Wednesday, May 25, 2011


As I compose these words, writer Tom Williams, an associate editor of the American Book Review, is working to finish by the end of May a commentary on the philosophical, science fiction story "Popper's Disease." That commentary will be published in the online literary magazine The Collagist, which Williams tells me reprints "a classic story with commentary by an admirer of that story." I haven't seen Tom's commentary yet. Since I don't want to influence or interfere in any way with his interpretation of that tale (which I am very thankful for), I think it's best for me to keep this statement about the story, originally published in Callaloo and reprinted in my first collection The Sorcerer's Apprentice, brief.

If memory serves, I wrote that story during the summer of 1978 and, believe it or not, it was the first story I composed on an electric typewriter, everything prior to that having been written on a manual. (And I didn't start writing on a word processor until 1989.) Partly inspired by Kafka's "A Country Doctor" (which inspired John Gardner's sci-fi story about clones, "The Ravages of Spring"), "Popper's Disease" is about a black physician in southern Illinois who witnesses the crash of an alien spacecraft. The doctor is a man who has "integrated" into the white world in the post-Civil Rights period, but with a certain social uneasiness due to the fact that blacks and whites so often misunderstand each other---indeed, they are often opaque and mysterious to one another. He enters the wreckage to help its occupant and discovers that this alien, called the Creature, is suffering from a fatal affliction and has been exiled by its species to the Earth where that disease is common. The hope is that perhaps earthlings, who are familiar with this sickness, can find a cure.

I hope readers find this story to be as funny as I intended it to be. When the telepathic Creature describes the symptoms of his illness to Dr. Popper (whimsically named after philosopher Karl Popper), it's clear that what he is suffering from is a severe case of Sartrean existentialism as it is presented in Being and Nothingness. The alien senses that he is pour soi or "being for itself," an individual and separate consciousness, but everything else is en soi or Being-in-itself, which is intrinsically opaque and massive. As philosopher Herbert Spiegelberg explains in The Phenomenological Movement: A Historical Introduction (Vol. Two), "Consciousness as such, beginning with its questioning behavior...proves to be the opening wedge for the 'nothing'; without it there would be no place for the 'nothing' in the universe of Being...Consciousness sets itself off against Being by a fundamental act of negation..." 
        And so our poor suffering space traveler says: 
"Well," he said, touching the tips of his tentacles, looking away, "for no apparent reason, and without the slightest warning, I experience feelings of first a tightness in the cerebral area, a tremor or unpleasant quiver, then a shock of dislocation, cold sweat, followed by vomiting, vertigo---the sense of falling, the inability to ascertain precisely what things mean, and the peculiar sense that I am somehow dependent upon everything in my perceptual field: xlanthia, hbeds, or sploks, which have a curious opacity, a marvelous beauty"---here he burst into tears---yet threaten to absorb me, engulf me, annihilate me complete, because I am, in a word, deeply and inexorably different from them." His anguish exploded in my mind. "It's nauseating, do you see?"
(Remember Sartre's 1938 novel La Nausée?)

Ah, but those are just the annoying, surface symptoms of his disease. As the tale progresses, Dr. Popper sees to his shock that he is being cuckolded by his white wife (that vision appears on a surveillance screen/computer called the Telecipher in the creature's ship). Like the alien from beyond the stars, he feels all at once that he, as a black man, exists as an alien in his own social world in America. He also realizes that he is now trapped in the wreckage of the downed space craft, and his extra-terrestrial patient is dying.

The story eases away from Sartrean existentialism to Buddhist metaphysics. On the Creature's home world, ontological dualism does not exist. There is only the appearance of "difference" and a separate identity, which are illusions. Everything is interdependent. The Aristotelian logical rules of identity are overturned, as they are in quantum physics where a quanta of energy can be either a particle (A=A) or a wave (A=not-A), depending upon where and when you glimpse it.  Trapped inside the ship, frantically working with the Telecipher to unlock the mystery of the disease, Dr. Popper is startled when the machine suddenly and surprisingly diagnoses the sickness: It's the Self and There is no cure.
Do I believe in the existence of aliens? Well, I'd love to see an extra-terrestrial spacecraft land on the White House lawn at noon with all the world's cameras recording that event. But we don't have, I'm afraid, a single shred of empirical evidence so far to support the existence of life anywhere except on Earth. We may be alone in the universe, an accident of evolution on our little, blue-green planet in its Goldilocks orbit around the sun. (A huge amount of evidence supports that thesis.) On the other hand, the probability of something similar to that "accident" happening elsewhere in a universe with stars as numerous as grains of sand on a beach should not be dismissed.

I've longed believed that aliens in our popular imagination serve much the same purpose that angels did during the Middle Ages. Like angels, they descend from the heavens, usually shrouded in light. Their science and technology border on resembling the supernatural. Aliens, then, are a metaphor---and that is how so many science-fiction writers have depicted them. (We really can't imagine an alien precisely because it is alien to everything we know.) In a sense, then, they are our projections of an apparently deep-seated human need for an encounter with mystery and wonder.
         And what could be wrong with that?
         P.S. I guess I didn't keep this "brief" after all.

1 comment:

  1. this story has been haunting me. brilliant. thank you.