We don’t know. That’s what makes it the what.
It’s like asking, what’s in the box. It’s a half dead cat of course, until you open it up, at least. And you can’t open up a myth.
Let’s start at the beginning. It’s the title of a book. And it’s based on a quite unsettling creation myth.
God is talking to the first man of the Dinka tribe of Southern Sudan. He is offered a choice, a herd of cattle (which will feed and clothe the tribe for eternity, if looked after properly), or the what. The what is unknown. The Dinka, sensibly, picks the cattle. Cattle are sacred within the tribe, on account of their status as gift from god.
It’s generally held that the Dinka tribesman made the right choice, right up until war breaks out. A central notion in the book (how true to reality the book, by Dave Eggers, is, is hard to know. Mr Eggers made his name with a fictionalised autobiography of himself, ‘what is the what’ is a fictionalised autobiography of someone else) is that maybe the arabs of northern Sudan, who wage violent war and slaughter upon the Dinka, decided to take the what.
It’s a dark and haunting poetry. And the reality of the violence, and the notion of what the other might have, (and what might have been if other paths were taken) is familiar and lonely.
And that has made all the difference.
I think there’s a depth of perception in the naming there. The poem is called ‘the road not taken’. The story is about choosing a path, but it’s that unknown, untaken option that stays with you. Haunting.
We all make decisions all through our life, and every decision is made between unknowns. The future is full of closed boxes.
We never find out what the what is. We can’t. We travel only one path at a time, and there is no turning back.
And as brutal as it may seem, the key is to deal with the decisions you’ve made. Make the most of your cattle. Walk the path. Keep moving forward and do what you can.
The what will always be behind us, and you can’t go back for a second chance.
The what is what you left behind. If you chose the box, then you wouldn’t have any cattle you’ve got. Make the most of your cattle.
The what is the what. It’s what you didn’t do. Unless you did it. In which case you know what it is and you have a totally different what.
There’s no use regretting the unknown paths. They didn’t happen. Imagination is one of the most wonderful possessions, but sometimes, when it’s building could’ve beens and filling boxes of whats, it’s dangerous.
The same goes for hope, but that’s another story.
The what is the what, we can leave it at that.
Illustration by Lucy.