Joe K.’s Being or Nothingness Revisited: A New (and Bizarre) Interpretation?

In his book The Psychopath Test, author Jon Ronson describes a strange event that occurred in 2008. A select group of academics from around the world began to receive a mysterious book titled Being or Nothingness (hereby abbreviated “BON”) written by a “Joe K.” The book contained 42 pages, half of which were blank, and references from the fields of cognitive science, AI, religion, and literature. Much of the story has a self-referential creation theme, with a description of events occurring in the seven days after the completion of BON. This, along with the many quotes and anecdotes from Joe K. himself, adds an almost humorous megalomaniacal tone. Self-referential or recursive statements are found elsewhere, such as Douglas Hofstadter’s quotation, “I am an endless loop;” the image of MC Escher’s drawing hands, with one sketching the other; and statements such as the one appearing on page 18: “The sixth day after I stopped writing the book I sat at B’s place and wrote the book.” The book in its entirety can be seen here:
Ronson, after describing BON, went on a quest to determine the identity of the author, who later wrote him a note with similarly bizarre content.

The mystery of BON’s meaning intrigued me, perhaps because my background as a student of cognitive science intersected with some of the content of the book. After finishing The Psychopath Test, I experienced the rush of an “a-ha” moment in which the significance of the structure of BON became clear. However, the next instant my interpretation fell apart. But then, after some online research, came together again in an even weirder way to explain its meaning.

But first, some background. Ronson’s purpose in including this incident in his book was not to imply that Joe K. was necessarily a psychopath, but to show how great of an impact he had on others, as academics came together to try to solve the mystery. Ronson himself traveled thousands of miles to discover the real Joe K., who turned out to be a Swedish psychologist named Petter Nordlund (not his real name, but close). After meeting him in person, Ronson concluded that the guy was quite nutty, and that perhaps there wasn’t much meaning to BON after all. Ronson has spent a chunk of his life documenting nut jobs, so his judgement seemed like it should be on-target. However, the significance of the 42 pages of BON continued to dangle before me like a carrot to the donkey. Perhaps Nordlund was nutty, but Being or Nothingness still had a meaning…just a nutty one.

So here is my interpretation. I immediately thought that the 42 pages of the book were supposed to represent our 42 chromosomes. This meshes perfectly with all the loops and recursion in BON. Chromosomes are made of DNA, and DNA is a double strand that unwinds to reproduce itself indefinitely. Our biochemical “endless loop.” Plus, Nordlund includes the following statement that seems to point to the reproductive element of existence (though by extension you can also substitute “holy” for “sexuality”):
Sexuality is the projection of Being into space-time.
Sexuality is holy.
Family is holy.
Disconnect sexuality from Being, and Nothingness emerges!
Joe K

Then I remembered, embarrassingly, that humans don’t have 42 chromosomes. We have 46 (44 autosomes plus 2 sex chromosomes). My interpretation was off, but I still thought that this idea had merit. A Google search of 42 chromosomes yielded an interesting result [and I will add a disclaimer here that I do not adhere to the following belief system, only that it is consistent with BON]. A new-age cult-like figure named Drunvalo Melchizedek believes that there are three types of humans on Earth that perceive reality differently (as reflected in their different composition of chromosomes). The “aboriginals” still represented by some African tribes existing today have 42 + 2 chromosomes (which, of course is not true…) and believe that one energy, or state of being, connects everything living. Humans from the industrial world, with their 44 + 2 configuration, represent a disharmonic state on the ultimate path of achieving the most evolved state, 46 + 2 (which, coincidentally, is also the configuration of chimps…but I digress). Melchizedek believes that some sort of electromagnetic grid covering Earth connects the consciousness of a particular species. He postulated that in 1989, there would be the formation of a Christ consciousness grid that would allow us to evolve to 46 + 2 chromosomes and achieve a higher unity or purpose as a species.

What evidence is there from Nordlund to support this interpretation? First of all, in his note to Ronson, he states that “21 years have passed since the event-now it is up to us.” I’m not sure of the year that Nordlund wrote the note, but Ronson’s book was published in 2011, so it is possible that the note was written in 2010, which represents 21 years after Melchizedek’s “Christ Consciousness” year of 1989. Also, in BON, there is an excerpt from The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy from when the computer has determined the meaning of life, and it is the number 42, the so-called chromosomal “starting point” of humanity. Finally, on page 19, Nordlund writes that B. was not perceiving reality correctly until he picked up BON, and reality perception relates to Melchizedek’s ideas on the three types of humans.

The question still remains as to whether Nordlund meant to convey his belief system literally or metaphorically. Did he intend BON as a Christian viral marketing program? A hoax? A product of mental illness? Or a legitimate call to academics to work towards a higher unity of purpose to serve mankind? Nordlund’s use of the pseudonym Joe K is instructive here, if he is referring to Joseph Knecht of The Glass Bead Game (who is also quoted in BON). Joseph Knecht, who achieves one of the highest positions in Castalia, an ivory-tower-like entity, eventually begins to question his loyalty to the institution. He sees Castalia as a haven for the intellectually gifted who choose to withdraw from the larger problems plaguing society outside its boundaries. Knecht eventually leaves Castalia against the wishes of the heads of the order to serve the community. Perhaps that’s what Nordlund was asking his recipients to do as well, which wouldn’t be such a nutty wish after all.

But after thinking about BON for awhile (a bit too long, actually), I’ve “looped” back to the conclusion shared by most recipients that Nordlund was angling for converts. The book is basically a story of B. who regains his childhood faith and presumably escapes a fate much worse (hell or a meaningless existence, etc). Statements such as these support this idea:

“He who denies the Trinity will lose his soul
and he who tries to understand the Trinity fully will lose his mind”

“Only but not turning it into an idea,
‘to create a living and free world,’
will a living and free world be born.”

Nordlund is arguing against a cerebral, rationalist approach to problems and an embrace of faith instead.

Hmmm, after spending so much time thinking about BON, I’m looking forward to reading a simple Grisham novel or something….

Here are some links to other forums discussing the book: