Being a First-Hand Account of the Psychological Effects of Instrumental Conditioning
Argument: A rat, having been used as a test subject in a series of instrumental conditioning experiments, one day finds that the pellets cease to be dispensed through the pellet dispenser (unbeknownst to him, a catastrophe has all but wiped out humanity); this being his dramatic monologue, wherein are described, in vivid and affecting language, his attempts to make sense of the universe and his place in it, and to devise a system of theology to explain the irregular timings of the dispensations of the pellets, as well as his intimations of the great Presences, whom he can see only dimly, as it were, as shadows on the walls of his sensorium; detailing also the various stages of his emotional and spiritual development, from hopeful innocence to jaded, existential despair, and finally to the very brink of madness.
When first I pressed the pedal, I had no
Expectation or thought of what might happen,
No idea of what awaited me.
Perhaps if I had known what I now know
I had thought twice before I idly placed
My paw upon that small innocuous shape,
And pressed. But that is in the past. What's done
Is done. It but remains to me to tell,
In words as clear and plain as I can muster,
What from that fateful choice befell. And you,
Dear reader of an after-world, are free
To judge me as you will. I only ask
That you hear my story to its end.
As I have hinted, it was in the mere
Impulse of an idle hour that first
I pressed the pedal. There was a brief pause,
Pregnant with expectation. Then was heard
A click, the sound of something rattling down
A passage, and—Oh, dispensation divine!
The First Pellet appeared. How I felt then
That time that I consumed the First Pellet
I cannot truly say. It was as if
The seed of something divine had fallen to earth
And I—I alone—been chosen to receive it.
Naturally, having been permitted to taste
Such godlike food, I could not be content
With just one taste, but I must try again
And see if, by a repetition of
The action that had first brought this great boon
To alight upon my mere mortality,
Another still could be induced to come.
And so, trembling with mingled hope and fear,
I once more pressed the pedal, and—oh bliss!
No sooner had I pressed the pedal than
Another pellet had appeared. A joy
Almost as great as that of the First Pellet
Descended to me then. Then, for a time,
They came in ready answer to my pressing,
And my pressing became as a prayer, a prayer
Readily answered by those Benevolences
I could not see but knew Them from Their works.
I wondered at these Presences, my heart
Was filled with gratitude and love. Sometimes
I strained my eyes to see beyond the walls
Bounding the world in which I lived and moved,
And there saw moving vague, gigantic shapes.
My soul swelled with longing to gaze upon
The faces of those Ones to whom I owed
My sudden, unexpected joy. I wondered:
Did They have whiskers and a hairless tail
Like mine? Had They designed me in Their image,
As a reflection in a muddy pool?
Or were They some far other kind of being
As far removed from my rodential type
As I was from the pellet that I ate
Or from the dust I trod beneath my feet?
I could not lay my claw precisely upon
The moment when things first began to change.
Indeed, I hardly know how to describe
The change itself. Things, somehow, became less
Predictable—as though They wished to test
My faith, perhaps. A pellet would sometimes come
In answer to my pressing; at other times
There would be long intervals of fasting, pressing,
Hoping for one more pellet to arrive;
Then, at length, it would come. At other times
The pellets came at intervals, regular
Or irregular, sometimes in answer to my pressing,
And yet at other times seeming to bear
No relation to my pressing at all!
Until I began to doubt the efficacy,
The meaning of my pressing, in relation
To those mysterious Awarenesses
Who held the dispensations of the pellets
In Their Wills. Had they ever really taken
Any notice of my pressings at all?
And then, one day, the pellets ceased to come.
For a while I simply carried on as normal,
Pressing the pedal, still expecting any
Moment another pellet would appear.
And then I went into a state of shock,
Of denial, wherein I would believe
That They were merely testing me, that any
Moment would see Them break this strange new silence.
But then, slowly, that silence began to creep
Into my bones—a cold, numb, senseless feeling,
Still not fully comprehending what
Had happened, and still half expecting that
It wasn't real, it hadn't really happened.
But the silence persisted as if in mockery
Of all my hopes and fears and expectations.
Then, before long, my brain began to reel
With questions numberless, unanswerable.
Did They still wish me to press? Or did They intend
That I should cease my pressing and commit
Myself unto Their greater wisdom? Or did
They punish me for something I had done?
Perhaps my pressing angered Them. Perhaps
My persistent pressing had driven Them mad.
Perhaps I was a spoiled, ungrateful rat
Who'd kept demanding what it did not need,
Spurred on by its insatiable lust and greed.
I prayed to Them to send me some sign, prayed
For Their forgiveness if I had angered Them;
If They would only reveal unto my eyes
Their greater scheme, and what my place in it,
So that I might know how to act henceforth,
How to regain Their favour, how secure
Another pellet at some future time,
However long it took, if but one would come.
They did not answer. No more pellets came.
Soon, in the extremity of my need,
I took to fantasizing about the pellets;
And in these fevered reveries they resolved
Into one, Ideal pellet—one original
Form of which all subsequent pellets were
Merely corrupted derivations, echoes.
And in this Pellet were united all
The most desirable and lovely aspects
Of every pellet I had ever eaten:
The perfect, smooth and oval form of this,
The pure and alabaster hue of that,
This one's taste, that one's maddening aroma.
At first the fantasies were innocent
Enough: I merely longed to taste the pellet,
To feel the shape of it upon my tongue,
To slowly sink my teeth into it, savour
The texture, the way it melted in my mouth.
It was all natural enough. But then
The fantasies became more sinister—
Sadistic—I would imagine doing things
To the pellet—hurting it—Oh, such things
As I hesitate to commit to the memory
And pure witness of this page on which I write.
Then from the delirium I would briefly wake,
Sobbing in my contrition over what
I had done to the Pellet but in the throes
Of mad fantasy; sobbing in self-pity,
Pitying myself for what They had done to me:
First giving, then depriving me of that
Which had become at once my raison d'etre
And modus operandi, without which
I knew not how I could continue to live,
Without which I no longer wanted to live.
Sometimes, in my dreams, I would see the Pellet
Signaling to me from some distant island
While I was stranded on a piece of driftwood
Afloat upon a still, unliving sea.
In other dreams the Pellet would appear
Close by, yet cold, aloof, or harsh, accusing.
The hours crept by, and still would bring no sign
Of the longed-for Pellet or of those Beings.
Now I had hours, days in which to think.
I began to have strange thoughts, began to doubt
Everything that before I had thought certain,
Began to doubt the basic goodness of
Those mysterious Ones whom I had once so loved.
Had They been playing with me all along,
For sport, for cruelty, as a baby rat
Toys with some grub or insect it has caught,
Until it loses interest and moves on?
Had They derived some pleasure from my pain,
Amusement from my deprivation? Did
They laugh at my confusion? Did they scoff
Derisively at my inferiority,
My inability to comprehend
Their whims? Or (thought far worse than all of these)
Were they but Forces with no thought or reason,
No judgment, higher purpose, or any sense
Of right or wrong, but mere blind, random movement,
That I, so foolishly naïve, had taken
For evidence of sentience and soul?
As time went on, I even began to doubt
The reality of the very Pellet itself.
Was this idol of my days merely a
Delusive product of my desperation?
Was it that, finding nothing here (between
These partially transparent walls that close
And bound the world of my experience)
To give my life a meaning and direction,
My brain, driven half-mad by isolation,
And by the empty silence all around,
Fabricated a chimerical thing?
Or was the primal Pellet only real,
And all those that came after merely copies,
Corrupted simulacra masquerading
In the cloak of a once-sacred reality?
These thoughts, and many alike, tormented me
Until I was as thoroughly alienated
From what I had been in my innocence,
That time the first pellet had come to me,
As it is possible to be. For now
Nothing was certain, nothing could be trusted.
I doubted every thought I had, until
Those thoughts became mere shadows of themselves,
Of things that once had been substantial. Then
I doubted the very shadows of my thoughts.
Then I doubted the dirt beneath my feet,
Doubted those four walls that bounded my world,
Doubted even my own eyes, flesh, bones, and fur.
I longed only to escape the pain and madness
Of being a solitary soul imprisoned
In a cage of thoughts and of the shadows of thoughts,
A cage of dirt floor and four enclosing walls,
Of flesh and bone and every sensory organ.
In psychic torment, writhing in my skin
That crawled alive with strange, electric motes,
I cried to escape the yoke of everything.
Dear reader, you have followed me thus far
Into the very pit of my despair,
Nor has my claw, scratching out these lines,
Nor memory, nor power of expression
Failed me. Yet now, I find, I falter—here
As I approach this final juncture. How,
Reader, can I say what has since come to pass?
For now, after all these long days of waiting,
Interminable days devoid of hope,
It has happened—what I had thought impossible
Has happened. Another pellet has come.
But now—Oh! all is changed. I cannot look
Upon the pellet as once I looked, in love,
In adoration, in wonder. No! for now
The pellet is to me a useless thing,
Less than the dirt I tread beneath my feet,
Less than the grub that once, a baby rat,
I toyed with and tormented for my amusement.
Nothing is as it was. Nothing is real:
Not I, the pellets, nor those unknowable ones,
Nor these four partially transparent walls,
Nor this firm earth I tread beneath my feet.
And what am I? And what is everything?
A fever-dream of some neurotic demon?
A nightmare in Society's unconscious?
A locked room in the basement of your soul?
And what is this dirt? What are these four walls?
The electric canopy of stars above you?
A thin and flickering veil, stretched across
Unutterable emptiness and silence?