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Left unsaid in Brussels

By Fouad LAROUI Sofitel Brussels Europe

“Brussels,” John mumbled…
… and then something in him murmured: “Strange place for a meeting.” He was annoyed by such ready-made phrases surging into his thoughts. He knew where this one had come from. From a film, of course. A French film, with Deneuve and Depardieu. But John often didn’t know the origin of these random bits that would suddenly surface, perfectly enunciated, in the flow of the interior monologue that accompanied him night and day, a cascade of words from which his only respite was to close his eyes and listen to a sonata (“Bach again!” Annie would sigh…) An article in the Volkskrant that he had just bought here in the Amsterdam train station now caught his attention as he waited on the platform for the Brussels-bound Thalys. Scientists had made “a big step” toward mind-reading. Here was another thing that annoyed him:
Why talk about progress (a step is progress, isn’t it?) when science made an advance — there’s another one, “an advance” — when science makes an incursion (an intrusion) into people’s heads? John always tried to transmit a sense of perspective to his students in Amsterdam: Yes, science remains man’s most precious discipline (“What about art, sir?” – and he had for once chosen to disregard Guusje, the sweet-faced eternal questioner…), yes, science is what keeps us from barbarianism, but (here he had raised an imperious finger) there had to be limits!

He had finished the Volkskrant article and the Thalys still had not arrived. He glanced at his watch and then began to give a lecture in his head: “What does it mean to ‘read the thoughts of Mr. So-and-so?’ In my case, I had only to think of Brussels and the phrase ‘strange place for a meeting’ automatically came to mind.
Where does this idiocy come from? We don’t know! From physical-chemical connections in this spongy mass that we call the brain, from an electrical charge… It all happened automatically, as if I had inadvertently pushed a button that, unbeknownst to me, was programmed to open a hidden door. (He looks around the hall to be sure that the students get the picture.)
In what way am I, me, responsible for this chain of events?”

The Thalys pulled silently up to the platform. John headed for car 11, where an affable employee at the door checked his ticket.

“Seat 74 is on your right,” the employee said, in Dutch and then in French.
John just nodded and offered a semblance of a smile. He had long since stopped saying things like, “yes, I know, I take this train twice a month,” because it was of no consequence, except to perhaps incite an angry reply from the employee (“Excuse me for wanting to help…”). He had decided once and for all to treat each employee like a machine, maintaining a functional relationship like our descendants will no doubt pursue with their South Korean robots: informative, brief, concrete, without any sign of emotion.
(“But sir, aren’t you dehumanizing the world?” “The world doesn’t need my help for that, Miss Guusje.”) Slipping his suitcase on the rack above seat 74, John continued his class: “When one day we manage to implant the most subtle electrodes in Mr. So-and-so’s brain, in order to ‘read’ his thoughts, how will we separate the thoughts that belong to him, those that engage him and that truly express his ‘me,’ from those that spontaneously arise, that are, as we might say, just passing through?”

He sat down in his seat, set it in the reclining position, closed his eyes and continued his lecture. Speaking to Stephan, one of his favorite students, he said: “Suppose that I’m watching our Great Leader on television — we are, hypothetically, in a totalitarian state — and this incongruous phrase comes to my mind: ‘Get lost, fat pig!’, because at school that’s what we used to say to chubby classmates and the Great Leader has gained weight in recent months… Therefore, Stephan, you are an official at the Ministry of Thought Control and the electrodes have just denounced me. At 20h56, the following words crossed the brain of citizen John van Duursen: ‘Get lost, fat pig!’ at the very moment when our glorious Guide appeared on the screen — so, Stephan, the question is: Am I responsible for that concatenation of words that took form without my knowledge?”

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