Day 111: Whatever happened to you?

“Whatever happened to you?”

How, in any context, could that not be a grossly insulting question to pose to someone?

Let me tell you the context in which it was posed to me.

Here’s the back story. It was the classic boy meets girl scenario. You know: girl messages boy about Duran Duran online; boy (who didn’t, according to him, graduate high school, and who does not know at this point that I am a literature professor) asks girl, apropos of nothing, “did you read the Table Talk?”; girl swoons.

Pretty standard stuff.

But then, like many fellows I meet online, he wanted to meet either RIGHT NOW or else, whenever he next felt like meeting RIGHT NOW, and I found that …. inconvenient. So we stopped messaging.

That was exactly three months ago. And then today, there’s a little ping, and the message comes up:

Whatever happened to you?

Whatever happened to you?

 We were just reading Graham Harman in my critique class, and he was talking about what Quentin Meillassoux dubs “correlationism”: the Kantian idea that “we cannot think of world without humans nor of humans without world, but only of a primordial correlation between the two.”

So, my theory is that this dude subscribes to a version of correlationism, but in his version, he can’t think about me without iMessage or iMessage without me, but only of a primordial correlation between the two. I have not texted him in 3 months: ergo, something has happened to me. I have perhaps died, tragically. Or perhaps I have ascended onto a different plane.

Or maybe he thinks of me as akin to Schrödinger’s cat: he is magnanimously initiating this interaction in order to save me from the indignity of being simultaneously dead and alive in a quantum superposition.

Whatever happened to you?

It’s the question you ask innocently enough in the third person of a washed-up child star (cf. Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?). In the second person the tone is quite different. The addition of “ever” to “what” has the effect of suggesting the speaker’s befuddlement or incredulity (“what the hell!”), lending the question an accusatory, aghast, or pitying inflection. This is especially intensified because “happened to” has an unambiguously negative connotation, as if it is a synonym for “tragically befell.”

So, for example, say you see someone looking their usual self and then you see them a bit later all dressed up and looking really pretty. You would not say “whatever happened to you?” would you?

On the other hand, say you see someone looking their usual self and then you see them a bit later all covered in mud and looking really disheveled. I think it’s plausible (though it doesn’t sound quite idiomatically natural to my ear) that you would exclaim “whatever happened to you?!”

I haven’t replied to his text and I wish I could think of a really great come back: the only idea I have is “I BID YOU GOOD DAY SIR,” but I’m not sure the dignity, righteous indignation and steeliness with which I would utter that line would come across via text. (See this episode of Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist 20:37 to 21:25 for an excellent demonstration of what my affect would be while uttering this line).

I know that silence is the best and most dignified response and that, as Aziz Ansari’s dating manual has informed me, “The person who receives the last message in a convo WINS!”; but I am extremely poor at being stonily silent, which is why I invariably lose this game.

Suggestions welcome!