Amr was cogitating on Time – or to be more precise, timing. Like most gamblers he had a very large and capacious mind, and could think his way round to the latest cutting-edge research, say, on unicorns and UFOs. The way he figured it, standing there in the small, square, white-walled kitchen, was as follows…
The roulette table was spinning, spinning continuously, if periodically. So that the exact time he left his flat, caught a cab for the short ride to the casino, and arrived at the roulette table – made all the difference! If the small cream-coloured ball (that god on his pyre!) was at this moment landing on, let us say, ‘3’, then ‘31’, and so on – then the exact time he left and arrived would entail a wholly different scurrying run of numbers. The pattern would change, for better or worse, depending. However, by the end of these ruminations, he realised the paradox, that it all came to the same thing – if all was well with the world and if God indeed was in His heaven.
And yet his cogitation hadn’t been pointless. It had made him a touch warier about going to try his luck, whether to be serenaded or whipped by fate and fortune. The quick mind-scouring had made him more self-aware, which was a devil to the devil of gambling. He turned to his wife and said:
‘Right. I’m off. What was it, again, you needed from the pharmacy?’
‘Anti-bacterial handwipes. Two new toothbrushes. Some shaving cream for you. A razor, or two; for you again.’
It wasn’t that she knew he might be headed, surreptitiously, to the casino; no. She didn’t know. But there was this charmed twinkling in his eye which she never failed to recognise as an indication that he was excited – about something.
They’d arrived in London earlier that morning, in the chilly dawn hours. She knew of course that it was his tradition to go to the casino this one time each year, on the first day of their arrival in London, where they were wont to travel over the summer. But for close to the whole of the plane ride there, they’d scuffled over it, and she, to all intents and purposes, had won. He’d promised, with a battered brow, that he’d forgo his totemic tradition this year.
For a few more moments, squaring off in that white-walled kitchen, husband and wife eyed each other. Both seemed pregnant with thoughts that needed, seethed to be articulated. But both kept silent, a deuce of two sets of almond and thyme-mottled eyes. Amr now smiled, amorously, leant in to kiss his wife on the cheek. And she accepted it with due grace, for now at least.
On the way back from the casino, two hours later, Amr was deep in avid discourse with the cab driver. The latter’s son, as it happened, had just graduated with a stellar result in a degree in some hard science that was a far cry from Amr’s softer skillset. After bathing the driver’s quite evident pride in his son with all the balm and charm he could muster, Amr began to discuss a topical matter. He had no detailed or textured knowledge about AI – but liked to think he had some broad conceptual grasp that might permit the inkling of some kind of insight, for or against, or somewhere, perhaps, in between.
‘They say,’ the cab driver continued, ‘they say that in twenty years computers will be able to think, like us, like humans, I mean.’
It hurt him to think of this being the case, so Amr tried to explain his stance on the matter.
‘That’s the difference between the mind of a scientist, a hard scientist, and the mind of someone like me.’
‘Ah. What is it you do, sir?’
‘I’m a professor.’
‘Well, then, you should be the right person.’
‘Not really. I teach subjects in the liberal arts. You know: literature, philosophy…’
‘Ah! So you’re a philosopher, then?’
‘I try to be. Listen. A hard scientist – and I’ve met and spoken with many – will tell you that we, they, or whoever, really don’t know what the future will look like, how it’ll be rigged. But I, I can’t do that. I’m the kind of person who sees and feels the way things are, and clings to that, and if I’m asked to speak of the future, I project from what we have, what we are, what I clutch at….’
‘Sorry sir, I don’t quite follow?’
‘I mean, I suppose, that I don’t think a computer, or an indefinite set of them, will ever really think like a human being.’
‘I know what they say, but thinking, like us I mean, just isn’t a computation. Our minds are interwoven with our bodily instincts, our feelings, emotions, perceptions, in a way that just is a mystery, and, being a mystery, I just don’t see the science of duplicating it – artificially, I mean.’
‘Fair enough. But won’t they be able to duplicate the human body soon as well? And then couldn’t they just – oh, what’s the word?’
‘Yes, graft the two together?’
Amr pondered. Then he said: ‘OK. But will a computer, or a system of them, or a system of them grafted, even seamlessly, onto a duplicated human body – will that, whatever it is, will that ever suffer?’
The cab driver hesitated now.
‘I don’t quite follow you, sir.’
‘What I mean is, when we understand something, whatever, a tree or a car, it’s one thing. But there’s a different kind of knowing and thinking, or thinking through, which is just more real and lived and felt for us. Take this cab, say, ok?’
‘It’s a black cab.’
‘It is indeed, sir.’
‘Well, you know it’s black, right?’
‘So, what if when you drop me off in a few minutes, there’s a bloke waiting with a bucket of bright white paint? What if, once I’ve left, he chucks the whole lot onto your black cab? Then, I think it’s fair to say, your knowledge of the blackness of your cab will be of a different sort. At some level that knowledge will be combined with a new and deeper and richer way in which it is felt, as well as just logically or computationally understood. Right?’
The cab driver was nodding.
‘Yes, I do take your point.’
Amr gave the man a five quid tip. Not because of the entertaining conversation, but because though he’d lost a lot at first, he’d recouped it all, with a couple of hundred quid’s profit, and felt like he might appease the vengeful god of gambling by spreading some of that extra wealth, as though to say to the fickle, unchivalrous deity that he was playing fair – and not to be too angered by his minor, his oh so minor win…
From one house, now, to another – where the house (and the house), in both cases, always wins…
Amr entered the flat to find Farah curled up on one of the sofas in the living room, cradling a book. This made him nervous, because, though a highly literate woman, his wife, at least since their marriage a couple of years back, rarely read anymore – books, that is. The omen was either dire or propitious; he couldn’t tell. Thankfully, he’d managed to get the requested stuff from the pharmacy on the way back from the casino. So, with a gait close to tiptoeing, he placed the bag of goods by her side. She looked up.
‘It says here that an apple is eaten for reasons other than mere nourishment. Which is true, I think.’
He looked at her searchingly, with a teetering, unstable gaze. There was the whiff of something in the air that certainly didn’t bode well.
Having walked over to kiss his now seemingly sedate wife, having placed the requested shopping on the round mahogany table, as per a second request, he peered at the book in which she seemed to be knee-deep. It was a book of philosophy – clearly picked, whether with prior thought or at random, from his abundant library. The title on the cover ran: The Fragility of Goodness.
He racked his mind while unpacking the goods and putting them away. Yes, as it happened, with all the sour sauce of serendipity, he actually recalled the passage she must have been alluding to; though why the allusion, as yet, he couldn’t quite fathom.
The philosopher in question, a doyen and a classicist, had been discussing the fallacy at the heart of a puritanical mind-body split, whether it was in Plato or in Descartes or in whomever. The puritans of the mind, she’d averred, relegated the bodily, the strictly speaking ‘aesthetic’ life, and saw the mental life as infinitely superior – because, mistakenly, in her view (the modern philosopher in question that is), they parsed all bodily life as bound up, well-nigh bestially, with mere survival and nothing more noble or admirable than that. And then… well, she’d given the example of how the bodily life was not – seen rightly – merely a survival mechanism. One ate an apple, as a human being at least, not only because of some biologically geared search for some sweet vitamin or what have you; no. The apple eaten also had a nice green-looking sheen to it, dappled with small light-grey dots; it had a texture on the tongue, peel or flesh, which was also relished. It was associated, perhaps, with a long train of cherished, storied memories from youth. And so on, and so on… It had quiddity, that is to say, quality.
On tenterhooks, Amr said: ‘Yes, I recall the passage.’
‘And what do you make of it?’ queried his wife.
‘Insightful, fresh, definitely. The life of the flesh has more to it than flesh, no doubt. The soul, the formative mystery between, through mind and body, well…’
Farah now closed the chunky tome in question and placed it on the table next to the sofa on which she was reclining.
‘No,’ Amr lied.
‘Because I’ve just spent the last two hours trying to come up with an excuse for you. You – my dear, dear husband: the infinite dreamer – you always believe the best in people, never the worst. That neat optimism comes from your utopic childhood and youth, no doubt. And so I’ve been trying to find a way of making sense of this gambling business. Because I know it’s not about the money. Like the apple, eaten for its taste or texture? Or, let me put it this way: is gambling for you a thing of beauty and a joy forever?’
This was a very difficult situation. Was he being tested? Was it, in some deep and Byzantine way, some kind of trick question, trick statement? Again, Amr racked his mind. It seemed, presently, that the only thing for it was to change the subject.
‘I didn’t go, by the way; and Keats? Why Keats?’
‘Oh? You didn’t?’
‘Because the house always wins?’
‘Just so,’ and Amr nodded his head, vigorously. It was the somewhat-confused closing of a heroic simile. And now he ducked his head, smiled with a desperate attempt at grace; but failed, coming off, no doubt, as creepy – even to his wife.
She pursed her lips and squinted her eyes at him, searing, sere – two green and chestnut daggers.
But a godsend, now. A ping pinged on Farah’s mobile. She looked away, down.
Briefly, she checked the new entry in her junk mail inbox. It was, it seemed, from a certain Reverend Noland, basking in some Catholic hospital in upstate New York. As it turned out, by all the ludicrous and ludic fates, he’d just gifted Farah approximately five point seven million dollars in his will, asking her in his well-worded email – in what was clearly a gallant effort at seeming genuine and on the level – to spend the money, following his departure, on the poor and the needy. She guffawed, then deleted the message.
‘I get them all the time,’ Amr said, on the verge of being grateful to Fortune. So, he continued: ‘Junk mail like that reminds me…’
He was entering into his element now; on safer, more sacred ground.
‘A little of poetry, too.’
‘Well, there’s a major poet who seems to think that this millennial generation – with its use of emoticons and contractions, in emails and tweets and so on, like ‘lol’, or ‘btw’, or ‘wtf’ – that these new developments in the way the young express themselves are a form of flexing the poetic muscle. But I agree with her nemesis, a very different, statelier poet – who recently passed away as it happens—’
‘Well, there’s condensation – and then there’s condensation. Yes, sometimes to curtly contract one’s means of expression can amplify meanings, reach into bigger worlds. But I don’t think this virtual onanism is doing anything substantially poetic. It’s just poverty of spirit, meanness of it, too – and laziness.’
‘I’ll think on it,’ Farah replied. Presently she folded her body upwards like a rising cobra and went for a late afternoon nap. The way she strolled through the apartment seemed to thrum with a certain queenly authority.
The house always wins.
Yes: it does, of course it does.
Amr stayed riveted at his computer screen. He had the inch of an inkling to write something: the urge was tart and sweetly venomous in his veins. Each page penned, he always felt, was like a tiny dose of poison – in some slow, imperial effort to render himself immune; or to render himself, somehow, tragically victorious…
Meanwhile, in upstate New York, a certain Reverend Noland, imminently dying of some fatal bout of cancer, felt gratified that he’d gifted his wealth – nearly all of it inherited many, many decades ago – to the one random recipient he’d gambled on. He’d picked her name and email address virtually out of a hat. Had googled her to the best of his ability, checked her Facebook account – among other small, sundry searches. He didn’t know her, of course, had never met her. But it was as if – decrepit and on his deathbed now – he wished to emulate the fortuitous, fragile goodness of Christ.
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