Psychologists have come to Pilos from all the islands, from beyond Thessaly, even from Alexandria. Fifty or sixty of them, all in starched-white lab coats. I've shown them our town, where we keep our labs, our wire-capped cats staring at flashcards, our rhesus monkeys with hot electrodes plunged deep into the pleasure centers of their brains, our market street with its fried squid and its cheap transistor radios. And now we follow the winding path around Mount Pilos. The island is mountain and nothing else, its slopes descending below the aqua-white surf to the sea floor. The asphalt path circles Pilos a dozen times; between the circuits are terraces on which are grown olives and grapes, planted in parallel rows like the cortical layers of a green-dyed brain.
I tell this and more to the psychologists. My colleagues from Pilos are not among themthey claim this tour is unnecessary. They do not recognize their own envy. I pity them.
"Let's rest a minute," I say. Certain psychologists are lagging behind. A white-washed cement wall keeps rocks from falling onto the path. I sit on a bench. It's in the shade close to the wall; the marble is cool. Marino, from Anafi, joins me. He scratches his bald head and gives a disgusted look down the path. "Those fatsos, Stephen. Don't they ever exercise?"
"They've got more important things to worry about."
"More important than their health? Bah." Marino is my age but looks a decade younger, his neck thick with muscle, his thighs seeming about to burst out of his brown polyester pants. He must live in a gymnasium. "I brought some interesting experiments with me."
"Ah, yes," I say. "Something with rats?"
He grins. He is a behaviorist. "Oh yes. With mazes and punishments and rewards."
"That's interesting. But rats don't do much for your self-knowledge. Imagine what democracy would be like if men took their lesson from a colony of rodents."
"Bah, Stephen. You want all the glory for yourself."
Of course I do. Within weeks I shall become the first to attain complete self-understanding. It will be neuropsychology's finest hour. Men like Marino, the psychologists who have come, are excited as I, though they will not admit to it.
"Oh, Stephen," he says, after we have continued on our way. "Nikolas has come too."
"Impossible," I say, and I hurry.
Nikolas was a schoolmate of mine when I was a child. He was the first to recognize my genius: my dexterity with the micropipette, the prod, the oscilloscope. He became jealous, but sublimated his jealousy into an absurd psychological theory: he claimed the operations of the human mind reflect the intrigues of the gods. I mocked him and his idea, and he soon quit the Academy. He spent some months with an Orphic cult in Delphi, then disappeared entirely. Some said he drowned, some said he joined a group of Cretan pirates. Either way he was lost to the sea, where science has no claim.
We reach the top of Pilos, a flat, barren field; it is as if Zeus sheared the peak with a microtome. The examination device, a glass box, is placed in the middle of the field.
I have them sit in a semicircle around the box as I explain it. "The box is a self-contained laboratory, developed after Cajal's design." I swing open the door (which is one glass wall.) I tap the golden helmet hanging from the top pane of the glass. It swings a little. "The headset contains almost a thousand pipettes and electrodes, each of which can be inserted an adjustable depth into the neural tissue. The headset also transmits its findings to a large computer in town." I press my hand against the front of the box. "If desired, slides can be projected onto the inside of the glass, for use in visual experiments." Then I show them the console, a gray plastic slab across the front glass at about the level of my chest. "One uses this to control the headset."
"Why up here?" someone asks. I don't know who, because I've been staring at the box, afraid to look at Nikolas. Now I study the crowd. I don't know how fifteen years might change Nikolas's appearance. Is he the fat bearded man with sunglasses? Or, in the front row, the curly-headed man with a brown stain on his lapel. He could be anyone"Oh, sorry." I clear my throat. "The box is up here as homage to Athena."
The psychologists nod approvingly.
"And now, I demonstrate." I step into the box.
Know thyself. I work with juice and the warm, stringy stuff of my own being, not with the abstractions of the cognitivists, the theories of the psychodramaticians. Today I'm mapping the neurons which control my sexual behavior.
First I unloose the seal which connects my scalp and the top of my skull to my head. Pop! With them comes a section of my dura mater, hard and gray. All this goes into a nutrient bath in a recess of the tiled floor. Next I lower the headset. It's warm around my head.
By touch I manipulate the console in front of me; I stare proudly at the crowd outside the box. I drop an electrode. It penetrates carefully, through my motor cortex, past my thalamus, avoiding as it can the cables of my thoughts. Which isn't that hard; the brain is mostly supporting structure.
A soft tone: the electrode finds the last neuron I've already mapped. Goodwhen I last stimulated it, I saw a nymph-girl stepping out of a stream, long black hair clinging to her breasts. Part of a circuit between my hypothalamus and visual cortex. Fun. I manipulate the console, have the electrode follow a likely branch of its axon to another cell. I should get the same nymph, or something close.
I zap it.
Yes! The nymph appears outside my box but
It's a he. The same soaked, shoulder-length black hair, the same slender hips,; but a boy's streamlined form, his nipples taut against his ribs. Nikolas: this is what he looks like. Now I remember. His skin is albino-white and soft-looking, as if he has been swimming for days.
He smiles at me. Then he steps up to the box, touches his palms to it, rests his forehead upon it. "You fool," he says.
He shrugs. "You'll fail in your quest. You've forgotten the soul. You've limited the human being to mechanics and left no place for the spiritual."
Nikolas touches his head. "The soul isn't here, not in synapses."
"That's rank spiritualism."
"So it is." He grins. There are pieces of kelp between his teeth. "The brain, Stephen, is for cooling the blood."
His reaching arms pass through the glass like ions across a membrane. I give the neuron another zap and he disappears.
My guests munch on pitted olives, Pilosian produce, as they walk down the trail back to town. This time I lag behind; something has happened to my sight and I'm afraid I'll stumble, fall onto a grape arbor. I seem to be seeing from the top of my head.
Marino waits for me. He holds two handfuls of olives as if he's weighing the scales of justice. "Have a couple, Stephen?"
"Um," I say, reaching for the olives. I overcompensate, grab the air above Marino's arms, then I adjust quickly, almost slapping them out of his hands. I take an olive, and by ignoring what I see, am able to eat without slamming it into my nose.
What do I see? Marino, smiling crookedly. He does not seem to be looking me in the eye but rather somewhere below. And perhaps it is what I don't see that is importantthe double frame of flesh around my vision: my nose, my cheeks, eyelashes. Instead I have an unobstructed field of vision, and at the bottom is the sun-bleached hair of my head.
"What's the matter with you?" Marino says.
I've made a mistake, crossed my optic chiasm with something wild. But admit that? Or admit the Nikolas hallucination? On the eve of my self-understanding? No. I shrug.
"I mean, you're not claiming that you'll finish mapping your neurons in these fifteen-minute sessions."
Oh! I smile. "Of course not; I just want to show the psychologists their quarters. I can't forget that I'm a host, too."
"Good!" Marino grasps my arm with a hand as strong as Zeus's and indicates that we should follow the rest; the last white-smocked psychologist is rounding the side of the mountain. "Then tomorrow!" he booms. "You'll have a few minutes to see my experiment!"
"A few," I say.
It is late afternoon, and most of my guests are napping off a fine meal of lamb-stuffed grape leaves, mushrooms (which sliced are like fixed brains), home-fermented wine, and baklava. But I'm on top of Pilos. I belch pleasantly and enter the box. Two couples (graduate students I suppose) are sharing a bottle of wine, watching me sometimes, more often watching the storm clouds rearing like Apollo's steeds over the choppy grey sea. It seems the storm has already reached Naxos.
Since this morning I've better characterized my optic glitch, my change in viewpoint: my vision is centered at a single point the diameter of an apple above my head. The width of my view is about the same as what you get from two eyes, almost one-eighty degrees; and I can look in every direction. Now, for instance, I'm scanning. I begin looking at the couples. They're holding hands and laughing. I rotate ninety degrees; now I see the top of my head, dandruff flakes like surfers on the part of my hair. Another ninety degrees and I see the top of my box upside down. Far away, the island Dhenousa is a green cloud the storm hasn't reached. Ninety more and I see nothingblack.
I must be in the middle of the headset. I rotate again and I'm where I started. See; I can characterize my malady.
But I cannot explain it. I can close my eyes and don't see darkness. I rub them and don't see the shooting stars of inner space. Surely something is wrong with my optic chiasm or my cortex; accident has wrought some vicious circuit. As to what circuit, what particular neurons, I cannot tell.
And I don't care; in a few more days, maybe even hours, I shall have my neurons mapped!
From my new viewpoint I watch my fingers twist off my scalp, glistening fluids dripping down my hair. The scalp plops! into the recess in the floor. Below me is my brain. Though convoluted like the mainland's mountains it betrays not the forge of Hephaestos but the power of genius.
I lower the headset, am for an instant in blackness, then the headset is below, attached. I drop electrodes. Today I'm concentrating on the association cortex, childhood memories. I pierces neurons, bridge synapses, measure neurotransmitters, I remember my pet gerbil's frightened eyes as I sacrificed it for science, I remember wrestling Sdemi and biting his fingers to ensure my win, I remember my mother introducing me to Dr. Sathmos, a withered, eminent psychologist who had a voltmeter planted permanently in his brain, I remember harvesting grapes, my fingers dyed cresyl violet: thus I shock, measure, and think for an instant of places gone, people lost. There is a library of detritus inside my head. There is
Nikolas, standing in a puddle of water outside my box. "Still at it, fool?"
"I'm almost done. I remember you now. You were slow. You couldn't grasp basic physiology."
"We're not talking about me." He slides his slender fingers down the glass, leaving inky trails. "We're talking about your flight from your body. The ascension of your soul. Can you still call the brain and mind the same thing?"
"Of course. My problem is a neural anomaly, peculiar new growths of dendrites and circuits."
He glares at me, rubs his hands along the glass; they squeak. "How can you see from the top of your head? What neural circuit, no matter how elegant, would allow for that?"
He's repugnanthis skin is grey, and there are barnacles attached to his hips. "I don't need you!" I cry. "I'll understand myself no matter what hallucinations I may have!"
"But think about the mind, the will... think about love. Are all these the firings of neurons?" He smiles, and a starfish's suctioned arm curls around his upper teeth. "What of beauty, what of truth?"
"All neurons! Now leave!" I zap the neuron hard and he is gone.
My viewpoint has changed. I see from above the glass box.
The psychologists are grumbling. They want action, they want me to complete my self-understanding. I know this because I've spent all day in the atrium of my house, the spray from the cherubic fountain wetting my back; and my viewpoint has risen to a point about twenty meters above my head. All day I've seen angry psychologists, in groups of two or three, walk up to my house. I've instructed my slave Haederou to admit them under no circumstances.
Now it's about three o'clock in the afternoon, and Marino is coming down the street, sun gleaming on his muscled head, a suitcase in his hand. As he nears, my house obstructs my view of him.
There are shouts and cracks of breaking wood. A moment later Marino bursts into the atrium. "No! You can't!" Haederou cries, following him out of the house but at a distancehe's about half Marino's size.
"Allow him in," I say. Haederou bows then goes inside.
Marino paces around the fountain. For a moment I try to follow him, turning my head and torso to match his movements, but I find this strenuous. So I swing my legs over the bench, and lower my head, so it seems I'm watching my sandals dangling in the bright blue water. "What brings you here, Marino?"
"You know," he says, still circling the fountain. "We took time off from lectures, from research, to see you know thyself. You're letting us down. What for?"
I tell him I've had an unpleasant hallucination. No details, no names. Marino doesn't need to know about the snivelling kid and what he's done to my optic nerve.
Marino slaps me on the shoulder. "That's the problem with you neuropsychologistsyou tend to screw yourselves up. Now look here."
He opens the suitcase. "Oh, shit!"
There is something white and still inside; it's hard to tell what from this height. It's probably a rat. I reach out and touch it. Soft fur over a body hard as wood. I finger a stiff paw, touch the tiny claws
"Damn! Nikolas must have suffocated in the suitcase!"
"It's been hot today. Poor rat."
"But Nikolas was my star! Using operant conditioning I taught him to write! He proved the virtues of behaviorism and the basic simplicity of the mind!"
"But it isn't simple," I say; and feel a sudden urgency, a new conviction of the rightness of my cause. Nikolas be damned. Marino's Nikolasand mine.
"Come on," I say, pushing myself to my feet.
The sun at dawn makes a myriad gold-capped waves round Pilos; over the night my viewpoint rose another fifteen or so meters. Now the crowd (there must be a hundred or somy colleagues have mastered, for a moment, their envy; and even some lay folk from the town are here) is waking, yawning, looking at me as they wipe the dew off their lab coats.
Yes, there I am, in the glass box. I haven't stopped to rest or sleep. And I haven't seen Nikolas. Now I'm surveying my neocortex. I've found an area which seems necessary for logic. I measure action potentials, I zap, and across the pink morning sky scroll mathematical propositions: if p then q, if Socrates is a man and all men die, then Socrates, too, is a goner. This sort of stuff; sometimes in pictures, sometimes in words. For each image I whisper the description of the associated neuron until I've committed the knowledge to my long term memory
Nikolas is here, floating like a sea-drenched Hermes at the level of my viewpoint. He glares at me.
"Be gone, hallucination!"
He tumbles like an acrobat. He kicks like a fish. "You fool! The mind is a non-material organism which influences the brain by way of the pineal gland!"
"Descartes' notion." I'm prepared for him. I keep cataloging neurons as we talk. "Long ago discredited."
Like a squid he blows black water from his mouth. He flies away from me, then by bending his knees, flapping his arms, alters his course so that he returns. He crosses his arms.
"What about Godel?" Down there in the glass box I shrug. Up here, my viewpoint rises. Nikolas rises too. We are in tandem.
"You fool," he says. "The Incompleteness Theorem. How can a system understand itself? How can you store in you brain the entire mapping of your brain?"
"Mere technicalities," I mumble, uninterested. I rotate my view so that the island is again below me. I've risen a hundred meters or more. In the box I'm frantically working my console. Zapping. Almost done.
"And your brain keeps changing, as you learn. Your knowledge, fool, is instantly obsolete!"
"Enough!" With invisible hands I grasp his slender neck. I squeeze, my thumbs pressing into his pharynx, my fingers bridging his spine. He kicks and punches me but I retain my grip. His young face swells, turns blue, then inky black water begins squirting out of a thousand places on his cheeks and forehead. It is as if every pore is bursting.
"The Gods will judge you," he says, then he relaxes, staring blindly. I drop him and he disappears.
Five hundred meters below the crowd is cheering me on. I'm efficient
without the hallucination to distract me. I rise. I rise. I nearly understand
myself. And now Pilos is but one green dot out of a hundred, and the Earth's
horizon curves like Artemis's drawn bow, and, seeing the bright ball of
sun above it, I think that soon I will reach Olympus.
Copyright © 1997 by David Ira Cleary. All rights reserved. Originally appeared in Spark, an online literary magazine.