Immediately after the New Year, both my daughters became victims of the First Great Snowfall of 1999. One was trapped for thirty hours at Toronto’s Pearson Airport where the cafeteria ran out of food, the lounges were closed “for security reasons” and the airlines refused to offer the stranded passengers accommodation at airport hotels. The other managed to get to Ottawa but her luggage was lost somewhere between Calgary and Toronto, and didn’t reach her for almost a week. During the flight, five airline employees who worked double and triple shifts dealt as best they could with the confusion of angry and dazed travellers and wayward suitcases, like dutiful soldiers in an army that had lost its generals. The managers—the people who supposedly made the decisions responsible for the chaos—were nowhere to be seen. The situation was described by many a furious passenger as “kafka-esque.” Countless phone calls led either to busy signals or to menus in which every choice was another menu, and visits to the airport proved useless since no single employee knew who the commanding officer was. Orders had been given, but when and by whom was a mystery that, like the first shove that set Descartes’ clockwork universe in motion, seemed outside the scope of the human mind. All that existed was a vast network of relayed computer orders, programs set to design programs, answering systems that, in their multiple choice methods, delayed into infinity the possibility of an answer. Perhaps the system was itself a loop, a self-caressing Moëbius strip of relayed orders, an autogenerating maze of programs spewed out by a diabolical ultra-computer, self-reproductive like an electronic fern. Somewhere, someone had, perhaps unwittingly, clicked on a mechanism that perpetuated itself through ever more complex chains, making it impossible to achieve its own ends, existing in a kind of sterile immortality.
Sitting at my own computer I often experience the presence of this awesome eternity. I want to write, but writing does not depend (as it used to) on a straightforward relationship between my head and my hand, my thoughts and my pencil on the paper. Sometimes (most of the time, in fact), my words will appear and will be printed when the right keys are touched by my obedient fingers. But other times, as if the machinery suffered inexplicable human strokes, the connections will break down and my work (worthless, no doubt) will vanish, perhaps forever. Computers crash, programs lodge viruses, disks become defective and suffer memory loss, the whole electronic realm seems to experience the frailty of human existence, except that it does not suffer or know pain, as if this mineral kingdom had been granted life but not feeling by a small capricious god. My relationship to the written word used to depend on the ability of my brain to function and on the resilience of paper and pencil—a remarkable resilience, proof of which I found one day at the Archaeological Museum in Naples where, through glass panes, we can still read the letters on a piece of papyrus burnt to ashes in the destruction of Pompeii. Now, something beyond physiology and engineering rules my work, leaving the fruits of my effort, or their survival, to chance. No doubt what I call “chance” in this instance can be explained by the electronic rules of the programs governing my computer, but even for experts (summoned to attend catastrophes of loss much as a priest might be summoned to attend catastrophes of death), answer to my questions—why me? why now?—are often beyond their knowledge. The nerve systems of our electronic apparata (devised and connected by knowledgeable technicians) seem to develop into mazes of such complexity that they can no longer be followed, in every one of their forkings, from beginning to end. These systems become what Chesterton once called more fearsome than a labyrinth with a monster in its centre: a labyrinth without a centre.
Sometime in the fifth century BC Zeno of Elea attempted to demonstrate the impossibility of motion by arguing that in order to reach point Z from point A, one would have to first reach the intermediate point L; to reach point L, the intermediate point F; to reach point F, the intermediate point C; and so on, into infinity. The labyrinths of our electronic society seem inspired by Zeno: to reach X, press L; to reach L, press F. But it may be that Z has no concrete existence: that Z is an illusion created by our needs and our lust, conjured up by the existence of A, by our point of departure, our weak and superstitious self. We believe that someone is responsible for airport chaos or for the failure of our computer; we believe that, with expert knowledge, an answer will be provided to Job’s question: Why did this happen to me? We believe that, if we keep on pressing buttons and clicking keys, we will arrive at some kind of solution or salvation. Not necessarily. It may be (this is a disenchanted man speaking) that we are living in the shadow of Kafka’s Castle and that, try as we may, we will never reach it.