Jeanette Winterson – Thoughts on the death of her father

This used to be up on Winterson’s website – but seems  to have dissappeared –    [Whether our lives should be seen through the prism of quantum theory, or of old fashioned Darwinism is a matter up for discussion.]

Jeanette Winterson    Thoughts on the death of her father

My father used to do magic tricks. His favourite was to flounce a red silk handkerchief over a tumbler of water and toss it at one of his friends. As they stepped back in dismay, expecting to be doused, the handkerchief
fluttered harmlessly at their feet, no trace of the airborne H2O.

How was it done? My father never performed this trick unless he was standing behind a desk or table where he had prudently pinned a servante.
A servante, out of sight, and in line with the magician’s testicles, is a
deep pocket designed to contain the debris of the last trick and the
essentials of the one to follow. While my father made great play
of arranging his handkerchief over the glass, he dropped the glass into
the servante. The shape of the already vanished tumbler was maintained by
a metal ring, like a large cock ring, sewn into the double thickness of
the handkerchief. To the observer, the ring is the rim of the glass, and
so, when the handkerchief is pirouetted into the air, the glass seems to
have disappeared.
He terrorised my mother by insisting on whipping the tablecloth off
the table when it had been set for dinner. As children we adored such
Mephistophelean disregard for order, the scandalised cups and
plates flung against gravity into a Madhatter’s party. Sometimes my
father said it was the table that had been spirited away, and that the
saucers, knives, forks and jugs re-settled in their proper place, had
only the tablecloth on which to depend.

Perhaps he was right. Perhaps there is no table. Perhaps the firm
surface of order and stability is as much an illusion as a silk
handkerchief over a non-existent glass. Glass and table have long since
disappeared but the shape remains convincing. At least until we learn
how it is done.

If the Superstring theory is correct there is no table. There is no basic
building block, no firm stable first principle on which to pile the rest.
The cups and saucers are in the air, the cloth levitating under them, the
table itself is notional, we would feel uncomfortable eating our dinner
without it, in fact it is a vibration as unsolid as ourselves.

Where is my father? Meaningless question, he would say, but it has
meaning for me, who has buried what I thought of as him, his solid self.
The firm surface of my father on which we piled the rest. The statue of
Atlas holding up the world, but what holds up Atlas, as the old conundrum
My father was his own conjuring trick; the impression of something solid
when what was solid had vanished away. He had become bis clothes. He had
become his job. It was as though he had tunnelled into another life
without telling anyone, including himself. I imagine him, vigorous,
unconcerned, in a wilder place, cheating us here with a lacquered offering
of respectability, his painted funeral mask wheeled through the streets
while he had reassembled himself on the other side of the wall. Stuff of
science fiction? If there are parallel universes my authentic father could
have teen living on any one of them, leaving us with his distorted self.
Infinite grace. Infinite possibility. The mercy of the universe extended
in its own laws. According to quantum theory there are not only second
chances, but multiple chances. Space is not simply connected. History is
not unalterable. The universe itself is forked. If we knew how to
manipulate space-time as space-time manipulates itself the illusion of our
single linear lives would collapse. And if our lives here are not the
total our death here will not be final.
I play with these things to free myself from common sense, which tells
me, not least, that I experience the earth as flat and my father as dead.
He may be less dead now than he has been for thirty years. My
grandmother’s old-fashioned religious comfort of an afterlife may not be
as soft-headed as some believe. As an armchair atheist I stumble into God
as soon as I get up and walk. I do not know what God is, but I use it as
a notation of value.
God = highest value. Force and freedom of the thinking universe. The
model of the universe as mechanical has no basis in fact. In a quantum
universe, heaven and hell are simply parallel possibilities. In our Judeo-
Christian myth-world, Eve ate the apple. In a symmetrical myth-world next
door, Eve did not. Paradise lost. Paradise unlost. Objections to this are
logical but quantum mechanics is not interested in our logic. Every
quantum experiment conducted has shown, again and again, with dismaying
mischief, that particles can hold positions contradictory and simultaneous.

‘If we ask whether the position of the electron remains the same we
must say no. If we ask whether the electron’s position changes with
time, we must say no. If we ask whether the electron is at rest we
must say no. If we ask whether it is in motion we must say no.’
(Robert Oppenheimer)

Where is my father? The decay of him is buried. Impossible that he
should be alive and dead at the same time. Quantum theory states that for
every object there is a wave function that measures the probability of
finding that object at a certain point in space and time. Until the
measurement is made, the object (particle) exists as a sum of all possible
states. The difficulty here, between the logical common sense world and
the complex, maverick universe, is that at a sub-atomic level, matter does
not exist, with certainty, in definite places, rather it has a tendency to
exist. At the sub-atomic level, our seeming-solid material world dissolves
into wave-like patterns of probabilities, and these patterns do not
represent probabilities of things but probabilities of connection. Atlas 0
Ariadne 1.  The hard-hat bullnose building blocks of matter, manipulated
by classical physics, now have to be returned as an infinite web of
relationships. What is chosen and why is still unknown.
A wave function spreads indefinitely, though at its farthest it is
infinitesimally flimsy. Theoretically, it was always possible, though
unlikely, to find my father beyond the solar system, his clustered
energies elsewhere. More obviously, my father seemed to be here, as you
and I are here, but we too can be measured as wave functions, unlimited by
the boundaries of our bodies. What physicists identify as our wave
function may be what has traditionally been called the soul. My father,
at the moment of physical death, may simply have shifted to an
alternative point of his wave function. What my grandmother believes in
and I speculate upon, seems only to be a difference in terminology. She
hopes he is in heaven. I hope he has found the energy to continue along
his own possibility.
Sceptical? The laws of physics concern themselves with what is possible
not what is practical.
The property of matter and light is very strange. How can we accept
that everything can be, at the same time, an entity confined in volume (a
particle) and a wave spread out over huge regions of space? This is one of
the paradoxes of quantum theory, or as the Hindu mystics put it centuries
ago,’smaller than small, bigger than big’. We are and we are not our
If we accept Hawking’s idea that we should treat the entire universe
as a wave function, both specifically located and infinite, then that
function is the sum of all possible universes, dead, alive, multiple,
simultaneous, interdependent, co-existing. Moreover, ‘we’ and the sum
universe cannot be separated in the way of the old Cartesian dialectic of
‘I’ and ‘World’. Observer and observed are part of the same process. What
did Paracelsus say? ‘The galaxa goes through the belly.’
What is it that you contain? The dead, time, light patterns of
millennia, the expanding universe opening in your gut. No longer confined
by volume, my father is free to choose the extent of himself. Is that
him, among the stars and starfish of different skies?

This is how I explain it. My mother drinks. My grandmother reads the
Bible, my sisters numb themselves in excess family life. To each his own
epidural. It does ease the pain but the pain persists, the dull ache, low
down as though my back had been broken and not properly healed. Perhaps
it would be better to lie on his grave like a dog. To howl out the plain
fact that there is no comfort, no relief, that grief must be endured until
it has exhausted itself on me. My mind repeats its exercises like a lesson-
book. Over and over the same ground, memories, happiness, the said and
unsaid, the last hours, helplessness of the living, autonomy of the dead.

‘He is not dead,’ I say to myself, renouncing the word because it is
‘David is dead,’ says my grandmother, over and over, with the finality
of a bell.
We looked at each other, afraid to speak, afraid to load our feelings
into words in case the words cracked and split. I pinned my tongue to the
roof of my mouth. Hold in, hold in, one crack and the wall is breached. I
need now to be finite, self-contained, to stop this bacterial grief
dividing and multiplying till its weight is the weight of the world.
Bacteria: agents of putrefaction. My father’s decay lodged in me. Fed on,
what is vital is sapped. I decrease. It increases. Bowel to brain of me,
this pain. What words? What words can I trust to convey this fragile heart?

Stopper it up, heart and words, give the pain nothing to feed on.
Still now, my still heart. I will counterfeit death as my father
counterfeited life. On that continuum we meet.
Grandmother and I sat face to face over the sepulchral plastic of the
breakfast bar. Common and rare, to sit face to face like this. Common that
people do, rare that they understand each other. Each speaks a private
language and assumes it to be the lingua franca. Sometimes words dock and
there is a cheer at port and cargo to unload and such relief that the
voyage was worth it. ‘You understand me then?’

I wanted her to understand me. I wanted to find a word, even one, that
would have the same meaning for each of us. A word not bound and sealed in
dictionaries of our own.  ‘Though I speak with tongues of men and angels
but have not love . . .’
‘I love you.’
She nodded. ‘Can we get rid of all this, do you think?’
She meant the kitchen. The breakfast bar was easy to demolish and I
unscrewed all those handy flat-packed chipboard and formica cupboards and
put them in a pile in the yard. I went out and bought some coal and we lit
the range again, filthy, black, smoky, unhygienic, red eye laughing at us.
We carried in the scrubbed-elm table and the big dresser. Underneath the
acrylic floor covering were the polished stone tiles.
‘They’ll put you in a home,’ I said.
‘This is my home and it was David’s and it will be yours when I die.’
When I die. The words running forward into the future. For now, her
home, her way of life. Too much had been taken away already.
‘This is how I want it,’ she said. ‘So that I can remember.’ She heaved
herself under the sink and brought out the formaldehyde rabbit. ‘It was
David who bottled this.’ We put it back on the dresser shelf, its ears
bobbing against its lid.
Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures
all things. Love never ends.

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