Sooo, you know what's it like when you have a day at home, and you have to work, but it's cold and you're bored stiff and you have a migraine, so instead you write a stupid joke-fanfic for a guilty-pleasure action movie, with a punchline that nobody will understand? And you know how do you intend for it to be a vignette, because really, for how long can you draw it, and it turns into four full pages before you know what's going on?
The movie in question is Equilibrium, a profoundly idiotic action flick whose main attraction is trying to capture each and every dystopian reference (read: something stolen) they managed to cram in. It's about this guy who kicks ass in a long black coat for a totalitarian dictatorship where they outlawed emotions.. It opens with a scene where they verify the originality of the Mona Lisa and then burn it. They would've burned it even if it wasn't the original, but what the hell, if you have an Original Mona Lisa Identifier I guess you might as well use it. It is not the only thing there that doesn't make sense.
If that wasn't clear enough, this thing is completely pointless unless you've seen the movie.
It’s funny, how memory works. Preston knew perfectly well that at the day they burned the portrait, he felt nothing. He remembered looking at it, assessing it in an impersonal sort of way that was really the only option then: small wooden board, perhaps 50 on 80 centimeters, with the image of a smiling woman. It meant nothing to him.
Hughes has been there with his machine. Preston was against it. It was a leftover from an experimental project deemed impractical and scrapped; Hughes and the device he had developed, capable of identifying originality of sense-offense item, were still employed in some missions, for research purposes or (as Preston came to suspect, much later) out of pity. What was the point in it, anyway? Sense was sense. the history of the thing didn’t matter, and originals would burn just the same as copies. It seemed like a redundancy, a gross waste of resources, and the burn order left Preston’s lips almost before Hughes finished declaring the thing’s originality. The strange little portrait was ash within minutes.
Prozium, along with its obvious disadvantages, had some individualized cognitive perks, and to the naturally gifted Preston it gave crystal-clear memory. This ability diminished over that passing year, which was both a curse and a blessing; But this one day, the last one before everything has begun to change, was perfectly preserved in his mind. He felt nothing then, it was obvious enough. But now, the mere thought of that picture – the slight twist of the mouth, the calm, almost detached look (he didn't analyze its expression then, he was sure) and the misty landscape in the background – caused a pang of wonder mixed with almost unbearable pain. That strange expression – how could the painter capture it so well? Was it technical genius, perfect replication of reality, or something else, something more?
And as for what was left of it now… how can a mental image – a fleeting combination of electric pulses, an abstract pattern, a ghost – have such physical power over him, separate from its own substance of wood and oil?
This was just one more riddle to grope with in this strange new world. Maybe there was an answer, once; maybe scholars before the Great Wars have written countless books, developed complex theories, learned from each other to find new spectra of meaning and nuance in such works. Preston envied them so much that his lungs burned.
The lost vocabularies of feeling, at least, were mostly kept alive. After the revolution, grown men and women, freshly off Prozium, had to take compulsory classes to re-learn the lost art of expressing how they felt – this was essential, since as it turned out, inability to recognize feelings for what they were and define them caused many of the liberated citizens to experience them as physiological distress. Naming it helped; and patient instructors from the ex-Resistance were appointed statewide to help alleviating this condition. Preston himself attended the first class, feeling stupid but understanding the importance of setting an example.
But naming feelings was simple: they were so strong, and everybody had them, and the basics were pretty much the same for everyone. The language for the more subtle expression of thought and emotion was not so easily recovered. A hundred years of persecution and purges destroyed almost completely those delicate constructs, rendering many of the relics of the past totally incomprehensible.
He was so keenly aware of it now, this lack of foundation, those unbearable lacunae. Salvage missions seemed, to all but him, like a technical task, befitting neither his skill nor his high position in the new government. But he insisted on taking them at least once a month, more if his duties allowed it; and while the others rejoiced over any half-torn child’s doll or decorated tea set, he would sit, turning in his hands a book of verse whose obscure rhythm confounded him, or staring helplessly at a canvas splashed with seemingly random colors. He could guess at their meaning, but it would be like a child trying to guess at the engine of a car, without knowing its origin or purpose. He simply lacked suitable context.
Could he even tell the good from the bad, true from false? He knew that some forms of art were considered superior to others. But what were the criteria, back then? If he was born five hundred years earlier, would he be able to look at a painting, listen to a composition, and grasp immediately the meaning of its emotional content – and judge it to be satisfactory or lacking? This degree of sensual refinement was a distant dream to him. He may very well never understand the power of those images or the inner harmony that seemed to lie at the heart of it all. And his world seemed duller with each of those lost caches of feeling he had found.
Today was just another salvage mission; an old man recalled suddenly, in the throes of Prozium withdrawal, a warehouse located at the edge of the city, which might have been used for hiding some forbidden material. So far, it had proved to be a decent find. There were some statues there, odd-looking but quite fascinating; Preston spent some time staring at one, which seemed to convey movement and mass in a way quite impossible for a static piece of metal.
They called in Hughes after a while, realizing that the stuff might fall under his area of expertise. After the revolution, Hughes’ status underwent a drastic change. No longer a dabbler in a useless field, he became a sought-after expert. While all emotional material was preserved now as it was destroyed in the past, Preston was adamant that if they ever wished to reach any form of understanding what they recovered, they had to know its history – and its value. An original work of art, he determined, was probably more valuable, more real somehow, than a copy.
The current room, though, was rubbish. Preston frowned at some jars full of what seemed to be long-decayed organic material, and moved to uncover an oddly shaped item standing in one corner. A latrine. That would explain it. He shook his head and turned toward the door; as he did, his hand brushed against a wooden board standing unnoticed in the corner.
It fell to the floor with a loud thud, and Preston’s instincts took over. He spun, hand reaching for his gun, and his eyes widened when he saw what was lying on the floor.
It was her. No doubt about it. The image in his mind burned bright and clear. The half-closed eyes. The folded hands. That smile… it wasn't identical, there were some superficial differences, but she was unmistakable. There were letters etched on the surface of the picture. Preston scanned them, hoping for some hint on how this copy survived, but it was an acronym he couldn't decipher. Perhaps some storage code. Who knows?
There was a noise outside and Hughes shambled into the room, holding his device. He looked at the picture and his mouth opened. “Wow. I didn't think I’ll ever see that one again. Brings back memories, doesn't it, sir?”
“It does.” Preston stroked gently the back of the board and put it against the wall. “You don’t need to check that one, of course. The fate of the original is known.”
“Of course.” Hughes grinned uncomfortably. “But… well, do you mind I do it anyway, sir? It would be, how do you call it. Closure.”
Preston nodded. He didn't understand, but one thing he had to accept over this year is that a man’s feelings were his own matter. He turned his back as Hughes prepared the device, not wishing to see a bad memory come to life again. He waited for the flat tone indicating that the machine had found a copy.
So when the high-pitched blip announcing an original sounded, his eyes widened and he quickly turned back.
Hughes was staring alternately at the monitor and at the picture, his face perplexed. “I… I don’t understand.”
“Maybe there was some error. Check again.”
Hughes complied. Preston waited with bated breath. The blip sounded again.
“No mistake.” Hughes sat back on his haunches, astonished. “I don’t know how it’s possible, but it’s an original.”
“There have been two originals? Doesn't original mean that there is only one?”
“It does, sir, as far as I know. But the result here is very clear.” He shook his head. Preston, to his surprise, saw that the man had tears in his eyes.
He felt his own eyes moistening. Damn empathy. He coughed slightly, trying to shoo the sudden sentiment away. The woman in the picture smiled at him, and he bit his lip.
“It’s been very hard,” said Hughes suddenly, after a minute of silence. “They took me off Prozium seven months ago, when the shrinks said I’m ready. I – before, I used to fantasize about it – well, more analyze it in my mind, really – “ nervous laugh “ – what it would be like, getting off it. Feel. I guess we all did…”
“I didn't,” said Preston. His throat was dry.
“Ah.” Hughes hesitated for a moment and continued. “But it was nothing like I thought it would be. I guess you can’t really know until you've experienced it yourself, but it was so – horrible. And afterwards, when the worst of it subsided and I could see things properly for the first time, and I couldn't even enjoy it because I suddenly realized what we've been doing all this time. What I've been doing. And the guilt – ”
Preston took a deep breath, and laid his hand on the man’s shoulder. “I know,” he said. “I know.”
Hughes lowered his head. “So I kept working because you have to do something, to give a hand. But all those months, I couldn't help but thinking – what if it wasn't worth it? What if I was better off on Prozium, when I didn't know anything? Maybe It would've been better, maybe I – “ he trailed off.
This line of thought wasn't new to Preston. Everyone who got off Prozium thought this at some point, some more often than others; the government did its best to help, and he had a dozen stock comforts at the back of his throat. But he said nothing.
Hughes spoke again. “I thought that perhaps with everything we lost, it was too much. The pain of it. If it can’t be recovered, maybe it’s better not to know the extent of it, at least. But now, it’s the first time that I – I really feel – really feel – it was worth it.” He gestured towards the picture, his eyes filling with tears again. “Maybe, if this can happen, everything else can be fixed too.”
Preston patted him on the back and watched him weep. He no longer tried to hold back his own tears. So much was lost, true. But perhaps, if burned paintings can return in their original form – maybe there is more to image than he believed. Maybe the lost cathedrals of the mind can be unearthed; maybe, one day, he will at last understand.
He gazed at the portrait, smiling at him serenely. Different, yet the same; separate, but original. The mystery of it shall remain unsolved, for the time being, but it would serve as a symbol, a symbol for all that can be found again. And for now, that was enough.