By Nathaniel Nelson
I had a roommate once who peed on my Xbox and my laptop. He was drunk, and I caught him midway (as in, he continued until completion). And yes, I’m using that same laptop to type this article for you presently.
If ever I had a bad roommate experience, that was it — or at least part of it. On the one hand, I honestly felt bad for the guy. I hated him, sure, but he was deathly drunk from fraternity hazing. When I looked into his cold, vacant eyes as he lay there at 4:00 in the morning with his dick out in the living room, I knew that I didn’t want to blame him in his barely conscious state. So I spent the next half hour or so keeping him on his side and cleaning a lot of pee off a lot of places and a lot of my things. Somehow this isn’t the full story, though. Let’s call it Part I. Part II, on the other hand, though arguably more trivial, seemed far more significant to me for its epistemological implications.
Has a dumb guy ever tried to convince you that getting kicked in the balls hurts more than giving birth? You can cite a number of simulations inflicted upon similarly unwise men to shut him up, but we’re still not quite at the point where we can definitively quantify the intensity of someone’s pain. The technical term for this sort of thing is qualia. Qualia are those fundamental aspects of lived experience that are most challenging to define in any sort of objective fashion — the way a grape tastes, the way a sprained ankle feels, or what Greta Gerwig looks like. Rene Descartes got famous writing about this very conundrum.
If you’re wondering what Descartes has to do with shared living in modern New York, here’s how Part II went down: I walked into our shared bedroom where he was lying down and eating some, presumably healthy meal involving chickpeas. It smelled like Gwyneth Paltrow farts, so I asked if I could open the window to air out the room. He’s anti-open-window, so he said no. I mentioned it smelled in the room, to which he took offense. He said he didn’t smell anything. I said I did. He said it didn’t smell. I said it did. For two grown men, this back-and-forth lasted longer than you might imagine.
Somehow this interaction struck me as quite significant, and a revealing example of how much this guy sucked. Being told, in such a pungent room (think: archaeologists dig up ancient hummus from the Paleolithic period from within a rodent carcass), that there is no smell, and that I must be mistaken, or perhaps something is in my nose that I don’t notice, is the sort of commonplace philosophical conundrum that has me reflecting upon the nature of the universe.
Since it is empirically impossible to verbalize and argue for the existence of qualia, the room remained smelly that night, and for many nights thereafter. That kid and his damn healthy foods can suck my eggplant.
Nathaniel Nelson (N8) is a filmmaker and writer.
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