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The Old One
The Mexican Girl
John Alan Roberts
Pier Luigi Luisi
THE CALM FLASHES
OF THE MIND
THE CALM FLASHES OF THE MIND. A Novel
© Pier Luigi Luisi
First edition translated from Italian by Rachele Fajella
Revised edition edited 2016 by Raya Alcadi
Cover image by Zhang Hong
Cover art direction by Valentina Marinacci
All Rights Reserved. No part of this e-book may be reproduced in any form by any means without the express permission of the author. This includes reprints, excerpts, photocopying, recording, or any future means of reproducing text. If you would like to do any of the above, please seek permission first by contacting the author.
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SATT—Scrittura a tutto tondo
The mechanism in which asignificant images arise—those images that suddenly appear in one’s mind, with no direct connection to the present moment—is the field being researched by Marcel, a neuroscience researcher and staunch rationalist who lives and works in a Zurich influenced by Jungian psychology. This is where he meets Anna, a musician, with whom he finally appears to have a vibrant and fulfilling relationship.
Before long, however, Anna and her world—music, art, Buddhist meditation—begin to insinuate doubts in Marcel’s mind on the validity of his rationalistic theories on mental processes. His restlessness increases when a particular asignificant image presents itself in his mind, reappearing incessantly: the face of a dark-haired, beautiful Latin woman, whom he recognizes to be that of a girl he met in Mexico 25 years ago—a love story that never began, due to adverse fortuitous circumstances.
Is this mysterious Mexican woman, whom he met by chance in Zurich, really that same girl he was in love with 25 years ago? Instinctively, without understanding the reasons behind his impulse, Marcel decides to leave for Mexico in search of that unlived romance, with the risk of losing everything he has. An absurd journey that leads him, however, to discover himself, reconstructing parts of his identity that had been lost—perhaps his son. Will he find the Mexican woman or will he find himself instead, and Anna?
Pier Luigi Luisi is Emeritus Professor at the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETHZ) where he has taught for 30 years before being appointed Professor of Biochemistry at the University of Roma TRE. As Professor of Chemistry at ETHZ he initiated the interdisciplinary project “Cortona Week”.
His main research interests lie in the experimental, theoretical, and philosophical fields related to the origin of life and the self-organization of natural and synthetic systems.
It was a drizzly March morning and Zurich was clearly outlined against the gray sky. As I was walking toward the university I found myself in front of the Kunsthaus, noticed there was a Klimt exhibition, and decided to enter.
There were very few people and the beauty of the museum’s elegant rooms calmed my agitated mind. I sat down to indulge in the sensation. The lump in my throat had dissolved; my head and limbs were light. I sensed a waft of youth which I hadn’t felt for a long time. Perhaps it was a sign that the fog weighing me down for the last few years was drifting away. This thought surprised me—actually, it excited me.
The light was sharp and strong, and revealed forms and colors in a new, fresher way. Klimt’s paintings were arranged in three large interconnecting halls. As there weren’t many people that morning, I looked around to find a starting point.
I noticed a large painting that I already knew, two figures close to one another—one representing life and the other death. I felt intrigued and moved closer to look at them up close. As I approached the wall, my eyes met those of a beautiful woman in a white hat. Our eyes locked in a gaze, short and intense, as sometimes happens. She also stopped near that same painting. As she approached, I felt a strange sense of familiarity. I stepped back and observed her from behind. A young and slim body covered by a soft, camel hair cloak. She wore a white hat and her brown hair came out from underneath, delicately curling around her slender neck. I was possessed by an intense desire to embrace her. It was a strange day—beautiful, in fact.
I made every effort to concentrate on the painting—on the warm colors and vibrating faces which depicted life and on the shrunken face and dirty, dark colors that represented death. They were two distinct entities that of life and of death, entirely detached, and something did not feel quite right about it. In my mind I spoke to the stranger in the white hat.
‘You see,’ I was telling her, ‘I have a feeling that there’s an area of contact between life and death: death touches you, at some point, while you stand in the warm colors of life. It touches you with a finger and leaves an indelible scar, piercing: such as the death of a loved woman—Tamara, or when my son Jonathan ran away. Sure, you continue to be alive, but the memory of the wound never heals…from that moment on, death is always with you, it clings to you…do you understand? It isn’t detached from life…’
I recalled the image of Tamara’s smiling face, and tried to remember Jonathan’s, which was somewhat less graspable. I didn’t want my depression to return so I shook away these thoughts, moving my head and clearing my throat. As if by reaction, the woman in the white hat also moved her head, sending a whiff of perfume, discreet and subtle, just like her. I moved closer and decided to talk to her. I felt my heart pounding, and smiled at the thought that these were emotions I used to feel twenty, thirty years ago, when approaching a woman I had never met; a new world, that I invite into my own for the first time.
‘Excuse me, may I ask you something?’ I whispered.
The white hat moved slightly toward me with a brief and irritated nod.
‘I’d like to meet you, talk with you…get to know you. Is that possible?’
She glanced at me and said in a hushed tone:
‘Is this your best pick up line?’
Her reaction startled me. I looked at her and thought I caught a twinkle in her eye. Was she just teasing me?, wasn't it? I wasn't so sure. I whispered back:
‘Well, if you want, I cantalk about what inspires me in Klimt's paintings. I would say that you, with your beauty, are still entirely on the right side of the painting while I’m already a little more towards the middle…’
‘For heaven's sake, don't talk such nonsense! I was going for a coffee, I haven’t had breakfast yet.’ ‘May I offer you that coffee?’
She gave me a rapid glance, and nodded; once again I smelled her perfume and smiled at her.
She didn't smile back, but took my arm and pushed me delicately towards the exit. I relished in the unexpected familiarity that lied in her gesture. We descended the steps in silence, and sat at the museum cafe'.
Her name was Anna, and she was a musician, a cellist. The sunlight that poured through the glass windows cast a warm, soft light against her beautiful, serene face and I felt happy just looking at her. I tried to tell her that.
‘You're trying to be romantic,’ Anna retorted ‘but in fact, you’re embarrassed to express your feelings, and it’s just awkward. So don't bother…why don't you tell me a little about yourself instead—that would be more interesting.’ Mixed with a feeling of admiration, I felt somewhat irritated with this woman who was so…I tried to find an adjective, and thought of ‘disrespectful’. I just had to laugh.
‘What? Why are you laughing?’
‘No, nothing. I was just thinking that it's hard to explain what I do.’
I began explaining that I was a neuropsychologist ‘you know what that is, right?’ and that I worked at the University where I held the Chair of Cognitive Science. What is it? A branch of science that studies the various functions of the mind, in particular, the mechanisms of learning: it includes neurobiology, as well as psychiatry, psychology and artificial intelligence, which is the science that uses computers to simulate the functions of the brain. I told her that this was what particularly interested me. That I was American and I had studied at Princeton where I specialized in neural computing and applications. ‘You know what neurons are, right? They're the long, wiry cells in the brain that form an intricate net of communication.’
‘And how did you end up in Zurich?’
It was a long time since I had talked to someone about myself and I felt glad to be with Anna. I looked into her eyes and sighed. We both broke out in laughter.
I told her I had arrived to Zurich ten years ago, to study at the Jung Institute. The little I had learned about Jung in America had attracted me very much, and I wanted to learn more. The mere idea of the Old Continent fascinated me. I remembered my first day in Zurich, near the University, I had come across an alley named Doctor Faust street.
I smiled again as I remembered the strong emotions I felt in meeting Goethe. Those were my days of great discovery.
‘Carl Gustav Jung…synchronicity and archetypes, right? That’s fascinating isn’t it.’
‘Yes, but for a scientist like me, it’s a little hard to accept. After less than a year, I figured it wasn't for me. My approach to the problems of the mind were too rational, and the Jungian emphasis on symbolism, alchemy, and spirituality just weren't congenial with me: actually, to tell you the truth, I developed such an aversion that I went through a life crisis. If that wasn't enough, as part of the study program at the Jung Institute I had to attend many hours of therapy. Those were fascinating, but at the same time, I hated them. Why? It's hard to explain in few words. They were interesting, but unpleasant: you see, things come out that maybe are better left where they are, buried in the unconscious. But there, I met the Old One, that’s how we call him. He’s a great psychoanalyst and close friend. I visit him at least once a month. No, he's not my therapist anymore, at least not in the sense that I pay him for my visits. We just chat about my life. He's a lonely old man now, who enjoys some company once in a while, even though he'd never admit it.
‘And then, what happened?’
‘Right while I was in the most acute phase of this crisis, I received a proposal from the university to start a new course in cognitive science. So, that's how I started my so-called brilliant university career. After five years, I was already a full professor. In those years, I wrote a lot about computer simulations of neural networks.
There was a moment of silence, we sipped our coffees, and Anna looked me over a few times. After a while, she said ‘If I understand correctly, you believe the human mind works like a computer and that the emotions we feel are all in the brain?’
I was used to this type of question, usually accompanied by a suspicious, incredulous expression. I shook my head.
‘I said the brain, not the mind. As far as I'm concerned, the human brain, for the most part, acts like a computer,’ I responded gently ‘As for emotions, it's like this: we can study quite efficiently the electrical impulses emitted by the brain in response to a series of stimulators, such as fear, joy, visual perception, colors, and so on.. We can even localize the various centers of the brain for these functions. However, the concept of “mind” is far more complex. It's a very vague concept: to start with, we'd need to define what exactly we mean by “mind”.’
‘And what are you studying now?’
‘Yes, I was getting to it, now I'm studying what we call asignificant images.’ I looked at her expression, greatly enjoying her reaction to my words. I looked at her dark eyes, her face illuminated by sunlight. She held my gaze without lowering her eyes.
‘Asignificant images? What does that mean?’
‘I'll give you an example. While walking up the steps to enter the museum, my brain brought out an image of a train conductor in Como. Later, while I was blowing my nose, I saw the central square of Katmandu, in Nepal, which I had visited over seven years ago. The images just appear. It's as if brief flashes of perception cross the mind, just like that, for no apparent reason, and without any particular trigger.
Anna smiled at this. ‘Calm flashes of the mind…that's how I'd call them!’
‘I like that expression, it's very nice’ I answered ‘Calm flashes of the mind…thanks. I can see you understand perfectly.’
‘But why do you think this phenomenon is strange? Our mind is constantly bringing out associations of all sorts: memories of the past mingled with the present. For example, you're eating an apple, and it makes you think of the leaning tower of Pisa, because, who knows, maybe a few years ago, you were in Pisa eating an apple while gazing at the leaning tower.’
‘That's exactly the point!’ I was delighted to involve her in something I was so passionate about. I paused a second to gather my thoughts. ‘Let's see if I can explain myself better: I'm telling you that our mind creates images without any sort of causal connection with the present physical or psychological instant. That's why I used the term “asignificant images”. What I'm trying to understand is the mechanism behind this sort of process. Why it happens, how it happens.’
‘I think I understand’ she nodded after a brief pause ‘But why do you study this sort of thing?’
I burst into surprised laughter ‘What do you mean by why? It's my job, that's what I do! I'm a neuro-psychologist, I study how the mind functions. It interests me, I like it. Isn’t it the same with your music? I've even started to write a book on the subject, on the asignificant images of the mind.’
‘You mean, on the calm flashes of the mind’, she corrected me.
‘The calm flashes of the mind’ I responded, still laughing. She smiled briefly and lifted the cup to her lips, finishing her coffee. Anna gave me a serious look then sat up straight, lifting her long, slender neck ‘So, you’re saying that everything we think or feel is a product of the brain, in the sense that everything depends on the physical activity of this…what did you call it, neural network, correct? Even music, or love?’
I suddenly felt quite uncomfortable. I noticed a note of criticism in her tone of voice. I was afraid it would ruin the warm feeling of friendship we had just formed between us.
‘You could put it like that to simplify things ’ I continued carefully, forcing a smile, ‘but, in this way you reduce it to a concept that I didn't mean at all. Tell me now, what are you trying to get at with your question?’
‘I just want to understand where you stand, as a man.’
‘What do you mean by that?’ I answered gently, but felt irritated. She must have sensed it and flashed a warm, friendly smile.
‘What I mean is: how does a person like you, who treats the mind and conscience like an electric machine, explain feelings; like love and all the rest?’
I was now feeling uncomfortable. I knew, from experience, that this type of discussion would place a wall between us. It was the last thing I wanted. I rummaged desperately for some brilliant remark that could save the situation, but I couldn't think of anything. My sense of resistance waned. Anna sensed my embarrassment, and gave me another one of her warm, friendly smiles. That made me feel better. It was she who changed the subject.
‘Do you know anything about meditation? Buddhist meditation?’
‘Why do you ask?’
‘Because during meditation one is supposed to merely observe the mind: how thoughts and images appear out of nowhere. By witnessing how they’re formed—without interfering or elaborating on them—these suddenly vanish, exploding like soap bubbles…poof! Then, you have new thoughts and images of a different kind. Of course mine is just a layman’s point of view, but I believe this is the purpose of our mind. To create thoughts and images; just like the eye’s purpose is that of seeing, the stomach is for digesting.’ She fixed her eyes on me, smiling. I liked what she was saying.
‘I agree with you. However, the questions of why and how remain unanswered. You're right, the function of the eye is to see, but don’t you agree that it's very interesting to understand the intricate mechanism behind vision? It's the same with the mind, isn’t it? I find it fascinating to ask myself these questions and then search for the answers.’
‘I suppose this insatiable curiosity to understand why and how, is what makes one a scientist.’ She glanced at me, with her sweet smile, ‘I've never met one before. You're the first.’ Her eyes twinkled with a teasing light as she leaned over the table toward me and added ‘Well, not bad considering it’s my first time!’
We laughed. Once again she stirred in me a mixture of pleasure and irritation. Or maybe I just envied her strongly honest and open personality. I tried to get the upper hand.
‘Why did you ask me about meditation? Are you an expert? I know many people who practice meditation in Zurich. I don’t know much about it but I'm interested.’
She lowered her eyes and lifted the empty cup to her lips. It was obvious she didn't want to talk about it. Instead, she said ‘what do you do when one of those asignificant images appears in your mind?’
‘You mean, one of those calm flashes of the mind?’ we both laughed. ‘Well, my colleagues and I keep a journal where we take note of the essential details: key words in order to describe the image as soon as we notice it, the mental and emotional state we were in the moment it came, and what we did during the day. We also have about fifty volunteers participating in the research.
She interrupted. ‘Then, you insert the data in the computer and analyze it. And then prove there’s no significant association, right?’
Anna glanced at her watch. I wasn’t too pleased about that; did she want to leave already? I looked at my watch too, mechanically.
Suddenly I realized that in less than two hours I had to give a lecture at the university; an important one for which, despite my depressive state, I had prepared diligently and was now quite looking forward to.
‘I have a class in less than two hours. Do you want to come along? You'd understand almost everything.’
‘In a class with your students? No way, I'm too old for that. Besides, it's late.’
‘Another coffee?’ I asked hurriedly.
‘No thanks, I really have to get going, but first I have to tell you that although it's been a pleasure talking to you, honestly, your initial approach was really quite aggressive, and I was just about to send you to hell. Are you always so blunt and hasty?’
I looked into her eyes and spoke openly.
‘A while ago, I read a quote in one of those daily proverb calendars. It went something like this "it's always later than you think." To be honest, a few years ago I wouldn't have approached you at all, well, at least not so bluntly, Anna.’
It was the first time I pronounced her name, and it had a strange and vaguely erotic effect on me. ‘This trivial proverb helped me recognize my priorities, I suppose. At this stage of my life I want to be as spontaneous and direct as possible.’
‘So does that make me a….priority?’
‘Yes, Anna. If you allow me to be romantic, just a little, I’d say that I feel like I've made a beautiful discovery.’
‘Me?’ I thought I saw her blush as she turned away her pretty face and then added, very seriously.
‘I'm married, I have four beautiful children, and, now, my dear, I have to run home and prepare lunch.’
There was an ambiguous streak of sarcasm in the tone of her voice. I felt like someone had punched me in the stomach. Well, on the other hand, I should have expected it. A woman like Anna had to be married and all that. Certainly not single and ready for the first man that comes along.
‘Oh God, look at you! Did you really take it so badly? I'm sorry!’ she laughed ‘You look comical when you're sad! Cheer up, maybe I don't really have four children and a husband. What if I tell you that I only have three, and that my husband left me a few years ago.’
She scrutinized me ‘Do you prefer this story?’
‘Which one’s true?’ I started to get worked up again. What kind of joke was this?
‘Which do you prefer?’ Suddenly, she sat up straight in her chair, leaned back, and said ‘You know what just happened to me?’
‘Right now…I was about to stand up when I had a calm flash of the mind: a picture of the street vendor that used to sell ice creams in the playground in front of my school when I was little!’
‘Sit down and tell me the details. I’ll put it in my journal!’
‘Listen, really, I only have five minutes. Why don't you tell me about yourself?’
‘But I've been talking about myself all this time!’
‘You told me about your work, but you haven't said a word about yourself. Tell me about your wife, your children—have you also got four?’
Tamara and Jonathan. At the thought, a cloud of gloom settled over me. With Tamara, I really thought I had found the one, true love; the kind which brings that liberating peace of never needing to look elsewhere. That sense of peace had really existed for a long time. How long had it lasted? And hadn't I always had, even then, the suspicion that this knot in my throat would suddenly return? Love that would flicker out without reason, like a dying fire that dwindles out on its own, by natural causes. It was real love, yes, I believe it was. Although, at times, I think I started loving Tamara only after death had taken her away. The news of the car accident…her disfigured body, lying lifeless on the white table in the morgue…Jonathan's tense face in that dark hospital room. I’m afraid to remember this. I don’t know why. Did I ever tell her I loved her? Or perhaps I didn't love her at the time. My love grew after her death. Not because she died, but love seems to have its own dimension of time and walks at its own pace. I didn’t know that at the time, I didn't feel my love for her slowly growing inside. I became sullen when I finished telling her this.
‘How about your son?’ Anna asked, after a long moment of silence. Her voice was sympathetic.
‘Jonathan…no, some other time, if you don't mind…’
‘Do you know it's almost noon?’ she suddenly exclaimed. I knew this was a way of breaking the heavy atmosphere that had seeped in with the memory of Tamara.