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The Story of Evolution, Spring 2005
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Analyzing Dichotomy in the World of Orlando (as it appears in the World of my Mind): A Story

Kate Shiner


Once upon a time, I wrote a story. One of my selves "(of which there may be more than two thousand)" (Woolf, 314)(1) stops me here, and argues at my use of the past tense in the last sentence. In actuality, at the present moment, the story has not been written.

Aside, in which I give the thesis

(At least from my perspective it has not, but my perspective has proven itself to be somewhat limited. Of course, despite what Ernst Mayr (2) has suggested, one cannot prove anything in science. But I would like to try to prove something, namely that I cannot not prove anything, so here I give leave of the scientific method as much as is possible. Admittedly, I have no idea how much it will be possible. But the fact remains that my previous attempts to deconstruct dichotomy seem to have rooted themselves too strongly in category, logic, and dichotomy itself to hit the mark. Enter metonymy, association, and other seemingly illogical tools by which I hope to prove myself and other human storytellers to be limited. By limited I refer to their ability to illuminate their own understanding of themselves and of their world (which is a part of them).

I will also try to prove that despite these limitations, the pursuit is worthwhile and gratifying in its individual successes- those times when communication is complete and real. For, "...though human beings have such imperfect means of communication;...they will endure ridicule and misunderstanding rather than keep any experience to themselves." (Woolf, 144)(1))

Introduction: Continued

But give me a moment to defend myself to myself and to the reader. Like all stories before they are written, the threads of association that are to make it up (some, such as Daniel Demmett, might call these threads "memes," (3) ) are already lying restlessly in the basement of the writer's mind, the subconscious. They were collected "higgledy-piggledy"(Woolf, 208)(1) from the environment. Some may say they wormed their way in and infected the mind, and others may say they were stolen shamelessly from other writers, but we will try for the moment to set any value judgments aside.

In either case they have been there, and the story, although not technically written, exists as a shadow in the mind, not yet fully distinguishable and still "cumbered with other matter."(Woolf, 101)(1) The threads wait to be woven into language by the loom of category, also known as the neocortex, depending on which metaphor one prefers.

After all, is every thought not in some way metaphor? Is not every category in some way too selective, leaving out some threads, some of the essence of truth, of life? The goose is elusive, one might say. Virginia Woolf might say it. But here I am telling the story before it has begun.

The Story

Once upon a time, someone was walking down a path. In this case, the time was finals week of May 2005 at Bryn Mawr College, and the path was the life of a student named Kate. Suddenly she came to a gate in the road of her Life, which read "Paper 4", and had some instructions. She had seen similar signs before, and knew that in order to open the gate and continue on the current road she would have to produce a Paper 4. She was committed to exploring the current road, and so picked up her skirts and agreeably sat down to write an acceptable essay.

Soon she became frustrated with her efforts. There were many relevant and interesting themes to be explored, she was sure of that. Concepts of dualism, category, language, life, and evolution floated around in her mind, and she knew that somehow they were all connected. She simply needed the right words to pin them down, but they were resistant to her pins. Just when she would get one, the others would wriggle away.

The thoughts did create pictures in her mind, and for a moment she wondered if perhaps a picture would be acceptable. She stared off into the distance, exploring the images in her mind's eye, while her real eyes glazed over in a fog. Out of the fog appeared the shadowy figure of a woman, and although she wasn't sure whether this person was flesh and blood or a figment of her imagination, she seized the opportunity to get a second opinion. "Do you think a picture would be acceptable?" she asked the figure.

The figure stood silent. The longer Kate waited for a response the more she felt the oppressive weight of her task bearing down on her. Soon she surmised that the question had been so ignorant as to offend the figure past all response, and she collapsed in agony and shame, resigning to failure. 'Here I will lie,'(Woolf, 248)(1) she thought. You see, she was too tired even to construct her own phrase, although she could not have told you whose words she was plagiarizing. But the figure could have. For that figure was real, and none other than Virginia Woolf, author of Orlando, a novel that was stirring in Kate's subconscious, and ready to shape her dreams. A single goose flew low overhead, and the flapping of its wings was the last sound she heard before she drifted to sleep.

The Dream

She awoke and found the gate had swung open, presumably on its own. Turning around, she made sure no one was looking and then guiltily dashed through.

On the other side, the road was seemed very different. At first Kate couldn't make out what exactly the difference was, but as she continued walking down the road she found that the colors were fading and the sun growing brighter, until everything was a shade of grey and the heat too much to stand. Disturbed, she ran back towards the gate, but no matter how far back she went it was nowhere to be found, and the sun did not dim in its harshness.

Kate turned around again, determined to move forward and find her way out of this place. The road soon led her to the outline of a great grey fortress. She approached the door, picked up the giant knocker, which read "The Great Kindom of Dichotomy", knocked, and yelled, "Hello? Is anyone there?" A slat near the top of the door abruptly opened and through it she could just make out three faces covered in dark glasses. "What are you? What do you want?" one of them asked. "Who are you?" Kate responded. "I am Chastity, and these are my sisters Purity and Modesty." they said.

"Well, I'm Kate, and I'm sorry to bother you, but I have a problem. Your fortress is in the way of the road of my Life, I have nowhere else to go, and the sun is oppressive. Will you please let me in so I can find out what is on the other side?"

They all looked at each other and whispered among themselves. Eventually Chastity responded, "Of course if you were in our fortress we would know exactly what you are, but the light is so bright outside that we cannot see you. And of course we should like to help you, if you are Right, being as we are the most shining examples of 'our reputed tender sex.'(Woolf, 129)(1) But no one has ever approached this door before, because no one lasts long in the Great Desert. So you can see we have a bit of a dilemma. Do tell us what you are."

"What I am? What do you mean?" Kate replied. "Please," Modesty entreated her, "we are going to soon be blinded if we keep this latch open, and we do not have time for puzzles. Are you Right or Left?" "Well...I'm right?" Kate ventured, inferring that this was some sort of password the sisters wanted to hear. "Good! Of course we knew that all along! But one cannot be too careful these days!" said Chastity, and opened the door with a curtsy.

In the dimmer light of the fortress, which had no windows, Kate could now see the sisters fully, although everything was still in shades of grey. They wore the most intricate and uncomfortable looking dresses she had ever seen, and exuded an overpowering floral odor. But the most striking aspect of their appearance was that each one had the same stark white, powdery complexion. It was the brightest thing in the room. In fact, when they moved to curtsy Kate could have sworn a puff of powder actually rose in the air. "Welcome sir!" said Purity, "Is there anything we can get for you?"

Kate ignored the gender faux pas, attributing it to the dim lighting and dark glasses, especially since her only desire was to get out of this odd realm as quickly as possible. "Can you tell me what is on the other side of this castle?" she asked. Purity looked at her quizzically. "I am afraid there is nothing but Chaos. But of course we do not concern ourselves with that. You will find that everything you need is secure right here, my lord, between these time-honored walls."

Now things were getting ridiculous. "I appreciate that, but what I really need is to find the road on the other side of this castle so I can get on with my Life. Please, could you show me to the back door?" They all gasped, did their best to look shocked in a very melodramatic way, pulling out giant fans and shaking their heads vehemently. Modesty fainted and Purity ran to revive her with smelling salts. Chastity found her voice after some moments and said, "Oh, we cannot do that, sir. The King has absolutely forbid it! And there is no road on the other side, nothing but the terrible ocean of Chaos, which strips all men naked of their Illusions, a fate worse than death!!!"

"Well, I guess I'll have to risk it." Kate replied, tiring of these flighty women. "May I speak to the King?" Just as Modesty was beginning to stand up, she collapsed again. "Oh no!" exclaimed Chastity, "No one can speak to or even see the king! That is the first rule of Dichotomy! We wait for him to slip orders from under his door, and then we Obey!! This is how it has always been, and this is what protects us from Chaos!!!"

At this point Purity interjected before Kate could try to reason with Modesty. "We must get out of this foyer! We let in the light and I can feel it singeing my skin!" "Ahh!" cried the other two, and they all reached out and felt for door to the next room, seemingly blind.

Kate followed them through to a central room with three doorways and no discernible ceiling. Directly in front of her was a bedroom with three beds, assumedly those of the three sisters. A golden plaque above the door read, "Those who prohibit; those who deny; those who reverence without knowing why..." (Woolf, 137)(1) "Odd", Kate thought, "and scary." On the right was an enormous marble staircase winding upward. She could just barely make out a man in a silk bathrobe on one of the balconies above. On the left was a small, decrepit wooden staircase leading downward, which certainly didn't seem to blend in with the opulent air of the castle.

Suddenly Kate's thoughts were interrupted by the sisters' shrieking, "Ahhh! Look at your skirts, you are LEFT!!" They had removed their glasses and were staring at her in horror, their eyes growing wide and crazy. "Deceiver! Faithless! Mutable! Fickle!" they screamed; their voices now deep and full of hatred, "Devil! Adultress! Nigger! Pagan! (Woolf 64,77,13)(1) Modesty ran into her room and hid under the bed. "You are the lowest of the low! The basest of your kind! Get in the dungeon where you belong, to the bottom, the very bottom!!"growled Purity. And with that she and her Chastity grabbed Kate and with an unexpected strength flung her down the wooden stairs.

She did not stop tumbling for some time. There was no way to tell precisely how long since she blacked out on and off during the fall. All Kate knew was that she landed wounded and bloody in a huge pile of dirt, unable to move. Eventually a woman in a grey dress came by and found her. "I see we have a new one, hasn't yet learned the "iron countenance of the law." (Woolf, 167)(1) Well, you will soon enough, that's for sure. You're lucky the workday is over; you can sleep for a while. I'm your supervisor, and if you act like a lady we might get along. Get to the bunk, before someone other poor slob lands on you. Go!"

The woman pointed to a dim light down the hall, and assuming this was the bunk, Kate hobbled over to it. Upon entering she saw rows and rows of filthy beds, if they could be called beds, filled with straw. At the corner of the room was a cracked iron pot with some thin gruel, surrounded by frail, dark girls. "Here you are, welcome to the palace!" cackled the supervisor, laughing at her own joke. "More like welcome to Hell," Kate overhead one of the girls mutter.

In the next days Kate quickly came to agree with that girl. The more she learned about the Kingdom of Dichotomy, the more damned she felt. Every day she rose at the crack of dawn (which was just an expression here, since there were no windows) to work in the mines. And not only was the labor grueling, but the food was barely enough to ward off starvation. During the day the girls were not allowed to speak, and only at night were they ever unsupervised. This time of day was all that kept Kate going while she plotted her way out, because she could speak to the other girls.

Her closest friend Sasha explained to her how the society of the Kingdom was organized. Almost all the Lefts, she said, lived somewhere in the dungeon. Kate was currently on the lowest level, which was where all the worst and darkest girls were. The upper levels were where the more cultured and restrained Lefts lived, and they were somewhat more comfortable and well-fed. The most privileged and educated Lefts were allowed to work as servants to the Rights in the upper rooms. (The three sisters were actually born Lefts themselves, but were in a class of their own since they had completely left their former ways behind.) All of the Rights lived in the uppermost rooms, and Sasha did not know anything about them except for what she had been told. They were all said to be powerful and wealthy white men, who spent their time fighting wars to defend the society against other Dichotomies. The King lived on the uppermost floor and made all of the most important decisions.

When Kate protested that she was not dark and that neither was Sasha or many of the other girls in the bunk, Sasha said "Of course we are, look at us." "Well we're covered in dirt right now, but underneath my skin is light, and so is yours." Kate said. Sasha informed her that this did not matter, because everyone knew that the Lefts on the bottom were the darkest, most deceitful, witchy, rebellious, and lazy girls in the Kingdom. Left was synonymous with all of those names, and the girls on the bottom were undoubtedly the most Left.

One night Kate finally felt broken to the point that she could not go on. The supervisor had been beating and insulting her all day, and she was sure she would never find a way out of the dungeon, let alone find her Life again. Sasha sensed it and pulled her aside. "Listen," she whispered, "I'll tell you a secret. Once you accept all of those names you'll be fine down here, because they don't mean anything among us, and we have our own names for each other. It's the Lefts on the top who live in the most shame, and even though they don't work like us they are made to hate themselves and each other. It's lonely, and I told lies and broke dishes just to escape."

"Is there really no other way to escape?" Kate asked her. "Well, none that you would want to take..." Sasha replied, "I mean, even if we found some way out of this dungeon the sisters would only put us back here when they found us. All that is outside is the Blinding Desert, which will kill you in a number of hours, or the Ocean of Chaos, which is even worse." "How do you know it is worse?" Kate insisted. "Have you ever been there?"
"It drives everyone mad!" Sasha told her. "I know, because whenever there is a worker the supervisor really hates, she opens the little door at the end of the mine and makes us watch her throw the girl out. You can see all of the crazy people out there, naked and howling. It's truly horrible, I don't want to think about it."

"There is a door at the end of the mine? Sasha, I cannot believe you knew all this time and didn't tell me! Show me where it is!" "No, I wish I hadn't told you!" she cried, "You have to believe me, nothing good can be found outside that door!" But Kate had already begun running toward the mine. "My life is out there, I know it. It certainly isn't in here, so I'm going to find it!"

Once Kate found the little door she couldn't believe she hadn't noticed it before. She had envisioned her escape as so much more difficult than this! After a moment of hesitation she stepped quickly forward and threw it open.

When she stepped out she was on a beautiful beach, in full color. Down the shore she saw the colony of naked people she had been expecting. There were men as well as women, in all different shades, which Kate had not been expecting. They ran all about, some flapping their arms like wings. Once she deemed them harmless and worked up the courage to move nearer she heard many of them squawking, in seeming imitation of the seagulls flying overhead. Other than that they were totally unresponsive and unintelligible. "Glawr! Glawr! (Woolf, 90) (1) and their own names (things like "Nick Greene!" "Virginia Woolf!" and "William Shakespeare!") were all they said for many days. Kate actually began miss her life in the mine, wishing she had listened to Sasha. She would stare at the moon at night, because it was like "a sheet of silver calm" (Woolf, 164)(1) in the tumultuous company of her new self-absorbed companions.

One day, one of the squawkers said something instead of "Glawr!", which was, "What a phantasmagoria the mind is and what a meeting-place of dissemblables." (Woolf, 176) (1) "Who said that?" Kate replied, because the voice seemed to come from an empty space. "Ah, finally the madness is coming to me! Maybe it will be less lonely!" she thought.

But the very next day Kate could have sworn Virginia Woolf disappeared, said "Society is the most powerful concoction in the world and society has no existence whatsoever." (Woolf, 194)(1), and then reappeared immediately after her proclamation. So it continued. Very rarely one of the squawkers would disappear for a second, and in their place a voice would proclaim something profound and perplexing before they returned.

Eventually Kate was so disturbed and intrigued, and to be honest, lonely, that she decided to try the squawking herself. She stripped naked, flapped her arms, and yelled "Glawr! Glawr! Kate Shiner!" all day long for 13 days. On the last day, it finally happened.

She opened her eyes and found herself in a room with someone. "Who are you and what is this place?" Kate asked. He (or she, for Kate never knew) answered her with a verse, which began "The burdensome practice of judging/brings annoyance and weariness/What benefit can be derived/from distinctions and separations?" (Seng-ts'an) (4) and then Kate found herself back on the beach.

Kate's conversations with the Sage were sometimes broken apart by only hours, sometimes days, and there were times when even years would go by before she was again in his/her presence. Over this time she learned much. The Sage preached a faith of nonduality which was the exact opposite of the credos in the Kingdom of Dichotomy. In this view everything and everyone was equal, and to categorize them in any way separated them from the true unity of All. Every name, every word was a category of some kind and thus an illusion. Kate found that she came to agree with the Sage's teachings, and she appreciated his/her wisdom.

However, she still felt unfulfilled, and despite the Sage's insistence that there had never been and never would be a separate Life of her own, she could not help believing or at least wishing that one existed. But she strived to have faith, because the Sage said that once her understanding was complete true enlightenment would bring her fulfillment and unity.

One momentous day while she was with the sage, concentrating on hiding her yawns, she thought to look up to the ceiling of his room, which she had never done before. There she saw, of all things, an enormous goose. It looked down at her, and while the sage looked away, Kate impulsively grabbed one of the goose's feet and scrambled up onto its body. The sage cried out to her, "Do not remain in the dualistic state;/avoid such pursuits carefully./If there is even a trace/of this and that, of right and wrong/the Mind-essence will be lost in confusion!" (Seng-ts'an)(4)

"I know!" Kate confessed, "It is all an illusion! But 'I am losing my illusions, perhaps to acquire new ones'(Woolf, 175)!" With this she flew off on the swan into 'a naked sky' with 'fresh stars twinkling in it.' (Woolf,176) (1)

When the swan set her down, she was on a great bridge, and someone was approaching her. Within two seconds she realized it was none other than Love. He said everything and nothing to her at once, and it sounded something like, "Rattigan Glumphoboo." (Woolf, 282)(1) Kate understood and replied, "Yes, 'We must shape our words till they are the thinnest integument for our thoughts' (Woolf,173), because after all, it is the best we can do." Love laughed heartily at this joke, and Kate joined him. They lived happily ever after.


1) Woolf, Virginia. Orlando. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Company, 1928.

2) Mayr, Ernst. What Evolution Is. New York: Basic Books, 2001.

3) Dennett, Daniel. Darwin's Dangerous Idea. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995.

4)Seng-ts'an, Chien-chih. Hsin Hsin Ming, Verses on the Faith Mind. 606 AD. Mountain Man Graphics Website, 1997.

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