My tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth. And then an axe cleaved it.
Don’t get me wrong, it didn’t just cleave my tongue; it cleaved my entire head. But I guess that’s the nature of an axe—to strike atwain and smash the brain, separate it from ivory skulls that try so hard to protect.
A number of questions are most likely popping through your head as you read this—who hit me? Why with an axe? What was I doing when it happened?
Let me tell you now, these questions are poor ones to ask because they fail to address the fundamental, and vastly more interesting, issue at hand. You might not believe me as you read this, but I can merely argue that my story started well and that, therefore, it will be worth bearing with me to the end of this story when, at your leisure, you can judge for yourself whether my questions are more interesting than yours. Suffice it to say, for the instant, that inquiries which address the mere spatial-temporal nature of the axe strike—when, where, why—are relegated to the status of second-order inquiries, inferior in so many ways to the questions that address more fundamental, spiritual ideas of what it is to be, what it is to die (hooked yet? Or do I just sound like a pretentious twat?).
Although interesting in and of themselves from multiple perspectives, the first questions posed above must of necessity be superseded (at least to my mind) by questions which address the deeper philosophical thoughts that are provoked by living matter becoming dead (or non-living). What occurs when mind is cloven from body? When spirit is ripped from flesh? Soul dragged kicking and screaming from the corporal temple within which it is housed? And, finally, when the axe strikes the brain, is anything intangible ripped away at all?
This last question is perhaps the most chilling of all: I will die, and my brain might not survive the death of my body. I will realise that I am nothing but a collection of atoms ordered in such a manner as to provide a simulacrum of higher life, a facsimile of a spiritual existence which, it turns out, is nothing but the rusty, screeching fabrication of a web of neural connections and chemicals which cannot—or will not—understand the blackness around it and which tries, so desperately, to create an explanation of what it is ‘to be’; a desperation so powerful that it forces into existence the concept of a dual nature of existence: a nature that will survive our fleshy chains which, upon their expiry, will be handed a key that finally unlocks them from the servitude that this cruel, cold, incomprehensible world imposes upon them. Our greatest hope—and deepest fear—is that those keys unleash a flaming, pulsing, living burst of energy which descends up or down (or whatever, spatial relations probably dissolve for something that is, by definition, outside of the space-time structure) to join the other souls that have gone before it in some paradise or other that rewards us eternally for merely existing.
Let’s progress further. An agent—a creation necessary, perhaps, for the story to have an internally consistent, logical order (I got hit by an axe; ergo, someone hit me with an axe)—has hit me with an axe that has split apart my skull. Now, freeze-frame at that moment.
A razor-thin slice of time has been spliced and dyed, and laid for examination under the microscope. The steel blade of the axe is currently poised to slice into the delicate gray folds that make me who I am; in an instant, I will almost certainly be dead. How do I feel right now? Still alive. At some level, extreme pain is flashing and I am reacting to that as fast as humanly possible. The main point to note is that I am still feeling, am still aware, am still capable of rational thought: therefore, if my senses and brain are capable of logical interaction in order to provide me with a framework within which to understand the world, it follows from this that I must still be alive (insofar as it is possible to say that one is alive). I cannot, therefore, say whether soul has been torn from flesh, or whether soul exists at all.
Flash forward another instant. Standing upon the vertiginous precipice of glacier’d time, I can see that the axe has sliced into grey matter. Deep enough, in theory, to kill me—in the physical sense.
Casting wide nets, my dying brain reaches out to see if some part of it is slowly separating from the corporal shell that houses it. Several problems occur to me: my senses are dying, as my brain collapses around itself, cerebral matter finding itself re-housed in locations that provide sub-optimal loci for the performance of intended duties. If my senses are dying, how can I trust them to correctly interpret what is going on?
Furthermore, if I have never ‘sensed’ my mind before, how can I trust that I would recognise it if I did see it? It could pass by me without even a glimmer of awareness on my part. In fact, it occurs to me now that it would be almost impossible to identify something, the very definition of which has been, until now, blurry and vague. Why did I presume that something as ephemeral, ethereal, evanescent as a mind could be captured by words, or even sensed by the physical?
Finally, how do I know that I shouldn’t have been looking for the fleeing mind long before the axe hit me? For all I know—and that is extremely little—the soul might be able to sense what is coming, and flee several instants before my skull is split. Perhaps long, long before. In which case, given my cursèd inability to reverse the unidirectional flow of time, I have missed what I set out to observe.
Which, in hindsight, means that I shouldn’t have taken an axe to my own head without doing some proper research on the potential pitfalls and potholes that could occur in my living experiment. You live and you learn, I guess.