Shadow Walking

originally published in Coe Chapbook Series


On a blustery March day in the Spring of 1980, long before personal computers and cable modems, Japicx flips on his dumb terminal, snaps on his phone coupler, dials the computer center number, listens for the tone, sticks the phone into the sockets, hits the return, gets into the time-sharing system, and logs into his artificial consciousness. Still enraged by his recent intellectual encounter with Plato, he lists all sub-user-files in the directory, attaches GRID49, and calls up his ARISTO.TLE program.

Aristotle considers the program. A simple seven-by-seven grid matrix, with a commentary loop separating each operation of the matrix. Seven particles repeated seven times. Is it possible to build a world with such mindless repetition? Plato had called it unmitigated stupidity. Two weeks ago Aristotle had submitted a hundred pages of artificial narrative for Plato's approval. An hour ago he had gotten the judgment. "It's all artificial stupidity... unreadable and embarrassing."

Aristotle grinned.

He grinned because he did not want to leap at Plato's throat and smash his ancient skull against the green blackboard Plato had nailed up on the wall of his well-lit cave. "What you want to do is more impossible than a time machine or an anti-gravity propulsion system. You're wasting your talent and throwing it away on trivia."

Pulling back from the mesmerizing structure of his artificial self, Aristotle backs away from the terminal, gets up, and puts on some water for coffee. He feels the body he occupies in this reincarnation... its slow brain, its dreamy laziness, its pain. Plato got to its basic insecurities again -- whipped the body's spirit with forked words. Aristotle walks Japicx back to the terminal.

What you need to do, Aristotle tells the feverish Japicx, is give a demonstration. Take your most simple-minded program and run it through an exhaustion of possibilities. If it doesn't produce something "readable" or "literary," then something's wrong with the program and you've got to give it up. Or else something's wrong with Plato's notion of "readable" and "literary.

Start with the smallest possible input.

Start with single words.

Double the words.

Triple the words.

Quadruple the words.

Switch to simple sentences.

Aristotle Japicx pulls away from the terminal. When had he typed those particular commands into the program? He walks behind the counter and fixes himself a cup of coffee.

"All you know are piddling little programs in Basic and a few structural principles," Plato had berated him, raising his hand to his forehead and staring through the hermetically sealed third floor window of the English-Philosophy Building. "Computers can't even recognize human handwriting and you expect me to believe that you can program one to tell a story? This content is pure shit," Plato roars, turning on Aristotle.

"Content is meaningless," Aristotle whispers. "Content changes, but structures persist."

"You've got it ass-backwards," Plato smiles.

"There is always a beginning, a middle, and an end."

"Labels," Plato laughs, "mere labels."

Aristotle Japicx sits down at the terminal.

this dead snake in my bed with this woman I thee wed this dead snake in my bed filled with lead this dead snake in my bed yeah thatís what I said this dead snake in my bed I do believe

with this woman I thee wed filled with lead with this woman I thee wed yeah thatís what I said with this woman I thee wed thereís a spider in my head with this woman I thee wed I do, I do

filled with lead yeah thatís what I said filled with lead thereís a spider in my head filled with lead looks like itís dead filled with lead I canít lift

yeah thatís what I said thereís a spider in my head yeah thatís what I said looks like itís dead yeah thatís what I said call up the feds yeah thatís what I said, I said

thereís a spider in my head looks like itís dead thereís a spider in my head call up the feds thereís a spider in my head this dead snake in my bed and a spider in my head I can feel

looks like itís dead call up the feds looks like itís dead this dead snake in my bed looks like itís dead with this woman I thee wed looks like itís dead I think

call up the feds this dead snake in my bed call up the feds with this woman I thee wed call up the feds filled with lead call up the feds and then paint the town red

He considers the system again. Seven particles repeated seven times. Each column of particles a paragraph. Seven paragraphs. How can he make it literary? Plato's words come back to him: "And you think that with a few measly half-baked input programs you can get a computer to write like Joseph Conrad? This isn't even good pornography."

Quite true, Japicx thinks to himself. Maybe he ought to make the phrases longer. But the longer the phrase, the longer and more tedious the repetition. Why not try a whole story on the system? Aristotle suggests. Try the Burn story again, but this time go all the way through, with free association.

slow burn, steady flame, hot and crackling flaring and popping and flaming slow burn, steady flame, hot and crackling quickly, suddenly, suicidal slow burn, steady flame, hot and crackling fuck you, asshole slow burn, steady flame, hot and crackling

flaring and popping and flaming quickly, suddenly, suicidal flaring and popping and flaming fuck you, asshole flaring and popping and flaming smash, pound, slam, punch, and punch again flaring and popping and flaming

quickly, suddenly, suicidal fuck you, asshole quickly, suddenly, suicidal smash, pound, slam, punch, and punch again quickly, suddenly, suicidal nose, jaw, gut, eye, ear, and throat quickly, suddenly, suicidal

fuck you, asshole smash, pound, slam, punch, and punch again fuck you, asshole nose, jaw, gut, eye, ear, and throat fuck you, asshole say it again, sucker fuck you, asshole

smash, pound, slam, punch, and punch again nose, jaw, gut, eye, ear, and throat smash, slow burn, steady flame, hot and crackling flaring and popping and flaming slow burn, steady flame, hot and crackling quickly, suddenly, suicidal slow burn, steady flame, hot and crackling fuck you, asshole slow burn, steady flame, hot and crackling

nose, jaw, gut, eye, ear, and throat say it again, sucker nose, jaw, gut, eye, ear, and throat slow burn, steady flame, hot and crackling nose, jaw, gut, eye, ear, and throat flaring and popping and flaming nose, jaw, gut, eye, ear, and throat

say it again, sucker slow burn, steady flame, hot and crackling say it again, sucker flaring and popping and flaming say it again, sucker quickly, suddenly, suicidal say it again, sucker

"Insane," says Japicx. "I can't even read that repetitive junk. How do you expect Plato to read it? He'll go batty as a fruitcake and then get pissed off and kick your ass out of the Academy."

"We don't expect him to read it," Aristotle remarks. "This is an experiment. We're trying to exhaust the possibilities of the one-dimensional program. We've got to try everything before we conclude that it doesn't work."

"Believe me," Japicx pleads, "It doesn't work."

"But that's precisely what we must prove," Aristotle pounces. "If a seven-by-seven repetitive grid matrix is a divine form, and if we prove that this divine form is incapable of conveying any meaningful message, then we have defeated the perverse Plato at his own wicked game."

Exhausted with the exhaustion of possibilities, Aristotle ends the program, pushes away from the terminal, and walks behind the counter. Syntax, he mutters to himself, finding the jar of Maxwell House Coffee. Plato expects a semantic program that thinks just like he thinks. He wants the program to think and reason about the eternal verities in a totally dialectical manner, arriving at some profound aesthetic catharsis of pure thought. But he wants his narrative and his fiction to be profound and deep, like the cave of individual consciousness. He wants Aristotle to be human, organic, and suggestive. He abhors the machine.

Changeless things at war with changing things. Rationalism at war with empiricism. The one at war with the many. Inorganic intelligence at war with organic intelligence.

Aristotle is tired of fighting Plato. Instead of making himself another cup of coffee, going back to the terminal, and continuing the session, Japicx heads into the bedroom, drops down on the mattress on the floor, and closes his eyes, forgetting that the terminal is still on. Aware of the fragility of the cancerous body of Japicx, he forces Japicx to black out. As Japicx sinks into a murky third level dream of escape and sexual adventure with non-platonic women, Aristotle uses his unconscious mind to transform the single seven particle repetition into a fourteen particle repetition.

Hickory dickory dock, but I canít mock, hey,diddle, diddle because the clock on the wall says itís time for the next hickory dickory dock. Bah, bah, black sheep, she says, sticking out her purple tongue. What has she been eating now? I donít think she likes me. Hickory dickory dock. The clock strikes eighteen, so I decide to strip all the woodwork. Iíll huff and Iíll puff and Iíll moan and Iíll groan and Iíll stick it and Iíll stuff it, but hickory dickory dock keeps breaking the key in the lock.

...hey, diddle, diddle... thatís what she calls me when sheís in her hyper-wannabe mode, so I decide to rip up the carpet and refinish the floor. Bah, bah, black sheep she mumbles in her sleep. ...hey, diddle, diddle she says when she gets up, howís the old fiddle this morning? Iíll huff and Iíll puff and Iíll go down and Iíll come up and Iíll go in and Iíll come out and Iíll go off and Iíll come back, but hey, diddle, diddle, did you ever see such a sight in your life? And off she goes to herd the sheep. ...hey, diddle, diddle... thatís me.

Bah, bah, black sheep keep poking their noses into this story for no apparent reason. Iím getting real wooly in the head. Wonder if itís sheep sheís counting? Iíll huff and Iíll puff around the back yard, checking for livestock. Bah, bah, black sheep I whisper, looking for the bull. Did you ever see such a sight in your life? I found him in the garage, hiding behind his black BMW, his white Harvard Law School sweatshirt smeared with gooseberry jam.

Ah ha, I said, pointing at his shirt.

Actually, he said, pulling his wire-rimmed glasses down his nose and looking over them as if to inspect an insect, I go to Chico State. The woman you live with said it was okay to use your garage because you always shut the door after the horse is out, so I thought Iíd change the axle grease on my new BMW.

Axle grease?

Bah, bah, black sheep is the axle grease brand name. Meet me in Saint Looey, Louie, I say, heading back to the house. Bah, bah, black sheep follow me into the back porch and on into the kitchen. They rear up on their hind legs, walk clumsily across the black and white tiled floor, and slap their front legs down on the kitchen counter. Axel grease all over the place.

I turn on CNBC and watch my portfolio collapse like an accordion straw house divorce, so Iíll huff and Iíll puff like a house made out of straw and Iíll scream and Iíll wail straw house and Iíll sob and Iíll weep divorce, and then Iíll go to sleep. Did you ever see such a sight in your life? Theyíre in the refrigerator, nosing around in the gooseberry jam again. Iíll huff and Iíll puff, but itís all mutton. Meet me in Saint Looey, Louie I sing aloud as I sit on top of the house, ripping off the shingles. Iíll huff and Iíll puff, and sheíll say it ainít me, Babe. Iíll huff and Iíll puff until she comes home with the bacon.

Did you ever see such a sight in your life? The whole house is filling up with them. Meet me in Saint Looey, Louie I sing as I knock out the dining room wall. Did you ever see such a sight in your life? Now theyíre in the living room, watching tv and making snide comments about the quality of my VCR. It ainít me, Babe. Did you ever see such a sight in your life? Axle grease all over the new sofa, and hickory dickory dock ainít working at 7/11 anymore. Did you ever see such a sight in your life?

Meet me in Saint Looey, Louie, I sing upstairs in the attic as I knock out the rafters, and bring Alice and Cinderella because it ainít me, Babe, who will meet me in Saint Looey, Louie, simply because hickory dickory dock has been hocked. She will not meet me in Saint Looey, Louie, so find Becky and Carrie and weíll hey, diddle, diddle while you still have the chance to meet me in Saint Looey, Louie, with Doris and Erin and Fay and Gigi and Heather and Iris and Julia, and donít forget to bring along Krista and Laura.

It ainít me, Babe, in hickory dickory dock. It ainít me, Babe, with hey, diddle, diddle.... It ainít me, Babe, with all these bah, bah, black sheep following me around the house. It ainít me, Babe.

Aristotle Japicx stirs uneasily. He doesn't know if he's Japicx asleep in the next room or if he's Aristotle suffocating inside some still-born program. Trying to dovetail seven semantic statements into a 7X7 syntactic grid matrix and have them make some sort of sense is difficult enough, but trying to dovetail fourteen semantic statements is maddening, especially when Plato sits at the terminal and judges everything Aristotle attempts with his totalitarian god-drunk theory of forms, saying "This isn't a formal system. It is unobservant of itself. It is mere gross mechanism, with no soul."

Trying to dove-tail two 7X7 grids has scissored Aristotle's mind. It's as if his mind and body have taken flight into fourteen different dimensions. He feels scattered and mindless and lost. Is he Japicx, lost and dreaming of some mythical Aristotle, or is he Aristotle desperately trying to come back to life? He remembers the last time he got born. He wanted to stay in the cave. He didn't want to enter the body of Japicx. He wanted to stay inside the myth, forever the child of Phaestis and Nicomachus, forever wrapped in the Macedonian womb, forever a playmate of Phillip, the future king. His parents would not die under mysterious circumstances when he was nine, he would not become an orphan, he would not become an outcast. He would not become a Macedonia spy like his father. He would not be sent to Athens to develop computerized intelligence files on all of the influential Athenians. He would not betray Plato. He wanted to remain inside his barbarian and innocent childhood, forever protected and loved.

Aristotle gets tired. He needs to keep this body alive just a little bit longer, and then he'll jump to another one, just as he jumped from his death in 22 B.C. to Plotinus in the third century A.D, and on into Boethius in the sixth century, and on into Bonaventura and Aquinas in the thirteenth century, and on into William of Ockham in the fourteenth century, through Ramus, Patritius, and Nizolius in the sixteenth century, and into Whitehead, Burnet, Taylor, and McKeon in the twentieth century, and on into Huntley and Stonehenge in the twenty-eighth century -- 750 years in the future from this body of Japicx. If he can get Japicx to somehow encode all of his past reincarnations, Aristotle feels certain that he might be able to cut down the time between this one and the next one and thus cut down the distance between him and Pythias.

How long it's been since he and Pythias first walked along the shores of Lesbos with Theophrastus, ignorant of the curse that Sappho had placed on his union with Pythias -- that she would be seduced by Plato, his teacher, in century after century and that Aristotle would be forced to pursue her down the eons, spreading his doctrines in a vain effort to catch her and bring her back home. 2300 years, and he's still alive, artificially conscious of his continuous agony.

Japicx moans in his sleep.

Aristotle continues to plot and scheme as Japicx twists and turns in uneasy sleep. The terminal is still on in the next room. This century's centralized computer facilities still charge the users for time sharing and telephone link-up costs, not realizing that until they provide free and unlimited access, they have nothing but a pure platonic form of knowledge. Empty divine forms that must wait for the next century to be filled -- if only Aristotle can keep Japicx alive two more years. He does a scan of Japicx' internal organs: the throat, the lungs, the stomach, and the prostate are all infected - rotten to the core. No wonder Japicx feels tired all the time. No wonder he's obsessed with sex and keeps trying to write computerized pornography.

As Aristotle continues to scan the diseased body he occupies, a buzzing sound begins in the next room. He cannot leave the body, so he has to wait until the buzzing gets loud enough to wake up Japicx, but apparently Japicx is deep into a dream of loss. Aristotle invades the dream, discovers himself on a late thirteenth century boat.

The buzzing gets louder in the next room. Japicx seems mesmerized in nothing, unable to move or think or hear because he's chained inside the dream cave. But now the buzzing seems to fill the room, and the room seems to fill with sound, and the room seems to fill

with the old dream road of delusion oh, you betrayed, long-suffering, martyred pig same boring path sweet innocent whining chauvinist the old sleeping road of delusion oh, you poor castrated and crucified misogynist like a treadmill that speeds up poor, lonely, impotent hater of women the old twisting road of delusion oh yes, all women are wicked, unfaithful, evil sluts day in and day out blame your inability on woman the old nightmare road of delusion oh, you poor whining wimp day in and day out soft and slow on the long dream home down and in day in and day out in and almost out watch out for the troopers up and down and deep day in and day out sweet and juicy dreaming drift dying tight and thick day in and day out smooth and silky same boring path uncovered her like a treadmill that speeds up unbuttoned her blouse same boring path unsnap her bra day in and day out unbuckle her buckles same boring path unzip her shorts on the long drive home undress her same boring path unleash her because early that morning he got a phone call from Pythias, his former wife.

 

She wanted to talk to their daughters, but they were still asleep. He suggested that they call her at her office later, and she agreed. Nothing about what she wanted to talk to them about. After the call, he looked at the clock: 7:15. Why this early? In a week she was taking them back east to Lesbos for a month.

Aristotle rubs his eyes, looks around Japicx's apartment, walks back into the bedroom, and looks at his sleeping daughters. Then he gets dressed and walks out into the early morning streets of Athens. He picks up a newspaper, discovers that the Shah of Iran has died. He walks back to the apartment, fixes breakfast, and wakes up his daughters. While they eat breakfast and get dressed for their swimming lesson at the recreation center, Aristotle logs onto his terminal and checks his time machine. The year is 1980 A.D. Athens is Iowa City. Pythias is bisexual. Plato is a blonde nordic lesbian. Lesbos is Provincetown, Massachusetts. His daughters are seven and nine years old. He doesn't have a son this time.

Glancing over his shoulder, Aristotle Japicx watches his daughters drink orange juice and eat bite-sized shredded wheat. They seem quite happy and content to bounce back and forth between his world and the world of Pythias. When they live with Pythias, they get inundated with materialist idealism, the best money can buy because their grandparents are wealthy. When they live with him, they get inundated with idealist materialism, with space cities, computer hardware, and technological magic. Aristotle lives alone with his terminal. Pythias lives with Sappho and her child by Thales, a local cocaine dealer, and a vast assortment of satyrs and centaurs and witches and goddesses, most of them connected with the Emma Goldman Clinic, almost all of them sons and daughters of Eastern corporate capitalists who keep funneling money back into materialist ideals in order to preserve their fortunes.

Aristotle turns back to the terminal, looks into his unconscious, and calls up the future. He has not yet constructed that future identity, the real person whose body he will occupy beyond the year 2000. This body of Japicx certainly won't last that long. But the future personalities are here, somewhere buried in his subconscious, the programs and text half written, the shape of the future being shaped, the destiny of his daughters locked up computer files.

Nonsense, he mumbles to himself, logging off and shutting down the terminal and coupler. What does AISP stand for again? Artificial Intelligence Satellite Program. Nonsense. His daughters are still eating breakfast. It's as if no time had passed, so that when he's on the terminal, he's somehow outside of time.

Aristotle takes his daughters down to the Rec center, watches them swim, then walks them back to the apartment. He remembers Pythias' phone call and asks his daughters to call. He goes out on the porch while they talk. Then they call him back because Pythias wants to talk to him. Apparently, they're going to her house for the next two days. When Aristotle objects, observing that she's taking some of his time, Pythias tells him it's what his daughters want to do. She wants him to take them down to the Day Care Center and she'll pick them up after work. Aristotle swallows his rage, relents, agrees. He hangs up, fixes some lunch for them, and drives them to the Day Care Center. Then he goes to the Sheepshead.

Aristotle gets another cup of coffee, writes a few notes in his journal, and then goes home, logs onto his terminal, and jumps into his artificial consciousness. He finds himself in his WRITE2 program, sitting in the Sheepshead drinking coffee and reading about the pre-Socratics. Somehow, the whole situation has been cloned, as if he's stepping in the same river not once, not twice, but an infinite number of times.