The End (Part VIII, IX, Epilogue, Pgs 237-281)
Last week, Chad and Brian (welded at the hip) were joined by “Stiliana Milkova”:https://www.oberlin.edu/stiliana-milkova of Oberlin College’s department of comparative literature to discuss the final moments of Georgi Gospodinov’s The Physics of Sorrow. While we learned that Chad doesn’t like Elena Ferrante, and Brian was betrayed by an old community of writers, and Stiliana used to study the poetics of erotic Eastern European poetry, they addressed the importance of quantum physics to the book. This post will highlight some specific moments where Gospodinov discusses these theories in this section in preparation for the conclusionary post next week.
The Place of Quantum Physics
It’s fitting that The Physics of Sorrow is ending with a lesson in quantum dynamics. While the previous section—Global Autumn—started the discussion of possibilities, as Gospodinov continued to rewrite earlier themes in a more transparent way, the entire book has been rooted in the complexity of what is seen and what isn’t—ideas at the heart of quantum physics.
Gospodinov established this relationship between light and time through the Minotaur as a thematic anchor. He highlighted the importance between the dark labyrinth that the Minotaur wandered and the moment of his death as Theseus drags him into the light to be gutted. Additionally, children were hidden to keep them safe, whether those safe places were the stomachs of their parents, barns or basements. Time capsules, whether buried deep in the earth or shot into the dark of space, contained a moment frozen in time for those who would crack them open and look upon their contents. And, building upon time capsules, memories—now in the form of stories—could be saved in the light. In these shelters, hidden away from light, people and objects were safe from the gazes of others and, were safe, as we come to learn in this section, from certainty.
And issues of possibility and certainty are at the forefront throughout this last section (and the Epilogue). In “Quanta of Equivocation” Gospodinov provides a set of key ideas to read the rest of this section—and arguably the rest of the book. The first explains a basic principle of quantum physics.
According to the Copenhagen interpretation, as early as the 1920s quanta act like particles only when we observe them. The rest of the time, hidden from our gaze, they are part of a scattered and supposedly disinterested wave, in which we don’t know exactly what’s going on. Everything there is possible, unforeseeable and variable. But once they sense we’re watching them, they instantaneously start acting as we expect them to, orderly and logically.
And the other statement on the nature on how what we don’t see behaves.
The world behind our backs is some kind of undefined quantum soup, says a Stanford physicist—but the second you turn around, it freezes into reality. I like that definition and never turn around too abruptly.
And, finally, a statement on the nature of possibility regarding the two previous rules.
That which has not been told, just like that which has not happened—because they’re of the same order—possesses all possibilities, countless variations on how they could happen or be told.
Gospodinov has constructed reality within The Physics of Sorrow that relies on being witnessed. Things that light shine on—things that are seen—are then seen are set, while things left in the dark are timeless and uncertain. While next week I’ll approach these transformations between uncertainty and certainty in more detail, this idea is evident in the contrast between the Prologue and the Epilogue.
Burnt at Both Ends
I’m drawn to a familiar mindscape from March when we first dove into this piece for the Two Month Review. I was frantically flipping through the pages trying to construct a suitable sample to have something large, unwieldy, but vaguely accurate to say about the piece in the introductory blog post. I noted the shifting voices, the short sections, the diagrams, and lists and started to drown—in a good way— with the many directions that Gospodinov was guiding us through my own interpretation of the novel. I walked away—from the sampling—feeling something I’ve only said about a few projects: a book didn’t suit the content and form of the book.
Originally, I described something along the lines of a hallucinatory nightmare in a sensory deprivation tank—a description I feel (and hope) Gospodinov would appreciate—as a way to better experience The Physics of Sorrow, something haunting yet phenomenologically exhaustive. But as the novel ends and I meet that brilliant clash of red and yellow and flip the cover back over to that broken Minotaur, I need to return to my beginning recant some of my original comments.
Alongside the most arrogant interpretation to my original comments, Gospodinov accepts, acknowledges, and addresses the limitations of a book for the novel, and this acceptance is rooted in his decisions on how the piece ends. We see this through the end mirroring the start. If you’d recall, the prologue to The Physics of Sorrow opened up with a series of short profiles on births and lifetimes—some clearly human, others not, and a few left with very little to identify.
On closing, Gospodinov returns us to these entities at their moment of death, which breaks the sense of infinite possibilities that this section has explored through the discussion of quantum physics and developing alternate takes on so much. This cap to the book closes the chances of this going on forever but still reaffirms the obsession that Gospodinov has expressed towards collecting memories, collecting fragments, and exploring possibilities.