The Life of Henry Fuckit
87 As the storm worsens a learned discussion is interrupted
There were two passenger lounges on the Gullets. The smaller of them was above the other and was better appointed and tended to attract the more decorous passengers, like the scientists and Departmental officials. The lower lounge had a dartboard and was favoured by the rougher elements - Public Works Department artisans going to the weather station to carry out maintenance work, and some members of the replacement team, like mechanics, technicians, and meteorological assistants. Both facilities had a bar and a TV with VCR for showing movies.
Henry had decided to get drunk on rum for the sake of naval tradition and in the hope that it would produce a more sympathetic hangover. He and his companions were seated at a table in a front corner of the upper lounge, rain and spray were beating against the plate glass windows, and there was considerable movement as the ship battled its way into the storm.
'The master of this vessel does surely lack the refinements of civilized intercourse.' Dr Curriman Char concluded the discussion which had been unanimous in its condemnation of the Captain's behaviour at dinner. Without exception they had been offended by his blend of belligerent evangelism and hectoring authoritarianism. Most offended. And yet Fred Kelly's comment had served to temper their resentment somewhat: 'A real coker, this one. But did you see what's lurking in his eyes? Fear. Stark naked fear.'
'Now, if you don't mind, I think we should turn our attention to the reason why we're here and talk about what we're going to do when, or if, we get to the Vital Isle.'
'If? What d'ya mean, IF?' Samantha T. Coolrich sounded indignant and the others looked surprised. Rather guiltily, Henry hastened to explain.
'Look, what I mean is, if we arrive in the middle of a hurricane there's no way we'll be able to embark on the Whale, let alone land on the island.'
'Storms don't last forever. We can just wait for it to blow itself out, can't we?'
'I'm afraid not. Captain Cunt is an extremely reluctant participant in this expedition, as it is. He believes we're approaching the gates of Hell, or something. He's convinced the Vital Isle is a place of evil and we shouldn't be seeking out the devil. Maybe Fred's right - his abominable behaviour is driven largely by fear. I know that Bergson had to call on several of his high-up connections to apply pressure before the man would agree to bring us out here. And then only after stipulating there would be no hanging around. Drop us in the proximity, go to Gough Island for two weeks, then pick us up 'on the run', as it were.'
'Wouldn't it be a crying shame if we were denied the opportunity to carry out our mission?' Jimmy Potsherd shook his head regretfully. 'It's such a pity the importance of our undertaking hasn't received the recognition it deserves. You'd think our ideas would be taken more seriously.'
'Speaking of that, I still haven't heard a coherent exegesis of your individual theories. From the horse's mouth, that is. Maybe we can remedy that when I come back. Same again, everyone?'
The disgruntled barman served Henry without alacrity. It was becoming increasingly difficult to pour drinks, and nothing could be left standing freely on a hard surface without fear of it sliding off.
'I'm warning you, if it gets much worse than this I'm closing up the bar. Tjoeps! Just like that.' He snapped his fingers to illustrate the zeal with which he would do it. 'Just one more breakage, that's all.'
'That barman's giving us some really venomous looks, you know' remarked Sammy Coolrich as Henry joined them with the drinks, having made his way uphill and downhill across the lounge.
'Would it be out of order and too far-fetched to suggest that the crew are sharing the Captain's antipathetic attitude towards us? And as well as his increasing sensations of dread?'
'No, you could be right, Charky.' She looked around aggressively after taking a gulp of dry martini, the same cocktail which had helped to liberate and lubricate the mind of no less an artist than Surrealist Spanish film maker Luis Bunuel, allowing him to dream and imagine and to express revolutionary ideas with vicious humour and a contempt for conventional logic! But what do we care? The hell with this unwholesome company of sodonites and motherfuckers!'
'Talking of motherfuckers - no offence meant, Professor - would you kick off by elaborating on your hypothesis, if you don't mind?'
'Happy to oblige, Henry.' Jimmy Potsherd took a sip of his gin and tonic, which was almost to his taste but not quite, lacking, as it did the hint of sourness that a slice of fresh lemon would have given it. 'I would rather refer to it as my Mother Earth hypothesis though. My post-graduate assistants coined the more pithy term, and because it happens to be quite apposite that's the one which has found favour in the public domain. You know that my field is Chemistry, don't you?' Henry didn't, but he nodded anyway, not wishing to retard the conversation. 'Biochemistry actually. I spent many years studying bacteria and other micro-organisms and noted that microbes, in sheer numbers and aggregate mass, comprise the major form of life on our planet. And they are ubiquitous, occurring in the atmosphere, the oceans, and in and upon the earth's crust. Now, all organisms, from a simple bacterium to a complex animal, are self-regulating and compensate for changes in their own activity and in their surroundings. Put another way, we can say all organisms, without exception, simple or complex, are self-protective and adapt to their own environmental stresses. Right. This is an observable fact and beyond contention. If we then look at a situation in which many different organisms exist together in what we would call a 'healthy' and 'balanced' biosphere, where an almost constant diversity is maintained, as in distant remnants of the Amazonian rain forest….'
'Or Darwin's entangled bank, 'Clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth.' He saved his best paragraph for last. But don't let me hold you up, Potty.'
'Yes, just such a place of fecundity and evolving life forms. Thank you for that, Samantha. If we consider such an 'entangled bank' we are struck by a remarkable similarity between the bank as a whole and one single organism. The dynamics are virtually identical.'
'If I may so boldly make an observation, Professor, this can be likened to the microcosm within the macrocosm referred to by Miss Coolrich on the deck this morning, no?'
'Exactly, Dr Char, exactly.' Jimmy Potsherd beamed with satisfaction at the quickness of his audience. 'And if we can accept the entangled bank acting as an organism, it is perfectly logical, by extension, to accept the Earth as a whole as an organism. A superorganism.'
'Microcosms within a macrocosm, organisms within a superorganism. So this is the basis for your hypothesis?'
'Yes. I went on to suggest that the evolution of individual life forms and physical environments is not a series of separate processes but part of the evolution of Mother Earth as a whole. All life forms are interdependent, and I believe that microbes, because of their ubiquity and because they perform countless organic processes, from digestion in animals to nitrogen-fixing in plants, are the crucial regulatory agents for the overall biosphere. My fear is that the damage inflicted by human beings has unbalanced the system which, like our bodies, has an impressive but ultimately limited capacity for self-correction.'
'Ah, right. Now I get it' said Henry. 'Mother Earth is being indecently assaulted by her offspring. Or some of them. And all this raping is making her ill.'
'Well, er, yes. I would hope that my hypothesis provides a meaningful explanation for why the earth is now undergoing a realignment. It can no longer support the anti-life tendencies and continuous disregard that human populations have shown, and is seeking to readjust all forms of consciousness to its new directive.'
'I beg your pardon?'
'Hokaai. Whoa. You know: stop, wait. As when instructing a draught animal to come to a halt. Or, pause, desist. Hold it right there. Nou wag 'n bietjie. Not so fast. Hokaai. This organismic view of things is all very well but, as a scientist, don't you think you're taking it a bit far when you start talking about Mother Earth trying to readjust all forms of consciousness? Isn't that just a bit too 'New Age'? How can your hypothesis be subjected to falsification? Isn't it just a metaphor, figuratively true in a holistic, teleological sense, but beyond the bounds of science, which is supposed to examine mechanisms in purely cybernetic terms?'
The four of them regarded Henry with that hard, blank expression which means, is this guy an idiot, or what? Then Fred Kelly spoke.
'That's the problem, mate. Most of modern academic science has straitjacketed itself. Excessive emphasis on technology and economically driven research. If you subscribe to too much cybernetic and mechanistic reductionism you'll end up with a very myopic view of the world. Such a narrow outlook leaves little room for creative insight. Inspiration comes from much deeper and older wellsprings than that, and if scientists don't draw on these other repositories their work is in danger of becoming sterile and ultimately irrelevant. Because Jimmy's brand of science is bold enough to ask "why"-type questions and not just the "how"-type, it shouldn't be considered any the less valid. On the contrary. And my own study of aboriginal beliefs in Australia led me to recognise an essential truth underlying his hypothesis.'
'You're talking about totemism, huh?' Coolrich was nodding in approval. 'The same fundamentals we find in native American beliefs. And that's round the other side of the world, baby!' Henry knew he was under attack.
'Yes, totemism. Or animism. Anyway, these beliefs amount to a representation of the universe, just as modern science does. But they go further, seeking and imposing moral and social order, and regarding man and nature as one corporate whole. This view is the symbolic expression of a society's value system and provides intermediate links between man and nature, between man and the mythic beings.' He smiled at the contortion of Henry's features. 'I can see from your expression you don't like the idea of mythic beings. It seems to me you're suspicious of anything to do with the spiritual world, Henry my China. Some of us primitives are still able to conceive of a spiritual reality, though. We call it the eternal dream-time. We have our totems - a wide range of animals, plants, mountains, the wind, the rain, the thunder, clouds, all sorts of things - and we like to think that if we revere these totems they will link us to the dream-time and promote vitality and well-being. And if we don't revere our totems we risk personal and collective disaster.'
He drank down the second half of his beer, licked his fleshy lips and wiped his moustache on the back of his forefinger.
'Actually, Jimmy's hypothesis is just another version of totemism. Only it's couched in different terms.'
It was time for another round.
'This weather is getting worse. I can't pour drinks like this. Just one more breakage and…'
'Yes, I know. You said. You'll close the fucking bar just like that. Tjoeps! You'd better hurry up. And make it two double rums, not one.'
With difficulty he made his way back to their table. Arriving safely, without having spilt anything, he wondered whether being slightly pissed wasn't actually an advantage in these heaving conditions.
'Dear Lady Coolrich… Samantha… Sammy, I do believe it's your turn to supply a bit of background to your interest in this expedition. I can now see where both Prof Pot and Fred Kell are coming from - ties in beautifully with Bergson's notion of Oxyastonishment, the revival of ancient energies, and trying to resuscitate the planet. Pray be so good as to expand upon any theory dear to your heart and explain…'
'Oh shut up, for God's sake! Such a plethora of platitudes; if I didn't know better I'd swear you were quite as moronic as that barman over there. If you want to know, I'm on the same wavelength as these guys, only my approach is from a different direction, a different aspect of the common life force. My speciality is imagination.'
'Oh yes, the Department of Creative and Imaginative Studies. I must say I was wondering about that. I suppose you're going to claim creativity is succoured by some external energy. Like Oxyastonishment.'
'Right first time, honey. I knew you weren't as dumb as you sometimes sound. Creativity is succoured by external energies. But if you don't know how to recognise and tap into that energy it might as well not exist at all. And of course the original creative impulse emanates from within and remains an essentially internal process. Creativity is a by-product of imagination and that's why we have concentrated our research on artistic expression. Whatever form it takes, be it literature, music or art, it's a manifestation of the power that synthesizes raw experiences into concrete images, that apprehends order and form, and that fuses contrary elements of feeling, vision, and thought into a unified whole. The imaginative process gets translated into creative expression. It's an internal process but it draws on and works off external stimuli.'
'And what has you research revealed so far? Are you able to measure the quality and quantity of imaginative and creative activity taking place in a sample group or, better still, in a population at large?'
'You bet. My predecessors worked on this over many years. Our records go back a long way. We've developed a variety of statistical methodologies as well as specialized psychometric tests. And then there's a whole body of work been done on bilateral asymmetry in the human brain.'
'Bilateral asymmetry? Now that's a piece of jargon I'm not familiar with.' Henry suspected his ignorance might be due to the esoteric nature of the term itself.
'Ah yes, a compelling analysis of functions divided between the cerebral hemispheres and coordinated via the corpus callosum. Some tantalizing suggestions and theories are being developed as the neuroscientists provide the details and fill out the picture. I believe there's quite a bit of work being done in this field in Britain as well.' Jimmy Potsherd clearly saw some relevance in this research, or he wouldn't have made it his business to follow developments. 'This has greatly expanded existing ideas about the nature of human consciousness, and some of the new discoveries are directly applicable to the task of revivifying and freeing human creative abilities.'
'Now I know what you're talking about.' The unintelligible gibberish of 'bilateral asymmetry' had extinguished comprehension and left him groping in the dark. 'That barbarous phrase confounded me for a moment, but Prof Jimmy has shone a light. Much obliged. The left and right sides of the brain. Reason versus intuition; intellect versus emotion; objective analysis versus subjective insight - this is the old duality in human nature. What's new?'
'What's new is that humans are losing their right-sided abilities. That's what's new, boyo. Through continued neglect our right brain, our source of creativity, is progressively atrophying. Our balls are shrivelling and drying up because we never call on them to do anything, but hang behind that listless slug.'
'Now listen here, speak for yourself, Samantha. But I know what you mean.'
'By ignoring what the right hemisphere tries to show us we are unable to conceive of the notions Jimmy and Fred are referring to. A harmonious balance is impossible and a heightened state of awareness is unachievable. And certainly we can forget about attaining that inner unity of thought and feeling we all yearn for.'
'She's right, you know. We see it in the universities all the time and to an ever increasing extent. Highly educated people endowed with a microscopic acuteness, but when they look at great things, all becomes a blank and they see nothing. This sad condition has become abundantly evident in academic intercourse of recent times. There's a disjunction and separation in the component parts of that which these learned people wish to communicate. There seems to be a lack of perspective, the perspectiveness of mind, which enables a man to foresee the whole of what he has to convey appertaining to one point, and by this means to subordinate and arrange the different parts according to their relative importance. And to convey it at once, and as an organized whole.'
'That's the stuff, Potty. Now you're on to the beautiful subtleties. How many people on the planet would know what the fuck you're talking about? What a joy it is to listen to the conversation of a superior intellect, one which makes full and coordinated use of both hemispheres. If one listens to this rare form of superior conversation, and sees the arrangement of words one realises it is grounded on the habit of foreseeing in each integral part, in each sentence, the whole that is intended for communication. However irregular and desultory the talk, there is method in the fragments.'
'Method in the fragments. Miss Samantha, these words play a melody in my soul and bring before me a most vivid image. It is a memory of the luminous and vibrant word picture penned by Mr E.M. Forster describing the eminent Egyptian Greek poet Constantine P. Cavafy.' There was a spontaneous murmuring of approval and general assent that Cavafy was one of the finest poets of the twentieth century. Then Dr Char continued. " 'A Greek gentleman in a straw hat, standing absolutely motionless at a slight angle to the universe. Yes, it is Mr Cavafy and he is going either from his flat to the office, or from his office to the flat. If the former, he vanishes when seen, with a slight gesture of despair. If the latter, he may be prevailed upon to begin a sentence - an immense, complicated yet shapely sentence, full of parentheses that never get mixed and of reservations that really do reserve; a sentence that moves with logic to its foreseen end, yet to an end that is always more vivid and thrilling than one foresaw. Sometimes the sentence is finished in the street, sometimes the traffic murders it, sometimes it lasts into the flat. He deals with the tricky behaviour of the Emperor Alexius Comnenus in 1096, or with olives, their possibilities and price, or with the fortunes of friends, or with George Eliot, or with the dialects of the interior of Asia Minor. It is delivered with equal ease in Greek, English, or French. And despite its intellectual richness and human outlook, despite the matured charity of its judgements, one feels that it too stands at a slight angle to the universe: it is the sentence of a poet.' "
'Fantastic, Charky, fantastic! There we have it, the creative spirit at work, at a slight angle to the universe. I love it!'
'So do I, so do I' said Henry. 'But although it's clear we all share this common interest in creative energy, imagination, a vital force - call it what you will - I haven't yet discovered what it might be that Harry Bergson saw, what link he discovered between Oxyastonishment and the Hindu religion.'
'Kalpa, Henry, Kalpa. Tell him about Kalpa, Charky.'
'This is what excited the imagination of Mr Bergson. It is the concept of eternal recurrence, the belief that time and history run in cycles and that everything that exists or happens repeats itself eternally. The world is born, moves through a cycle of development and decay more than four billion years long, then dies only to be reborn. Mr Harry wishes for me to use the understanding of this matter which I have gleaned from the pursuit of the Hindu faith to assess the imminence of the day of Brahma on which the earth will be consumed by a worldwide conflagration before being regenerated.'
'So you believe we're all about to go up in smoke, do you? That's nice.'
'He could well be right, Henry. This smouldering junkheap we've created is bound to explode into flames one of these days.'
'And then the whole sorry tale gets retold for the umpteenth time? Rather depressing.' Professor Potsherd found the idea unappealing, foreign as it was to the Judaeo-Christian ethos which had infused his upbringing and education. 'Doesn't seem to be any point to it. Anathema from a Christian point of view. Wasn't it St Augustine who maintained that Christ could be incarnated and crucified only once in fulfilment of God's purpose?'
'Mm, maybe. Probably was.' There was a note of dismissiveness in Henry's voice. 'Christians couldn't countenance history without purpose and progress. Now, if my memory serves me accurately, didn't old Fred Nietzsche subscribe to something similar to this Kalpa, this eternal return of the same? Bloody kraut probably stole the idea from the Hindus. Something about the universe being eternal but finite, containing only a certain number of permutations, and when they are exhausted history repeats itself to the letter in a… Fuck me! An invasion. A horde of barbarians.'
They turned to look. Some dozen or more men had entered the lounge and were crowding about the bar. Speaking amongst themselves and to the barman in a form of Afrikaans interspersed with pidgin English they quickly established a level of noise which met their expectations with regard to conviviality and drunken unrestraint. Short staccato sentences were shouted at no-one in particular, requiring no response. Laughter, when it occurred, was excessive and unpleasant, with a sneering, aggressive ring to it and entirely lacking in humour. The barman had turned on the TV and inserted a video cassette handed to him by one of the invaders.
'Rugby! Fuck no!' Henry groaned in anguish. 'This is terrible. Western Province versus Northern Transvaal. These monkeys have probably watched the game a hundred times already and they still get excited. Do they suffer from some kind of collective amnesia? Or do they all have Korsakoff's, the slate being wiped clean every few minutes?'
The volume was turned up, the crowd roared, the commentator gabbled furiously, and the bar audience followed the play with vociferous enthusiasm.
'The surly gentleman has indeed undergone a change of demeanour.' Dr Char almost shouted to make himself heard. He was referring to the barman, who was cheerfully dispensing drinks without concern for the considerable amount of slopping, sloshing and sliding going on. 'May I please be granted the indulgence to use a simile of extreme vulgarity? He appears quite as happy as a pig in shit. Ha, ha, ha.'
'Most disagreeable.' Potsherd was less jocund. 'These ungracious wretches have emerged from some cave where manners ne'er were preached.'
'What? What you say? Damn it, this is impossible! Can't hear a fucking thing!'
Samantha T. Coolrich was an angry woman. 'What has become of our conversation? These marauding savages have broken down the door of civilization and burst in upon us. We're being plundered. Am I about to be raped?' Henry experienced a twinge of alarm, anticipating the direction this line of thought might take. 'Why shouldn't we resist this onslaught? Henry, you're supposed to be the leader of our party; go and tell those brutish sons of nature to turn it off and keep their inarticulate grunting to a muted minimum. Go on.'
Henry went to the bar with reluctance and trepidation. These might be contemptible troglodytes devoid of intellectual and artistic refinement, but they bristled with a rough vigour which could be expressed eloquently through acts of violence and lawlessness. He ordered another double rum and attempted to negotiate with the barman and two of the throng. The video player in the lower lounge had developed a malfunction and that was the reason for their change of venue. No, they couldn't swop VCRs. Could they compromise by turning the sound down a bit? Just a little bit. Fok it man, they had to catch what the oke was saying, didn't they?
When Henry went to rejoin his companions, having won such a paltry concession from the enemy, he was met with derision from Miss Coolrich.
'What a heroic figure! What a man of action! Such a commanding presence and such swashbuckling authority! Pathetic little worm.' Her vitriolic candour caused him to hang his head in shame and the other men looked embarrassed. There was no way he was getting into a brawl with those thugs at the bar. For what? Just because this virago demanded it?
'You know, looking at these chaps I'm reminded of that horrid race we encountered in Pretoria. They appear to be stranded about midway between savagery and civilization, culturally abandoned and morally impoverished. A most unlovely people!'
Jimmy Potsherd's words jolted Samantha T out of her indignation. Her face twitched and her eyes widened; then she reached for the little haversack she always carried about with her. Probably going to produce a scalping knife, or something. Or gelding tools. For his part Fred Kelly felt in his jacket pocket and brought out what looked like a short flute with a bulb in the middle. He shook it vigorously and there was a buzzing rattle. A joyous light shone in his eyes as he raised it to his lips and began to blow, aiming the instrument toward the bar. The rattling buzz accelerated to its intended state of agitation and then ceased abruptly with a loud click. The TV blinked, gave an electronic gulp, and blinked again, before assuming the sombre silence usually associated with locked churches.
There was a clamour of protest and several ineffectual attempts were made to bring the dead to life. Slapping and thumping on the back produced no response at all. The power supply was disconnected and reconnected and the ON/OFF button was pushed a hundred times, maybe two hundred. All to no avail. Then an accusing finger was pointed.
'Hey, maybe that goffel has got something to do with this. That hotnot over there next to the coolie with the turban. He was holding something.'
Henry was excitedly congratulating the Australian academic. 'Hell man, that was brilliant! How does it work? I mean, what is it? Jesus, you should patent this thing. Just imagine the satisfaction of being able to do that kind of thing wherever you went.'
'We call it a digiwhacker. It's actually one of our artefacts which go back many thousands of years.' There was a note of pride in his voice. 'It was originally used for hunting kangaroos. If used correctly it can immobilise a 'roo at two hundred yards. It short-circuits the brain, you see. Then you can just walk up to the animal and club it on the head or slit its throat right where it's standing with a faraway look in its eyes. It was considered an instrument of great magical power, as it is still. But of course we now understand its working in modern scientific terms as well. The outer tube contains copper and acts as a coil, and the crystals and mineral-rich grit in the bulb are agitated to produce an electrical charge. For a brief moment the coil is energised, creating a magnetic field. A piezoelectric spark flares outward, thereby producing a moving short circuit. This has the effect of compressing the magnetic field while reducing the induction of the coil. Do you follow? The result is a ramping current pulse which emerges like a mini lightning bolt. Most effective on every description of electronic device, be it a radio, a television set, a computer - even a brain.'
Henry, Dr Char and Prof Pot were most impressed. Meanwhile, Samantha Coolrich had found her notebook, opened it, and was studying a page. She glanced up and noted the body language being displayed by the pack at the bar.
'Looks like we're in for some conflict here. And I don't think our appointed leader is going to resolve it for us. Is he? Seems we'll have to try out the incantation Harry Bergson got old Patchy to teach us.'
'Wasn't it Pikey?'
'A diminutive chap with mongoloid features? That must be Plaatjies. Did he teach you some Afrikaans?'
'Didn't say it was Afrikaans. Harry said it was a formula for dealing with the type of Afrikaner who so traumatised us on our brief visit to that hellhole, Pretoria.'
As the wild-eyed pack of snarling fiends began to close in, Henry's intrepid team members huddled over the notebook and went through a hasty rehearsal. Then the foursome got to their feet and faced the foe. The Coolrich voice was loudest and strongest as they began to intone the phonetic transcription she had made of Plaatjie's curse.
'Yillerdon - ersaboo - rah - fork - yullerul - mullin - yillermoo - rah - yomar - ship - poosho - parsimmar - sif - ale - contyo - oh - marsher - marsher - merrymoo - yillerdon - ersaboo - rah - fork - yullerull - mull.'
The male members of the chorus resumed their seats but Samantha Coolrich remained standing, still defiantly confronting the stunned audience. Then, in response to a surge of inspired malevolence, she delivered the coup de grace. The short cape she was wearing was thrown back off her shoulders and she raised her tee-shirt to the armpits. The great, melon-like breasts were exposed in all their obscene nakedness and, mocking their confusion, their depravity, the mixture of lust and revulsion. She tucked in her shirt, pulled the cape about her, and sat down.
Clutching his chest, one man collapsed into a chair. Another fell flat on his back, foaming at the mouth with an epileptic seizure. The barman ducked down behind his counter and busied himself with himself.
'This is your Captain speaking. This is your Captain speaking.' The ship's Tannoy did nothing to ameliorate the nastiness of Cornelius Cunt's carping whine. 'All passengers are to assemble in the dining room. I repeat: all passengers are to assemble in the dining room. Immediately.'
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