The Age of Or

It was easier, he found, if you broke the process down into separate stages, sub-choices, if you took it step by step. For example, colour first of all. Well, let’s say white for argument’s sake. White was more sophisticated, wasn’t it? Red was for winos, students ad French peasants. And no one drank rosé, did they? Then came country: the obvious ones of course, France, Spain, Italy, Germany, Australia, Bulgaria, Chile, USA, but also now South Africa, New Zealand, even Algeria, even Lebanon, even England. He decided to forget about country of origin for the time being, come back to it later.

Next was price. That was easier, he had no intention of buying anything that cost more than a fiver. Anything more expensive was just showing off. And dry, definitely dry. Not sweet for God’s sake, he knew that much.

OK, we’re getting there. He gazed despairingly along the rows of stacked bottles, the wall of labels, all different yet all the same like some nightmarish identity parade, the special offers, the month’s best buy, the calligraphic recommendations, each one implicitly contradicting every other. So far he’d narrowed it down to the lower and middle shelves of the left-hand side of the shop, perhaps a hundred or so bottles. He inserted a moist finger between his neck and the clammy collar of his shirt. He could feel the sweat beading his brow, prickling his underarms.

‘Well?’

‘Hang on, I’m still deciding. D’you have any preference?’

She sighed softly and clucked her tongue in that infuriating way she had, that voiceless attack on his indecision.

‘Right, OK. I was thinking maybe…’

She turned to peer through the plate-glass window with its jaunty polychromatic daubs, scouring the street for traffic wardens. Byres Road on a Friday afternoon was not a good place to park.

‘…something German? A hock?’

She screwed up her nose. ‘Whatever.’

‘No, OK, maybe not. Something else then. What do you fancy?’

She sighed again, less discreetly this time, no longer disguising her impatience. ‘For God’s sake, Carl. You choose. For once. Pick anything, it doesn’t matter. It’s always me.’

‘Right,’ he said and returned to squinting grimly at the shelves.

She looked at her watch. ‘They close in six hours.’

‘All right all right, I’m getting there. Give me a chance.’

‘Australian,’ she prompted.

‘What?’

‘Australian’s good,’ she elaborated in the same terse tone.

‘Is it?’ he said hopefully.

‘A mid-range Australian red. You can’t go far wrong with that.’

‘Red? Oh. I was thinking…’

Her control snapped. This time she managed to shake her head, sigh and cluck her tongue all in quick succession. ‘Jesus, Carl, this is getting ridiculous. It gets worse every time. It’s only a bottle of wine for God’s sake. I’m going to wait in the car. Take all the time you want.’

She left.

He wiped his brow with the back of his shirtsleeve. She was right, it was getting ridiculous. But he couldn’t help it, it wasn’t his fault. There were just too many choices these days. Capitalism was to blame. Consumerism, free enterprise, the market economy, they were the real culprits. More and more people trying to sell more and more products, millions of sales and marketing men across the globe all competing for the few hard-earned pounds in his pocket, all proclaiming their merchandise the best. Buy me! Buy me!

He thought back fondly on the trip he and Sarah had made to Albania in the late eighties. There, if you wanted a loaf of bread or a pair of shoes, you just walked into a shop and asked for ‘a loaf of bread’ or ‘a pair of shoes’ and they gave you one. The question of what type of bread or what style of shoe simply wasn’t on the agenda. There was only one type, one style. Why couldn’t life be as simple as it was in Albania?

The future frightened him, filled him with dread. The future would be a world of endlessly proliferating choices, an infinity of competing demands on one’s time and money from which one would forever be forced to select. Soon we’d have two hundred TV channels, they said. Carl didn’t want two hundred TV channels, four or five was plenty. With two hundred channels, by the time you’d found something you wanted to watch the programme would be over.

Choice was the watchword of the day. More choice in all things: in education, health care, communications, entertainment. Soon we’d be able to select the sex of our children and splice in whatever genes we fancied, bit of this bit of that, to create the offspring of our imagination: a world of brooding designer-stubbled Einsteins and supersmart executive-material Marilyns. Responsibility was slowly, or not so slowly, being removed from the state and from nature alike and handed over to the individual instead.

But what if we’re not ready for such an embarrassment of options, what if we sink under the weight of all that freedom, the burden of so much liberty? What if my choice is to have less choice, to have someone else make my choices for me, or indeed to make no choice at all?

Carl approached the counter where a young prematurely balding man (soon baldness would be a thing of the past, soon bald men would be bald by choice) was restocking the chocolate bars in the multi-tiered display case.

‘Excuse me, I was wondering if you could recommend a good Australian red. Sort of mid-price range, nothing too fancy.’

It hadn’t always been like this, it didn’t used to be so hard. In the past he’d never had a problem with decisions, even major life-changing decisions. His first job after graduating was with a community theatre group in Weymouth, though he’d never acted before. He applied for the job on a whim, was offered it (he was the only applicant) and accepted. Simple as that. What was the big deal? A year later, when he was beginning to grow tired of touring dusty Dorset village halls playing to audiences that were smaller than the cast, he took a job teaching English as a Foreign Language in Stockholm. His brother Ralph was teaching at the British Institute there and told Carl he could probably get him a job if he was interested. He thought about it for all of ten minutes. Why not? he decided. I’ll give it a try. He stayed for six years.

So when did it start, this problem with decisions? Did it begin suddenly, did something trigger it, or did it just creep up on him gradually, insidiously, without him noticing? He didn’t know. Not knowing about things, not having an opinion on things, was another aspect of the problem. These days everyone was expected to have an opinion on things. Do you believe in God, in ghosts, in love at first sight? What’s your view on UFOs and alien abductions? On abortion, care in the community, the privatization of the railways? Should Eric Cantona have gone to prison for that two-footed kick on a spectator? Was Anthony Burgess a great writer? Will Tony Blair make a good prime minister?

To these and a thousand other questions he wanted to reply ‘I don’t know. Yes. No. Maybe.’ What was so wrong with not knowing? Why was he supposed to have all the answers when qualified experts whose job it was to study these questions couldn’t agree among themselves? Not feeling strongly about things was one of the few things he felt strongly about, not having an opinion on things was one of the few things he had an opinion on. Needless to say, he wasn’t a great success at dinner parties.

The odd thing was that neither of these twin tendencies – towards indecision and towards equivocation – had hitherto caused him the slightest problem in his professional life. Yet his job involved making decisions on a daily, indeed hourly, basis. As a dictionary editor that was what you did: has this phrase been around long enough to merit inclusion? Is it informal? Is it a British usage? What’s its canonical form? What exactly does it mean? You made hundreds of these decisions every day. Yet for whatever reason – the impersonality of the task, the knowledge that all his work would be second-read by a senior editor, the fact that he had no choice but to make choices if he wished to remain in his job – it had never been a problem. Until now.

‘Pass me an apple, would you?’

‘Which one?’

Any one, Carl. They’re all the same. They’re apples.’

He passed her the bowl and let her choose one herself.

She bit into the fruit with audible venom and suggested he seek professional help.

‘Oh come on, it’s not as bad as all that.’

‘It is as bad as all that. It’s worse. It’s all the time now, it’s everything you do. Going to the supermarket has become a major ordeal. Either I choose everything we buy and you traipse behind me like a five-year-old, or I let you – no I make you – choose and we spend all afternoon there. And as for that time I asked you to pick the lottery numbers – well, I don’t even want to think about it.’

Once again she was right. If Oddbins was purgatory, Safeways was hell. Aisle after aisle, shelf upon shelf of pure mind-enfeebling, cold-sweat-producing choice. Sheer mountain walls of gaudily-packaged boxes, jars and cans all jostling for his attention, vying for his outstretched hand, shamelessly parading their self-proclaimed superiority – recommended by dentists everywhere, 3 for the price of 2, 50p off next purchase, win a trip to the Cayman Islands, collect these special tokens – begging to be bought like Bangkok bargirls. In the men’s toiletries section he’d suffer panic attacks before the massed ranks of shaving creams, foams and gels on display. He’d taken to cultivating a scraggy grey-streaked beard simply so as to avoid having to choose between a twin-blade, swivel-head and microglide razor.

The more expensive the purchase, it seemed, the more protracted and stressful was the decision-making process. Sarah had recently suggested they buy a home computer and asked him to look into it. He planned the purchase like a military campaign. Armed with a bundle of magazines from Menzies (he spent an hour transfixed by the library of titles on offer – Which Computer?, Computer Buyer, What PC?, Computer Shopper, What Micro? — before closing his eyes and choosing three at random), he set about comparing the thousands of systems available with a view to drawing up a shortlist of machines best suited to their needs.

He created elaborate charts showing the different specs, prices, warranty terms, bundled software and delivery charges for the various systems advertised. After a fortnight of intensive research he’d covered the walls of the spare room from top to bottom with impenetrable hieroglyphic designs and amassed a file of notes two inches thick. But he was still no closer to making a decision. A few days later he returned from work to find that Sarah had stopped off at Dixons on her way home from the university and chosen a system from the ones on display. She already had it installed and running.

‘I suppose you’re right,’ he said, returning the dry roast peanuts to the dish and taking a handful of Bombay mix instead, then regretting his decision. ‘I’ll phone a psychotherapist or something tomorrow. They probably have a name for what I’ve got. Maybe they can hypnotise me or something.’

She stroked his arm encouragingly. ‘I’m so glad you feel that way, sweetheart. It’ll work out, you’ll see.’

The following morning, before leaving for work, he opened the Yellow Pages under ‘Psychotherapy & analysis.’ There were half a dozen names listed there. ‘See also: Counselling & Advice, Therapists,’ he was instructed. He turned to ‘Therapists.’ There were another twenty or so entries and a further cross-reference to ‘Hypnotherapists.’ He looked under ‘Hypnotherapists.’ Here he found another two dozen individuals and organizations offering treatment for everything from stress, phobias and panic attacks to sexual problems. Finally he turned to ‘Counselling & Advice.’ Two more columns of listings and yet another cross-reference, to ‘Psychologists.’ He closed the book in despair and returned it to the phone table. He stood for some moments in the hall, unable to move.

*

Things went from bad to worse, then they got worse. He began taking time off work and staying in bed, feigning headaches, stomach cramps, sore throats. Anything to sidestep the minefield of decisions that otherwise lay in wait for him. Tea or coffee? Black or white? One lump or two? Large or small? This one or that one? Heads or tails? Your place or mine? (No, that was one decision he’d renounced long ago, when he married.)

Life was a labyrinth of undecidable decisions, a maze of unmakeable choices. He’d once read a short story called ‘The Book of Ands’ by an unknown writer whose name he couldn’t now recall. The story seemed to argue that the universe was predicated on the idea of conjunction, on the precedence of the word ‘and.’ But the writer had got it wrong: life wasn’t a series of copulating conjunctions but a succession of bifurcating alternatives. A plethora of ors, corridors of ors, ors galore, a forest of forking paths torturing the temporal horizon. The horror, the horror. No more!

One Sunday morning in early November he woke up and knew he’d reached crisis point. Sarah was in the kitchen making the breakfast. He could hear the radio playing. The thought of getting up filled him with terror. The day’s decisions stretched out before him like a map of his own impotence and despair. His decision-making faculty seemed to have frozen completely, to have been irremediably suspended. The simple prospect of having to choose which socks to wear seemed a challenge of the most monumental, the most intractable complexity. He tried to lift his head from the pillow but couldn’t. He heard Sarah’s footsteps approaching along the hallway, stamping her impatience on the carpet.

‘Are you planning to lie there all day or what?’

He didn’t answer. He couldn’t answer. It had never struck him before how impossibly difficult was the act of speech. From all the thousands of words available you had to choose first one, then another, then a third, and so on, assembling your meaning piece by piece, brick by laborious brick, till at last, at the critical moment and for no clear reason, you stopped. It seemed an act of pure magic, a mystery quite unfathomable. It was a wonder anyone ever said anything.

The next nine months he spent in a catatonic stupor in the Mental Health Unit at Gartnavel Royal Hospital on Glasgow’s Great Western Road. Acute schizophrenia was diagnosed. The doctors were able to do little for him beyond ensuring that his bodily needs were attended to. An entire pharmacopoeia of anti-psychotic drugs was tried on him but to no effect. After six months Sarah signed the consent form allowing ECT to be administered.

Initially the response was encouraging. For a couple of days after each session Carl’s head would miraculously clear. The power of speech would return to him and he’d find himself talking lucidly, coherently, and with a sense of detached wonder, about the stranger he’d become to himself. The improvement was short-lived, however. Before long the clouds would begin to re-form in his head, one by one the various parts of his system would shut down again and he’d relapse into his catatonic trance. A month or so into the electro-shock therapy, treatment was discontinued. The situation seemed hopeless.

Inwardly Carl felt relieved. He was comfortable with his catatonia, it served him well, bringing with it a perverse sense of freedom. As a catatonic you didn’t need to do anything, other people did everything for you. They washed you, fed you, took you to the bathroom, they got you up in the morning and put you to bed at night. You could hand over the responsibility for your life entirely to others, you didn’t have to do anything any more, just be. You reached a point of perfect stasis.

Sarah visited him regularly at first. She brought him little gifts and luxuries, books he didn’t read, sweets he didn’t eat, a Walkman and a bundle of his favourite Van Morrison cassettes that lay with the rubber band still round them in his bedside locker. She scrabbled around for topics of conversation, skittering from subject to subject, filling him in on family news, telling him about her day, talking more to herself than to him. Sometimes he listened.

‘Ellie sends her love. She says she’ll try and come and see you but you know how it is – it’s a long way and she’s very busy, what with Ralph being away in Saudi still. Oh and Danny’s just dislocated his shoulder playing football, poor little sod… What else?… Oh Carl, when are you coming back to us? Are you coming back? I wish you’d just speak to me, acknowledge my presence, give me a sign there’s still someone in there. Is there someone in there? It’s not easy for me, you know. Seeing you like this. I don’t know how much longer I can take it. Teaching all day, then coming here every night. I’m exhausted.’

Gradually the visits became less frequent. After the ECT was discontinued they stopped altogether for a short while. Carl hardly noticed. When Sarah returned she was different. She was nervous, fidgety, crossing and uncrossing her legs, she had difficulty meeting his gaze, or would have done if his gaze hadn’t been permanently fixed in the far distance just above her left shoulder. The reason for her unease soon became apparent.

‘I wish it didn’t have to be like this. I’ve tried, God knows I’ve tried. But I have a life too, you know. I have to think of myself. Who knows how long this’ll go on for. It could go on for – well it could be a long time. I’m sorry, Carl. Honestly I am. I wish there was some other way. But I just don’t see any alternative. Can you understand what I’m saying to you? Can you? Oh God, Carl, how did you get to be like this?’

He listened without emotion. So that was that then. End of an error. Bye bye, have a nice life. Well, it was one more decision he wouldn’t have to make.

Sometimes he dreamed of death. He dreamed that the doctor came into his room and told him they’d decided to kill him. He heard the news with a sense of relief. What was death if not a permanent release from the burden of choice? Death cancelled everything, all bets were void. He looked on with gratitude as the nurse rolled up his pyjama sleeve and administered the lethal injection.

*

It was the hottest summer on record. Windows were flung open, rotating fans were brought in, patients wandered around in ill-fitting shorts and T-shirts bearing impenetrable legends. The starched white tunics of the orderlies spawned dark sub-continents of sweat. It’s unbelievable, they said. In Glasgow! Now the weather’s gone crazy too.

Early one morning in mid-August, at the height of the heatwave, Carl sat in an armchair in the dayroom, dressed in his pyjamas and paisley dressing gown, watching an Open University programme on quantum physics. None of his fellow inmates displayed any interest in the programme. One young male patient with multiply-pierced ears was rocking back and forth in his chair, spouting a meaningless stream of nonsense to himself or an hallucinated audience. Another patient, a middle-aged Irishwoman called Mary, was burrowing in her hair for imaginary lice, then placing them between her teeth and biting. A third, older than the others, was sobbing into his hands. Having nothing better to do, Carl tried to screen out these tiresome but familiar distractions and concentrate on the programme.

An old-fashioned-looking man in a red-spotted bow tie was perched on the edge of a desk explaining Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. He informed Carl of how there was a fundamental uncertainty or indeterminacy operating at the deepest level of matter. Sub-atomic particles appeared to behave both as waves and particles at the same time. It was impossible to measure both their position and their velocity. The more closely one determined one of these variables, the less closely one could determine the other. The cat in Schrödinger’s box was both dead and not-dead. The universe, it seemed, was undecided.

Carl knew all this already, having read one or two popularizations of the subject during his university days, but he continued to watch the programme anyway, fascinated by the presenter’s bow tie with its sub-atomic dots. Watching wasn’t made any easier by the fact that Mary, the nit-picker, was now floating around the dayroom with her nightdress hiked above her waist, exposing herself to the other patients to the off-key accompaniment of what sounded like old music hall songs. Kenneth, the black orderly, strolled in from the kitchen, scolded her good-naturedly and led her away to get dressed.

The presenter had now moved on to an explanation of the ‘many worlds’ theory. It seemed that physicists were beginning to come around to the idea that the only way of solving the uncertainty problem was by positing an infinity, or at least a very great number, of alternative universes parallel to our own. According to this theory, we lived not in an island universe but in a multiverse. A sub-atomic particle that was a wave in one universe was a particle in another. Schrödinger’s cat was dead in one universe and not-dead in another. The presenter illustrated this theory with the use of a pack of cards.

‘Suppose I cut a pack of cards,’ he said, holding the cut section of the pack with its face away from the camera. ‘The uncertainty principle maintains that the identity of the card I’ve just cut is undecided until I look at it.’ He looked at the card: the eight of spades. ‘The many world theory on the other hand says the identity of this card is perfectly well determined. It was always the eight of spades,even before I looked at it. But in another universe it was the nine of spades, and in another the ten, and so on.’

Hearing this, Carl felt a sudden vertiginous surge of excitement, a dizzying rush of possibility like a jolt of electric current, a shot of ECT delivered to his brain. He almost had to grip the arms of his chair to keep from rising upwards. Stay calm, he told himself, hold on. But already his mind was racing ahead, unpicking the implications of what he’d just heard, careering to its inescapable conclusion. If this theory was correct (stay calm), if this theory was true (hold on), then it made no difference what choices an individual made in his or her life because somewhere in a long line of alternative universes a series of similar individuals would select all the other available options.

Abruptly there flashed into his mind an image from his childhood. He was seated in a barber’s chair with the fat balding barber holding a mirror behind him so he could see the reflection of the reflection of the back of his head. Framed in this secondary reflection was a tertiary reflection of the same scene, and inset in that reflection was yet another smaller reflection, and so on backwards forever – diminishing versions of himself curving to infinity.

Remembering this image, he felt a sudden intoxicating sense if liberation, and with it his catatonia seemed to dissolve, to evaporate, to melt into the heavy airless air. Almost at the same moment he experienced as a distinct physical sensation the return of his will, entering through his toes, then climbing up through his legs and groin and ascending to his brain. He understood that he was free to do whatever he liked. It doesn’t matter what I do. I can leave my chair this instant and walk to the kitchen because in another universe another me will remain seated; or I can stay where I am all day because in another universe another me will stand up and walk to the kitchen. There’s no such thing as the burden of choice because somewhere every conceivable eventuality is realized. Everything is not only possible but actual.

One Carl rose to his feet and walked to the kitchen. Kenneth, the orderly, was preparing breakfast. He looked up, surprised.

‘Hey Carl, how you doing, man? Like some breakfast? What d’you want, tea or coffee?’

Carl smiled. ‘Coffee please. Black. Two sugars.’

Another Carl walked across to the elderly patient sobbing into his hands and put his arm around the old fellow’s shoulder, telling him to hush now, come on, there’s no need to cry, it’ll be all right.’

A third Carl approached the young man spouting nonsense and, leaning low in front of him, requested him very politely to shut the fuck up.

It was only one among the innumerable Carls that now existed who remained slumped in his chair in front of the unwatched TV, silently observing as his sudden twins colonized world after world.

Published as ‘The Uncertainty Principle’ in London Magazine, Vol. 36, nos. 3 & 4 (June/July 1996)