Just answers

This afternoon I was chilling out a little after listening to Radio4’s ‘Afternoon Play’. It was an interesting one too, a ‘chiller’. The story involved a guy telling someone a story on a train, a two handed piece between an older man and a younger woman set in the late 1960’s and harking back to Ypres and the First World War for its ghost. I do love a good ghost story and it reminded me of these excellent recordings I have of some H.P.Lovecraft tales. One of those stories, about the music of Howard Zinn if I recall, has these screeching violins and the ‘Afternoon Play’ used little bits of that at the end today. It was as though there’s a sound, quite a specific sound, to this particular genre of story. The world-slipping, uncanny, ‘chilly’ world. Somewhere it’s going to be very cold in those stories. The shiver down the spine.

This particular story also made me think about a connection with Kierkegaard’s tale of Abraham. The shiver down the spine and the shudder of thought. The story involved a plot turn in which the girl on the train is first of all scared by the older man and then calmed down, told that she was being tested and that he in fact needs her to save his brother from the after life of a tormented ghost. She has to get off the train at a dead station (‘It’s so cold….’) and go toward the ghost, trusting the old man now, trusting that it’s his brother from 50 years ago who died in the battle of Ypres after being spurned by a beautiful aristocratic girl.

Of course the girl trusts … and it’s all a lie, the finite reality of a destructive force closes the story or at least brings it to an end. She’s been told a story and believed (believed what?), just like Abraham. The trust is something we all want to believe yet it’s usually a route to disaster, at least in the real world, in this finite reality. We all know this. Is this a strong enough knowledge to base anything on, a knowledge that lets us say anything more about the world? Even to agree with such a thought is to say something more about the world.

Anyway, as I’m listening to some more radio after the play I check through the emails and come across one I get maybe once a month and usually just delete without looking at it. It’s a listing of available flats in Paris and their prices. They’re all monthly rentals usually, most often short leases – a year, a few months – as well as holiday flats available for a week at a time. The prices are something feasible as well, anything from a few hundred to maybe 2 or 3 thousand euros a month. One of these flats – today I’m actually browsing through the listings, listening to the radio, chilling out for half an hour – one of these flats catches my eye. Nothing particular but the punctum was the name of the district. I’ve no idea why (though isn’t that the point of a punctum – I don’t remember off the top of my head?). The Marais. No idea where that is, what it is. So I go to google to try and find out but nothing comes back from the first two searches. ‘district marais paris’ just turns up a load of sites about things there and the like, not a base level ‘where the f** is it and where’s anything else I might be interested in about paris in relation to marais’. I’m just chilling so remember this advert – it was on the tube I think. Ages ago anways. That’s it, ‘ask jeeves’. Google that and it’s now ‘Just ask…’ – ah yes, I vaguely remember this passing in front of my consciousness some time ago, a man in a troilley going down a hill is associated with the thought as though that was one of the adverts. And something to do with a zoo perhaps? Anyway I stroll over to ‘Just ask…’ and lovely, there’s the common english language question input box – so I ask ‘Where’s the Marais district in paris?’. I have to sign up it says. Answers can cost money, it says. So I follow along for a while, inputting a name, validating the email but then when it gets to the radio button ‘how much are you willing to pay’ I think, hang on. Cancel the page. I don’t want to pay anything till I know a lot more. Even then it’s pretty unlikely.

This means, of course, reading some of the questions and answers. It appears that there’s a whole bunch of people signed in to answer questions, not a robot. That was actually a shock. My search engines are meant to be machines, not more f**king people. How can I trust a person – I want a machine to provide me with facts, not another person and their values. I soon realise that my question doesn’t seem to quite fit the profile as it’s those who precisely want opinion with their facts who seem to ‘Just ask…’ Not that there’s anything wrong in this kind of personal advice. (You might even be able to make an OK living off it as part of the new layer of Sohists in the world).

Well actually, yes, in fact, there is something a bit off it seems. It is, after all, not a person I’m talking to here. It’s not anything more than a machine, even if we take this machine to be the text in whatever form it is delivered. It’s a machine. You’re a machine. The thing that answers is a machine and the thing that asks is a machine but these questions, it seems they need more than machine answers in order to be more than machine questions and I’m not convinced that’s what they get online – unless, of course, they trust that there’s a human being out there in the world. That, surely, is something we all know, that we need to trust that there’s another human being out there, another one of us. As surely as I know it, it’s true.

This last moment is the explosive one. As surely as I know it, it’s true. This is the danger and the hope, that which we work towards. The therapy might be to realise we cannot allow the sureness to ever be complete but this is just a reaction to that finite reality of the uncanny, the shiver and the shudder. The knight of faith surely knows as surely as he can and his truth is thus an infinite finitude, both as real and as unreal as he might want it to be. Who cannot want that?

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philosopher and filmmaker from brighton, currently teaching philosophy at the Free University of Brighton

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