Curioser and CurioserCory Panshin on September 4, 2011
The account that the mad inventor in Fredric Brown’s “Paradox Lost” gives of himself may provide the most obvious way to make sense of the story’s wacky events, but we don’t necessarily have to take his assertions at face value. If we focus instead on the experiences of the “normal” Shorty McCabe, a very different picture emerges.
From Shorty’s point of view, the weirdness starts while he is sitting in a boring college class in the year 1943, listening to his philosophy professor drone on about the difference between impossible and unpossible and keeping his mind occupied by thinking up nonsense phrases and watching a blue bottle fly buzz around the room.
Suddenly the fly zooms down from the ceiling, passing an inch in front of Shorty’s nose, and vanishes into thin air. Shorty stretches his hand out to where he last saw it — and his fingers vanish from sight as well. So he tosses a few paper clips to determine the size and shape of this hole into nothingness, then stands up, takes a step forward, and finds himself in “blackness.”
At that moment, someone sneezes.
It’s the mad inventor, of course. He acts annoyed, telling Shorty, “You’ve got no business here,” but eventually he softens up and explains that Shorty is still in the same classroom, only now in the year 1948. He encourages Shorty to grope around in the darkness, and Shorty’s hand encounters “something soft that felt like hair.” He tugs on it and it jerks away.
“That was funny!” exclaims the voice. “It was a girl, a knockout with red hair. … You pulled her hair, and you ought to have seen her jump!” He informs Shorty cheerfully that “the prof is dating her up!” — using her startled yip as an excuse to ask her to stay after class — but then declares himself bored and heads off, with Shorty in tow, to hunt dinosaurs in the Jurassic.
After Shorty is back in his own time, he decides he has merely had a “screwy dream” and soon forgets all about it. When we next see him, it is five years later and he is an associate professor of paleontology, teaching a class of his own and “staring at the pretty red-headed graduate student in the back row.”
Just then, a blue bottle fly appears out of nowhere in particular, and while Shorty is attempting to figure out what it reminds him of, “the girl in the back row jumped suddenly and yipped.” This gives him “the chance he’d been waiting and hoping for” to ask her to stay after class — and with that completion of the circle, the story ends.
But it leaves us as readers with the tricky problem of establishing what has really been going on.
Shorty himself is clueless. All he knows is that he has a wacky dream and later meets a pretty girl. The mad inventor knows a little bit more, but his version of things is that he was simply out for a jaunt in his imaginary time machine when there was an unexplained “slip-up in the apparatus.” He’s not aware that Shorty is also the paleontology professor, and it never crosses his mind that Shorty could have been the cause of the “slip-up.”
It’s only the reader who has enough pieces of the puzzle to realize that Shorty has unknowingly performed an act of wizardry by reaching through time to fulfill his own deepest desire.
Within the terms of the story, it actually makes sense to identify Shorty as an unconscious shaman. We see him initially in a state of mental dislocation: bored but not sleepy, listening to a lecture he can’t quite take in rationally, and focusing his attention on the hypnotic buzzing of a fly. As he gradually slips into an altered state of consciousness, the fly becomes a spirit guide and leads him through a gateway to the otherworld — very much as the White Rabbit leads Alice down the rabbit hole into Wonderland.
While in this otherworld, Shorty performs just one action that affects ordinary reality, and that is when he pulls the girl’s hair. Nothing else he does is demonstrably real, including most of his interactions with the mad inventor.
In fact, the most economical interpretation of Shorty’s experiences might be that he is in his own mind all along and that the mad inventor is simply a figment of his imagination, a second spirit guide conjured up to offer essential information and guidance.
That might be a bit too economical, however, since it’s at the madman’s instigation that Shorty pulls the girl’s hair. He would never have known to do that on his own, even though it is the apparent purpose of his journey.
But what if the real wizard is Shorty-1948? He remembers everything that Shorty-1943 learned in the otherworld, if only unconsciously. And where the younger Shorty is motivated by boredom and curiosity, this later version is in the grip of desire — which potentially makes him a source of psychosexual energy sufficient to warp time and generate the madman as his mouthpiece.
Only there’s a major problem with that theory, as well. If Shorty-1948 gets the knowledge from Shorty-1943, and Shorty-1943 gets it (via the madman) from Shorty-1948, that creates a closed causal loop — which is the kind of paradox Brown explicitly ruled out when he titled the story “Paradox Lost.”
As the madman tells Shorty, “A time machine is impossible. It is a paradox. … Time is a fixed dimension. And when I proved that to myself, that’s what drove me crazy.”
The only remaining solution would appear to be that there is an unidentified “X factor” at work — an additional “person” who can see more deeply into the fixed dimension of time than either of the Shortys and manipulate both of them for their own benefit.
The mad inventor — even assuming he actually exists — is not qualified to be that person. Not only does he profess bafflement at Shorty’s sudden appearance in his time machine, but he’s far too self-centered to be concerned with Shorty’s welfare.
It’s possible that the X factor is a deeper and wiser level of Shorty’s unconscious — or then again, it might be the blue bottle fly. The fly, after all, plays a crucial role on both ends of the time warp. Its buzzing sends Shorty-1943 into a trance state, and this enables it to lead him into the otherworld. It then annoys the mad inventor until he shoos it out of his time machine, and its appearance in 1948 acts as a trigger for the later Shorty to fulfill his own role.
Ultimately, however, Brown’s intention was probably to hint at the presence of an outside force without tipping his hand as to what it might be — leaving the reader with a tantalizing but elusive sense of higher possibility.
As I’ve suggested previously, the crucial challenge posed by higher knowledge is that it presents us with certain truths about the nature of reality that are at odds with the conclusions of ordinary knowledge.
Ordinary knowledge tells us that the world we know is the only world that exists, while higher knowledge offers intimations of a realm of being transcending everyday experience. Ordinary knowledge tells us that we are limited, mortal beings, while higher knowledge insists we are manifestations of something larger and more enduring. Ordinary knowledge tells us that reality operates according to simple, linear cause-and-effect, while higher knowledge points to subtle connections among events that cut across time and space in unaccountable ways.
The task of each inner experience-based vision is to find a formula that will reconcile these truths with the best contemporary knowledge of ordinary reality. On that level, the reason vision had things relatively easy, since it was still possible in the 18th and 19th centuries to believe intellectually in a Mind of God that had provided the template for the creation of the material world and in a Divine Providence that shaped human lives.
But when the reason vision failed at the start of the 20th century, the idea of an abstract spiritual power that could affect the visible universe from outside became scientifically unacceptable. The successor to reason would have to justify higher knowledge using just two unpromising pieces — the material universe and the human mind.
The first steps towards a new formula, which can be seen in the works of Charles Fort, involved re-imagining the physical universe as a place of uncertainty and doubt and the human mind as a font of wild talents. Once that had been achieved, the concept of chaos could assume the role formerly held by God as a grounds for believing that the limited premises of ordinary reality were far from the last word on the nature of existence.
H.P. Lovecraft took the process a step further when he suggested that the material world was itself transcendent — if only in a scary, malevolent way — and that the minds of artists and madmen were distinguished by their unique sensitivity to “the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.”
By the 1940’s, however, physical nature was viewed as largely susceptible to human control, give or take the occasional glitch. As a result, the attempt to validate transcendence shifted from matter to mind — and particularly to the powers of the human unconscious. In Kuttner and Moore’s “The Proud Robot,” for example, Gallegher’s unconscious displays almost godlike powers.
But Brown was after something broader and more mysterious — something not confined to either mind or matter but implicit in the structure of reality. And “Paradox Lost,” with its paradox-that-is-not-a-paradox, was the means he found to demonstrate in action what he did not have the words to say directly.
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