“To be solipsistic is to totally realize the ego and the nightmare of utter self-possession”
— Henry Rollins, at least according to the back cover of one of his books, which sits idle and unread on Caleb Owens’ bookshelf.
A jaunt down The Green ordinarily provides ample reminders of an external reality of which I am a part.
The birds, their chirping synchronized with my whistling. A prophet, wielding signs and warnings of damnation, reminding me that this world of ours is not the only one. The occasional smile, but more usually a glare, shot my way at fifth whistled iteration of “Sleigh Ride.” The welcome accusations of being a liberal hack with the stupid face who doesn’t deserve a byline.
But these connections with reality cannot surmount the sources of doubt. Every one acknowledgement, every one glare, every one prophetic admonishment is outweighed by the cold, passive indifference of 10 passing students. With two white, stubby sticks lodged into their ears, not even a leap into their walking path can divert these people’s attention, as though they inhabit a separate world entirely.
As though they, and only they, exist.
Where are these people? What is going on, in their heads, when they plant these devices, these “AirPods,” into their ears?
What do they know that I don’t?
I risked everything to find out. What follows is a story about plunging into the void of existential doubt, about a fateful entry into an inner domain beyond which nothing exists. What follows is a frightful dive into a world of only me.
What follows is a story about how AirPods made me a solipsist.
The sky was overcast, The Green empty, spare the miniature American flags waving in the cold, damp wind. I stood, absorbing it all, as I ordinarily do, gazing at the blue and gold banners draped from Memorial, unable to see anything other than swastikas and entertaining fears of a fascist regime rising to power on campus.
Any delusions were therefore not of doubt but paranoia, perhaps justified. It was an ordinary morning, a good, November morning, myself but one among many real, thinking, living beings scattered across The Green. Of this, I remained unskeptical.
That all changed when I put the AirPods in my ears.
The transformation was not, however, instantaneous. Indeed, the first thoughts were self-conscious ones, though ones that depend fully on the existence of others: What do I look like? Can I pull off AirPods? Am I cool now? Are these going to give me an ear infection? Does my AirPod match my earring? The thoughts whirled through my head like the bodies whizzing past me, and never before had I felt, in all of the worst ways, more connected to a mind-independent external world.
Yet already, severed from the world’s sound by the two sticks lodged into my outer ears, I found myself losing touch with it.
These thoughts faded against the steady, eighth-note strum of a guitar gradually filling my head. Before long, the silence at first brought upon by the AirPods was filled by the soft, scratchy wheezing of a live Steven Tyler.
Every time when I look in the mirror
All these lines on my face getting clearer
The past is gone
My visual field began to fade as the melody crawled into my conscious awareness. I drifted to my childhood, to the time when my parents dropped me at a foreign home for the evening to attend an Aerosmith concert. I thought about that kid, that little, fearful kid, the big, scary dogs at that house, the strangeness of it all, the questions, the worries about why my parents couldn’t take me to the Aerosmith concert, why they would do this to me, whether they’d ever come back.
Where are you, Mom and Dad?
Does it even matter? The past is gone. The lines on my face, visible on a glance at my phone screen, were getting clearer. Also clearer, looking into that mirror, was that there was nothing beyond me, misrepresented by even this reflection. What, who, was I looking at? Was this me?
All I was certain of was that I was thinking. That I was.
My heart raced along with the accelerating tempo of the strumming, the crashing entry of the drums, the lingering, loudening resonance of Tyler’s voice. My visual field blurred further, my legs moving only subconsciously, guiding me toward the exit from the Illusion of an External Reality Beyond the Self.
I know nobody knows
Where it comes and where it goes
Was that right? Does nobody really know? Nothing comes and nothing goes. Something cannot come from nothing, so Parmenides said. But everything is impermanent, so the Buddha said. The problem: neither of them existed, nor had they ever.
Everything besides the self, that which may be known with certainty, does not exist. The Buddha didn’t know shit.
Volume rising and heart rate rising. Sweat materializing against the cold wind. Approximating the southern portion of the North Green by now, determined in retrospect, nearing the Memorial Steps. Half my life / Is books, written pages. Awareness of a world around me faltering. Live and learn from fools and / From sages. Drums building up. Heart racing. Mind wandering. Mind. Only my mind. Only my thoughts, my thinking self, that I can know. You know it’s true. Captivity or transcendence? Captive, imprisoned by my thoughts, severed from all once known, from my life as I knew it, my self, my existing, solitary self, spiraling into doubt at the epiphany of truth, the sudden, terrifying realization that my parents, the Aerosmith concert, the dogs, the friends from church and their house and everything that had followed were not. All that was once cared for, loved, believed in, accepted as true was not… only an illusion …. the mistakes! the stupidity! the agony of the truth!!!!!!
COGITO ERGO SUM ET TANTUM SUM.
All these feelings come back to you.
I am no longer on The Green but before an audience of drunken elders. I am Steven Tyler. Sing with me, sing for the years. There is only me to sing with, because there is only me. Sing for the laughter, sing for the tear. The crusty, dry hair is falling around me. I’m keenly aware of an STI on my scrotum, itching as I belt into the microphone.
Is this … a dream? It can’t be. I am Steven Tyler. I am all that exists and therefore everything and therefore this as it is something. Sing with me, just for today / Maybe tomorrow, the good Lord will take you away. I’ll sing with myself for eternity, something that the good Lord can’t give or take away because he is unlike me not real.
Spinning, doubting, stumbling.
Tears bursting. Dread, doubt, fear compiling.
Dream until your dreams come true.
Dreaming of the peace and security of an external reality, dreaming of an escape from the Tyranny Of The Self.
Dream on. I want to stop! Dream on. No! Dream on! Mom! DREAM ON. DREAM ON. DREAM ON. DREAM ON.
In a dizzied frenzy, I collapse onto the stage from which I suddenly depart and am awakened from my solipsistic trance only by the sudden scream from a nearby student as I aimlessly drift toward traffic on East Delaware Avenue and my connection to the external world is at once restored. As I stumble further I encounter the friend from whom I borrowed the AirPods and suddenly collapse against a wall as I recover from my existential delirium.
As my eyes encounter the staring faces I am overcome with peace and security at the renewed belief in the existence of a cruel, judging world.
That it is not I, but the passing, mesmerized faces between the AirPods before me that ought to be doubting their reality.
The whistling resumes.