Notes on the self and others from a state of suspended animation
I find that now, as much as my attention has turned to the profound, it has also turned to the trivial. I was going to talk here about following Kurt Gödel’s incompleteness theorems – the mathematical proof that some things cannot be proved. And proof, of course, has a relation to truth. I’ve been reading about and around the theorems this past week. Distracted as much by details relating to the Austrian’s appalling life (it made me feel better) as by any of his mathematical or philosophical achievements (the idea was that they might make me feel better about facing the unknown). As a kind of therapy (obviously). It began with Janna Levin’s surprisingly good (surprising because the cover was so bad) A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines. A novel that creates a relationship between Kurt Gödel and Allan Turing, who in reality never actually met. Although they were aware of each other’s theories. And the being aware but never meeting bit seemed appropriate to our times.
Things escalated in the Gödel direction from there. Thanks to Google. And people who upload pdfs of books. Reflections on Kurt Gödel, by Hao Wang, a collection of facts, notes and quotes, was particularly good among the latter. Wang, a logician, ‘was in close contact with Gödel in his last years’ (Gödel’s not Wang’s). I learned that Gödel had ‘eaten mostly eggs’ when his wife took a trip back to Vienna in 1960, by which time the Gödels were living in Princeton. The notes for 1961 begin, ‘According to G… his health was exceptionally poor this year. I do not know what the health problems were.’ It’s in a section of the book titled ‘Facts’.
But really the most exciting thing that happened to me last week was a text from a friend sharing recipes posted online by the British bakery chain Greggs and the US fastfood joint McDonald’s, c/o The Daily Mail. I feel guilty saying that. Not the Daily Mail bit; the food bit. Kurt died of starvation for his art. Or science. Sometimes that line is fine. He weighed 29kg at the end. By then he would only eat food prepared by his wife. Sausage, Bean & Cheese Melts and Sausage & Egg McMuffins were out. He had an obsessive fear of being poisoned. She had been hospitalised for several months when he died. He had stopped eating. So perhaps this food excitement is a subconscious reaction. Although, clearly, it’s not subconscious anymore. That’s the price of writing things down: words make you tell lies. Or maybe that’s an art-critic syndrome: always having to justify things. Or blame something.
I should point out that my period of social distancing, isolation or quarantine (I’m not sure what I’m practising at the moment) has become a period of jogging, eating healthily and keeping a disciplined routine of writing and editing. And, while I like to think this is a choice (and congratulate myself for that), it might also be a perceived necessity (a subconscious result of the bombardment by various news channels and unsolicited emails telling me how to live – literally). At times this becomes a kind of mania – people promised me I would have time to read while stuck at home, and now I worry that I’m not reading enough. Not getting the ‘benefit’ of being stuck at home. Consequently, I have subtracted one hour from my sleeping time. That hour is now reading time. Even though other hours in the day are also reading time. With additional periods of reading time for moments of stress. In fact, I’m probably reading a lot. I’m probably getting that so-called benefit. And more. This, I know, is a privileged position in which to be. Most people are probably in far worse positions than this. Although perhaps I’m acknowledging that because I feel I have to and not because I mean it. I worry that I’m developing a problem with empathy the longer I stay inside. I’m starting to treat unsolicited emails about solidarity ‘in these troubled times’ with a degree of cynicism that borders on hostility. They don’t really mean it: it’s form without substance, just a symptom of the hollow language of these times. And, while we’re at it, I’m clearly resorting to blaming my subconscious for decisions that are more conscious than I would care to believe.
Junkfood has previously been a guilty pleasure to be indulged in when abroad. Or when in a rush. Or subject to a craving. Perhaps the truth is that I love it. But it’s never a product that should come near the homely hearth of health. Is a Sausage & Egg McMuffin more healthy if I make it, knowing what went into it? Does following the recipe make it a Sausage & Egg McMuffin? Will I have taken the Mc out? Did McDonald’s deliberately leave something out of the recipe it supplied? In any case, should I try to replicate or to improve? And, armed with my newfound Gödel knowledge, could I write a formula to get to the bottom of all that? But I’m supposed to be saving myself so that I can save the NHS. Eating a fry-up of eggs, burgerised sausages and cheese seems to run counter to that. It would definitely invalidate the jogging. So I’ve forwarded the recipe to other friends. As a gesture of solidarity. In these troubled times.