Zeno’s Literary Paradox

(Allow me to disclaim that I’m not particularly educated or bothered with the differences between turtles, tortoises, terrapins, and the like. I am sure they are all different and not interchangeable. I will nonetheless be interchanging them today. I have at least one friend who will be very upset by this.)

What is it with me and thought experiments? Last week, the Prisoner’s Dilemma. This week, Zeno’s Paradox. Maybe it’ll be my next “regular feature” that burns out after a month or so.

Zeno’s Paradox is one of my favorites, in that it seems to defy all common sense, yet when you look at the premises of the argument, it is inescapably logical.

We imagine a footrace between Achilles and a tortoise.

Since Achilles is a sporting chap, and clearly runs faster than the tortoise, he spots the tortoise a significant head start. This is only fair.

So, after Achilles runs for an indeterminate amount of time, he will have reached the point that the tortoise started from. However, in the same amount of time, the tortoise will have moved forward some smaller amount, so Achilles still has ground to make up. Again he moves forward, arriving rather quickly at the point the tortoise previously occupied, and again he finds that the turtle has crept a bit further ahead.

This process repeats for as long as you care to repeat it. Due to the fact that measurements are a human construct and therefore infinite, we will never reach a point whereat Achilles overcomes the tortoise.

It follows, then, that logically, Achilles can never overtake the tortoise.

In practice, of course, Achilles sprints right past the hapless terrapin.


I absolutely love this. It is simultaneously as self-evident as a stone and as incomprehensible as consciousness itself. Achilles, in the mind, seems paradoxically never to gain ground; in fact, the closer he comes to his goal, the farther he has to go.

I’ve noted previously around here (though I can’t be arsed to track down where at the moment) that Andre Agassi, one of my more favorite athletes (we bald guys have to stick together), has expressed a similar psychological phenomenon. He describes the end of a tennis match as a magnetic force: one that, the closer you get to it, catches you in its field and pulls you in. But like a reversed magnet, the closer you get, the harder it becomes to actually make contact.

You can get closer and closer, but you can never quite catch it.

And that’s kind of like writing, innit?

You begin with this vast tract of land in front of you: the blank page and the faraway goal of a completed story, be it 3000 words or 93000. You start to work. The finish line is way up there, but who cares? You’re making progress day by day, easily measurable progress, and you have the word counts to prove it. And you close and you close and you close and the turtle gets bigger and bigger in your vision, and one day: you finish! The story is written, the narrative arc resolved.

But the turtle has moved. You still have more work to do, in the form of re-reading, re-outlining, editing, proofreading. You’re closer than you were to start the exercise, but it took you a long time to cover all that distance, and the turtle isn’t holding still, either (and why would it, with an ink-stained, caffeine-addled word-herder on its tail?).

So you lower your head and off you go again. This time it’s not such a long road to catch the turtle — you’ve already written 90,000 words after all, what’s the big deal revising or re-ordering 30,000 of them — and before long, you’re there. A story edited, improved, fixed!

LOL I’m still ahead.

But where’s the turtle? Sonofabitch, it’s another thirty turtle-miles up the road. (Which is, I dunno, five hundred feet? What’s the ground speed of a turtle anyway?) You’ve got some beta-reads to do, now, and the receiving of notes, and probably another read of the work yourself, and then a subsequent edit…

And just like Achilles, you keep chasing the turtle, and just like the turtle, your project creeps inexorably forward, staying ahead of you by distances which are too small to be properly measured, let alone explained to anybody who isn’t a writer.

“You’ve been working on it for how long?” your friends ask, with confusion and maybe a bit of pity in their voices. “I thought you finished the draft months ago.”

“Yes,” you explain, straining to keep the desperation from bleeding in, “but then I found a major problem with the protagonist’s backstory on page thirty, so I had to go back and fix it, and when I fixed that, I realized I had taken away the whole motivation for the antagonist to –”

And by this point, your friends are simply nodding and smiling and backing away, the way they might with a foamy-mouthed dog. (Little do they know you’ve been subsisting on nothing but Cool Whip for the past two days because you’re eyeballs-deep in edits and can’t bring yourself to leave the house.)

And despite all the progress you’ve made, that farkarkte turtle (and yeah, I had to look up how to spell “farkarkte,” and I don’t care what you think — it’s in my personal lexicon for some reason and it bubbled to the surface like a dead fish and I love it) is still bobbing along the road ahead of you, evading reach even though it looks like it’s right there.

The fact is, if you think of a novel as the sum of its requisite parts — the draft, the editing, the revising, the crying, the drinking, the smashing of computers with hammers, the dark nights of doubt, the … well, you get the idea — then the whole equation begins to look very much like the mathematical side of Zeno’s Paradox. No matter how close you might ultimately get, you will never actually get there.

Which is why it’s a good thing we writers don’t live in a mathematical world. (Most of us, anyway. Actually, who am I kidding, MATH IS EVERYWHERE.)

We live in the delightfully creative, whimsical world where expectations exist only to be reversed, where up can be down if we bloody well feel like it. We live in the world where, paradox or not, Achilles keeps on pounding away and leaves the tortoise in the dust.

We keep on writing and we (eventually, one day, maybe, please?) cross the finish line.


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