, pungency of tortoise and guano, the charcoal and tannin of red mangrove, the tartness of prickly pear cactus favored by iguana and tortoise) was the unique flavor of what I knew at once to be a woman. I insist that Marie Risset is a woman still! I promptly emptied the nautilus shell of my agitated particles, attracted by the intense flavor of her subatomic structure. Marie had been particularized beneath the Franco-Swiss border near Geneva, at the Large Hadron Collider while inspecting one of its superconducting magnets. (The cup of French roast she had held in her hand lent its own stimulating flavor notes to her altogether-delightful ensemble.) An immensely energetic particle beam on the order of 3.5 TeV had derailed in her vicinity. (She maintains that the accident was the result of a "magnet quench incident," subsequently covered up by CERN.) I wondered how she had managed to arrive in the Galápagos. Her answer pleased me by its frankness and by the compliment it paid to my own flavors—let me call it sex appeal for old time's sake. Not that I had possessed it. On the contrary, I was a dull and plodding lover, inclined to fall asleep during foreplay. But I now imagined myself quite other than I had been then, in this novel shape and form purged of gross matter—the "fat" of a previous sedentary life.

"I felt your attraction," she said to me in French, "across the distances of space and time."

Doubtless, you are ready to protest. And you would be right in thinking that I know no French and she, not a word of English. "Furthermore," I hear you demand of me, "how could two discrete swarms of particles—however they might be favorably disposed—converse?"

I would answer you thus: "Among the particles that comprised and created us were other energies obedient to their own rigorous constitution and government. I am speaking of letters of the alphabet—French and English, both—which constitute words governed by syntax. Parts of matter and its energies... parts of speech—the same, in that worlds may be constructed of them!"

"But you don't speak French!" you shout, your willing suspension of disbelief at an end.

I shrug my shoulders and would remind you that not everything can be explained.

So it was that Marie and I exchanged information (to speak in the new style), talking together—shyly at first—of this and that:

"These tortoises..."

"Yes?" I said.

"They live to a great age." I agreed.

"Like rocks, they seem to evolve not at all."

"Evolution," I said stupidly, "is one of the grandest of ideas."

"I have been thinking," she said after a pause that may have been of a day's duration, a week's, or an age's—it mattered not at all to me, who had all the time in the world and more at his elbow (farcically speaking)—"that we may be—who knows?—the next evolutionary thing."

She staggered me! I had believed myself to be a freak of nature considered on a cosmic scale. I had been (to be honest with you) a little ashamed, as if I were responsible for my misfortune—as if I had brought it on myself by some unclean and unwholesome act. That I could not recall having committed one did nothing to lessen the burden of my guilt.

The orchestra was once again playing its serenade upon the water. (If it was a dream, we were having it together!) Night had fallen with the suddenness of a scythe. Stars there were also that fell into the unlit ocean—their bits and particles so very similar to Marie's, I thought, and would have told her if not for the old shyness.

"Do you dream?" I asked instead.

She nodded, and a glossy wisp of dark matter fell across her breast.

"Of what are you dreaming now, Marie?"

"Of a dance—a kind of fox-trot to go with the music of the orchestra."

"Yes," said I, who had never danced well.

But that was then. Now, to the glissandos of the serenade, we moved through one another nimbly, trailing luminous clouds of energy like auroras of flame. Our particles mingled and nearly caressed in the moonlight while the tortoises on the beach regarded us stolidly. She was superb! I rejoiced in my strong force; she, in her grace and mastery of the dance's fluency.

The serenade at an end, we completed our fiery passage and drew apart. Space—cold and vacant—loomed once more between us. Marie became distracted by thoughts of the nearby Humboldt Current: its temperature and salinity. I wandered off to be by myself, dogged by the sadness that comes of knowing that we are—in the end and for all time—fated to be alone.




Excerpted from "The Broken Man's Complaint" in Love Among the Particles by Norman Lock © 2013. Published by Bellevue Literary Press, Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.