Part I – A Pleasurable Welcome
He got out of his car, slammed the door shut behind him, locked it, walked a few steps towards the house, then turned around and checked again if he had really locked it. He walked around his vehicle to make sure the door on the passenger’s side was securely closed as well, just in case. Of course it was. He heard the gravel grinding under his soles as he walked towards the entrance.
He was impressed by the size of this old mansion that must have outlived at least fifty generations. It was a mild evening in October, but the autumn breeze caused him a slight chill. As he rang the bell he immediately heard footsteps on the other side of the door. He was already expecting a housemaid with apron and bonnet when a stout man in his mid sixties opened the door. “Hello Mr. Burke!” the man greeted him, smiling warmly and gesturing him in. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Sir, please come on in!” “Thank you, Sir. I suppose you must be Mr. Norton then?” “I sure am. Please let me take your coat. Emily?” he called, “Emily? Our guest is here!” An elegant woman of rigid posture appeared from another room and immediately put on a welcoming smile when she saw the visitor. “Good evening Mr. Burke.” “Good evening Mrs. Norton,” he replied, stunned by the beauty surrounding her the moment the corners of her mouth moved upwards. “Emily, would you be so kind as to take Mr. Norton’s coat so we can move to the living room?” She took his belongings and disappeared into the room she came from.
He followed his host into the lounge where warm flames were already crackling in the fireplace. The floor was covered with heavy rugs and the colonial furniture created an atmosphere of melancholy solemnity.
“Please have a seat, Mr. Burke. What kind of beverage can I offer you?”
“I’ll just have some water, please. I still have to drive,” he smiled politely.
“Water it is! A man of clear principles, I like that!”
He went over to the bar, put some ice cubes into a crystal glass and poured clear water over it. “I’m so glad you could make it, Mr. Burke. I understand Dr. Cooper usually keeps a quite busy schedule for you.”
“Yes, that is quite correct. But nonetheless do I experience working for him as such intriguing that I am more than happy to spend a few extra hours even after closing down. What needs to get done needs to get done I suppose.”
“What a remarkable attitude!” exclaimed the older man, handing over the glass of icy cold water. “I see why Dr. Cooper recommended you to me. I am very sure the two of us will get along very well. Cheers to that! Au chanté, Mr. Burke! I hope you don’t mind that I myself will have some Bourbon. The Spartan lifestyle doesn’t agree with me,” he smirked.
“Au chanté, Mr. Norton! I am very honoured to have been chosen to be of your service. To a good cooperation!”
“The pleasure is all mine,” he said, gulped down his drink and immediately poured himself another.
“As I said, Mr. Burke, being too sober doesn’t suit me. I am a man of indulgence; some might even call me hedonistic. I’m not sure if I would go as far as calling it that. We all have to endure some level of discomfort at some point. That keeps us realistic and reminds us we are not just floating in an airy dream. My theory, for that matter, is that man can only truly experience pleasure if someone else is suffering at the same time, and everybody has to take their turn, don’t you agree, Mr. Burke?”
“That’s an interesting theory, Mr. Norton,” laughed the young man and sipped on his ice-cold water. The cubes clonked against his teeth and caused a sharp quick pain. He cleared his throat and continued: “I see what you are getting at. The presence of disaster – viewed from a safe distance – reminds us of our own well-being. There is no light without shadow, that’s common knowledge. It’s as if humanity needs a balance of grief and happiness, of pleasure and pain. Something to compare the one to the other. Don’t we experience the most satisfactory kind of pleasure the moment the pain vanishes? This is a kind of pleasure we would otherwise only perceive as a neutral state of numbness – a regular state of normality. Rather boring, really, if you come to think of it. Thus I believe we can conclude that the mere presence of pain is inevitably leading to pleasure, given of course that we are not to die from whatever the cause of our pain is. Even though it should be added we cannot certainly know that the last moments before death are not experienced in a state of exhilaration. Many rumours have, in fact, suggested that the last moments before our passing are experienced in a state of utmost relief. This is a different discussion, however. Yet I am not sure that this is what you are saying here, and also I am not sure if I entirely agree. If I interpret your words correctly, it almost sounds as if you were insinuating that inflicting pain causes pleasure. And this, Mr. Norton, is rather referred to as sadism than hedonism.”
“Ha! Well put, Mr. Burke, well put! You are seeing right through me! I knew I made the right decision when requesting your company. But let me ask you, Mr. Burke, aren’t the two inevitably intermingled?”
“That depends on the level of pleasure you intend to achieve I would say. If you are striving for, let’s call it long-term contentment, you would have to eliminate all kind of pain and discomfort – not only in your personal life, but also in the lives of those around you. After all, we are human beings with a sense of empathy, and the suffering of those close to us inflicts suffering on our part as well. Because unlike the disasters we watch from afar that cause us to value our own bliss, if not enhance it, the misery that comes too close to us makes us distrust our comfortable lives. And lack of trust, Mr. Norton, I think we can agree, causes great distress. Human beings, however, are not only creatures with a sense of empathy, but more often so creatures with no sense at all. We grab for what is right in front of us, for the quickest satisfaction of our base senses we can get – often regardless of the consequences. Therefore, many a man’s pleasure has resulted in another man’s misfortune.”
“How right you are, Mr. Burke! How right you are! I must say I take quite a pleasure in your way of arguing – without causing you discomfort I should hope. But if we continue this thought experiment, would you say that a man who takes pleasure in causing pain is less humane than a man who causes pain by pursuing pleasure? Should we call the man who avoids causing pain and therefore abstains from pleasure noble or inhuman?”
“Interesting question, Mr. Norton, but I think the answer is quite obvious! If we agree that striving for pleasure as such is human, and that humans lack sense and vision and therefore cannot avoid causing pain, then I would say the former is a pragmatic and the latter is an idiot!”
“Ha! What a clever answer! But I must apologise, Mr. Burke. I invite you to my house and commence philosophical arguments without even letting you in on why you are here. Understand this as a little test – you passed it outstandingly!”
“Thank you, Sir,” replied the other, giving a slight nod, smiling contently and lifting his glass of clear water to a toast.
Part II – A Welcome Pleasure
“What has Dr. Cooper told you about me?”
“He only told me what you have just proved to me yourself. And that is all I need to know, Mr. Burke. You seem to have the right mindset. You don’t find many people like yourself nowadays. This is a shame, but I suppose it only means that it requires a slightly more intensive search for the right person. I could have, of course, just invited anyone, but that would have diminished the fun tremendously. And as we have just established, Mr. Burke, I am a man of indulgence, and the greater the possible pleasure that can be attained, the more value I ascribe to it. It is mere pragmatism on my side: if I have to make the effort – if I have to endure the pain – than I naturally want the outcome to be significant.”
“The greater the pain you go through, the greater the pleasure you enjoy afterwards.”
“And I am anticipating immense pleasure from your company, Mr. Burke!”
“You are flattering me, Mr. Norton, and I apologise for the trouble you had to go through,” he joked, and nearly choked on his water. He coughed until his eyes started to water, then snorted with laughter and resumed “I hope you appreciate my practical example of pain at this very moment. I admit the anticipation of pleasure,” he coughed, “makes it so much easier to endure!”
Mr. Norton roared with laughter. He patted his visitor on the back, saying “you are the living example of how pleasurable pain can be, Mr. Burke! Just watching you in agony grants me an incredible sense of pleasure!”
“I must say you are rather cruel,” joked the young man after he had recovered from his fit. “This is a whole new kind of taking pleasure in other people’s pain. Enjoying Schadenfreude does not only make you a pragmatic, but a lazy one on top! It means you are feeding on the discomfort you accidentally encounter, without even making the effort of inflicting it yourself. Like – ”
“ – Like a vulture?”
“Like a vulture!”
“Oh dear Mr. Burke, yes, yes you are absolutely right. But I hear disapproval in your voice, my friend. I hope you don’t mind my calling you this, friend. I believe that once one person has been in the position of giving another person the kind of pleasure you just gave me, a certain intimacy has been established that allows, no requires, the term friendship. Hence, Burke, my friend, I would argue that there is a place for everything, ha, what am I saying? A purpose for everything! The vulture is a highly underestimated creature. It is detested by most firstly for its appearance, but even more so for its association with death. It feeds on what is left behind, on what is deemed waste and decay. I consider the scavenger a very intelligent animal. It finds treasure where others see dirt. It cleans up after others, who wastefully desert what could still be a feast! Now please consider this: if we have to inflict pain to gain pleasure, why not use the pain that’s already there and turn it into something good? Everything else would be wasteful! Think of the balance we have to maintain! Wouldn’t it be crueller of me to cause you pain for my own purpose than just to enjoy what you have entirely brought upon yourself? And in the end we would both be profiting from your suffering. If you think of it, Burke, it would be rather selfish of you not to share the satisfaction we could both have from your little discomfort.” He smirked at the young man, who jestingly raised his left eyebrow in approval.
“I see, Norton, there is no arguing with you.”
Part III – A Pleasurable Pain
“But now, Burke, let’s get back to the reason why I summoned you here. You surely must have been wondering why a complete stranger called you into his house on the mere recommendation of another. And I understand Dr. Cooper hasn’t let you in on the details of your visit?”
“No, he has in fact not told me anything. He said it ‘would spoil the plan’ – to use his words – if I knew too much beforehand. He did say, however, that cooperating with you is undoubtedly the most rewarding experience one could wish for in our otherwise so dull and ordinary lives.”
“Oh dear Cooper, he flatters me! He raised the bar very high, though, I’m afraid. I hope I won’t be disappointing you,” he laughed and poured himself another Bourbon.
“Oh I’m sure I won’t be disappointed. I have the highest opinion of Dr. Cooper and I trust his every word. He has always been quite exact in his evaluation of things. His predictions are sometimes uncannily correct, so I have no doubt that whatever it is you have in store for this evening will meet, if not exceed, my expectations. In fact I happen not to have any expectations at all – another valuable lesson I learned from Dr. Cooper. I came like an empty book, and you are welcome to scribble all over the blank pages. And it might please you to hear, Norton, that the introduction to this evening has been nothing but pleasure.”
“Never short of a comeback, dear Burke, I’m very impressed! And this evening has in every term exceeded my expectations by far! You wouldn’t believe with what imbeciles I had to work with in the past.”
“I’m flattered to hear, Norton, that you don’t consider me a complete half-wit,” he laughed, and took up his glass to empty the last bit of water.
“Burke,” he guffawed, “ha, Burke, I see you like to see me in pain as well, twisting my words like that! You know how to play the game! My compliments, my compliments indeed, and thank you.”
“It’s my pleasure, Norton.”
“Oh no, no, the pleasure is all mine,” he snorted. “See, Burke, how hypocritical we all are. We pretend to be polite when what we are really after is to be the one on the receiving end of pleasure, and not to be the one who, for reasons of balance, has to be suffering.”
“You are incorrigible,” laughed the other, who was still holding the tumbler in which the remaining ice cubes were beginning to melt.
“Now Burke, I am not only a man of indulgence, but I am also a man of science. As a psychologist I study humans. I study human behaviour, to be more accurate, and I study the human mind. Many people come to me because they are unhappy, they are suffering and they are in pain. I have tried many things, and the greatest success I seem to be able to achieve is that my patients understand their pain and can trace it back to its origin. Some of my clients find it helpful to be able to categorize their suffering, to put it into boxes and label it. But the dilemma with boxes is that they tend to burst open once they get too full. Bringing order into your emotions does not relieve you from them. And while I appreciate that our emotions cannot always be reasonably explained, I do strongly believe that man, after all, is a rational being. Ratio is what distinguishes us from animals, and we don’t have to fall back upon our base instincts. Our intellect is the strongest weapon we have – we just need to learn how to use it. The right ideas and a true internalization of them, I am convinced, will enable us to overcome the notion of pain altogether. There is no such thing as pain, Burke, do you understand?”
The ice cubes had entirely melted. He took a small sip from the now lukewarm water. “I’m not entirely sure I agree, Norton. There is pain all around us, all the time. If I were to pinch your arm now, I’m very sure you’d experience an unpleasant sting. You would probably even carry a bruise that reminds you of this painful incident even in a few weeks time. Unlike the pragmatic who takes pleasure from inflicting pain I don’t think that I would personally benefit from hurting you in any way. On the contrary: I think I would feel great distress attacking you for no evident reason. It just doesn’t agree with my conviction we should avoid disturbance to others at any cost.”
“And this, my dear Norton, is where you are wrong. Where there is no pain, there is no way you could possibly cause it.”
Part IV – A Painful Pleasure
“So, are you telling me Norton that if I were to hit you now I would actually be doing you a favour as I would be causing you pleasure?”
“That is, dear Burke, exactly what I’m saying.”
“But that, dear Norton, doesn’t make you a hedonist at all, but simply a masochist! A masochistic Schadenfreude enjoying vulture!” he laughed as he emptied his glass and put it down on the little side table next to the fireplace.
“Ha, Burke, if I didn’t see you smile I would almost think you are starting to despise me for my base preferences. But I feel you still don’t understand the concept for which I argue. I’m not a masochist at all, my friend, on the contrary. A masochist enjoys the physical pain that is inflicted on him, or even finds arousal in the mere anticipation of it. The ache, the submission, the powerlessness: that is what the masochist seeks, that is what causes him satisfaction. I, on the other hand, very much like to be in control. What I am trying to explain to you, Burke, is that you cannot possibly cause me pain, because it doesn’t exist in my world.”
“But does that mean, Norton, that if I were to hit you now you wouldn’t be feeling anything at all?”
“Oh, of course I would! I am a man made of flesh and blood and my nervous system seems to be working perfectly fine, just like anybody else’s. Even though I have to admit that it is dulled from time to time due to my preference for old aged and distilled beverages. But that’s not the point. I have, after a good deal of thinking, contemplating and experimenting, been able to train my mind – or rather convince my mind – that every pain I experience will eventually turn into pleasure. Hence each and every pang, be it physical or emotional, is but a sheer manifestation of a pleasure to come. It is the foreplay to something enjoyable, if you want to call it that.”
“That, is remarkable, Norton, and truly unbelievable!” He felt his palms were slightly damp.
“Remarkable – yes! Unbelievable – I wouldn’t say quite so. I am, after all, the living example. But this method, my dear Burke, is what I believe could help many of my patients. I am still working on the perfect way as to how to convey it to my clients, and how to make them understand. The problem I am facing right now is that it does, I’m afraid, require a certain level of intellect in order for it to be truly appreciated.”
“I would imagine.”
“And of course, besides on myself I have not yet been able to test the method on anyone else.”
“And this, dear Burke, is why I asked you to come here tonight. You are a man of reason and a man of intellect. I do believe that you could be the first person I could relieve from pain, any kind of pain, altogether. Would you do me the honour, Burke, of working with me on this?”
“I don’t know what to say! You left me speechless. And even though I said I didn’t have any expectations at all before I came, I clearly didn’t expect this. Dr. Cooper truly didn’t exaggerate when he said working with you would be out of the ordinary!”
“So is that a yes?”
“I guess that is a yes”
“Ha, I knew I picked the right man for this! Thank you my dear friend!”
As he noticed his guest’s empty glass, he went off to the bar and returned with two tumblers of Bourbon. He handed one to his visitor, who didn’t refuse this time.
“To a good collaboration, Burke!”
“To a painless life!” the other replied, laughing. The cold drink felt refreshing in his hands. He took a sip, and the Bourbon burned in his throat like fire.
“Now, Burke, what I would like to do is play a little game with you. It is quite simple, really, and doesn’t require much from your part, except a little patience – or endurance rather. We’ll start really easy. As in every therapy, we’ll start with the superficial. Let’s begin with the most obvious and most base kind of pain.”
“What would that be?”
“At the beginning – and in the end – we are all animals. What is it you think we, as humans, have in common with animals?”
“We eat, we sleep, we defecate, we procreate.”
“Well put. In summary: We are physical beings. So the most banal kind of pain we can suffer is physical. There is no difference in the level of pain a dog or a man experiences when his leg is being pulled out. But not to worry, my friend,” he laughed demonically, “I’m not going to rip off your limbs! At least not yet.”
“I appreciate that, Norton. Pain or no pain, I’m not quite sure if I’d be ready to give up my extremities for a little experiment. I do value the symmetry of my anatomy.”
“But a ground breaking experiment this is, Burke! By the end of this I will have you asking me to cut off your hand for mere pleasure,” he laughed. “But let’s be serious now. Physical pain is inflicted quickly, but it ceases just as quickly as well. As long as we don’t lose perspective and we learn from our experience. I would like to ask you to pull out a single hair from your head now.”
“A single hair from my head?”
“A single hair from your head.”
He pulled out a single hair from his head, flinched for a second, then rubbed his scalp and smiled.
“Well done Burke. Now how did that feel? Was that painful?”
“In which way? Describe the process to me. At which point did it hurt most?”
“Well, when I pulled it out, naturally.”
“Does your scalp still hurt?”
“No, not at all.”
“Did the pain last long?”
“No, actually it was over immediately.”
“How did you feel before you pulled out your hair?”
“A bit confused, I guess. Maybe a bit nervous.”
“Very good, very good. Would you say you were nervous because you expected it to be painful?”
“Yes, I think that describes it.”
“So did it hurt just as much as you expected?”
“No, I’m not sure. No, less I think. Actually I cannot entirely remember what it felt like.”
“Pull out another hair then.”
He pulled out another hair.
“How did that feel?”
“A little sting, but it immediately ceased. I feel nothing now.”
“Pull out another hair.”
He pulled out another hair.
“Did it hurt just as much as you expected?”
“Yes, pretty much.”
“How much did you expect it to hurt?”
“Not very much.”
“Pull out another hair.”
He pulled out another hair.
“Do you still feel nervous before pulling out your hair?”
“No, of course not, why should I?”
“Exactly, Burke, why should you? You have learned from your experience that the little pain you feel from pulling out your hair ceases immediately. Hence it is nothing to be nervous about, or even afraid of. You have already trained your mind to ignore that little sting. You do not expect it to be there, and you do not remember it afterwards. What is not in our memory doesn’t affect us. And what our mind cannot grasp technically doesn’t exist – at least not in our personal universe.”
The other man smiled and nodded.
“Now pull out another hair.”
He pulled out another hair.
He pulled out another. And another. And another. And then another. He made him repeat that process so long until a small bald spot was starting to show on his head.
“Isn’t that satisfying, Burke, tell me!”
The other man continued to pull out his hair without being told to.
“It is,” he replied, “as if you are trying to catch something that isn’t there. You are so surprised every time by the absence of something really unpleasant that you just want to continue the process, hoping that at some point you might catch a glimpse of it again. It is exhilarating!”
“Good, Burke, good! I am delighted! You understand, you do understand, don’t you? Pain is anticipation and memory! And we can overcome those by training and learning from our experience. The confidence – the self-assurance – that pain always ceases and fades into memory and eventually into forgetting takes away our expectation and anticipation which takes away our fear, which again is part of our painful mindset.”
“I didn’t expect it to be this easy.”
“The principle, my friend, is very easy. We just have to wrap our mind around it. Of course, dear Burke, this is only the beginning. But I am glad to see you understand the notion behind it.”
They both looked at the little pile of hair on the table.
“And judging from this, I would say you clearly took some pleasure out of it.”
Part VI – Distorted Darwinism
The young man emptied the last sip of his glass. His host took the tumbler away, refilled it with fresh ice and Bourbon and put it back on the table in front of his guest.
“Now as I said, my dear Burke, this is of course only the beginning. Forgetting incidents that don’t affect us very much is an easy task. We forget things every day, even if they are – objectively speaking – gruesome and horrifying. We read things on the paper every morning: people are murdered in terrorist attacks, children are starving, women are mutilated. All terrible terrible things, wouldn’t you agree? And yet we manage to put down the paper, get up to get another cup of coffee and continue on with our daily business without spending so much as one thought about female genital mutilation. And why is that, Burke?”
“I don’t know, Norton, I really don’t. I have been wondering myself sometimes, feeling a sense of guilt that I don’t feel more disturbed when reading these things. I would guess it is some kind of innate protective mechanism. Too much empathy would kill us, leave us futile like a solar penal in the midst of the arctic winter. I think our brains are trained to be selective in the intake of information, as well as in the processing of it. Biologically, or rather evolutionary, it’s a survival mechanism. We cannot pay attention to all things equally, we have to select, and ascribe more importance to some things than to others.”
“Exactly, Norton, exactly! So there is no shame in enjoying a happy life while other more unfortunate people than us suffer agony. Most people, out of moral obligation, would claim it is breaking their heart to see children die of AIDS, or to read about women having their faces burned off with acid. The truth is, though, Burke, that we understand on an intellectual level that these things are horrifying, and it might even give us a short physical discomfort the very moment we read or hear about it. But we usually only have to wait until we are distracted by something else more mundane, and the sentiment is gone and forgotten. It is, as you say, a protective mechanism. Our brains are not inexhaustible; its capacity is, in fact, quite limited.”
The younger man silently nodded and took another sip of his Bourbon, savoured the taste before he slowly swallowed the cold drink.
“Now, we have already established that there is a clear connection between our intellect and physical discomfort. Anticipation creates pain, memory conserves pain, and forgetting ceases pain. You have experienced this yourself when pulling out your hair. I would say, however, that from a biological point of view the physical pain we typically experience when pulling out a single hair from our head is rather small in the first place. Hence forgetting and overcoming does not cause us major difficulties. It is a kind of pain that does not greatly affect us, even if we have not trained ourselves in the art of forgetting. I think it is fair to say that we experience the same level of pain when we pull out a hair as when we read about another child starving in a far away country. Looking at this pile of hair on the table I would say you experienced just as much discomfort as if you had heard about fifty times that a child, or several children, died – the number of casualties strangely enough doesn’t influence our level of sympathy. Shocking, isn’t it, Burke?”
“I, I don’t know, Norton. I feel cannot agree with you on this one. Comparing dying children to loss of hair? That just doesn’t seem right!”
“But Burke, my friend, we are not talking about hair loss here! This is not about a man’s hurt vanity because he is going bald! This is merely about the little sting we experience when pulling one out!”
“But what, Burke? What is it? Is this your moral conscience speaking? Please answer me frankly: Do you lie awake at night because you cannot stand the pain you feel when you read about starving children?”
“Do you spend the entire day after reading the newspaper thinking about the agony other people feel that have lost their beloved ones in a bomb attack?”
“Do you feel shocked when you read these things on the paper?”
“Of course I do! Everyone does!”
“But how long does this moment of shock last, Burke, how long? Tell me? Until you move on to the sports section?”
“I don’t read the sports section!”
“That’s not the point here, dear Burke. Which part of the paper do you usually read after the world news?”
The young man swallowed. He looked down, took up his glass and emptied it. He cleared his throat and swallowed again. “Humour,” he whispered.
“What’s that?” enquired the host.
“Humour! I said humour!”
“Ha, Burke, you are even better a candidate than I could have hoped for! This is brilliant!”
“You defeated me yet again, Norton. I must say, the mirror you are holding up against my face reflects a very dark image. I am not sure I like this.”
“Oh, but Burke, please do not feel defeated! I am not trying to win here, I am only trying to make you understand! You are a fine specimen of a man. You are honest, unlike most people. And you are not fighting the truth about what we, as humans, are made of. And the good news is, my friend, that we can use our brain’s selective capacity and inability to connect horror we understand on an intellectual level to a physical level to our own advantage. Our brain has a selective mechanism, which seems to be out of our control. I say, we can bring it into our control. There are things, small pains, that don’t affect us very much – be it the pain we experience when pulling out a hair or when we read about starving children. Our brain automatically makes a selection here; it doesn’t pay too much attention to it and quickly moves on to other things that appear more relevant to our survival – be it thinking about where best to get food for dinner or reading the humour section in the newspaper to brighten up our day,” he smirked, and saluted to his guest. “But then, of course,” he continued, “there are more serious pains that are not so easily ignored. And this is where our real work begins, my friend. Our world has become distorted, and our evolutionarily carved mechanisms do not work anymore. Our unnatural way of living has confused our natural capacity to select. This is why people are going mad. They do not know on what to focus, so they are holding on to things – memories, emotions, experiences – that do them harm rather than help them survive. So, my dear friend, are you ready to take the next step in our experiment?”
The young man nodded contemplatively. “I am, Norton, yes, I think I am. Nothing has changed after all; it is still about the survival of the fittest. And all we want is to survive, isn’t it so, Norton?”
“So it is indeed,” he said and raised his glass to a toast.
Part VII – Surviving Distortion
The doctor sat down in his armchair, legs crossed, his glass in one hand, wildly gesturing with the other.
“And in order to survive,” he continued, “we have to be strong. We cannot let trivial things such as pain pull us down. Thanks to ratio humans have defied the laws of nature many times. I say it’s about time we took evolution into our own hands and used our greatest strength to overcome our greatest weakness. Our mind enables and paralyzes us at the same time, it pushes us forward and holds us back, liberates us and ties us down, raises us above all things only to drop us into the darkest hole. Wouldn’t it be mankind’s greatest achievement to put an end to this arbitrariness? Of course we could wait for evolution to resolve this, but as we know it takes millions of years to grow a long enough neck to reach the green leafs at the tree top. I personally am not willing – not patient enough – to wait that long. I intend to enjoy as much pleasure in this lifetime as humanly possible. And the first and foremost step to achieve this is to eliminate, or rather to convert, pain.”
“And this is to be achieved through training our mind to forget pain, or rather to convince it that agony and grief will eventually turn into enjoyment?”
“Exactly, Burke, exactly.”
“So what would be the next step in your ‘training’?”
“Before we move on to the more complex forms of pain, such as grief, loss, anxiety, despair, melancholia and the likes, we will continue working on the physical sphere. You seem to have understood the concept of anticipation, memory and forgetting quite well. “
“It seemed easy enough.”
“So it did. And it is, really. But then, of course, the pain we experience from pulling out a hair does not actually constitute an obstacle that is in any way difficult to overcome.”
“What do you suggest then?”
“I suggest we slowly move on to more severe pain.”
He got up out of his armchair, moved over to the fireplace, picked up one of the iron tools and moved the coals around. The flames had almost gone out. He refuelled the fire with a couple of wood chunks until it was crackling lively again. The sitting room was immediately filled with a comfortable heat and the flickering light underlined the homeliness of the place. Then he suddenly turned around and smacked his guest with the iron rod.
“Ouch!” the young man screamed, “are you out of your mind? What in the world do you think you’re doing?”
“Ha! Burke, I got you there, didn’t I?” he laughed. “Do I rightly assume that the pain you just experienced is of a different sort than the one when you were pulling out your hair?”
“Why yes of course it is! You bloody beat me with an iron bar! You could have warned me!”
“Warned you? But my dear friend, pain does not always come with a warning now, does it?”
The young man rubbed his thigh, looking at his host in disbelief.
The doctor hit him again, harder this time.
“Ouch! What is wrong with you?”
“My dear Burke, how can you still be surprised?” He hit him again.
“Stop it now, Norton, you are insane!”
The older man laughed. “Ha! But Burke, my friend, no reason to get upset! I thought we agreed on doing this! Tell me how you are feeling.”
“I’m feeling very angry right now!”
“Now why would you feel angry? I must admit this is the last reaction I would have expected of you.”
“Why would I feel angry? Because you continue to beat me without my consent!”
“But Burke, this is part of the game! You don’t make the rules; you just have to go along with it! Pain comes and goes without our consent; it is out of our control. All we can do is learn to react to it adequately, and get the situation back under control. Do you get my meaning? Now describe to me, as before, how did it feel?”
“When did it hurt most?”
“The moment you slapped the iron rod across my leg, naturally!”
“Good, very good. How does it feel now?”
“It still stings.”
“Does it hurt as much as the moment I hit you?”
“Describe to me what it feels like now.”
He slightly stroked his leg. “It’s hot, and it tingles.”
“What about your muscles? Are your muscles tense?”
“No. No I think not. Actually, physically I am quite relaxed.”
“Very good, Burke, very good, I am delighted! Please continue: At this very moment, when you think about being beaten with an iron rod – which feeling do you associate with it?”
“A hot leg and a tingling sensation”
“Yes, Burke, exactly! Do you remember exactly what it felt like when the iron touched your leg?”
The younger man thought about it for a moment. “Mmhh. No. No not exactly. I know it was painful though.”
“Ok. But which feeling prevails at the moment? The pain, or the ceasing pain? The tenseness or the relaxation of your muscles?
“The relaxation, I guess, and the slight tingle, which probably indicates the pain is ceasing.”
“What you are experiencing right now is not pain, but it is vanishing pain. The pain itself is a blurred memory. On an intellectual level you still know that you experienced a sharp pain that you wish not to be repeated. On a physical level, however, you have already moved on. Your body focuses on what is important for you to survive. It relaxes, it radiates warmth – an overall pleasant sensation I might say.”
The younger man nodded agreeing.
“So, if I were to give you a warning this time that I will strike you again in just a moment, what would your reaction be?”
“To be frank, I would say please don’t hit me again, because it really hurt. And I mean it, Norton.”
“And that is quite a natural reaction, too, my friend. Your mind is not trained yet, we are still at the beginning. Focus on your body, on how relaxed you are. You can close your eyes too, if that helps.”
He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. He stroked his leg and let his hand linger on the spot where the iron had left a mark on his trousers. He could feel the warmth through the fabric. To his own surprise, he did feel quite relaxed, even more than before. He felt as if he had just escaped some kind of danger, survived a vicious attack, and now appreciated – no, enjoyed – the quiet that was left behind. He felt strangely empowered by what he had just experienced.
The doctor silently picked up the rod again, tightly clasped it in his hands, took a big swing and struck again.
“Ahhh!” the young man screamed. “For fuck’s sake, will you stop that, Norton, I mean it!”
“Haha, but Burke, in order to build up a habit we need repetition! Repeat, learn, remember, internalize,” he laughed and struck again.
Part VIII – Hollow Shells
“I get it, Norton, I get it!” he yelled as he jumped up from his chair. “I do understand the principle! But you need to give me some time for my body and mind to connect! I cannot work that fast! Just leave me for now, will you, please!”
“Oh, but Burke, why are you so agitated? You cannot let this overcome you! Pain is just a concept we create in our minds. Pain is just part of our memory! Forget! Forget, dear friend, just forget! Focus on what comes after! Did you not enjoy the state of relaxation? Did you not feel galvanized, powerful, in control? Is that not a state you would like to find yourself in again? Is that not something to look forward to?”
The young man looked at him, breathing heavily. His trousers were torn where the doctor had repeatedly beaten him. “It is, Norton. But unfortunately I happen to be a person of exceptionally good memory. I need some time to forget.”
“Our lives are short, Burke. We do not have the time to wait to forget. The world is moving fast. Bang, your mother just died. Bang, you burned your fingers while making coffee. Bang, you lost your job. Bang, you were hit by a car. Bang, your girlfriend left you. Do you want to be defeated every time? Wouldn’t you rather turn these things into something good? Wouldn’t you prefer they caused you joy rather than suffering?”
“But doesn’t the complete absence of pain make us incautious? Would we not take risks upon us we – under normal circumstances – wouldn’t? Would that not be contrary to our strive for survival?”
“If nothing can hurt you, can there be risks?”
“Of course, something could kill me.”
“Would that be such a loss?”
“I would say it is in our human nature to fight for survival.”
“That is just what our animalistic instincts tell us.”
“Then what is it our human instincts tell us to fight for?”
“We are human. We are deprived of instincts. We have ratio instead, a much more powerful weapon.”
“Then what is it that ratio tells us to strive for?”
“Isn’t that clear by now, Burke?”
“I am not sure if it is to me.”
“Do you personally think a human life is worth protecting at any cost?”
“Yes, of course it is.”
“But what is human life? Is it breathing? Is it a heartbeat? Is it functioning organs? Because this is what animal life looks like as well. So it cannot possibly be the physical body that is worth protecting.”
“So what you are saying is it is only our mind we should protect?”
“So all that we as humans should be striving for is…happiness?”
“Basically, yes – if you want to call it that. I personally despise the phrase pursuit of happiness. It sounds tacky to me. Call it pleasure. Call it peacefulness. Call it joy. Call it whatever you want. But yes, Burke, in the end this is all it is. It is my profession, after all, to cure people’s minds of pain caused by infectious thoughts and memories. But before we can control abstract pain, we have to be able to control the concrete forms of pain. And this is where you and I are at this very moment.” He took a swing and struck his guest across the face. The young man tumbled and collapsed onto the floor. Blood ran from his nose and his lower lip, and the iron had left a deep scratch on his cheek.
“You are insane, Norton,” he coughed.
“Am I? Because I would say I am the sanest person on this planet, the only one person in complete control of his senses!” He beat him again.
“You are insane! But brilliant, I must admit that. But let me ask you one more thing, and I would kindly ask you to refrain from beating me for the moment for the mere purpose of giving me the chance to focus on your answer in order to clarify a few things before we continue.”
“Of course, Burke, that is what I am here for. Ask me, question me, but allow me to convince you.”
“From your previous arguments I understand you claim that our physical body is of no value, no purpose to a true human life. But as you are a man of science, and not a man of spirituality, I assume that you do not believe in the separation of our spirit – our soul – from our body.” He wiped the blood off his lips and licked it from the back of his hand. “How can you claim our body is of no value, is not worth protecting, when our mind – the most valuable part of us, the most human part of us – cannot exist without a physical body? I feel, my friend, you are contradicting yourself here.“
“Ha, Burke, you are brilliant! I am delighted to see that in spite of your current state your mind is still sharp and wide awake. It seems like you really are in the best condition to reach a higher level.”
“My mind never sleeps, Norton. It’s a blessed cursed and a cursed blessing.”
“But to get back to your question: Yes, you are absolutely right. We do need our physical body in order to sustain our mind. The physical body as such, however, is overrated. I guess my scientific approach does in fact share the same ideas as those of spirituality or religion. Our physical body is weak and very vulnerable. It decays, it is exposed to exploitation, and more often than not does it things we don’t want it to do, it looks a way we don’t approve and its functions are out of our control. Our physical body reaches its limits very quickly. Our mind, on the other hand, has no limits. So why should we focus on something that puts a fence around our possibilities? Unlike the belief shared by religions, however, I do not believe in an afterlife. I am quite convinced we only have one life, and that is the one we are living right now. So that as well limits our possibilities immensely. I therefore think that in order to reach our utmost we have to prioritize. The physical body should serve us, but we should not be serving it. Our body is functional, but it is only a shell. If you found yourself in the Arctic, you would call yourself very lucky to have a warm and functional jacket that protects you from the merciless wind and snow. It helps you to survive. You would hardly care about the colour, the shape or even the smell of the jacket. The same goes for our bodies. It is inevitable that a jacket you wear every day gets dirty at some point, just as it is inevitable that your body aches, falls ill, or even at times fails you. Just imagine you are imprisoned in a dark cell, and you are doomed to remain in that cell for the rest of your life. If there was a way to learn to walk through walls, would you not try everything in your power to learn it?”
“Of course I would, who would not? But if it is really that easy, Norton, than why is it that most people happily accept their imprisonment? If it really is that easy to learn to overcome sorrow, then why is everyone still suffering? Why can people not easily train themselves to forget and therefore cease pain?”
“For several reasons, really. Intentional forgetting seems to be the hardest task we, as humans, face in our lifetime. Firstly, most people value the past more than the future. They hold on to memories, because the images from the past are familiar. People are afraid of change, they are afraid of the unknown. The past is something they have already seen, something they are familiar with, so they feel quite comfortable moving about bygone times. Also, it cannot actively hurt them anymore. They can watch it from a safe distance without unexpectedly being affected by it. The past cannot reach out and grab you – at least not physically. Of course we all know that on a psychological level that is a very different story, but again, generally people are not the most abstract thinkers. So they dwell on long gone days because it prevents them from having to step out of their comfort zone. Secondly, people feel the past gives them a sense of identity. How do we know who we are? What do you think is essential for a person? What makes you you?”
“Well, I guess yes, my past is – to a certain extend – what makes me me: what I have seen, done, whom I met, the relationships I had, what I studied, what I achieved, the mistakes I made and the lessons I learned from it.”
“And if you look at your past now, does it entirely reflect how you see yourself and where you want to go?”
The young man remained silent for a while, carefully touching the scratch on his face and examining the blood this left on the tips of his fingers. “I see your point.”
“I argue that the past says less about a person than the future. The past is gone and over, it is out of our control. The future, on the other hand, can still be shaped. The past victimizes us, the future empowers us. People are such victims, it’s enraging. As a therapist I can confirm that someone’s future aspirations say more about his character than his past. It has, in fact, always surprised me how everyone walks forwards while looking backwards.”
“I’d say many people walk in circles and do not even realize.”
“How true, Burke, how very true,” he nodded. “Another reason for people not being able to break out of this circle and for being so hung up on the past is that forgetfulness as such is perceived as an indication of bad manner. Memory, a good memory, is always seen as a virtue. It reflects intelligence and manifests in reliability. It is very difficult to unlearn something that is so deeply rooted in our education. We are taught to remember from an early age on – forgetting something is nothing anyone has ever trained us to do. Instead we are being told every day, and tell ourselves every day, to ‘remember this’ and ‘remember that’ in order to manage our days effectively. And of course, remembering is something in which we can actively train ourselves. Forgetting, on the other hand, is something that seems to be out of our hands. We cannot remind ourselves to forget something; it is a paradox difficult to break – not impossible, but difficult. And this leads me to my last point: mental capacity. I do, unfortunately, believe that most people lack the capacity to grasp the idea, and to mould their minds in a way that allows them to use their mental strength towards something that seems physically impossible.”
“Are you saying that only intelligent, educated people will ever reach that higher state of mind you are speaking of?”
“Education and intelligence is not the same thing, dear Burke. More often than not they have nothing in common. But I think we can both agree that a certain mindset is required in order to fully understand the idea behind it. We have to understand it intellectually, but also emotionally. Conviction never only results from intellectual conclusion, but always also from an indistinct feeling in our guts, or our heart if you will. Do you follow me?”
“I do, Norton, I do. And I believe that so far you were able to convince me intellectually, but emotionally I am not certain whether I agree that forgetting is always good, which is probably why I still feel my face and my leg hurt immensely. Do you not agree that if we were to forget our past, our mistakes, our sorrows, we would turn into shallow automatons? Into boring creatures without sympathy? Into dangerous Ubermenschen?”
“Oh but no, Burke, not at all, on the contrary! Look at me: I am freed from pain, I am the full master of my feelings and my mind, and yet I feel sympathy enough to want to help people! The fact I seemed to have failed to help so many of my patients made me develop this new method, and I am convinced that once I am able to work out a constant procedure – with your help I hope – I will be able to help many more people. But in order to be truly altruistic I have to wholly internalize the theory and put it into practice. As for being boring – well, I’d rather think of myself as quite a unique specimen, wouldn’t you agree?” he chuckled, put down the rod and took a large gulp from his drink.
The young man spit out a bit of blood as he laughed. He picked up his glass and went over to the bar where he served himself another drink, no ice. He quickly grabbed for the iron and smacked the doctor across the back, who went down on his knees, gasping for air.
Part IX – Soundless Profoundness
The doctor looked up at his guest, groaning. He rubbed his back, caught his breath and smiled: “Well played, Burke, I’ll give you that, well played. I am, however, not quite sure what you are trying to achieve here.”
The young man looked down at his host, rod in one hand, and glass in the other. He took a large gulp from his drink. He felt a sharp sting on his cracked lip, but kept the strong liquor in his mouth, gargled, then swallowed it with relish. He felt the heat drippling down his oesophagus, radiating through the whole of his body. He took another sip and spit it into the doctor’s face. “I am a visual learner, Norton, I need a practical example to understand what I am working towards.” He took a swing and hit the old man across the face. “Is this what pleasure feels like, Norton? Is it really?” He beat him again. And again. And then again.
The old man was down on the floor, arms raised to protect himself from another blow. “My friend, I am more than happy to be the practical and living example of achieved forgetting,” his face flinched as he got up from his knees. He felt the gaping cut on his cheek, licked the blood from the back of his hand, constantly keeping eye contact with the young man, “but I would ask you to take a pause in order for me to analyse the situation.”
“Tell me how you feel, Norton. How is your face? Describe it to me.”
He leered at him. “You truly know how to play the game, my friend. You keep surprising me. You want to know how it feels? Well I assume you know exactly how it feels, as you have the same gashing wound in your pretty face as I do. I do not see the purpose of getting into it.”
“I am sure your experience of being beaten is very different from mine. I would kindly ask you to describe to me, in detail, how you feel.”
“Alright then, if you insist. My cheek is hot, slightly wet as there seems to be blood running down my face, and I experience a slight throbbing in the head.”
“It seems as if our experience does not differ that much so far. But tell me, Norton, how did it feel when the iron hit your face? Did it hurt?”
“I wouldn’t know, Burke, because that feeling is gone and I cannot remember. All I feel right now is a state of increasing relaxation. I find myself at the peak of a mountain unable to remember how I ever even got there, looking down and knowing that the descend will be peaceful and relaxing, and a well-deserved hot meal is waiting for me at the bottom. I feel anticipation, like a child packing his bags to go on a summer holiday.”
“Anticipation. Would it increase your anticipation if I hit you again?” He was holding the rod in both hands now.
“Once the pain ceases completely, we’ve reached the climax. But the climax,” he coughed, “– if we’re speaking of the basest kind of them all – always remains the same, my friend, even if you have five women at the same time. It might prolong the process, but to the result it makes no difference.”
“But what if they tease you endlessly, never letting you climax? Wouldn’t that at some stage turn into pure torment?”
“Teasing and tormenting go hand in hand. But in that state of exhilaration, would you ever believe the possibility of not climaxing? Would you not enjoy every moment you are being played and tossed around?”
“But if it goes on for too long, would you not start questioning the process? Would you not lose sight of the ending towards which you are working?”
“Working? But Norton, a young man of your age and you are speaking of work in this context? Why would you ever compare such a delightful moment to work?” he laughed. “But the answer you are looking for, dear friend, is called disassociation. It is a form of detachment from your surroundings, a detachment from your present state. Calculatedly applied, it opens you doors to unknown universes. Being overcome by it, it shuts you out. It’s a thin line, admittedly. But I believe we can learn to handle it. The fact we can get burned hasn’t kept humanity from using fire either now, has it? The essence is: You focus on what is to come and ignore what is causing you the trauma.”
“As simple as that?”
“As simple as that.”
“I’m still not sure I am entirely convinced, Norton.” He raised the rod above his head and beat the old man, and beat him, and beat him, and beat him, and beat him again and again until the doctor collapsed onto the floor, spitting blood, laughing frantically.
“How can you still be so quiet? How can you still be so calm? What else do I need to do to make you scream?” he yelled in disbelief.
“Hahaha, Burke you are such a tease! Do you still not believe me? Do you still think I am faking this? Come on, strike again then!”
He struck again. And again. “How, Norton, how? Teach me how to walk through walls!” He handed the rod over to the doctor, who took the iron and smacked his guest across the ribs. There was an audible crack, and the young man broke down next to his host. The two men were lying on the floor, groaning and gasping for air.
“Why does it still hurt?” he cried in desperation, “why can I not forget?”
“Because it takes a while to internalize a habit, my friend. Have some patience, and focus!” He leaned over , took out his knife and stabbed it into the young man’s right palm.
Part x – Furiously Curious
For a moment the young man looked at his host in disbelief, eyes wide open in shock. Whimpering he rolled over and vomited on the delicate Persian rug.
“It hurts,” he cried, “it hurts! It bloody hurts!”
“Focus! You need to focus!”
“I cannot focus you crazy maniac! You’re going too fast! What are you gonna do next, chop off my arm?”
“You’re yelling again, Burke. You need to stay calm. Your mind is slipping, you cannot let that happen. You’re behaving like an angry little boy who just lost a football match and blames the game for going too fast. Each game has a set of rules, my friend, which you cannot change. 90 minutes, one half-time. You either prove yourself in that period or you don’t. If you lose you just play again. Persistence, dear Burke, will eventually turn into success. That is pure math. And now take a deep breath.”
The young man closed his eyes and took a deep breath.
“Now hold your breath,” the doctor instructed. “Hold it. Five, four, three, two, one – exhale.”
The young man exhaled. They repeated the process until his chest heaved in a slow and regular rhythm. He opened his eyes. Blood was gashing out of his hand and left a dark stain on the floor.
“Very good, Burke, you’re doing just fine, I’m delighted. Now, my friend, sit up. You’re in control.” The doctor got up and went to the bar to get the bottle of Bourbon. “I do feel, however, that we have just crossed a very important line in our work, which I did not intend to do so quickly but which was inevitably going to happen at some point. The lines tend to blur, our pain is never separated cleanly. We rarely ever encounter only one kind of pain at a time, it’s usually a blend of different experiences – some are physical, some are emotional. So I suppose the sooner we get to it the better.”
“I’m not sure I understand exactly what you mean, Norton. The pain in my hand is…was…is…quite dominant. I don’t think I perceive any other kind of pain – any other kind of feeling in fact – at the moment.”
“That’s because you still do not listen to your feelings – be it corporal or mental. First listen and perceive, then control. The moment I stabbed you and you looked me in the eyes, what did you feel? What did you think?”
“I…I thought…well. I was surprised, you caught me off guard!”
“Surprised? You mean surprised as you would have been surprised by a person you hadn’t seen in a decade ringing your doorbell unannounced?”
“Maybe surprised is not the right word. I don’t know exactly.”
“Would shocked describe it?”
“Shocked, yes, I was shocked!”
“And what exactly were you thinking?”
“I was thinking ‘this man is crazy and insane!’”
“Very good, very good! Don’t hold back, my friend, what else?”
“I thought ‘this man is a maniac and I have to get away from here as quickly as possible before he kills me!’” The young man started to raise his voice again.
“Yes, Burke, very good! And I hear you’re raising your voice again. Why, if I may ask, do you feel the need to yell?”
“Why do I feel the need to yell? Because I am in pain, Norton, and because I am angry and surprised, no shocked!”
“See, Burke, this is exactly what I mean. Right now your physical pain is starting to mix with emotional discomfort, such as shock and anger and possibly even a sense of insecurity.”
“Yes, very well analyzed, Doctor,” he replied sarcastically. He paused for a moment. “But I see what you mean. It makes sense, now that you are pointing it out.” He took another deep breath to calm himself down. “I apologize for yelling at you. I should not be angry with you; I suppose that was just an initial, uncontrolled outbreak. The frustration should really be directed towards myself, and my inability to be in control.”
“Apology accepted,” the doctor grinned. “Your reaction is completely understandable. But I am thrilled to see that you have the capacity to comprehend where it is coming from, very good. Everything else will fall into place soon as well. But now, dear Burke, I have to ask you: Do you enjoy our little experiment? Do you feel safe?”
The young man reached for the bottle and took a large swallow. He looked at the throbbing wound in his palm and poured the remaining third of the bottle over his hand. “Do I enjoy it? That is hard to say, Norton. But man is not always driven by pleasure, but more often by curiosity. I do not believe that mankind’s greatest achievements were based on enjoyment. We are driven by a thirst for knowledge, not for joy. We all would choose the apple over grapes. We all spend a good while of our lives in a lulled state of contentment. But when we wake up our heads hurt and we start looking for a cure. Curiosity has helped mankind find it. As for your second question: No, dear friend, I do not feel safe at all. But does that matter in the end? I do not think so.”
“No, Burke, of course it does not! Are we ever safe? No, we are not! What we have to learn is to control our insecurity. I am elated, we are making great progress, and it is a joy to see you understand so quickly. You cannot control anything – You cannot control me, I cannot control you, we cannot control what is happening around us. But we can control our reaction towards it; we can control our feeling towards it.”
The doctor got up to fetch a new bottle, rummaged around in the cupboard and returned with an unopened bottle of liquor and two fresh glasses. He handed one to his guest and generously poured him of the amber colored beverage. A pungent smell began to rise from the Persian, at which he sneered. “Despite all, no need to turn into Barbarians,” he smiled, toasted to the young man, and raised his glass to his blood covered face.
The young man held the glass in his still intact hand, smelled the rich scent of his drink. “How very right you are,” he replied almost absently, took a small sip and enjoyed the affluent taste on his palate before slowly swallowing the liquid. He calmly put down his glass, picked up the empty bottle and smashed its bottom on the little mahogany side table. He was completely composed as he looked at the doctor, got up on his feet and raised the shattered bottle above his head.
“What are you doing, Burke?”
“I am taking control.”
Part XI – Taking Control
The doctor looked at his guest who was pointing the splintered bottle towards him. “What exactly do you think you are doing, my dear Burke?”
“Are you not listening, my dear Norton? I am taking control of the situation. Isn’t that what I am supposed to do?” He lashed out and cut his host through the face. The old man groaned, closed his eyes and heavily moved backwards. He leaned against the wall, holding the cut on his face.
“Is that your way of paying me back, Burke? Is that what it is? Is that what this is about? You are upset that I put you into a vulnerable position and now you are getting back at me?”
“This is not about revenge. This is about controlling the uncontrollable. Why should I wait for something to happen to me if I can be the one taking action? How can we take control if we always wait for things around us to shift? We are the most powerful, the most in control of our lives when we are the ones taking the necessary steps, when we are the ones moving. Yes, he who runs may fall. Yes, he who rushes might hit a wall from time to time. But at least we see the wall moving towards us, we are not being pushed against it unprepared with no time to raise our arms for protection. I for myself do not want to be the leaf drowning in the current. I much prefer to be the river tearing at the leafs, sometimes stepping over the banks.”
“But Burke,” the doctor sighed, “Burke, no! No, no, no, no, no! You got it all wrong! What about the fish?”
“What about the fish?”
“Yes, what about the fish?”
“What do you mean, what about the fish?”
“What about the fish, Burke? What about the fish? Leafs might be helpless. You might have the power over leafs, but fish can swim! They can even swim against the current.”
“Yes, but they need the water to survive.”
“True. But being able to move they might decide to leave your waters. A river needs the fish as much as vice versa – the river’s eco system would break down without the fish. Any water without living inhabitants is toxic – either it turned toxic by the absence of its symbiotic residents, or it turned away if not killed its population and is left empty. Either way: it’s toxic. And toxic water is useless.”
The young man looked at him, bottle still in hand. He swallowed. His Adam’s apple rose and fell. He clenched his fingers. “How could you possibly claim that poison is useless, Norton? Isn’t it the oldest weapon of them all? Silent, clandestine, efficient. Used by many, dreaded by all, crafted only by the most gifted. Nature itself makes use of it. It’s a legitimate mode of defense; you find it in mushrooms, wasps, snakes. They all use it. Are you trying to tell me that poison is a flaw in nature, that it is a mistake in the grand scheme of life?”
“The grand scheme of life?” the doctor laughed, “oh Burke, don’t get ahead of yourself! Haven’t we agreed earlier that the human nature does – if not in many, but at least in a few aspects – differ from animals? And now you even start to compare yourself to a mushroom? Let me explain a few things to you, dear Burke. If you were a mushroom, your poison wouldn’t help you to survive one bit. A mushroom’s poison kills its victim after is has been eaten. Which means it dies too, together with who- or whatever ate it. It works for mushrooms, because they are a species, which means there is an uncountable number of the same kind which all kill their victims the same way. The word spreads, they develop a reputation, they are being recognized and other species keep their distance and refrain from eating them – if they are smart enough. You, dear Burton, are not a species. As far as I know there is only one of you, so you really only have one shot to survive. Do you really want to take that chance? Kill someone after you died yourself? That is just childish revenge. The wasp, again, has a completely different incentive. It is at the bottom of the food chain, it has to be nasty to survive. You and I, on the other hand, we are at the very top, we do not have to play by the same rules as an insect. As for the snake, dear Burke – and I despise this example for obvious reasons, but since you brought it up – we are morally above that. Do not forget what I am trying to do here, Burke. I am not trying to create an invincible Übermensch. I am trying to free people from pain. I am trying to create a better life. I am trying to create a better world. You cannot attack in order not to be attacked, you must not! Do you really want to be an isolated mushroom no one has the desire to get close to because they know it would kill them? Believe me, my friend, I have seen that happen many times. You do not want to lead a mushroom life. Isolation leads to a whole other classification of pain. It is not that simple, Burke, do you not understand?”
“Yes,” he whispered. “Yes. Yes I do understand.” He nodded slowly. He nodded slowly. He nodded slowly. Then he raised his hand and carefully looked at it. The blood was still dripping from the open wound. He watched the warm fluid accumulate in the small hollow of his palm, admiring the red pattern it created running down his arm. “Then I guess there really is only one other way.” He raised the bottle to his forearm, pointed the sharp edges onto his flesh, and slowly and deliberately cut through his skin. “This,” he says, “is my design.”
Part XII – Abysmal Dismissal
The doctor fixed his eyes on him, scrutinizing his guest’s every move. “Burke,” he said, shaking his head. “Burke, listen carefully to me now.”
“I have been listening to you the entire time, Doctor. And I am starting to understand.” He stretched out his arm and examined the warm red fluid pumping out of his veins. The pain reflected in his features slowly changed into a superior smile. “This,” he repeated, “is my design. This is my pain, and I am turning it into my pleasure. The cut through my skin: a sharp sting. The open wound: a hot burn. The blood streaming out of my veins: a sensation of pure life pumping through me. I enjoy every bit of it, Norton. Every bit of it. And I thank you for it, Norton, I really do. I feel I have achieved so much already. Had you told me at the beginning of this evening when I first set foot through your door that I would be standing here enjoying to cut my arms open, I would have turned around, left immediately and declared you a mad man. Now, however, I feel I understand. Pain is part of life! We cannot fight it, we cannot prevent it, we cannot hide from it. Instead we should embrace it and used it to our own good – no, turn it into something good! And it appears we can! Within a few hours you have been able to convince me that pain is nothing to be frightened of, but something that can cause us pleasure. And now look at me, my friend, look at me!” He raised his arms and displayed his gashing wound in a blaze of glory. “This,” he laughed, “this, Norton, this is life! This is beauty! This is art! How could I ever think that something hot, something crimson like this is anything but pure energy! It’s empowering!”
“No, Burke, no!” the doctor interrupted. “You are just picking up bits and pieces of what I am trying to explain and start reconnecting them whichever way you like. But it does not work this way, Burke, it is not that simple! You do not get to choose when and where and to which extent pain is going to strike you! The most painful aspect of pain is its unpredictability. We cannot prepare ourselves in advance; we cannot take protective measures so it will not hit us in the most vulnerable spots. When it strikes, it strikes, and we have to take it whichever way it blows. If you cut yourself, Burke, you are in the advantage of knowing exactly when, where and how it is going to hurt. You can mentally prepare yourself. That is a huge plus. But unfortunately this is not how pain works. Pain does not knock on your door and asks permission to enter – it breaks in through your window, if you are unlucky enough the moment you are undressed and sitting naked on the toilet, completely exposed and no shield to guard you.”
“But that is exactly the point I am trying to make here, dear Norton. I am taking control of my own pain. You are right with what you said about lashing out. I truly apologise for that. I thought I was taking control, but instead I seemed to have lost it. And yes, I do agree that we have a moral obligation towards others which forbids us to intentionally bring suffering upon anyone else but ourselves. But here it goes, Norton: If pain is an inevitable part of life then I prefer to choose when, where and how I am going to face it. It might be morally wrong to hurt others, but as far as I am concerned it is not evidence of base moral standards to inflict pain upon oneself, would you not agree?”
“I do understand the point you are making,” the older man replied. “But tell me, Burke, will you just be walking around all day cutting your arms to ensure you are enduring a sort of pain that is manageable for you? To me that sounds unbearably dull. Also, the fact that you are inflicting pain on yourself does not prevent others from causing you pain as well. Hurting yourself only adds another source of suffering. Excuse me for being so frank, dear Burke, but you clearly did not think this trough. If you were to insist on your approach, then you would have to go one step further, and that would mean suicide. I assume you can guess my attitude towards that,” he smirked. “Of course we could all just end our lives now. Bang, whoops, finito and adios – just like that. We could cut our wrists and enjoy the feeling of life slowly leaving our dysfunctional bodies; enjoy the few minutes we have of superiority, the fact that no one and nothing can touch us now. It feels to us as if we are slapping the world in the face, saying ‘you cannot hurt me!’ But for what, Burke, for what? We are taking ourselves much too seriously. We are all so self-important to think that this last act of taking control has any influence on anything. But the truth is, Burke, it does not matter at all. Frankly, the world does not give a rat’s ass about whether we exist or not, whether we live or die in agony, whether we are happy or inconsolably miserable. We are the only ones to whom it matters. And what exactly would you gain if you killed yourself now, my friend? A few minutes of pride? A few moments of invincibility? And that is only if you are lucky. Most people are haunted by regret the last moments before they kick it. And that would be a real bummer now, wouldn’t it? But most of all, my dear friend: death is rather tedious. Are we not on this planet to enjoy ourselves, to indulge, to laugh, to love, to have pleasure? Now tell me, how much pleasure could you possibly have, stuffed into a black box hidden under the ground? Secondly: I am trying to make this world a little better, not to erase it from humanity altogether. Even though it is, of course, debatable if this world would not, in fact, be a better place without the human race. But that is a discussion I feel we should not get into at this point. And now, my friend, I think we need to cool our heads.” He filled their glasses with fresh ice and water.
The young man reluctantly accepted the glass. He stared at the clear, cold fluid that turned the tips of his fingers slightly numb. He took a mouthful; the icy water made him somewhat dizzy. His head hurt, and he needed to sit down. He stared blankly across the room, where the doctor’s blood had left a few stains on the wall. “Then what exactly, my dear friend, do you suggest now?” he said with resignation.
“Right now I suggest we take a breath, and remember the rules.”
“I know the rules,” the young man said as he sipped his water. “I know the rules. I am tired. I think it is time to go home. We should continue this tomorrow.” He put down his tumbler and slowly got up, supporting himself on the little side table as he stretched his back. Every bone in his body was aching now.
“The first rule,” said the doctor, blocking his guest’s way to the door, “is you do not make the rules. So please sit back down. We are not finished yet.”
The young man looked up into his host’s face. “I know, Norton. But I am exhausted. I believe the two of us would benefit from some rest. My head is not properly functioning anymore. I need to get home. I will see you tomorrow to continue this experiment. Also, I think I should probably go to the hospital.” He looked around the room. “And apologies for all the mess, I don’t know what I was thinking. I will help you clean up first thing in the morning.” He moved towards the door, but the doctor continued to block his way.
“The second rule,” the doctor continued, “is you cannot control the situation. All you can do is react, so react wisely. It will cause you less pain.”
“Norton, please, I am too tired to do this now, just let me go.”
“You are not making the rules, my friend, you are not making the rules.”
“I told you I cannot think anymore. If I am supposed to train my mind, I need a clear head. I need some sleep, Norton, desperately.”
“How often do we ever find ourselves well rested and clear headed, my dear Burke? Most of the times we are tired and exhausted and preoccupied. But we still need to be able to react properly. Consider this to be a training under real-life circumstances.”
“Norton, you are crazy. I am not doing this right now, ok? I am out. I am not playing your game.”
The doctor picked up the iron rod that was lying besides the door.
“Don’t even think about it, Norton. It is not funny anymore.”
“I did not realize it was funny to begin with. It is not meant to be funny. We are here to learn. You are here to learn.” He struck the young man across the ribs.
He coughed and held his side. “Stop it now, Norton“, he whispered, catching his breath. “Stop it, please,“ he repeated a little louder. When the old man was about to lash out again, he managed to get hold of the iron. “Stop it,” he screamed now, “for Christ’s sake, stop it!” The two men struggled, staring into each other’s faces.
“I’m not playing your fucking game, Norton! I’m not playing your fucking game!”
“Oh, but you’re playing it already.”
The young man freed himself from his host’s grip, tipped over his glass of water which shattered on the floor into a thousand splinters, and ran towards the door.
“You can run, my friend, but we are still playing! You do not make the rules, remember?”
“You are insane, Norton!”
“And you are repeating yourself! Calm down now and come back.”
The young man hasted into the lobby and tried to open the entrance door. It was locked. He quickly turned around and scanned his surroundings for possible exits. He ran up the staircase where at the end of the dimly lit corridor stood the doctor’s wife. She seemed not the least bit surprised by the sight of her guest running towards her. He spotted an open door – it was the doctor’s study. The shelves were overflowing with books, and the computer monitor was casting a bluish light in the otherwise dark room. The window was open, and the cold breeze made the curtains dance an elegant duet. He was standing in the middle of the room when he turned around a saw the doctor at the entrance. He slowly moved backwards away from his host, and decisively stepped onto a chair that was standing beside the window.
“What is this now, Burke. Are you really going to do this? After everything we have achieved tonight?”
“I told you, I am not playing your game anymore, Norton, so let me go now.”
“It is not my game, my dear friend. This is not anyone’s game. In fact, this is not a game at all. This is life, you need to accept that. And life has its own rules we all need to follow. You, I, my patients, everyone. We cannot run away from it! Sometimes it is painful, yes. But we can learn to turn this around.”
“Then why, dear Norton, do I get the impression you are immeasurably enjoying torturing me right now?”
“Enjoying torturing you? Oh dear Burke, why would I enjoy this? On the contrary, I find this circumstance highly unpleasant. There is no possible gain on my part if you choose to throw yourself out of this window. First of all: all the work we have done so far would have been in vain. Secondly: I would have to clean up the mess downstairs after your skull shattered on the concrete – not a pleasant thought at all if you ask me.”
“And yet you are still smiling. What is it exactly you find so funny about this situation, friend?”
“Oh, I apologize, dear Burke, I did not mean to be condescending. This is just the mere satisfaction of when I recognize certain patterns in people. We are all so predictable, don’t you think? It’s almost comic. Or dull. I can never decide.”
“Doctor, I have great respect for you and your work, and I was – and still am – very honored to be working on this with you. But this has gone too far. You need to let me go home, or otherwise…”
“ – or otherwise what, dear Burke? Are you really going to kill yourself? You would not do that, you are too rational.”
“Maybe you underestimated me.”
“Maybe I overestimated you.”
“Maybe you did not estimate at all, dear friend. Maybe it just does not sum up. Maybe your assumption that people can be put into scales and numbers and be predicted and calculated and formed into a certain image and mindset just does not equal reality. In the end all is just a lucky guess.”
“Experience tells me otherwise.”
“Maybe it is about time you learned something new about life and people.”
“That people cannot be calculated and measured.”
“Is that what you feel I have been doing with you, dear Burke? Measuring you?”
“You certainly expected me to react in certain ways. And now that I am stepping out of your expectation, you still cling to your initial plan. With all due respect, doctor, but this is not very professional.”
The old man smiled. “But Burke, you are not overstepping any line here. Your behaviour is still entirely inside the spectrum of my expectation.”
“Let me go home then, Dr. Norton. I mean it. Let me go home. I will be yours to toss around again tomorrow.”
“I am not letting you go home, Burke.”
“What do I need to do to get home to get some sleep?”
“You need to learn.”
“What do I need to learn now, Dr. Norton, at this time of night? What could I possibly learn now?”
“You need to learn that nothing is in your control.”
“You cannot be serious.”
“I am as serious as ever. Now step down from this chair and drink some water.”
The young man stepped onto the window-sill.
“Again, Burke, are you really going to do this?”
“Why, doctor, yes I am. I will not be part of your calculations. Yes, I am a rational man. But I am also a man of pride – another unfortunate characteristic of the human kind. Unlike ratio, however, it is one we share with animals. Is it helpful? Maybe not. It depends on your ends I suppose. Right now my pride might not protect me from harm, but it will grant me great satisfaction. It gives me greater pleasure than the prospect of being crushed on the street could cause me pain. Do you really think I would grant you the satisfaction, the pleasure, of torturing me? The pleasure of correctly predicting me? No, dear friend. It might not fit into your pattern, but I certainly found my own way of evading pain. I learned a lot from you tonight, thank you sir for sharing your wisdom.” He made a little bow and tapped an imaginary hat to complete the gesture. “Knowing I destroyed your plan is satisfaction enough for me. It was a pleasure to meet you doctor, but the pleasure is all mine. I am taking this with me, I am not willing to share this with you. My pain is my pleasure, and you don’t get to take part in it. You’re a vulture. You would like to see me suffer now as this would cause you great enjoyment. The truth is, though, I did understand what you told me tonight. My physical body is worth nothing. The pang when my body hits the concrete is already forgotten. All I anticipate is liberation.” He closed his eyes and leaned backwards.
Part XIV – Rational Irrationality
The doctor quickly grabbed the young man’s shoulders and pulled him back inside, collapsing with him onto the floor. “You fool! You childish fool, Burke! What in the world did you do that for? Throw everything away for a moment of pride? To win an argument? To prove a point? That was very childish of you, my friend, very childish!” He rubbed his head as he tried to heave himself into an upright position.
“You seem upset Norton. You seem to be losing your temper. That is very unlike you.”
“Of course I am losing my temper. Such irrationality! I do not even know where to begin! What if I had decided not to catch you, Burke? Would you have simply accepted this to be your end?”
“I do not think I would have been in the position to accept or regret anything, dear friend. Now you are the one being irrational.” He stared into the doctor’s face. His breath started to calm down. “Plus: I knew you would catch me.”
“This was a very dangerous guess, dear Burke.”
“Was it really? I think I estimated just right.”
“I would not be too overconfident if I were you. You are not a trained analytic!” He pointed his index finger into the young man’s face. “It could have ended either way. People make mistakes! We are, after all, only human, all statistics aside!” He straightened his trousers, composed himself and continued: “And I, dear Burke, was very curious to see how far you would go.” He paused again for a moment. “My experience,” he cleared his throat, “may have led me into believing I would know exactly your intentions. And I do know your intentions, Burke. But I may have underestimated your ruthlessness. I admit I may have been blinded and misjudged the situation.”
“Interesting. So the doctor admits to have made a mistake.”
“Stop acting like a sulky idiotic boy! This is not about winning an argument; this is not about winning a game! You made the same mistake again, Burke, you tried to take control when really this is the one thing you cannot do. Right now you believe you were able to foresee my reaction. Maybe you did, maybe you did not. But as I said – we are human and bound to make mistakes. I could have decided otherwise, you could have erred. Or I simply could have been too slow to grab you. Even if my will and intention had been according to your estimation, your plan could have failed due to my physical limitations. I am not the youngest, as you are aware. To rely on my strength and quick reaction was more than imprudent. And despite your pride and your anger towards me, I do not believe that it was your actual will to end your life just now. You are a man of ratio, Burke, you and I know it! We are working towards overcoming the limitations of our crippled shells, not towards ridding us of them! No body, no mind, Burke, this is how it works. The body, life itself, is very valuable. We just shouldn’t ascribe too much importance to it. But the incentive is to keep it, in whichever shape or form. If you die you may have nothing to lose, but you’ll have nothing to gain either. Death is boring, Burke, do you not agree?”
The young man sat leaning against the wall. He stared at his feet for a while. “I am not sure, Norton. How would we know? Maybe it is all bliss after death?”
“And how exactly would you justify this assumption, Burke?”
“I don’t know. I am just saying we do not know what it is like after death. One thing we do know for sure though is that the pain will stop. Maybe pleasure will come. Maybe it won’t. We just do not know.”
“Now explain to me, my friend, how do we usually experience pleasure?”
“What do you mean?”
“What is it that generates pleasure or enjoyment?”
“I don’t know. Many things. Good food. Art. The sight of a beautiful woman. The anticipation of a long deserved holiday. The sun on your skin. Many things.”
“Yes, Burke, yes, exactly! Let’s keep it very simple. What is it that enables us to enjoy the taste of good food?”
“Our sense of taste?”
“Exactly, Burke, exactly! The taste buds on our palate and tongue – a very physical thing, wouldn’t you say? What about the other pleasures, Burke?”
He sighed. He kept staring at his feet and nodded with resignation.
“We do need our physical body to experience pleasure, Burke, and we need our minds to overcome the pain. Our minds only work with the help of our brain, the greatest physical component of human life. When we experience loss, sadness, disappointment, we experience a physical pain as well, usually in our chests, somewhere around the heart. We can make this pain go away, Burke, but we need a well functioning mind and a physical body to sustain it. There is a difference between pleasure and the mere absence of pain. Take patients, for example, who are pumped with medications to keep the pain at bay. They are numb, unable to feel, unable to engage. They are empty. Now sometimes this might be the first and only option for people, especially if they have not found another way to overcome their pain, or grief, or sorrow or whatever you call it. But we have to realize that one cannot exist without the other. We have to be susceptible to both, we have to allow ourselves to be conquered by the two of them equally so that we can decide which side to take. Death will come to all of us early enough. As you said, we do not know what happens after. Maybe we continue on in eternal bliss. I for my part very much doubt that. The idea of life after death was invented to quiet people down, to take away the fear of the unknown. Or even to make people more compliant. Even the most educated people still cling to the ever so slight possibility that after death there might be something else, something more, something better coming. Functioning societies need this prospect of an afterlife. Just imagine everybody and full heartedly suddenly acknowledged that once they kick it there is nothing! Who would still get up in the morning to go to work? Who would still want to contribute to society? Who would still do anything they do not actually want to do at the moment? Wouldn’t we all just go bonkers to literally have the time of our lives? We would have complete mayhem! Hence, I will not start an attempt to convince people of the black nothingness that is awaiting all of us. The same goes the other way around by the way. If people knew for sure there is heaven – whatever that may mean – waiting for them, we would have mass suicides. The human race would probably cease to exist within an hour. That is probably also why the church preaches that he who commits suicide will go straight to hell. They are too afraid of the consequences. And obviously they would lose a lot of their followers. They really are not consequent in what they preach, but that is a completely different discussion. Let people believe whatever they want to believe. I am only trying to make you understand, my friend, that in the end we will find out anyway. Once we reach that point, we will see who was right. But until then we are in doubt. So instead of rushing into uncertainty, I suggest we work with what we have, and that is an alive and more or less working body.”
He got up and closed the window. When he turned around he saw his guest crouching in the corner, his hands covering his face, sobbing silently.
“Come on, my friend, it is time to continue our work. Let us get you some water.”
He bent down to help the young man get up. When he softly touched his shoulder he abruptly looked up, eyes blood shot, fixing the doctor’s features. He put his hand around the back of his host’s neck and held on to it firmly. The doctor tried to pull him up, but the young man seemed to be too heavy to lift. The grip around his neck tightened, and the young man pulled him closer to his face. “What is it, Burke? Come on, let us go. We have work to do.”
“Yes, we do,” he whispered. “Yes we do. And curious and thirsty for knowledge as you are, dear friend, I am sure you would like to solve that last riddle of them all. Now that you have managed to rid yourself of all things unpleasant in this life, are you not dying to know what it feels like in the end?”
He pressed the old man’s forehead against his own, pulled out a large glass splinter from behind his back, and slowly slit through the doctor’s throat. He kept his eyes fixed on his host’s who gargled and went down on his knees. He watched the doctor’s life running over his hands. It felt warm and sticky. But nice. He dropped the old man on the floor.
“It was a pleasure, Dr. Norton,” he said.
That wasn’t so bad, he thought. That wasn’t bad at all. I’m sure something good will come of it. I’m looking forward to it. He sat back down, his back against the wall, and closed his eyes. “We shall continue our work tomorrow, Dr. Norton. Now, if you excuse me, I have to get some rest.”