Gene Weingarten dabbles in solipsism


(Eric Shansby)
Gene Weingarten
Columnist April 3, 2011

When I was a kid, I was obsessed with the possibility that nothing in the world existed but me. What if all other people and things — even the entire supposed history of civilization — were my inventions, and everything and everyone drifted in and out of my field of vision as they were needed? Could be! Couldn’t disprove it! I even tried whipping my head around suddenly, to try to sneak a glimpse of the void behind me. All I got was a headache.

It was an enthusiastic if juvenile foray into ontology, endlessly fascinating to the 9-year-old me. Later, I was surprised to learn that there is a whole line of philosophy devoted to this idea. It is called solipsism.

Gene Weingarten is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and writes "Below the Beltway," a weekly humor column that is nationally syndicated. View Archive

To be a solipsist, one must reorder the entire concept of reality into a self-contained universe that revolves around you. In short, it’s just like Twitter! And that got me thinking — could Twitter afford me, at long last, an opportunity to put solipsism in practice? What if I created a secret Twitter identity that I’d tell absolutely no one about? I would “follow” no one else, meaning no one would ever be likely to find me. I’d have a voice, but no one would ever hear it. I’d become a human koan, the tree falling in an empty forest, free to say anything I wanted, however obnoxious, irresponsible or indefensible. You have no idea how liberating an idea this is for a journalist.

So I did it. A year and a half ago, I created a Twitter account for someone named A. Solipsist. (Interestingly, the more simple identity “Solipsist” was already taken. It belonged to some guy in Perth, Australia, who follows 301 people and is followed by 68. What a poseur. )

A. Solipsist entered the world on Nov. 9, 2009, and immediately began tweeting.

He wrote: “Punching people in the face is good. I am in favor of it. Punching CHILDREN in the face is best!”

He wrote: “I am better than you and smarter than you because I am a journalist.”

He didn’t just dabble in plagiarism, he reveled in it:

“I am a great writer. I wrote this myself: Truth is beauty, beauty truth, and that is all ye know on earth and all ye need to know.”

Days went by. No response. I was alone! So I upped the ante. Would I publish something that was utterly … suicidal? I would!

“My wife is fat.”

Silence! No opprobrium. I had a pleasant dinner that night with my petite better half!

Months passed. The universe was me, and I was the universe, and We were well pleased.

Then, disaster. A follower! Someone named Al breached my world. How had he found me? No clue. I could not ask him, because the very moment I did, I would be formally acknowledging the existence of someone else. I would cease to be a solipsist.

Still, it was just me and Al, and because I knew nothing about Al, and never heard from Al, I persuaded myself he wasn’t real. With solipsism — as with any worldview, including yours — denial is an important tool.

Then the real world found me, in the person of someone named Paul Chehade. I could not deny Paul. He is From The Real World. He is some guy who has declared his candidacy for president of the United States. He wanted the solipsist’s vote.

If you are thinking about following A. Solipsist on Twitter, don’t bother. He died yesterday when I deactivated his account. And a small part of me — the part that was still 9 years old — died with him.

E-mail Gene at weingarten@washpost.com.

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