The Surgery of Psychic Removal

Macedonio Fernández

You see before you a man in a closed room following his ordinary morning routine. He is the blacksmith Cósimo Schmitz who, at a well known conference of surgeons, before a vast audience, had his sense of futurity removed but was prudently left (as is the practice nowadays in the removal of the tonsils after the harmful effects of complete extirpation had been repeatedly observed) with an eight-minute-long piece of future perception. Eight minutes mark the maximum reach of his foresight, of his fear or hope concerning what may happen. Eight minutes before the cyclone is unleashed he understands the significance of the atmospheric conditions which have announced it, for although he possesses external and internal perceptions, he lacks a sense of futurity, that is, a sense of the interrelationship of events; he feels, but he cannot foresee.

Observe him if you will, as he gets up, washes, prepares his mate; then he reads the newspaper, fixes breakfast straightens a curtain, turns a knob, listens to the radio for a moment, reads something in a notebook, makes certain changes in his room, writes something, feeds the bird, seems to fall asleep in the chair; later he makes his bed, it is noon, his morning has ended.

His door is rattled violently, it is opened to the sound of heavy keys, before him appear three jailors or guards who seize him brutally, but he offers no resistance (you must understand that he spent this ordinary morning in a prison cell). He is very surprised, and he follows where they lead him, but as they are about to enter a large room he remembers in detail the chamber with the judges, the priest, the doctor, his relatives, and to one side the enormous electric chair. In this eight minute period of futurity he both remembers and foresees that he had been condemned to death the day before, and that the chair is waiting there to carry out the sentence.

He also remembers that some time earlier, on a certain afternoon, he went to see a famous professor of psychology for the removal from his memory of specific acts and, more important, the thought of the foreseeable consequences of those acts; he had murdered his family and he wanted to forget the inevitable punishment. What would he gain by running away if fear were to constantly torment him? The famous specialist had not been able to grant him complete oblivion, but he had reduced his future to an almost total present. And Cósimo could walk about with no sense of hope, perhaps, but also with no sense of fear.

The future had no existence for Cósimo Schmitz, the blacksmith; it brings him neither joy nor terror. And because he has no future, his past also pales, his memory is practically nonexistent, but how intense, how complete, how eternal is his present undistracted by visions, by presentiments of what is to happen, by the thought that it will all be over in the wink of an eye.

The liveliness, the color, the strength, the delight, the exaltation of every moment is a present from which all forms of memory and foresight have been excluded: it is a dazzling present, its minutes are worth hours. In fact no one, except in the first months of infancy, has the slightest notion of a present without memory or prescience; neither love, nor passion, nor travel, nor miracles can be as intense as the sensual rush of infinitely simultaneous states of being that wash over the man privileged to live in a prototypical present: no memory or presentiment, no inhibitions or responsibilities. This is the compensation, referred to by the famous professor in his lectures, which far out-weighs the disadvantages that result from his surgical procedure. This is how Cósimo came to live in his constant, complete, continual state of enchantment, filled with compassion for the restrained life and the muffled joy which others seemed to feel in their present.

It is a moving experience to observe him as he beautifies every subtle nuance of daylight, of moonlight, as he is overcome by each moment of desire or contemplation. He is the lover, the absolute worshipper of the world. Every instant is so complete that for him nothing changes, everything is eternal, and the most insipid object becomes infinitely suggestive and profound.

He is tense and yet transparent, for he looks at every tree and every shadow with all the force of his soul, unpreoccupied, undistracted. Words themselves retreat in the face of the overwhelming ineffability of what is forever coming together and renewing itself.


And as for me who tell the story, I am touched when I contemplate the sweet trivial morning routine of Cósimo Schmitz, an automaton constantly tasting his pleasure, a cenesthesiac. I am sorry that things turned out as they did; as a psychological psychologist, and not a psychophysiologist, I can easily imagine the possibility of achieving the same result, either dis-memory or dis-foresight, without resorting to an ostentatious, biologically costly surgical procedure which, like all chemical, clinical, dietetic or climatic interference with the pleasures and spontaneous responses we were born with, is a universal but empty illusion. In order not to foresee, it is enough simply to forget, and in order to forget everything, it is enough simply to stop thinking about the past.

And so, dear reader, if you do not like this story, at least now you know how to forget it. Perhaps you did not know about this before, and could never have forgotten it?

As you can see this is a story with a good amount of reader, but it has its share of author as well, since he makes it easy for you to forget his ramblings.

Once his eight-minute-long ability to predict events is over, he perceives the present fact of their strapping him to the chair, but he does not foresee the very next moment, when he will be electrocuted. The psychic rhythm of foresight is variable or cyclical rather than continuous (aside from the fact that with the deliberate excision of futurity one lives more and more in an absolute present while the future moment exists less and less), although it is not really continuous even in a consciousness that has not undergone the procedure of psychic removal so frequently and successfully employed by Doctor Disfuturizer (pseudonym of the well known physician Extirpio Temporalis; here too he hides behind a pseudonym, for his real name is Excisio Aporvenius, which is not definitive either because his real name is Juan Pérez). Be that as it may, despite the otherwise engaging behavior of this surgeon, I object to his taking possession of all the futures he extirpates, thereby guaranteeing that none of his contemporaries will have the pleasure of attending his funeral.

The doctor—and this should prove a very useful piece of information for the reader—hopes to perfect the psychoextirpative technique—an important chapter in the development of the new Consciousness Surgery—and extend it to the removal of the past. Once this is achieved, once everyone who wishes he had never lived through certain events has taken advantage of the surgery, perhaps a good story—and I do hope it is this one, I sincerely hope you choose this one—would prove so entertaining that you could spend the rest of your life forgetting all about it.

The dis-futured and dis-memoried reader would spend every moment of his life reading my story over and over again, and he would be indebted to me for the distinct privilege of being one who survives on a single piece of writing.

I now turn the pen over to the reader so that he can depict for himself what I could not possibly describe: the madness, the fear, the terror, the futile efforts to get free as the guards drag him along, the horror of being, seated on that chair and having his hands strapped down; but on that face, on his face, there suddenly appears an aura of happiness, of peace, because his eight-minute perception of futurity is over; two minutes before his execution under the law, he cannot foresee his own death. (Since terror feeds on what is to come, when the eight-minute cycle of prescience is ended he is smiling, tranquilly sitting on the electric chair, and in that state he is executed. But we have not yet mentioned one important fact, and the internal structure of this narrative urgently requires it: the eight-minute period of foresight was always followed by a pause of some few minutes when the present held full sway; for this reason, our victim in the electric chair died with the most placid of smiles.)

Can the reader accomplish what I am incapable of? Will he be the Poe of this awful terror followed by bliss?

He is dead now, never having experienced the death struggle, the suffering, the frantic effort at evasion—he died as if an ordinary morning of his eternal present were about to begin.


Cósimo Schmitz lies dead, and two weeks later the court issues the following rehabilitative statement:

“A combination of extremely difficult and complex circumstances which blurred the judgment of this Court has led us into a most painful and fatal error. The unfortunate Cósimo Schmitz was a restless spirit, longing to try every conceivable mechanical, chemical, therapeutic and psychological innovation; fifteen years ago, with this in mind, he made the acquaintance of the adventurer and once celebrated scholar Jonathan Demetrius who, despite his cynicism, had in fact made an important discovery in the field of cerebral histology and physiology, and by means of a surgical procedure of his own devising had succeeded in changing the pasts of those patients dissatisfied with their old ones.

“Into his consultation room came unhappy Cósimo Schmitz longing for the latest discoveries; he complained of his empty past and pleaded with Demetrius to give him the past of the most daring and villainous buccaneer, since for forty years he had awakened every day at the same time in the same house, had done the same thing every day, had gone to bed at the same time every night; his sickness was the complete monotony of his past.

“Having undergone the surgery, he left that office with an added awareness, nestled there among his vague memories, of having murdered his whole family, a thought which afforded him much pleasure for several years, but which later began to torment him. At this time it is the duty of the Court to point out that Cósimo Schmitz’s entire family is alive and well, but that all of them fled their home completely terrified by certain indications of insanity in Schmitz; this occurred on a distant Alaskan tundra, and from there information reached this Court concerning a mass murder that never took place.

“Therefore, the Court confesses that if Cósimo Schmitz was totally misled in his surgical adventure, the Court has surpassed him in its investigation and disposition of the terrible but non-existent crime he confessed to.”

Poor Cósimo Schmitz, poor Court of Upper Caledonia.

To remember an experience that one has never felt or seen; to have a past when one has never had a present. [1] Half fearfully, half joyfully, with what care he pulled the trigger on that day! His entire family! Until the age of forty he had one past, now he possessed another, another man’s memory inside the same bodily form. Later, perhaps, he would lose this present as well. With another manipulation of his already docile mind he could easily lapse into the past of a hero or a chemist; he could tell about the time he explored the Sudan, or Samoa.

Demetrius, lover of total happiness, creator of good fortune, provider of fond memories for those who had witnessed only tears—Demetrius, with his gentle science and sweet tenderness, was adept at sounding every soul.

“Which one do you most desire?” And he read to Cósimo the most horrendous episodes from the lives of Drake and Morgan and Récamier’s lover.

“I would like to have been. . .”

“You shall have your wish.”

Poor Cósimo Schmitz. After two such disastrous operations is there no possibility of a third that will revive him? “Ah, no,” cries Medical Science, “our job is infallibility, it is not our duty to make good the errors committed in a court of law.”

Since even the most painstaking research has not yet produced a cure that would guarantee more good than harm to the patient, the moment has come in this story when we must moralize about the inevitable flaws in the best laid plans of men, using as our example the truly astounding techniques of the great scientist Doctor Disfuturizer, which offer the obvious benefit of exempting us from all vague, distant fear, all remote, disconcerting hope, but which have the unfortunate disadvantage of regularly suspending the eight-minute period of foresight; at the moment when his sense of futurity is abrogated, the cured patient must accept the fact that if he walks along the railroad tracks, he will not foresee that within three seconds the speeding train only ten yards away will kill him. [2]

Now that I have done my duty, it is the reader’s turn to do his: he must do what he thinks best.

For more information concerning consciousness surgery you may consult my story Suicide, where I offer a terrible and profound insight into the method of Psychic Removal.

In that most desolate hour he died smiling: his very-much present, his not-at-all future, his doubled past did not take away the joy of having lived from Cósimo who was and was not, who was more and less than all of us.

1  It is rather discourteous of us to take up the pen again after having offered it to the reader. The reader of the one single story, in all his immense distinction, does not exist, but neither does the magical author of the one and only Story you would ever need. Far be it from me to dream—least of all with this story as my proof—that I am privileged to be the author of that unique tale, but indeed I have tried, modestly, to live on a single Story; perhaps I have not succeeded. Now that the reader sees me stripped of all my vanity concerning this most attractive possibility, I confess that at times I thought I perceived in this work of mine something very akin to an incomplete story. Still, its great scientific value made me decide to publish it. In any event do not, dear reader, confuse an unfinished story with the effects of an interrupted one.

2  There are appendectomies that lead to grave crises, and tonsilectomies that result in polio; massive doses are the fashion, and insulin and iodine swell the death statistics; despite all our surgical interference many people still die of embolisms caused by analgesics that deoxidize the blood. Statistics indicate that in England more deaths are due to vaccinations than to small pox; we are also faced with the failure of the Behring serum and, perhaps, the rabies antitoxin.

It seems, dear reader, that we are giving quite a bit of instruction along with our story. But, despite your gratitude, you still reserve the right to think that education may be good but digression is bad, a deplorable little fly in such informative ointment. I, on the other hand, do not see why a digression, even a scientific one in the middle of a story, should be thought of as a defect, especially if one considers the typical long novel with whole chapters devoted to literary history, art criticism, analyses of the Beethoven symphonies, sociological nostrums. It is even more difficult to understand why the enemy of digression engages in animated conversation with close friends while he is eating, or does nothing, day or night, without the accompanying murmur of the radio.

I have presented you with a complete story, a tale of the youth and the death of a man. And what a youth! And what a death! The reader should view all the rest as a kind of radio that fills up the emptiness while he reads. Both the story and the radio are included in the text, and you don’t have to listen to commercials.

Just as in opera—overlong by definition—where the most interminable section is the finale, which is really the opera applauding itself so that the audience’s applause seems to fawn over an already recognized success—although the analogy is weak—what I want is the certainty of success (since I obviously lack the absolute certainty of the opera composer) either in the story or in its digressions. I am not applauding myself, but I am soothing the coughs of boredom.

I have prolonged this digression to hide the fact that I was trying to determine at what point we had left the story. To resume, it is noteworthy that poor Cósimo who had avoided all the absurdity and misfortune I have just described, finally succumbed to electrocution, preventing us from complaining in any way about his therapeutic treatment, but only about his guilt.

SOURCE: Fernández, Macedonio. “The Surgery of Psychic Removal,” translated by Edie Grossman, in Macedonio: Selected Writings in Translation, edited by Jo Anne Engelbert (Fort Worth, TX: Latitudes Press, 1984), pp. 58-66.

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