In his fortieth year, Dr. Ivan Knežević unexpectedly and irrevocably lost his ability to recognize or understand clothing. He could no longer comprehend that something like a shirt or a dress is the kind of thing worn over bodies and that, when this occurs, bodies continue to exist beneath the clothes. This did not so much provoke a crisis related to clothing itself—Dr. Knežević continued to dress himself according to the demands of the weather—as it provoked a crisis related to questions of embodiment and what it means to be human. Whereas before, people had appeared to be singular units and clearly delimited wholes, they now appeared to be strange and ever-shifting conglomerates of partial objects. Hands floated in the air, roughly halfway between the ground and the faces or heads that floated above them. During the winter, those same hands disappeared entirely for long stretches of time (thanks to gloves or mittens) while, during the summer, wrists elongated into forearms and then biceps and triceps and shoulders became present, as rising temperatures made sleeves ever shorter. In especially cold weather, or at higher altitudes, people existed only as eyes (or, if they wore ski goggles, became not so much invisible as existents whose presence could not be registered). But, when things were very warm and the sky was blue and cloudless, and the tourists were flocking to the beaches of the Makarska Riviera, bodies grew rapidly. They emerged seemingly from nowhere in spaces that, just a moment before, had appeared empty. Large central masses presented themselves, appendages stretched and connected and, at least for a moment, all the pieces came together—until the end of the day when dusk settled, the water chilled, and all the pieces didn’t so much fly apart as lose their physical connectedness as family units (conglomerates of conglomerates) packed themselves into their Suzuki Grand Vitaras, or their Renault Clios, or their Volkswagen Golfs. Then, sometimes two hands, sometimes one (with two other hands now entwined on the centre console), would hook themselves onto various steering wheels and guide the multitudinous conglomerates of living parts, back to Split or Mostar or sometimes Dubrovnik.
Already a man of science whose luminous motto had always been “SAPERE AUDE!” (always all-caps and one exclamation mark), Dr. Knežević engaged in a daring series of studies, experiments, and tests, in order to try and understand this. He observed that, although any given conglomerate of partial objects could form and reform (appear and disappear, exist then not exist, move from potentiality to actuality and back again) in an exceptionally diverse way, permitting countless permutations, there was a bounded space in which all of these transformations could occur. Furthermore, even those objects that seemed most inclined to fly freely away from the other objects—a hand here, a foot there—even those objects still seemed limited by a certain radius. There appeared to be some kind of force at play that established limits and boundaries and which, despite appearances, held things together (a gravitational pull? an electromagnetic bond? some variation of the strong nuclear force? or perhaps even some kind of dark matter holding everything together?). Thus, hands and feet had their orbitals and, although Dr. Knežević could not predict where a hand or foot might be at any given point in time, he could safely predict the range of possible options as to where that hand or foot might end up being at this or that specific moment (and, in the moments when Dr. Knežević could, in fact, locate those objects—i.e., the more certain he was of their location—the less certain he became about where they were going next). If, however, that hand or foot, or any other partial object (an eyelid, a leg, a face, a finger) appeared outside of the orbital assigned to it, this did not bode well for that object or, as often proved to be the case, for the other objects within its conglomerate. A head, Dr. Knežević concluded, has a very small orbital in relation to the torso with which it is more or less solidly bonded. If that head then moves thirty metres away from that torso, this has a negative outcome for both the head and the torso. Both will immediately cease activity, begin to leak fluids, and then move into the process of decomposition (and no matter what variables and alternative scenarios he deployed in his experiments, Dr. Knežević could never alter this outcome).
Thus, over a period of several years, Dr. Knežević made it his goal to understand the ways in which these partial objects related to one another. Every new insight increased his sense of mystery and wonder. The more knowledge he gained about each individual unit, the less certain he was about how they all fit together. Sometimes hands worked independently—this one flipping the pages of a magazine, this other one pumping like an hydraulic cylinder—but sometimes hands, although entirely disconnected, worked together—both rotating a screwdriver in the same direction at the same time (calling to mind Einstein’s remark about “spooky action at a distance” and raising the question of quantum entanglement). Some parts were present very often—especially the eyes and eyelids—whereas other parts only seemed to appear at very specific times in very specific places. Thus, for example, hindquarters almost only ever appeared shortly before being seated on a toilet, at which point something emerges from the hindquarters and separates itself from them. However, much to Dr. Knežević’s surprise and fascination, unlike removing a face or a hand from its regular orbital, the separation of this partial object from the hindquarters did not appear to cause any harm to the conglomerate of objects from whence this object emerged (in fact, as Dr. Knežević learned over the course of his subsequent experiments, preventing this partial object from emerging or from then being separated from the other parts can cause great pain and discomfort). Additionally, apart from these individualized but nonetheless routine times of emergence, Dr. Knežević observed two other occasions when hindquarters became more likely to become present within the domain of the actual: when police officers or security guards were also present or, more frequently, at times when all the partial objects within a single conglomerate appeared, extended, and merged and connected with one another, forming one large mass. If this was taking place when two or more conglomerates were together and undergoing the same process then, in fact, the hindquarters actually appear to receive special attention. Despite his best efforts, Dr. Knežević failed to produce a Theory of Everything (or ToE) capable of explaining the actions of hindquarters and what it is about these three different scenarios that unifies them, explains them, and brings hindquarters into being. In Scenario A, the event is, with a few rare (and as of yet unexplained) exceptions, intensely personal, private, creative, and outward-focused. In Scenario B, the event is shared, sometimes provokes humour, and often leads to direct physical harm being inflicted upon the hindquarters (if they do not immediately vanish or flee the scene). In Scenario C, the conglomerate of partial objects is often in its least partial state, so the hindquarters are now emerging along with all kinds of other parts and bridges and connections, not only within a single conglomerate but with two or more conglomerates coming together and all taking shape this way. In this case, there seems to be a great deal of inward-focused pleasure associated with the hindquarters. When trying to tie all of these things together sensibly, Dr. Knežević sometimes felt like he was trying to solve the riddle of how to align general relativity with quantum mechanics.
Anna, Dr. Knežević’s partner of the last twenty years, asserted that Dr. Knežević may have had different motives for spending so much time trying to solve this problem in a way that was both mathematically rigourous and beautiful (“he wanted,” she said, “to create Euler’s Identity for assholes”). Anna also noted that, after several years of work, Dr. Knežević only produced the following equations:
( )( )
( )x( ) [Marginal notation: “Solve for x.”]
Dr. Knežević’s response was that he did not expect those who are not scientists to understand the complexities of science “and,” he added, “psychoanalysts like my lovely wife may be many things, and they are, they most certainly are, but they are also just as certainly not scientists.” On that note, he returned to his assistant to continue his research.
Unfortunately, before completing his quest for knowledge, Dr. Knežević’s condition deteriorated further (although, Dr. Knežević himself swore that his condition did nothing of the sort but, in fact, improved, as he followed his theory through to its logical conclusion). Now, the presence of anything at all on the surface of an object appeared, to Dr. Knežević, to disappear or eliminate what it covered over. This made showering an especially fascinating experience as objects constantly ebbed and flowed in and out of existence, recognizable objects disappeared entirely, and molar configurations became molecular and fluid. Water, Dr. Knežević concluded, is not so much a fluid as that which makes everything else flow. After locking himself in the shower for seven days, Anna found him collapsed and nearly comatose in the tub murmuring almost incoherently, not about science but about transcendence, art, Gilles Deleuze, and, perhaps most disturbing of all, theology (although Anna—who discovered that at some point during those seven days, Dr. Knežević had clogged the shower drain with partial objects which she did not care to describe in any kind of detail—swore that the plumbing bill was actually the most disturbing part of this experience).
After this, Dr. Knežević deterioration or improvement (his self-described movement into logical coherence, which struck the layperson as a movement into, well, “fucking madness,” if you want to use the words of the plumber) accelerated. Now, instead of an eyelid, he saw a wave of folliculorum mites, rising and falling, rising and falling, as though tidally locked to some unseen moon. Instead of a hand, he saw an ecosystem of more than two hundred different species of bacteria (Pseudomonas flourescens! Staphylococcus warneri! Klebseilla pneumoniae! S. aureus! Enterobacter cloacae!) and several species of fungi (especially Malassezia!) floating seemingly at random in space—vanishing in one place, reappearing in another. Now, instead of hindquarters on a toilet, he saw the creatio ex nihilo of trillions of life forms. Campylobacter! Salmonella! Shingella! Alas, he no longer recognized Anna, but in his defense, he also no longer recognized himself. He had long since ceased to be a body, but now he also lost his sense of himself as a conglomerate of partial objects. He became, instead, a space—a void which, nonetheless, contained everything.
Shortly thereafter, he died. Well, as much as we can speak of a void as a thing that dies. Perhaps it is better to say that the nothing persisted (as always) while the everything-else rearranged itself (as it is wont to do). Or, at least, that’s what Dr. Knežević’s former research assistant, Katherine, said at his funeral. Most everyone else disagreed with her assessment. Looking at Dr. Knežević’s body in the open casket, lying there like a, well, like something very, very dead, in fact, looking very much like a corpse, in fact, not just looking like a corpse but being an honest-to-goodness, present here-and-now in the already embalmed-but-decomposing-flesh corpse, made them think that it was completely appropriate to speak of Dr. Knežević as “a thing that dies”—although, given how visibly upset Katherine was, they thought it best to keep their opinions to themselves. Plus, a good number of the men at the funeral (and more than one of the women as well) were suddenly possessed by a very strong and noble desire to comfort Katherine after they watched her hindquarters walk back down the aisle to her seat.
Anna married a plumber the following year. She continues to reside in Croatia with her husband. They are eager to revisit the bell tower of the Cathedral of Saint Dominus (erect for more than nine hundred years) once renovations are completed in the summer of 2020.
Oh man. I enjoyed that SO MUCH