Walker

FOR 30 YEARS, Walker has traveled trails blazed by others driven by the same hope (he’d want me to say conviction) that there is a pure and final description for all that’s real in the world. He studied artificial languages, philosophical and mathematical logic, neuro- and cognitive science, critical thinking, machine reasoning, even, during his senior year in college, Esperanto. Each of these took him on a search for a method and a Socratic kind of clarity, a simultaneous cleansing of his mind and of the world. And while he entered each with a feeling of exhilaration, a breathless anticipation of having found the method he believed would lead him out of the brushy confusions of life, each ended in disappointment when he once again found himself in its weeds.

I first realized he’d begun his search when I saw it in the bewildered faces of our parents. He was 19, and had just finished his first semester in college. I’d gone to Stanford to study English literature, he to Caltech to study engineering. Over dinner Walker had declared himself a materialist, by which our parents feared he meant a Marxist, an odd thing to become just as the Soviet Union was collapsing. They weren’t entirely relieved when he explained that he’d become convinced that reality is entirely physical. They were outright confused when he leapt into his proof, a series of sing-songy reductions: mind resolves into brain that resolves into neurons that resolves into atoms. Money resolves into pigments and paper that resolves into molecules and cellulose that resolves into atoms. Humans resolve into cells that resolve into protoplasm that resolves into atoms.

But these paths and reductions failed him, left him unable to explain—actually, I could never bring myself to press him—why when his wife died of cancer two years ago, he’d wept over what should have been nothing more to him than spilled atoms. For he was a materialist and she was a material girl, who grew up and died young.

Despite Walker’s hard and unforgiving claims, he was neither a hard nor an unforgiving man. He was generous. Faithful to his wife. Good father. Fulfilled all the obligations that follow from taking vows and making promises. But at the same time, he denied that these vows and promises possessed any kind of reality, any real force in the world. He claimed they existed in our minds alone, and these takings and makings didn’t commit anyone—couldn’t commit anyone—to anything he didn’t already have the desire to do. He believed the world was a causal place, and mere words couldn’t cause him to do anything, feel anything, commit him to anything. He was committed, so he always said, only to the logical and necessary implications of his Initial Position.

WALKER MENDED HIS LINE, trying to get the streamer to dive to the deepest part of the pool and swing past where the steelhead usually held. With training in engineering, with flows and vectors, he understood currents well, was able to work his fly along the edge of fast water, along the faces of
boulders and undercut banks, rarely snagging. But the fish that held in those places? I can’t say that he really understood them at all.

Reading currents and reading water are as different as reading equations or writing them, and reading fiction or writing it. The former, engaged acceptance; the latter, imaginative leaps. But how else were we to understand how a fish thinks, what it feels and fears except by analogy? Or, at least, by analogies that accept their limits and respect the science.

Again he tired of waiting for my response.

“Satisfied?”

Satisfied was his word to match my You set the terms.

The challenge always prompted memories of him as a 13-year-old, his upper lip raised, his nose scrunched, his girlish nasal whine. Satisfied?

Usually followed by our mother saying, “Don’t take that tone with your brother.”

“Why would I be satisfied with your answer to a question that wasn’t mine to begin with?”

I didn’t need the puzzled gaze of passing fishermen to feel the absurdity of our arguing about figures of speaking while floating down the Klamath with fly rods in our hands. Death? Of course. That was a proper river topic, maybe not for a morning but certainly for nightfall, when the darkling forest meets the rustling water. For in the fallen trees, in the low brown fronds of aging ferns, in the salmon that will rot in the shallows after spawning, in flailing steelhead that bears will rip apart, a river is where one experiences life against the background of death.

There were things to be wondered at here, things to be said and things to be left unsaid, or at least talked about only in certain ways. The problem was that Walker’s Initial Position surrounded him and insulated him from the oddness of our present argument, how outlandish it would seem to others. In his embrace of brute reality, he’d lost the capacity for a self-conscious observation of himself and the world.