David Hume and the Pixels of Gratification

hume.jpg Having cashed his giro into small change, David Hume, the greatest philosopher of all Scottish Enlightenments past and present, jingled his way into The Stappit Haggis and headed straight for the bar.

‘A half-an-half.’

All around were the wasted and damned. On giro-less days he considered them his colleagues in true scepticism, but today his clinking pockets silenced the voice of Natural Benevolence. As he reached over for his drink, there was a crunch of brittleness from down below, some user lying underfoot. Hume apologised, pulled himself free and found an empty seat on the pub’s mock-velvet banquette. He sipped, gazing around the scene of human desolation.

‘Right enough,’ he remarked to no one in particular.

Two half-an-halfs later he noticed Happy Hour had started. TV blasted one end of the pub and techno the other. Between them, the place heaved with MSPs and city councillors, ministers and lawyers, smart money, insurance, property and pensions, plus a detached clump of stunted men in bowler hats with violence in their eyes. The dealers and users resented the lost time and the surrendered space, they despised these incomers as clock-watching cheapskates. So did Hume.

‘See yous!’ he called out.

No less a man than Bertrand Russell was forced to admit that Hume’s masterly refutation of rationality has remained unanswered for the last two hundred and fifty years; likewise in The Stappit Haggis, those rushing for cheap drink ignored the great philosopher’s words. On all sides, propositions of logical inference were being put to the test:





Forty minutes into Happy Hour, Hume addressed his heedless critics:’Proves nothing.’

He got to his feet:’Half-an-half,’ and sat down again.

This time, though, he moved to a quieter stretch of the banquette, next to Ellen. Around her, there was the usual bracing coldness in the air and the mock-velvet had stiffened to ice-hardness. Ellen was a beggar who had come so close to freezing to death on the pavement outside the Caledonian Hotel the previous winter that she had never warmed up again. Her mind remained stuck in permafrost, her social skills reduced to a solitary gesture:the stretching out of her hands either to beg, or to offer up all that she was. Some people thought she was a saint, others a complete nuisance. But everyone agreed she was special.

‘Hello, Ellen.’

As always, she was wearing the colours that had settled on her that sub-zero afternoon:a cloak-like garment of slate-grey to near darkness, a scarf of winter-dusk shot through with sleet; her skin ice-blue, going on transparent. Whenever she lifted her glass to her lips, it misted over and the surface of her drink froze. But she was enjoying herself, everyone was enjoying themselves during Happy Hour.

‘Universal Happiness,’ declared Hume, letting the generous sweep of his arm take in the whole bar, the Wee Frees included. He gave them a grin and a thumbs-up, then turned to Ellen.

‘Poor sods, believing they’re Chosen and that God’s domain’s The Stappit Haggis!’

He shook his head, then, on a moment’s impulse, jumped up and scattered fistfuls of ten-pence pieces into the air. A scramble began.

His week’s giro money, gone. He could relax.

With a sigh he showed Ellen the emptiness now cradled in his own hand:

‘I have failed. Failed.’

His series of half-an-halfs had all but cleared away the mists of philosophical scepticism, exposing bedrock.

‘And there’s no bedrock like failure, not around here, anyroad,’ he remarked aloud.

Together they watched the scramble develop, with several MSPs and lawyers in particular showing their skill. Although he was not a religious man, Hume found himself remembering the miracle of Christ feeding the Five Thousand – had there been a scramble then too? He didn’t think so. Or maybe the absence of one was, in itself, the miracle? After all, a few loaves and fishes had fed Scotland for generations. Best to avert his eyes before he saw something he’d regret.

‘OK, Ellen?’

Just then, a genuine miracle took place.

Had it been his abrupt and careless generosity that jolted her from her trance? Because, quite unexpectedly, Ellen suddenly reached across to place her empty hand in his. Her touch felt ice-cold. Or was it burning? She looked into his eyes, then spoke:


Though her hand, that transparency of flesh and destitution, lay weightless on his own, he seemed unable to withdraw.

‘What is it, Ellen?’

From the crash of breaking bar-stools, the splintering of formica tables and the attempts to turn all available art – The Stag at Bay, The Last Chieftain, and a conceptual effort that was mostly redefined space – into weaponry, it was clear that the scramble had really caught on. Dealers and users joined in to protect their home-from-home.

But The Stappit Haggis faded far into the distance as Hume leant closer to catch whatever Ellen might reveal in the moment of her transfiguration. Her hair was almost colourless. Like strands of tangled mist, it fell across her face, partly shielding her. Her skin was paper-thin; the slightest touch might bruise, but hardly draw red blood. Her eyes alone seemed living, glittering now with an unaccustomed and chill light.

‘Ellen? What can I do to

… ?’

Before he could finish, she had laid a finger to his lips to silence him.

Writing about the problems of Identity in his Treatise of Human Nature, Hume had acknowledged that when he looked into himself he could find only ‘a bundle of perceptions’ – not a ‘himself’, as distinct from any particular thought, feeling or sense-experience. Now, it was compassion that was overwhelming him. Like her touch, he felt himself freeze and burn at the same time, and could not let go.

The two of them got to their feet and, together, passed unharmed through the riot of greed and thirst. A few moments later, like ghosts gone astray, they emerged arm-in-arm from the primal swirl of chaos and destruction to step into the real world.

Even at a first glance, it was clear that the Athens of the North had been doing its best to keep pace with the times. ‘Improvements’ greeted them on every side:the Festival City was better, faster, greater choice and instant consumer-satisfaction. The Edinburgh experience was being constantly updated for their comfort and security. Within seconds, this dizzying rush of progress completed what his several half-an-halfs had begun.

‘World’s our touch-screen, Ellen,’ he slurred, ‘Gra’f’cation’s all that’s left. The pixels of gratification.’

But Ellen seemed hardly to be listening. Coming at a low angle along the Royal Mile, the setting sun slanted through her, making her transparency glow from deep within. For several moments a blinding radiance filled the street.

Next thing, Ellen had gone. Vanished completely. David Hume, the sceptics’ sceptic, was bewildered. No Ellen. Nothing. Once again he was alone, stranded in a makeshift world put together from the sweepings of history. He gazed around at the abandoned tenements and boarded-up shop windows, at the drabness relieved, here and there, by torn posters and spatterings of vomit. He watched men and women trudge the length of South Bridge, weighed down with special offers. No one screamed, no one laughed. No one spoke.

Drawing himself to his full height, Hume glared at everyone and everything in sight. He shook his fist:

‘See yous! See yous!’

He kicked the nearest lamp post – ‘Dog Shite! Bus Lanes! Parking Zones! Bin Bags!’ – before moving on to the nearest fast-food outlet and kicking it – ‘Lifestyles! Loyalty Cards! Designer Labels! Free Gifts! Must-Haves! MUZAK! MUZAK! MUZAK!’

Then he halted, his fist rigid and trembling in mid-shake, his foot poised-and-trembling in mid-kick. From behind the diesel-snarls of taxis and double-deckers, from the Cowgate down below, from Princes Street beyond, from the southern slopes of the Grange, from the northern gloom and mausoleum-grandeur of the New Town, there had come to him a glorious vision.

Ellen had gone, but, quite suddenly, he was aware of her presence everywhere around him:a sense of human longing expressed as empty streets and the open sky. The city was dissolving into him, and he into the city.

He stood motionless, letting her humility and grace flow into him.

Was now not the perfect moment to end it all – to give up philosophy and become a paid-up member of society, say. To take his rightful place as citizen and consumer in a well-ordered

… ?

Just then the Tron Kirk clock coughed its steeple-cough, drew breath and struck the first


Awakened to the danger of his situation, Hume instantly took stock:only seven strokes remained between him and the end of


Happy Hour. He needed a lifeplan, and quick.


A menu of career-options conceived, prioritised and processed in


a split-second. A decision-making procedure that would


allow a review of possible strategies for subsequent


implementation. Or else, leg it back to The Stappit Haggis?


With only one left, he knew he’d have to


Too late.

Too late.

Too late.

Which meant he now had all the time in the world.

night_visits.jpg He crossed the street and strolled off down the Royal Mile. He didn’t have to do anything. Not any more, not ever.

Not unless he really wanted to, of course.

Ron Butlin’s novels Night Visits (£7.99 PBK), Vivaldi and the Number 3 (£8.99 PBK) and Sound of my Voice (£6.99 PBK) are published by Serpent’s Tail.

Copyright Ron Butlin 2005.


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