Monday, June 01, 2009

Must the show go on?

Must the show go on?
There must be some mistake
I didnt mean to let them
Take away my soul.
Am I too old? Is it too late?
Where has the feeling gone?
Will I remember the songs?
The show must go on.

(Pink Floyd - The Wall)

Heading to Europe in a few hours, after another sleepless night. Why am I going? Conference, soul searching, or overindulgence in painful recollections? There's a sticky opaque gloom of fog covering everything as I walk to the department in the morning to print out my talk. They call them "talks" as if to suggest that there is some kind of communication going on. Heading for the airport: how many nights flying over oceans, over so many years, why? When will it stop? It cannot: like for a beat poet on the road, restlessness becomes a form of addiction. One knows it causes pain and one keeps nonetheless returning to it. There are always excuses: defending one's own work, one's right to exist, always something to defend, a life in the trenches of an endless war. What for? If only one could trust one's fellow human beings, there wouldn't be such a great need for defense and deterrence in interpersonal relations.

Reading on the metro ride to the airport Philip Dick's post-apocalyptic portrait of Edward Teller, rendered as the paranoid Dr.Bluthgeld in the novel "Dr.Bloodmoney", written at the height of the Cold War where those scenarios of rampant paranoia and devastating destruction seemed palpably real. One wonders how much damage the likes of Teller have done to the image of science in the collective consciousness of our civilization. On the other hand, are we really all that different from Dick's Dr.Bluthgeld? With a more diversified range of paranoid thoughts perhaps, but all this fear and defensive attitudes, are they not born of the same fundamental distrust of others? If this is so, then the question is where that originates from? How does an enthusiastic young scientist gets transformed into an embattled, entrenched, callous fighter a few years down the road? How does one become Dr.Bluthgeld? There are in the course of one's scientific life a series of crucial alchemies of human relation whose functioning has an enormous influence on the perception one has of one's own work and of the environment in which it develops: student/supervisor relations, mentors, collaborators. When too many of these become disfunctional one develops a distrust for others and ultimately this starts to make room for subtle paranoid suspicion and intense fears.

The kind of paranoid feelings generated by an unexpected breakdown of trust, by which one begins to feel threatened by enemies and betrayed by friends, has all the qualities of a loss of correlation scale phenomenon, of the type that happens in physical systems near a phase transition. Let me explain better what I mean. An important function of our brain is to recognize patterns of causality, causal correlations between different events. That is an obviously important survival tract in evolutionary terms. The relation of causality typically has an associated scale length: most chains of causality happen on a small scale, our everyday actions influence our immediate surroundings but have scarcely any influence on what happens at a large distance. Distance here does not necessarily mean geographic distance: fast electronic communication can reach the other end of the world instantaneously, but it is still confined to carrying our influence only to nearby sites in the graph of our connectedness to others. Events of longer correlation length are proportionately rare. Ordinarily our perception of causal relations also involves a very clear instinctive appreciation of what is a plausible scale of causal interaction between different events. A paranoid feeling consists of a perception of causality where the associated understanding of correlation lengths has gone missing, so that correlations at all length scales suddenly appear simultaneously possible. This appearance of correlation at all scales is typical of physical systems near a phase transition. Thus, in the more extreme cases of paranoia conspiracies involving a large number of people, international organizations, and dark hidden powers are imagined scheming against a lone subject. This is a typical example of the loss of perception of what is a reasonable causal correlation length. Milder forms of paranoid feelings, where one does not necessarily start dreaming up huge conspiracy theories, follow nonetheless a similar principle, by which events that are only mildly and locally correlated are projected onto larger and larger scales and momentary accidents are upgraded to the status of long term plans. The most difficult thing in such cases is to break the scale invariance and reconstruct a typical correlation size, cooling the system down and away from the phase transition. In human relationship, these phase transitions that generate the paranoid loss of scale phenomena are typically provoked by a sudden and unexpected loss of trust in someone, a close friend for example, whom one had previously relied on. One has to slowly reconstruct trust, something which is in general very difficult to do, in order to move away from the critical point and start to recover a sense of the true scale of phenomena.

I haven't taken these long haul flights in quite some time now, and it gets me to wonder how I was able to do this every two or three weeks for so many years. And now again: the freezing temperature on the plane, cramped legs and aching back, and the ears exploding and imploding in waves of pain. What for? Just for the illusion of maintaining alive a dream that others have so casually destroyed.

Another long train ride on the RER. The train rolls on, lulled by a monotonous voice of metal: what for? what for? what for? Paris comes. Paris goes. At the other end of the line, a generic nowhere hosts a research institute and a psychiatric hospital. As the locals have it, only subtle hints tell the two apart. I drop my bag, lock the door, and get on the train again, back into Paris. Too much loneliness out there, too much room for memory to play its sordid blame games inside the mind, running in endless circles. Back from Paris at midnight and wide awake again at 3am. When was the last time I slept more than two or three hours?

Days on days off the Paris spring isn't so bad and a four days conference in Paris is, not surprisingly, far preferable to a ten days conference in the midwest on at least two counts: less conference, more pleasurable surroundings. It seems, now that I am nearing the time to fly back again, that I can make at least an attempt at answering the "what for?" question that was tormenting me on my way here. To make a first step towards restoring a sense of trust that has gotten destroyed over the past year and also to experiment with sitting in conferences with a different crowd of people, to see whether that will help anesthetize the sore wound left behind by the last attempts. On both counts it seems that the trip was worth it and I am off for a last free day of book shopping. Rain in the background, Paris blues.

The show must go on.