Justin Skolnick lives and works in Portland.


Originally posted to blockquote.org on in Chicago, Illinois

Revised in Portland, Oregon

In the third of Descartes’ six Meditations on First Philosophy, either he has taken flight from reason or I have missed something. I suspect that if there’s a link, it’s on the page I rushed through before the singleminded masses pushed me and all creation from the train when the doors opened to the platform. Mindful of the interest I have in preserving the embodied life I have enjoyed so many years, I find they leave me no true option but to become one with them down the platform, up the escalators, and out into the street.

Somehow the book remains dangling from my hand when all of a sudden I find myself standing at the end of a line for tea, and when just as suddenly a line appears behind me.

The woman who will order after me wears a short blue summer dress. She is so tall that she can read over my shoulder the title of the book that I now rest on the counter, and she remarks, “Some light morning reading,” grinning. I reply with words that are neither as extraordinary nor as apt as the words that come to mind two minutes later, when I’m seated and watching her stride west on Randolph Street.

Once I sit, with my book and a cup of tea too hot to drink, my phone reports that I have enough time to divert myself with the commuters passing the enormous windows, but only that, not enough to hunt the text with due attention. I put the tea on a table and the book in my bag.

Descartes here meditates on the possibility, at this point in the text by no means certain, that things exist external to himself. “But what then am I? A thing that thinks.” He observes, he senses: still neither act suffices to convince him the world takes place outside his own mind. He reports feeling heat; I ease my hand from a steaming paper cup and turn my view away from the gleaming ivory white sky. The cup and the sun could be my own work — the book, the woman, and the crowds all my device, the creative product of my thinking self.

I remember an acquaintance once responded with a measured breath how frightening the thought of solipsism is. This, coming from someone who didn’t live by measure, who I knew as a train speeding faster than a crew could lay down tracks for it to ride. My response was a smile. I could then and I still can now imagine more frightening things than a world wholly contained within myself.

A more frightening thing is how the idea of solipsism might motivate someone who is not myself to act within the world that I also inhabit, action of the kind Andre Breton called, “The purest surrealist act” — of “walking into a crowd with a loaded gun and firing into it randomly.” History advises me to add, DO NOT DO THIS. Certain ideas license antisocial behavior, often on the grounds that human society is basically false, and if false then one’s actions within it are meaningless.

As one touched by trauma, I must say that actions are very meaningful. There is another mode of thinking much more insidious than mere solipsism. I won’t name it; I don’t need to; it’s incredibly familiar.

I’m just thinking, as I sit watching well-dressed people pass by the hundred toward the towers that stretch higher toward the sun here in Chicago than anywhere for hundreds of miles. I’m thinking, as cars and busses pass, as the el screeches stopped. I’m wondering how many places we all come from this morning, how many places we’ll go back to at night.

What I’m thinking is how strange it is that we all come to this one place, at right about the same time, do things in the towers at the same time, and leave the towers for our own places at the same time. And I’m thinking about how singleminded we all become to ensure that these things happen at the right times, how everything else in the world impedes our daily progress towards these ends. And how counterproductive it is to view oneself as one more impediment among countless impediments.

Descartes, I think, sitting in that soft, cool chair before work on Friday, Descartes and his logic can wait for the weekend. It seems best to sit quiet, let my mind spin down to a reasonable cycle, watch the people on the sidewalk. A few spare minutes to collect myself and gather my thoughts, I reason, might be for the best.