Overview
Homo Conscius

Half-drunk on the operating table as an indifferent surgeon cuts a hole in his wrist, Victor Andrews contemplates his impending death with dread and sorrow. It’s not dying that makes him distraught, he reflects, but the idea that he may quit his life, after all these years, having understood little or nothing about it. A few deathbed jokes at his own expense will be in order, of course. But what will he be able to say about his life that is true, original, essential? Victor decides, if the doctors don’t kill him, to embark on a forensic investigation through the dimly-lit corridors of his mind in search of answers. Murder, love, sex, truth, beauty, the inquisition must begin…Few corners of a man’s mind and soul are left unexplored in this black comedy.

345 345

homo conscius 

First Reviews

« The book is a real blast! Very enjoyable. »  Tariq Goddard, award-winning author of Dynamo and Homage to a Firing Squad

 

« … fitfully funny … » Kirkus Reviews

 

« Laced with acidic wit, delivered in stunningly elegant prose … a great novel. » Newlondonwriters.com

'Homo Conscius' - Extracts

Mushroom Risotto And The Death of God

 

« God is dead.”

“I think I’ll take the mushroom risotto,” said the woman.

He tried again: “God is dead.”

“And you? I bet you’ll go for the lobster salad”.

“Are you listening to me?” Victor asked.

“Contrary to what they say about women being able to do several things at the same time, I can’t simultaneously listen to you and choose what I want to eat. What did you say, darling?”

Darling? It was the first time she had called him that. The first time, in fact, she had used any term of endearment.

Did it mean anything? Probably not. Just an upper class affectation; she might distractedly have addressed her dog in the same fashion. And who cares, anyhow? he said to himself. He didn’t even know whether he wanted or intended to go on seeing her after that evening. As some notorious wit or other had once said: “It’s not polite to sleep with anyone less than three times”—and he had already conformed to this moral etiquette.

“I said ‘God is Dead’. That’s where I think I should start with Yorick. What do you think?”

After a life of failed relationships with women (in the sense that he had never been entirely happy with any of them and, despite himself, had suffered from this) he had still not decided whether it was either possible or necessary to achieve a high degree of understanding with them.

He didn’t care in the slightest about agreement; that was of no importance at all. Not to be understood, however, whatever he tried to tell himself, was an extremely painful torture which systematically drove him away from them.

The worst, as he struggled to make an argument or to express his opinions with greater clarity, was when they said, even with the sweetest of smiles: “Oh, it doesn’t matter.

Let’s drop the subject.” Murder was never far from his mind when he heard that, as he had more often than he could bear to remember.

 

Was the Country A Fuckodrome?

 

All this talk of bollocks … Victor smiled to himself. It’s true I have a bit of an itch this morning. Unlike men, who would obligingly drop their underpants for anyone, anywhere, anytime, he had learned that the majority of women had to be approached on the matter with a degree of delicacy, particularly in the early days of a relationship. In time this would all pass into social history, he supposed, but an awful lot of women, particularly in his age group, still possessed a set of neurons which told them that they shouldn’t appear ‘easy’ or too ‘willing’ in the matter. If he believed the women’s magazines, which he liked to read in doctors waiting rooms, such reflexes and principles were fast becoming redundant and new generations of lustful young ladies were emerging who would lunge randily at anything wearing trousers, without invitation or sentiment.

He hadn’t noticed it personally, but if it was true, he couldn’t see what could possibly prevent the country from becoming a giant fuckodrome. If it wasn’t one already, unbeknown to him.

Once the cultural question had been overcome, once they had been conquered on the level of principle and lured into your bed, women then split into so many categories of behaviour that it made Victor’s head spin. Some you barely had to look at or touch, and they began urging, panting, moaning, clutching, scratching. For only the third time in his life, he had recently met another biter; she was the most excessive of them all, making him yell in pain and protest and leaving deep teeth marks in his arms and his chest, which turned from red to blue to yellow over the course of the following week. He had never gone back to her, out of pure and simple fear. Others, too many of them, needed half an hour or more of careful preparatory work before they even got into the mood of the thing. He had given up looking for equality of attention and effort with these women and had approached the task selflessly, in an artistic spirit. He had once explained it honestly to Clara, who was one of the rare ones to feel some guilt at her lack of efforts in his direction and had apologized about her “surrender” to his kisses and caresses: “Someone has to take charge,” he said gallantly and truly. “Making love is like creating a play or a film—you need a script and a director to command the scenes. »

It had gone well so far with Helen, he thought. Happily, she was small, which was always a relief, since the ground to cover when caressing the bodies of tall and slowly aroused women was sometimes just too much for one man’s arms to manage without inviting paralysis and, in addition, implied clumsy shifts in position to take in feet, thighs, breasts and neck in single, smooth movements.

Helen had also been helpful; it could be awkward, but it was preferable to get some of the finer distinctions of arousal out of the way at the start, and she had been kind and effective. Victor had mastered the basic techniques long ago but, again unlike men, women’s bodies had come out of a multitude of moulds, and trial and error were unavoidable. As he pulled, pressed and squeezed one of Helen’s nipples on their first occasion in bed, without eliciting any response and without even having the time to give the other nipple its fair share of attention, she had easily and quickly whispered to him: “No, my nipples aren’t sensitive; please caress the whole breast, I love that.”

Breasts! Divine gifts of nature! Victor had read the most erotic possible description of breasts in a Jean-Paul Sartre novel, when one of the characters had remarked: “She has tits like hunting horns.” Unfortunately, this woman he had never found, but he did not despair of encountering her too one day. This was in itself reason enough to face the future with hope and optimism.

 

The Torture of Words

 

Life was often torture for those who, like Victor, lived by words. He was addicted to them. There must already be a medical appellation for this condition, he thought, in our age so anxious to establish that everyone is, in one way or another, sick in the head; he’d have to check.

Perhaps the worst aspect of the addiction was a compulsion to read absolutely everything. The back of his breakfast cereal packets, the warning notices in aspirin boxes (which he found quite chilling), the promotional offers in supermarkets, the menu card of every restaurant he encountered on his walks, the words on T-shirts worn by people in the street (he would even turn to check their backs), the stupid ‘ticker’ information on TV news channels which prevented one concentrating on the programmes—virtually any and every word and text that passed in front of his eyes, in fact. He was particularly mortified by his inability to ignore the advertising hoardings that polluted the town’s thoroughfares. Nothing was too crass or too stupid for him to overlook, to disregard. He read and absorbed it all, he simply couldn’t help himself. His only vengeance, minor in its impact on the advertisers but good for his soul, was to consciously avoid buying any product whatsoever for which he could recall having seen an advertisement. This was not so easy as it might seem. The hand reached automatically for the toothpaste on the shelf that had promoted itself most and longest and insinuated thus its name deepest in new that one paste was much like another and that none could stop your teeth from rotting at the speed they chose.

And often, of course, he instantly recognized the names of all the options available for one product or another. In these cases, he had tried changing shops, or simply doing without the goods, but he was forced from time to time to buy an advertised product anyhow and to mutter defiantly in front of the shelf: “You’re not fooling me! I know what I’m doing.”

The Caves Are Forever Lost

 

Victor had met so many happy and accomplished people who were bereft of any insight into themselves or others that he had often thought that this blindness might even be desirable. At other times, he became convinced that a high degree of, and perhaps even absolute, self-consciousness was a necessary and unstoppable development in the human species, another evolutionary threshold. That there was actually no return from this path, even though, in the case of both peoples and individuals, the human clock had been broken, smashed, and evolution thrown completely out of control, moving at a thousand different speeds and thus impossible to measure. Only one thing was sure: the tracks which led back to the caves had now been completely covered over and forever lost.

Why me though? Victor repeatedly asked himself. What is it that compels me to take myself to pieces, word by word, thought by thought, emotion by emotion, belief by belief? I’m not especially intelligent; my education was poor; I have never been intellectually challenged by anyone I knew personally; there have been no shattering events, no great revelations in my life; nothing really ever happened to me, actually. Except this.

Clever Buddhist Devils

 

But what if I stopped thinking, thought Victor? If I still can, that is. He resolved to try, right there and then. Just for a short moment, an experiment; he didn’t want to cause himself any brain damage, after all. He stared in front of him. The first few words that tried to present themselves in orderly, comprehensible formation were easily repulsed, before he even clearly identified what they were and what they were endeavouring to say to him. He flicked them deftly aside with an imaginary swatter. Take that, you swine! And you too! And you! He sensed that, though driven back on their first assault, they were regrouping somewhere for another try. He felt them coming again and began to hum under his breath. That should deal with them. One cannot hum and think at the same time, after all. At least that is what he discovered. No, it was impossible.

How unusual. Perhaps I have stumbled on an extraordinary neurological insight, he thought. He was thinking again but was pleased with both his discovery and the fact that he had indeed succeeded in suspending thought, if only for a minute or so. And then it suddenly dawned on him: That’s why these Hare Krishna fellows are always chanting that senseless mantra. This is behind the Buddhist ‘Om’. Driving out thoughts! No wonder they’re so happy. Clever devils.

A Kick In The Head?

 

Victor began now to wonder whether he had perhaps been born without an unconscious mind; he had looked for it in vain. And why not, when all was said and done? Some people were born without arms or legs, or with various parts of their brains missing or damaged. Anything was possible. Or perhaps his unconscious had simply been stillborn. Instead of developing and filling up with all sorts of unspoken horrors, it had shriveled up, inert. He conceded that it might perhaps also have existed in his early years and, at first, have become a repository for this or that mystifying impulse or phobia, or briefly become a haven for all sorts of terribly unclean childhood thoughts and God knows what, but even if this were the case, he was now convinced that he had long since cleared it out, cleaned it up, emptied it. He was not, of course, ready to believe for the moment that the unconscious was a hoax, like God and flying saucers, and didn’t actually exist! One would be taken for a complete madman to suggest that, when the entire world was thoroughly convinced of the opposite. No, he was just different, and he was just fine with that. In any case, one thing was sure: he didn’t have an unconscious mind today, or if he had one, it was quite barren. And, in truth, perhaps it had happened during that football match when he was fourteen, when in a death-defying (as he liked to remember it) dive on a centre-forward’s boot (he was a goalkeeper) he had been soundly kicked in the head, quite possibly in the region of the unconscious mind.

Punishment and Phalluses

 

It was true that Victor already felt distinctly more intelligent than when he had worked for a living. This was not necessarily saying very much because he was a modest and realistic man very well aware of his intellectual limits. He often considered himself shockingly witless, in fact. Not in relation to anyone else, at least no one he knew personally, but—and he struggled to understand how this could be so—in relation to himself. If, by my own judgement and without any exterior intervention, I can and very often do feel mentally deficient, this supposes a superior individual within me capable of making that assessment, he reasoned.

Could I not, then, claim that this fellow, striding imperiously around my brain casting imprecations as though he ran the place, might just as legitimately be considered to be me, Victor? It isn’t anybody else. Can’t I take the credit for him too? Beats me, he thought. He had once tried to understand the question by reading up on Freud, who had a thing or two to postulate about the divisions of the mind, but he had kept running into the doctor’s sexual problems with his parents (he had, after all, declared that his father was a pervert) and questions of punishment and phalluses, of abuse, guilt and morals, none of which reflected his own situation, and so had abandoned the Austrian guru as a potential source of knowledge on the subject. Victor’s other self, if that was indeed how to describe him, was not only superior in intelligence, but he was morally admirable in ways that Victor was often unable to emulate, though he tried. His chief rôle seemed to be to chastise Victor when he lied to himself; he was also lucky enough not to have a life as such to bother about. He didn’t need to go to the supermarket or to earn his living. Victor wondered whether one day this chap and he could perhaps swap places, so that instead of feeling constantly crushed by this paragon of virtue, he could just ignore or look down on him, smiling sardonically as he went about his business without interference.

An Ideal Man

 

Victor toyed with images of an ideal man, a model of what he might aspire to. He thought that he had seen him once—only once in a lifetime! That was extraordinary in itself. It was in an airport terminal, while he and a couple of hundred other passengers were waiting to board a flight to India. A slim, tall, handsome, finely dressed and ineffably elegant gentleman (a maharaja at least, Victor had thought; a true prince!) in search of a waiting room seat had, in the most exquisitely delicate fashion, moved another man’s bag from in front of a vacant place with the tip of his shining boot in order to sit down. Just six or seven inches along the floor, softly and without the least fuss. The owner of the bag, a rough-looking fellow, sweating, harassed and stressed, had growled a surly protest at this act which Victor hadn’t quite caught. But he did hear the Prince. In the sweetest and calmest voice, with impeccable diction, a noble smile and not a trace of irony or contempt he had told the man: “My dear Sir, you really shouldn’t be so touchy.” Which had deflated and crumpled the complainer as though he had actually received the bag itself on his head. Yes, Victor had thought then and ever since, yes, that princely composure and Olympian calm, detachment and confidence, all of which this man had exuded in bucket loads, those are characteristics to strive for. Imagine if all men were thus! It would change the world!

He had occasionally told his Indian prince story to this or that person, often a girlfriend. No one thought it extraordinary; no one thought anything much about it at all, actually. No one could understand why it had marked him. Some, many even, in defense, he supposed, of democratic values, even took the ‘side’ of the offended bag man.

But several had come up with the same notion—that at root it was a question of ‘breeding,’ as though maharajas were racehorses. Victor thought that profound equanimity, a noble mien and exquisite manners were most certainly cultivated in the princely houses of India, but he was deeply convinced that with will and effort we—and certainly he—could all comport ourselves in such a manner.

It sufficed to want to and to be sufficiently conscious and masters of ourselves.

Yes, he would certainly strive to adopt the posture and acquire the behavioural attributes of a maharaja. That would more than adequately serve as an example for his external appearance and comportment. A greater, much greater task was to sort out the shambles within his mind and to give his thinking life real purpose, substance and direction.

Piles Of Bodies

 

Victor had once met a Russian air force general, a man famous for punching his subordinates in the face (which Victor subsequently learned was not unusual in the Russian military services), who spoke only in incomprehensible riddles, to him at least.

“Three cuckoos flew past the bell tower at midnight,” said the general when Victor, at an embassy cocktail party, had asked him for his views on the development of democracy in Russia. The square-jawed giant, a former boxing champion, had then fixed his steely eyes defiantly on Victor’s eyes and had not so much as blinked. Around them, one or two people had nodded gravely; others, including himself, had smiled knowingly. To this day, Victor still wondered whether the general had simply been mocking him, which was a frequent fate of curious and naive foreigners in that ambiguous land, or whether there had actually been a sense to his words.

The general had humoured him for ten minutes or so with a handful of meaningless proverbs and metaphors and had then turned his heels and left the party to spread his wisdom and, presumably, bombs, in Transnistria, if Victor remembered rightly.

Victor thought about this brief encounter as he read about the general’s death in a helicopter crash the previous day. Aside from details of the accident and an account of his military career, the newspaper article quoted some of his more celebrated—and more sensible pronouncements.

One of them struck Victor as hard as the general’s fist must have felt: “If you don’t tell the truth,” the general had said, “you can end up with a pile of bodies in a sea of blood.

Exactly. The exact point. How could it be better said?

That’s precisely where not only lies but inexactitudes lead, reflected Victor. Piles of bodies. That’s why I have to get to the bottom of this truth business. He again thought with loathing of how blithely everyone employed—when it suited them, which was often—this notion that truth came in three dozen colours and varieties, depending on one’s personal prejudices and perspectives and origins, one’s ‘culture,’ the lie of the land, the time of day, the position of the moon, perhaps. “Bollocks,” as Yorick might say.

Mass Murder On A Lovely Morning

 

“You look very thoughtful.”

Helen had come in to the café to share a further moment with him before her clinic opened. They had again spent the night together at her place, and he had gone on ahead to buy his precious newspapers and order coffee for them.

“Yes, I’m thinking about mass murderers,” said Victor.

“The usual cheerful stuff, then?”

“Indeed.”

They had enjoyed a marvelous evening and night together and felt good about each other. They had made love again—Victor thought that, for once, the expression was appropriate—on waking, and their bodies still tingled from the thrill of it.

“So, why mass murder on such a lovely morning?” Helen asked. “On any day, actually. You seem to have an unholy interest in such questions, if you ask me.”

Victor thought for a moment or two. My God, I love her pout; she had offered one to him along with her question.

Soon, I shan’t be able to live without it, he joked to himself. That’s how it is between men and women. Such small gestures can devastate. One day, after he had given a speech to a hundred or so people at a foreign affairs seminar in Oslo, a Norwegian woman had come up to him and said slowly and gravely: “It’s very moving the way that you run your hand through your hair when you speak.” He had protested, of course, but she had insisted: “No. You don’t realise. I’m sure that half the women here fell in love with you because of that.” And had then walked off. However intimate her remark seemed to Victor, he realised that she might equally have been talking about the price of fish in the market that morning.

“That’s a fair question,” he said to Helen, running his hand through his hair. “I’ve asked it to myself. It’s not something new. I’ve always, I suppose, thought it was a thinking man’s duty—if you’ll allow me to so describe myself …”

Helen pouted as an observation to his boast.

“I’ve always thought that anyone born in our time, a time of continuing murder and mass crime, could not but try and understand its causes, how men could, can destroy each other on such an epic scale. Isn’t it really the only question? If one really cares about the fate of humanity, as opposed to the exclusive future of one’s own arse?”

Adolf Hitler And His Paintings

 

« I’ve been thinking about Adolf Hitler,” Victor told Yorick when he returned to the house.

The bird flapped its wings with evident happiness at seeing him.

“As a young man he was twice refused entrance to the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts. He was declared ‘unfit for painting,’ and his ardent dreams of becoming an artist collapsed. Now: many have made the flippant observation that had he possessed more talent—and objectivity requires me to admit that his work wasn’t ‘absolute crap,’ to use Harry’s expression—he might have embraced a career in painting and not embarked on the alternative vocation of war and mass murder.

“Be that as it may, Yorick, for me it isn’t the moral of the story. What strikes me as significant is that he couldn’t just say ‘fair enough, they’re right, I love painting, but it’s true that I’m not very good at it, not up to the Academy’s high standards’. He was incapable of anything approaching an objective opinion about his abilities. And please do not think that this is impossible, because it clearly isn’t. Many men and women who set their minds on a life pursuing this or that art—whether painting, music, literature, ballet or whatever—are perfectly able, to one degree or another, to make a reasonable judgement on the quality, or its absence, of their oeuvre. And if, despite their best efforts, they don’t make the grade, don’t show any real talent, they just come to terms with it, with more or less regret or sorrow.

“But Adolf? With his pretty landscapes, quaint town squares, portraits of fair young women, handsome hunting dogs and burgeoning flower pots? He couldn’t admit his lack of genius to himself and blamed the others for their flawed judgement. And do you know what he did soon after coming to power in Germany? He settled his scores with the arbiters of taste and talent in art. He gave orders to clear the museums and studios and to begin the destruction of the kind of paintings that he simply couldn’t or didn’t want to produce himself—modern art, which he proclaimed degenerate.

“There’s subjective man for you, Yorick. When you cannot or won’t see or comprehend anything other than your own vision of things, everything that is in competition with, or differs from, your vision becomes unacceptable and perhaps offensive, even obscene, a matter to be eliminated, preferably along with its authors.

Boredom Beyond The Sufferable

 

No, he had been forced to give time to time, to give it its due. His life had not been richer than the lives of other men, indeed he could say it had been poorer than most. He had simply been aware, at any moment, of time’s existence. He now saw that here was quite possibly the explanation for another phenomenon which had never ceased to handicap and also astonish him. Boredom. He had been bored virtually all of his life. Bored beyond the sufferable. Epically bored. In his capacity for boredom, he would bow before no man. However immodest that might be. This extraordinary faculty for boredom had often set him apart from the others. Some people, he discovered, had never been bored! Never in their lives, they claimed. This was extraordinary to him. Others found boredom almost pleasurable, a simple parenthesis from excitement and activity. In his case, it was torture, as terrible as sleep deprivation. That’s an interesting parallel, he thought. Perhaps boredom is a disability, a disorder, of people who are deprived of refuge in the silence of a dis-activated mind. When, as slumber descends, unthinking beckons, the mind’s lights dim, the objective self bursts in clanging bells and shouting at the top of its voice: awake, awake, this really won’t do! But I have nothing to think about, protests this man. Nothing currently in stock. I just want a break, with perhaps a few, lazy subjective reflections now and then. Sit up straight and out with it! No, no, I can’t, I’m exhausted, empty, barren. How does one explain such pain, Victor wondered? It’s like toothache. Just try and explain toothache to someone who has never truly suffered from it! These people with perfect, well-behaved teeth existed, he had met them. Well, it was a stupid image, he thought, but it did well illustrate the excruciating nature of boredom. It was beyond the imagination of anyone who did not know it, did not live it.

A Desire To Be Investigated

 

Though he had agreed to it reluctantly, Victor found that he was looking forward to the interrogation. He had always been envious to hear that “suspect X” was being “questioned by the police” and wished often to be in his or her place. In the same way, he regretted not ever having been discretely pulled aside for “a chat” by the somber men and women who surveyed arriving passengers at frontier airports and train stations. He had failed to incite the slightest interest on the part of these people, even when he had put on the most sinister facial expression he had been able to come up with or tried to behave in an unusually bizarre manner. This desire to be investigated by someone or other was probably, he thought, the result of his frustration at the total lack of inquisitiveness he had encountered in the course of even normal human contacts. By nature almost completely incurious about others, he had nevertheless cultivated the virtue or vice, he knew not which, of asking everyone whom he knew or met—even strangers—numerous questions about their lives. In doing so, he had discovered that nothing pleases most men or women more than to talk about themselves. Once they were launched, one could just sit back and listen, or not, depending on one’s mood. It killed time at least. He was never repaid in kind by questions of any order. He found this disheartening. On the one hand, he was a secret man who had no intention at all of revealing his true self to idle inquisition; on the other, he was incredibly anxious to talk about himself, both in the cause of equality, as a mark of shared attentiveness, and because like all men, he supposed, who spend their lives in intense dialogue with themselves, he needed to air his thoughts from time to time with another human being.

Though he had agreed to it reluctantly, Victor found that he was looking forward to the interrogation. He had always been envious to hear that “suspect X” was being “questioned by the police” and wished often to be in his or her place. In the same way, he regretted not ever having been discretely pulled aside for “a chat” by the somber men and women who surveyed arriving passengers at frontier airports and train stations. He had failed to incite the slightest interest on the part of these people, even when he had put on the most sinister facial expression he had been able to come up with or tried to behave in an unusually bizarre manner. This desire to be investigated by someone or other was probably, he thought, the result of his frustration at the total lack of inquisitiveness he had encountered in the course of even normal human contacts. By nature almost completely incurious about others, he had nevertheless cultivated the virtue or vice, he knew not which, of asking everyone whom he knew or met—even strangers—numerous questions about their lives. In doing so, he had discovered that nothing pleases most men or women more than to talk about themselves. Once they were launched, one could just sit back and listen, or not, depending on one’s mood. It killed time at least. He was never repaid in kind by questions of any order. He found this disheartening. On the one hand, he was a secret man who had no intention at all of revealing his true self to idle inquisition; on the other, he was incredibly anxious to talk about himself, both in the cause of equality, as a mark of shared attentiveness, and because like all men, he supposed, who spend their lives in intense dialogue with themselves, he needed to air his thoughts from time to time with another human being.