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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: