Alice in the Casino

Friday, 16 October 2020 00:00

 

My Alice never fell down any rabbit hole. Instead, she went to the casino to play roulette. She was a very curious girl, and although some claim that she hoped to win money and others that she did it for the thrill, I believe she went there out of scientific curiosity. The era of great inventions was long gone, but still one has to invent herself. My Alice was fascinated by the idea of a perpetual motion machine and although she knew that newtonian physics wouldn’t be of much help in building one, she decided in her search for inspiration to see an example of Blaise Pascal’s efforts up close. One can’t blame her, for it is one of the peculiarities of youth to find the idea of always staying in motion intriguing.

It was curiosity that led my Alice to the roulette, and not the wish to win. But as with all Alices, her casino ride wasn’t meant to be an uneventful one. Impressionable as she was, it didn’t take long for her to start spinning with the ball. Passing over each new number opened another, and yet another, set of possibilities and brought with it a new point of view, a new point of reference. One moment the world was a scary place and the next it was a playground. Even worse, and as the fate of Alices demands, as the world around her changed, so did she. Alice would not be the same person she was half a second before or the one she would be half a second later. One moment her hair was short and brown, the next long and purple. One moment she spoke English, the next Chinese.

“But what does it all mean?” she wondered, like a pure Alice. You see, it was the first time that her sense of identity felt like a joke. It was the first time she couldn’t take herself seriously, because “her self” seemed to be a simple prop in an otherwise elaborate play. Before long, the inevitable question arose with an underlying hint of panic, as she realized that stopping a ride that you don’t enjoy is a difficult, if not altogether impossible, task: “How long will it last?” Perpetual motion seemed fun, but not for eternity. It was hard to keep up with the spin, because motion means change, and constant change, as all Alices eventually learn, can wear you out, and one doesn’t need newtonian physics to know that. Could she eventually rest on friction to do the job? Feeling quite nauseous and dizzy, she turned to the seasoned player next to her, a somehow distant figure chewing on a pipe: “Can you make it stop, sir?” The Caterpillar raised his brow: “Once you start spinning, you can only roll with it,” he said in a matter-of-fact tone.

“I’m not a spinning ball,” Alice reasoned within herself, looking at the aerodynamic drag behind her. “I just have to find something to hold on to”. With all this movement, of course, nothing seemed to be in place. Caterpillar, enjoying himself, was humming a tune, very well known to Alice. “That’s where I’ll hold on to!” she thought. Trying to sing along, she discovered that she had forgotten the lyrics. “That’s odd. I probably need to search deeper,” she decided, too stubborn to give up. “Who am I?” She questioned herself. Patched up memories and stagnant remnants of old feeling came to her in the form of alternate song lyrics to the very familiar tune that Caterpillar was humming provocatively, feeling at home in the casino. Alice, still spinning, still changing, wanted then to cry out in frustration, unable as she was to string the right words together, since everything, including herself, kept on changing. Where would she find an anchor and where would she cast it?

She moved, and the movement turned her present into a photograph, a relic of the past, speeding, the one moment holding it as her truth and the next having its ashes run through her fingers. Seeing herself going fast above all those possibilities, with nothing more certain than her own instability, unreliable as she felt in her spin, finally she managed to grasp the frailty of identity.

“If life had thrown me in a war, I'd probably have picked up a gun. If it had thrown me in an orchestra, I might have picked up the violin. In any case, I’d do my best with what would be given to me” she told herself. “All the things that define me, mean nothing in a new context” she decided. “And when my old anchors are gone, I drift / and the bigger the paradigm shift the bigger the drift / and as I drift I search for or recreate familiar patterns to hold on to / like the tune of that song I used to know and I’m singing now too”. Then she paused for a moment – or for as long as a spinning ball can pause:  “But I’m not sure what to fill these patterns with, when all I have about me is an assembly of loose ended rough patches: A tuft of purple hair here, an old sense of commitment there, all belonging to the past. The wind blows and I’m naked, empty”. And then, the ingenious Alice came up with a solution to her problem: “Let it blow through me, then, and carry away the stale stench of resurrected memory!” She exclaimed and let herself go, becoming a living perpetual motion machine.

And just as she was starting to get the hang of it, just as she grabbed the pipe out of Caterpillar’s mouth and puffed, just as she made an art out of spinning, the ball began to lose momentum. Alice figured out in dread that she was about to fall, that the spinning would soon stop. “Will I end up bald? Will I have a moustache? Will I be too thin or too thick to fit in the world?” All that she said out loud, and the Caterpillar burst into laughter, just as all Caterpillars are prone to do: “Now now, dear” he said. “Worry not. The croupier is quite experienced, and he has performed the same gesture at least a thousand times, and in fact knows how to spin the ball. There is an approximation. No matter how many times you play, you will find that you seldom fall far from your circumstances. And after all, it’s just a game”.









Published in essays

For Your Ears Only

Sunday, 31 May 2020 00:00

I’ll stick to the facts. It was an icy Monday to Tuesday night and I witnessed a burglary committed by a man who I first thought was either a drunken friend, a demented relative or the drugs dealer of the family living next door. It was only a few moments after he broke the kitchen window and crept inside that I realized that he was probably not an acquaintance.

Soon afterwards, a police officer arrived to take my statement. He was very experienced in his job, as he told me, with more than twenty years of service. Giving a statement itself is a strenuous process, as the time factor is crucial – the sooner the better, as details fade or get distorted with the passage of time. As for me, the more details I was asked to give the more uncertain I felt for what I had seen: The perpetrator’s trousers might have been blue, or gray. The man’s head might have been shaved, or bald, or perhaps a little bit of both. The pressure to “be sure” was playing on my memory. But there was another fact that the officer needed to know: What was I doing there, at 12:30 on a Monday to Tuesday night?

In the officer’s mind everything had (or must have had) a clear and simple explanation. In mine, my presence at the exact moment was a result of complex, mystically intertwined forces. I was there because I had been called there by something that mandated that I had to be there: Something beyond me. It was not a coincidence. “It was a coincidence,” I said. Of course, that was not enough for an officer, who doesn’t believe in mere chances in a crime scene. I knew I had to give him a story he could understand: “I had been working late,” I began, “and was about to go to bed, when I decided to take a look at my car, because my window broke down today and was left ajar, and I wanted to check if everything was alright.” The officer’s face shined. “A coincidence, then” he said smiling, and suddenly he trusted me. It made sense to him – and even to me, as I said it. He wrote everything down, reciting my words in a mesmerizing, poetically repeated manner: “I saw…” “I saw…” “I saw...” A citizen interested and worried about her property happened to be at the scene of the crime, at the exact moment that the crime happened. Law and order knows property and can contain this. 

 

In the same manner that the police officer was looking for patterns that felt comfortable according to his training, many professionals’ way of thinking – think of eg. teachers, lawyers, doctors, psychologists –  is shaped according to what they have been taught and what information they are trying to elicit. Of course this applies not only to professionals, and factors such as cultural background are equally important, but this sort of uniformity is more evident where actual training is involved and a perceived hierarchical order is presumed. The speaker then, just like I did, feels more obliged to conform to these patterns – that she knows or guesses with varying success – and shape her story accordingly. The result is a concealed power struggle, where the one party is trying to evade and at the same time use the tricks of the other party.

In this way, we end up with some short of “systemic storytelling” that infiltrates our own thinking and leads to crude categorizations that do justice to no one. The efforts of a few professionals to dismantle the “authority figure” in their circles as a hindrance to productive communication are in vain, partly because one cannot unlearn what has been learned and partly because most people professionals interact with professionally recognize them as authority figures, treat them accordingly and expect of them to behave as an authority figure in their position is expected to behave. In other words, the bias is always there, affecting both sides. 

 

Literary theorists have observed this dynamic and call the effect of the reader – in our case the listener – on the shaping of the story and its meaning “reader response.” It will be interesting to look at how systemic storytelling creates patterns that shape society and how the “self” is created, fed and kept running in loops according to the same principles.

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Intro

Friday, 27 March 2020 00:00

Those who identify as storytellers – like all artists – may as well identify as gods, for the story holds the power of creation. Stories govern people’s lives, relationships and identities. Stories are alive. They form and reform us. Their malleability and our flexibility define our ability to survive, at least mentally. Of course, in a sense there are no new stories, as there is no parthenogenesis – and not only in art. Who we are and what we do, what we create, are products of and additions to something already existing. 

The centrality of the story in the formation of identity is indisputable. But what kind of stories form and affect our identity today? We could roughly identify two sets of stories that we come across and cast their reflection on our sense of self: Those that are personally tailored to us and stem from our immediate environments and interactions (which are also heavily socially burdened) and the communal stories that are inherited with attributes such as gender, race, class. And among all this information, myth and speculation that creates our cast, we seek to find the “self” through the creation of our personal story. Is there a “self” outside the voices of all these stories? Is there a “true core” that we find if we break the externally formed mould that confines it? To support or dismiss its existence is largely a matter of belief, or indeed disbelief, almost identical to the search for the “soul”.

In older, less self-centered times, people would find solace, courage and inspiration in myth and song, in folk tales and fables. As our lives and intellect became more complicated, there arose the need for more personalized approaches, handed to us by the advancement of technology, as books and – much later on – films were added to our resources. People started asking in greater numbers who they were, began trying to make sense of the self. Inspired by the same linearity and continuity of the traditional stories and the characters they looked up to and identified with, people started writing their personal stories along the same lines.

These stories were and still are made of the fragments of the storytelling we’ve been subjected to and our reactions to it. Our thoughts are, in many ways, not our own. And since stories are so powerful, they have the ability to support, but also to trap us. Once a story becomes concrete, once it shapes us and our societies, what does it take to uproot it? What do we do, when a story is ailing, spreading its ailment to its hosts, its listeners and believers?

This is just one of the questions this series of essays will attempt to answer by examining the function and manifestation of the story in our personal and communal lives and in different disciplines, from fortune telling to psychotherapy. We will look at accusatory narratives and why it is so difficult to overturn them, as well as the effect of power relations on the credibility of a story and on the formation of personal and social identity.

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