Maybe it was all those Lutheran summers by the river, but I can think of nothing more romantic than destiny, than fate foretold. Not even to be the chosen one necessarily, just to be proximate to them somehow, participating in the fulfilment of a prophecy. It’s been a real problem for me.
Slowly I learn how the language of inevitability is always a trap. But then listen to me, “always.”
What I mean is, any situation could have been otherwise, whatever is begun could have gone another way, could have been avoided entirely, but at every step a decision was made and enforced, often by forces entirely outside of the participants’ control, and then what happened happened, as if naturally, as if unavoidable. But the violence, the tragedy, the failure, none of it had to be that way. Something else was possible.
When I get too utopian in front of certain relatives, talking about how things could have been, could yet be, they’ll say, well it’s just human nature, to be greedy, selfish, whatever, as if that means anything. Human.
Have you seen the movie Dead Again? It’s a 1991 LA noir horror romance, directed by Kenneth Branagh, starring Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson. In the film, Thompson plays a woman who has lost her memory and Branagh the shady private eye who is hired by an idealistic nun to help her. The nun character never returns, but an antique dealer gets involved, providing his services as a regression hypnotist in an attempt to help Thompson reclaim her lost memories and uncover the secret of her mysterious identity, her unknown origins. While undergoing this treatment the film switches from color to black and white flashbacks — an effect added during editing to make the narrative more clear — relaying the story of a glamorous but tragic 1940s Hollywood marriage between a jealous composer and a celebrated pianist, also played by Branagh and Thompson, which ends in murder by household scissors. We come to realize that the mysterious amnesiac and her devoted private eye were this married couple in a past life who have now found each other again, and are now again falling in love, in the same town but fifty years later. Destiny. It’s very complicated, and includes a fun gender swap I bet was pretty wild in 1991, as well as something to do with an expensive anklet, narrow escape from Nazi Germany, and Robin Williams as a disgraced therapist turned grocery clerk.
While they were filming the movie, playing two pairs of lovers who were really perhaps one pair of lovers, Branagh and Thompson were, in fact, lovers in real life. They were married, but divorced not long after when Branagh cheated on Thompson with his co-star in another movie he directed and starred in, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Helena Bonham Carter. The romance not of who you are but who you can pretend, for a time, to be.
I watched Dead Again late one night lying in bed, stressing about something, illuminated by tv light, and I was disappointed that it wasn’t more scary. But once I turned it off I could barely sleep, and when I did I had the strangest dreams, which I have now mostly forgotten beyond a sense of forest green and a sea of disembodied lips.
Or you know when you hear a song you used to love, love with your whole heart as if your love meant something about who you were as a person, and now on relistening you no longer hear what you had heard, and you take it as proof you no longer are who you once were? I mean around what shifting and molten or solid and deep core do you cohere across all these discrete events and instances? Watching a stranger sleep on the train, standing in front of a bar or at a party, wading into a pool, waiting for a movie to start and wondering why you’re there, why you like anything you like, go anywhere you go.
I dreamt I got an email from one poet about another poet, and despite the suspicious clue that I could not remember when or where I read this email that perhaps should have been enough to confirm for me that this event didn’t really happen, I could nevertheless recall the email’s contents so plainly, I remained convinced it was real, and I searched for it for days, afraid I had made some sort of mistake, and eventually had to send a strange email of my own to someone I barely know, admitting I was afraid I deleted a message that maybe never came.
This is one example of why memory is totally unreliable as a measure of identity over time. I remember so vividly things that didn’t happen, or didn’t happen to me.
I am not all of myself, complete and whole, in any one moment, because parts of me are spread out across my life from my birth to my death. I’m multiply located, child parts of me in my childhood, elderly parts of me in my old age, and those parts aren’t here right now, because they’re there.
Or, perhaps they are here right now, time folding over, shapeless and swirling, because I am here, and I am there, not that I am in both places at once, but both places here at once. Or both things are true. And all the parts of you too, here with me. Now and then.
So this is why I think the image of the road, metaphoric or otherwise, is, for me at least, so endlessly appealing, so irresistible. A clear, coextensive line from who you were to who you will be to how you will die and how soon you will be forgotten. For example, in Amanaz’s 1975 “Khala My Friend,” almost the only line in the entire song, repeated over and over, is “the road you're taking / it has no end / Khala my friend come back to me.” My first impulse would be to imagine that a road without end would be a good thing, freedom maybe, something one would wish for their friend, but when Keith Kabwe sings it, the endlessness is the trap, it doesn’t mean no death, it means no rest, no peace, no reunion with your friend who loves you and calls to you home. This endless road just goes farther and farther away forever and then you die, at which point you are either farther away or finally closer again, I’m not sure.
I compare it to Gram Parsons’ “Return of the Grievous Angel,” where Parsons sings with Emmylou Harris, “Twenty thousand roads I went down / And they all lead me straight back home to you.” That’s that destiny I was talking about, its particular comfort being that I imagine it suggests a bond so undeniable it doesn’t matter if you fuck up, it doesn’t matter if you leave, it’s meant to be and so it will find a way, destined, inevitable, love. But that’s not true, of course it matters, relations are fragile and if we are careless they will break, there is no meant to be. And also why do I find the vision of this Annie Rich figure who forgives and welcomes the singer for leaving her twenty thousand times so romantic? Shouldn’t I long for her refusal of his return? Well that one’s easy, it’s the idea of a home you can return to after you leave, something that can’t be lost.
But then the problem of identity over time doesn’t feel so urgent as the problem of losing yourself, or losing hold of yourself, or losing touch with yourself, your true self, so vulnerable to external force or tragedy.
After all those Lutheran summers and evangelical holidays, one comfort I found was in repeating some version of “everything happens for a reason,” or “all is as it should be,” whenever everything appeared to be a fucking disaster. Then in college I read about modal realism, a theory which explains that our world is but one world among many others, each existing at no spatial or temporal distance from this world, but in no way causal or otherwise connected to it. In On the Plurality of Worlds, David Lewis explains, “There are so many other worlds, in fact, that absolutely every way that a world could possibly be is a way that some world is,” which means there are countless worlds where I’ve died already, worlds where I am a bad mother or a good mother, worlds where I’ve killed people, worlds where I am almost exactly as I am in this world you and I share except in this other world my favorite color is a more cerulean blue. If this is the case, as I believe it is, then of course we can no longer say as a comfort that everything happens for a reason, because everything that could happen does happen, somewhere, and all we can say of this way is that it’s the way it is happening here.
Famously, when asked by a fan about Zayn Malik’s departure from One Direction in 2015, Stephen Hawking attempted to provide some comfort by reminding the fan that according to theoretical physics, which postulates the existence of multiple universes, there is a universe where One Direction remains constant, the boys together forever, boys forever. But there are also so many universes where the band never formed, never got famous on the internet, maybe even universes without any pop music at all. Useless universes.
I also loved boy bands, like so many kids in the nineties. Totally unable to understand the ways in which they were produced, their images or personas manufactured to meet my requirements for them, I followed their friendships and rivalries, novelty basketball games, I wondered about their lives, I imagined being a part of it, totally devoted. But gradually the unbelievability of it became intolerable — How could four or five boys simultaneously find themselves again and again in the exact same romantic entanglement as their closest friends? Happily in love at the same time, in love with the wrong person at the same time, ending an affair at the same time. The coincidence was too much, and I grew to fear these singers did not mean what they sang. Perhaps instead I could have learned something about empathy.
Or, harder to believe but much more intriguing, perhaps I could have found an answer in the way their voices harmonized, such that without training and the most careful attention, you could not distinguish one singer from the other, and even then not with perfect certainty. Perhaps the boundaries between the boys were so blurred they were no longer separate and self-contained, but one heart, one consciousness, spread across five bodies, dancing in perfect choreography, singing about feeling. I mean maybe.
Sometimes a trap looks like an escape, which is fucked up.
If I am not sure of being identical with myself over time, if I am confused by the other possible Lauras in all these other possible worlds, I suppose the romance of destiny is not so surprising. Even Gary Oldman and Winona Ryder’s hypersexual Victorian repression via 90s coked-out Hollywood excess — it thrills me. Their love destined across time and death.
As an experiment I look at my backwards face in the mirror and say “I am not Laura” over and over and sometimes “you are not Laura” and other times just “not Laura,” like I’m casually summoning a personal Bloody Mary. It’s unsettling, exciting, and boring all at once, in that standing on a tall balcony over an abyss kind of way. As semantic saturation takes over and words betray themselves as random mouth activities, I know it’s true, Laura isn’t me. Not so much a devastating revelation as a little window that reduces me to this string of metaphors. You should try it sometime.