:: Article

The Sleeping Beauty Paradox

By Adam Butler.

The first time Sasha came across Morag outside of a lecture hall situation was in February 2000, in the philosophy section on the fifth floor of Waterstone’s on Gower Street. He had recently instituted a policy of steering clear of these few square metres during peak student hours – i.e. any time after lunch but before the student union bar opened – for fear of running into seminar attendees and thereby being forced into awkward conversational corners. Yes, that was the right phrase; the juxtaposition of his somewhat oversized frame and the cramped, slant-roofed alcoves of the fifth floor formed, in his imagination, the precisely conducive setting for the kind of encounters he was hoping to avoid. On this particular afternoon, however, he’d been seized by an overwhelming and inexorable desire to obtain a copy of Brentano’s Four Phases of Philosophy, for reasons that were in no way clear to him.

Having taken the back stairs, he made decreasing orbits through the bookshelves of the art history, musicology and linguistics sections, homing in on the philosophy corner in such a way as to give himself plenty of time to abort the mission, should it turn out to be occupied by potential encounterers. Today, though, everything looked clear. He marched purposefully through the anthologies – resisting the urge to check how many copies remained of The End of Metaphysics, for which he had contributed a paper, Brackets and the Secret Longing: Husserl’s Bid for Empirical Rigour – and headed for the Bs. So purposeful was his progress, in fact, that he almost tripped over the form crouched at the bottom shelf of the Epistemology section.

Morag – for it was she – looked up, startled. Her hand, he immediately realised, was in the process of thrusting what looked to be a copy of Naming and Necessity into the depths of her bag. On recognising him, her startlement turned to something else that (he later decided) resembled a mixture of equal parts embarrassment, defiance and complicity. Oddly (he also later decided), he just smiled. They stayed like that for a second or two, her crouched at his feet, until eventually she uprighted herself in a single, fluid motion and wordlessly retreated towards the same back stairs he had taken. Just before rounding the corner into musicology, she glanced back at him over her left shoulder. This time the embarrassment had disappeared, leaving only defiance and complicity.

He’d recognised her immediately: knew her from his seminar on The Anti-Transcendental Turn: Logic, Empiricism and the Rise of Relativism; valued her for her insightful comments and attentive eyes; had even been known to gaze at her retreating back after the seminar’s end. Their next extra-curricular encounter was at some kind of house-cooling party organised by a graduate student who was moving out of her flat in King’s Cross after one too many crackheads had broken through the building’s rickety front door to crouch in the hallway and smoke their rock in peace. There was also some issue with the landlord that the graduate student had several times explained to Sasha, but that he never quite managed to understand, mainly out of an inability to maintain interest for long enough. The only bit he ever remembered was something about how these two unrelated problems had led to her and her flatmates mounting an old wing mirror on the ledge outside their sitting room window so that when the doorbell rang they could check out who it was without letting on that anyone was home. On the night of the party in question, this wing mirror became a handy topic of ice-breaking conversation, and a canny listener could probably have heard it being discussed somewhere in the room at any given moment in the course of what was, for the most part, a remarkably unspectacular party. A number of wits in fact attributed this lack of spectacle – and, in its place, a distinctly non-party-like tendency to reflectiveness – to the wing mirror itself.

Sasha no longer remembers how it was that he and Morag wound up having the requisite wing mirror conversation, though if any initial sidling-up was done, he’s pretty sure it was her rather than him. Having quickly dealt with the iconic object, they moved onto other topics of small talk that he can also no longer remember, making use of the fact that they were in the kitchen to mix themselves a not inconsiderable number of cackhanded and fizzless gin fizzes (equal parts Bombay Sapphire, Jif and water – plus a reckless quantity of sugar).

He regaled her with old favourites such as the Sleeping Beauty Paradox. A voice in his head asked exactly which lost appendix of the Slavic book of seduction he thought this was coming from. Another voice replied that this wasn’t a seduction that was going on here anyway, damn it. The first voice just walked off, laughing.

“So you see, she is in a coma, the Sleeping Beauty. Drugged, possibly. One day, let us say Monday, a coin is tossed. If it is heads, she will be woken up -”

“By who?” wondered Morag in her lolling Scottish brogue.

“This is not important.”

“Typical male answer.”

“This is a thought experiment, Morag, not a cultural narrative.”

“What’s the difference?”

“Hmph. If it is heads, the coin, she will be woken up, interviewed, and that’s that, basta, end of experiment. If it is tails, she will be woken up, interviewed, and then put back into the coma, until Tuesday, when she is woken up again, interviewed again, and then the experiment is over. On Tuesday, as a side effect of the coma, she has no memory of having been woken up on Monday. And in both cases, she doesn’t know what day it is. But she does know all the details of the experiment. Her interview consists of one question. The interviewer -”

“The one who woke her?”

“Possibly, yes. Anyway, he -”

“It would have to be a ‘he’.”

“- asks her, ‘What do you believe is the probability that the coin landed heads?’ What should she answer?”

“Half! No . . . wait . . . third! No . . . ”

“Exactly. There are two combating schools of thought, imaginatively named the halfers and the thirders. Long convoluted arguments, with no end in sight, people losing track of what they were arguing over in the first place -”

“Sounds like Yugoslavia.”

“- and – what?”

“Sorry. Poor taste. Speaking of which . . . ?” gesturing with her empty glass towards the gin and Jif.

It was shortly thereafter that she’d played the guess-Sasha’s-nationality game and plumped for Inuit, accompanying this hypothesis with a sidereal glimmer in her eye that had a profound effect on Sasha’s sense of balance. He found himself entranced by her entire manner: the way her arms stretched out along the kitchen worksurface, the way she tilted back the hands to illustrate some point: like some languid grazing animal.

Expanding on the question of nationality, she said: “Of course it’s all about fear, isn’ it. Fear of not really existing. Of lacking definition. We grab an identity and hold it tight, wrap ourselves in it like clingfilm.”

She said: “‘Cause if I cannae define myself by nationality or religion or football team, I might have to actually do something, to demonstrate who I am.”

She said: “And anyway, eight years is all it takes. No single cell of you is the same as it was eight years ago. So where is it that that ‘you’ has gone to now? The one that you were so desperate to preserve with those easy definitions? It’s like an end of the pier magic trick. Pull the wrappers off of the cage, and the thing inside has disappeared! Except here’s the real trick, the prestige: it was never even there in the first place.”

He liked to think he was smart enough not to let anything develop beyond the realms of his imagination, for the sake of his reputation and what was at that point shaping up to be a promising career. So right up until the Inuit comment, and its accompanying twinkle, he’d been maintaining what he considered to be an admirably distanced attitude to the whole encounter, in spite of the gin fizz onslaught. In that instant, however, something more than just his knees had buckled. Despite having since then analysed it from every possible angle, he still can’t say just what it was about being taken for an Inuit – however unseriously – that had precipitated the abrupt reordering of his priorities.

At the time, all he did was lean more heavily on the fake wood kitchen counter and laugh with an ebullience that the aforementioned canny listener might have noticed was in fact only a protective shell, the insides hollowed out and stuffed with a combination of equal parts drunkenness, pure desire and vague premonitory fear. After one final round, during the making of which they discovered there was no sugar left anywhere in the kitchen, Morag screwed up her face against the citric acidity and said, “So what’s the Inuit for ‘your place or mine?’, do you reckon?”, and before Sasha was really aware of what had transpired, the two of them were out on the street, waving away offers of China White and hailing an unmarked cab. As they tilted towards each other in the back seat, enveloped by the sickly sweet fumes of the pink stellated air freshener that hung from the rear view mirror, phrases from Brentano’s Four Phases of Philosophy kept momentarily camera-flashing into existence in Sasha’s head. Every period of philosophy, claimed Brentano, has four distinct phases: the first is full of “childlike innocence and wonder”; the second is dominated by practical application of the discoveries of the first; the third is a reaction, characterised by scepticism and pessimism; and the fourth, finally, is a
relapse into mysticism.

For Sasha, the ongoing and wholly secretive affair with Morag represented something like an entire philosophical era – although Platonic it certainly wasn’t (while Plato might surely have approved of the teacher-student element, he would probably have been nonplussed by its concupiscent enactment, which tended to involve the student’s wrists being tied to whatever pipe or bedstead was within easy reach).

Of course the shamming and the deceptions added to the whole appeal, since what is more romantic than a forbidden tryst? Keine Schönheit, he remembered from somewhere or other, ohne Gefahr. The idea that he was abusing his position, taking advantage of her, never really occurred to him, since this, surely, was something they were doing together. All those sideways glances, coded phonecalls, the endless simulations. It was their own private game. He particularly liked it when she spoke up in seminars and he, just to keep up appearances, would berate her in the same dismissive tone he used with all the others.

So, phase one: Yes, the childlike innocence. Yes, the wonder. Yes, the ability to say ‘I love you’ without putting quotes around it, without prefacing it with, “As the poet would say . . .”

Of course it doesn’t last. It can’t last. The absolutely naked apprehension of another being – it’s like staring directly at the sun. After a while, either you just go blind, or you understand that you need dark glasses, a piece of paper with a hole in it, whatever protection you can find. It’s not copping out, he told himself, it’s buying in – finding ways to maintain the sensation indefinitely without it burning you up. During the second phase (‘the practical application of the initial discoveries,’ as Brentano depicts it) he realised that ‘I love you’ always has quotes around it, that it refers to every other utterance of those three small words. It’s always a quotation of Shakespeare, Lou Reed, Barthes, and of every other poet, child and camel driver who has ever said it. Each instance is immediately connected to
every other instance, in a net that draws the world together. He imagined it as being like an old Underground map he once saw when he first came to London, where you pressed the button for you destination and the route you needed to take would light up: every time that someone somewhere
says ‘I love you’, the connections to every time that anyone anywhere uttered the same words will automatically, momentarily, glow.

Phase one might bring you the sun, but phase two brings you the world. Somewhere in the midst of this phase, such realisations had softened his one-time analytical rigour to the extent that he wrote in his notebook: “Perhaps, after all, it can be thought of as appropriate to use the word ‘soul’, providing one understands it for what it is: a metaphor that saves us the trouble of constantly reproducing complex lists of psychological and physical contexts.”

By the early summer of 2002, though, they were already lost in the nether regions between phases three and four. How did it happen so fast? Who knows? Powerlessness in the face of events which appear to unfold according to their own thoroughly opaque rules: this is a vital characteristic of phase three. The arc of inevitability was drawing earthward – gravity, after all, will always have its way. The usual stuff: she was holding him back, he was withholding; she was too needy, he was unsupportive; she was failing to do any work for her finals, he was just failing. He felt as though he was wading aimlessly, up to his chest in a morose swamp. His work was lost in an extended hypothesis about the transmigration of souls that felt as though it had sucked him in, despite the fact that he had trouble really believing in – or caring about – any of it. He found himself in deep conversations with the department crackpot, who had a complex theory about how there is actually only one consciousness, how we’re all really only one being.

Since he and Morag had spent the last two and half years dissembling to everyone around them, there were few friendly shoulders left anywhere in their vicinity, and so it was about this time that she began finding consolation by spending disproportionate amounts of her days in public spaces. He interpreted it as a rebellion against the furtive nature of their life together, figured that she wanted to spend her time under as many eyes as possible, and generally left her to it. She favoured tourist attractions, museums, and eventually hit upon the London Aquarium as the locus of her discontent. Fish, apparently, were her new best friends.

“They’re not wanting anything from me. And in the end they’re heaps more human than some automatons I could think of,” she snapped at him one morning when he questioned her on it, before storming out with a melodramatic slam and leaving him alone in his flat with a pile of books he just wasn’t interested in broaching. A grey light filtered in through his street-facing kitchen window. Outside a car ground through several gears, revving cholerically as it pulled away.

She didn’t turn up at that afternoon’s seminar, didn’t show up at his flat in the evening, didn’t answer her mobile. None of this seemed untoward or out of character – in fact he couldn’t help finding it something of a relief (a response that would give him grounds for endless self-recrimination when he finally discovered what had actually happened). For a day and a half, he was permeated with a lightness that he hadn’t felt for years. Childhood memories – almost exclusively happy – encroached upon his thoughts: the early morning sound of his father piling coal into the boiler, a clanging that had always mingled with his dreams; the Cyrillic letter-bedecked wallpaper in his childhood bedroom; dusky light on the wave tips of Krtaźar, where his family would holiday every August without fail. For a day and a half, it was as if he’d stumbled into a sun-dappled clearing in an otherwise dense and gloomy forest.

And then, in the late afternoon of the second day after her histrionic exit, he was checking his pigeon hole (empty apart from an announcement of an annual lecture he had no intention of attending), when, through a crack in an office door, he heard the department secretary mention the name ‘Morag MacClusker’, and phase four began in earnest.

The worst part of it all was that he couldn’t even visit her. He had to mooch around the hospital’s intensive care unit, pretending to be looking for a sick uncle, sneaking glances through the door’s small window as he passed her room. No – the worst part was the way he had to unobtrusively drill for information, sinking wells as deep as he could without appearing to be acting out of anything more than nonchalant sympathy. The secretary, thinking that his interest was merely pastoral, had furnished him with the initial details: hospital (Queen Mary’s), status (comatose), diagnosis (unknown), prognosis (unknown). Later he discovered, via overhearsay, that it had happened in the London Aquarium. Information was vague and hard to come by. He felt as if he were separated from the truth by several layers of fogged glass, as if he were in the grip of a dreamlike impotence.

No – the worst part was her smile. Surrounded by all that machinery – all those screens and tubes, several of which appeared to pass into her, several others out; the blinkspeed flashing LEDs; the overwhelming beigeness of it all; the hanging drips of garish liquid, arrayed behind her as if she were the waitress of some well stocked hellish cocktail bar; the almost caricatural hissing of the oxygen machine that sounded like the doors of an Underground carriage, endlessly opening and closing, opening and closing . . . – surrounded by all that, Morag still managed to maintain the I-know-something-you-don’t-know smile she sometimes used to wear on mornings when he’d woken first and spent a first few downy seconds watching her as she slept.

No – the worst part was the memory of just how content he’d felt for that quantum mechanical day and a half of not knowing; the guilt.

No – the worst part was when he visited the London Aquarium for himself, picking his way through schools of kids, trying his best to do what she would do, to see what she would see, to move as she would move (although the grace, he knew, was beyond him). He drifted through the gloom, aimless, bathed in the aquamarine light of the water tanks. Screaming babies, preening teenagers – he was oblivious to it all. Eventually he found a smaller, quieter room, away to one side. Here were tanks of sea urchins and mussels, small blue fish that flicked past in shifting groups that swelled and bulged like flocks of birds, all of them impervious to his presence. He sat down on an upholstered wooden block and as the shouts and footsteps from the larger rooms folded into their own echoes and tapered off into the horizons of his awareness, as other bodies in this room – his room – quietly deflated into silhouettes, their tourist babble infinitely receding, as vague suggestive wafts of what he soon stopped thinking of as artificial odours rolled across his cilia, bringing hints of brine, algae, and – yes – those six-year-old Petrovac sunbrushed waves again, he felt a creeping certainty: right here, on this very bench, was where she had passed her time. Impossible to explain, but he could feel it, somehow. He knew it: she’d spent hours, days even, sitting here and staring at this particular tank.

So he did the same.

He returned almost daily, hurried directly to this seat – skulking like an amateurish bank robber if it was occupied, while he waited for whoever was there to take the none too subtle hint. He got to know the individual creatures in the tank in front of him, realised immediately if some were missing, or if new ones had arrived. While Morag lay in the hospital, surrounded by all the apparatus of modern medicine, Sasha sat here, almost as still, with no clear idea of what it was he was waiting for, wondering whether maybe he was waiting for the same thing she had found – or was it that it had found her?

One animal in particular that drew his attention: a deep red starfish, its skin dimpled like some otherworldly rubber, the very tips of its legs a gently glowing orange. Over the aimless iteration of days that he spent there, as the blue fish zipped, and small crabs scuttled, he developed a sensation that this one starfish, although it had no eyes that he could see, was idly watching him. An idea bubbled up from the depths of his mind that it recognised him, responded to his arrival, that it was even trying to attract his attention, communicate something to him. And the languid way it lifted those orange tips as it slouched towards him, so much like the way she’d draped her arms and raised her hands, that first evening in the kitchen . . .

He visited her and watched her, incognito, through the glass, straining to hear the swooshing of the oxygen tanks. He visited it, watched it through the glass, surrounded by bluegreen hiss and bubble – watched it, he was now convinced, watching him. Some part of Sasha slouched towards an unthinkable proposition.

Not just unthinkable: risible.


And yet . . .

The way it strained its crimson limbs towards him as he sat and watched . . . the way the hissing of the tanks here matched the hissing of the tanks there . . . the way he every now and then would catch a tantalising, glancing, not quite reachable hint of her perfume . . . the way he sometimes swore he heard her whisper to him as he sat, telling him that why not, maybe this is possible, that maybe through some deft application of the correct metaphor he could sneak this sideways past his logic sensors while they looked the other way, that what is metaphysics after all but just simple plain old physics with the gentle addition of a little metaphor, and what’s the harm in a little sprinkling of metaphor after all? What was it she’d said back then, her arms draped across the kitchen’s gravel, her hands glowing gently orange? – so where is it that that you has gone to now? Was she warning him then that this is what would happen? Was her face then glowing slightly more than could have been accounted for by the student party candlelight? Was she saying to him, listen, listen – I want to tell you something, but it might take several months or years or days for me to explain.

Silhouettes swept across his view, bending in close to look, but he knew they didn’t really see what he saw. Only from here, from this singular vantage point, and only then when intercut with covert head-bowed shuffles past the single windowed hospital room – only then did it become clear.

One late afternoon – was it? impossible to tell in here – a particular silhouette, around six years old, perhaps, a girl, came into his room, moved slowly round, only half looking at the tanks, running her hand absent-mindedly along the glass, and kept on going round and round, orbiting him, and quietly singing what took him several orbits to realise was a song from his childhood, actually singing it in Montenegrin, she was, and he just sat there, silently begging her never to stop, to just keep on going round and round, to wrap him up forever in her cocoon, his eyes at first twitching, then swelling, chary to begin with and unused to the procedure, but then eventually and freely giving up their salt water.

Milica, Milica has long eyelashes
They cover her red cheeks
I looked at her, I looked at her for three years
I couldn’t take, I couldn’t take my eyes off her eyes
Those black, black eyes and white face.


Adam Butler lives in Berlin. As a musician he has released five albums of experimental crunk showtunes under the pseudonym Vert, and has performed throughout Europe, the US and Asia. The New York Times have compared his music to John Cage; Boomkat have compared it to Robbie Williams. ‘The Sleeping Beauty Paradox’ is an extract from a novel in progress, provisionally entitled *. Another extract was published in Litro magazine.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, November 8th, 2010.