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That Thing with Feathers: Hope and Literature in a Time of Pandemic

Before Us Like a Land of Dreams author Karin Anderson returns to the series with mind-bending, eye-opening meanderings featuring Emily Dickinson, Freudian doppelgängers, and a close friend dear to the heart.​



by Karin Anderson

Particle physics suggests that every time we’re faced with a decision, even the most trivial, the self divides and proceeds into both options. Exponentially and infinitely. This freaky existential mitosis occurs in response to actual physical forces, empirical enigmas—stuff that makes math and science professors sound loonier than their flowers-in-the-attic lit colleagues.

I muse about expansion, velocity, light, and dark matter fairly often because I can’t help myself. Also because I have yet to bail on an ongoing squall about “real science” with a longtime friend. By “longtime” I mean since I was sixteen and he thirteen. We are now fifty-seven and fifty-four.

We’ve probably sustained our warm relationship by never striking temporal synchronicity: never ready at the same moment to settle in and give our relationship intimate time to curdle. In the early stages it was the age difference, seismic in the reckoning of secondary school. Then it was his guitar and my love for a fast black horse. Then it was a brutal sequence of fundamental religious explosions and family devastations, my departure for college, his adventures in heavy metal spandex, and eventually our burgeoning academic evolutions, for a time mutually incommunicable: he streaked like a comet through mathematical theory, teaching graduate courses before he turned twenty-two. I wafted like a gradually awakening jellyfish through the eddies of literary language. I gave the home religion a long hard chance, with (shall we say) disappointing results. He yanked that curtain closed well before the Melchizedek threshold.

Now we’re both arcing toward finish in our respective professor careers (his far more prestigious than mine). I have four grown children—element and content of my lovely but bewildering life. He’s a generous, protective uncle to far-flung nephews. He’s also chronically ill, so even though he’s younger than I am, he’s better practiced at pondering an abbreviated life span. He’s never been averse to solitude, but the stillness of debilitation and now relentless quarantine have installed a new tenor in his voice on the phone, hard to describe.

Our trajectories do have an uncanny parallel vibe. But I bring him up here because lately we’ve been arguing about Sigmund Freud, whom I have read and he will not. “THAT’S NOT SCIENCE,” he declares, and I concur, but there are more ways of reaching for the real than straight-up science-ing. My friend sees NotScience as capitulation to the Still Small Voice of our benighted childhoods.

I get it. I’ve been trying to sort that out in my own ways for decades. He had more to flee, much earlier, than I did. He was born with a mind made for transcendent abstraction. And he was a boy with a guitar—places to go, and be. I tend to get distracted by the situation at hand, and since I seem to be inextricable from it, I stand and gape.

He told me once that mathematicians have proven that large and small infinities are the same size, but Emily Dickinson had already made that clear to me.

He told me once that mathematicians have proven that large and small infinities are the same size, but Emily Dickinson had already made that clear to me. He can explain, longer and more precisely than I wish to endure, exactly why it’s mathematically reasonable to assume that we are exponentially generating alternate selves in alternate dimensions. I knew that too: Freud showed up for me on this one. Every time we’re faced with a “this or that,” we leave the seed of another self at the crossroads. Those “other” selves acquire distinct form in our minds, pursue fates, capacities, company and context. And they have a way of returning to haunt us. Freud doesn’t say it all that poetically, but he lays it out clearly:

There are also all those unfulfilled but possible futures to which we still like to cling in phantasy, all those strivings of the ego which adverse external circumstances have crushed, and all our suppressed acts of volition which nourish in us the illusion of Free Will.

Other selves buzzing about the large infinities of dimensional space, or other selves lurking in the minute infinities of a human mind: What’s the difference? Maybe my friend would say that the particle doubles are real and the psychological doubles are illusion. And he’s likely happy to dismiss their useful relevance, since we’ll never have to meet them—couldn’t if we tried, and good riddance. But the Freudian doppelgängers never actually depart from us—not even (especially not) the ones we desperately wish to exorcise. They manifest in our dreams, in the potent illusions of fiction, in the reach of aspiration and the bitter regrets of unrecoverable time. Joan Didion says they awaken us at 3:00 a.m., demanding to know who betrayed them—and we’d best open the door.

The psychological illusion is our reality. The scientific reality is beyond our grasp. And all this lockdown stillness has given me time to wonder about those doubled selves I can barely grasp but never flee:

Where now is that earnest young wife, standing in front of the Paris Opera House, facing the beautiful husband pointing at her, quivering with intimate outrage? Where did she go after that moment she understood, clear as fate, that she must walk away forever to save them both?

Where is the girl who conceived at sixteen under the bleachers at the hometown rodeo grounds?

Where is the wife of the Mormon bishop—now-grown kids who once believed they’d fly away and find their adventurous minds instead of settling at the feet of the mountains, in a faux Tudor house, in a neighborhood suddenly ostentatious? Would we recognize one another? Could we sustain an hour’s conversation?

Where is the Tier One academic who stepped toward an inkling of her own intellectual or artistic talents, early enough to lift them toward another life entirely? Has she written anything I’d take the time to read?

Where is the discombobulated Mormon missionary who took up the hippie evangelist’s offer to elope, to live in his camper and travel the revival circuit, spreading the Holy Word?

Where is that impassioned defender of home politics, gifted with words, energized by opposition, fossilized into fierce partisan loyalty, chemically incapable of capitulation? Oh—wait. I know this one: look how much I resemble Kellyanne Conway. My god.

My friend is right: cast them out.

Freud is right: the repressed will return.

Wherever those other selves are, whoever they’ve become, we must feel them all leaning toward us as we stand in mutual apprehension.

What is all this? Mostly the meandering of a mind peculiarly mismatched to its social functions, pandemically granted rare hours to pursue its own figure eights. But it’s not just the spectres of our own queer histories overwhelming us in this unwelcome season of global communion. It’s the whole chronicle of our kind: the everyday, the intimate, the mundane ruptured by plague, the collapse of ugly but habituated empire. The return of kindred preoccupations—geometry, and poetry. The unstitch of paradigm, the sweet stupid hope for another human millennium. Wherever those other selves are, whoever they’ve become, we must feel them all leaning toward us as we stand in mutual apprehension.

Dickinson, so alive within the chambers of her little lifespan, catches the essence of this stop-time: noon and midnight—not time, but infinite margins between the ticks. The buzzing fly between us and the window’s revelations: The Stillness in the Room / Was like the Stillness in Air — / Between the Heaves of Storm.

I dig in my garden, respond to words from students I am not allowed to see, fret over this certain Slant of Light. My beloved friend calculates large and small dimensions from his quiet house in the canyon. Like Dickinson, he and I were raised in infinite confines with only hymns to guide us. The rhymes return, whether or not we beckon them, and reverberate at the crossroads.

PS. The man recants like Galileo, so I’ll allow him to squeeze back into my appropriations here:

  1. Different infinities are of differing sizes. There are more sizes of infinity than there are numbers. Thus sayeth the math cartel.

  2. The multi-world interpretation of quantum mechanics is, in my view, not very scientific. Not quite Freud level not-science, but pretty close.

  3. "Prestigious career" WTF?


A gardener, writer, mother, wanderer, and heretic, Karin Anderson is a professor of English at Utah Valley University. She is the author of Before Us Like a Land of Dreams and hails from the Great Basin.​

This project has received funding from Utah Humanities (UH). UH empowers Utahns to improve their communities through active engagement in the humanities.

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