‘Selfhood’ short fiction by Declan Toohey

Let’s suppose that it’s actually a simple affair,’ said Holly, circling the Famine Ship Memorial on Salthill Beach. She and Dara were talking about the meaning of existence; that is, not so much the meaning of life but of being more generally. Being with a capital B, if one were so inclined. The more Holly talked, however, the less Dara cared about whether beingshould be capitalised or not: all he knew was that he was hopelessly in love with her and that he was not looking forward to her imminent return to Canada. 

‘Let’s suppose that all of these people you’re speaking about—your Heidegger, your Kierkegaard, your Nietzsche, your Sartre, your Camus, whoever—let’s suppose that they never happened. And not just them: all of the old guys too. Aristotle, Plato, the guy who said I think, therefore I am—the entire history of western and eastern philosophy disappears into the ether and nobody has any recollection about . . . Heidegger’s existential analytic, Nietzsche’s will to power, or what have you. Every philosophical argument about the meaning of being is gone.    

‘Except,’ she said, brandishing a grin, ‘two ideas from two philosophers—one western and one eastern. Representing the west is, em . . . Miguel de Portillo, a sixteenth-century Portuguese chap who claimed that being originated from a particular beach in North Africa, or North Gondwana, to be precise. On what would become . . .’

Holly racked her brain for a location, and clicked her fingers when she found the answer: 

‘Dashrah Beach in Algeria! Where crustaceans littered the sand and griffinflies flew in surveillance. Big bastards, those things. Wingspans up to 70 centimetres. Anyway, according to Portillo, the creatures knew that there was a powerful energy underneath the surface of the earth, and from looking out towards the Paleo-Tethys Ocean alone they intuited that a process was at hand. Which was . . .’ 

She began to count on her fingers. 

‘The waves, unable to control their sense of restlessness, generated a geological form of anxiety; this in turn pressed upon the sand; the Carboniferous period gave way to the Permian period and the Permian to the Triassic, and so on and so forth, until the Quaternary period comes into view; and it’s here, she said, no longer counting but pointing at Dara, 300 centuries ago, in the Holocene epoch, that homo sapiens first waddled across the sand of the Algerian beach. But as the decades passed, a certain group of Algerians found themselves, on account of their daily contact with the angst-laden sand, becoming increasingly aware, and therefore worried, about their existence. This interior feeling they understood as being, and around it—around this mysterious thing for which they don’t yet have a name—they tentatively began to formulate questions. And, of course, when others learned of their questions—others who hadn’t even seen the beach let alone walked upon it—they became self-conscious: they became anxious. And, naturally, within moments it’s as if the whole world is anxious. This is Portillo’s idea.’

See how she talks! thought Dara. And off the cuff no less. Enamoured of her mouth, her eyes, her mind. Her smile, laugh, voice. The holy trinity of enchantment. Yet another man who fell in love with a finely calibrated relative clause. 

‘And the Eastern?’ Dara asked. 

Where he had previously been loquacious, he now yearned to be an observer, a listener, a votary at the feet of this overhuman whose geological expertise put to shame his own doctoral aspirations. Time yet to scrap it all. 

‘Well,’ she said, the eastern philosophy’s a little different. ‘It’s associated with, uh . . . Wu Mei-ling, a nineteenth-century Chinese concubine who managed to keep her philosophical tracts a secret for her entire life. They were published posthumously, of course. She held that being came about as a result of the eh . . . Batakali tree, a rare flora of north-eastern Tibet, which first blossomed in 200,000 BP and—’ 

‘Stall the ball,’ said Dara. ‘BP?’ 

‘Before Present. Standard dating system for geologists and other earth scientists. Means before 1950.’ 



‘I understand.’

Tuigim,’ she smiled, storing away another word in her Irish vocabulary. ‘So the Batakali Tree, right, is not too dissimilar to a dormant volcano, in that, as far as we know, it’s flourished only ten times. During its bloom its branches yield a single ambrosial petal of the legendary flower known as the Anatolorum palesium, and while active it boasts a rich pink pigment and a physical resemblance to the lily. As you can imagine, at the time of its blossoming its petals drew rapt attention from all the homo sapiens—or populus sapiens, if we’re being inclusive—of north-eastern Tibet. The flower bloomed for about a month, and each day the Tibetans would stand alongside it for hours. I mean, practically the whole day. But one evening, almost four weeks after its buds first bloomed, when every child and adult across the region was resting from the day’s activities, beholding the petite leaves of the Anatolorum palesium, the petals withered. They dried up and tore into a hundred pieces. The Tibetan crowd became sad. They looked at each other in despair, feeling irreparably damaged. Thus, being was born. That’s Wu’s idea.’ 

She paused, unsure where next to take her reflections on human existence.  

‘Then what happens?’

‘I don’t know,’ she laughed. ‘I was kind of hoping you could take over.’

‘Right, eh . . . Gimme a sec.’ 

As they exited Celia Griffin Memorial Park and strolled towards Grattan Road Beach, Dara’s mind turned over possible directions in which to take her philosophical ideas, before settling on one that he thought was not complete shite. 

‘Yeah, okay . . . Grand, so in 1965 two documentary filmmakers—let’s call them . . . Ellen Pender and Dermot Carr—get the idea of uprooting this Tibetan tree and planting it in Algeria. They’re not entirely sure if this legal, let alone ethical, but nevertheless decide to fly out to Tibet and shoot some footage.     

‘They obtain visas, enter talks with Tibetan officials, and are soon recording static shots of the tree for up to ten hours, in homage to those who first stood before it. It’s massive, needless to say, and is by now as much a tourist attraction as a site for ontological cogitation. When visitors come into frame and touch the tree, as they are wont to do, Pender and Carr ask them if they would like to be in a documentary, and, if so, get them to sign release forms. The tree however remains their main focus. In fact, while they are drawn to many Tibetan characters—the most compelling of whom being a toothless man who sucks orange peels—they record only tourists for fear of othering natives and losing their respected status as progressive anthropologists.

‘After many tedious hours in conversation with both the Central Tibetan Administration and the Chinese government, they are given permission to take a single branch and its petal for the nature of their film. Sawing the branch and making haste to Algeria, they fly with the Anatolorum palesium tucked neatly away in a box beside their feet, wondering if their enterprise is worthwhile: whether being is worth removing from one habitat and placing in another. 

‘And it is at this moment, at over 40,000 feet above sea level, that Cander—as the two documentarians are called in the trade papers—grow weary. The same sense of dread that flicked the faces of the Tibetan people so many centuries ago manifests itself and begins to stroke their chins. Its touch is soft, but stings and burns like a ghost chili. They keep silent, too loath to acknowledge their feelings lest they should worsen.

‘When they reach the beach the flower has grown little in size. Their disquiet, on the other hand, has amplified to the point where not even the quietude of the Algerian strand can mollify it. As if on cue, their cameras catch fire—some driftwood, interacting with Carr’s cigarette, sparks a conflagration, and the two do well to escape with only second-degree burns.’

Dara was finding his stride, sinking into the rhythms of his speech, the cadence of his imagination. He was enjoying himself, and as he looked askance at Holly he could tell that she was similarly pleased with his spiel.

‘Though the details of that specific event on Dashrah Beach remain contentious to this day,’ he said, ‘certain scholars have found much to agree on. Gordon Levinson and Sandra Keaton, for example, both concur that Ms Pender wore red plimsolls while Mr Carr sported a worn pair of beige sandals. Elsewhere, Thomas Timson is yet to come under criticism for his views on the day’s weather, which he claims was exceptionally warm for December at 22 degrees. And, indeed, rare is the undergraduate Cander-Studies paper that fails to acknowledge Robert McLoughlin’s thesis, namely that the duo spent precisely two hours and fifteen minutes of their time that afternoon screaming in existential agony, as if the physical pain weren’t bad enough.  

‘The general consensus on the day’s events is that the filmmakers were foolish to interrogate the nature of self-consciousness. As Rousseau put it, man is made for work, not meditation. 

‘Others contend that they should have had more humility in the face of such a primitive philosophical problem. And yet, it could be argued that theirs was a noble attempt to further our understanding of the human condition.’

‘You’re a machine,’ she said. Her face was dry from the wind. She yearned to nestle it in the crook of his neck, to become enveloped in his scent. She wanted a permanent loan of his salmonpink hoodie, and, above all, to see him every day, forevermore.  

‘But you love me.’

Her smile lines deepened. She ran a hand through her hair, uncoquettishly, and turned slightly away as a dash of colour came to her cheeks. When she looked at him her chin arched upwards, teeth shining like a bladelight, and Dara knew that she was a once-in-a-lifetime-opportunity as much as his graduate funding for Oxford. ‘Yeah,’ she said. ‘I suppose I do.’

While they held hands there dashed through both of their minds a recognition of their impending departure, not to mention the lugubrious mood that came with it. Holly had work to return to and in September would train to be a teacher. Dara was bent on throwing his life into the mania of academia. If they were to stay together one of them would have to drastically alter their current life plans. 

A crisp breeze came in from the Atlantic. They looked out on it, that giant ocean for which they had hitherto only love. Now, given their relationship status, it was a scourge, a grievance, an intractable void. A melancholy air descended upon them. Holly, unbeknown to herself, squeezed Dara’s hand so hard that he turned and saw her mind was elsewhere, evidently preoccupied with matters other than the ocean. When she extricated herself from her daydream she looked at Dara’s left eye, then his right, then his left again, and he felt euphoric and dizzy as he watched the lateral dance of her irises.   

‘Well,’ she said, ‘at least when people ask me what I did in Ireland I can tell them I cracked the meaning of existence with the help of a friend.’ 

Dara pretended to be hurt. ‘Only a friend?’

She smirked. ‘Didn’t you learn anything from your Wu Mei-ling studies?’

‘Not a lot. Had trouble concentrating. Fell for my teacher.’

For a while they were silent, and looked exploringly into each other’s eyes. 

‘What were we talking about again?’ she said.

‘Oh, nothing. Nothing at all.’

'Selfhood' short fiction by Declan Toohey

Declan Toohey is an Irish writer whose fiction and criticism has appeared in The Stockholm Review of Literature, Idle Ink, and The Klecksograph. He is currently based in Nova Scotia, Canada, where he is at work on his first novel. 

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