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THE ROTATING BILLBOARD

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By Cristina Plamadeala

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The Montréal Review, January 2018

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CROWD ILLUMINATED. Homage to R.Mason (Oil on canvas) by Pascal Lecocq

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“What is life”? Ana kept asking herself this one morning, while sipping her Darjeeling tea. That winter day her thoughts kept bringing her into a world where questions were only asked but not answered. Three questions, especially, kept repeating themselves over and over, as if placed on an invisible billboard composed of only three slides, each taking turn to baffle and torment the mind which rotated it. What is life? Why am I living? Where am I going? At one point, their ordering changed, unbeknownst to her. Once present in that imperceptible realm of unanswered inquiries, Ana’s tangible reality almost ceased to exist. She was now staring at this revolving panel, intrigued and eager to provide a response, any response. “What is life? Where am I going? Why am I living? What is life? Why am I living? Where am I going? What is…”

Ana did not know.

But who knew? As to know is to have had experienced that which leads to the result of knowing. “We only know what we don’t know,” she told herself. “And I know that I don’t know anything.”


At first, she felt triumphant, almost arrogantly proud of her metaphysical discovery. Was she the only one to have had reached that rather uncomfortable insight which circuitously metamorphosed her into a tabula rasa? But then, having had realized that one’s awareness of one’s lack of any absolute knowledge is reflective of some scant of utter knowledge, she retreated once again into staring at the now infamous panel of questions. Wherever she went, she was carrying it behind her.  Wherever the panel floated, somewhere above her head, she was following it obediently…

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Day after day, Ana’s tactile surroundings were becoming less and less discernible from those of her thoughts, until one night, when she decided to return to the world in which people around her were living. Those were the people who could answer these questions without any reservation. Maybe, she thought, these humans knew the truth? And if they did, she would be able to find it by observing the existence they were experiencing. That is what she did on a Tuesday, three weeks after her first encounter with that obscure billboard.  On that sunny afternoon, she went outside, on a very busy street to look at humans, fellow creatures whom she admired more than she ever venerated herself. She was determined to find answers, and, judging by the apparent confidence of those passing by her, she knew she was among those who knew more than she did. “Confidence is a bi-product of one’s knowledge or lack thereof,” she reminded herself. And she was certain that the latter was not the case for them.

On that day Tuesday, Ana saw men and women in business suits, running incessantly towards a beautiful horizon, filled with translucent, angelic light of a sun that only the most adroit painters are able to draw on a canvass. The ones seemingly closer to the horizon kept running faster than the ones who were further away. Some were running alone. Others—in groups. Most kept looking back, rejoicing at those whom they had passed and saddened by the number of those ahead of them. Ana kept staring at that horizon for a while, in sheer awe, and then retreated once again in her mystical realm, this time knowing what to respond should the billboard reappear with its notorious questions.
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On Wednesday morning, while drinking Darjeeling tea, Ana wrote down her answers in preparation for her next encounter with the rotational panel. She scribbled the following on a paper that once served as a napkin: life is a quest for that which does not belong to the person who seeks it; humans live to search for that which does not belong to them; people are heading nowhere.
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Ana waited for the billboard to reappear; she looked for it three hundred and ninety nine days; it never came. On the four hundredth day, she gave up waiting and went outside wearing a business suit. She began searching for the horizon, that majestic horizon everyone kept running after… This time, at least, if someone was asking her what she was chasing, most were able to understand.

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Cristina Plamadeala is currently doing her doctoral studies in Humanities at Concordia University, Montreal and in Philosophy at EHESS, Paris.

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