Excerpt from the Novel of a Forgotten German Modernist – SG Phillips
July 4, 2021
We chemists know much about the material world. In the sciences, dare I say in all of the academy, you will find no materialists more rigorous than ourselves. We study the material, the substance, the stuff reality is made of that we can actually see, touch, taste, smell, observe. The substance, the stuff of nature. What about the world of second-nature? Second-nature is nature, after all. The feelings we often speak of as subjective have their own vocabulary, their own interplay, their own substance or stuff, surely. For instance, what happens when two people fall in love? That is, not when they are approaching love, or when they are hesitant to approach it, unsure of what it is they are seeing (and unsure if the other is seeing it too)– but when they actually both know? What happens when the moment becomes reciprocal? Holding hands during a forest hike, making out behind the bar after a cigarette (she doesn’t smoke, but she has simply stopped caring about him doing it, or maybe it’s the other way around), what constitutes this world as being different? Surely the atoms are the same, the stuff it is made of is the same, but why does this substance, this stuff, seem so different at the time? So much richer, or lighter? Two people in union have twice as many eyes, as many muscles, twice as much intelligence? No, that can’t be. Twice as much will, surely. And we could say that will is the stuff that some of those are made of, whatever will is. A will cannot be free, we chemists like to say (good materialists that we are!), but this will can, if strong enough, simply believe itself to be free… With two of them, two wills combined, could this freedom be made a bit more true? A bit more justified? The world is the same size, the same weight and the same distances make up the world, the amount of stuff is the same, but now that two-as-one inhabit it, is there some sort of parallax of intentions that make it more? Or show that this more was already there? A Chemist will shine different wavelengths of light on a substance, that is, some stuff, and she will measure its purity, its reactive qualities, its overall behavior at this excited state. Do these two unified intentions do the same? Nature includes second nature, after all. The man approaches his desk and looks at a disposable BIC. The pen is the pen, but now he feels as though it can write a novel, or create calligraphic mathematical proofs. He orders some dark blue ink, a fountain pen, and large sheets of lined paper to practice on. Each morning, he solves a Calculus problem from an old textbook on scrap paper and then neatly writes it in this beautiful blue ink against the larger bone-white. It becomes a meditation, the sound of the pen on the paper, the morning glow casting an orange tint to the paper as the pen streaks across, leaving collapsing rivers of dark blue, varying in width depending on the pressure he exerts (being careful to avoid pressing too hard, preventing a fork). One morning he properly writes an ampersand and he shows it to her, this “&” that was so difficult to master, that he took several days to figure out, he wakes her a few minutes before her alarm. She observes, first bemused, then amused, then enthused. She would fall back to sleep previously, and sometimes she still does, staying in bed, but now she makes an effort to keep awake when he rises early so she too can listen to the sounds of the fountain pen. The sound of scribbles changing into focused, intent, balanced strrrrkk’s as his fingers, hand, and arm act in total coordination! He begins to recompose fragments of Newton’s Principia in this beautiful blue ink against this bone white paper without understanding the contents– he knows this, the flippant vanity of it, the narcissism of it, but he simply enjoys the sound of the pen, the view of the ink, and the neatness of the proofs. His handwriting becomes quite elegant, and now he recomposes poetry by hand in this beautiful blue ink against this bonewhite paper, now bound in a leather notebook she purchased for him. Her world, too, is richer. Seeing his love of poetry, she begins reading German for the first time since High School: first Goethe’s poetry, and then his Faust. The archaic vocabulary is stubbornly powered through with several large decks of Anki Notecards and DuoLingo. It only takes a few weeks and she is reading through The Metamorphoses of Plants. She plants a small garden on the balcony, some microgreens, some mint, some basil. She begins researching botany, and borrows a large sheet of her husband’s beautiful paper to sketch an outline of her garden– accounting for each square inch of their modest balcony. He purchases a few cacti for the bedroom window, something low maintenance that he can manage, to add some green to their room— for her. He begins looking at real estate in hopes of finding a house or, if not, a ground floor apartment with a fenced in yard. He finds a modest one, makes the proposal to her, she agrees, and that autumn they move. The garden grows, his poetry improves, her German becomes fluent, his handwriting more elegant. Often they are caught in a strange feedback of compliments, thinking about one another thinking about one another, talking about one another talking about one another, how they did when they first met, how they did last week, how they do now, how they will tomorrow, then tomorrow, then tomorrow, time creeping at a more leisurely pace now that there are two of them to account for its moments. The narcissism of it– though not narcissism, it is not pathological or doesn’t feel itself to be, to them, but still, the narcissism, the arrogance, the surety of their love’s unique nature and their optimism– hubris? Then, all the more arrogant and narcissistic they shall act. If someone would be… arrogant enough to speak to them, about their arrogance, it would give them yet another problem to collaborate on solving– they are positivists of love. The world is richer and lighter, further and more near, more easily known and more unknown, everything is doubled because there are two of them to see it. They can make plans, larger plans than if there was only one of them. More than that, they can Will them to reality. Not material reality, of course. We Chemists know that subjective intentions cannot affect the material word. The material stuff. But is nature not also composed of second-nature? I cannot think the baseball to move, but I might decide to pick it up and throw it. The neurons fire in the specific way, the acetylcholine selectively tenses my muscles, but this doesn’t mean that I also didn’t also decide to throw the baseball. What if we separate our union and note the difference in our ledger, that is, vary the independent variable? A tragedy, the wife dies, or the husband dies. No, let’s not be too cruel to these lovers: a crack occurs. An erosion of unity allows a third party, a third intention, to leverage this unity in two. It does not matter for us, the reason. After a well-measured few years, the man approaches his desk and grabs his fountain pen. The pen is no longer the light pen, the meditative tool of the calligrapher and instead becomes not less of a pen but simply is a bit further away from the man. It can still write, it can still hold those rivers of dark blue ink, but the man finds that when he goes to construct a proof, or compose a poem, the effort is sluggish, the ink too thick, the rivers which formerly ran smooth now form oxbows, he keeps pressing too firmly and the rivers fork in two. The elegant skkkr becomes rarer, tending toward scribbling cacophony. He often X’s out drafts now, taking a simple glee in throwing the effort away. More drafts are needed to get it just right. Or was he ever even that good? Was he ever anything but a dilettante, simply having fun? He wonders. The woman finds that her German, too, has become sluggish. She hasn’t practiced her notecards in a few weeks, and… she manages to keep her plants watered, her garden tended, but she simply doesn’t have the excess will needed to keep up with her review. She picks up Faust and finds that she loses the thread after a single paragraph. The book is the book, but it somehow… no longer welcomes her? These previously treaded paths now feel a bit overgrown, the hills are a bit steeper, the sun a bit hotter, the air has a stale odor clinging to it. Her plans for the garden, her list of plants curated for each season, these ambitions are ignored and unaccounted for. She doesn’t have time for it now, but, she still feels by all accounts to be in the positive: though the garden is shrinking it is still healthy. Though the man’s calligraphic skill is sedimenting, it is still there, isn’t it? Made up of the same material, the same fibers and muscles, the same eyes, the same stuff, just half as much of it? The stuff of the pen appears further away, does it not? One moves much faster on four legs. How did this happen? As if the entire realm of their love dispersed, coated every item, made each and every monad in every realm face them specifically, and offer its possibilities. Not materially, of course: we Chemists know that our subjective impulses do not affect the material stuff. But what about the other realms, those of second nature? Now each monad seems… inert, as if each decided of its own accord to face inward. When the chemist shines a specific wavelength on a substance, that is, on some stuff, she discovers new properties and behaviors of that substance, its purity, its behavior in an excited energy state, when the electrons are sprung to a new valence. These behaviors are noted, and the light is turned off. The substance, the stuff, is still there. She weighs it, makes a note of this weight in her ledger, shuts it, and dispenses with our little clump of stuff. What do her calculations show? Mass exists in proportion with energy, yes? Well, after significant figures are accounted for, it seems our little clump of stuff is a few picograms lighter than it was previously. That’s not a big difference, not many labs have the equipment to measure that tiny weight! Not at all noteworthy. But it happened. Our clump of stuff, some of it went away and became something else. Even though what we have is now smaller, it’s still the same material, the same stuff… if we shined the same wavelength of light on it again… it would behave the same way, the same electrons would be flung out to the same valence, and so forth. We would then shut off the light, we would note its behaviors, its properties, and be left with just a little bit less than we had before.