ERROR’S Virtual Reality: Hugo
Outside it’s pitch black. That is to say, during the short periods in which there is no lightning. And it rains as it has not been raining for years in this part of the country. (This thought makes Hugo laugh. It’s like the famous first line of that famous first novel by Snoopy: "It was a dark and stormy night.") What counts now is if the tent stays dry inside. Rain on your shelter is nice, if it is just drops, but a shelling like this is quite another story. Especially if your tent is new and dried out.
Hugo checks his sleeping bag. (It sounds like a sentence from a primary schoolbook: "John eats an app-le. Hu-go checks his sleep-ing bag.") Apparently everything is dry. Carefully with the back of the hand along the inside of the tent. There is a bit of moisture, from the onset of the storm, but there are no drops. Fine.
Now it’s time to watch the thunderstorm itself. Open up the tent, and you have a nice view on the valley below and the hills on the other side, over which the storms hovers. Well, there is no actual place where the storm is, it is smeared out over the whole region. It reminds him of a passage in Feynman, stating there is some global thunderstorm peak hour. Eight pm Greenwich Mean Time or something. Anyway, Feynman’s dead, it’s three in the morning, and it flashes like heck. What’s the span, in time zones, from Auvergne to Greenwich? It’s too hard to calculate that at this time.
The storms moves out. Close the tent, one final check (no water) and back to sleep. The rain peters out. It’s a good thing, such a shower, with the dust and all…
No, there are some rumbles left! Or is it an hour later? These were very close at any rate. Hugo remembers something about the smell of ozone and a whizzing sound before the actual flash: it’s a sign there is going to be a hit close by, a warning to find shelter. Never under a tree. But this hill is covered with trees, and a little tent like this doesn’t offer much protection. How much was the voltage? Maybe a little bit more attention during…
What a strange thing a car, Hugo thinks. You are seated inside a wheeled cabinet, surrounded by screens on which the world passes by. The thing is mounted on a frame which can move, and makes the impression one is actually moving. These movements have been carefully synchronised with the moving images on the screens. And you do believe this. You feel sick when the car makes a sudden ‘dive’, you hold on to your seat when it makes what appears to be a sharp turn, and you check when the ‘car’ in front suddenly stops.
It makes Marten laugh. "This machine of yours takes you from A to B." That’s true. But who can tell whether you actually followed the road you saw on the screens? "Open you windows. Or do you think there’s another screen behind this one?" Hugo shrugs. Maybe there are screens all along the road…
And wasn’t it Plato who said that all we see actually is an image of what is inside our brain? Or was it Kant? Anyway, Plato said we are bound in a cave where we can see nothing but the distorted shadows of what’s behind us. In fact, Plato was the inventor of virtual reality, although that won’t impress the whizkids behind the computers. They would probably think Plato to be an operating system of some sort, or a graphics processor. Fools.
Marten points out the roadsigns that indicate the border. "Isn’t it a nice picture?" he grins. Don’t heed it. Everything we see is in our head, among it this person we call Marten. There is a landscape we call France or Belgium or the Netherlands, as the case might be, over which we imagine blue skies or thunderstorms. And above all is this figure that we call ‘Hugo’. Or can we be sure of at least that one thing, our ‘self’.
Whatever it is, the image of Utrecht is Utrecht, and the Dom tower stills seems to be over 100 metres high. Marten parks the car. "It sure looks convincing to me, doesn’t it?" Certainly, there is a slight problem with the consistency of our experiences. Let’s assume, for the moment, that our brain is consistent, and so is all we see.
Only: did Marten always have this white hair?
"Right, let’s capitulate. My name is Hugo. One morning, not long ago, I crept out of my tent. I saw the Auvergne. Nothing wrong. My good friend Marten crept out of his tent, and his hair had turned white. Nothing wrong there—at least, I thought so.
"Now Marten says he has had white hair all his life. I have come to doubt this. No, actually I know for sure he didn’t have white hair before. And there’s more to him that’s changed. Hij now smokes a pipe. Imagine, Marten who used to rip the fags from his friends’ mouths and annihilate them on the spot.
"Anyway, when I crept out of my little tent that particular morning, and looked out over the Auvergne, I didn’t realize all this. I looked at the sky and at the hills, and they were what they allways had been, blue and green. The sun was yellow. My tent was red. As it should be, and as I remembered it.
"But later, on our way home, it started to nag. The highway to Paris was the same, but all highways are the same, all over the world. Tar and cars. I went wrong near Nevers: everything around me went black-and-white. I was in a film, and I heard voices: "T’as vu rien à Nevers." Later, Marten told me I had been asleep all along, but I know for sure I was awake at that time.
"And now I’m back in Utrecht. I know this city and yet, something is wrong. The Dom tower is where it is supposed to be, in the Zocher public gardens the first chestnuts are maturing. I followed the Old Canal, and saw my old school near the Tolsteeg Barrier. I sat on one of the benches, where I used to have lunch. Today’s school children haven’t changed a bit, only the punch lines on their t-shirts are different.
"And then it hit me. The benches. They have been replaced, some years back, by plate steel monstrosities punched with holes. It doesn’t fit anymore, this reality of which I am now part. The colours are wrong, the connections have changed.
"And ever since I came back here, I have had these strange dreams. There is a thunder storm in the distance, and then suddenly a loud boom and I wake with a start. Then the room rocks and turns and I see flashes in front of me. What has happened in the Auvergne. How can I reconstruct reality? Is there any reality?
Hugo sits down at a table in the corner of the pub. Michael takes the seat opposite him and asks: "What can you remember from your childhood?" "Phah… We were living near a canal, in a block of lower buildings, and around us were flats. There were lots of children, some of whom scared me a little bit. I was bullied by some. but I had a reasonable group of friends. In fact, my best friend in one of these flats. We had known each other from the prams, so to speak. Later he moved to the south, and we lost contact."
Michael smiles. "See, you can remember a lot." Hugo shakes his head. "It seems a lot, but how do I know it is all real? I may think it is, but at the same time it could be a loopy wire in my head. How can one know for certain that he knows what he thinks he knows? It may be all imagination, and there’s no one to check it out."
"Well, you could visit your parents and ask them." "Even then, I have no way to check them out. Here I turn up with this little friend of mine that has never existed, and just to cheer me up they tell me it’s true and that we lived near an canal and all. We could have been living in Arnhem or Zevenaar, for all that. I may have been one of the bullies."
Michael laughs out loud: "For what it’s worth, but I can’t imagine that." Hugo smiles himself. "No, probably not. But still… I cannot know for sure, can I?"
"What about photograps? What if you see pictures of your house and your little friend?" "And what about that? Maybe it’s not me at all in the picutre. I mean, all little blond boys of three look alike. How can I know it’s me?" "What about your parents? They could be recognized from those pictures?" "Yes… But how can I tell that those who say they are my parents, are my parents?" Now Michael shakes his head. "Well, if you start talking like that, then there is no end to it, right?" "Speak for yourself. For you it’s easy, you think you know for sure what you know. I know for sure I don’t know anything at all. Maybe you are part of the plot. Who knows? I don’t!" Michael veers from his chair. "Hey, what do you think? That I’m trying to fuck you? What does that help me, huh? Nothing!"
Hugo slowly lights a cigarette. "Right now, I’m trying to save myself from the swamp by pulling my hair."