DRINK DEEP AND LONG THE CIRCEAN POISON
By Deborah Walker
There’s something special about fenland, the holy land of the English. A flat, low-lying land where silver, drifting fog brings to mind the mysteries held in the human heart. Where else should the true artist reside? Not in cacophonous London, but here, in Boston, a stone’s throw from the wild, wild sea.
Thus I pondered, as I walked with my Circe along the wash, revelling in the triumph of another successful play performed by the Boston Players, a company that I’ve had much experience with. In truth the audience seemed forever dwindling, consisting mainly of avatars, but what else could I expect? In these times, the appreciation of the finer things is far beyond the ken of most. But those who did appreciate, ah those–the accolades of a half-dozen accomplished minds is worth far more that the accolades of a million dead- minded drones.
“I think that my next opus shall be of the fens, Circe.”
“A fine choice.”
My plays encompass the breadth of human history. Each act is set in a different era. Not for me, the constraints of linearity: I would start my act in the late 18th century with the draining of the fens, then dart to the Bronze Age, with savage Britons making weapons, then finally alight in the current era.
“I say, who’s that?” A man lay on the silt, a paraphernalia of bottles and tubes of metal surrounding him. The smoke from his fire wheedled into the sky. A few seagulls took their cautious inspection of him. Disturbingly, he had no Circe. “He’s not dead, is he?” I have written of death many times in my plays, but I have never seen a dead body.
“He’s moving,” said Circe.
“Then what could be wrong?”
“Nothing,” said Circe. “Ignore him. Let’s get home to discuss the performance.”
“It doesn’t look like nothing.” I ventured closer to the man. He was indeed moving, twitching as if in the grip of nightmare, but his eyes were open and staring. “Whyever would he be in such a state?” How curious it was.
“Oh, do come on,” said my Circe giving me the lightest touch of my pleasure circuits.
“I want to know what’s wrong with him.”
Circe lifted her hand to taste the wind. “He’s drunk,” she said.
“He’s ingested a depressant. He must have made alcohol.” A note of interest crept into Circe’s voice.
“For pleasure, I suppose.”
“A depressant? Why should he have a depressant if he wants pleasure? Why doesn’t he have a Circe?” It made me feel uneasy to see the man, naked almost without an interactive avatar. We were a few feet away, edging, like the seagulls, ever closer.
“Why don’t you ask him?” said the man with a great slur. He shrugged into an upright position, knocking over a cauldron of fermented apples.
“Oh, I do beg your pardon,” I said politely. “I thought that you were completely inebriated and incapable of speech.”
“Well, I’m not. So clear off. And take your witch with you.”
“Your bloody Circe, you great girl’s blouse.”
“Where’s your Circe, sir?” I asked. “You are a man, aren’t you?” It was difficult to tell, as he (?) was wrapped in a number of old blankets and his head was hooded.
“Yes, I’m a bloody man. And I’m not a man to be enslaved to a witch. Go on, clear off.”
“He doesn’t have a Circe,” whispered Circe. “Do come along, Reginald.”
What was a man doing without a Circe? The wind stirring along the black wash, along the braided river, chilled me to the bone. Was he a member of a religious cult which prohibited the use of Circes? Surely they all died out years ago.
The man focussed on my Circe, his eyes narrowing. “I never will be beholden to her kind.”
What a terrible tragedy to have a life without pleasure–and what an intriguing premise. I felt the muse stirring within me. “I say, you don’t fancy coming home for tea, do you?”
“Or something more alcoholic. I’m sure it can be fabricated.” I raised an eyebrow at Circe. She nodded, although I could sense that she disapproved. I passed over my card to the man and bowed “My name is Reginald Marmaduke, playwright.”
“A playwright, is it?”
I nodded modestly.
“My name is Dunstable.” He turned my card over in his hands. “And what am I supposed to do with this?”
“He hasn’t got the interface,” whispered Circe.
Ah, of course. “It’s fortunate you’ve encountered me, because I’ve made a study of the ancient arts. You wouldn’t happen to have a pencil on your person, by any chance?”
“Just tell me where you live, I’ll remember,” said Dunstable.
I clapped my hands in delight. “Ah, of course. The art of memory.” How very deliciously archaic he was. “And can I assume that you’ve accepted my invitation?”
“I’ll come,” he said. “You give me the address. I’ll catch you up. I’ve got a few things to do first.”
My home overlooks Caleb’s Mere. I stood in my writing study gazing at the static water. Circe stood silently at my side. She has a great delicacy of emotion, knowing when to be silent. In this she is unlike a woman. My thoughts turned briefly to Veronica, she who had been my lover. Shallow Veronica, whose unappreciation of my work tantalised me. And yet I loved her. How painful the emotion of love is, how irrational. Even though she little appreciated me, I would be with her still–if she had not chosen to betray me with the ceramicist. A play, then, on the fickleness of women. The theme was not unique, but my vision would be.
The seagull arching in the sky. Woman as seagull, could that be a workable conceit? But the image of Dunstable slipped into my mind. What if the fickleness of woman led to her reject the ideal lover for an outcast, a man without a Circe, a man without happiness? What an extraordinary idea. But could any woman be attracted to such an unkempt male.
“Circe, why was Dunstable dressed in such a fashion? Could he not have acquired clean clothes from the public fabricator?”
“Yes. Perhaps he doesn’t care what people think of him.”
“Not care what people think? How extraordinary.”
“If only he would let us help him.”
“There is no helping some people, is it not told?”
“You know the quaintest things, Reginald.” With a stroke of her hand Circe set my pleasure centres gently vibrating.
There are many types of pleasure, and Circe tm knows them all. Every man, woman and child have a Circe (except Dunstable, apparently). Their Circe avatar is linked to them on birth. And I hear that there are developments within the C for Happiness, to have the Circes attached to the unborn within the artificial wombs. What a world of wonder we live in.
I gently disengaged Circe’s hand from my neck, severing the link between us. “Regrettably I must pursue my idea, Circe.” How I knew that hours could slip away under Circe’s electric caress.
“Yes, Reginald. Your work must come first.”
How much she understood. I returned to my muse. The idea of a woman leaving the ideal man for a man without happiness greatly appealed to me. What would be the attraction of such a man? I realised that I did not know very much about the Circean process. “Explain to me, Circe, what you do, if you’d be so kind.”
“I give pleasure,” she said.
“Pleasure does not have a single nexus, Reginald. It’s distributed over the brain. The important nodes are the subcortical regions such as the nucleus accumbens and ventral pallidum, and the cortical regions, the orbitofrontal cortex and anterior cingulate cortex.”
“Can you dumb it down a little?”
“Not while still saying what I need to say, but I will try.”
“In the 20th century, Olds and Milner discovered that a rat would press a lever seven hundred times an hour to receive electrical stimulation of the brain. This region became known as the pleasure centre. I stimulate your pleasure centre, Reginald.”
We are rats, seven hundred times an hour seeking pleasure. I thought that was a fine analogy and might be the beginning of a soliloquy. “Tell me more, Circe.”
“Rats in ‘skinner boxes’ with electrodes planted in their nucleus accumbens will repeatedly press a lever which stimulates this region. They will do this in preference to eating and drinking, and eventually dying from exhaustion.”
“And is this the part of the brain you stimulate in me?”
“Sometimes,” said Circe. “It’s complex. I constantly monitor your hormone levels to maintain you in a state of ambient pleasure. When a heightened response is called for I initiative further stimulus.”
“Like when?” I asked.
“When you receive applause for one of your plays. The Circean poison.” Circe smiled.
“Circean poison is an archaic term for a something that produces the extreme pleasure. The approbation of an audience has been called a Circean poison.”
“Is it, really? So you enhance the different types of pleasure that occur naturally within me?”
Circe nodded. “The nucleus accumbens is related to sexual arousal, modulated by dopaminergic projections from the limbic system. The pleasure from the prefrontal cortex which is tightly connected to the limbic system is related to problem-solving pleasure.”
“I see, well, very good.” I wondered if I should ask her what the limbic system was, but I didn’t want to appear ignorant.
“Other components of the brain inhibit or enhance the pleasure centres, would you like me to outline them, Reginald?”
“No, my dear. It is enough that you do what you do.” I was beginning to regret starting the conversation. Circe seemed to have slipped into an information dump loop.
“And don’t get me started on the role of memory.”
“All right, I won’t,” I said hastily. “Thank you, Circe. You have given me much to ponder.”
“It’s a pleasure. I only wish more humans were interested in the specifics. I’d be happy to discuss this at any time with you.”
A thought occurred to me. “Circe, could I be addicted to you?”
“Addicted as the air you breathe. I’m good for you, aren’t I, Reginald. Humanity is so much happier since I came online.”
That was undoubtedly true. “If there are different modes of pleasure, how do you know which one to initiate?”
“I image your brain and make the necessary requirements with constant fMRI.”
It all seemed terribly intimate. I’d never really thought about it before.
“Pleasure is a complex process,” said Circe. “What was once thought of as the triadic model of neurobiology is actually heptadic, or arguably more.”
“You mean you don’t know, exactly?”
“Oh, who can fathom the mysteries of the human mind?” said Circe with a playful smile.
A knock on the door interrupted this interesting conversation.
“Who is it?” I asked, talking to the house.
“There is no one at the door.”
The knocking continued.
Circe frowned. “It’s probably Mr Dunstable. He doesn’t have an interface, remember?”
“Open the door, House.”
“There is no one at the door,” repeated the house.
“Oh, forget about it.” I got up and opened the door myself, thinking at the time what an unusual sensation it was, the feel and heft of the wooden door, the slight expectation. I would have to use that as a period detail in my next play. The very essence of opening.
Dunstable stood at the door, a large knapsack on his back. He held a small bunch of white flowers.
What a thoughtful gesture. “For me? How kind. Well, don’t just stand there on the doorstep. My home is yours.” I reached forward to accept the small posey.
Dunstable stepped inside, nearly knocking into me with his knapsack. He strode towards Circe brandishing the flowers like a weapon. “Don’t you see this, witch?”
“Snowdrops,” she said with an amused smile. “Holy moly.”
“Holy moly?” I asked.
“Relating to the tale of the original Circe in The Odyssey. Odysseus is given the holy moly, as a protection against her magics.”
Ah, The Odyssey. I was of course familiar with that ancient story, although I have not read the original, the trope being somewhat overdone, with the advent of the Circe tm.
“And the snowdrops?” I asked.
“Some medical historians have claimed that the anticholinesterase found in snowdrops would counter anticholinergic intoxication. That Circe did not transform men into swine, merely poisoned them into amnesia, hallucinations, and delusions. I do none of those things, Mr Dunstable.” She took the flowers from his hand. “These are pretty, thank you,” she said. Knowing her so well, I saw that her avatar changed slightly, probably adopting to a more appealing visage for Dunstable. “All men must come home. Let me gift you with pleasure. I will bring you home, Mr Dunstable. All men long for that.”
“Stay away from me, witch.” Dunstable was trembling–some artefact of the inebriation process, no doubt. How fascinating. It occurred to me that I could watch him and witness first-hand the emotions that I portrayed in my play. He was a veritable fountain of emotions. It was remarkable.
I fabricated him whiskey and that seemed to lift his spirits. And with a coincidence of fate, it turned out that Dunstable was a writer.
“May I have the honour of reading your work?” I asked.
“Here,” Dunstable said, rummaging in his voluminous garments to produce a battered manuscript
“What are the themes?” I leafed through the pages, many closely written, with many deletions and underscores, sometimes the pen marks were so violent that they ripped the page.
“Love, war, wilderness and loss. What it still means to be a man in a world dominated by women.” Dunstable cast a particularly unpleasant and meaningful stare at Circe.
“I am not a woman,” said Circe mildly. “I only wear a shell.”
“Women are concerned with happiness, nurturing, mothering. That’s what you are. You have emasculated the world. You have ripped the balls off a generation.”
“I say, steady on, old boy.” I laid a friendly hand on Dunstable’s shoulder.
“Where’s your woman, then?”
I placed my fist to my mouth. “She is gone,” I said.
“Reginald is very attractive to women,” said Circe. “I’ve no doubt that he will attract another woman when his muse allows.”
He smirked again.
I felt strangely uncomfortable with Circe defending me. To change the subject, I begged to be allowed some time alone to read Dunstable’s work.
“As you wish,” said Dunstable. “In the meantime, I shall retire to my room.”
“Oh, you mean to stay? Well, that will be delightful. How I have longed for the company of another writer.” I asked Circe to show Dunstable to the spare bedroom, and retired to my own room to read his play. It was a long piece, and the style was obtuse and overly verbose. It was clearly autobiographical, detailing the protagonist’s extended struggle, tracking and hunting squirrels amongst the fens.
Afterwards, I sought out Dunstable, framing in my mind a tactful approach.
“What do you think?” Dunstable’s face was a picture of anxiety. I realised then that he was the same as me, an artist struggling with his muse. And if he was down the road from me, then it was surely not his fault. We all must learn. I would nurture his talent.
“A fine play,” I lied. “Yes, indeed.”
“Do you think that the smallness of the squirrel distracts from the epic nature of the play? That is a question I struggled greatly with.”
“Authenticity is so important.”
“Do you really think so?” he said. “Let me sample one of yours.”
I passed him over one of my most recent plays, and he retired with a quart of whiskey to peruse it. When he returned, I could see that he was overwhelmed with the distance between us. He said very little. Artistic jealousy is a curse. I saw that he struggled manfully against it. I had a great warmth of feeling towards Dunstable. I was glad that he had chosen to stay with me. I would nurture his talent, what there was of it. I would become not only the producer of plays, but a mentor. And if he could not reach my heights, then at least I could help him to achieve what he could.
As a kindness I asked the Boston Players to perform an abridged version of Dunstable’s play as a companion piece to my own work, although the styles hardly mesh. I thought it would provide encouragement to him.
Tactfully I told him, “Your work is so nuanced and so rich. Let us present it to the public in digestible slivers.”
“It’s not a bloody cake.” But reluctantly he agreed.
Dunstable’s play was quite well received.
Within a week, the Boston Players asked to perform the unabridged version of Dunstable’s play.
Within two weeks, the Boston Players had discarded my play in favour of Dunstable’s. His play was a sensation.
Within a month Dunstable’s play had extended from fenlands to the London scene. The London scene! I have always craved the London scene.
“It’s a novelty only,” said Circe, soothingly.
“And yet he has no Circe. So he can have no pleasure in his success.” Although I saw him grinning like a Cheshire cat when he took his poison applause.
He was also drinking less, I noticed. I poured him out a tumbler of whiskey. It has quite a piquant taste, and since Dunstable’s arrival, I’d developed a taste for it. I took the drinks into the front room where he sat, head down, scratching at his manuscript. I did wish that he would take an interface; there was something so very primitive seeing him scratching there.
“A little snifter?” I asked, clinking the glasses together in an inviting fashion.
“What? Oh, no, thanks. I’m on the wagon.”
“You do not want any? Don’t you think that it will help you? You always said that in whiskey, you found truth.”
Dunstable leant back in his chair. He sighed. It was almost as if I were disturbing him. “Reginald, have you seen what I produced when I was drunk? It was drivel, man. Absolute drivel.”
“Yet you’ve had astonishing success with Squizzers.”
“Squizzers!” Dunstable’s face took on a scarlet hue. The popular press had renamed his play Squizzers. The title infuriated him. I repressed a smile.
“The journey was my juvenile work. How embarrassed I am.”
“Yes, I see. But surely you’re enjoying the trappings of your success.” Dunstable’s work had found him favour with the ladies. They buzzed around him, like bees to the honey pot.
“Yes. There is that. Reginald, there’s something I’ve been meaning to mention.”
“Never mind. It’s nothing.”
Within six weeks, Dunstable’s plays had gone worldwide.
“And do you not need the Circe now?” I asked him.
“Circe?” he roared. “That is everything that is wrong with this rotten society.”
“She’s standing right next to me, you know.” Dunstable was unbearably rude in his talk towards Circe. “You’ll hurt her feelings.”
“Thank you, Reginald. But I have no feeling to offend.”
“Even so . . . .” It was just plain bad manners. I’d half a mind to ask Dunstable to leave my house, if he couldn’t speak nicely to Circe.
“We are not malevolent,” said Circe to Dunstable, “as you seems to think. We exist only to serve.”
“And what of your own desires, my beautiful lady? Do you tell me that you have none?”
I rather thought that the conversation was getting beyond me. That there was a subtext to their discussions that I wasn’t following. They seemed to enjoy their disagreements, and I felt excluded. I felt that I had had this feeling before. That was annoying. For as I remembered it, and I remembered it very well, it was me who had helped him. Surely I deserved some, well not reward, but yes reward for that. Not being made to feel excluded in my own home would be a good start. “Whatever are you talking about, Dunstable? You’re always hinting about something when you talk of Circe. She’s an avatar of the C of Happiness. She’s not a witch.”
“You haven’t seen any of my latest plays, have you, Reginald?”
“Not since Squizzers.”
“That piece of rubbish? No. Since that, I have taken on the greater themes. I think I have mentioned it before, Reginald. My latest plays explore the emasculation of the world, seeking to change the world through my art.”
“I see.” I would greatly have liked to have enjoyed the success of Squizzers. In fact, my own play, Badgers, a dark fantasy about hunting a tuberculosis carrier through the fens, through a dazzling array of eras, although well received by the Boston Players, was not . . . was not. . . was not very good.
Dunstable stood. Long gone the days when he shrouded himself filthy blankets. He was dressed in a three piece suit, which I imagined was the sartorial height of writerly fashion
“Look, Reginald, I’m glad you’ve come to see me. I’m moving out. My agent says I should be closer to the action.”
“But you always said it was the fens that drew your work. That was the bond for us both.”
“Well, yes. But I’ve moved on. And there’s something else that I’ve been meaning to tell you. Veronica and I, well, we’re a couple.”
“I see.” I had expected it of a woman, but Dunstable! When my kindness had elevated him. Without me, he’d be lying in the silt, a drunk, an outcast. He had robbed me of everything. “Just go.”
When he’d gone, Circe laid her white hand upon my neck. “I can make you feel better, Reginald,” she whispered.
I turned to her for many days.
But in time, I emerged from her sweet bower of content. I turned to the fens, watching the diminishing sun over the mere.
Circe stood quietly at my side, while I pondered. “The difference between Dunstable and myself, is that he doesn’t have a Circe. There can be great art, can’t there, without suffering? Great art can be produced by the happy man.”
“Of course, my love.” Circe gently stroked the pleasure centres of my brain.
“Not tonight, Circe,” I said quietly. “Please removed even your residual stimulation.”
“Are you sure, Reginald?”
“I’m sure.” I felt the crushing loss as she withdrew from my mind. Such loss. The absence of pleasure, and yet it seemed to me that it was necessary. The times of denial was over. “I am jealous of Dunstable.”
“Why so, my love? You have your art. You never wanted the things he had.”
“I am jealous, Circe, and let that emotion course, through me.”
I suffered for a few hours, riding the emotion while attempting a new play. It did not enhance the quality of my work.
“Circe, is it possible that you can initiate a negative emotion?”
Circe raised an eyebrow.
I blushed knowing that there was a subset of users, for whom pleasure is pain. “Not in that way, I was thinking of purely my art.”
“I can do it. But be careful, Reginald. You’re a man who is used to the constant content. If you stray deeply into the negative emotions, I cannot be of the outcome.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean that the human mind is complex. If you persist in this course, it may be that I’ll not be able to draw you back into happiness.”
“I am prepared to risk all for the sake of my art.”
“As you wish.”
Melancholy. To be an artist is to suffer. Perhaps this was why, although my plays have been well received in my circles, they have not reached the full audience that my friends assure me they deserve. I embraced sadness for four weeks. The play I produced seemed different from my earlier works. I wondered if it was great.
When I asked Circe to restore me to a state of happiness, we found that her stimulation no longer worked in me.
“I cannot stimulate them with delicacy,” she said. “Of course I can override your natural emotions, but you would be a rat in the skinner box. Your natural emotions have you in sway.”
“Then what am I to do?”
“They will pass, I hope, with time.”
The melancholy has passed. And jealousy has returned. And rage. I am consumed with jealousy. I am consumed with rage. Most of all I am consumed with self-hatred. I have no talent.
Circe tries her best, but I cannot escape these emotions. There is no pleasure left for me. Let it be said. Let me acknowledge this. I pick up paper and my pen.
My next play may be great.
Deborah Walker grew up in the most English town in the country, but she soon high-tailed it down to London, where she now lives with her partner, Chris, and her two young children. Find Deborah in the British Museum trawling the past for future inspiration or on her blog. Her stories have appeared in Nature’s Futures, Cosmos, and Daily Science Fiction and The Year’s Best SF 18.