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A Theory of the Self

From: New England Review
Volume 34, Number 2, 2013
pp. 8-16 | 10.1353/ner.2013.0065

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

for Erika Goldman

He was convinced that the universe is composed of words joined by grammar’s strong force into sentences, and that a sentence existed—if he could but find it—that would restore him to the world after having lost his place in it one morning at breakfast. Inasmuch as his eviction was the result of a sentence spoken without apparent premeditation or ill will by his wife, in a voice pitched “between annoyance and concern,” his faith in the curative power of a mere string of syllables—of ordinary words (he had not been banished by an incantation)—was perhaps justified.

You’re right in thinking there is much in these, my own sentences, that is provisional. I did not know Ruskin (let’s call him that out of respect for his family’s privacy) during the first uncertain hours when he was losing himself—fading gradually, like a photo left in the sun, from the narrative he had been, moment by moment, assembling in Philadelphia for the eight years since his marriage. I met him several days later, when he entered my own painstakingly composed narrative—also set in Philadelphia, but in a dimension of that city other than the one previously occupied by him. (I have no wish to lose a reader before the story truly begins by straining credibility, so I won’t insist on a cosmological meaning for dimension . Instead, let’s imagine that Ruskin and I, until our chance meeting on the Baldwin steam locomotive that runs back and forth on a piece of track inside the Franklin Institute, had traveled widely divergent paths.)

II

The antiquated locomotive (it had been built in 1926) pulled only a coal tender. Together, they traveled nowhere, without urgency and with no more fanfare than a blast or two of a steam whistle. Not once had they left the museum’s ground floor since their purchase from the Baldwin Locomotive Works in 1933. According to the exhibition plaque, the unusually heavy engine was technologically advanced—for reasons I forget. I do recall, however, that the technology failed, which is why the locomotive came to be sold to the Franklin Institute instead of a railroad. I liked riding in its cab as it crawled forward several yards only to return, especially on a rainy summer Sunday or a cold winter’s one when there was little else to do. The idea that so much purpose had ended in purposelessness pleased me. Nearly 800,000 pounds of complicated machinery sat on the museum’s track—its atoms screaming in frustrated locomotion, or so I liked to imagine. Actually, the exhibit was dull. For all its massiveness and violent potential, it made very little impression on most other visitors, who preferred the model railroad built against a nearby wall. The majority of those who came to the museum favored the planetarium with its projected cosmos accelerating, after the Big Bang, toward a theatrical and deafening catastrophe. Perhaps I was the only one who saw in the hobbled and tormented locomotive a model of the universe.

On the afternoon Ruskin was abruptly shunted from the track down which he had been hurling himself and his family, I was once again reveling in the sensation of futility aboard the Baldwin locomotive. The day was bitter; new snow covered the black cinders laid down the night before by the department of streets. It was a day to remain at home, with the Sunday paper and a whiskey; but something had drawn me to the museum, which fortunately was open despite the inclemency. I like to think that it was Ruskin who incited my visit—or, rather, that I was made to drive, by some agency of intervention, on icy streets, past cars stalled in the mounting snow, in order to welcome him. He was already onboard when I arrived at the train. When I climbed up into the cab, he made not the least acknowledgment of my presence. He seemed to be looking at a point just over my shoulder as though one or the other of us were elsewhere. There was something—I won’t say ghostly—insubstantial about him...



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