The Young Apothecary
The following chronicle was submitted, unsuccessfully, to an academic conference on the history and practice of criticism
There was once an old palm reader in a village in Thuringia whose townsfolk had fallen into despair. As if overnight, the old explanations for things stopped making sense. The sciences crumbled. The crows stopped crowing, the fields stopped yielding crops, and the people grew so uncomfortable with themselves that they took pains to avoid each other, going out only at night and under heavy disguise. This grave sense of doubt crippling the village was so acute that it brought into question the basic tenets of daily life – which restaurants to choose, how to gossip without getting caught, the difference between human and animal, how to look inside a pool of your own reflection without falling in, and how best to deflect all this talk of zombies.
The old palm reader, as a result, saw a boom in business. Once ridiculed for her obscure and lengthy ruminations, and long banned from participating in public life, the astrologer – to her surprise – was now being consulted for advice on the smallest and most intimate questions. Sure, beforehand a few drunk scribblers and some despairing young artisans had consulted her in secret. But now everyone in town was waiting to have their lines read. At any given hour, one could find in her cramped cabin everyone from organizers of the country fair to cattle exporters to gruff handlers of animal fodder. Even the new, famed inventors of a system for long-distance communication using flare guns found time for long sessions. Enjoying what could be described as a small fortune, she purchased a bigger, more authentic looking astrologer’s garret in order to take in more clients.
Our palm reader was not just a top-notch clairvoyant, but also an expert negotiator and businesswoman. She knew that her trade depended on an equal balance of facts that were true and facts that were untrue. To this end, she found she could achieve both reliability and chance – an alchemical combination – by combining patience for listening with patience for repeating whatever her clients had just told her. With this façade of attention, and a little hand-holding, nearly everyone left her practice in better spirits. In short, the palm reader’s only predictive faculties consisted of attention to the most minor and insignificant details, combined with a process of reading that depended only on her particular visitor – their dress, hand movements, specific greeting, whether they brought a pet, complained about their bowels, and so on.
Over the years, our clairvoyant had been tempted to perfect this science of superstition into a method or school, but a ‘method’, you see, would be impossible. For the bulk of her clients were repeat customers, and she needed to spin a new-seeming tale each time, while being aware of their personal entanglements, the unacknowledged contingencies of their exchange. The moment she was caught repeating any readings, or being predictable in the slightest, she was liable to be seen as mendacious. So she stuck with what she knew – look them in the eye, add a sprinkling of ambiguity and confusion, and tell them what they want to hear.
In the midst of this wide crisis of meaning, the townsfolk had begun to engage in an ideological battle over two conflicting interpretations of materialist philosophical doctrines, and soon it would appear that the entire town was on the brink of civil war. Although she had been planning her retirement for years, the unexpected increase in clientele forced the palm reader to add an additional palmist to the stable.
Entrusting her credibility – which depended on the unique and personal encounter – to a second, potentially contradictory line of interpretation should, clearly, be dangerous for a palm reader. But she knew her entire enterprise relied on the fact that there was nothing particular or meaningful her readings. So she decided to hire the son of the town butcher when he came back from apothecary school one summer. She wanted someone who was engaged with the practical arts, but too stupid to leave town. She taught the butcher’s son everything she knew, which was, in fact, nothing.
Business prospered and the two grew happy, rich and fat. The old palmer died years later, and soon afterward a crisis struck the business, now carried alone by the young apothecary, Though he was friendly and well-liked, word on the street was that the business’s methods were no longer current. This was baffling to the young astrologer, because he had come to see for himself how the whole enterprise was perfectly arbitrary – and that therein lay its value, the law of its lawlessness, its highly reasoned emptiness.
But fashions change, and he would have to do some field research. He went outside the village to visit a young, ambitious astrologer in the forest who had recently purchased vast stretches of land in order to examine each and every star. He was so consumed with work that it wasn’t hard to convince her to say how she made her readings.
‘The first step,’ she began, ‘is to acknowledge there is no second step. We are all beginners in looking at the stars. The difficulty of any reading lies not in how a given star formation might deny understanding. I don’t often actually see any stars, you know. The difficulty is the reading, and the reading is the difficulty! There is no second step!’
Next he consulted the old philosopher at the university, who agreed to show him how he arrived at one of his deductions. The task at hand was a dead animal: the philosopher would, in a series of deductions, attempt to describe the change of state from living to dead on the basis of pure evidence. He inspected the decomposing animal – which looked somewhere between a small turkey and a rotting log – and began to write on parchment a series of numbers, runes and measurements. The philosopher concluded that the body was dead, and left the room.
When he came back some hours later, he handed the young apothecary a form. It began: ‘… a knowledge of the real-time referent cannot in itself constitute an interpretation. The change of state of the deceased can be attributed to a confluence of physical and mental stimuli which exceeded the given physical and mental capacities of the specimen. It is still expedient to determine the precise meaning of ‘excess’ in this clause …’ The young apothecary was beginning to despair but recalled, vaguely, the old lesson in which despair might actually lead to something. Was it possible that he too had gone from being the subject guiding the inquiry to the condition of inquiry? Nonsense, he reasoned.
It was good timing, then, that the apothecary’s friend was visiting from a slightly larger town somewhere in Thuringia. The friend reported how the newest thing in this slightly larger village was to employ the language of bigger and bolder statements, theories, and terms to keep up with the times. The biggest thing was speculation on the future – not in the old sense of reading, but on the basis of theorizing, which was done irrespective of the objects of their inquiry. The old terms were being thrown out, and the world required new ones, and it was their task to come up with new ones. In the world of divination this would be ‘disruptive’.
The young apothecary, on his way home, slightly tipsy, made a note to himself that description is the only understanding, yet to describe something is to deal with the ludicrousness of the world’s appearances. Opening the door, he lost this note to self, forgot what it said, changed his path of life and became Thuringia’s leading predictor of the weather.
First published in Issue 23