A Tenuous Chain Broken (reprise)

Preface

So it’s been a few years. As of now, Jon Ronson’s released his book “The Psychopath Test” and I’m mentioned in the first chapter. How…crazy? Yes, I think so; I’m not sure yet what’s said about me, but I’m honored all the same to have been mentioned in print. A lot has happened since then; I’ve left the US and am on a trip around the world, my vehicle being ESL teaching. I haven’t forgotten about this episode, but I have put it aside for some time now. In this post, I’d like to revisit it and add a little, and explain the story the way it now appears in my memory. Some parts may sound redundant, but if you haven’t read my original account this will explain things and hopefully entertain you as well.

Resources

The Book

A Tenuous Chain (original post)

Muriloq’s Blog

Ask.Metafilter thread

Buy “The Psychopath Test”

A Tenuous Chain Broken (reprise)

Today my name appeared in a book published by an English journalist. Its name is “The Psychopath Test”. Where I am now, in Extremadura, Spain, it’s of course not available (think “Kansas of Spain”) and I haven’t even seen it. How did this happen? Who am I to have been included in a book like this?

In the spring of 2008, late in my Junior year of university, I recall wasting a morning playing Call of Duty 4 when my roommate Kevin returned home from class with a box under his arm. The box was clean and unlabeled and as he set it on the coffee table I asked about it. He’d found it, he explained, beneath the viaduct at Indiana and 14th.

“Just…sitting there?”

“Yeah, no one was around I just picked it up and here it is,” he said, opening his Burger King. “Should we open it?”

At that moment my boxcutter bit into the packing tape and in seconds I’d produced the contents: a lightweight white packet which must have consumed that roll of tape. This too got the knife and therein I found seven books; rather, seven copies of a thin little book with a white cover bearing the name “Joe K” below an image of Escher’s “Drawing Hands”. Kevin raised his eyebrows and I spread the books on the table.

Inside the cover was a tri-folded letter which I hoped would include an address. Clearly this wasn’t delivered poorly without some cost to the sender.

“Dear Professor Hofstadter,” it began. I knew the name; somewhere subconsciously it had been swimming, and seeing it in print set it to echoing in my head. Where had I heard this name before? It seemed to me then that as I read it aloud to Kevin that the tone was at once cautionary and apologetic. I rose from it imagining the writer having driven himself to exhaustion over each line and having not slept, chose to send the draft I held. Who was this Hofstadter, and why would someone bother to send him seven books?

The first couple pages of the book told of a pair of fellows attempting a contest put forth in a magazine. The aim: to write Arthur Conan Doyle’s missing novel, The Giant Rat of Sumatra. I would recount the story, but it’s spelled out here if you’d like to read it. Let it suffice to say the little story’s full of symbols and could-be arcane meaning and I was left afterward thinking it was an amateurish vehicle to deliver an obscure philosophical payload. The pages following were devoted to a motto and an axiom, and then several pages of quotes from famous thinkers and indeed, “Joe K” quotes himself, too, his self-referencing being of a puffed-up nature and perhaps to the psychologically average person, sufficiently inane to inspire regret at its reading. Finally, the reader finds a sort of creation myth which closes the book. Seven pages of “on the first day”-this, and “on the second day”-that, wherein continues the first-person perspective, by which the author sets himself up as both God and narrator (were we so bold as to offer a biblical comparison).

“Guy’s a little nutty,” said Kevin behind a mouthful of Whopper.

“Or something,” I replied.

I brought the laptop over and found that Douglas Richard Hofstadter was faculty at IU, in the Cognitive Science department. That was IT! One of my very good friends was an undergrad in this department and had spoken the name before. Yes, yes! I’d also seen Professor Hofstadter give a talk on the Internet somewhere too, and I remembered that he’d shared the stage with Richard Dawkins, I think, or Steven Hawking. I discovered he’d won a Pulitzer Prize for Gödel, Escher, Bach in 1980 and was regarded as one of the fathers of the relatively new field of Cog. Sci.

I was nervous writing him. The books must’ve been meant for him, right?  A couple days later I visited his home with the package in tow. I met a girl on his front walk and asked her which of the houses was his and she kindly led me up to his door (which happened to be her destination, also). We entered together and I was asked in a French accent to wait by the door. This is where something strange happens; in the version of events I recall as I told the story to my friend Andrew a week after the event, there were several other French women in the house, enough at least for me to mark it in my still-adolescent mind not as important, but *impressive*. Professor Hofstadter, I’d learn later, didn’t share my point of view; according to him, his daughter and her French tutor were the only females present at his home that day. I will come back to this point momentarily; meanwhile, know that in the end I apologized to him.

Now, around this time I was freshly broken apart from a girl I’d spent two years dating. I was heartbroken of course, and in a weak attempt to salvage a mutual friend, I rang (his name is Andrew) and asked if I might stop by. He’d just acquired some new video filters, so we sat down in his basement bedroom and recorded this story. The result was a psychedelic, with swirling colors and effects patched together, as I saw a couple of days later when it appeared on Google Video.

I was invited to dinner at my friend D’s house, and there I let her and her girlfriend have at BoN. We ate supper seated on decorative cushions at a low table, with Chinese paper lamps strung overhead, and they thumbed through the book. Their reaction was revulsion and amazement; of such strength came their “what the fuck”s that I felt compelled to gift the book to them, or D in particular. They were to leave soon for summer work with The Radical Faeries, work akin to WWOOFing but at a different crop, the payment being $5k worth of harvest come the end of summer.

I left their house that night and didn’t think of the book for a year. They indeed did go west to work but argued such that D left in the middle of the summer, empty handed, and it was only after I helped her move out of that house that we thought of the book. It was lost.

**********************************************************************

Roughly a year later, Andrew popped me on Gchat. We had drifted apart a bit and he asked if I remembered the story of the book. He sent me two links that I “had to see”. They were:

I read through these threads in awe. So many other people had come into contact with the book, and all of them had received it, mostly via university mailboxes. They were professionals from a field of pertinent disciplines: theologists, psychologists, computer scientists, cognitive scientists, doctors, physicists, and others from neighboring fields. Overall, like good academics, they were more concerned with understanding the machinery which delivered the book to them rather than its contents. Then I saw a peculiar post. The user asked if anyone had seen a certain psychedelic frat-boy video on the subject, and then linked to it.

Wow, how embarrassing to see myself then. Perhaps I’m less of an ass these days…anyway, I posted in these threads and linked to a story I’d written on the subject (NOTE: it’s vital to this story that you read the older version, as details included there are omitted here; my viewpoint has changed significantly since then). Immediately some folks (Naming them now would be useless and low) speculated that due to my proximity to Hofstadter and by virtue that I’d not received but found my copy of the book that I was “in on it”. Later I would learn that those speculators were acquainted with the originator of this phenomenon and were simply inflating the mystery manually to prolong its life. They made simple anagrams of my name:

Levi Shand = Evil Hands, Live Hands

They commented on my blog a bit, and continued to speculate. Not long after this revelation, Mr. Ronson also commented on some of my blog posts and asked whether I’d mind an interview. I discovered that he’d written The Men Who Stare at Goats, whose film rights had recently been purchased by George Clooney (or so I understand), and other books all tugging at the frayed threads along the frontier of normalcy. We spoke on a stateside morning or an English afternoon, if you please. In classic journalistic style he dug at the aforementioned rumor, which told me no doubt he’d been in contact with its proliferator(s). He informed me that Professor Hofstadter had corroborated my innocence on all but one count: there were NOT, he said, so many exotic women in his house during my visit. Hot shame flashed up my body; how could I have been so careless? Was this true? It hadn’t occurred to me that I could have misperceived a scene so grossly and what gall to have been so public in my misinforming…later I would, of my own volition, type an apologetic message to Professor Hofstadter, to which he would reply with warm thanks. Meanwhile, I searched for meaning in the book, propelled by a naive gesture I’d made to Ronson  to “help if I could”.

I read the Conan Doyle story in which the Giant Rat is mentioned and found no clues. Of course I’d already read The Hitchhiker’s Guide, and it only loosely aligned with the BoN‘s message. The Glass Bead Game remains one of my favorite books, and I wouldn’t have picked it up so soon had it not been so blatantly referenced during this whole episode. Joe K, for example, is a direct reference to Joseph Knecht, The Glass Bead Game‘s main character. I also read the forward and first chapter of Göedel, Escher, Bach and it was there where I found the answer I’d sought. Most interesting to me was the concept of fugues, for I was led naturally to superimpose that concept over this employment of the core concept of the field of memetics and dreamed up the following idea:

Being or Nothingness is a memetic vehicle, or a burr. Its spines are designed to collect a certain demographic of person, the catch being that these people previously haven’t shared acquaintance in any way consciously known to them. In this way, disparate cousins are united via a common event, thereby raising a fugue of minds across the globe. Outside of this link, each one might have, years on, died unaware of the others.

My issue with the experiment is rooted here. Once you have the united attention of a restless audience, what do you want to tell them and how would you ever gauge whatever it is that you’d like to measure? This remains a mystery to me and tells me only that my hypothesis was only partly correct at best. Nevertheless, over time I again let the book slide into obscurity in my mind until one day I received a cryptic message from its suspected author: “The need has been fulfilled.” By then I understood the message to mean that his experiment had ended, with no word toward its success. I asked whether my hypothesis had been close and he replied yes, that I was one of the few who had understood what was happening. There’s no way to know how to take this information now; in light of The Psychopath Test it feels congratulatory while seeking my response to lauding. At the time, I instinctively patted myself on the back and the author kindly invited me, were I to find myself in that part of Europe, to visit he and his wife in Göteborg.

A short time later a message appeared in an old inbox from Professor Hofstadter. He asked as proxy whether I minded if Mr. Ronson quoted in his forthcoming book from messages between the he (Hofstadter) and I. My interest then was that Mr. Ronson not be further hindered in his plan, at least not from my end; understanding that I’d acted immaturely, I agreed and asked only that he characterize my actions rather than my person. The disgrace was mine and I prefer to own it publicly, as publicly as I aired it. In this way, I’d like to leave behind the boy who so casually spoke out of his depth and stride on through taller grasses.

…which brings us to the present. The book is published and it is done. While I’ve yet to read it I’m eager to and am happy to move forward to the next bit, whatever it is. This story has been a hit with everyone I’ve told it to (most notably an FBI agent in an Irish bar in Denver, who only revealed his occupation as I was stumbling away afterward). Now that it’s all down on paper, I feel I can move on. I’ve moved on from my country, as well, and am living happily in Spain (for the time being). This place is home to a little strangeness but nothing quite like the Story of the Book. I’ll remain open-minded and expect more in kind in time.

Adios~

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13 responses to “A Tenuous Chain Broken (reprise)

  1. Some of us never have a story to tell. You will have many. It is how you look at life and live it to the fullest. Thanks for sharing it. And live on, full speed ahead.

  2. This is so awesome/strange. What a cool story. I may have to get a copy of the book just to let you know what it says.
    PS I just started a wordpress…check it out if you care to. Not much there yet.

  3. …and I too would be happy to invite you, were you to find yourself in this part of Australia, to visit myself and my wife in Bundaberg…

    • Well thanks, Tim! I’ll let you know should I find myself in your neck of the woods. I’d be interested to hear what you have to say, too…do you have thoughts on this episode? Please message me at levi [dot] shand [at] gmail.com if you do, or on LinkedIN.

  4. I received the first Being or Nothingness book in May 2009. Last Friday (29/3/2013) I received a second one. I immediately recognized what it was from the childish handwriting, the Swedish stamps. I tore the paper but not the plastic padding (God knows what’s in there!). Inside is a different book, also entitled Being or Nothingness, with a cartoon of the Giant Rat (character from the original BorN book) on the cover. In the speech-cloud: “Don’t panic!” Last time it was interesting and amusing. This time it’s just plain creepy. Has anyone else received this second book?

    • Hey Dorothea, that certainly is bizarre. You could do the weirdness a real service by scanning and uploading pdfs to some source where others can see them. I’m sure this news will bloom over the concerned circle of folks, but yours is the first report (to hit my ear) of a second book. If you’d like me to host any pdfs you have the opportunity to make, just send them along to levi (dot) shand (at) gmail (dot) com. I haven’t received one yet (I may not), otherwise I’d do the legwork myself. Thanks for commenting!

    • A copy of this second printing has come into my possession. Comparing to your scan of the original book, it’s exactly the same book, but it came wrapped in an extra cover (front: “Being or Nothingness; Joe K; Collector’s edition; 2.500 numbered copies – cut and ready, stamped and sealed.; Will the mystery dissolve or the plot thicken?; Break the last seal to find out!” back: “Atremi; ISBN 978-91-86129-89-7” and a picture of a wax seal), all put in a hard box (front: “Being or Nothingness; (Rat saying ‘Don’t panic!’); Facsimile; Collector’s Edition” back: “To keep your copy in pristine condition you may wish to retain the integrity of the seal and await the release of a facsimile of the Collector’s Edition; Tetelestai – March 21, 2013; Number 0027; Name: Alvar Ellegård”).

      The book easily slides out of the cover, though, so there’s no need to break the seal (which is just some glue on the cover).

      Alvar Ellegård (the guy behind the Jesus Myth) lived in Gothenburg and died there in 2008, so I have no idea why his copy of the book ended up on the west coast of the USA.

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