You Think, Therefore, I Am

by

Next time you find yourself sitting in a Philosophy class, do a little experiment. Put a watch to how long it takes some goody-goody student to say tabula rasa, as though they are the first person to ever stumble across John Locke. “We’re all born as blank slates (or white paper, or however you want to translate tabula rasa),” they’ll say. Being the nurture side of the never-ending and mind-numbing nature/nurture debate, a seemingly never-ending and mind-numbing conversation will ensue. Lovers of Locke will say everything we know is the result of our environment, of what we learn from our parents, community, school, experiences, rather than there being such a thing as an innate human knowledge that we all share regardless of where we grow up or are taught (apologies for the two line summary of a much more complicated idea). Nothing against Locke, it’s just tiresome to talk about (nature/nurture, that is, not Locke).

Nicole Krauss makes this conversation interesting again in Man Walks Into a Room. Samson, a fifty-ish year old Professor of English at Columbia University, is found wandering aimlessly in a desert in Nevada. He doesn’t know who he is or how he got there or where he’s going. Police track credit card receipts and find Samson’s been missing for a couple of weeks. Doctors soon find a benign tumor on his brain and remove it, but Samson is never able to recover any memories past the age of 12 (don’t worry, I’m not giving anything away here).

Amnesia on t.v. always seems so romantic, for some reason. Man Walks Into a Room, however, is nothing short of a horror story (in the eerie way, not the “boo” way). Samson’s wife, Anna, simply cannot deal with the new Samson. Not that he’s new, he just doesn’t know who he is. Anna throws parties and takes him places and introduces him to all of his old friends. She wants him the way he was, not the way he is. Meeting people becomes frightening for Samson. He doesn’t know who he knows and who he doesn’t know. People have expectations of him that he a) doesn’t know about and b) couldn’t fulfill even if they told him. After a few weeks, Anna gives up on Samson and he moves out. He’s tired of trying to live up to her expectations; he’s tired of letting her down. They talk, occassionally, but each time, when she hears the new Samson, she becomes angry and finds a reason not to talk.

Late one night, Samson gets a call from a doctor in L.A. named Ray. Ray has heard about Samson’s case and is interested in Samson’s 50-ish year old tabula tasa. He is performing high-tech mind experiments in the Nevada desert and thinks Samson is a perfect candidate for one of his experiments. Ray is charismatic and manages to talk Samson into being involved in the experiments, but he never tells Samson exactly what he is doing. As far as Samson knows, Ray is simply trying to understand amnesia.

Okay, so you’re sitting in the philosophy class and you’ve discussed Locke and everyone is feeling pretty good about it because they feel all intellectual. And then somebody, some extra-special goody-goody will play the trump card. “Descartes,” they’ll say. [Dramatic silence while this soaks in.] “Descartes theorized that the only way to achieve pure knowledge wasn’t through experiences, it was to seperate the mind from the body (this is otherwise known as the mind-body split, or if this student is extra-extra goody-goody, they’ll give Descartes his props and just flat out call this Cartesian Dualism and leave people slack-jawed). “The senses of the body,” this student will continue to summarize, “deceive the mind, keep it from attaining actual, unadulterated knowledge.” More silence as people sit and try to figure out how exactly one seperates one’s mind from one’s body. (Can I apologize again for summarizing, poorly, a very complicated issue in a couple of sentences?) That actually is an interesting conversation in itself, but Krauss makes it more so. Descartes was really more interested in the soul and how to understand it, understand how the body and soul were connected. The mind was what connected the physical body to the etherial soul.

Cartesian dualism is horrifyingly grafted into Krauss’s novel. But rather than gaining knowledge by seperating your own mind from your own senses, the good doctor Ray attempts to “write” on Samson’s tabula rasa. He wants to see what happens if he can give Samson knowledge that has been unfiltered, undigested by any of Samson’s senses, experiences. He wants to give him someone else’s knowledge, the knowledge of someone else’s experiences without the irksome experiencing part of it all. The results, for Samson, are vomit-enducing. He wasn’t trying to achieve pure knowledge, he just wanted to know what he’d known. The reason Descartes is interesting to us in the novel is: how does someone else’s knowledge “written” on your brain effect your soul? What happens when something foreign is introduced to the mind? How does that affect the way a person acts, how does that affect the way a person believes? If, as Descartes is most famous for saying, I think, therefore, I am, but what happens when someone else’s thoughts are no longer distinguishable from your own? Are you still you?

Enough of my amateur philosophy. Man Walks Into a Room is several different things. It is philosophical on some levels but you don’t have to know anything about philosophy to enjoy it. It is partly a quest novel. When Samson is found wandering in the desert, he presumably was searching for something. And the entire novel is Samson’s quest to find out something about himself. It’s a quest novel with no map, no guide, no x’s marking spots, and no idea what will be found. It is partly a love story. What is the proper thing for Anna and Samson to do? Samson doesn’t remember anything about Anna. Doesn’t even recognize her. He’s obviously not the same person she fell in love with, and he’s not the same person who fell in love with her. So how do you start over when only one person knows anything of their past?

Krauss is an excellent writer. She accomplishes something that may seem contradictory. Her writing is so good that you don’t initially notice the writing at all. By which I mean, it’s not like reading James Joyce where you are expected to notice every sentence and how it is constructed — she’s not trying to do something earth-shattering with her style. But at the same time, I found myself re-reading paragraphs and entire pages just because they were so well written. I would read something, and it might take a couple of pages for it to sink in that I had just read an absolutely beautiful phrase or idea. That makes no sense, but seriously. And possibly my favorite aspect of the book is the reader has no idea if they like the main character or not. Samson doesn’t even know. He doesn’t know if he’s a good man, a good husband, a cheater, a liar, a saint. And neither do we.

Next week I plan to discuss Heidi Julavits’ The Effect of Living Backwards.

Things I’m currently reading: Don DeLillo’s White Noise; China Mielville’s Perdido Street Station; Anne Tyler’s A Patchwork Planet; Flannery O’Connor’s Wiseblood

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7 Responses to “You Think, Therefore, I Am”

  1. Coolhand Says:

    If you’re extra extra extra goody-goody, you could bring up Hume’s empiricism and totally bust on Locke.

    I’m looking forward to your White Noise Post.

  2. Michael Lasley Says:

    You, Coolhand, are indeed an extra extra extra goody-goody student. I didn’t want to bring in too many philosophers, as it would have exposed my amateurishness even more than I already had. And about White Noise. Maybe you can email me sometime and explain what the big deal about it is. I’m almost finished and it’s been a big let down for me. I have this fancy 1st printing hardback of it that is supposedly on its way to DeLillo himself to be signed (friend of a friend knows someone who knows his agent sort of thing). I’ve put off reading it for years because I was saving it for just the right time. So I may let you post about White Noise. Not that I don’t want to post something negative about books–I’ll do plenty of that, I’m sure–I just really don’t have much to say about it, yet.

  3. Al Sturgeon Says:

    I feel pretty out of place here, but I don’t care. Sue me, Andy.

    I’m trying to learn the literary ropes a bit. I feel glad to have recognized a couple of names of authors mentioned: I’ve recently purchased a collection of Flannery O’Connor’s work, and I bought “The Accidental Tourist” by Anne Tyler last week at my favorite used bookstore in the French Quarter.

    Any good used bookstores up in Syracuse, Mike? Come visit me on the Coast sometime, and I’ll take you to the Quarter and it’s many, many good ones. (You can drive down I-10 sometime, too, Andy; I’ll meet you there!)

  4. Michael Lasley Says:

    Not really, Al. Surprising, given that Syracuse is a decent sized city and there is, like, a big university there and all. There are only two, and they ain’t that great. And it doesn’t get better than Flannery O’Connor.

  5. juvenal_urbino Says:

    Well, there’s Sue Grafton (empiricist, right?).

  6. Michael Lasley Says:

    Juvenal, I think Sue Grafton transcends labels.

  7. juvenal_urbino Says:

    Ah. A Transcendentalist.

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