The Real World

As to me, I leave here tomorrow for an unknown destination.*

-- Ambrose Bierce

Ambrose Bierce wrote a famous short story called "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" about the execution of a Confederate spy who has been captured by Union soldiers and sentenced to hang. A makeshift gallows is rigged up on a railroad bridge. The condemned man is standing on a plank that juts out between two railroad ties. He waits for his captors to release the other end, which will send him plunging toward the creek below with a rope around his neck. His thoughts turn to his family in his final moments. The plank gives way, and he momentarily loses consciousness. He awakens with a sharp pressure around his throat and realizes he is in the water. Miraculously, the rope has snapped under the weight of his fall, and he is being carried swiftly downstream. Federal troops fire at him from the bridge and the embankment as he works his hands free and loosens the rope's grip on his neck. He scrambles up the far embankment and makes his way through dense forest until he reaches a road, then follows it until he finds himself at the gate of his own house. His wife is waiting for him at the bottom of the steps. He reaches out to gather her in his arms. But then the condemned man feels a blow on the back of his head, sees a blinding light followed by darkness. His escape has lasted only as long as it takes his body to reach the end of the rope that still swings intact beneath the timbers of the Owl Creek bridge.

Ambrose Bierce has certainly laid himself open to criticism that his story amounts to an exercise in literary bait-and-switch, slipping from reality to illusion and back again without fair warning to the reader. Only a hack or a neophyte would end a story by saying, in effect, that the protagonist dreamed the whole thing. But then again, only a great story-teller could write something like that and get away with it. A story that seemingly obeys all the conventions of realistic narrative draws us imperceptibly into the mind of the protagonist. In the moment it takes for the rope to break his fall and also break his neck, his mind slips the bonds of time and space and roams free. And if the final feverish imaginings of a condemned man are indistinguishable from reality, then isn't that the whole point?

Psychologists believe we navigate through the world using an internal “cognitive map” localized in the hippocampus, which also regulates certain memory functions. Normally our cognitive map is so congruent with the world around us that we make no distinction between the two. It is only when they diverge that we realize we have been operating according to an internalized sense of time and place. For example, we may say we have “lost track of the time” when our wristwatch is out of synch with our subjective awareness of time passing. Or we may stumble in the dark at the top of the stairs if we think there is one more step than is actually there. That’s when we discover the phantom step exists not in reality but in the landscape of the mind.

When the hippocampus is damaged by lesions or dementia, we may no longer be able to read the map and orient ourselves in the external world. My mother suffered from vascular dementia, which is caused by small strokes that cut off the blood supply to parts of the brain. She didn’t get out much toward the end, except for short trips to the doctor. The farther we ventured from home, the more anxious she became. She would begin compulsively reading street signs aloud, which we later realized was her way of dropping breadcrumbs in the forest to find her way home. When you have no memory to anchor you in your surroundings, time and space become infinitely elastic. If you can’t remember where you’ve just been, you’re not likely to know where you are, unless you happen to be in familiar surroundings. Likewise, if you can’t recall immediate past events, there is no marker to tell you how much time has elapsed. Even on short drives, my mother might remark that we had come a long way, and then express surprise on the return trip at how quickly we made it back.

We think of time and space as physical properties, but they are really dimensions of mind that are projected onto the world. Granted, they are useful tools for anyone who wants to keep a dental appointment or find his way home from the supermarket. But they are also strands of a rope that can easily become a noose around your neck. It is no simple trick to slip this knot once it has tightened its grip. The world that we imagine to be closing in on us actually exists within ourselves, where we have absolute dominion. Our mortal coil is wound around with steely strands of thought, nothing more. This is the rope with which the condemned man hangs himself.

*The last line from Ambrose Bierce's final letter before his mysterious disappearance in 1913.

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