“It’s all a matter of cognition. The world as perceived. And that’s what’s changin’ in your brain, is what I think.”

Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World
Chapters 19-28
By Dennis Abrams


Chapter 19: Pink jogging shoes and galoshes. “The splendor of the fields, the glory of the flowers.” Pain. Are we being trailed? Burger and a Coke. The chubby girl clears her plate. Stop at an all-night supermarket for beer and whiskey. “It’s all right, don’t worry, I’ll be by your side.” The chubby girl is an expert at the stock market. “Everyone must have one thing that they can excel at.” The chubby girls suggest the move in together and move to Greece or Finland, “We’d have plenty of money, and meanwhile you could be reborn as a first-rate human being.” His emotional shell. He learns that 25 out of the 26 people who had his surgery had died. The professor’s office ransacked. The Professor’s notebook. X.

Chapter 20: Some of the beasts die from the cold. Climbing the Watchtower. “The creatures have lived here for many millennia, and so they will continue Many will die over the winter, but in spring the survivors will foal. New life pushes old out of the way. The number of beasts that can live in this Town is limited.” The skulls of the dead beasts are cleaned by the Gatekeeper, and then filled with old dreams. “Many things will become clear for you over the course of the winter. Whether or not you like what you learn, it will all come to pass. The snow will fall, the beasts will die. No one can stop this. In the afternoon, gray smoke will rise from the burning beasts. All winter long, every day. White snow and gray smoke.”

Chapter 21: Duran Duran on the stereo. Bracelets and sex. INKlings are disgusting creatures and they speak a disgusting language. “Tell me, do you take off your earrings when you take a shower?” The Professor can remove the pain. The waterfall. The laboratory has been trashed as well. The chubby girl says that the Professor has used a secret escape route. Darkness. Finding the right path. The trail of paperclips. The sanctuary. The intricate fish relief. Climbing the mountain. “The mountain was filthy from the beginning. This pace is a Pandora’s Box sealed over by the earth’s crust. Filth was concentrated here. And we’re going to pass right through the center of it.” Thinking of Ben Johnson to be happy. “Watashi” admits that he can’t play any musical instruments. The Russian folksong. Footsteps sound like Finnish. Time slowing down. “The aged Devil sat by the side of a Finnish country road.” Watashi falls asleep, a trap set by the mountain. The air begins to tremble.

Chapter 22: Gray smoke. The sun comes out. Snow blindness. “My eyes can’t tolerate light.” “Something more true than sunlight. Something perhaps from your former world that gave you comfort.” One last reading. The librarian’s feeling towards her mother. Singing. Boku can’t remember a single song. Musical instruments. “…I begin to feel a string of memory slowly unraveling inside me.” Looking for musical instruments in the Collection Room. Abandoned suitcases and clothes.

Chapter 23: The sound. The leeches. “Zillions are crawling up from the holes. If we hang around here, they’ll suck us dry…The leeches are only the beginning. The real incredible part comes later.” “The leeches, Grandfather says, are acolytes of those fish. So the INKlings make offerings to the leeches too. Fresh meat, warm blood, humans dragged under from the surface world.” Having to reach the altar before the water rises. Watashi wants a newspaper – why? The tower to the altar. Climbing. A sudden memory of a newsreel and losing his shadow. “Until this moment the memory, it seemed, had been sealed off from the sludge of my consciousness by an intervening force.” Whose memories are they? Craving whiskey. “I was set to survive. To get back my memories. I would be manipulated no more.”

Chapter 24: The Gatekeeper tells Boku that while “officially the Town has no musical instruments,” he should go to the Power Station and ask the Caretaker. The Shadow Grounds. His shadow “His face is haggard, all eyes and beard.” His shadow’s job is to help burn the dead beasts. The shadow’s plan to escape. The shadow promises to find a way out. “The town seems to contain everything it needs to sustain itself in perpetual peace and security. The order of things remains perfectly constant, no matter what happens. But a world of perpetual motion is theoretically impossible. There has to be a trick. The system must take in and let out somewhere.”

Chapter 25: The Professor at the top of the steps, with a sprained foot. Removing the leech. Corned beef and peaches. The Professor tells all: “I must apologize. Research is research, but I tricked you and I put your life in danger.” Working for System Central Research. Passing information through a “black box” – “the black box is the unconscious.” “And what is identity? The cognitive system arising from the aggregate memories of that individual’s past experiences. The layman’s word for this is the mind.” Are you bold or timid? No knowledge of the cognitive mind, The elephant graveyard, really the elephant factory. “What would happen if you fixed a person’s black box at one point in time?” Two different cognitive systems in one person. System A is on permanent hold, System B is always changing. The junction box. Tests. The subjects’ core consciousness are stored in the System vault – a close to total simulation. Videotaping the core consciousness. “Gave each one a title, and that title became the title of the black box. You’re is ‘End of the World,’ isn’t it?’” The Professor rationalizes that he’s not a Nazi. Laying down bridges to fill in memory/mind gaps. Adding the third circuit.
Watashi is the key to the info wars. “It’s the world in your mind that’s going to end.” The three circuits. “You mean I’m going to be stuck inside this third circuit with no hope of return?” “Well, uh, yes. You’ll be livin’ in the End of the World. I’m terribly, terribly sorry.” “You’ll be losin’ everything from here, but it’ll all be there.”

Chapter 26: The Librarian goes with Boku to the Power Station, “I will not let you go alone. The Woods are cruel; you still do not understand.” The Beasts only eat what they’ve been fed. The Power Station. “The Town is lighted by wind. There is a powerful cry in the earth here. We harness it to turn the works.” The Caretaker has never gone into the Woods.

Chapter 27: Junction B has suffered a breakdown – Watashi has already started bridging. “In other words, you’ve begun t’produce memories. Or t’fall back on our metaphor, as your subsconscious elephant factory changes, you’re makin’ adjustments via a channel to surface consciousness.” Deja vus of a sort, “Till finally you reassemble a world out of these new memories.” Preparing to move to another world, “So the world you see right now is changin’ bit by bit t’match up.” The time paradox. “It’s all a matter of cognition. The world as perceived. And that’s what’s changin’ in your brain, is what I think.” The world goes on forever. The encyclopedia wand. The toothpick analogy. “Humans are immortal in their thought. Though strictly speakin’, not immortal, but endlessly asymptotically close to immoral. That’s internal life.” The suicide option. “It’s a peaceful world. Your own world, a world of your own makin’. You can be your self there. You’ve got everythin’ there. And at the same time, there is nothin’. Can you picture a world like that?” The turnover will take place in twenty-nine hours and thirty-five minutes (plus or minus forty-five minutes.) Watashi and the girl leave the Professor to return aboveground.

Chapter 28: Herbal drink. Sandwiches and mushrooms. The collection of instruments. “What sounds, as if they change colors!” The accordion. The Librarian tells Boku that the Caretaker still has part of his shadow left.

A few questions/observations:

1. I’m wondering what the Japanese equivalent of the Professor’s dropped g’s, “All we’re talkin’ about is redirectin’ the flow of invisible electrical charges, so takin’ out the junction box for testin’…” I found it kind of annoying in large doses. Any thoughts?

2. Paperclips again.

3. Watashi has his “emotional shell” that the chubby girl hopes to break down; the Librarian wants to help break down Boku’s “winter shell.”

4. Was I the only one who, reading about the “white snow and gray smoke” and the abandoned suitcases etc. in “End of the World” had thoughts about Nazi concentration camps?

5. Is everybody clear on the inside of Watashi’s head? I did love the Professor’s early-on description of the cognitive mind:

‘That’s the precision programming you’ve got built in. You yourself don’t know a thing about the inner shenanigans of that program. ‘Tisn’t any need for you t’know. Even without you knowin’, you function as yourself. That’s your black box. In other words, we all carry around this great unexplored ‘elephant graveyard’ inside us. Outerspace aside, this is truly humanity’s last terra incognita.

‘No, an ‘elephant graveyard’ isn’t exactly right. ‘Tisn’t a burial ground for collected dead memories. An ‘elephant factory’ is more like it. There’s where you sort through countless memories and bits of knowledge, arrange the sorted chips into complex lines, combine these lines into even more complex bundles, and finally make up a cognitive system. A veritable production line, with you as the boss. Unfortunately, though, the factory floor is off-limits. Like Alice in Wonderland, you need a special drug t’shrink you in.’

‘So our behavior patterns run according to commands issued by this elephant factory?’

This ties in quite nicely with a book I just finished a couple of weeks ago, Free Will by Sam Harris. An excerpt:

“We are conscious of only a tiny fraction of the information that our brains process in each moment. Although we continually notice changes in our experience – in thought, mood, perception, behavior, etc. – we are utterl7y unaware of the neurophysiological events that produce them. In fact we can be very poor witnesses to experience itself. By merely glancing at your face or listening to your tone of voice, others are often more aware of your state of mind and motivations than you are.

I generally start each day with a cup of coffee or tea – sometimes two. This morning, it wsa coffee (two). Why not tea? I am in no position to know. I wanted coffee more than I wanted tea today, and I was free to have what I wanted. Did I consciously choose coffee over tea? No. The choice was made for me by events in my brain that I, as the conscious witness of my thoughts and actions, could not inspect or influence. Could I have ‘changed my mind’ and switched to tea before the coffee drinker in me could get his bearings? Yes, but this impulse would also have been the product of unconscious causes. Why didn’t it arise this morning? Why might it arise in the future? I cannot know. The intention to do one thing and not another does not originate in consciousness – rather, it appears in consciousness, as does any thought or impulse that might oppose it.

The physiologist Benjamin Libet famously used EEG to show that activity in the brain’s motor cortex can be detected some 300 milliseconds before a person feels that he has decided to move. Another lab extended this work using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI): Subjects were asked to press one of two buttons while watching a ‘clock’ composed of a random sequence of letters appearing on a screen. They reported which letter was visible at the moment they decided to press one button or the other. The experimenters found two brain regions that contained information about which buttons subjects would press a full 7 to 10 seconds before the decision was consciously made. More recently, direct recordings from the cortex showed that the activity of merely 256 neurons was sufficient to predict with 80 percent accuracy a person’s decision to move 700 milliseconds before he became aware of it.

These findings are difficult to reconcile with the sense that we are the conscious authors of our actions. One fact now seems indisputable: Some moments before you are aware of what you will do next – a time in which you subjectively appear to have complete freedom to behave however you please – your brain has already determined what you will do. You then become conscious of this ‘decision’ and believe that you are in the process of making it.

The distinction between ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ systems in the brain offers no relief: I, as the conscious witness of my experience, no more initiate events in my prefrontal cortex than I cause my heart to beat. There will always be some delay between the first neurophysiological events that kindle my next conscious thought and the thought itself. And even if there weren’t – even if all mental states were truly coincident with their underlying brain states – I cannot decide what I will next think or intend until a thought or intention arises. What will my next mental state be? I do not know – it just happens…”


To continue with Rubin:

“The townpeople’s lack of deep feeling is seen most clearly in their having lost the power to appreciate music. Indeed, there is a storeroom in one isolated part of the town where old musical instruments are kept as curious gadgets, their use forgotten. The librarian vaguely recalls that her mother used to ‘talk’ in a peculiar way:

‘Mother would draw words out or she would make them short. Her voice would sound high and low like the wind.’
‘That is singing,’ I suddenly realize.
‘Can you talk like that?’
‘Singing is not talking. It is song.’
‘Can you do it too?’ she says.
‘I take a deep breath but find no music in my memory.’

As the snows of winter deepen (again the coldness of the chicken warehouse in Pinball, 1973), Boku struggles to make himself remember a song until he manages at last to extract music from ‘a box hinged with leather folds,’ that has ‘buttons for the fingers.’

‘After a time, I am able, as if by will, to locate the first four notes. They drift down from inward skies, softly, as early morning sunlight. They find me; these are the notes I have been seeking.

I hold down the chord key and press the individual notes over and over again. The four notes seem to desire further notes, another chord. I strain to hear the chord that follows. The first four notes lead me to the next five, then to another chord and three more notes.

It is a melody. Not a complete song, but the first phrase of one. I play the three chords and twelve notes, also, over and over again. It is a song, I realize that I know.

Danny Boy [the very song Wastashi has been trying unsuccessfully to recall in Chapter 1 – “I tried whistling Danny Boy, but it came out like a dog wheezing with asthma.”]

The title brings back the song: chords, notes, harmonies now flow naturally from my fingertips. I play the melody again.

When have I last heard a song? My body has craved music. I have been so long without music, I have not even known my own hunger. The resonance permeates; the strain eases within me. Music brings a warm glow to my vision, thawing mind and muscle from their endless wintering.

The whole Town lives and breathes in the music I play. the streets shift their weight with my every move. The Wall stretches and flexes as if my own flesh and skin. I repeat the song several times, then set the accordion down [my note: he remembers the word!] on the floor, lean back, and close my eyes. Everything here is a part of me – the Wall and Gate and Woods and River and Pool. It is all myself.’

Only when he realizes that the town is his very self, does Boku sense his ‘responsibilities’ towards it, which vastly complicates his plan to escape to the ‘real’ world with his shadow. The pull between the two worlds – one real but on the verge of death, the other timeless but also soulless – keeps the reader in suspense until the very end. The choice that Boku makes may be one that is only open to the artist, who inhabits a marginal space somewhere between the two.’

Thoughts? Questions?

My next posts: Friday, May 30 – an interesting take on translation in general. And then, since I’m going out of town and since we’re finishing the book this round, my final post on Hard Boiled World and the End of the World will be on Thursday, June 2nd, followed by my introductory post on our next book, the truly truly amazing Windup Bird Chronicle, on June 10.



4 thoughts on ““It’s all a matter of cognition. The world as perceived. And that’s what’s changin’ in your brain, is what I think.””

  1. I agree that the rendering of the Professor’s speech is irritating. I wonder how this was done in the Japanese, but probably wouldn’t understand any answer I was given.

    I also thought of Nazi concentration camps when I read of the abandoned suitcases.

    PS. There’s an interesting short piece by Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker of 26 May 2014 about language/translation, in the form of a review of a couple of books, one of which is called “Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philsophical Lexicon” and includes Michael Wood among its editors.

  2. It wasn’t just the g’s that were dropped – many words seemed to be foreshortened. I imagined a southern accent while he was speaking.

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