The Metaphysical Touch

In 1991 Emily Piper, a graduate student at Berkeley, has nearly finished her dissertation on metaphysics when her life is changed by, the great Berkeley-Oakland fire that destroyed over three thousand homes. Pi loses all her belongings: her books and writings, all the things that reminded her of herself. Though others throw themselves into the task of rebuilding their lives, Pi can’t. Instead, she escapes to the small coastal town of Mendocino.

On the other coast is JD, a man with an ambition to go: permanently, absolutely. But before making his departure, JD decides to write a record of his jokes and neuroses; of his reflections on his wandering father, Joe; and of his urban, unemployed despair-and post it on the Internet.

When JD and Pi encounter each other’s words on the Net, the metaphysical sparks start to fly. Is JD who he says he is? Pi, as a recovering philosopher, ought to be able to tell the real world from an imaginary one, but finds herself in doubt. And though her correspondence with JD begins to heat up, she finds a sensual, more material temptation closer by, and her dilemma becomes a perilous instance of the “mind/body problem.”

The following is an excerpt from the book: The Metaphysical Touch by Sylvia Brownrigg. Published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux; 0-374-19965-5; $24.00US. Copyright © 1998 Sylvia Brownrigg


At first Pi didn’t see her. She was concentrating on the rough black challenge in her hands. In a small white room with no memories, Pi sliced an avocado clean. It sent its soapy green scent into the air, the smell of guacamole and picnics and oily good sandwiches.

“What are you doing?” Martha asked from the doorway.

“Oh! Shit.”

A fold of red appeared on Pi’s thumb, staining the avocado brown. Pi brought her thumb to her mouth to suck it clean, but the smell of blood unnerved her stomach and she wiped the cut on her jeans instead.

“You scared me. I didn’t see you there.” Pi tried to drain her voice of annoyance.

“Sorry,” the little brown-haired girl chirped, and skittered back to the kitchen before Pi could readjust and be nice and remember how to talk to kids. Slowly, she figured-with patience and a big smile.

Another missed chance. You had to seize your moments with Martha, which Pi had so far failed to do. It worried her. Martha might be a small person, dimensionally speaking, but she was a big part of this compact household.

The free and full answer to the child’s question would have been, Trying to generate an appetite. And, to the implicit part of what Martha asked, that is why was Pi making a sandwich in her bedroom instead of in the kitchen, Because I thought it might be easier if I didn’t have anyone watching me. Pi’s elusive appetite: maybe, like sex or philosophy, it needed privacy to flourish.

Her appetite had wandered aimlessly since the fire, much the way Pi had herself. For the first couple of weeks afterwards, Pi’s stomach had been bottomless. She’d pushed pizza and salads and french fries and beer into it and nothing ever happened, nothing made it feel better or full. One night she’d gone out for Indian food with her old friend Jeri and Pi had eaten an entire livid orange Tandoori chicken. She felt its hot body clucking around in her for days afterwards, but it didn’t do anything to satisfy her monstrous appetite.

Up here, though, in post-apocalypse January-her nuclear winter, as Pi thought of it-the distress had sunk deep into the pit of her gut and it seemed reluctant to let any food in there with it. That’s the way it goes with distress. It’s a greedy guest, hoarding the space in your stomach and in your mind, the places you usually fill with food and companionship and interesting ideas and hunger.

Anyway, her appetite was gone again. The avocado might have coaxed it out; there was something so normal and Californian about avocados, they made Pi think of herself at Martha’s age placing the smooth brown egg from inside them in a glass of water, watching over days as it sprouted wormy pale roots as if you could really grow a real tree from such a thing. Her own attempts had never gotten further than the thin scraggle of roots.

But that was it for this effort at eating. Pi put the food away. A blood-smudgcd avocado and ominous, sweaty cheese; sliced bread that was called Whole Wheat Sourdough Farmhouse, which seemed like a lot to call one little loaf of bread –it was all too much for Pi’s stomach, which shrank from the task, and for her dry mouth, which filled with a sour refusal.


It was Martha again, fluttering out of the kitchen.

“Some mail came. Harry needs to talk to you.”

“To me?”

This was ridiculous and impossible. Hardly anyone knew her address here in Mendocino. Pi’d tried to cut herself off from everyone back in the Bay Area for all but the most legal purposes. She had told people-Fran, Jen, Ryan-not to get in touch with her for a while. She claimed the traditional Western need for personal space. In fact Pi had been altogether stubborn and stoical about everything, but as she went to talk to Harry now she was secretly thrilled that someone had penetrated her northern fog of mystery.

“Hey, Harry.”

A cheerful Japanese man, light blue and eagle-patched, stood on the porch. At the kitchen table Abbie was dealing with the damage of what he had already delivered. Over a sheaf of freshly opened official documents she flapped in indignation.

 “Something from Abe?” Pi asked Harry, nodding towards Abbie.

“The lawyers.” Harry grimaced. “Doesn’t sound good.”

Pi left the divorce behind her to see what the mailman had for her. It seemed to be a package. A whole, sweet, unknown package.

“You’ve got to sign for it. It’s registered.”

She signed, noticing the zip of the sender. 94720: Berkeley, the university. That stumbled her heart.

“G’ahead. Open it.” Harry was too good at his job not to be curious about what he brought people, and not to know that this Was the first real mail this girl had received here.

Pi had a dark dread that it could be some personal item of hers that someone had found. Combing through the ashes, maybe. Whatever it was, it was heavy. Maybe someone-she didn’t know who, it was hard to imagine who would do this-had found some melted clot of old jewelry of hers. Or a book, something precious that she’d forgotten she kept in a fireproof safe. Maybe it was Zeno’s punky chain collar that Fran had given her when Zeno was just a kitten. Pi had nothing left. Had someone contradicted that fact, found her something still to hold and to have?

It was heavy and metal and turned out to be a small piece of equipment. Pi extracted it from the bag in a cloud of padding fluff. She sneezed. A card fluttered to the ground, postcard-sized.

On one side, the familiar letterhead that caused her teeth to clench. DEPARTMENT OF PHILOSOPHY, UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA, BERKELEY.

On the other side, in Rob’s handwriting:

This is from the body politic. (Didn’t want you to think it was an individual thing. There is no private language, don’t forget.) We figured it would be more useful than a gold watch. HINT: the non-referential meaning of this gift is: KEEP IN TOUCH.

Tears cluttered Pi’s vision for a second. But she didn’t even know what she was crying over. It was something small, corded, with lots of buttons.

“Did you order it?” Harry asked.

“What is it?”

“What is it? It’s a modem.”

“Oh.” It sweated in her reluctant palms. She kind of wanted to drop it. A modem. Who said she wanted a modem?

“I don’t even know how to use it. I’ve never had one.”

“They’re simple. Did they send you the software? You can always download mine if you want. What system do you have?”

“Can I see?”

Martha stood in her loose purple dress wanting to play with the new toy. Wait! Here it was-another chance for Pi to get the kid thing right.

“Sure! Here, take a look.”

Pi was happy to get rid of it. She placed the humming, alien object in Martha’s cupped, eager hands. Harry smiled at Pi before turning with his canvas bag to the rest of the town’s bills and circulars and hefty piles of mail order catalogues.

“You wait.” He winked at her. “In about a month she’ll be showing you how to work it. Like my son. He teaches me how to play computer games. He always beats me, but I don’t mind. I tell him, it’s when he can beat me at tennis that’ll bug me.”

Martha looked up into the high foolish faces of the grown-ups. She pulled on Pi’s pants leg. There was no time to waste.

“Come on,” she said to Pi. “Let’s go plug it in.”

Pi had been living in Abbie’s Mendocino house with Abbie and Martha a little less than a month. She was still finding her way around. Around the coastal town, which was small and strange but not hard to negotiate; and around her life, which was unrecognizable, a green dark wood with odd clearings of brightncss, a place she hadn’t grown up in but had arrived in now, at this age of about thirty, without a clear sense of the north and south of it.

Pi had lost everything in the fire.

It was like death, but the other way around. When you die, it is you, suddenly, leaving all your things behind. Something gets you-a dangerous street, a disease, a blocked heart, or a bullet-and you float off and disappear and become ash. For your “survivors” you leave a heap of things to go through: unpaid bills, embarrassing notes or photographs hidden in drawers, dirty laundry. Small intimate reminders of you–your soap, the contents of your refrigerator, a signed card that will make them cry. The collection of your things is what your survivors have to deal with, but it is also a strange comfort to them because it prolongs their ability to imagine you alive. They move through your youless rooms and they speak to you, because at this late date they’ve become superstitious and (they swear) they can feel you there. They put your clothes up to their faces and inhale the soon-to-be-forgotten scent of you. They look at all the books on your bookshelves, for hours they look at your books and listen to your music, and they think about the worlds of thought and character and song that spoke to you in your inner ear while you were still alive.

It was all the other way around for Pi. All her belongings, all the things that reminded her of herself, even the unpaid bills and dirty laundry-all of that was gone, and she was the one left behind. She was the survivor. She had survived the death of everything she owned. In a single day, actually in a minute or two, her belongings had succumbed to an improbable heat and a ferocious light, had been eaten alive by fire, and Pi was left alone, roomless and objectless, to make some kind of sense of their going.

This did not make her unique. Far from it. The fire had been a public event, the kind watched greedily on television by people somewhere else. The kind nationally remarked, mourned, editorialized, and finally forgotten except by the people disenfranchised by the disaster. Pi was merely one of a group of disenfranchised people; which somehow made the whole thing more humiliating.

Many people in Berkeley seemed to feel differently. In the days and weeks after the great fire there was a tremendous amount of gush, as you’d expect anywhere but especially in California, about how wonderfully the community had pulled together: all the strangers helping strangers and moving photographs of soot-blackened young men helping old ladies, diamonds pulled from the fire and neighbors lending each other their spare Mercedes so they could make their getaways from the flames. Everyone was high on community, after. It lifted people’s opinions of themselves. We may think we’re all rich selfish folks only watching our own backs, but in a crisis we’ll hand each other garden hoses and holler through closed oak doors, we’ll help save each other’s pets and paintings, and we’ll even-under pressure-carpool. Because underneath it all we have good hearts and we know how to pull together. Such was the bracing moral taken from the ashes of the fire.

Sadly for Pi this wasn’t true. Not that her heart wasn’t good-it wasn’t bad, anyway-but there was something deep within her that cherished her solitude and uniqueness, and even a fire couldn’t burn that part of her spirit away. Pi’s impulse, when she learned from her landlord and friend, Jay Dixon, that the Dixons’ house including her “in-law” apartment, had been completely destroyed, was to turn her face to the wall. She hadn’t really wanted to run in and help or salvage. She had no desire to see the Dixons or any of her other neighbors. She didn’t want to come together and heal. As soon as she could, Monday after the fire and before she’d even talked to Jay, Pi had driven over to San Francisco to stay with friends there, to push the bay’s distance between herself and the wasteland, between herself and all the stricken people gathering to share notes, stories, statistics, and sympathy.

Nonetheless. A couple of months later she found she knew all those statistics in spite of herself. And if one of the whole points of getting away from the Bay Area had been to be referenceless for a while, here in a northern town where she knew no one and no one knew her, where the fire was far away and had happened in a place many locals rolled their eyes over for its arrogance-somehow, in Mendocino, Pi found herself reciting those stats to people who weren’t aware of them in order to emphasize the size of the disaster. She wanted and nurtured her private grief. She wanted solitary walks, soundless reflection; she wanted space, water, waves. Time. The things she’d come away for. Yet in conversations-with Abbie, or Harry, or Xander at the store-Pi found herself identifying with the nameless group she had left behind, with the numbers of afflicted left in Berkeley and Oakland.

And the statistics were impressive. On that October Sunday of 1991 over three thousand homes were destroyed. The fire did five billion dollars’ worth of damage, placing it in honorable company with that other recent disaster, the ’89 quake, which clocked in at eight billion. (Other expensive California disasters were still to come. As always.) Seventeen hundred and seventy acres were laid waste by the blaze. Five thousand people were left homeless. Residents who had become used to using that word to describe vagrants and madmen, untouchables even if you pitied them, were suddenly learning to attach the word to themselves. Many spoke of suing. Somebody out there had to get sued for this. A hundred and fifty people were injured-bones broken from sliding down muddy hills and falling off roofs and running over broken, desperate ground to safety. Also burns, of course, terrible magenta burns. Heart failures. Strokes. And twenty-five people were killed outright. Suffocated in basements, fried in their cars, a couple lost to heroic acts and the brutal collapse of a burning power line.

Some listeners concentrated on the money. That was what fascinated a lot of people: that billion dollar figure and all the little gruesome stories that made it up, stories of people who’d just bought brand-new homes and hadn’t yet insured them, people who’d just built on extensions with elaborate playgrounds to accommodate their six children and had taken out a special loan to do it, people whose fancy cars became black and hollow and whose taxes and PCs and home entertainment systems were transformed through bright fire into dark lumps of nothingness. Often the people Pi met in Mendocino wanted to hear these terrible stories, the personal disasters, or they quoted them back to her from what they’d read, with a certain glitter in their eyes-giving Pi the chance to wonder again as she once had in a Wittgenstein seminar why there wasn’t a word in English for Schadenfreude, that very human pleasure taken in other people’s misery.

Pi didn’t know much about the money aspect of the fire. In her own story it was not so important. Yes, she lost a computer and stereo equipment and some fancy jewelry her grandmother had given her before she died, as well as her parents’ old VCR they’d shipped up a few weeks earlier for her birthday. And -no. None of it was insured. What graduate student insured anything? They were all used to living cheaply and living with the knowledge that their lives were cheap. That was the graduate student condition. It was demeaning, but it was made up for by the single thing that made you and your home valuable-invaluable. That was your mind. Your ideas. Your papers and books, the collection of words that was going to set you on your way into the great human library of thought and endeavor, of intellectual achievement.

This was what Pi had lost. This was her version of everything. Pi was a philosopher: 1991 marked her fifth year philosophizing at UC Berkeley with various grey eminences and other snappy young things like herself, charting invisible worlds in well-appointed classrooms and book-thick apartments all around that pretty, green, worldly institution. Pi had been getting ready her first job applications, having completed about two-thirds of her dissertation on Kant’s transcendental idealism. It was efficient of her to have written so much already-some older lingering students were searching still for thesis topics-and this was one reason people in her department valued Pi. She was quick and also deep. She was one of the ones tipped to go far. She had already had an article accepted for publication in the Journal of Philosophy, an achievement more or less on a level with being recruited in your second year of law school to clerk for the Supreme Court, or being nabbed as a junior to play for the NBA. It was the kind of thing that made people envious. Somewhere out there, Pi supposed, some UC Berkeley grad students must be shivering with a little Schadenfreude of their own about what had happened to her. It was inevitable. Possibly some of the secretly gleeful included the same people who’d talked about it in the Wittgenstein class, maybe that blond guy Helmut or whatever his name was who’d said, with an unfortunate Teutonic accent, “In a people dzet can name Schadenfreude perhaps dzis is a real, vivid emotion, whereas in a people-as it were a language community-which cannot name dzis experience it does not so arise. Perhaps in English one sees another’s misfortune and has no experience because it is not named.” Somebody argued with that, Pi remembered. Someone, maybe it was her friend Rob, said, “I think it’s that in English we like to deceive ourselves that we’re basically nice people. We enjoy other people’s misfortunes as much as anybody, we just don’t admit it. German doesn’t allow you that self-deception.”

So perhaps the Schadenfreuders, German or American, were now rubbing their hands together to think of what she’d lost. It wasn’t that people didn’t like Pi. But of course academic departments are dark stuffy rabbit warrens of jealousy, filled with people squabbling in corners, fretting over limited resources, and twitching with anxiety about other people’s progress. Pi was famously thorough-or pretentious, if that was the angle you took on it-for having all of Kant’s works in German as well as English. In some departmental corners people whispered meanly that Pi had been heard to mispronounce some basic German word like Dasein or Kritik. On the other hand, you couldn’t deny that phrases like die Dinge-an-sich, things in themselves, fell musically off her lips or that she spoke of Kant’s “noumenal realm” with an absent-minded, easy reverence.

All her Kant was gone. All that German. All of her books, most of them scribbled in either with embarrassingly unsubtle comments in pen when she was an undergraduate or in more cautious pencil from graduate re-readings. She had always corresponded with the philosophers she’d read, ever since she was seventeen and first encountered John Stuart Mill. “What is now called the nature of women is an eminently artificial thing-the result of forced repression in some directions, unnatural stimulation in others,” Mill wrote in On the Subjection of Women, to which young Pi had penned Pretty rad stuff John! The conversations had grown more adult over the years-she was less flippant, at least-but Pi had never lost her urge to engage with these old dead minds. They lived for her in print and she lived with them there, chattering on year after year in the margins of their volumes, in the volume after volume she had stacked on wall-length bookshelves in her converted garage apartment in a low corner of the Berkeley hills. Conversations that were ash or air now. Voices burnt to a crisp. German and English volumes of the First Critique of Judgment, of the Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics, of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations . . . and others, others. All dead and buried now, and with them everything she’d ever written or thought about them. Every thought she’d ever considered worth committing to print-which, for Pi, who delighted in the workings of her own mind and who felt most alive when she was burrowed deep within it-for Pi, that meant almost every philosophical thought she’d ever had.

The dissertation was gone, of course. All the notes for it. Disks with all the papers she’d written, files of her essays from college, scores of scholarly volumes of commentary, interpretations. Pi’s dissertation was to have been on Kant’s metaphysics-on his stark, wisdom-starred vision of what was knowable in the world and what lay beyond the knowable. As a graduate student you had to read around, be ready to teach anything from the ethics of euthanasia to Pythagoras’ transmigration of souls; but Pi’s loyalty was to Kant. Her heart was floating out there with the German idealist, in the pure ether of his thought, in the deep space of his noumenal realm.

Or it had been, before the fire. Since that October Sunday she couldn’t let herself think of him. Pi couldn’t see the initial “K” without flinching, without folding in on herself with dread of the memory of what she’d lost. Fortunately, since it all went at once, Pi had lost along with Kant all the other Ks she’d loved-Kierkegaard, Kundera, Kafka. This made the loss simpler, in a way. It meant that she had simply to get used to living in an entirely K-less world, a world without alphabet: the strange printless place she was expected now to build her life in.

Copyright © 1998 Sylvia Brownrigg

Sylvia Brownrigg is the author of a collection of short stories, Ten Women Who Shook the World (to be published in the United States by FSG). She has a degree in philosophy from Yale University. She was born in California and currently resides in London.