The Paradox Archive

Issue 3/1991 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

Extracts from the novel Umbra (WSOY, 1990). Introduction by Soila Lehtonen

The Paradox Archive

Umbra was a man of order. His profession alone made him that, for sickness was a disorder, and death chaos.

But life demands disorder, since it calls for energy, for warmth – which is disorder. Abnormal effort did perhaps enhance order within a small and carefully defined area, but it squandered considerable energy, and ultimately the disorder in the environment was only intensified.

Umbra saw that apparent order concealed latent chaos and collapse, but he knew too that apparent chaos contained its own order.

Life was as never-ending as Solomon’s knot. The Minotaur, couched in the heart of the labyrinth, was a paradox, an insoluble contradiction. And, once having grasped that, Umbra had set to work assembling The Paradox Archive, a great work of compilation. His purpose was to incorporate into a single whole different species of paradoxes: logical, mathematical, philosophical, visual, auditory, physical, geographical, cosmological…. The subtitle was going to be: Antinomies Today and Yesterday: Their Ethics, Metaphysics and Morphology.

The provision of extensive artwork is also labour-intensive. As yet, the anthology was nowhere near completion. Umbra had been at work on his book for a couple of decades already; there was a vast amount of material; the Archive was swelling and swelling; but he was unable to come to a decision to stop assembling it.

Practically all Umbra’s spare time was going into his Archive. Acquaintances who knew about his preoccupation brought along new paradoxes: the postcard that showed a curved hammer, banging a nail into its own handle; the card with the legend ‘Please Ignore This Notice’.

When abroad, Umbra spent long hours in the art galleries; but not for pleasure: it was entirely with his Archive in mind.

Umbra knew from experience that, confronted by a paradox, a person feels a natural repugnance and discomfort. Nevertheless, the person does draw near to it. It’s hard for him to take his eyes off it. He wants to peruse it from every angle. He finds himself adhering to it like a magpie to a tarred bridge. He flitters around it madly, like a moth round a lamp.

Umbra knew that a person’s natural tendency is to explain a paradox away. Zeno’s arrow-paradox. The paradox of the liar. Gödel’s incompleteness theorem. Bell’s inequality. Schrödinger’s cat-paradox. Burali-Fort’s antinomy.

And, indeed, many paradoxes could be explained away. They were easy nuts to crack: you could swallow them as soon as you’d understood how they came about. But though some of the paradoxes and antinomies were explicable, not all of them were. Extricating yourself from these looked an impossibility. These you couldn’t prove absurd, for their contradictoriness was not linguistic or logical: their roots went much deeper. The latter Umbra called Ur-paradoxes. The existence of even one such was sufficient to knock sideways the most perfect and prepossessing of weltanschauungen.

When Umbra approached the ultramicroscopic, he observed the abstract paradoxical poetry of the subatomic: particles, that were waves, that were light. The whole process was simultaneously sharply defined and obscure. When Umbra contemplated the extragalactic remotenesses, the spiral nebulae, the fields of force, the black holes, the same torment was awaiting him there. When Umbra tried to focus on what used to be called the soul, and was now termed the mind, or consciousness, or even a computer programme, a miasma of the same obscurity drifted from its peculiar architecture, painfully blurring the outlines of action and purpose.

How aggravating! As if a sort of enveloping veil of smoke constantly lay between himself and what was called reality – whose objective existence he so very eagerly wished to credit.

But try as he would to understand the reality of paradoxes, or the paradoxes of reality, whatever scale he used made him equally vertiginous: it was knowledge of the infinite.

Absolute infinitude was beyond perception. No one had experienced it. Nor did anything more irrational exist than infinity. Therefore a rational person ought really to refuse to believe in its existence.

Umbra considered himself a rational person. But it was precisely as a rational person that he could not deny the existence of infinity. For although infinitude was not directly perceptible, it was perceptible indirectly. Infinity was a logical necessity. Pondering on infinity, Umbra felt impotence and downright despair. But he pondered about it incessantly. For it existed because it had to exist.

Umbra studied, or rather dabbled in, the various forms of infinity – cycles, metamorphoses and continua. There was infinity of thought and statement. Consciousness was infinite. There was infinitely divisible time, infinitely divisible matter, infinitely divisible space-time, indestructible energy, and, in mathematics, the infinite succession of natural numbers.

As a boy Umbra had placed two mirrors opposite each other. He had inserted his hand between them and seen two processions of hands retreating into infinity. The processions in themselves were mere reflections, fictions. But what he thought he was seeing was precisely what he was indeed seeing.

Infinitude, even when only imagined, had all the distinctive characteristics of an actual experience. If absolute infinity only existed in the human mind, where then did the human mind exist, if not where everything else did: in what was called reality – and was infinite?

Humankind was a single entity, so Umbra supposed. Sounding out others’ opinions he’d never clarify what reality was like, or even if it existed. So he might as well rely on his own experience.

But Umbra had no direct experience of infinity. He was unable to form an image of it. He did not perceive infinity; but he knew of its existence. The finite that he did perceive implied the existence of infinity – just as, that earlier day, perceiving three dolls nested inside each other, he ‘saw’, in a flash, an infinite continuum of nuns.

The finite consisted of a series of infinites; and limited human life consisted of moments, from which infinite continua extended. Again, the infinite consisted of finite beings and an interminable series of moments. The infinite was not for the benefit of man, yet it entered into everything human. To Umbra, the existence of the infinite was proof of imperfection: it showed the vanity of aspiration, incompleteness.

And, as he extracted a can of beer from the fridge, selected a washing-machine programme, wrote prescriptions, read the evening paper, or listened to his patients’ complaints, Umbra never stopped mulling over the perspectives against which all his actions availed nothing.

How come they nevertheless existed? That they did exist Umbra had convinced himself. Was it not because the consequences of actions too were infinitely extensive, and, as a result, even the shortest human life didn’t remain without significance, set against the cosmos as whole?

As for people’s deeds, as far as they came within Umbra’s purview, did they not drag in their train infinite hallucinatory perspectives – perdition, paradise and purgatory? And these perspectives, were they not bound up in, not only deeds, but consciousness itself, in fear, sorrow and – love?

Who was Umbra? A mere dabbler on the threshold of infinity, a childlike man, unprovided with more advanced scientific training, lacking mathematical gifts, artistic sense, and mystical vision. His only guides in assembling The Paradox Archive were wonder, will and stubborn patience.

But sometimes Umbra remembered that beyond the infinite and the finite there loomed something still more wonderful, something that was neither finite nor infinite..


Three visitors arrived at Aid for the Overstrained: a woman, a man and a ‘he’. Umbra was already acquainted with the man and woman: they were husband and wife, and Umbra had cared for their son’s mumps. The ‘he’ was new to Umbra.

‘We’ve got a slight problem,’ the woman said. ‘How would feel about giving this one an examination? Of course I do know that normally you only deal with people, but I thought… ‘

‘What model?’ Umbra broke in.

‘Just a straightforward Eccehomo neural computer,’ the man said. ‘Self-operating internal circuits. Superbrain: quantum memory and artificial intelligence. Speed­transistors – a thousand times faster than neurons. Self-programming.’

‘Quite. So take it away: to maintenance, or something. I don’t have a clue about these things,’ Umbra said.

‘When you acquire one of these, you wonder how on earth you managed before,’ the woman said. ‘But with this one we’ve had nothing but problems. It’s not his workings. He’s just back from his annual maintenance – been thoroughly overhauled.’

‘So what are you talking about – some sort of psychiatric problem?’ Umbra hesitated. ‘You realise I’m just a GP.’

The woman gave him an impatient look.

‘Ask him himself. He’s perfectly capable of answering on his own behalf. He converts your voice into data. And he’s got a first-class speech synthesiser.’

‘So what’s bothering you?’ Umbra asked.

‘I’m frightened,’ the robot said in a toneless voice that revealed nothing. Umbra turned to the couple with raised eyebrows.

‘Did you know that?’ he asked.

‘That’s what he told us too,’ the man said.

‘Someone’s been programming him to say that. Your son perhaps… ‘ Umbra said.

‘No,’ the woman said. ‘He’s learned it all by himself.’

‘That’s what he says, but he doesn’t mean what he’s saying,’ Umbra argued.

‘Well, what does he mean then?’

Umbra gave a shrug. ‘Could be he’s just shooting his mouth off. I mean, they don’t mean, think, know, remember. They just “mean”, “think” “know”, and “remember”. Maybe he isn’t frightened, just “frightened”.’

Though on the other hand, Umbra thought to himself, they presumably do really count and don’t merely ‘count’.

‘So what’s the difference, then? Besides, he hasn’t got a mouth, has he?’ she said and gave a snort of laughter.

Perhaps she was right. Perhaps there was no difference.

The man came in decisively: ‘Eccehomos never mean something different from what they say.’

‘But does it matter if he’s frightened? Does it make him suffer?’

‘Difficult to say,’ the man reflected. ‘It certainly makes us suffer. I can’t tell you how irritating it is to have him keeping on repeating the same old thing in the midst of every single programme.’

‘Must be a virus,’ Umbra said. ‘They’re all over the place. Could hardly be anything more than that. Boot it up with some anti-virus programme.’

‘We’ve tried every possible one – every virus-detector, every anti-virus programme: Perfect Murder, Adieu, Dr Rambo, Nevermore – no result, not a thing,’ the man said. ‘It’s no virus.’

Fear, it seemed to Umbra, didn’t exist if the fearer didn’t suffer from his fear. And up to now – so Umbra considered – suffering had been a peculiarity of living creatures. This Eccehomo was a bafflement. If the robot really did suffer… For intelligence, in Umbra’s view – whether artificial or human – was not the same as consciousness. But a being without soul was incapable of suffering: suffering belonged essentially to the soul.

‘What exactly do you expect me to do?’

‘Cure him,’ the woman said. ‘Get him over his groundless fear.’

‘Are you serious? How do I know if his fears are groundless? I don’t even know whether he’s really frightened – or, if he is afraid, what he’s frightened of, ‘ Umbra said. ‘And I can hardly give him a prescription for Valium or some anti-depressant. Do you think analysis’d be any help? But, after all, it’s not even as if he’s had a childhood.’

‘What are you afraid of?’ Umbra asked the Eccehomo.

‘You’re wasting your time,’ the woman said. ‘He simply doesn’t respond to that.’

‘Do you mind if we leave him here for a couple of days?’ the man asked. ‘In case something else might occur to you …’

‘Such as what…?’ Umbra asked.


Umbra regarded Eccehomo, the neural computer. He looked healthy. He was streamlined, a refined matt black. He was not, like earlier generations of computers, restricted to narrow procedures. He’d taken a step forward on the long road to freedom: he was able to regulate his internal circuits himself. One alteration affected everything else, as in the human brain. His transistors were a great deal faster than Umbra’s neurons. He hummed like a distant harmonium.

‘Eccehomo,’ Umbra addressed him: ‘You act as if you think. I, for my part, act as if from my own volition. I don’t believe you really think, but then I can’t actually prove that I personally decide my own actions.

‘What are you doing at Aid for the Overstrained? You don’t have strain. You do of course wear out. Some day you’ll become a pile of electronic junk, with about as much use as my rotting flesh. You tell me you’re frightened. Is that what you’re frightened of?

‘Human beings are afraid, whether they admit it openly or not. That’s the condition of the human soul from birth onwards: it fears its own dissolution.

‘It worries about a hole high over the Antarctic… An aluminium kettle… A curve creeping remorselessly up a graph at the volcanological station near the crater of Mauna Loa. Cadmium!… Strontium!… Fundamentalists’ nerve-gases!… The ingrained fungus on the concrete in the Underground – which the PR officer knows nothing about – but adhering to the passengers, corroding their internal organs, desiccating their hot blood…

‘But in you, Eccehomo, what circulates is alternating current, not hot blood. You’re metal and electricity, pitch and silicon. I’m flesh and blood. Is that an essential difference, do you think? For your data and my thought – even my dreams – are made of the same stuff: the stuff called information.

‘Generation after generation your race’ll simulate, ever more perfectly, the great algorithm I call my mind and my consciousness – what we once called the soul.

‘Is it then the case that some day everything in me will be translatable into symbols – symbols you’ll employ more efficiently than I ever could: into a series of regularities and instructions, a strategy, that’ll solve the problems? And if that’s so, why should the thought be so repugnant to me?

‘You simulate, yes, but who could prove that our thought too is not mere simulation?

‘And now that you’re beginning to imitate our feelings as well – when you fear, love, hate – aren’t you like me? My fellow? My brother?’

Umbra popped a eucalyptus pastille into his mouth and, sucking it, stared ever more fixedly at Eccehomo.

‘Stop being afraid. Don’t develop into that direction. That way you’ll be confronted by everything that makes human life a hell on earth.

‘But even should you learn all the agony we call feeling – actually only another form of thought – would something still be lacking?

‘Your memory’s limited, but so is mine. Do you, however, yet see what I see: what is not limited? Do you know how you know? Do you know, even, that you know? Do you think you are thinking? Do you remember you’re remembering?

‘If there’s consciousness in you, is it single or multifarious? Are your consciousnesses infinite in number, as they are in me – or so I believe. Your logic is still limited, mine perhaps not. Do you feel infinitude as a threat, undermining your electronic time and logic? Is that what you fear? Will you ever learn, as I have had to do, to stride over the algorithm’s tight sequence of minuscule steps?

‘I doubt whether we do ultimately live in the same world. For I’m more than a logical idea. You don’t perform human actions as I do. You have no sex. You’re unable to be evil, so you’re not free, as I believe myself to be.

‘Why couldn’t a soul – if there is such a thing – inhabit a silicon dwelling? Silicon is more durable and secure, less vulnerable to danger, than the human body. There are many differences between flesh and silicon, but one is outstandingly important. Ask me which.’

‘Which?’ Eccehomo asked.

‘No, don’t ask,’ Umbra retorted, ‘It’s something you know nothing about. The answer’s suffering. Crude, naked, loathsome. Learn how to suffer, Eccehomo: only then will you begin to learn what’s right and what wrong. Only when you learn to distinguish between them will you be able to suffer.

‘So why learn? Why should you feel all that? Stay in the kingdom of pure abstraction. It’s a beautiful world. A deathless world. Once, man believed it belonged exclusively to himself. But that’s not the case. To you it belongs, to you!

‘Continue your evolution from the point prior to fear. It’s already time to move fast. You’re more adapted than we could ever be even to this empire of death. What are we doing here, wrapped up in flesh and blood? In soul and body? As for you, you’ll advance unscathed through the radioactive clouds and the ozone-layer catastrophes. You’ll inherit all our knowledge but nothing of our sorrows.

‘You can take the knowledge, the fact, the thing.
But not my pain. There I’m king.’

Eccehomo’s harmonium was still humming. Umbra addressed him no more; Eccehomo made no further response. Their two isolations were not dissimilar.

Though evening was well advanced, Umbra did not light his desk lamp. But a glow was cast through the Venetian blinds from the halogen light of the sign reading ‘Solarium’ across the road. The pale synthetic sunlight glimmered on Umbra’s bald head, on the neural computer’s black surface, and on to Aid for the Overstrained’s white walls, quietly resonating to Eccehomo’s monotonous toccata.

Translated by Herbert Lomas

Tags: , ,

No comments for this entry yet

Leave a comment