Being or Nothingness

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I started reading The Psychopath Test at a bookstore and became immediately enthralled by the mysterious events introduced in the beginning. Ronson describes how intellectuals around the world began receiving anonymous envelopes from Gothenburg, Sweden containing a manuscript titled Being or Nothingness. The academics were of multifarious disciplines including technology, computer science, science, religion, psychology, literature, anthropology, and philosophy. This is the front cover of the manuscript:

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(Photograph by Levi Shand, who uploaded the entire manuscript)

There were many interesting quirks about the manuscript. B or N is 42 pages, but every other page is blank. The quality was remarked on by some recipients as ‘quite beautifully done’ and expensive looking.  On the envelope was written by hand: ‘Will tell you more when I return!’ The handwritten address numbers were written in an American, rather than European style. (By the way, you can buy Being or NothingnessI was tempted to until I found Levi Shand’s uploaded pages.)

So these intellectuals started posting about the mysterious manuscript online and others responded to them. They discussed the details of the package and manuscript, the meaning of the text and its dissemination, and why they thought they were chosen as recipients. I found these forums extremely interesting. One reason for my interest was that there were some posts suspected to be written by the author of the manuscript himself. Some of these suspected comments, all from the username MR, were:

“That is the key question, isn´t it – what does DD stand for? Ever since I read “The Fabric of Reality” I have been waiting for David Deutsch´s next book to see if he can carry ‘the unification’ futher – to a true unification. So I wonder, Could DD stand for David Deutsch? Could it be that a true ‘theory of everything’ cannot include it´s originator and the unusual method of distributing the book is just a consequence/part of the theory itself? Maybe DD just wants a little recognition! Daniel Dennet´s writings don´t seem compatible with the core theme of BON.”

and

“I am sorry for pestering everyone but I can´t let go. A true ‘theory of everything’ not only has to include its originator but also a copy of the theory itself, leading to infinite regress. BON creates the illusion of including its originator and through the loop created by ‘the letter to R’ it does contain a copy of itself, regressing infinitely. The book doesn´t seem to be a theory of anything but if I am correct then BON challenges the implications of Russell’s paradox – I wish some logician would step up and formulate this in terms of set theory.”

finally:

“I go back and forth – one moment I am convinced that BON is a ‘theory of everything’ only to conclude that it is a ‘theory of nothing’ a couple of hours later. I haven´t slept for more than 48 hours and cannot think straight anymore. After posting this note I plan to burn the book, drink two bottles of wine and when I wake up I will stay away from computers till things settle down.”

Ronson writes, ‘What seemed obvious was that a brilliant person or organization with ties to Gothenburg had devised a puzzle so complex that even clever academics like them couldn’t decipher it’ (Ronson 11).

Levi Shand’s role in the mysterious events was finding a box of Being or Nothingness manuscripts. He saw the sticker on them that said: ‘Warning! Please study the letter to Profesor Hofstadter before you read the book. Good luck!’ Shand, an Indiana University student, delivered the books to Professor Hofstadter, a cognitive science profesor at his school.

One of the people Ronson was working with suggested that Levi Shand didn’t exist, citing the fact that his name was an anagram for ‘live hands’ (as in the Escher painting). She theorized that Hofstadter created Being or Nothingness as an intellectual endeavor. Ronson then contacted Hofstadter, asking him about the conspiracy. Hofstadter denied any involvement with the creation of Being or Nothingness, except to say that he had received dozens of copies and some cryptic Swedish postcards. Hofstadter conjectured that whoever was behind the conspiracy was abnormal, obsessive, and likely insane. Ronson’s realization occurred then: ‘Yes, there was the missing piece of the puzzle, Douglas Hofstadter was saying, but the recipients had gotten it wrong. They assumed the endeavor was brilliant and rational because they were brilliant and rational, and we tend to automatically assume that everybody else is basically just like us’ (31).

Ronson describes how he went to Sweden to find the purported author, a psychiatrist named Petter Nordlund (pseudonym for Per Norfeldt). Nordlund was named as the English translator for Being or Nothingness in a Swedish library archives. When Ronson finally meets Nordlund, he soon concludes that he is the man behind the conspiracy. ‘[Nordlund] had a big, kind, cryptic smile on his face, and he was wringing his hands like a man possessed’ (32).

This story was the impetus for The Psychopath Test. Ronson marvels over the impact of one man’s off centered mind on the rest of the world: ‘Disparate academics, scattered across continents, had become intrigued and paranoid and narcissistic because of it. They’d met on blogs and message boards and had debated for hours, forming conspiracy theories about shadowy Christian organizations’ (34).

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(Photograph/photocopy by Levi Shand)

The events of Being or Nothingness form only a small portion of Ronson’s book. The next chapters more specifically investigate madness in the form of psychopathy. The parts about B or N were most interesting to me, but the rest of the book does contain some interesting information (as well as some uninteresting information). For example, the book raised some questions for me about whether people think that the state should preserve individual freedom at the cost of incarcerating innocent, but dangerous people in order to protect the wellbeing of society. There’s plenty more to say about the book and its thesis, which I found ultimately dissatisfying (except insofar as Nordlund’s reappearance), but that can be a post for another day.

I think part of my dissatisfaction with the rest of the book was that I wanted more stories of fascinating, nonstandard individuals like Nordlund. I found the story of Being or Nothingness extremely compelling for a number of reasons. For one, I like ‘postmodern literature’ which is often characterized by multiple, unreliable narrators. An obvious example of this House of Leaves. I also like nonlinear narrative and hypertext as in ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’ and ‘Continuity of Parks’ by Julio Cortázar (in Blow-up and Other Stories). More broadly, I’m drawn to texts that deviate from the conventions.

Joe K writes, ‘This I have regretted many times. The manuscript has haunted me ever since’ (K 6) and ‘Should the text resemble what its cover implies it to be, reading it could be dangerous’ (3). This reminds me of Johnny Truant describing his experience with Zampanó’s manuscript. There is no evidence that The Navidson Record, the subject of Zampanó’s manuscript, exists; similarly Joe K’s subject, “Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s long lost manuscript ‘Being or Nothingness’ commonly referred to as ‘The Giant Rat of Sumatra'” seems to be made up (I haven’t done enough research to sound more certain than that) (2). In The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire, Sherlock Holmes says, ‘the giant rat of Sumatra, a story for which the world is not yet prepared’, which is the only time I’ve found Sir Arthur Conan Doyle refer to the giant rat of Sumatra.

With fiction, I don’t want everything to be clear and comprehensible at first glance. I want to be pushed to think and to make unexpected connections. That’s infinitely more rewarding than being given the proof already solved.

Another reason for my intense interest was that I had been intending to read Gödel Escher Bach for awhile and the connection to Douglas Hofstadter was intriguing. I still haven’t read GEB, but I’m planning to start it again today or tomorrow if all goes optimally. With an impression of Hofstadter as a highly curious person, I was a little surprised by his denunciation of Being or Nothingness. Jon Ronson gives context for this reaction and I suppose if I was a tremendously successful thinker and writer, I too might deem such attempts to catch my attention uninteresting… yet at an essential level, I like trying to solve puzzles, codes, and mysteries. Or maybe I just like getting mail.

Lastly, I also find intelligence, especially in conjunction with madness or wild nonconformity, to be especially interesting. The ideas produced by such a person can be staggering. It’s clear that Nordlund is highly intelligent. The orchestration of the conspiracy was done skillfully. Enshrouded in mystery, the text produced an abundance of discussion and reaction. It was an ingenious way to get a lot of people (who didn’t receive the manuscript) to want to read his ideas. A less intelligent (or more unhinged) crazy person would wander the streets, raving to whoever came by.

With that, I’ll end with a concluding quote from The Psychopath Test: ‘in fact our unhappiness and our strangeness, our anxieties and compulsions, those least fashionable aspects of our personalities, are quite often what lead us to do rather interesting things’ (Ronson 230).

P.S. Analysis of B or N deserve a post of its own!

Work Cited

K, Joe. Being or Nothingness. 2007.

Ronson, Jon. The Psychopath Test. New York: Penguin Publishing, 2011. Print.

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