Referring to Itself

I’m having some trouble with my computer. It seems there is a folder within one of the main folders that contains itself. I only became aware of this because certain mundane functions like saving a document into the documents folder weren’t working properly. Once my smart and tidy computer technician figured out what was wrong, he set to work and apparently fixed it. I went to my paper library and pulled out my old copy of Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid and read about recursivity.

There I rediscovered the Mobius strip, and Russell’s paradox (associated with statements like “this statement is a lie”). Things ran into mathematical formulas and I lost interest and closed the book.

Something is hiding in this kind of stuff and because I am innumerate, a-arithmetic, I could never track it down the way my computer tech could, and I hope did (although because I have two computers in different places, and the computers are connected (“talk to one another”) in a variety of ways, I’m afraid he might not have completely solved my problem). But I have a personally reliable instinct that what’s hiding is the potential to make things disappear.

Old Joe Mitchell was onto something, and it’s a bit different from what I concluded in my book review of some of his stories. It’s not that he was a gifted writer who just ran out of gas and spent the last decades of his life sadly going back and forth to his office at the New Yorker trying to write and failing. It’s akin to his story where he and the fish restaurant proprietor finally went upstairs into the Old Hotel, to find it really just vacant.

Mitchell also wrote about Joe Gould, an eccentric idiot savant, autistic, drunk, psychotic; stuff of Ezra Pound and e.e. cummings mid-20th-century poetry. Gould alleged that he had hundreds of handwritten notebooks comprising an oral history of the world. The thing though is that they didn’t exist. They were, and Gould himself was, about themselves. And I think also of the mythical king who had his cartographers create a map of the kingdom so detailed that it was the kingdom.

I’m guessing (although I could never prove) that it ought to be possible to be sure that when something contains itself, although it seems that the self-referential loop implied there should explode into some sort of infinite regress of facing mirrors, in fact that something is locked in a solipsism so absolute that it disappears.

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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