Alex gets pissed when Derek says that “You can’t see a square-circle in your mind’s eye.” She clenches her jaw so hard she could crack open a coconut. Derek says “Besides, I tend to doubt the existence of a mind, let alone a mind’s eye.” Alex’s breathing becomes rapid, shallow, and hot like malice.
“However”, continues Derek, “Granting you the existence of a mind’s eye, for argument’s sake, you still cannot see a square-circle. You can see a square, or a circle. But not both at the same time. Perhaps you could mean a square superimposed on a circle, or vice versa. But that shape would have curves, meaning it can’t be a square, and it would have edges, meaning it can’t be a circle. Your third and final possibility is to see a square and a circle, side by side. But that would be two distinct shapes, not a single square-circle.”
Alex has not said a word since she told Derek that she just saw a square-circle in her mind’s eye. Now her shoulders are tense like she’s holding two buckets full of sand. She’s angry at Derek, in this moment, but her wrath extends to most of the philosophy department, to which she’s a part. They debate everything, but seem to single her out. The way Alex puts it, whenever she gets her wheels spinning they go and jam a stick in my spokes. The phallic imagery of the word ‘stick’ is no accident. Or at least that’s my opinion.
Derek sits back in his chair, satisfied, allowing Alex to explain herself. She says, “It’s not superimposed or anything. And it’s not two different shapes. It just is.” “But…” says Derek, “… you are breaking the most fundamental rule of logic: X is X. A square is a square, and a circle is a circle. A square-circle is neither a square nor a circle, and therefore does not exist.” “I can’t explain it to you…” says Alex, “It’s just there, when I close my eyes.” Derek exclaims, “Ahh! So it’s a merely subjective phenomenon. Something you cannot prove objectively.” Alex knows Derek has won the debate. Reductio ad absurdum. She’s been reduced to absurdity. Derek swivels himself on his chair, sits upright, and opens a book entitled Cold-blooded Clarity.
At that moment, the something tragic occurs: Alex begins to doubt herself. She begins to believe that she’s no good at philosophy, that she is poor at logic and argumentation. She begins to believe that she’s not as smart as other people in the department, that part of the reason they took her was because she is female. She begins to believe, and this- in my opinion- is the most tragic of all, that her one-time vision of a square-circle is delusion, unreal, untrue.
Alex’s jaw and shoulders begin to loosen. Her heart-rate decelerates and she’s no longer ready to kill Derek. However, an abysmal, lead ball begins to creep down her throat, choking her. It descends further, crushing both of her lungs. Finally, the thing lands in her stomach and remains put, tearing her diaphragm apart. Her chest is an empty shell. From there, a deep-seated, long-term memory replays, dimly beneath Alex’s racing thoughts of what to do next.
Alexander Dovzhenko played chess with his seven year old daughter, Alexandra Dovzhenko. Alex wanted a boy to carry on his name, yet he only had one child and that child was a girl. Lucky for him, he had a name that could be feminized.
Alex was by no means a dour man; he would, however, not let his daughter win ‘just because’. He explained to her that the fundamental rule of chess is that you need to dominate your opponent (all of this in Ukranian Russian, I might add). Alex nodded that she understood but really her attention was fixed on the playing of the game itself, not the outcome.
She was engrossed with the wooden contours of the Bishops, the notches carved into the Knights. She grazed the green felt on the bottom of the pieces, and was thrilled by the CLICK they made against the table. She was bewildered by how the Rooks seemed to never move. She stared in wonder at her father’s strong and delicate hands. She marveled at the utter flatness of the board: the way the Earth looks without your mind’s eye.
Then it would happen. Her father says ‘Check’. She starts to breath quickly and moves her King out of the way. He moves a piece and says ‘Check’ a second time. She stops noticing all the tiny details around her. Her father moves his Queen and says ‘Check’ a third time. She tries to move her King but a voice stops her saying, “You can’t move there”. Alex is terrified. She’s not even there with her father, anymore. She sets her King in the one place it’s able to go. He moves his Rook from the back row and says, ‘Check-mate’. Alexandra becomes very angry with Alexander.
She was not upset because of how the game ended but that it ended. Her sense of mystery was squashed by the game’s own finitude. Her father didn’t know this. He thought to himself, a son would have the competitive spirit necessary for chess.
That was the start of Alex’s- if not indifference- lack of enthusiasm for Alex. When she pursued art through middle school, high school, and college, he appreciated her work, was proud of her, but left it at that. Then, with only three semesters left, Alex decided to switch majors- to philosophy. When she told him he laughed then said, ‘O! You’re serious.’
To obtain the required credits in three short semesters Alex doubled up on classes. Then she re-doubled. She quit going out with friends- she went in for office hours- she absorbed large quantities of caffeine- she became passionate about Hume, Hegel, and phenomenology. And, in my opinion, the most tragic-no-matter-how-pragmatic move she made was: she quit painting. For the time being, she said.
It worked. She entered a highly evolved conversation resplendent with technical lingo and the assumption that you’ve read what everyone’s talking about. She learned how to have her place in the conversation and not appear uncouth. She gained her professors’ approval, who would later write glowing letters of recommendation, which she adjoined with test scores and a personal statement about how Alexandra Dovzhenko- first generation Ukranian Jew specializing in Continental Philosophy- would like to further her studies in nothing less than the Nature of Reason at your fine institution… and when Alex called to tell her father, Alex, that she’d been offered a full-ride-and-then-some at SUNY to study philosophy, all he had to say was a single question: Have you painted anything lately?
After they hung-up, she cried for the first time since she switched majors. A real deluge. Her canvas: the acceptance letter.