I had just stepped out of the tub when the first letter arrived—I say letter, but of course it was an email. Wrapped in a towel, with the water dripping from the ends of my hair onto the floor, I leaned closer to the computer and, having dried moisture from the trackpad with the towel, I moved the cursor with my right hand.
The email had the disquieting subject line “On love” and my initial reaction was that it had to have been sent by the wife of The Dad, a man who I at that point had been seeing on the sly for close to a year. The Dad was an unusual specimen in the category of unfaithful men, insofar as he was evidently not ashamed or apologetic about his extramarital affairs, even though he obviously had no intention of telling his wife about them. When we met, he had recently been obliged to end a long-term relationship with another lover—“a soul mate, I’d call her, we were such a good match that not seeing her would have been to squander the gift of life”—why, I never learned. I couldn’t be sure, but I had the sense it was something more than being found out. The wife, also the mother of their two young twin boys, had come across a text message he’d sent to the lover-soul mate; nothing dirty, he claimed (something I doubted) but intimate enough that she could tell something was wrong. He told me the story while kneeling on the rock-hard parquet floor where we’d just made love—or, I should say, where he’d just fucked me in the ass until he came, surprisingly quiet, and then he gave my already rosy butt cheeks a couple of hard, final slaps before pulling out and straightening his back. I remained on all fours in front of him; he lightly caressed my lower back with his left hand before walking to the bathroom, his sex cupped in his right hand. I could hear the water flushing and the sound of toilet paper pulled from the roll. It wasn’t long before he was back, now dressed in the loose-fitting white t-shirt he’d worn when he showed up, having created the illusion of going to the gym. I noted that he’d also wetted his hair and pulled it back—clearly, he was cunning—before he pulled me up to a sitting position and hooked one of his long, slender arms around me in a not exactly tender gesture.
Once I had plucked up my courage after a moment’s hesitation and clicked on the brightly marked line in my inbox, it turned out to be something altogether different. The email had been written by a woman, Amelie Spetz-Rosén, who by all indications was not the wife of The Dad, and the body of the message contained nothing but a short greeting: “I would be very grateful if you read the letter and got back to me. Best, Amelie Spetz-Rosén.” My sense of discomfort intact, I clicked the link and listened to the hard drive whir as it launched the word processor and opened the document, titled “multiverse.doc”.
I heard your radio essay about love and possessiveness on P1 the other day. You described true love as something that demands you let go instead of cling to someone. I have also read your philosophical essays in the newspaper, for example the one about Max Tegmark’s book Our Mathematical Universe, in which he writes that our universe is only one of many, and that the world is perpetually branching out in something like infinite possibilities as per Hugh Everett’s many-worlds theory, which Tegmark appears to subscribe to. I have also read physician Brian Greene in his book on the topic, The Hidden Reality, and it seems he thinks this is the only reasonable inference to be made from quantum physics.
This makes me incredibly troubled and anxious. Take the unconditional love you describe in your essay—how can such a love mean anything if its opposite is just as real as it is? Or how can it mean anything that I care for my child if I know there is another universe, equally real, where I abuse the child? I have an infant child and reading that description makes it feel as though everything we experience is absolutely void of meaning, and I hope you can help me by responding with your beliefs about this. Do you find the multi-world theory promoted by, among others, Max Tegmark, convincing? How do you make sense of it all?
Would be very grateful if you’d answer me.
By now I was feeling cold. I closed my laptop and walked across the floor to get away from the window so I could remove the towel and wrap it around my hair outside of the view of my neighbors. The neighbors below were playing something with a heavy base; I could make out a repetitive melody grinding over equally monotonous beats. Around this time of day, either The Dad or his beautiful, dark-haired wife would usually pass by below my window, pushing their similarly dark-haired, big-eyed boys in a double stroller. As I had been quick to discover, though he never mentioned it himself, the boys’ kindergarten was located on the same block as my apartment building, and the doors which every morning swallowed countless children only to spit them out again in the afternoon absorbed also his two sons; it happened that I heard crying or excited voices through the window when they walked by.
The Dad and his family lived nearby, too, just a few blocks away, and this was what enabled our relationship; he could take the dog—a large, wolf-like German Shepherd which often surveilled our coitus from a corner of the room, save for when it burst forth with ungovernable excitement and started to lick its master’s hard-working thigh muscles, at which point he would command it back to its spot—and come straight to my place, just as he could head to the gym and stay for an hour before returning from my apartment, his hair slicked back after a simulated shower and sweating as evidence of a workout he hadn’t done. Weight-lifting, with those skinny arms?
Of course, I thought as I bent over and rubbed my hair with the towel, I could just not write back to Amelie Spetz-Rosén; probably the best solution. Or I could send her some vague reply about the incompleteness of quantum mechanics, explaining that it’s a theoretical model and we would probably be best off not interpreting its consequences so literally; that, moreover, the many-worlds interpretation is just one possible view and not necessarily the correct one. But it didn’t help, because for some reason it had now fallen upon me to ensure the world would remain whole.
I imagined Amelie Spetz-Rosén, sitting somewhere, agonizing over the lost meaning of life and love. If I was the one who had caused this rift in the universe, then I had to be the one healing it. Heal it, how could I heal it?
I looked around the room, observing the desk, the chair, the bookshelf, the reading chair; I looked at them as though I imagined each would confirm its own unique existence. But instead, they did the opposite: the harder I focused on them the more negotiable they seemed, the more open to interpretation; as my gaze bore deeper into them they also appeared to bore into me, such that finally the pieces of furniture could not be distinguished from my understanding of them.
The desk: from my position on the floor I watched myself sit down at it, apparently deep in thought. I saw myself sink down into the reading chair, where I initiated a conversation with Amelie Spetz-Rosén, who was now seated on the floor before me, looking up with a rapt expression. I could see myself staring into the eyes of people I encountered and I saw them turn away. I took my focus from them, trained it again on the shiny surface of the desk, shifted it even closer to the tabletop, closer and closer until the wood dissolved and its solidity transformed into an indistinct haze. Inside the world, there was an unlimited quantity of words, and seen up close they would all fall apart, transmuted into nothingness. Reality was not whole and I would never be able to heal it.
And what exactly was her question about anyway? Did it concern the many-worlds interpretation, or did it have to do with love? And if it was about love, would that not make it even more difficult for me to respond?
If two weeks prior I had been seated in a radio studio, speaking with a soulful voice about the possibility of a love beyond possession; if I had insisted, with the microphone as my disinterested mute witness, that such a love was possible, this idea was as theoretical as any multi-worlds interpretation—no, more so, because I didn’t even have any observations to support its theoretical existence. What kind of great and unconditional love had I imagined anyhow; unselfish, all-encompassing, what love had I been talking about? It was definitely not my own.
It was an incantation, it was nothing but a prayer; the one could not be in conflict with the other because one of them did not exist. It is only the belief in such a love that makes it possible, I had intoned into the microphone, but could I not just as well had intoned the same about an infinite multiverse? Because when it came down to it, what did I know about either of them, what did I know of their existence? I knew nothing of it.
Maybe that’s what I should write her. Briefly, now at once to get it over with. Still naked I walked up to the computer and opened the screen to read over her letter anew. It really did contain a tangible anxiety, an anxiety of existential character, and if I’d learned anything from my several years as a professional writer, it’s that these are precisely the messages you should refrain from answering, these are the exact correspondents you should under no circumstances engage since their hunger is insatiable. You write them, and they reply immediately, at which you respond, at which they reply immediately, and you see that their hunger is in fact about something else, about some form of human connection you will never be able to give them, and now it’s gone so far that when you retire you’ll only confirm them in all their despair and loneliness. They have opened up, they have revealed themselves before a stranger who had the potential to understand them, and even this stranger turns away.
Amelie Spetz-Rosén: I could imagine her sitting on the couch reading my texts, which inspired her to feverishly start searching the internet. “Tegmark parallel universes”, “multiverse reality”, “Everett 1957 relative states”; I imagined how her more or less newborn child began to cry in the bedroom and how she left it crying as she went deeper and deeper down a representation of the world as dissolved, splintered, in shards; entirely deterministic but also, from the point of view of the individual subject, determined by chance, because how can the individual know which of all possible universes she happens to exist in, which of them she will exist in one second from now; is she the perpetrator or the victim; how can she mean anything by the word “I”? I imagined that now she attached all her despair to this image, all her loneliness and desolation and fear, the crying infant and the infant who in a different universe is held, not by her, not in this one, and I quickly closed my computer.
Helena Granström is an author and essayist with a background in mathematical physics. Betydelsen av kärlek is her second novel, after Standardmodellen, in 2018.
Kira Josefsson, writer, editor, and translator between English and Swedish, is the recipient of a 2017 PEN/Heim and the editor of Fia Backström’s translation of Åke Hodell’s The Marathon Poet (UDP, 2020). The translator of Close to Birds (Shambhala, 2019), her work can be found in Granta, The Nation, Words Without Borders, Exchanges, and more. She’s Assistant Translations Editor for Anomaly, and on the editorial board for Glänta, a Swedish journal of arts and philosophy.