Interviewed by John Haggerty
Read Daniel Olivieri’s nonfiction piece, Why I Envy Poket Watches
John: The pure, scientific materialist worldview, taken to it’s logical conclusion would seem to indicate that we are all actually pocket watches, that we are simply the product of a series of exceedingly complex, but ultimately determinate chemical and electromagnetic reactions. So our suffering, as unpleasant as it is, is simply the workings of a very involved pocket watch. Do you reject this hypothesis? If so, why, and if not, what are we to do with that existential situation?
Daniel: Whenever I think about the idea of free will my internal monologue ends up in a weird feedback loop. I think about how every step I take, every candy bar I tear open, every slight adjustment of my collar, has been the consequence of a series of events spanning back for billions of years. Even my thoughts about the world being predetermined are themselves predetermined. I get oddly self-conscious. I talked to my friend Caleb about this issue recently, hoping that he’d have some clever argument against the idea of a deterministic universe. He didn’t and that settled it for me. Caleb is a lot smarter than me, so if he believes there is no free will, there must not be free will.
So if we can be pretty sure that everything is predetermined, our best method forward is to frame this thought in the best way possible. One way to think about it is to imagine that the universe has some metaphysical straitjacket on us, every one of our actions tightly controlled by the uncompromising laws of physics. That’s one way to look at it. It’s not wrong, but it certainly doesn’t help me get out of bed in the morning.
Here’s a way I prefer to look at it. In The Book of Imaginary Beings, there is an entry on the Jewish figures known in the Talmud as the Lamed Wufniks. The Wufniks are 36 perfectly righteous people who save the world from destruction through their small and anonymous acts of goodness. Borges describes them as “invisible pillars of the universe.” I like that description quite a lot. I like it because it suggests that human beings are, whether they notice it or not, part of the architecture of the cosmos. In the same way that the universe is made up of Rigel 7 and Alpha Centauri and the Milky Way, the universe is made up of you. Yes, you’re a decidedly tiny part of the universe, but no less a part for that. Forget the idea of Atlas alone keeping the cosmos in place; we all have our own corner of sky to hold up. We should try our best to do that well, even if all our eventual triumphs and failures are predetermined.
Your mother’s story is a very sad one, and I admire how economically you have sketched it for us. What do you think her pocket watch existence might have been like?
As it so happens, I am lucky enough to be able to phone her up and ask what my mom’s existence is like. After many years of moving from one hospital to another and being cared for by a personal nurse, my mom is doing better than she has been since I was fourteen. When I wrote this essay a few months ago and when the Forge accepted it, she was still in the deep pits of a personal Hell that I could never quite imagine, no matter how many times I asked her to explain it to me. My best way to imagine her mental state was to think of my worst romantic disaster and raise that feeling to a power of ten. It seemed beyond impossible that she would ever permanently recover. She had attempted suicide in the past and I expected her to attempt it again in the near future. What happened instead was the stuff of feel-good movies. With the help of my remarkable older sister, she moved into a new apartment and began to do the hard work of building herself a life. She started seeing a new therapist, she got put on new medications that worked for her, she found a job at a coffee shop, she started painting. She since has come up with a succinct description of God, one that I very much subscribe to: “God is the things people do for each other.” She lives that philosophy every day. If you’re ever in Philadelphia, maybe you’ll walk into a coffee shop and see the woman behind the counter has a big smile that proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that she is genuinely glad to see you. As you walk up to place your order at the counter, she’ll compliment your jacket. As she pours your coffee, she’ll make nice conversation and you’ll be able to tell that this is a person who genuinely cares. When that happens, the woman you meet might just be my mother.
I have a theory—unsupported by any known facts but nonetheless compelling to me—that we’ve all only got so much space in our brains, and that an abundance of gifts in one place results, necessarily, in a deficit in another. Einstein—perhaps apocryphally—could not tie his own shoes. Van Gogh, Virginia Woolf and many, many others were creatively brilliant but emotionally very unstable. Should we be willing to forgo this spark, to give up “A Starry Night” or To The Lighthouse for an increase in overall happiness? Would art be unnecessary if we suffered less?
My simple response is Yes, extinguish creative spark and live the better life. The issue though, is that no one gets that choice. There is no womb-to-womb salesman who approaches you before you are born to ask what type of personality you’d like to purchase for yourself. You don’t get to choose who you are or what your mind is like. With that being the case, I think that art is often—but certainly not always—a useful way to deal with the mind you have. As far as art being unnecessary if we suffered less, I’m going to defer to a different Daniel. My friend Daniel Hojnacki wrote a number of short stories about a dystopian future in which the most revered literary form is the transcription of the final shrieks of political dissidents as they are executed. In one story, one of these execution stenographers remarks that, “People do not respond to the amount of suffering you describe, but its specificity.” No matter how small the problem is, it will be valuable to write about it if you are very specific. For example, one of my favorite books is Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine in which the entire plot consists of the protagonist walking into his workplace’s lobby and going up the escalator. This book contains hardly anything that could be called suffering, but it is so specific in its descriptions that it enriches your life to read it. So I’d say I do not think that art would be unnecessary if we suffered less. Now, while the world is still filled with enormous quantities of suffering, art also has the responsibility to draw attention to it. But that’s a whole different story.
I enjoyed the idea of a Romeo and Juliet romance between a pocket watch and a digital clock. Given the choice, would you prefer to be a digital or analog device?
I would prefer to be an analog device. The first reason is that I just like the word analog in general. It’s a fun word to say and the name “analog” suggests how the watch’s hands and numbers are a physical analogy for the abstract concept of time. I also like the idea of “analog” because a couple years ago I was taken by the idea that swords were just analog light-sabers. I’m not sure how fair an assessment that is, but it certainly pleased me as a college freshman.