Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom

by Ted Chiang

At the beginning of the semester we talked about ineffability in the context of two stories: ‘Amnesty’ by Octavia Butler and ‘Toward a Theory of Alternative Lifestyles’ by Theodore McCombs. I found myself thinking about ineffability again after yesterday’s discussion.

In ‘Amnesty,’ what’s ineffable is the simultaneous one-ness and many-ness of the Community. Noah’s (largely self-appointed) task is to talk anyway—to keep trying to communicate with the Community across this impossible divide, and to keep telling her story to other humans in the hope that she might ‘change them a little’ and reconcile them to their future. She does her job very imperfectly: remember how her long trauma-laced monologue fails to win over the job applicants? (It makes a funny contrast with the support-group scenes in ‘Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom,’ where Dana avoids telling her own story.) Still, Noah persists in her impossible task: ‘I have to try.’ (p. 600)

In ‘Toward a Theory of Alternative Lifestyles,’ it’s the experience of Collider that’s ineffable. Peter’s ex, the ‘quantum guy,’ barely talks. His date at the dinner party needs to be prodded and prompted to tell the dead-finches story. Nobody is able or willing to describe the experience of Collider; Peter, who might have been, is denied access.

‘Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom’ is also about quantum theory and alternative lives, but has a very different way of dealing with the ineffable.

We talked a lot, I think with some distaste, about the form of this story: the dry fable-like prose, the many (too many?) shifts in perspective among the oddly flat and puppet-like characters, the ambiguous self-undermining end (if this is a fable, what’s the moral?). I’m so glad Nico reminded us of Ed Simon’s claim that every story is a Frankenstein’s monster (Heaven, Hell and Paradise Lost, 2023). The metaphor is wonderfully apt here: mismatched parts of unknown provenance, awkwardly stitched together, resulting in something larger than usual, and adding up to…what?

I love this story though. As I tried to say in class, I love it because of the big, impossible question it’s asking: How do we reconcile our sense of free will with the overwhelming force of random chance? I keep remembering Chiang’s description of particles bumping up against each other: ‘The collisions between air molecules…can be affected by the gravitational effect of a single atom a meter away…[W]hen air is turbulent, it takes roughly a minute for a perturbation at the microscopic level to become macroscopic.’ (284) If our lives are being shaped by an unfathomable amalgam of accidents, how can we believe that our decisions matter at all?

I think most of us do manage to reconcile ourselves, but only temporarily and imperfectly. We have to keep facing and re-facing the question, never quite getting a handle on it even when we think we do. ‘Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom,’ with its incompletely drawn characters awkwardly bumping up against each other, believing they’ve gained insight when they’re still half-blind, showing us ‘progress’ but without any final resolution, seems to me a fine and appropriate response to the problem.

The Kierkegaard passage that Chiang’s title comes from is strange and difficult to parse. It evokes images of someone teetering at the edge of an abyss, holding desperately onto something concrete, falling (or leaping), then re-surfacing, riddled with feelings of anxiety, selfishness and guilt. This is also seems to me a fine and appropriate response to the problem.

Chiang approaches the problem of inevitability in some of his other fiction too, e.g. ‘Story of Your Life’ and ‘The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate.’ They’re all very different kinds of stories, and I like that he experiments with—and shows us—different ways of responding to the big impossible question.

Sometimes in office hours (!) I have conversations with students who see themselves at a crossroads and want my advice. The part of ‘Anxiety’ where Dana meets with her client Teresa was painful to read because it reminded me of some of these conversations. Teresa’s phrasing—‘the right decision,’ ‘the wrong choice’—is so familiar and heartbreaking and exasperating. Why do we torture ourselves like this?

I wish I could make these students believe what I believe—that they’ll be fine no matter what they decide—but there’s no way to say that without sounding pompous and dismissive (and unconvincing). So usually I try to honor their trust by telling stories about my own life, choices I’ve made and things that happened to me and what happened next. And I encourage them to ask other people for their stories too.

Telling stories is still a clumsy and inadequate response. Nothing I’ve done has ‘turned out’ in any final sense, and I never know if the student will understand what I intended to say. But telling stories seems to be the best way we have of approaching what we don’t fully understand. And I agree with Noah that we have to try.

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