The Sci­en­tist

Geist - - Findings - JO­CE­LYN PARR

From Uncertain Weights and Mea­sures. Pub­lished by Goose Lane in 2017. Jo­ce­lyn Parr's work has been pub­lished in France, Ger­many and Canada in mag­a­zines such as Ma­trix, Grain and Brick. Uncertain Weights and Mea­sures is her de­but novel and was short­listed for the Gover­nor Gen­eral's Award for English-lan­guage Fic­tion in 2017. She lives in Mon­treal, QC.

In the fall, just a few months be­fore meeting Sasha, I had met Dr. Vladimir Bekhterev, a man who very quickly felt like a fa­ther to me. Ear­lier that same year, I’d lost my own fa­ther in a man­ner that was all too com­mon at the time.

Then, as now, the sin­gle most im­por­tant fac­tor de­ter­min­ing one’s ac­cess to ev­ery­thing, from a job to an apart­ment to a good man to work on your teeth, was con­nec­tions. In the early years of Lenin’s rule a tem­po­rary but in­sid­i­ous cap­i­tal­ism was rein­tro­duced (small shops and tiny plots of land for in­di­vid­u­al­ized farm­ing were per­mit­ted again, a good thing I sup­pose, but it made some peo­ple very rich). Those were the NEP years, af­ter the in­nocu­ously named New Eco­nomic Pol­icy, and we called the newly rich class it cre­ated the NEP men and NEP women. In those years two in­com­pat­i­ble sys­tems fur­ther com­pli­cated the power of “know­ing a guy.” Un­der NEP, the first sys­tem con­cerned one’s iden­ti­fi­ca­tion as a mem­ber of the pro­le­tariat; the sec­ond con­cerned one’s abil­ity to con­trib­ute to the rev­o­lu­tion­ary ef­fort. For this rea­son, a soil sci­en­tist from the up­per classes could still, in the early to mid-twen­ties, be con­sid­ered use­ful to so­ci­ety, de­spite a bour­geois back­ground.

By the time Lenin died, it was clear the era of bour­geois ex­perts was com­ing to an end. Any­one with a damn­ing back­ground had taken

what­ever mea­sures pos­si­ble to rewrite fam­ily his­to­ries. Faces were scratched out of fam­ily por­traits. Lov­ing cou­ples di­vorced. Chil­dren de­nounced par­ents. Peo­ple moved from coun­try to city or city to coun­try and, in the process, changed names.

So, a soil sci­en­tist could work in the of­fice of the Peo­ple’s Com­mis­sar for Agri­cul­ture, could even have worked at the same desk in the same of­fice for so long that he re­mem­bered the days un­der the Tzar when it was called the Min­istry of Agri­cul­ture, and then one day, he might de­cide he ought to change his name and move far, far away.

My fa­ther was that kind of soil sci­en­tist.

One day he stopped be­ing my fa­ther. He told me about it in a let­ter, which I read, and then, fol­low­ing his in­struc­tions, lit on fire. I was eigh­teen years old. Whether he’d de­cided to leave or had been forced to, I don’t know. Apart from the sa­lu­ta­tion, which read Dear­est Daugh­ter, the let­ter barely men­tioned me at all. In as few words as pos­si­ble, he ex­plained that his sit­u­a­tion at work had changed and that if he stayed, his fu­ture (and mine) would be com­pro­mised, which was some­thing he couldn’t bear. The let­ter was writ­ten with such con­ci­sion that I could hear the an­guish be­hind ev­ery word. In life, my fa­ther had used all the words, all the sto­ries, all the time. Never in my life had he been so cold, never so rea­son­able. It was as if he were al­ready gone when he wrote that let­ter. I cried in an­gry con­fu­sion as it burned but shared my feel­ings with no one, this also ac­cord­ing to his in­struc­tions. The only thing he left be­hind was his pocket watch and some­thing less tan­gi­ble: a be­lief in hard work. Amaz­ing how lucky you get, he al­ways said, when you work re­ally hard.

When he was my fa­ther, he helped me with my stud­ies and said that, of the sciences, it was the only field of study that would not be cor­rupted by pol­i­tics.

In his let­ter, he ad­mit­ted that he had been wrong.

It was his friend, then, a man I’d met only once, who got me into univer­sity on the strength of Com­mu­nist con­nec­tions I did not have and, as such, into one of the only classes Dr. Bekhterev ever taught in Moscow. I called this man my un­cle, but we were not re­lated. Con­nec­tions were dif­fer­ent than be­liefs. I be­lieved in the Revo­lu­tion and I be­lieved we could sac­ri­fice our way to progress, but I never joined the Party, so I had no real con­nec­tions. I couldn’t have. In those years, get­ting into the Party was harder than be­com­ing an aca­demi­cian. I’d at­tended the Com­mu­nist youth meet­ings be­fore the loy­alty tests be­came a stan­dard rite of pas­sage, which was a good thing, be­cause if they’d asked af­ter my loy­al­ties I would have said I be­lieved in what my fa­ther had be­lieved: science, and science was sep­a­rate from pol­i­tics. Like him, I would also come to re­al­ize that I was wrong. Un­like him, I came to be­lieve the rea­son science wasn’t sep­a­rate from pol­i­tics was that noth­ing was sep­a­rate from pol­i­tics. Not science. Not art. Not love. In this way, I was like my mother.

So, that first class with Dr. Bekhterev was held in the fall of

1921, two or three years into my stud­ies. The lec­ture hall, shaped like an arena, seated about fifty stu­dents. The wooden desks perched on steps cut of an ever larger semi­cir­cle, so that sit­ting in the front row felt like be­ing on stage, and sit­ting in the back row felt like join­ing the or­bit of one of the out­er­most plan­ets. When the clock shud­dered past nine o’clock, a stu­dent be­low me turned back to whis­per that Dr. Bekhterev was al­ways late. That stu­dent’s name was Alexandr Lev Luria. That was how he in­tro­duced him­self, with all three names. His accent told me he was from Len­ingrad, though back then we called it Pet­ro­grad. Later, we be­came friends.

Luria was right. Bekhterev was al­most an hour late for that first class, but not a sin­gle stu­dent left the room. I would have left if they had, but they didn’t. He ar­rived car­ry­ing a bun­dle of manuscripts and an over­coat. He was in his early six­ties and had the shape and heft of a butcher: broad shoul­ders, thick gut. From his neck up, he was all hair. His beard, mous­tache, nose hairs, eye­brows, and the hair on his head sprouted out of him as if from an un­remit­ting spool of thin, pep­per-coloured wire. I imag­ined some­one brush­ing up against him might come away with small cuts and scrapes.

When I try to de­scribe the force with which Dr. Bekhterev en­tered my life I feel cer­tain I will fail. I was prac­ti­cally a child then: too young, for ex­am­ple, to know any­thing about the rep­u­ta­tions of my pro­fes­sors. From where I sat, on the outer ring, in my ten­u­ous or­bit, ready to be flung out into the deep­est black, I had the vague no­tion that my pro­fes­sors ex­isted only where I saw them: in the lec­ture hall, in the lab, in their of­fices. They’d been born with their spe­cial­iza­tions, just as they’d been born with their eye

colour, fin­ger­prints, and dis­po­si­tions. They had not stud­ied. No com­mis­sar had ap­pointed them, no col­league had de­nounced them, no ex­per­i­ment had failed, no book had been re­jected. They had never been in­tox­i­cated by the smell of a woman pass­ing them on a dark­en­ing street, nor had they ever ex­pe­ri­enced rage. They’d never been left off the guest list, nor put on. They had been born pro­fes­sors and would die that way. In short, they were not peo­ple.

That year, I had started to lose my eye­sight. Noth­ing cat­a­clysmic. In­deed, the loss oc­curred so im­per­cep­ti­bly that I hardly no­ticed it at all. I men­tion it now be­cause it cor­re­lated with the pe­riod in which I started to sit closer and closer to the front of the lec­ture hall, as if be­ing drawn in by a stronger and stronger grav­i­ta­tional pull. Month by month, ring by ring, I ap­proached the front of the room, un­til one day, I was

sit­ting in the very front row. When Bekhterev spoke, he spat.

I don’t re­mem­ber the name of the course I took with him, nor even what the univer­sity thought we were study­ing. The dis­ci­pline was yet to be named, mean­ing it had no rules. Bekhterev ex­plained the nov­elty of the dis­ci­pline metaphor­i­cally, that is, by way of the tele­scope.

We know noth­ing! he said. Bekhterev used the word neu­ropsy­chol­ogy and com­pared the field to that of sev­en­teenth-cen­tury as­tron­omy when Ke­pler’s ob­ser­va­tions of the uni­verse, which had been made with the naked eye, led to a revo­lu­tion in our un­der­stand­ing of the so­lar sys­tem and our place in it.

When he lec­tured, Bekhterev paced back and forth. Ke­pler had de­duced from what lit­tle he could ob­serve (his eye­sight had been se­verely dam­aged by a case of child­hood small­pox) that the so­lar sys­tem was he­lio­cen­tric, thus con­tra­dict­ing cen­turies of as­tron­omy that placed the earth at the cen­tre. A man with blunted sight, said Bekhterev, look­ing at us with a fierce in­ten­sity, think on that.

We are, said Bekhterev, at that very same thresh­old. Ke­pler had no tele­scope to speak of. We have no tele­scope. He had rea­son and imag­i­na­tion. We have rea­son and imag­i­na­tion. To date, about the brain, we know noth­ing.

The way he talked about what we were do­ing had its ef­fect: his pur­suits be­came mine.

Dur­ing Bekhterev’s life­time, we started to think we knew some­thing, but now, I’m not so sure. A lit­tle bit more than noth­ing is still, essen­tially, noth­ing. The math­e­ma­ti­cians would dis­agree. They would say that the dif­fer­ence be­tween noth­ing and a lit­tle bit more than noth­ing was like that be­tween night and day. But I am not a math­e­ma­ti­cian.

From Norths by Ali­son Mccreesh. Pub­lished by Co­nun­drum Press in 2018. Ali­son Mccreesh is the author of the graphic trav­el­ogues Ram­shackle, A Yel­lowknife Story and Norths, Two Suit­cases and a Stroller Around the Cir­cum­po­lar World. She lives in Yel­lowknife.

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