– If an anthropologist falls over in a forest on a planet devoid of living entities other than herself, does she exist?
No, that wasn’t quite it, Anna thought, as she picked herself up from among the fern-like plants underneath the giant greenwoods, dusted herself down, and looked accusingly at the snaking root which had tripped her.
– If there is no-one to perceive an anthropologist falling over like a tree in a forest on a planet devoid of other living entities, does she make a sound?
Try again, she thought to herself.
– If an anthropologist who has watched her five colleagues die goes through the motions of articulating Descartes’ Cogito after falling over in an extraterrestrial forest, does she exist? Really, does she?
In fact, rather than think it, she said it all out loud. The soft, spongy floor of the forest deadened the sound of her voice; it was hard to tell thought and speech apart here.
– It is a gift, Anna went on, a gift without which we would have no conception of its essential gift-like nature. It is only the days stacking up which wear us down. I really do have to try to take each day as it comes – let each transform itself at its outset into an adventure, and if it should still turn out a wearing and trying one, file it away as one to forget.
On earth every morning she had said to herself, who will I meet today? What will I say? Will I forge a connection or find myself understanding and accepting its lack? As I drive along the road, will I see a kestrel hanging in the sky as if anchored on a wire, hovering in expectation of death? When I walk around the stalls of a market, will I chance upon some magical artefact that I feel I must have; an articulated hand, a jade necklace, a Cornishware teapot or an old Victorian magnetic panel on which I could spell out messages? When I chat to one of the stallholders, will he say something that I take away as well as the thing, words which stick or surprise?
When connection or adventure were hard to imagine and the day stretched ahead leached of colour, she told herself to keep in mind that everything is a matter of perspective. We are not stuck. The self is not a fixed point. We are free to choose our take on the world. She meant that wholly, in an existential way. This then was her own modest desiderata.
Of course at times – for long periods, existence was hard, as it was again now. She had often wanted not to exist, though never to die. Never that. Just the felicity of deep sleep, free of consciousness, or as when merely napping in the sun and dreamlike colours played on the screen of her eyelids.
When are we most alive? Anna guessed it varied for all of us, in terms of age and character. For some, perhaps it was when they were asleep, engaged in the act of dreaming. For others at their place of work. Others still, among their children, so full of their own visceral life. Others, when they were locked in contemplation of whatever thing took them away from reality – chaos theory or cycling or campanulas. Treading a stage, an instrument in their hand, or a sphere at their feet. It wasn’t only anthropologists who travelled. The life of the mind allowed you to move through the world without moving, allowed you to touch its outer surfaces as well as the inner; of that she was convinced. For her as a child it was when she had run down the road on account of how walking didn’t properly express how she felt. It was too slow. She needed to run, and she wouldn’t stop till she got where she was going. Later on, of course, it was when she was writing or reading, when her imagination would spark and explode like overlapping fireworks. And then there were those moments when someone else touched her outer surfaces and inner ones; that was when she had felt most completely alive, to the point where every tiny movement was experienced as an acute sensation, a pinprick of light.
Now there was no-one to touch her.
She turned the irony over once again. It was all academic. She might as well not exist. Since the doctor died, she was the only human on this illegitimate twin of earth, stuck on its snow-tinged equator for another two years until the relief mission arrived. She missed the doctor’s touch – Adam and Eve-like, it had seemed foreordained – though the words which came periodically from earth were just sufficient to keep her going.
The naturalist, the geologist, the climatologist, the cartographer, and finally the doctor; all dead. Only Anna was left, the least useful of the lot, part of the team more in hope than expectation. Only she had not fallen prey to the virus which slowly did for the others. The doctor had run some tests on her; he could find no potential remedy for himself, and making love to her wasn’t going to offer him any protection. While he was well enough, though, she wanted him to have a last chance to taste that joy, of coming to know a new mind contained in a new form. For the doctor then, the greater end and a series of little deaths folded in on each other. There were worse ways of ceasing to exist.
Now all an anthropologist could do was wait, in the hope of further proof of her continued existence.