Deus Sive Natura
Originally published in 1941, "They"1 is one of Robert A. Heinlein's most
famous short stories--and rightly so. It is a little masterpiece which sows the seeds of themes which would come to dominate Heinlein's future stories,
such as solipsism, manipulation and paranoia. His protagonist is an inmate of a psychiatric hospital, by all appearances suffering from an acute auto-referential
delerium. He believes that the entire world is a sham, constructed around
him with the sole purpose of impeding his recollection of his true
identity. Most people likely are nothing more than volitionless
automatons, programmed to distract him with their monotonous and repetitive
movements. Some of them, however, probably are real creatures, nominally,
those responsible for the manipulation 2, who disguise themselves as
ordinary people in order to follow his movements closely.
The psychotic episode broke out when he and his wife were getting ready for a vacation trip. For some reason unclear even to him, our character
got an itch to go back upstairs in the house and, upon opening the window,
which looked out over the back yard, encountered a resplendant, sunny sky.
But how could that be possible, if in front of the house a heavy rain was
falling? He turned around and saw his wife looking at him with an
indeterminate expression on her face. Immediately, the memory came back to
him of the doubts and inquietudes that he experienced in his childhood, when
he sensed himself to be different from the other children, talking about
things that they did not understand and barely taking an
interest in their unimportant concerns. He remembered his suspicions with
respect to adults, who always seemed to change the subject when he entered
the room. To his way of thinking, the pieces started to fall into place,
the whole spectacle began to make sense. He was the target of a vast conspiracy of
unimaginable proportions. The impact of that stunning discovery precipitated the crisis. He was committed to the asylum.
In the asylum, he was given a private cell where he could be alone with his
thoughts. But every time these thoughts turned towards the conspiracy,
trying to discern the patterns, to find the flaws, find out what was behind
such a complex operation, something happened that seemed to have been created
expressly to break his concentration. Sometimes the attendant
entered with a tray, at other times the doctor came to see how he was doing, or else it was his wife who showed up to visit him.
In spite of this, he has a few hours each day for introspection and occupies
that time trying to discover the truth. For that, he relies only on his reason and
on the evidence of his five senses. Locked up in an asylum cell, the character retraces the route of hyperbolic doubt undertaken by Descartes in the seventeenth century, but in the inverse sense. While the philosopher arrived at the only certainty that one can have, in spite of the error of the senses, of mistaken assumptions and of the possibility that the world is nothing more than a dream or the jape of a malign genius -- to wit: `I think, therefore I am'--Heinlein's character takes that certainty as a point of reference: "First fact, himself. He knew himself directly. He existed."
At this point in the story, the initial impression of the reader, that the
character is a paranoiac in delirium, begins to waver. His rationale is so
convincing, his perception of the futility of the routine followed by people
in their everyday life is so sharp, that his suspicions begin to sound likely.
Suspended in our uncertainty with respect to the interpretation of the story, we are prepared for the ending: our hero goes to bed after resolving to flee from the asylum, and on falling asleep, recovers his original identity. But the following day, the shock of abrupt awakening and his spouse's visit make him return to his state of self-forgetfulness. The wife leaves the cell, encounters the psychiatrist responsible for the character's case and, finally, we discover that they are not even humans, but rather creatures who take human form to deceive the protagonist and prevent themselves from being "assimilated" by him.
The hero of "They," therefore, is right: a universal conspiracy against him exists. But who is he? Why go to such lengths to prevent him from recovering his identity? Heinlein does not answer this directly, but gives a few good hints. In the first place, the very existence of the conspiracy proves that he is someone very important--the center of the universe, in fact. It deals also with an extremely powerful person--the manipulators fear what may happen if he were to discover who he is in truth. Finally, he is--or believes himself to be--immortal: "I transcend this little time axis; a seventy-year span on it is but a casual phase in my experience. Second only to the prime datum of my own existence is the emotionally convincing certainty of my own continuity. I may be a closed curve, but closed or open, I neither have a beginning nor an end."
Beyond that, during his sleep, when he becomes that which he is, he experiences a profound and jubilant sensation of being united with the totality of the universe: "Gladness! Gladness everywhere! It was good to be with his own kind, to hear music swelling out of every living thing, as it always had and always would -- good to know that everything was living and aware of him, particpating in him, as he participated in them. It was good to be, good to know the unity of many and the diversity of one."
Faced with all that, the conclusion at which Carlos Alberto Angelo arrived about the identity of this mysterious character becomes practically irrefutable. It is nothing less than God.
Not, however, the God traditionally imagined by occidental religions--a transcendant being, isolated from its creation, hovering above reality and governing the world from an outside position. As his unconscious self-knowledge demonstrates (for whatever that paradox is worth), he is the god of mystical tradition and of the oriental religions, a pantheistic divinity, identified with nature itself, which only exists in the measure in which it is part of his being. In the celebrated formula of Spinoza: Deus sive natura (God is not distinguishable from nature).
From this point of view, the manipulators are creatures who decline to make up part of this mystical union and aspire to an independent, individual existence. That existence, speaking rigorously, is impossible, since, in terms of the story, all things are alive and conscious of him, of that probable god, participating in him as he participates in them. But the conspirators can experience an illusion of individuality, in the measure of which, not recognizing his own identity, God leaves them to their own destinies. On the other hand, they also can not feel empathy with him, in which case they would be immediately assimilated: "If we understood his motives, we would be part of him. Bear in mind the Treaty! He almost remembered." In the end, it is what happens with Alice, the character's wife: she begins to feel compassion for him and is warned by the leader that she is being assimilated. "Perhaps," she responds. "I am not in fear."
The Treaty mentioned by the head of the conspirators, in its turn, leads one to believe that all this might be a kind of bet between them and God. In fact, the first reaction of the character on awakening, still half-conscious of his identity, is to try to imagine the reaction of the leader on finding out that the game is over. And it is not for nothing that the leader, in his role as psychiatrist of the hero, is shown in the first scene playing chess with the protagonist. As in God & Golem, Inc., by Norbert Wiener, creator and creature face off in a game that, here, ends in stalemate. Chess can be understood as a metaphor of the very situation described by the story. The real game is not chess, but the dispute that they engage as patient and psychiatrist, having identity as the prize. If the protagonist recovers his identity, the conspirators lose theirs.
- Robert A. Heinlein, "They," in The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag, Ace Books, New York.
- At one point in the story, the protagonist resolves "To catch the puppet masters in their manipulations." It is worth remembering that The Puppet Masters is the name of one of Heinlein's most well-known novels, recently rendered in film.