Metaphysics. I’d heard this word a few times before, just thrown out there, into a sea of conversation. Thrown out with or without meaning. Thrown out to impress or just to say something that doesn’t sound so trivial, thrown out even because it goes well with physics, metaphysics. It was a word that often popped up in my mind, slowly ricocheting. Randomly. Black letters in a white background, sometimes even on a black galactic background, the letters had a grey border. The word made enough rounds through my head to lodge itself in there. It’s still there.
When I was about to finish high school, I knew it was a word about which I wanted to read books. It seemed like a big topic that would answer many of my infinite, never-ending questions, ones that come one after the other. When I hear the answer to one of them, it brings me to a question that leads the discussion to a whole new world, and then Mae, my step-dad, asks, “Do you really want to know the answer if you’ll jump to a whole other subject?”
(Yes, I do). I thought that when I understood the word metaphysics, my conception of reality would change.
I remember I downloaded a book called Metaphysics, but I never read it, of course. I have this condition which makes me collect books: through downloads, through friends, through libraries, but I never actually read them, leaving them on my important-to-do-in-my-lifetime pile. I guess this condition started for me in high school, when we had to read Gabriel García Márquez’ Cien años de soledad (CAS). I never finished it. I was doing the International Baccalaureate’s (IB) Higher Level (HL) Literature in Spanish and English, so I had many readings to do for these classes and five others, including HL Economics. Everyone read it everywhere. The hallways were full of bookworms swallowing every page. All I saw were people reading it. My sister on the kitchen floor, sitting criss-crossed with the book in between her legs. Era mi condena. A lot of people managed. I didn’t. Needless to say, I failed the test. I had always been an A+ student, but there it was, my first zero. I hung it on my wall.
And still, the book was there to be read. It was the book everyone spoke about, even my mom, who always says she read just two books for school: one of them, CAS. How couldn’t I finish it? Even my mother had. And so I graduated from school and I decided to finally finish it. It was my project. It would be my Summer 2016 book.
Summer 2016, I was only able to reach page 250.
I gave it another shot the next summer, but had to start from page one, because I didn’t remember anything, and I need to know everything that’s happening if I want to continue. That adds to my condition: I need to read every word of every page, otherwise I get desperate. That makes me a slow reader, which discourages me from reading. This time I made it to page 300.
In between, it was the book I recommended to everyone, whenever I got the chance to show off my literacy. I moved to Berlin, and the book felt like an encyclopedia of South American society, the ways families work in the continent, the roles of individuals in their family and in society, and how my own family relates. It brought me back to my home, my roots, and our collective roots. Ursula, one of the main characters, reminded me of Mama, the grandma I adopted for myself. Ursula was old and blind. Still, she managed to know where everything was physically and how every single person of her family looked and was doing. Mama is nearly deaf and sees blurry. She always tells me she’s afraid of dying, because she wants to look after us, her family, she wants to know what we are all up to and see us grow.
CAS helped me grasp some of the things I always knew were happening but could never put into words. Things like the way in which colonization impacted the future of Latin America until today. What Eduardo Galeano talked about in his essay Las venas abiertas de Latinoamérica: how foreigners came and exploited the land and its natives, making the latter visitors in their own country. The names of the characters in the book seem as archetypes for people, highlighting the importance of heritage and history, and that labels can determine destiny. The book plays with reality in ways I didn’t think were possible. For example, the story starts at the beginning of time, when many things still had no name, so to refer to them you could only point at them. Also, when a plague of insomnia came and nobody could manage to sleep. At first it wasn’t a problem, but then people started forgetting everything. One of the characters labeled the furniture around the house so they wouldn’t forget their names, just like when we learn Deutsch and paste words all around our flats.
The book is entirely fiction, magical realism, but everything is a hidden analogy of our history in South America. In this way, it is a useful fiction, like the models we use in Economics to understand the world. Useful fictions are simplified representations of reality that are not true but become a tool to learn and make sense of our messy world. Again, I stopped reading it, lo dejé, como el cigarro que lo he dejado 4 veces. I gave it one more shot in Winter 2017. Page 350. That was as far as I could manage. I opened it up on this page four times during the next two years, but still, all I could do was 360. I realized I hadn’t read any books in between, I was stuck, thanks to my mentality of all-in or all-out. I decided I couldn’t finish it, I was condemned to never finishing it, to 100 years of my own solitude. Finishing this book wasn’t written on my life’s path.
I allowed myself to leave CAS, and with that permission came my responsibility of
recommending it and talking about it to anyone with confidence. After all, even without finishing it, I could still somehow relate it to my own life, my family, our society in Latin America, and our society as a whole. The decision to leave CAS opened up a new world for me: I was finally able to read new books. I started with Just Kids by Patti Smith, and devoured it, as it is a beautiful opportunity to get inside the world of art and read the story of two soul mates. The Unbearable Lightness of Being came next and helped me describe my feelings after a long night out with Piscola and Champagne. Mix champagne it with Pisco and boom, the recipe for feeling the unbearable lightness of being. Then, Scar Tissue by Anthony Kiedis, Red Hot Chilli Pepper’s vocalist, a painful, accessible account of addiction and rock music. Now I’m reading Bukowski’s Ham on Rye, and it has made me understand how everyone is shaped by their past. How can someone who’s never felt love give away love?
Anyway, Metaphysics. Two years ago, I was sitting at my kitchen in Lichtenberg. Owen, my dear flatmate, had two friends-of-a-friend visiting, and we had a spare room. One of them was Jake. We started talking about what we can’t perceive but still exists, the many occurrences that could be either coincidences or fate. We couldn’t really say anything concrete, but somehow the conversation led us both to say “Metaphysics,” at the same time. Metaphysics was in every sentence, behind the actual meaning we wanted to give to our words. It was the structure and the essence. “It’s the meta, it’s all in the meta,” we kept saying to each other. I had never actually read the definition of Metaphysics, and wasn’t sure I knew its meaning, but sitting in our dimly lit Wohnung’s kitchen, our center for “tertulias”, talking to this new Jake dude, it all made sense. It felt like I had always known the meaning, as if it was part of our collective conscience. It seemed like he did too. He knew it. We both knew it without having to explain. Sometimes you just feel it, you just understand without words, that’s metaphysics.
Today is the first time I look up the definition. The Public Broadcasting Service defines metaphysics as a philosophy or study that “is concerned with explaining the features of reality that exist beyond the physical world and our immediate senses.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy says metaphysical realism is the idea that reality exists independently of how inquiring agents take it to be or of our ability to discover it. Wow, just what I had always felt it was. Perhaps what I call collective conscience, and I explain through my thought that we all have inherited thoughts from our ancestors actually has a name: Realism. All this year I’ve wondered if there are any universal truths, truths that are truly independent of who or what you are. Does metaphysics hold the answer?
Don’t worry if you didn’t understand the last paragraph. Metaphysics is still here and there. Metaphysics is what gives those thoughts I couldn’t piece together about South America an existence. It makes them real, independent of one’s mind. It is what Gabriel García Márquez is able to put into words through metaphors and analogies. It’s one of those things you just know. It’s the reason why I was never able to finish CAS.
Colomba Dumay is a curious individual always striving to know more. She spends her days following her thoughts and instincts in a green valley. The love of her life is Berlin.