Golem

Chilean writer Jaime Collyer.

They imagined every man is two men and that the true one is the other.
Jorge Luis Borges, “The Theologians”

Just as the academic year was ending, the shipment from Trans-RUW came to his door, containing the sealed test-tube in which Foucault awaited, that realized possibility of a replica, as old as he was, and with the same traits, the same neural circuits, everything the same as Mittelman’s, but fresher, renewed, without the exhaustive use that he had demanded of his neurons over the years. A highly intelligent clone recently developed by Trans-RUW, with a great capacity to absorb data and knowledge, now flourishing in the enclosed container, corroborating in his expression the same assumptive air of academia that Mittelman had in his face. The name he gave him, Foucault, like the great French thinker, aroused some resentment among his faculty colleagues, and more so his announcement that, as academic regulations did not forbid it, Foucault would be teaching some of his classes in the fall. The initiative of acquiring the replica (Reproductions at User's Will, or RUW, in the official jargon), along with the name, also concerned the Dean, who joined the commentary sotto voce on the subject. Too bombastic, everyone said, pretentious to say the least. "You know Foucault was a serious guy," said his office neighbor, "it’s not right going around trivializing his memory, is it…?"

Mittelman supposed the problem was not so much the chosen name but his announced intention of using the RUW in his classes during the fall semester, whenever he wasn’t in the mood for teaching the class himself and insisting for a thousandth time on Parmenides’ immutable cosmos or Wittgenstein’s Tractatus. He perceived in his opponents an evident quota of envy, the old academic rivalry flaring between his colleagues because one of them published more than the other, or was granted an early sabbatical year, or even enjoyed more slaps on the shoulder from the President at the closing dinner every year.

Mittelman didn’t care; he was happy with his acquisition. As for his students in the Epistemology class, it wouldn’t matter; they wouldn’t even notice the difference. It would be like a revitalized version of Professor Mittelman, boasting an unexpected good mood that semester with fewer of his confirmed bachelor’s eccentricities. To fortify Mittelman’s optimism, Foucault absorbed without difficulties the entire curriculum within his encephalic circuits, so programmed by Trans-RUW and reinforced by the new synapthal, a quite expensive biochemical agent, which nevertheless, needed to be administered every night to the replica. A solution meticulously balanced by Mittelman, well conceived to endlessly multiply Foucault’s abstract connections and his dazzling insights. Mittelman should be nonetheless very careful, because any persistent change in synapthal proportions would irreparably diminish the RUW’s cognitive skills and talents, according to Trans-RUW warnings. In fact, Mittelman had even considered, at first, the possibility of acquiring for himself the synapthal and renewing his own neuronal connections, but the company’s executive warned him just in time of the paradoxical damage that such a potassium flood could provoke in the human brain.

“Why paradoxical?” Mittelman asked.

“It empowers the replicas,” the executive explained, “but will certainly transform you into a monkey.”

Gentle Foucault was a prodigy, the most recent generation RUW, with the capacity to integrate Heidegger, Sun Tze, and Derrida in his cobweb of neurons; and so, when classes began, Mittelman sent Foucault to take his place. His students didn’t notice the difference – Foucault was exactly like him, dressed and combed like him, with the same over-excited humor of a Salvador Dali in his maturity. And he told the same jokes, adopted the same boastful postures when speaking of Sartre or Camus, stood every now and then with a distant look toward the vast horizon – in fact, toward the grey buildings surrounding the classroom – and scrutinized the cosmos with a transcendent air, as if Saint Thomas Aquinas before going to dine.  Mittelman ensured that Foucault adhered to perfect imitation by having regular phone consultations with his assistant, Willie Sandoval (Mittelman considered that a quite grotesque name, more akin to a salsa singer). Little Willie confirmed every week that Foucault was doing things exactly as Mittelman did them.

“Even better than you, sometimes,” Sandoval added on one occasion.

Mittelman’s pride impeded him from demanding that Willie be more explicit. Anyway, that ambiguous sentence left him submerged in deep thought and a profound silence in the middle of his living-room, always full of relics and rural paintings, where the only other person there, every now and then, was the maid cleaning with her feather duster Wagner’s bust or some minor Watteau reproduction. Finally, when Foucault came back from the university, Mittelman invited him to have a whisky in the living-room.

“So?” he asked, delivering Foucault a Ballantine’s. “How’s everything going?”

“Oh, very well,” answered Foucault matter-of-factly.

Mittelman felt irritated: “Just well? Nothing else?”

Foucault stared at him with that penetrating and crazy look Mittelman saw every day in his own face, when obsessively shaving and leaving untouched just the thin Dali-like moustache.

“What would you like to know?” the replica asked in turn.

“Who knows? Of your precise relationship with the students maybe? Or the general classroom feeling? Whatever.”

While attentively examining the ice cubes in his glass, Foucault offered his conclusion: “There isn’t too much to say. You give your class, you repeat what you know. The students listen and digest it if you are lucky, without contributing too much on their part.”

“True,” agreed Mittelman. “They aren’t too participant nowadays, those kids.”

“On the contrary,” corrected Foucault. “I always ask myself if there is something worthy behind those immutable masks. Behind those unshakeable faces in every class …”

Mittelman just nodded. He was intrigued by that pompous rhetoric, “you give your class, you repeat what you know…”. Foucault hadn’t spent that much time in front of his students, nothing justified that air of boredom, that premature weariness in his tone.

“Those immutable faces, it’s true,” Mittelman repeated, just to go on with the subject. “I usually ask myself the same thing, is there any life behind those indolent faces?”

“It’s a little bit enervating, don’t you think?” proposed the clone.

What began enervating Mittelman was the weary posture. If anyone had the right to complain surely it was himself, in charge of the Epistemology department for  so many years. And he didn’t complain, not without reason, at least.

“But it’s not their fault,” added Foucault, looking at his fingernails.

“What?”

“Their passivity, it’s not their fault.”

“No? Whom then?”

“I would say it has something to do with our paltry offerings to them. You spend your whole life repeating the same concepts, the same premises every semester. Those kids will unlikely discover anything new among them, or be inspired with what you have been reiterating to them for years.”

“Well, it is a quite valuable offer, in any case,” Mittelman said, justifying himself, “they are well established premises, aren’t they?”

“The truthfulness of any premise,” pointed out Foucault, taking a gulp of his whisky, “is something complex to deal with, Federico, you know that.”

He was surprised not so much by the conclusive tone but by the familiar treatment.

“In fact,” went on the replica, “one can repeat any false idea to such a point that it finally becomes true and can be sold to those kids. It surely happens, eventually, to those kids’ heads; they gradually empty, there’s nothing left. They only have their half-open mouths, that meek look in every class.”

This time Mittelman felt offended for those simpletons; after all, they were his simpletons.

“In any case, you have been following the syllabus, I presume?” he asked.

“Certainly,” replied Foucault. “That has been precisely the problem…”

Mittelman almost lost his temper again, but Foucault circumvented it: “Well, Professor, if you don’t mind, I would like to go upstairs and recharge the batteries for tomorrow.”

That “professor” treatment momentarily calmed him down.

After a while, Mittelman retired to his own bedroom, where he tried to resume reading Evelyn Waugh’s novel, the one that had distracted him for a couple of nights, but he couldn’t go on for more than two pages, ruminating instead on Foucault’s last sentence. “That has been precisely the problem…” His syllabus was the problem? All that he had patiently gathered during 20 years of dictating the curriculum… the problem? Mittelman felt the sudden urge to go to Foucault’s studio and shake the replica a bit in his container, demand of him clarification, but he would probably be asleep, regenerating his circuits, letting the synapthal joyfully penetrate his brain. The synapthal served to him every night by Mittelman himself. So, it was better to be civilized and wait, keep trying to read Evelyn Waugh, fall asleep irritated. Better to forget the whole matter.

In spite of that, the disagreements between them grew worse in the following days, when they had dinner together, or Mittelman insisted on his evening whisky. If he showed any sign of his old devotion to Parmenides, Foucault praised Heraclitus, himself in favor of an immutable universal choreography, the clone insisting on that old river in which nobody bathes twice, no matter how much he longs for it. If Mittelman mentioned Rousseau and his idea of the universal good nature of man, Foucault alluded to Hobbes and his wolves, homo homini lupus. If Mittelman applauded the so sensible notions of philosophical materialism and proclaimed that the world existed by itself, his RUW showed an inclination more akin to Descartes and Hume, to a world that surged from us, with the mind provoking it. In this moment, Mittelman impatiently grabbed an orange from the fruit bowl and hoisted it under Foucault’s nose (“Is there something more real than this, do you think?”), a gesture that seemed all but conclusive to Foucault, as it had happened before with Descartes and Hume. “Reality is like an onion, Professor,” he said without losing his temper, “you have to peel it off in search of its essence, layer by layer, but in the end you have nothing, only its odor left…”.

Mittelman considered that for a few seconds. “Yeah, sure, but you have to wash your hands anyway, dammit,” he concluded with rancor.

While Mittelman was restricted to only one fatigued argument, the RUW hoisted three, four reasons in a cascade, all of them truly convincing. The daily drinking of synapthal in the required dose was, so it seemed, miraculous, and Mittelman lamented once more its opposite effects on humans.

Amid those endless quarrels, he decided to find out from Willie Sandoval if his colleagues persisted in their complaints against the use of Foucault.

“They were initially upset when you ordered the clone,” Willie explained to him on the phone, “but not anymore.”

“Not anymore?”

“They kinda like him.”

Foucault? My colleagues?”

“Your colleagues and the students. One of them even told me you seemed more agreeable with each day that passed, and certainly fairer when grading them… They ask themselves what might have happened to grumpy Professor Mittelman, how come he is so relaxed this semester?”

The good news left him feeling worse than before, and Foucault hadn’t yet returned from his classes. Mittelman spent the afternoon looking through the windows at the backyard, a rotten rake at the back, petrified because of oblivion and lack of use, and two lonely birds standing on one branch of the fig tree, stripped of its leaves, as a skeleton that the Autumn and frosts had trimmed away until leaving it in its bones, rachitic and gawky. He saw a grey cat with large green eyes, which usually crossed at that hour over the wall and stared defiantly at him for a while. Then he thought of the history of ideas, that turmoil of egregious names looking for the ultimate sense of their short season on the Earth, and Socrates hurrying to his death, and the poison, in one definitive gulp, and Giordano Bruno discovering at the stake that God had probably abandoned him, too, and Nietzsche wandering at night through the hills, stirring up bonfires that enlightened his face in darkness but not his soul, nor were they able to bring him back, to rescue him from madness. It was like a dance of ghosts, all those names and faces that had accumulated in his mind during decades, class to class, from one semester to another, conveying all of it to that uncertain crowd of young indolent faces.

In that very minute, he heard the front door opening and Foucault’s smiling face appeared from the foyer.

“Hey, Professor,” he briefly saluted as he went to hang up his coat on the rack.

“Hey,” Mittelman said. “Everything okay at the university?”

“Just great.”

Mittelman felt the answer as a shaft blown from some point in the jungle, directly to his defenseless neck. Through some blowpipe with which a stranger prevailed now in the bush, stalking and attentive, making him feel his new power.

They dined in complete silence, as two old antagonists finally accustomed to it, to the food and to stressful pauses. Mittelman was surprised to think the semester had just begun two months ago, a little bit more than two months. It seemed to him an eternity, as if it had been a whole life there, dining in silence, two versions of Dali meeting everyday in the evening, meticulously spooning out soup, each one at his corner.

Mittelman was suddenly upset at seeing himself so confident and remote in the opposite version, so sure of his arguments and concepts. He decided it was time, by now, to go to the university and take a look for himself at the class.

“I will go tomorrow in person and teach the class, Foucault,” he announced.

Foucault remained with his sight fixed on his plate. “As you like,” he said, and kept spooning the soup in silence.

His docility irritated Mittelman even more, but Foucault, unlike himself, didn’t resist what he was required to do.

Mittelman didn’t even remember the students in his class whom he had met the first week of the semester, before sending Foucault to them, and was surprised that he did not remember them, not even their names, nor if any of them had been in some other class in previous semesters. He couldn’t determine if they were indifferent or hostile, but his usual jokes didn’t provoke a smile – he was terrified to think that maybe Foucault had already told those jokes – and his lesson wasn’t an example of coherence. He talked at length about Hobbes, without really knowing where he was going. After 40 minutes, he wondered in what part of the syllabus might they be with Foucault, if it was right to talk about Hobbes that day. Worse than his doubts was to corroborate the reigning silence and torpor unanimously distributed on his students’ faces. Nobody was paying attention to what he had to say. (Was it the same for his clone, or had Foucault indeed managed to bore through the wall and fascinate them in some way…?) He had the sudden feeling that he was disposable, an obsolete anachronism. Something had suddenly volatilized his ideas, all his personal confidence for being there, standing still in front of the class, speaking to that zombie audience about Hobbes and the wolves.

“Excuse me, I have to…” he started walking to the door, “I have something to address in the Dean’s office, class is over.”

In the hallway he stopped to calm down. He wished he had some equivalent of synapthal for humans. Something that would restore his confidence, but he only found in his pocket an old shopping list.

He wasn’t in the mood for dining once more with Foucault and he left him a note on the kitchen sideboard – the RUW was out for a walk – in which he briefly instructed him to go on with his classes the next day. After that, all that remained was laziness and getting out of bed when Foucault had already left the house, to have breakfast with nothing in his mind or to look silly in front of the window while staring again at the backyard – the backyard every minute more neglected – and thinking the minimum or even not thinking, when possible, walking up and down in his dressing gown and slippers, having a soft-boiled egg for breakfast and, most of all, not thinking.

After a month or so, everything moved into a new phase, one even more severe, when the invitation to the symposium arrived. It was a symposium at the University of Granada, scheduled in December as a tribute to Walter Benjamin. Things occurred with a strange trajectory, which Mittelman thought of as some sudden manifestation of Roman fatum: the invitation came to his office at the university, not to his home; it was read by Foucault, not by himself, and answered immediately; in less than three hours, Foucault wrote and sent the organizers a splendid paper in which he brilliantly speculated about Benjamin’s legacy, beginning with what was lost in his suitcase, the valise probably stolen and destroyed by the Gestapo in the Catalan frontier. The paper circulated immediately among everyone in the Humanities Department, getting to the Dean’s hands in a matter of minutes. In a matter of hours, Foucault received funds to go to Granada and read his paper at the symposium.

Mittelman learned of it two days later, via Willie Sandoval.

“There’s an invitation to Granada,” Willie informed him by phone.

“For whom?”

“For you, whom else? But you don’t have to go, the replica has taken charge, he sent a paper. The airline ticket is ready for December.”

Mittelman’s answer took some time, mostly because he was open-mouthed.

“The airline ticket is ready?” he finally squawked. “For Foucault?? And nobody had the courtesy of telling me, that there were those funds available…?”

“They told Foucault,” explained Willie. “For a while now, they haven’t given a damn.”

He hung up the phone and remained the whole afternoon in the living-room, trying to appease his rage, considering some clever option. He couldn’t resist his inner demon, not this time. For long hours he thought about it, the pros and cons, while meditating on his own situation, contrasting it with Foucault’s vitality. Slowly coming to one unique conclusion.

That same night he began a chemical offensive, something that had lurked in the back of his mind since the beginning. Which meant altering the synapthal’s components in favor of the more toxic ones, almost eliminating the potassium surplus in the solution. A formula that would necessarily affect Foucault’s nervous connections, or at least stop them from expanding, in a very short time.

Only three days later he noticed – with an unpredicted uneasiness – the clone’s initial decay as he sat at the head of the dining table, struggling to concentrate or formulate an idea, any proposal now remaining half-way on his lips. Mittelman saw him mixing basic notions of Hegel with those of his detractors, entering in blind alleys where Foucault now remained trapped and perplexed, looking for a logical proposition that could redeem him, though his brain no longer was capable of rescuing him.

It wasn’t pleasant for Mittelman. It was like watching himself decaying in the opposite corner, slowly losing his dazzling advantages, unable to abstract what he previously had abstracted so easily, of making deductions that he previously wasted at will; like witnessing the loss of his own brightness, a void detected only by him, while he surreptitiously manipulated the synapthal, raising the proportions to the point where they were no longer a stimulus for Foucault’s cognitive functions but the opposite: toxic and devastating.

Needless to say, Mittelman stopped sending Foucault to his classes, which he took up again, at the very minute he noticed the replica’s decline, those first signs of his induced decay. He almost felt pity for him, when he came back from his classes and met him in the living-room, now wrapped in his own dressing gown, drinking an unsteady cup of tea, grabbing it with his emaciated fingers.

“What’s up, colleague, how’s it going?” he saluted Foucault with fake enthusiasm.

“Oh, well,” answered Foucault with his new lack of loquacity.

Oh, well. A commonplace of only two words, the plain cliché that now summarized his basic mental flow.

After a while, Mittelman, was contaminated with the replica’s new devotion for a rote response.

“So, how’s the family?” he asked.

The RUW was briefly baffled. “Oh, fine. Fine,” he finally said, searching inside himself for some family.

“And how are we today? Health?” asked Mittelman.

“Fine, fine,” answered Foucault, sipping his tea. “Though you never know with this climate. By the day, so hot and by night, bloody cold.”

“Very true,” Mittelman agreed.

As aforementioned, he almost felt pity for the replica, confronted with that banality which now devoured him from within. Then it was more serious and became pure nostalgia; he began missing his dazzling partner of the last months, but Foucault remained more interested in climate and gastronomy than in talking about Nietzsche or Pascal’s so uncompromising position about God. Mittelman decided not to give him anymore of the altered synapthal mixture. The consequences for his brain were already irreparable.

The synapthal mixture.

With the evocation of it, he sensed (first terrified, then a little bit less) a vanishing point, one possible resolution for his nostalgia. When he made up his mind, he fixed a date: Thursday night.

On Thursday night, after he came back from his evening class, they dined in silence on baked tilapia prepared by Foucault, which Mittelman praised without hesitation, the fantastic seasoning of it, the beautiful arrangement of the salads, the potatoes cut in small cubes.

“Good, very good,” he concluded when finishing his dinner, “you have the knack, Foucault.” There was a pause. Then Mittelman spoke again: “And how are we today? Health?”

“Fine, fine,” said Foucault. “Though you never know with this climate, at this time of the year.”

“Quite true, you never know”, offered Mittelman. “As long as it doesn’t rain, huh?”

There was another pause.

“Well, Professor, I’m going to bed now,” said the replica. “It’s late.”

“Go ahead,” Mittelman said, encouragingly. He saw the replica slowly rising from his chair, leaving his napkin at the edge of the table, walking away at a slow pace.

Then Mittelman slowly got up, too, went to the kitchen, looked for the synapthal components and again prepared the solution. At midnight, alone in the living-room, he read the enclosed manual where Trans-RUW warned the user not to ingest the synapthal solution (“…Accidental or deliberate ingestion of this product by human beings may have serious consequences for the nervous system…”)

In the reigning silence, he smiled. Then he grabbed the glass from the coffee-table, closed his eyes, and drank the synapthal – the first doses – in one drastic gulp. A cat mewed somewhere. When the morning came, he was still on the sofa, thinking of the cat and the climate, those and other banalities that now began filling his own brain. He thought joyfully that he and his clone would again have something to discuss, later perhaps, when Foucault came down for breakfast.

Translated by the author and Linda K. Harris

Languages

LALT No. 5
Number 5

LALT No. 5 features powerful literary voices from across Latin America, including dossiers of essential writers Sergio Pitol and Victoria de Stefano, a special selection of Latin American chronicles curated by Felipe Restrepo Pombo, and a moving collection of trilingual poems by Mapuche poet Liliana Ancalao.

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