Dialogues with Dr. Fu
It started almost imperceptibly one morning. The meticulous pre-office routine complete – the wet-shave, the moisturising, the laying out of shirt and tie, the shoe-buffing, the preening of his thick lustrous hair - he stood by the bathroom mirror and got an inkling that something about him was not as solid as it once was.
His wife had been in Lyon visiting her mother leaving him to his own devices - children absent - and perhaps this reconfiguration of the home’s feng shui had caused something to dislodge in his psyche. As he stood up against the panoramic bathroom mirror vaguely admiring his face, some desire compelled him to stop a second and really look; whence the almost absurd notion came that he could no longer be sure that the image reflected back to him was unquestionably him.
Of course he knew it was him out of habit, but take away that habit, what was the source of his conviction that he was Joseph Nerurkar? All of a sudden he saw clearly and irredeemably that the conviction was based on a thought. A simple thought, but one that came so automatically, he’d failed to recognise it as one his entire life. If the thought didn’t come, he wasn’t anyone. The thought did come but it didn’t have to. If his memory went, it wouldn’t. The thought came in time, in the context of the conventional belief in a series of moments leading ineluctably forward from one to the next. If there was no time, if there is no time, then what am I right now? Who am I? God this all reminds me of those stupid tutorials with Dr Adva he thought. They’d covered Heidegger in his first year at Oxford but it had always been taken to be a self-contained nugget of learning motivated by normal worldly concerns.
It couldn’t be that simple. If he was a thought, then what was everyone else? He stood fixed, feet planted on the bathroom tiling. Was he this physical body then, this big blundering lumpen corpus? It felt like it; this body so inhabited and solid, so under his control and authorship. But some parts of it were admittedly less him than others. The tips of his fingers could be excised leaving him still with the sense of being irrevocably him. Where was the essence? He scanned his faced admiringly. He liked this face; it somehow made him what he was, helping to get him to where he was today. He wouldn’t be able to see his essence though; he would have to feel it, get to it, touch it. He pinched thumb and forefinger of his right hand around both sides of his forehead as if part of a preliminary demonstration to an imaginary audience. Was he in his head? Somewhere in the skull, in a part of the brain the neurologists had yet to discover? He strained his focus into one part as if it could transmit back the inviolable core of his isness. What about the eyes, the seat of the soul he thought, as he drew himself in to the cold surface of the mirror, inspecting, coming ever closer, only to be met by the glint of the reflected glare of one of the bathroom’s heavy downlighters. There was nothing there.
When he got back to the house that evening, he was revisited by the morning’s deliberations. Could a thought conjure such a solid thing into life? If his ‘self’ was a thought why did he feel so solid, so independent and real? All he had to do was glance at it for an instant and he knew this to be him. He knew. But then why was it so difficult to get hold of it? But it was also something to do with memory. The memory of him was triggered every time like a responsive sensor. Whatever it was, the recollection happened instantaneously and could never be stopped.
Then Sandie returned Friday evening. But she didn’t notice any difference in him, or at least didn’t say so. All she said was: I think your hair has started to fall out Joe. They were standing side by side in front of the bathroom mirror and there had been a noticeable thinning each side of his widow’s peak where the curls once abounded. Regardless of his twiddling, the bare bit refused to recede. As soon as he arranged one ringlet one way, a gap appeared in that part of the scalp he’d moved the hair from. At times it didn’t bother him -- it was a natural process -- at times he was horrified. Each morning thick clumps gathered by the plughole. He decided to grow the hair out to compensate and by the summer months had managed to cultivate the faint beginnings of pony tail which he tied back using one of her hair bands.
At work he was no longer so invested in the outcome; everything happened automatically whether he made himself the centre or not. He was able to write his reports with more clarity. In meetings he paid attention to exactly what the person was saying, not just because he knew he should, but because he was fully present. He noticed their clichés, idiosyncratic gestures. He was aware of his tone in response. He noticed their pattern, things they always did in the face of a particular stimulus. They were automatons; acting out, unless they were laughing. When they laughed, they were natural and uninhibited, free from the false notion of who they were. Everyone was compensating for shame or mild unease and the persona was designed to hide this. Everyone was in conflict with themselves at any given moment.
Sometimes he found himself staying in the office to sit and stare out of the window behind his desk that looked out onto the gardens below. Few went to these gardens and there was a great serenity in looking from this vantage point through the bay window onto the manicured lawn and hedges and solitary wooden bench. Sometimes a small bird would alight on the bench -- perhaps a starling or sparrow -- and he enjoyed observing the jaunty movement, its unpredictable hop from one spot to the next, its taking of flight and disappearance into the air beyond his view.
He phoned local therapists knowing he was only going through the motions, disappointed that no one could ever know more about himself than he did. Each invited him for a session to see how things panned out. He googled combinations of pertinent words such as: ‘loss’ ‘self’, ‘identity shift’, ‘ego’ ‘death’ entries yielding regurgitated content that linked psychological upheaval to circumstantial change. When he broached the subject with Sandie and two close friends, he couldn’t explain himself and his words came out muddled. He wrestled with the opaque ideas of the Indian and Buddhist traditions, none of which truly encompassed his experience. Thankfully his western philosophy books were long gone. Nothing seemed to talk about that profound sense he had that he simply wasn’t who he thought he was.
By then totally bald, it was some months later that he discovered Dr. Fu. An art and antiques dealer close to his house turned out to be also a bookshop specialising in esoteric books. One or two shadowy males browsed over a small ground floor and basement arrangement. The air smelt of mildew and incense and the décor was the colour of baize. There were a few sacred objects in glass cabinets. He went down to the basement. On an unmarked shelf he noticed a white book without cover art. On the front and spine it read: Who Are You? (Dialogues with Dr Fu). He opened it up and saw Doctor Fu’s image inset into the top left corner of the cover, looking mean. Then he read the first page: Doctor Fu knows nothing about nothing, lives in isolation, and entirely authorises you to copy, reproduce and misquote the content to your heart’s desire. It was more like a pamphlet than a book, only fifty-four pages. The cashier made no remark when he handed him his credit card. Most of the book was palatable but there was a small section he came to rely on: ‘The problem is not the question but the questioner and the questioner and the question are the same. If you ask: ‘Who am I?’, the ‘am’ is the word that creates the illusion of self, it divides the ‘Who’ and the ‘I’ into two, suggesting there is something there doing the doing. There isn’t. You need the ‘am’ for the sentence to make sense. The question only remains because the illusory questioner wants to remain. The self does not want to accept its own falseness.’
That was it, he understood that deeply. There was only one. In the undivided moment, there was only one.
Wind forward forty-four years. ‘The questioner and the question are the same.’ Face up on the bed, just breathing and the rest of the body still. Joseph Nerurkar is about to die, whether now or in a couple of days time. The flesh no longer supports the life force. Something will be turned off, like sleep. Sandie will come up soon to see him. His unmet needs lie intact within his psyche; the book is the only thing that promised redemption. His thought processes follow the same tack they did as when he was six. The alteration in the natural light of the passing of day to night was never fundamental or definitive. There has never been a way out of consciousness. As little penetrating into the moment as there is escaping it.
When Dr Fu waved him away from his house on the remote Japanese island all those years ago, it had seemed lost. He had invested that moment with a ponderous gravity, the culmination of his flight of fancy. He had tracked the man down, found an interpreter, and they’d taken the Shinkansen and local train. He had imagined countless scenarios and playings-out. He had probably wanted to be liked. They could not come in; they must go away. No, not tomorrow either. When then? Never. They had been warned. It happened within the space of about a minute. It was an electric shock, he felt a wave of nausea, he could hardly stand up. He remembered that the interpreter did not know what to say. Then he thought of his family. A clear image came to him of him and them together, a happy image. He was enmeshed with something; even though this was only a thought. It wasn’t so much gratitude but sheer relief. Nothing just stopped. A breeze got up and they stepped back on the boat as it was about to set off for Kasaoka. It was almost sundown. The next day he was back in Tokyo.