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Forest Dark
Author:Nicole Krauss

Half an hour later, when the babysitter came home with the children, I was still sitting at the counter. My sons danced around me, full of the news of their days. Then they sprang loose from their orbit and went racing around the house. My husband arrived soon afterward. He came into the kitchen still wearing the reflector vest that he had biked home in. For a moment, he shone. I felt the sudden urge to describe to him what had happened, but when I was finished he gave me a strained half-smile, glanced at the unmade dinner ingredients, removed the folder of takeout menus, and asked if I felt like Indian. Then he went to go find the children upstairs. I immediately regretted having said anything. The incident touched a fault line between us. My husband prized facts above the impalpable, which he’d begun to collect and assemble around himself like a bulwark. At night he stayed up watching documentaries, and at social gatherings, when someone expressed surprise that he knew what percentage of the bills printed in the US were $100s, or that Scarlett Johansson was half Jewish, he liked to say that he made it his business to know everything.

The days passed, and the sensation didn’t come again. I’d just gotten over the flu, which kept me in bed shivering and sweating and looking out at the sky with the slightly altered consciousness that illness always brings on me, and I started to wonder if maybe that had something to do with it. When I’m sick, it’s as if the walls between myself and the outside become more permeable—in fact they have, since whatever has made me ill has found a way to slip in, breaching the usual protective mechanisms the body employs, and as if mirroring the body, my mind too becomes more absorbent, and the things I normally keep at bay because they are too difficult or intense to think about begin to pour in. This state of openness, of extreme sensitivity in which I become susceptible to everything around me, is heightened by the loneliness of lying in bed while everyone else is busily going about their activities. And so it was easy to attribute the unusual sensation I’d experienced to my illness, even though by then I was already on the mend.

Then one evening a month later, I was listening to the radio while doing the dishes, and a program came on about the multiverse—the possibility that the universe actually contains many universes, perhaps even an infinite set of them. That as a result of the gravitational waves that occurred in the first fraction of a second after the Big Bang—or a series of Big Bang repulsions, as evidence now suggests—the early universe experienced an inflation that caused an exponential expansion of the dimensions of space to many times the size of our own cosmos, creating completely different universes with unknown physical properties, without stars, perhaps, or atoms, or light, and that, taken all together, these comprise the entirety of space, time, matter, and energy.

I had no more than a layman’s understanding of current theories of cosmology, but whenever I came across an article about string theory, or branes, or the work being done at the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, my interest was always piqued, and so by now I knew a little bit. The physicist being interviewed had a mesmerizing voice, at once patient and intimate, full of deep, underground intelligence, and at some point, at the host’s inevitable prodding, he began to touch on the theological ramifications of multiverse theories, or at least the way they confirmed the role of chance in the creation of life, since if there is not one but an infinite or nearly infinite set of worlds, each with its own physical laws, then no condition can any longer be considered the result of extraordinary mathematical improbabilities.

When the program came to an end, I switched the radio off and heard the low, rising hum of cars approaching as the traffic lights turned a few blocks away, and the clear, bright sound of children’s voices in the nursery school run out of the basement of the neighboring apartment building, and then the deep, mournful horn of a ship in the harbor some three miles away, like a finger left down on the harmonium. I’d never allowed myself to believe in God, but I could see why theories of a multiverse could get under a certain kind of person’s skin—if nothing else, to say that everything might be true somewhere not only carried the whiff of evasion but also rendered any searching useless, since all conclusions become equally valid. Doesn’t part of the awe that fills us when we confront the unknown come from understanding that, should it at last flood into us and become known, we would be altered? In our view of the stars, we find a measure of our own incompleteness, our still-yet unfinishedness, which is to say, our potential for change, even transformation. That our species is distinguished from others by our hunger and capacity for change has everything to do with our ability to recognize the limits of our understanding, and to contemplate the unfathomable. But in a multiverse, the concepts of known and unknown are rendered useless, for everything is equally known and unknown. If there are infinite worlds and infinite sets of laws, then nothing is essential, and we are relieved from straining past the limits of our immediate reality and comprehension, since not only does what lies beyond not apply to us, there is also no hope of gaining anything more than infinitesimally small understanding. In that sense, the multiverse theory only encourages us to turn our backs even further on the unknowable, which we’re more than happy to do, having become drunk on our powers of knowing—having made a holiness out of knowing, and busying ourselves all day and night in our pursuit of it. Just as religion evolved as a way to contemplate and live before the unknowable, so now have we converted to the opposite practice, to which we are no less devoted: the practice of knowing everything, and believing that knowledge is concrete, and always arrived at through the faculties of the intellect. Since Descartes, knowledge has been empowered to a nearly unimaginable degree. But in the end it didn’t lead to the mastery and possession of nature he imagined, only to the illusion of its mastery and possession. In the end, we have made ourselves ill with knowledge. I frankly hate Descartes, and have never understood why his axiom should be trusted as an unshakable foundation for anything. The more he talks about following a straight line out of the forest, the more appealing it sounds to me to get lost in that forest, where once we lived in wonder, and understood it to be a prerequisite for an authentic awareness of being and the world. Now we have little choice but to live in the arid fields of reason, and as for the unknown, which once lay glittering at the farthest edge of our gaze, channeling our fear but also our hope and longing, we can only regard it with aversion.

To all of that, the idea that began to take shape in my mind after I turned off the radio came as a form of relief. What if, I thought, rather than existing in a universal space, each of us is actually born alone into a luminous blankness, and it’s we who snip it into pieces, assembling staircases and gardens and train stations in our own peculiar fashion, until we have pared our space into a world? In other words, what if it’s human perception and creativity that are responsible for creating the multiverse? Or maybe—