Friday, November 19, 2010

Three Universes: A Psychological Crisis Deepens

I still vividly remember my inner conflict over physics as an undergrad.  On the one hand, all the physicists I was meeting, no matter how brilliant and good at what they did, turned out have little or no interest in the outside world.  No wonder, I suppose.  To be one of the world's best physicists, you probably have to devote yourself exclusively to physics.  On the other hand, I knew that physics was considered the deepest and most fundamental knowledge of reality.  No matter who I talked to, they said you could go on to study any science you wanted once you had a physics degree.  So I stuck with physics as my chosen major.

Nevertheless, that insatiable longing I've described would overtake me almost any time I had a spare moment.  It urged me to read something deep and meaningful, or to write "profound" poetry, or to ponder consciousness or reality. 

I turned to poetry.  It seemed that of all the art forms, poetry was able to express the most with the fewest words.  I wrote many experimental poems, trying to express this longing that I had, but continually failing.  It was your classic, angst-ridden, jouvenile poetry, except filled with allusions to physics and science which, rather than making the poetry deeper, usually rendered it bizzare and incomprehensible.

I also start listening to indie rock.  Among my peers, indie rock was considered the pinnacle of modern art:  experimental and intelligent, yet emotionally powerful and accessible.  It never crossed my mind that a fellow 19-year old was probably not the best source of refined musical taste.  Probably because in our messed-up "modern" culture, everything is turned on its head:  newer is always better.  All that old-fashioned, sentimental crap, whether rhyming poetry, folk music, or religion, is for the weak-minded.  Or so goes the conventional wisdom that I had not yet thought to question.

So there I was, plowing through endless problem sets of mechanical math exercises, blasting avant-garde hard rock on my speakers, as if the combination of the two, Order and Chaos, Science and Art, would somehow satiate my soul.  After dashing off a few secret verses of nonsensical physics-poetry, I would then run off to get drunk with friends who seemed cooler than me, but who I later would realize were not all that much wiser.

My world was fragmented.  Physics, poetry, and the pop-culture banter of my friends each seemed to inhabit a universe all of their own.  My longing grew deeper:  this was not how life was supposed to be.  Inhabitants in each universe ridiculed the others:  physicists dislike poets, and the hip disdain both.

But then, out of the blue, I was inspired to write a short story.  The story combined elements of all three:  it was a sci-fi fantasy story exploring the nature of time, inspired by Coleridge's Kubla Khan, and infused with a darkly cynical avant-garde absurdism.  It poured out of me almost automatically over the course of three nearly-sleepless days. 

I still don't know what the story meant.  Probably not much.  But I showed it to my friends and ... they liked it.  A door was opened:  finally I had found a way to express myself.  But this door would soon lead to the opening of additional, very dangerous doors.

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