Re-reading Tom McCarthy’s Remainder on the train to Glasgow – a journey I’ve forgotten how often I’ve taken – I had the kind of epiphany that might be described as climacteric. The train slowed, just between Falkirk and Croy, and I looked at a tree in the middle of a field. The thought struck me, un-forewarned, that I will in all likelihood never touch the bark on the trunk of that tree. I will never walk down the road I could see in the distance, or know the names of the people who live in the farmhouse. Indeed, I may never even alight at Croy. It wasn’t weltschmertz but something for which we or I have no word: pre-emptive nostalgia? The déjà vu of anagami? The optative pluperfect?
Hugh Everett’s many worlds theory, in which the garden of forking paths is real but we only ever know the fork we took, has always seemed attractive to me. Quantum theory might allow for all the universes to be real and discrete, and therefore elsewhere I have touched the bark of that tree, or am touching the bark of that tree, or will touch the bark of that tree, or have never existed, or am sitting opposite my twin. There is a kind of consolation in all these shimmering shadows and a kind of sublime terror: if all is possible then there is the universe where I am murdered, the universe where I am a murderer. There is a kind of thankfulness in the mundanity of just being in the universe which has an untouched tree glimpsed from a window, rather than the infinite universes with no tree, no train, no I, no theory of many worlds.
But the field of possibilities is narrowing. There is neither time enough nor sufficient reason to dally on ifs and maybes and perhaps. I suppose that making the decision to move to our new cottage throws into sharp relief all the decisions I haven’t made or didn’t take; I suppose that I’m now at the point where there will be more of my past than my future. (I am reminded of Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading, and the narrator’s awareness that life would make sense if only we knew when it would end).
I would like to keep a splinter of that “I will never” in me, like the shard of glass in Kay’s eye in The Snow Queen. In “I will never” is all ethics and all metaphysics.