This Could Get Messy
Tues, Sept 15, 4:11 PM
Dear Dr Schiff,
I hope you will forgive my writing to you. I have perused the university website, examined the faces of the philosophers and decided who to contact based on appearance. You may say that it is a shallow and immature method, and you will be right. I am shallow and immature, Dr Schiff, but I am trying to make myself deeper. That is where you come in, if you are willing.
Dear Doctor, tell me truly: how does love arise? As a philosopher, I expect that you have plumbed this profound question. What a moment it will be to receive your response, an oasis in the desert of my routine. Today’s activities: I spent the morning in the clutches of Mrs Baderoon (Noor Ul Islam Girls’ College, Grade 11, the ‘clever class’). This afternoon I played with my little brothers and helped to prepare dinner. Now I shall do my homework, ‘keenly’ (languages) or ‘disappointingly’ (physics, biology, geography, all else). Then TV (with the remote control in the hands of Hamza, my older brother, therefore bad TV). Then bed (with one or two wake-ups, heart thudding, before morning). And the pattern of the days will remain the same until I receive your wisdom.
With kind and respectful and interested wishes,
Fri, Sept 18, 5:38 PM
Dear Ms Nassif,
Thank you for your email enquiring about love. Unfortunately, I do not deal with love but with issues in the philosophy of mathematics.
However, I would advise that you phone Ms Briggs (ext: 397), the departmental administrative officer, to enquire about our high school philosophy programme. It is offered in March next year and I’m sure you will find it most stimulating.
Fri, Sept 18, 6:47 PM
Dear Dr Schiff
Thank you for your message, but I sadly cannot wait for your classes next year. I am at a crossroads. Matters are to be decided very soon.
I understand that you are not a philosopher of love, but I found no philosophers of love on the university website. Hence, I had to choose another. Your picture indicated to me a person of substance, of feeling. I am highly intuitive.
Our school motto, in case you are interested, is ‘Knowledge is Light’. A thought: what is the point of light, if you are not willing to share it?
Kind regards, and apologies for my extreme rudeness, which I unfortunately cannot entirely help, because I am uncorrectable, according to my mother, teacher and (few) friends,
Mon, Sept 21, 9:25 AM
Dear Ms Nassif,
Thank you again for your message. To clarify: in any academic field, including philosophy, one specialises. Some philosophers are professionally interested in emotional topics, but my own focus is on mathematics and logic. As you will appreciate, these are quite different realms. Perhaps speaking to your parents and teachers could be a good start.
Mon, Sept 21, 4:55 PM
Subject: Misled by beard?
Dear Dr Schiff,
Forgive me, but have I been misled by your beard? It seemed to me a warm and welcoming beard – I have studied a number of them, and they are not always pleasant – and I sensed that its owner would be forthcoming. Perhaps the problem is really that I have not explained myself in detail. In one month, an ‘excellent’ young man, the first cousin of a colleague at my mother’s work, will be coming from a distant country (Australia) to visit me. Intention: marriage. He has seen a photograph, and believes that I would make a suitable wife. I too have seen his picture. I cannot tell much from it, or from the fact that he lives in a house of his own and works for Australia’s second-largest bank. My mother says that I am a romantic, that I have been reading the wrong books, that I need to listen to centuries of good sense, and that in the absence of my father her wishes for me are to be given very great weight.
With my teacher I cannot discuss such matters. If you knew Mrs Baderoon, you would understand.
Tues, Sep 22 at 8:47 AM
Subject: Contact Details
Dear Ms Nassif,
Dr Schiff has passed on your contact details to me. I am pleased to say that you have been added to our contact list for First Steps in Philosophy, our programme for high school students.
I am about to leave the departmental administrative team, but you can rest assured that my successor will be delighted to send you details in due course.
Tues, Sep 22 at 11:53 PM
It can’t be over. This morning in the shower I was soaping myself and I saw your hands, with those nails of sullen fire. Red hair, white skin, lava nails. Jesus.
You’re right, it’s a mess. I have to see you again. I’m going to be at the airport on Sunday morning just before nine. If it has to be over, at least let me look at you one more time.
Tues, Sep 22 at 11:57 PM
Dear Dr Schiff,
I believe you may have sent this message to the incorrect address. I am not Melanie, of course.
Wed, Sep 23 at 7: 15 AM
Dear Ms Nassif,
My apologies. Yes, it was a private message, intended only for the addressee. Please could you simply delete it from your mailbox.
Wed, Sept 23, 4:15 PM
Dear Dr Schiff,
I will certainly delete it.
P.S. The Quran: ‘Allah will not give mercy to anyone, except those who give mercy to other creatures.’ You would be doing a great mercy to offer a word or two in assistance.
Wed, Sept 23, 5:47 PM
Dear Ms Nassif,
Since you are clearly deeply engaged with your issue, I will set aside what small portion of time I have for discussion, to the extent that I am competent. Please could you explain, as clearly and precisely as possible, the question you have in mind?
Wed, Sept 23, 7:48 PM
Subject: How does love arise?
Dear Dr Schiff,
Thank you so much! In response to you, I feel as though I could write for hours. But my sense is that you are looking for succinctness, and so I shall rein myself in. Fortunately, my education has emphasised discipline.
Remark number 1 (to introduce a little mathematics, for your interest):
My question demands a certain amount of background. Otherwise it will be comprehensible only on the shallowest level. Let me take the time machine seven years back, to fourth grade, one drowsy afternoon at my after-school religious class. I was reciting a verse from the Quran when I noticed that my teacher was smiling into the air, like he’d seen some kind of friendly ghost. After class he came over and said that he was going to call my father. ‘It’s a good thing, Ilhaam,’ he reassured me.
At home my parents were together in the sitting room. My father hadn’t yet gone off to his night shift; I had caused him to wait, which was unusual because his young girl was maybe not the highest on his list of priorities. My mother said, ‘Your teacher has honoured us. He tells us that you have something of the sakinah in you, and he suggests that you take the path of the hafiz.’ My father said, ‘It’s not a good idea for a girl in grade four. It’ll take – what – five, six years? – and during that time she won’t be studying anything else, so she’ll be behind in her work. It’ll be hard to catch up when she goes back to school.’
I remember the way my mother looked at him, like he didn’t get it. She didn’t bother to argue with him. That’s my mother: what is resolved is resolved. She just stared at him, shook her head – my mother and my father, that’s a huge book in itself, to rival the nineteenth century novels in the public library, except that in their case there was a divorce – and then turned back to me.
‘Ilhaam,’ she said, ‘this is a big moment. We don’t have a hafiz in the family, you know that. I started, but then things got in the way. Marriage, children – ’ She stared at my father; he was clearly to be implicated in this. ‘I started too late. And you have the sakinah in you, just as I had.’
The sakinah – the spirit of peace? Me??
‘This must be her decision,’ my father said. This time my mother probably didn’t bother to look at him, but she did say, ‘Yes, your decision. And how you decide is going to change your life. Do you have what it takes to learn the entire Quran by heart? To take the sacredness into your heart?’
In the silence I wondered what to do. The room seemed brighter than usual, and I was at the centre. I realised that the room was brighter for a reason – the light came from a special source. I’ve thought back again and again on that illuminated room. As I sat there, with my father saying in the background, well, if she does this thing, she has to study the sciences also, that’s something you must keep up with or you lose it – as I sat there, that was probably the happiest I’ve been.
If love is anything like this feeling, Dr Schiff, it is not easy to imagine that I will come to love the Australian who is due to begin his journey towards me in one month’s time. But am I wrong? Which is why I ask: how does love arise?
(Remark number 2: I try to be dutiful, but I am also hoping to be happy. If duty conflicts with happiness, must duty always win? Can happiness be allowed a victory?)
Even a single drop of help will be precious,
P.S. After all, mathematics is not really that far from holiness. We come to learn something that is true beyond doubt, that could not possibly have been otherwise. Surely human beings working on their own could not acquire knowledge so profound. It is incredible that we can be guided to mathematics, except by divine grace. I imagine that you are well aware of this, of course, being a philosopher of mathematics.
Thurs, Sept 24, 1:53 PM
Re: How does love arise?
Dear Ms Nassif,
Thank you for the message. You suggest that love is something like a revelatory religious experience. I suppose it can be that, but it need not be. Perhaps love can be of a more grounded kind, based on a strong commitment to someone. If that’s the case, then maybe it can arise simply from living together, without any single moment of revelation.
Of course, you may not wish to marry and live with this man, in which case I suggest that you explain your reservations to your mother.
Best wishes, whatever your decision,
Thurs, Sept 24, 5:47 PM
Subject: More questions than answers
Dr Schiff, your message raises so many questions that I can barely keep still. To take just one: is ‘commitment’ love as valuable as the ‘revelation’ kind? (Is it, maybe, more valuable?)
I must reveal more. I tried to withhold it, but your penetrating line of thought has forced it from me. Remember when I was telling you about the ‘happiest I’d ever been’ – does that make sense? How can it? I was embarking on a sacred project that brings serenity and joy, so how could my peak of happiness have been the moment before the project began? I will tell you.
After my father had contacted my teacher, after the mutual expressions of happiness at my wise choice, after – I must admit – my pleasurable leave-taking from the school, where I had begun to feel slightly bored – I found myself within a few weeks at the hafiz school, where my teacher was waiting for me. This was different from my usual school: no big class, this time, just me and two others, both teenagers. It was nine o’clock in the morning, and the day stretched before us.
‘Excuse me,’ I said very politely, ‘my father said that I was also to learn the sciences, so I am just mentioning that to you if you don’t mind.’
‘Of course you will do some science,’ said my teacher. ‘We are not here to deprive you of any knowledge of the pattern that the almighty has laid down on the world.’
It was a dazzling thought. That science too was divine. My teacher seemed to notice my dazzlement – he was a person who saw into those he taught, and drew out the best from them.
‘Now, how shall we begin?’ he asked the class. The other girls, who were fifteen years old to my ten, waited to be instructed, but I flatter myself that they did so without my eagerness. I was straining to begin, though I kept my face composed.
‘We could begin at the beginning,’ my teacher said. ‘That is the logical place to start. Or we could try something else. When you are faced with a glittering sea of beauty, you may wish to greet it not by immersing yourself slowly, but by diving in and swimming deep, searching for the greatest treasures. So let us begin by holding in our hands a gem. Who knows Ayat An-Nur, the Verse of Light?’
The most beautiful, mystical verse of the Quran. I knew it from my mother, but I could not say it, because I feared that then he would not teach it. My teacher spoke softly, but we all heard him perfectly, and this was my introduction to the sacred labour of the next five years.
It is obviously a duty not only to control one’s actions, but also one’s thoughts. Our minds are a part of the world as much as our deeds, and we cannot let them run wild. But I did permit myself to dwell on some features of my teacher himself: his hair was black and thick, his white robe perfectly pressed, his hands as he moved them strong and fine. These thoughts, I knew, were not proper, but it was hard not to feel that they were entirely right, because my teacher was a vessel, and the vessel takes on something of what it carries.
Yes, as you have rightly guessed, looking back on it all, I had acquired feelings for my teacher. They grew stronger as the years passed. Now, two years after the triumphal ceremony in which I displayed my Quranic knowledge to family and friends, two years after returning to school, I still see him on the street sometimes. I go over and greet him respectfully, and when he smiles, calls me his best student and asks after my family, my heart is a boiling vat of happiness and pain. (‘This could get messy,’ according to a soulful singer whose music I once heard in a shopping mall.)
How can I marry one man when another one makes me feel like this? If – to use terms you might prefer – x is merely an unknown quantity but y produces tremendous feelings in me, feelings that I suspect may even be eternal (why, after bodily death, would a soul lose its love? isn’t love at the centre of a soul?), then surely I cannot choose x. But y is a religious teacher, and a man who is himself married! (I have not mentioned this. I do not like to think of it.) For me he must be unthinkable. And yet the thoughts creep in. If I were to confess my feelings to my teacher of the Quran, surely he would understand their purity and sincerity. Surely he would – well. I do not know exactly what I would be asking from him. But I know where he teaches, of course. I could go over one afternoon and explain myself to him, if you think it is a good idea.
I approached you because of course I cannot talk to my mother or Mrs Baderoon about this, and because philosophers are wise. Please, Dr Schiff: please speak.
Thurs, Sept 24, 8:00 PM
Re: More questions than answers
Thank you for your open and engaging message. It seems to me, though, that your remarks about the challenges you are facing might better be offered to someone in your life, perhaps a counsellor in your community.
Thurs, Sept 24, 8:41PM
Re: More questions than answers
Dear Dr Schiff,
I can take a hint. I am sure you are busy, and unable to enlighten a girl who seeks direction in life. I will not contact you again.
With the exception of this question: what is the point of the old novels I have read, of large sections of the public library, of Jane Austen and the rest of them, if all they do is bring torment? Are the passions of nineteenth century Englishwomen not suitable for me?
But I suppose those books were in the fiction section for a reason.
Fri, Sept 25, 2:17 AM
Re: More questions than answers
You have the right idea: stick to the mathematics, communicate with God in abstract and blissful symbols, and you will not be unsettled by human foolishness. Dr Schiff, you are a wise man; it is now more obvious to me than ever.
Forlorn algebraic farewells,
Mon, Sept 28, 5:20PM
I am ashamed of myself, Dr Schiff. Unreservedly, I apologise – it is deeply wrong behaviour from any perspective. You could probably prove its wrongness mathematically, so clear is it.
What I did was – and this confession cannot even begin to make amends – was to ask my aunt Laylaa to take me out early yesterday morning, Sunday. In the car, I explained that I did not wish to go for a walk after all, as I had told her on the phone, but rather to the airport in order to see a group of pilgrims departing for Mecca. She is such a kind woman, and used to my eccentricities, and so off we went. It does not take long from Rondebosch East to the airport, and all the while, past the sad shacks on the highway, my mind was cold and efficient. I thought: it is Departures, because he wishes to see her one more time, and it is probably International, because the drama of his message demands it. We arrived, and after ten minutes of waiting (my aunt: ‘Where is the group of pilgrims, darling girl? Have you not got it wrong?’) I was rewarded: a bearded man (I recognised you instantly) came darting from the entrance of the building towards the departures board, scanned it rapidly and then hurried towards a distant aisle.
I followed, my aunt sweetly quacking behind me. When I got to the Lufthansa section, I saw you talking to a red-haired woman in the middle of the queue. Well, really talking at her: she was facing resolutely forward, one large suitcase on either side of her, looking pale and anxious. One hand gripping each suitcase. (I checked her for nail polish: none.) I sidled slowly up, but my aunt was by now gripping my arm, demanding an explanation, and you in your turn were being eyed by a security guard, who was slowly moving towards you, so I turned and left. My aunt and I even received a few stares. Usually we get a couple of wary glances anyway, because of the niqaab – only our eyes are visible when we go out in public – but this time, my aunt’s agitation showed even through the black robe, and it took me several minutes to calm her with soothing falsehoods.
I wanted to see another kind of love enacted. I wanted to see how you really feel about things. I understand that you might be alarmed that this girl ninja followed you. I will never do it again, I promise. You were wearing a wedding ring, tight around your finger, but I know that the woman you were saying goodbye to – indeed, she did not even wish to offer you the chance to do so – was not your wife. I was sure she was not your wife when I saw her face and how she turned away, her finger ringless. I wonder whether your wife knows, and how you felt when you returned from the airport to her, whether you will now be content with a ‘commitment’ love.
But I must thank you, because I have indeed learnt something from you. If even the philosopher is approached by a concerned security guard, then this is a world in which we must all find our own way.
The man journeying to me in a month’s time has made his own choice, whether he knows it or not, and when I see him I shall make mine.
Ayat An-Nur, the Verse of Light:
His light is a niche, and in it a lamp;
the lamp enclosed in glass; the glass a brilliant star,
lit from a blessed olive tree,
neither of east nor west.
We do not make our own light, it is all His, but we cannot be content merely to absorb it: we must choose for ourselves how we reflect it.
P.S. Here, at least, is something that might please you. I have spoken about you to my religious teacher, who is interested to hear of your interest in divinity and mathematics (I know you must be well-versed in such things), and will be happy for you to speak to his religious studies class. I shall send you details of the date and time. I too will be present at the talk, of course, as the link between him and you. And perhaps the three of us can have tea afterwards to continue our discussion of mathematics and related lofty matters.
GREG LAZARUS is the pen name of husband-and-wife writing duo Greg Fried and Lisa Lazarus. Lisa is a psychologist and freelance writer.
She has Masters degrees in educational psychology and creative writing, G LAZAR and a higher diploma in education. She has written for publications including Men’s Health, Femina, Shape, Cosmopolitan, Cape Town’s Child, O: GRE Psychologies, and Mail & Guardian. Lisa tutors Magazine Journalism, Feature Writing and Memoir Writing for SA Writer’s College. Greg is a philosopher at the University of Cape Town, where he teaches various topics, OR BIH including the history of philosophy and the philosophy of mathematics.
Currently his research is in social choice theory (which deals with methods A of reaching collective decisions) and in connections between mathematics and theology. The couple have written two novels, Paradise and When in Broad Daylight I Open My Eyes, as well as a memoir, The Book of Jacob: A Journey into Parenthood. Their short stories have appeared in various anthologies.
“The incongruity theory of humour,” write the duo, “says that situations involving the unexpected, the odd, unusual or out of place are funny. Clearly that’s not always true: when the two of us first watched Ghostbusters, we definitely didn’t laugh when that monster loomed out of the mist in Sigourney Weaver’s fridge. But it can be entertaining to watch incongruous things rub up against each other, and South Africa provides plenty of examples.”
Of This Could Get Messy, they write, “A pompous and staid philosopher of mathematics comes into contact with a passionate and intelligent schoolgirl. We enjoyed finding out what happens when this oddly-matched pair interact.” Greg adds: “Please note, my philosophical colleagues and I are entirely professional, and do not at all resemble the characters in the story!”
Follow their news at greglazarus.wordpress.com