Back in the 1980s, I was living in New Orleans in one side of a double shotgun on Dante Street. The other side was occupied by Don, a psychiatrist who played lovely classical piano when he was depressed. Don and I went out a few times, but nothing serious ever happened between us, not even a real friendship.
One evening, we went down the street to a bar called the Maple Leaf. (It was my suggestion—a trumpet player named Clive was playing and there had indeed been something serious there, though it was over—well, almost, anyway.)
Don and I sat outside with someone else who joined us. I can’t remember his name; I just remember he was a true believer in the Jim Garrison theory that John Kennedy was not shot by Lee Harvey Oswald, but—I believe–if memory serves—the CIA. He never talked about anything else, and I was surprised when he joined our conversation.
Don and I were in disagreement. He said that reality is singular. I said it is multiple. Now, Don was very smart. He’d been a Ph.D. in chemistry before he went to med school. Then he specialized in psychiatry, and then he specialized in adolescent psychiatry. The Jim Garrison conspiracy theorist agreed with me, and so did someone else who’d been eavesdropping at the next table. Don was outnumbered, which didn’t make him incorrect, just vulnerable to defeat.
It’s funny how memory works when you get old. I think everybody knows that old people can remember details from fifty years ago but can’t remember anything from last week, or even yesterday. But what’s also peculiar is what we remember. Clive, Don, the Jim Garrison theorist, have all faded into mist. What I’ve remembered is the argument.
I think the argument was predictable, unwinnable, and simple. We spoke from different universes. Don was science, and I was literature. I spoke from Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet and Browning’s The Ring and the Book. Don spoke from mathematics and the quantifiable evidence produced by intellectual processes. Neither of us spoke from any religious point of view, yet we spoke from entirely religious viewpoints. We did not mention philosophy, but we spoke in philosophy. That was the language we used to communicate—not science and not art–because philosophy, whether acknowledged or ignored, is what rules our thoughts, our lives, our loves, our politics, our faith.
The eavesdropper contributed: “Reality is multiple because it’s subjective!”
“No,” protested Don. “There’s nothing subjective about two plus two equaling four.” Oh, I thought, he really is naïve. Rigidity is fragile, so I decided to stop the argument.
Three years later, the priest at St. Maria Goretti put his thumb in chrism and burned reality into my forehead in the form of the Sign of the Cross. There have been no more arguments since then, but I think that even though Don’s music was mathematical, it was another reality that made it beautiful. I leave such matters to wiser minds than mine now, like my dog Sophie, who knows so many things. Sometimes we watch people arguing on television, making assertions that affect the whole world, the lives of millions of people, and countless future generations. She is unimpressed, and I’ve learned to accept her wisdom in these matters.