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.