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Murmur by Will Eaves

August 24, 2018

It covered much of the same ground as ‘The Man who Knew too Much‘ and The Imitation Game but in a far more interesting way.

One in our group said that it felt like a film. All agreed that it was well written.

Many enjoyed the science and realised that the author had done a lot of research (it took him seven years to write) while others found it baffling. Turing was prescient when he wondered about the existence of parallel universes.

 

I don’t agree where he says: The Church says: ‘People come in search of meaning, and to have their fears and anxieties allayed.’ But to think you can be finally satisfied on these points, or to imagine you can satisfy others, is the source of the misgiving.

 

Churches, like Jesus, are supposed to respond to questions by asking further questions, going deeper.

I had to look up: truckle bed = a low bed on wheels that can be stored under a larger bed; volutes = a spiral or twisting turn, whorl; scrying = peeping

Are the phones in the canteen an anachronism or is he imagining the future?

It definitely would benefit from re-reading

Quotations:

Do I need to set down the circumstances? The results are in the papers, and for once in my life I am disinclined to “show my working”. It is strangely more instructive, for me, to imagine other conditions, other lives. But here they are, so that my friends, when they come to these few thoughts, may do likewise.

I had just finished a paper and decided to award myself a pick-up. I met the boy, Cyril, on the fairground. He seemed undernourished and shifty but not unengaging; living, he said, in a hostel, working casually. I bought him pie and chips on the grounds and invited him home for the weekend. He didn’t turn up, so I went back to Brooker’s, waited for the fair to close that night, and took him home soon after. He was not unintelligent, I found – he’d liked the boys’ camp in the war, did some arithmetic there, and knew about Puzzles and Diversions. Cyril was, I’d say, the product of natural sensitivity, working-class starvation and nervous debility. He wouldn’t kiss. We treated ourselves to baths and listened to the late repeat of the Brains Trust programme on learning machines, with Julius Trentham opining, not implausibly in my view, that the human ability to learn is determined by “appetites, desires, drives, instincts” and that a learning machine would require “something corresponding to a set of appetites”. And I said something like, “You see, what I find interesting about that is Julius’s suggestion that all these feelings and appetites, as he calls them, are causal, and programmable. Even these things, which we’re so sure, so instinctively certain, must be the preserve of freely choosing and desiring humans, may be isolated. They can be caused, and they have a cause.” And Cyril was fascinated. He was listening and nodding. I felt so happy and so peculiarly awful. We went to bed and in the morning I unthinkingly offered him some money. He was offended and left in a mood. I then discovered £3 missing from my wallet – he could have taken it at any time, I put nothing away – and I wrote to him at the hostel, calling things off. He turned up on the doorstep the next day, very indignant, making obscure threats which I did not take seriously. He mentioned an unlikely sounding suit hire debt, for £3 of course, and some other outstanding sums and then ended up asking for another £7, which I reluctantly gave him.

“welter of connectedness, the phones and messages, commuters trailing wires, staring past bodies into space, the sound-image of ghostly callers in your head wherever you may be, whatever time it is”.

“The thirty lives in this cold room, seen from some distant vantage point, are like the hopeful lanterns of a struggling ferry.”

Fear of homosexuals is never far from the surface. The few people who have supported me after my conviction must be very strong-minded. I do not think most people are equipped to associate with pariahs. They have a shadowy sense of how frail they themselves would be in the face of institutional opposition and stigmatisation, how utterly cast down if they lost their jobs, if people they knew stopped serving them in shops or looked past them in the street. It is not hatred that turns the majority against the minority, but intuitive shame.

The King died in the early hours of the day on which two very kind police officers paid me a visit. Seven weeks after my arrest, I was found guilty of gross indecency with a male person and sentenced to receive a course of organo-therapy — hormone injections — to be delivered at the Royal Infirmary.

The world is not atomistic or random but made of forms that interlock and are always interlocking, like the elderly couple in Ovid who become trees.

Living on your own makes you more tolerant of people who say strange things.

You know your social life is in trouble when you spend the ‘ evening reading an -article on puzzles called ‘Recreational Topology’.

Dr Stallbrook often asks me how I feel. I reply that I do not know. How does one feel? It is one of the imponderables. I am better equipped to say what it is that I feel, and that is mysterious enough. For I feel that I am a man stripped of manhood, a being but not a body. Like the Invisible Man, I put on clothes to give myself a stable form. I’m at some point of disclosure between the real and the abstract — changing and shifting, trying to stay close to the transformation, not to flee it.

Dr Stallbrook encourages me to write. It is like making a will, he says — eminently sensible. If you’ve signed your papers and made a will, you know there will be an end. You have already witnessed it, so to speak. And people who make this definite accommodation with their end, with the prospect of death — who get it in writing — live longer. He says this with a matter-of-factness I can’t help liking.

a process such as simple addition has human ‘meaning’ only because I am there to observe it and call it ‘addition’. And yet it certainly hap­pens. Perhaps the larger process, too, is unmeaningful. If life works, it works. The character of physical law as it extends to biological material is that it should underpin the way cells and systems operate, and that is all.

‘I just don’t think you’d benefit from reading my notes. My job is to help you encounter yourself.’

The observer is a partic­ipant, as the great revolution in quantum physics has taught  us. Consider now that I am the set of notes that you wish to read. I might as well ask: how are you to benefit from reading me? Shall we condemn ourselves to solipsistic balance? The two sides of an equation must meet if they are tt balance

nurse who in­jects me does it with a good will, because she has been told that it is her job. She doubtless thinks of herself as a freely choosing agent. She likes to think she does her job well, but at the same time she is just doing her job. (One hears this a lot.)

I said that I liked to trust people, which I do. Lying there, I seemed to float outside my body and look down at us both.

feeling that marriage by and large has the most deplorably erosive effect on one’s ability to think.

The ones that work, the marriages, are based on such tolerance, such frank distance, that one is bound to ask the point of them in the first place. The world’s opinion, I suppose, and maybe that’s a good enough reason.

Sex is a salve, partly mechanical, to join what can’t be joined.

Why are the intelligence services paranoid? Because they know you can’t force someone to conform, or learn the error of their ways. You can’t reach the inner life. I can’t be a model citizen — though, heaven knows, I’ve tried — because the menace lingers inside. You can’t simply change people, in other words, or double them, because you can’t know they’ve changed. Only they can know that. Only they know what it’s like to be copied.

It is the evil of a certain social class, into which I was born, that its children are forever being told there are more valuable qualities which they do not have, and which, despite the expense and dis­comfort of their education, they must not imagine they could ever possess. That would be ‘getting ideas above one’s station’. Trentham is ambition, to Stallbrook’s cautionary counsel, d’you see? In any case, my response is: getting ideas of any stripe would be a start. And in fact, what I honestly think, where children are concerned, is that they should be told that they are fine as they are, whatever that is or turns out to be.

Famously I have not had a child. But I have thought more about how I might bring one to some awareness of its value than many people who have.

Because child-rearing is a sympathetic calculation. If I arrange things in this fashion, the sum goes, my child will be clothed, fed and secure. The last element is the tricky one. It is the fairy tale of human existence, seen in my colleagues’ professional ambitions, in the ordinary person’s relationship to money, and especially in a parent’s hopes for his or her children: if I make a certain quantity of effort, a certain quality of life must result. But it will not. Actions have results and reactions, yes, but those reactions repeat themselves and gain momentum in the stellar array of forces and contingencies beyond anything we might have conceived.

My own predicament — a mathematician and homosexual who has done serviceable work in logic and computational theory but who has run foul of an illogical system of justice — seems very unremarkable. Yes, there is distress. When I work back from it to the cause — a harmless exercise of sexual instinct by two male adults — my situation seems extraordinary, even to me. A walk down the same road five minutes later would have saved me. But that I should be surprised by a turn of events does not in itself surprise me greatly.

I am sorrier for others. I feel sorry for my mother, who wanted success for me and cannot quite bring herself to believe in my fall, because it is evidence of her lack of control over her child’s future; of how nothing is guaranteed by education; nothing is assured; of how I am, and always was, alone, as she is. She, too, may find it interesting that she cares more about someone else’s aloneness than about her own.

I wonder, June, if you have ever experienced the following: some­times, when I am doing a long and difficult calculation, which, after much tribulation, comes out right, I feel a sort of glow binding me to the work, in the calculation, in the latter stages when I can see things falling into place. The figures and symbols are so right that they seem to take on some of the self-conscious wonder of the person manipulating them.

They move towards their own awareness. They, and not I, seem to say: oh, but now I see. And when that happens it is like seeing a mind arise from matter to discover that it cannot go back to its former childlike state. It is matter transformed. It is responsible now.

We speak of realising something without seeing what that means. We are making something abstract real, an equation, say, and send­ing it out into the world. Our sum becomes a creation and it goes its own hectic way. It is a small thing, like a child, with untellable consequences. We can’t control it any more.

It should be a source of hope, this lack of control. It proves not that there is no influence over events or no free will but, rather, that influence — the sheer, startling happeningness of life — is promis­cuous. We are both responsible and absolutely unable to make our responsibility stay the way it should.

June, dear friend, you can’t protect me. I can no longer protect you.

I think we are both making a long and difficult calculation. Mine is different from yours. But for both of us the light is coming — bleed­ing upwards from the horizon.

There is no justice in the world and we are alone. The depressed are onto something. What they are apt to miss, thereby, is the spon­taneous feeling that dawns all over the place — the aptness of a bird on just that branch and not another, the miniaturised sun in the drop of water on that leaf. Who could have foreseen them?

Misery is the broad river, but there are tributaries of joy and con­solation. Writing to you has been one of them, and imagining that you write back another.

Ever,

Alec

Or a bit of a shock. When I heard that voice asking why I’d done whatever it is I’m supposed to have done, I had a strong memory of asking the fortune-teller if I would ever meet Christopher again, and she said yes, we are all made of the same materials, we are atoms, bits of Morse, and you are breathing him in even now. Her shawl smelled maternal — a hint of bergamot and talc — but her eyes were like Indra’s net, inhumanly compound, and after that I must have passed out.

I came back from the station via the deep shelter, at the edge of the common’s south side, where I sometimes fancy the murmur has gone into hiding, along with the machines. They are down there, at the bottom of the spiral staircase, stuck in a loop, possessors of all the information they need to find out about the universe, but unable to sift any of it. Doubtless they find it unacceptable.

In the light of these winter afternoons, the eastern half of the entrance to the shelter stays white and frosty. The west­ern section, caught by the sun, is like one of those bronze cauldrons the early Britons buried, not in fear of death, but to extend the feast of life. I had an impulse to go over and put my ear to the door.

There I stood, rattling the padlock like a madman. Stallbrook says that analysis is a little like the voyage of a sha­man who goes down into middle earth to bring back the buried parts of a sick man’s soul, but I don’t know about that. One can have too much talk, which in any case tends to drive people away. It is better to listen. The machines are in council, down there, wherever they are, because they cannot decide on anything. That is why they suffer from a sense of persecution and abstraction. They need a connec­tion to something beyond themselves, which it may not be easy for them to achieve, or admit, given their prowess, but I’ve decided I’m willing to lend an ear. Before speech there was listening, and the dead rise with the love of it.

 

Time is the plane that reveals this interlocking, though time is not discrete. You cannot pin it down. Very often you cannot see the point at which things start to come together, the point at which cause generates effect, and this is a variant of the measurement problem. It must also be akin to asking at what point we begin to lose consciousness when we are given an anaesthetic, or at what point unconscious material becomes conscious. Where does one cross over into the other? If the tessellation of forms is perfect, do they divide? Or are they one?

These are notes to pass the time, because I am in a certain amount of discomfort. I suppose it is fear, and keeping a partial journal distracts me. But I am also drawn to the pulse of that fear, a beat, an elevated heart rate – and something more than that, which comes through the thinking and is a sort of rhythmic description of my state of mind, like someone speaking quickly and urgently on the other side of a door.

I know that Pythagoras is said to have delivered his lectures from behind a screen. The separation of a voice from its origin gave him a wonder-inducing authority, apparently. Perhaps he was shy. Or ugly. Anyway, I’ve never had this experience before. This morning I could hear the inner murmuring accompanying trivial actions: ‘I’m up early, it’s dark outside, the path I laid haphazardly with my own hands is now a frosted curve. I put some crumbs down for the blackbird singing on my neighbour’s chimney pot. Beyond my garden gate a road, beyond that fields speeding away towards the tree-lined hills and crocus light. I wait beside a bare rowan, its berries taken by the blackbird and her brood, the wood pigeons and jays.’ And then again, moments later, when I caught myself looking back at the garden through the doorway: ‘He passes through the silent streets, across wet roofs and closed faces, deserted parks. He moves among the trees and waiting fairground furniture.’

The error is supposed to be ‘looking back’, isn’t it? Poor Orpheus, etc.

Of course, it has occurred to me that the balance of my mind is disturbed, just as it has occurred to me that I am reckoning with a deliberate retreat from the world, a passing out of sight into, well, invisibility. What lesson might that passage have for me? It is an extension of my preference for anonymity, I suppose. It is commonly said, or felt if it is not said, that people respect others of importance who have achieved things or held office; but it is a curious fact that self-respect is often found to exist in inverse proportion to public status. It has learned to pass nights alone. It does not seek approval because it knows that estimation has nothing to do with achievement.

The problem with disguising or encrypting is that the original still exists. One has doubled the information, not made it less sensitive. Something has happened to it, but the semantic loaf persists behind a mask, a veil, a foreign accent, new papers, breasts etc., and really the only thing to do about that, if you’re still anxious, is to remove both bits of information – the original and the encryption- altogether.

It strikes me that a mirror reflects, but that, geometrically speaking it transforms rather than translates. One is turned back on oneself and in the process one sees a second person, a new person who one does not fully recognise. Always uncanny, this about-facing, and not unrelated to the common fair of automation, which people assume to be a sort of coming doom. The fear of robots, I take it, is like the fear of prophecy, the essence of which is repetition: of you can be repeated, you can be replaced.

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From → Novels, Sexuality

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