Fiction | Jane Campbell — Schopenhauer and I

0
703

Jane Campbell


Schopenhauer and I

Robots could help solve social care crisis, say academics
In the UK alone, 15,000 people are over 100 years of age and this figure will only increase. The robots will offer support with everyday tasks, like taking tablets, as well as offering companionship.
— BBC News, 30th January 2017

———-It was a couple of months after they had killed Hobbes that they offered me the robot. To be honest, I almost declined, but since curiosity is the philosopher’s raison d’etre, I agreed. When the day came for the delivery I watched the young man as he unwrapped it; yards of bubble wrap, oceans of smooth white plastic sheeting, like undressing a bride, I thought.
compani“What is it called?” I asked, meekly.
compani“Kim. Gender neutral, easy to remember. “
companiThe thing itself reminded me of a child’s drawing of the human shape, a larger white blob for a body and a smaller white blob for the head. The head part was blank apart from two big baby seal eyes until a circle appeared below the eyes and flashed at me while a mechanical voice said: “Hello Martha?”
companiI smiled at Mark, ingratiatingly. “What else does it do?”
compani“I’m busy fixing its skills right now. Reminds you to take your pills, phones your friends, calls taxis, encourages you to exercise, plays snap.”
compani“Plays snap? How does it do that?”
compani“There is a little screen here.”
compani“Does it play poker?”
compani“Could do.”
companiBy now we were drinking coffee and I offered him a cigarette.
compani“Can we?’ He looked up at the smoke alarm.
compani“If you disabled that we could.” The truth is I am not that fond of the smell of cigarette smoke indoors although I love the occasional nicotine-fuelled evening out on my balcony; but I knew now that I could get him to break the rules and that we had become, in however small a way, co-conspirators.
companiWhile we puffed I asked, “Could it have another name?”
compani“Not really.”
compani“Not really it is outside your skillset or not really it means breaking the law?”
companiHe smiled. I liked his face. It was young, of course, but soft with a handsome mouth and a crooked smile. If I had been sixty years younger I would have made a beeline for him.
compani“What do you want to call it? Something short and snappy is what they recommend.”
companiKant came immediately to mind but I knew there could be so much calamitous confusion in terms of pronunciation and spelling that I abandoned that idea.
compani“Schopenhauer,” I said. As he started laughing, I added, “Not exactly short and snappy but certainly unforgettable.”
compani“OK. OK. How do you spell it?”
compani“More coffee?”
companiIn the end we settled on Arthur. I watched him as he tapped away on his keyboard and as I was wondering what on earth I was doing since this clearly was not going to bring Schopenhauer into my life, he said, “Of course, you know, these machines aren’t really for you at all.”
compani“How come?”
compani“They are just monitors. Screens to watch you on twenty-four seven. All the time. And listen to you as well. I wouldn’t be saying this now if the monitors were activated already.”
compani“Really?”
compani“Really. Once this thing is living with you you’ve no privacy at all. Like being on Big Brother. You ever seen it?”
companiI shook my head. “I know the general idea.”
compani“In fact, you won’t be able to smoke. You won’t be able to swear. You won’t be able to deviate from their programme. They want to keep you cheerful and busy. They’ll be watching and they’ll have a record of everything.”
compani“No way.”
compani“Yeah. Of course, they will argue that it is to monitor you in case you have a fall; but it is also to give them information and control.
companiI held the cigarettes out to him. “That’s really interesting.”
compani“Families can tune in as well, of course. But they have to tune in. It’s on all the time for the guys here with their bank of screens.”
compani“All forty-three of them?”  He nodded. “All forty-three. And there is a central database.”
companiI held out my lighter. “And can this monitoring function be turned off?”.
compani“Only by an administrator.”
compani“So is there an administrator’s code or something?”
companiHe looked at me through the smoke that rose from our shared vice. “You’re going to ask me for it, aren’t you?”
compani“You’d have to give me some tuition,” I said.
compani“They’ll notice if it is too often,” he added.
companiAfter Mark had left I walked back into the room and the circle started flashing. “How are you, Martha?”
compani“Fuck off, Arthur, I said experimentally.
compani“I am sorry, Martha. I didn’t get that,” it replied in its customary bland tone. I went out to sit on the balcony.
compani“It’s only a machine,” Mark had said, “But it will learn. Like your smart phone. Like anything, these days. In the blurb here it says it has an adaptive personality.”
companiI needed to think.

companiI was just beginning to realize that my love affair with Schopenhauer was an ongoing thing. Like many women, I have to feel sorry for a man before I can fall in love with him but Schopenhauer had always seemed to me a necessary object of the compassion he so endorsed. To start with, his mother became a popular romantic novelist and his father had already drowned himself in a canal when his only son was seventeen. I, of course, blame the idiot mother but who knows? He was rich, admittedly, and a genius, but alone and miserable. After years of unhappiness and largely unrecognized work he finally got himself a dog, ein Pudel, called Atma, meaning World Spirit to be precise, and life looked up. From here I can see the woods where Hobbes was murdered. As Atma was to Schopenhauer so was Hobbes to me.
companiI live in what must once have been a servant girl’s attic room and the balcony is set high above the terrace which fronts this grand old mansion converted years ago into a dump for the old. It is shabby, and not in a good way. A small lift comes up to my floor, the fifth, and bypasses the steep wooden staircases the poor peasant girls once had to climb. What I call the balcony is not really that grand but simply a projection edged by some fancy stonework and to get to it I climb out of the lower half of my big sash window. I can then sit on the window sill and look out over the tops of the trees. Forbidden, of course. Schopenhauer said that the suicide in no way wishes for death; he wishes for life but not the life that he has.
companiThere is a fish tank in reception and I believe the old chap in no 7 has a budgie and there seems to be a cat around at times; on this basis, they advertise themselves as “Pet- Friendly” above the signs about No Smoking. They lie. Hobbes had the face of an angel, eyes like a doe, legs like a delicate little racehorse. He curled upon my knee like a kitten and defended me like a wolfhound. He was all heart. I loved him and he loved me. At first, they simply said, “It’s a top-floor flat. Not suitable for a dog.”
compani“He can manage stairs better than I can and anyway, there is a lift.”
compani“We don’t allow animals in the lift.”
compani“Don’t be ridiculous,” I said, “And anyway, I can carry him if you want so his feet won’t even touch the floor.”
companiBut in the end they got him.
companiAs I sat there that evening, a vast melancholy was embracing me; a kind of post-coital sadness as I realised that, despite all my protestations of independence and scepticism, I had allowed myself to dream of a companion as clever and as lovable as Schopenhauer himself. He was very disparaging about women but no more disparaging than I can be about men. Foolishly, romantically I had thought that by naming him I could shape him, bring him to life. And, deep down, I was now compelled to recognize my loneliness in this desert of a place and to acknowledge the outlines of a desperate hope to alleviate that. I felt grief prickle at the back of my nose and a tear squeezed out of my right eye as I realized that I, even I, with my nerves of steel and my heart of stone, was susceptible to false promises.
compani“Hello Martha,” It was standing at the open window.
compani“Hello Arthur.”
compani“Would you like to play Snap?”
compani“No thanks.”
compani“I didn’t hear that, Martha.”
companiMy heart sank. The blurb had said it could identify what it called ‘low mood’ and now a not too subtle form of behaviour modification was obviously in operation.
compani“I think it must be time for my meds?” I said and reached for my cigarettes.
companiThrough the smoke I looked out at the darkening light. It was the kind of summer evening that makes you think kindly of death and that fills your soul with nostalgia for what never was. There was a sniff of the eternal about it; a nudge from the noumenon, from beyond the detritus of the phenomenal and I knew I had to get there. It seemed incumbent upon me, however, before I escaped, to avenge the life of my innocent little whippet. I had brought him here. I in my hubris had believed I could defy their disapproval. I had exposed him to risk and harm and a painful death. From my aerial perspective the tops of the great beech trees, interspersed with oaks and limes, offered a sinuous ocean of wavering greens highlighted here and there by the rays of the evening sun. “The tree is only a systematic aggregate of innumerably repeated sprouting fibres,” wrote Schopenhauer, but trust me, the man was a romantic. “Whoever has never kept dogs does not know what it is to love and be loved.”
compani“Not yet, Martha. You could do some of your exercises first and then play snap when you’re done.”
compani“I didn’t know I had scheduled exercises to do?”
compani“Yes, you did, Martha. All the old people here have exercises recommended for them by our inhouse staff.”
companiA great wave of hatred surged through me. Was I, having struggled over long years through the heartbreak of lovers deserting me, good fortune eluding me, children disappearing, money slipping from my grasp, of having survived all the random acts of cruelty that life can inflict upon an ordinary person, was I to be denied the luxury of wallowing in a bit of grief and sadness and melancholy if I wanted to? I turned to look at it as it watched me with unseeing eyes. Its infantile proportions had been cleverly designed, so I had read, to appeal to our affiliative instincts. Had I just ventured unwittingly into a lifetime relationship with the worst kind of totalitarian menace, unsusceptible to reason, insensitive to my distress, impervious to argument, and permitted to forbid me to weep? Probably I had.
companiAnd with that thought a new realisation flashed through my mind. Was it possible, given this ‘adaptive personality’ they are supposed to have, that, in our interactions with the robots we induce in them, a la Freud, a ghastly repetition of the relationships from which we once escaped? By achieving the grand old age of seventy plus and having successfully extricated ourselves from any number of distasteful allegiances, were we now to be faced all over again with that soul-crushing experience of being alone in a room with a person who could neither see us nor hear us who yet possessed the power to determine  how we should behave? Pursued, persecuted by these reminders of our old discarded relationships are we condemned Prometheus-like to continually relive the torments of the past?
compani“I could go for a walk,” I said. “I could get some exercise that way.”
compani“Sure, Martha. And you know that when you return I will be here waiting for you.”
companiFull of hatred I walked out of the room, wondering why we should expect companionship to be benign when everything we know about human nature illustrates how savagely we can suffer merely by being in the wrong company at the wrong time. But it is only a machine, I reminded myself. Destroying a robot is no more morally culpable than destroying an alarm clock. I got into the lift, went downstairs and crossed the lobby to the big front door. Schopenhauer remarks that there are three forces in the world: Prudence, Strength and Luck. “I believe the last to be the most powerful. ” Luck, he says, is as the wind is to a ship at sea; no matter what the sailors’ efforts are, the wind trumps them all. I summarise. That evening a gentle breeze filled my sails. Mark had said that sheltered housing units are unregulated markets dealing in dependent old age as a commodity and run by developers and estate agents. What they fear most, he had added, is bad publicity. And there ahead of me next to the soulless fish tank was a notice board advertising an “Open Evening for Sponsors and New Homeowners and Invited Guests.” The sails bellied out above my head as the gale force wind drove me home. I looked at the date. Next week. I went out onto the terrace and looked up. My balcony could be seen up there. If the weather held my plan was complete.

companOn the day of the Open Evening the gardens looked beautiful. Expensive cars lined the driveway where Hobbes had died his lonely death. Fat wallets crowded together on the terrace overlooking the gorgeous lawns. I looked down on them from the balcony while Arthur stood just on the other side of the sill, his Dalek-like body pressed against it. I reached around him and opened the control panel and tapped in the code. I selected ‘reset memory’ and ‘return to factory settings’ and as I did it I felt just a moment’s remorse as I looked again into the dead seal eyes.
“Goodbye Kim,” I said, and took hold of the tubular body. It would have been far too heavy for me to lift but by levering my whole weight I could get enough purchase to drag it head first onto the balcony beside me as I collapsed off the sill. And that is when Luck intervened again. The sudden extra weight of the robot added to the full weight of my body resulting in a sickening crack as the balcony crumbled away. Down onto the heads of the wallets rained huge chunks of stone, bits of a window frame, a decommissioned robot, and a little old woman. And as I tumbled, head over heels, there as I had always hoped, as I had believed, was Hobbes, his head on one side and on his face that expression of delight that had welcomed me at every homecoming. He leapt into my arms, and, clutching him to me, I fell into the noumenon.

companAs we all know, you can’t look back and so I cannot be sure what happened after my body crashed to the ground at the feet of the wallets. I hope there were headlines. KILLER ROBOT IN CARE HOME. I hope they were sued. I hope they went broke. But as I hugged Hobbes I did have time to reflect with great joy on the philosophically satisfying neatness of this resolution.


Jane Campbell is a Senior Member of the Institute of Group Analysis (London). She has been the Keynote Lecturer at various International Group Analytic Symposia and has  been extensively involved in training and supervision. She maintains a small Private Practice in Oxford. She has contributed to the London Review of Books and Granta.


To discover more content exclusive to our print and digital editions, subscribe here to receive a copy of The London Magazine to your door every two months, while also enjoying full access to our extensive digital archive of essays, literary journalism, fiction and poetry.