Descartes’ demon

‘Descartes’ demon’ is in fact the first chapter of my latest novel, The autopsy of Josefa Gordijn, but it can be read independently. The translation from the dutch is mine.




The body catches up with her. Always, she has found her truest existence in the mind. Cogito ergo sum: interpreting is life. Seeing her shuffling behind her recently acquired shopping bag on wheels, Josefa Gordijn, people would not be able to imagine that just a few years ago she taught Descartes’ Meditations at the university of Amsterdam. Until the bones in the body she’d rarely given a thought to, gave up.

The question is, though, do people see her shuffling? The looks they throw her, caught in the corner of her eye, are fleeting, indifferent. Concluding: old woman, one more of those threatening our state pension. Looking away. Having forgotten her already.

Until recently, children used to smile spontaneously at her, and many equally unknown adults greeted her on the street. Now, her body is all they see, and at the same time she is invisible: a paradox worthy of Descartes himself.

Especially his third and fifth meditations kept amazing her students. My senses may mislead me (like these people’s senses here mislead them about her): look at the sun that seems to revolve around the earth; look at colour that is created by the eye – so, Descartes asks, do I really have a body? I am certain I do have a mind, even when I doubt that fact, because that which doubts has to exist. But a body? Maybe a demon is fooling me into believing I have a body. I could only be sure of having a body if I could discover something that exists with complete certainty apart from me and my thinking, that I could measure it against. And I can, he says : for this puny and shortsighted body I assume I have is far from perfect; and this judgment I can only make because I have an idea of perfection. But how could I, starting from imperfection, come to an idea of perfection if there weren’t something out there that ìs Perfection, existing independently of my thoughts? And this perfect Being must be God, Descartes says. And God will not, Descartes says, because of His very Perfection, fool me: so I exist. Body included.

God as the objectively existing measure of all thinking! Josefa can still see the disappointed faces of the radical atheïsts among her students who had hoped to meet a fellow believer in Descartes, and the confusion in their christian colleagues for whom this image of God clashed considerably with what they had been taught in church. She smiles, remembering former amusement. She hopes they are faring well, it has been quite some time since she has heard from them now, apart from the few that keep in touch.

Like her, Descartes had a weak body, and for this reason the Jesuits let him sleep late while the other children had to be at prayers by five. He kept up this habit of sleeping late until he arrived in Sweden, where queen Christina forced him to teach her at five in the morning. Is it coincidence he died soon after? With a body that predestined him to a radical dualism, with a heartfelt choice for the primate of the soul and mind over the body, it was, for all that, the body that felled him. Yes, we may feel grateful to the Jesuits for their largesse, Josefa told her students, for otherwise we would have missed that worldchanging contribution to philosophy and theology, and especially those wonderful meditations, overflowing with sense and intuition, gentle ironies and vulnerable honesty.

If it were possible, Josefa would take Descartes into her arms.

 She uses her brand new shopping bag as a walker, pushing it forward.  It was enthusiastically recommended in the catalogue for the disabled, but Josefa is not yet so sure: in her experience what seems handy in theory often disappoints in real life. So is this bag already starting to do: although it is bigger than the kind she can hang on her arm, thus enabling her to do a whole week’s shopping at once, the bag itself, when full, is too big to transport, sitting on her stairlift, on her lap, which means that she has to let it live under the common stairs in her apartment building, to the ire of her neighbours, and take her stuff in smaller bags upwards to her apartment on the first floor.

She would not wish her neighbours onto her worst enemy, but she refuses to be afraid of them. They reproach her that their apartments have been devalued by her unaesthetic stairlift which ruins the whole aspect of the communal downstairs corridor, and one of them, her american neighbour who wants to rent out her own apartment for 2000 euro’s a month while touring the world, demands legal and financial compensation, blaming the fact that she cannot get tenants at that price on her.

At first, of course, she thought it was a joke, as there is so clearly no beauty in the composition of white walls, nutbrown stairs and a yellow-tiled floor downstairs. But her unbelieving smile was met with a bafflement that made things even worse, and discussion impossible. Oh, she would dearly love to explain to them that only those who despise disablement would see a stairlift as diminishing the value of a building: in fact the thing adds value to it because the higher floors now come within easier reach, right? Even less communicable is the argument that the value of a person being able to reach her own front door might perhaps weigh a bit more than the aesthetical disfigurement of a staircase with a little chair on the side? If her american neighbour did not pass her silently and with visible rage whenever they met, Josefa could tell her that her future boarders might even be glad of the stairlift, for even non-handicapped peope may use it to transport heavy shopping, and point out to her how wide and broad the stairs still are and not a hindrance to an able-bodied person at all.

They secretly convoked a meeting without her, inviting a lawyer to examine the possibility of expropriating her apartment. Her only friend in the building, Noor, who herself is a regular victim of criticism because of her piano pupils – the unaesthetic noise of her piano pupils, Josefa silently amends -, told her about the meeting afterwards. And now almost daily she finds some anonymous leaflet in her mailbox, advertisements for ground floor apartments for sale in the neighbourhood, or recommendations for one of those nice places especially built for the disabled and situated so far from the city centre that once there they can forget about aesthetic and most other entertainment.

Nervous they would succeed in getting her out, she contacted the council, but the civil servant on the phone regarded the thing as more funny than serious: according to the law, every citizen has the right to reach and cross her own threshold, so her neighbours had no case. If they wanted to sue the Amsterdam council, he was looking forward to it!

She laughed with him, yes, it was absurd. But she does have to live here. Every time she comes home, she notices herself hoping not to meet anybody in the corridor. And immediately after that thought, correcting herself : but I do not want things this way. I do not want to feel fear or anger whenever I think about my neighbours, of read contempt or aversion in their eyes. So she has to forgive them, since they so clearly do not know what they are doing.

She has lived here for fifteen years now. The building is noisy. They live here together.

 And the weirdest: she is the one to feel ashamed.

 Carefully, moving her feet sideways, she ascends the sidewalk steps to the supermarket. A snake uncoils itself in her right calf. ‘I feel you,’ Josefa tells it kindly, ‘go to sleep, all things will be well.’

Here is Albert Heijn.1 How long did it take her to get here? Twenty minutes, for a distance she used to do in five in the past. In the past? A few years ago, she already calls ‘in the past’? Alarming!

Leaning on her bag’s handle she lifts her feet one by one for an inch or so to shake the pain out of them. If she wants to walk at all, she needs to dismiss all sensation, especially in her feet, transcending to a being floating above the street, though thereby losing the certainty of the ground under her, and today running as well the risk of the shopping bag shooting away from under her hands, and falling. Perceived from the outside, her gait probably looks like a junkie’s, shuffling and stumbling and almost tripping, not quite there.

Or a duck’s, a crab’s, an insect’s.

 The boy who sells the homeless paper offers her his arm to stabilize her taking the last step in front of the supermarket, but she shakes her head, ‘thank you, I can manage’, immediately realising how automatic her ‘no’ is, always, and out of guilt for not being able to accept another’s kindness stops chatting wth him for a bit about the cold and him standing there, and buys one of his papers before she enters the supermarket. Smiling at the covetous little face of a small girl looking at a discount offer for chocolate chip cookies, she appends her new bag onto the first available trolley, and commands her unwilling fingers to work a fifty cents piece into the slot. The hook on her bag is positioned at its back, thereby occasioning its front to stick out from the trolley in such a way that she has to bend over to almost ninety degrees in order to push trolley and bag along. This turns out to be so painful that the suspicion she should not have bought the thing now turns into a certainty. ‘You will be put into the closet for forgotten things,’ she tells it, knowing that who hears her talking out loud in the supermarket will think she is on the phone anyway. ‘Even if you cost eighty nine euros, more’s the pity. Or even better, I’ll take you to the fleamarket and leave you there; maybe you will be adopted by someone who is better able to deal with you than I am.’

Passing the entrance gate she considers giving her shopping construction a mighty push and then shufflerun after it, but the isles are too full for that today. If she was nimble, she could manoevre herself plus trolley between and through all those dawdling and phoning customers and queerly parked trolleys standing in her way, but the slow person she has become has to wait patiently until someone gives her some space, and even then harvests an angry look when her contraption inadvertently touches somebody else’s trolley. At other times, when she feels more energetic than today, she can make a joke about this: ‘excuse me, the mind is willing but the body is weak!’

Today she puts her emotions on hold and concentrates on her shopping. Sometimes, life is just hell. ‘As Pippi Longstocking puts it,’ she tells her trolley, ”jag klarar mej alltid’, I will always be able to handle it.’ Soon she will be home with food for a whole week, so now she reduces her co-shoppers to forms and shapes she has to avoid, comparing this necessary caution to erstwhile walking in Cumbria, in the most beautiful landscape in the whole wide world, where your feet have to be careful in finding their way around rocks and stones and bogs: and so she fills her trolley with the stuff she needs. A cucumber, a pound of tomatoes, bananas and apples for a week, plus the special offer of two tangerine nets for the price of one on her customer card, a free-roamed chicken, cheese and low-fat margarine, peanut butter, a big bag Surinam rice, milk and yoghurt, a six-different-grains loaf of bread with sunflowerpips, six eggs in a box, a pizza tonno, some frozen tilapia, frozen spinach and ditto green beans, that’s it. Now she chooses a till that is not too busy. Not because she is impatient, but because she is not able to keep standing still for more than a few minutes: especially the pains in her ankles, feet and back manifest themselves so immediately and unequivocally then, that she can only endure them in constant movement – and movement and standing still mutually exclude each other. If every movement is topsport, as her specialist tells her, what would be the metaphor for standing still?

Of course she has tried to find a solution for the till problem. A while ago she has arranged with the manager of the supermarket that she, if all tills were busy and the queues were long, could proceed at once to the till for cigarettes outside the shopping area, and pay there. Success! she thought – but alas, the few times she tried this it had dubious and in one case hilarious results.

The first time a shop assistant ran after her, calling: ‘Ma’am, where are you going with your shopping?’ Loudly, making people look at her and clearly think: wow, a real life shoplifter!

The second time she succeeded in reaching the cigarette till, but the girl at the counter did not know about any arrangement with the manager, and what was his name? Ah, she did not know? Well, she would of course understand that this had to be checked first, for anybody could come up to her till and tell her anything, right? The need for honest customers occasioned this cahier to stay away for at least five minutes, during which Josefa saw people exiting the shop who had come to the regular tills way after she would have had done.

The third time was the worst. There was a queue at the cigarettes’ as well, so Josefa tried to get the attention of the person behind the desk, an older woman this time, who did not even look at her before telling her with righteous anger: ‘Wait your turn, ma’am, like everybody else!’ And when she tried to explain about the manager’s permission: ‘Ma’am, your are the second person within minutes here who tries to go before their turn, please think of other people once in a while!’ This woman was so peeved at her presumed egocentrism, that she, after helping everybody else, went to rearrange the cigarettes on their shelves, until Josefa became so dizzy that she had to lean her elbows on the desk, a small waterfall of sweat inundating the shopping she had put there ready for scanning. To be so visible in one’s vulnerability, and to antipathetic eyes to boot – she can still smell the shame of it. As pride has always been her besetting sin, being disabled offers a unique opportunity to learn to do away with proud ego, she muses, smiling a tad bitterly at the irony of life.

The fourth time was the best. ‘I have an arrangement with the manager’, she started and had hardly finished her sentence when the two girls behind the counter started falling about laughing, repeating to each other: ‘an arrangement with the manager, I should be so lucky!’ Josefa laughed with them, remembering her granddaughter telling her that a boy she liked, who lived in her street and had gone to the same school as she went, had accepted the job as undermanager of this very supermarket. Hearing the concern in Hadewij’s voice, she herself had since sought out this boy and talked with him about his prospects and yes, he was quite a dish, hailing from Morocco, his skin a slightly darker gold than her granddaughter’s, a wide smiling mouth and deep dark eyes. Possibly Hadewij herself had an eye on him? ‘I know whom you mean, and sadly, he is all yours’, she told the girls, and the three of them enjoyed the joke together.

 But to sum up, paying at the cigarette counter, adventurous and confronting as it turned out to be, took as much or even more time than waiting in the queue, so that is what Josefa did ever since.

 Today she is lucky: only one customer before her, a young man in a three piece suit and tie, clearly a player. Josefa concentrates on his acquisitions, telling her body that pain is just a physical experience, nothing more. He is buying a small mineral water and a prepacked sandwich. Office in the neighbourhood, able to pay a six euro lunch. It always amazes her, other people buy stuff so different from hers. Human beings are so unbelievably marvelously different from each other. If she were a psychologist she would do research on the relationship of personality with purchases in the supermarket, and do her fieldwork as a cashier. But it probably has already been done.

Now for the most difficult thing. Higher gymnastics. Josefa puts her body right behind the conveyor belt, and leaning upon it with one hand draws her trolley to her side with the other. Bending painfully to the right for each item, she puts her stuff on the belt. Her lower back protests loudly – a venomous vomitous greenish pain lives there that recently has duplicated itself and taken residence in het right shoulder as well – but the best way to deal with it is ignoring it. Clean pains mean pains. Most pains are clean pains, you can look at them and get to know them, but mean pains are almost too hard.

Once the trolley is empty she moves it back again in order to be able to pass along the till – the space between the tills being too small for the client to keep next to her trolley – mumbling ‘excuse me, excuse me, begging your pardon’ to the people crowding behind her who all have to do a step backwards for this. Now, leaning over to the other side against the till, she admonishes her self-willed fingers to open her purse and get her customer card. Good, the young man is already typing his pin number. She puts the card on the little plastic shelf that separates the cashier from the customers, ready to be scanned.

Ouch, she has made a mistake afer all. The young man clearly feels she is too close to him now: ‘Lady, don’t you know how impolite you are? Can’t you give people a bit of space?’ He looks her up and down, and the contempt for her comfortable jogging pants and the somewhat scruffy but easy to put on cardigan she calls Joseph (not after her father, as she recently explained to her granddaughter, but for its many colours), leaps from his eyes.

The girl at the till opens hers wide in surprise, from which Josefa takes the courage to say, quietly and softly but clearly, in her old teacher’s voice: ‘I do believe somebody else is being impolite here!’

Now the young man stands very tall, towering over her in order to all the better look down upon her. His voice is harsh with disdain as he bites: ‘And it is not smelling very nicely here either!’

While Josefa grips that inadequate little plastic shelf for support, she sees the cashier look away in shock. She starts explaining that really, she washes herself every day, all over, with Dove-soap and cold water, has done so all her life (apart from the Dove, that is) – but realizes just in time that such an explanation would definitely place her on the wrong side of normality. She stops herself. She is trembling from top to toe.

When the young man has left with his mineral water and his sandwich, the girl behind the desk still does not look at her, but tells the scanner where she is processing Josefa’s shopping item by item: ‘Things get more crazy here by the day!’, which Josefa in her deep dismay chooses to interpret as support, but when her fingers in paying inadvertently touch the girl’s, the poor child nevertheless draws her hand away just a tad too quickly. Josefa throws her stuff in the new shopping bag, no time for the various plastic bags now, refuses to meet the eyes of the customers behind her but notices that truly, they are not further away from her than she was from that angry young man with his mysophobia, his fear of illness and age – but the fact that she is measuring this distance is telling her that she is in defense mode, and has projected his disgust upon herself.

 She doesn’t know how she got home.  

but the fact that she is measuring this distance is telling her that she is in defense mode, and has projected his disgust upon herself.

She doesn’t know how she got home. She doesn’t remember unhooking her shopping bag, shuffling back home through half the Jodenbreestraat, the Nieuwe Uilenburgerstraat, to the ‘s Gravenhekje where she lives. She vaguely remembers being on her knees in the corridor downstairs to put her shopping into the smaller plastic bags, and then blindly taking the chairlift, too far gone to even fear her neighbours’ impatience at her slow ascent. Once in her apartment she drops everything at the front door and goes straight to the bathroom. Bends as deeply as she can to put the stopper in its slot. Throws a double dose of bath foam into the water. Being finally safe, opening the faucet she can let her feelings, physical and psychological, flood with the water, her howling drowned in the clamour of its descent into the bath.

Then she undresses without looking in the mirror. With the help of the special inflatable bath pillow she hoists herself into the bath, and slowly deflates the pillow again. Leaning backwards she tries to get her bad shoulder under water, but it won’t, even now the pillow is empty. Lying down is not an option: her head might go under and her frozen upper vertebrae would not let her get up again.

Thinking is not sufficient now. Thinking cannot protect her any more. She doubts her own existence as much as she doubts the existence of Descartes’ God because that young man has reduced her to a stinking body – this body, it hurts her heart looking at it, even under water, this diseased, this putrid bunch of deformities.

Yet it was the perfection of the human body, that beautiful machine, which in the Enlightenment was considered proof of Gods existence. She lets her thoughts drift towards Paley’s endearing Physicotheology where the very mechanism of shoulderblade and neck that is hurting her now, is described lyrically as the work of the Great Watchmaker, Who is ingenious as we are, but able to create machines that live. And what if she should lay down? Would that be so terrible? Her eyes fill with tears. To be somebody who sows fear and disgust, who wants that, who can handle that?

There, she is shocked by her own thoughts. Is she really morphing into the person others think they see? An old contagious sack of painful bones?

Why does she believe him? Of course, when someone tells you you stink, that clings, she decides, putting a bit of air in the pillow in order to wash under her arms. A remark like that lessens you, makes you into an object worthy of disdain and disgust. Measuring the depth of her shame she realises the danger of adopting such an image of herself, and although she wishes never having to go to the supermarket again, never again having to look another human being straight and as an equal in the eye, she knows that would be wrong. Because the shame she feels now is the very shame that young man should be feeling. Just like he projected his fear of contagion upon her. ‘Thanks for that exchange!’ she tells him, bending over to wash her feet and legs.

And so? So, she has to do one of her thought-experiments. A makeover, as she calls them.

What, she thinks, breathing deeply and paying slow attention to the soft soapy wetness of the water around her, what if that young man had been one of her students?

In that case she would have pitied him, probably. She smiles at this paradox: her well-trained didactic distance would have been a guarantee for not taking his image of her upon herself, and because of that very distance she would probably have been able to feel something for him. The poor boy, thinking aging and pain will never happen to him. Who is so afraid of the body’s vulnerability, that it smells like death to him, or hell. Well, that specific fear she has long laid to rest, she knows what he doesn’t: she knows that total control over the body is an illusion, and because of that knowledge she is free where he is not.

She is able to think of him in gentleness now, carried as in a large hand by the warm water and her inflatable pillow, and behind the lids of her closed eyes she looks again at the shock and disgust on his face, but now in compassion for the pain in his soul that is so much worse for him than her own physical pain can ever be for her.

And it works. Look, there he is, standing straight after having put his shopping in his attaché case, looking at this middle-aged woman behind him who is really not old at all yet, although you might think it if you did not look closely. Pain ages one. ‘This looks pretty complicated,’ he says, smiling. ‘Can I help you?’ He offers her an arm and guides her between the tills to the space behind them, draws her trolley with his other hand effortlessly with him, unhooks her bag and hands it to her, so quickly and efficiently that during all this manoevring she has not been without physical support for a second. ‘Shall I put your stuff away for you?’ She lets him although this is in fact the easiest part of the whole expedition, because she suddenly feels with him how it is to be so young and vulnerable to real life, poor thing. Doing this is good for him, his body becomes more supple, his fear abates. They embrace one another with their eyes, his a warmer grey now than before.

‘Thank you,’ she says, and he lifts his hand in greeting and leaves the supermarket.

All is well. They have helped each other.

1 dutch supermarket chain, cross between Waitrose and Sainsbury’s.