Alder versus the Star Wars Pajamas
Alder’s father had been a tree-surgeon, a man of famously ferocious will. Alder’s first memory was of an admonition. He was about five, and had stolen some cookies, and his father sat him down.
“Son,” he had said, “self-control is the whole point of life. Have you ever seen me smoke? No. But I used to. I smoked for fifteen years. The day I read that cigarettes are bad for you, I got up out of my chair, took a full pack out of my breast pocket, crumpled it up and threw it in the garbage. It took me two years to stop reaching for a smoke. Cookies are nothing, you see? You’ve just got to be stern with yourself. You say: ‘I want it, so what?’ And walk away. There’s nothing easier!”
His mother had the same incomprehensibly practical streak. Once, when Alder had skipped school, the vice-principle had phoned his house. His mother had waited for him to come home, and asked him why he wasn’t at school that day. ‘I threw up,’ he said. ‘Where?’ she asked. He replied: ‘In the playground.’
The school was about twenty minutes walk from their house. Alder’s mother took his hand, and half-dragged him to the school. She demanded to know where he had thrown up. I wish it’d rained! he thought in agony, marching back and forth in the playground, pretending to look, his mother’s hand closed over his own like a wet fleshy vice.
There was ruthless exposure, but little punishment. It was very humiliating – and the humiliation wasn’t even assuaged by just censure. It was all cornered confession, without the sweet release of absolution.
Nothing seemed that difficult for his parents. They referred to each other as ‘Mother’ and ‘Father,’ and went on public-park barbecues with their hard, stalwart friends. They lived in a staunch, sealed community of lower-class English immigrants. They had a pub where they ate little packets of crisps and watched rugby and cricket on a snowy screen. They derided the PBS pledge-breaks which interrupted their favourite Anglo sitcoms. They read the ‘Daily Mail’ at the local library, three days late. They lived without passion, without temptation, without imagination. They never fought.
They also, to Alder’s view, lived on an utterly alien planet.
He was not popular, but not unpopular, either. He had a smattering of friends, some immigrant children like himself. As a teen, he went dirt-biking in litter-strewn woods, hung out at railroad tracks, shoplifted briefly. He hid his mind and imagination from all social contact, picturing his creativity as a kind of deep, compressed, black-water fish that would blow its eyes out if dragged up to the sunny surface.
All rules humiliate, he thought, as he was disciplined by teachers, principals, his parents. Alder was reactive and skeptical, but had no inner discipline, and so dissolved a little, day by day, as rules and hostility wore him down. Thus, he was mostly lost to himself, long before he went to university.
Once he got there, however, he took his first philosophy class and stumbled across a strange, almost convulsive passion in himself. The professor – a man so ancient he was believed to have conversational knowledge of the Enlightenment – tottered up to the podium and spoke about Descartes:
“This man – Descartes – put forward the following argument. Suppose that everything you perceive is the work of a malevolent Demon who has the ability to completely manipulate your senses. For you, then – each of you – the fact that I am standing up here and lecturing to you is not real. Neither is the seat you sit on, the family you have or the paper you write on. Everything is a deception. The Demon controls everything you see, everything you feel. So how could you ever know the truth? This drove Descartes almost mad – until he found a solution. Everything might be a lie, said Descartes, there is one truth, one thing that is indisputably real, and that is that you are being fooled. Something exists which is being manipulated. Nothing you believe might be true – except that you believe something. This is the root of: ‘I think, therefore I am…’”
Alder heard little after that. There was something deliciously deep about this possibility – not only of being fooled, but that he was worthy of fooling. Fantasy and specialness made a fateful union.
He knew that this was a symbolic argument, but he enjoyed playing the game of finding inconsistencies in his mass theatre of illusion. Years later, after he himself became a professor, when the film ‘The Matrix’ came out, he would use it in his lectures.
“What is the difference between a perfect illusion and what you call sensual reality?” he would ask his students, after playing them Laurence Fishburne’s speech about the matrix. “Or, more simply, if all you did was dream, how would you know it?”
Alder knew that there were good arguments against this, but they all seemed beyond the reach of his students. For the most part, they also didn’t believe him. Everything may be an illusion, they grumbled, but we still have to turn our papers in on time.
Alder praised creative arguments against objective truth, which he called ‘thinking outside the box,’ and would challenge his students to further undermine their belief in reality. He fantasized that he was opening their minds, but it was a very unfair contest. It took mankind half a million years to discover science and truly believe in reality – to escape the sightless absolutes of tribalism and religion – could he really expect blank-eyed undergraduates, fresh from the brain-mincing boredom of high school, to make the leap all at once?
Alder was blatantly biased, but believed that he was provoking thought. All ‘common sense’ arguments about the reality of existence were dismissed as rustic philistinism. He provoked laughter when the rare student – often a Randian Objectivist – argued for objective truth. He downgraded papers which made the same points, noting in the margin: this supposition is unproved – no matter that the limit for papers was often five pages (to make you use language more effectively!), which made any essential proofs impossible. The fact that other students were not marked down for agreeing that reality was the dream of a Demon – surely as unproven a supposition – did not trouble him: my job is to overturn stale assumptions, provoke thought, undo mental habits…
The entire world of academics excited Alder beyond measure. The student plays about estranged lovers hunting each other with nail-guns through abandoned houses, or ‘inverted theatre’ where the audience sat on the stage and the actors performed in the seats – it was all very heady. The grubby unshaven scribes of the university newspaper, with Marx-buttons on their worn lapels and their condescending knowledge of the third-world atrocities committed by multinational corporations… The wild riots when world leaders came to Toronto to discuss economics… The insurrections by radical feminists to get the word ‘seminal’ struck from academic language – the jaw-thrusting assertions of the need for a faculty of ‘Herstory’… The raging of students when fees approached ten percent of the costs of having them in university… Everything was radical, everything was reactionary, and Alder sank into the wild, foggy world of unconsidered opinions without a trace.
It was the fall of Marxism that gave him the most pleasure. “Marxism is the opiate of intellectuals,” he repeated over and over, with a sardonic smile, on the rare occasions when he could get a debate started with some frothing leftist undergraduate. Alder hated systems of any kind – any belief in the predictability of society and its structures undermined the ultimate authority of the Cartesian Demon. “Or,” he would say, “it’s a nice theory, but it doesn’t work in practice, because people are selfish…” This was a delicious moment – to destroy the link between theory and practice, at the same time as stating that people were too immoral to live under a dictatorship… Ahh, was there anything headier? (Alder remained far enough from the Faculty of Science to avoid the simple rebuttal, which is that a theory which does not work in practice is not a good theory.)
And the language…! It was perhaps the greatest achievement of the previous generations of thinkers. Post-modern academic language was the true tongue of the Demon – of that much, Alder was utterly sure. All contrary arguments arise from power-structures! Nothing brilliant can be expressed in simple language! The degree of obscurity is the degree of depth! Alder knew that it was all foolishness, all a case of the Emperor’s New Clothes – but that was the beauty of it! Everything was an illusion – why should language be any different?
Eventually something in him crumbled, then finally eroded. It was not a large part, but it was the last barrier to his moral and intellectual corruption of his students. Within two years of attaining the podium, Alder began opposing everything – even the Demon itself! He no longer argued for the Demon and against objective reality – now he argued against both. (This, of course, is the final victory of the Demon, but he was too deep in its blank grip to know that.) As he led his students deeper into the hearty madness of absolute relativism, his classes began to grow febrile with unmanageable conflicts. Once, there was even a yelling match – which culminated in a book-throwing and a storming out – which excited him beyond words. Now they care! he thought, as he addressed the silent class in sarcastic terms about the vanity and irrationality of passion.
And then – and then, unto Adler, was born a son…
Stephen was a fascinating baby. He learned words and language unseasonably quickly, and discovered object constancy at five months. Although Stephen developed early, to Alder, there were some stages which his curious son simply refused to outgrow. In particular, the phase of endless questions seemed, itself, endless.
When Stephen was six, Alder was made a full professor. Stephen saw his father as a super-teacher, who taught big people how to think. It seemed odd to him that you had to wait until you were almost twenty – to be very tall, with hairy toes – to learn how to think (I mean, what am I learning now?), so he would ask his father to explain.
“Daddy’s a teacher of big people,” Alder would say.
“How big?” Like giants?
“Big like – twenty years old.”
“What do you teach them?” (The idea of having hairy toes and needing instruction on anything seemed too odd for words.)
“I teach them how to think. How to be good.”
Stephen would nod slowly, his blue eyes wide and serious. “Like don’t lie. Don’t take cookies. Share-be-nice.”
“Yeah, like that.”
“How long does that take?” asked Stephen.
“Years,” murmured his father. “Years and years and years.”
“Being good must be hard.”
“Yeah, I guess so…”
Stephen thought about this. “Am I good?”
“And – and you?”
“Good?” Alder smiled. “I try.”
Stephen frowned. “I’m good, Mommy’s good, you try.”
“I know a lot more about being bad,” said Alder. “I read all about it in very big books.”
Stephen leaned forward, overjoyed to be having an important conversation with his dad. “So who’s the worstest person ever?”
“The worst… Hm. Well there are two answers to that. Like someone who does something bad, and someone who tells other people to do something bad.”
“Like…” Stephen screwed up his eyes, trying to sort out his inner images. “Like the Pied Piper.”
“Like, if he pushes a kid off a cliff, that’s… But if he makes, like a jillion kids jump off a cliff, that’s…”
“Sure – those are different. Not the same.”
“So who’s the worst who pushed someone off a cliff? I mean ever!” asked Stephen eagerly.
Alder frowned. Good thing Joanne’s in the garden, he thought. He doubted that discussing violence with their son – however essential to the male world – would meet with her approval.
“Don’t know. A mad bad man, I guess. A killer.”
“What’s a killer?”
“A very bad man.”
“What’s his name?”
“It’s not one person. It’s like ‘kid’ – it means a lot of kids.”
“Huh. So who’s the baddest talker ever?”
“That’s hard to say. Some say it was a German man. Some say a Greek man. Some say a Russian woman, but she’s not really respected where I work.”
“What did they say?”
Alder smiled and glanced down at his book. “That’s sort of what I teach twenty year olds.”
“Who do you think was the baddest?”
“Worst,” said Alder. “I guess none of them. The worst – and I wouldn’t put it that way – are people who don’t think at all. Who just – do whatever they do. Like sheep.”
“Huh.” Stephen thought of his wool blanket – wool comes from sheep – is my blanket made from people who don’t think? But he was afraid to ask his father. He hated that laugh, the one that came when he asked something that turned out to be silly.
“So who was the bestest?”
“Just ‘the best,’ Stephen. The difficulty here is… everyone says something different.”
“What do you say?” asked Stephen, trying to muster as much enthusiasm as he could.
“I say that being good is supposed to make you happy, so whoever is happiest is the best.” Alder put his glasses back on. “Now, I have to read this, Stephen…”
“Oh,” said Stephen, downcast – not because he desperately wanted to know, but because he could feel the connection with his father twisting away, like a fish in his hands suddenly squirming back into a shallow, snowy stream.
Stephen is like a punishment, thought Alder – but never asking: for what? Because he had no belief in logic or consequences, he could only think about pain in narcissistic terms. The only way to fight his open-minded father is with absolutism, he thought, remembering Alex P. Keaton, the right-wing son of hippie parents on ‘Family Ties.’
But it was deeper than that. The phrase ‘the sins of the father’ rotated in his mind, like an endless screen-saver of spinning text. But the concept of ‘sin’ was beyond him – or above him perhaps. He could only see his son as a child inhabited by some mutant, regressive, medieval gene. He’s gonna end up with big hair on late-night TV, striding and begging for money with righteous anger…
It was – it was the intransigence of his son’s beliefs that maddened him. I can live with him, let him be, let him believe what he wants, but he won’t do the same with me! That was perhaps, the deepest, least forgivable insult. As a relativist, he didn’t mind an absolutist – unless the absolutist left no room for relativism. Alder winced: Stephen is like my fucking father, come back to life in Star Wars pyjamas…
As Stephen grew, Alder would wake up and make daily pledges to himself, in the manner of irritable parents since the dawn of time: I’m taking this too personally, he’s just a kid, it’s a phase, he’s trying to get under my skin. I’m a professor – it’s such an unfair contest. Everything’s simple when you’re five feet high… But then Stephen would ask some question at breakfast, as he read the newspaper – what eleven-year-old reads the business section? – about government corruption, or stock manipulations, or aid to third-world dictatorships, or privatisation – and they would be off like a shot, Stephen asking maddeningly simple questions which jabbed endless pins in Alder’s ballooning explanations.
Alder remembered one such ‘discussion,’ about some loans the government had made to a business that had donated it money.
“Dad, what’s going to happen with this?”
“Well, son – it’s how politics work, but no one likes to have it so out in the open.”
Stephen’s eyes widened. “So the problem was that they got caught?”
“Well, governments get elected by promising favours – it costs a lot of money to get elected – and so when they get into power, they have to give favours to the people who gave them money.”
“But – here it says that the government gave one point six million dollars to this company, which gave – hang on – seventy thousand dollars to the Liberals. That’s a good deal.”
Alder nodded. “Yes, it is. Now the Prime Minister says that it was still good because the money went to business development in Quebec while Quebec was thinking of separating from the country.”
His son frowned. “So – corruption is okay if the end result is good?”
“No, it’s more complicated than that…”
“Do you think it’s wrong?”
“Well, it’s how the system works at the moment. In a perfect world, sure, you wouldn’t need that kind of stuff. But politics is a lot of grey, a lot of fudging and favours. The Liberals are usually pretty good at playing the game, but not this time.”
Stephen returned to his cereal, and Alder exchanged a glance with Joanne, both of them sighing in mute relief.
But they were not to get off so easy. “So, if some student came and paid you for a good mark, and then became a great academic, that would be okay?”
They were off again. That morning, things got particularly ugly. Alder had been late leaving the house, hating to leave Stephen in tears.
And so Alder drove to the university, and gave his lectures, waving his hands from the podium, and dissolving undefended young minds with his shallow mantra: all rules humiliate. And at the end of every day, he drove home for dinner, and tried to teach his son right from wrong, and stumbled to bed, sickened with failure, night after night. And never, not once, over many years, did he ever notice one single shred of a pattern. He kept faith with his Demon, until he completely dissolved.