December 13, 2015

Could you have someone else’s memories?

When you have a memory (for instance, you remember walking down the street from your house to the office this morning) — it seems perfectly obvious that this must be your memory. If you remember it, then the remembered episode must also be one of your past experiences. Otherwise it would not be a memory, but a fantasy. (Or some other kind of imaginative project.)

Yet some philosophers[1] have speculated about the idea of q-memories (or quasi-memories). A q-memory is like a memory; but if you have a q-memory, you don’t remember an episode from your own life, you remember one from another person’s life.[2] (Perhaps we could profitably apply the notion in an interpretation of Poe’s “Tale of the Ragged Mountains”?)

1) Richard Wollheim[3] has criticized the notion of q-memory as, first, “incompatible with the way […] in which persons, even as they live in the present, can be brought under the influence of the past” (TL 111-112); and secondly, as unintelligible (TL 112-117). The latter argument is more detailed, but the former is more interesting. Wollheim doesn’t pursue it in The Thread of Life, because in that book, he has used centered event-memory, the particular type of memory in question, to characterize what it means to live a human life. And assuming that characterization to fit, the argument would run into a circularity. But precisely why would that be?

2) The argument takes the form of modus tollens:
a) If q-memory were possible, then people could not lead their lives in the way they do.
b) People lead their lives in a way so that they can be brought under the influence of the past.

Premise b) expands the consequent of premise a) here, therefore
c) If q-memory were possible, then people could not be brought under the influence of the past.
The somewhat obscure phrase “brought under the influence of the past” means broadly this: when a person leads a life, he experiences it in the present — and thereby forms dispositions which then persist. Such dispositions can be beliefs, memories, dispositions to fantasize in a particular way, and so on. These dispositions exert some force over the person: memories come unbidden (sometimes); beliefs shape the way we perceive reality and act in the world; fantasies can inspire us or drain our energy away. We lead our lives, as Wollheim puts it, always “at a crossroads: at the point where a past that has affected him and a future that lies open meet in the present” (TL 31). And “that the past influences the person largely through mental states is responsible for much of how we live” (TL 32). This is the general claim of the book, and it is crystallized in premises a) to c) above.

Now since
d) We in fact lead our lives in the way we do.
e) Therefore, q-memory is not possible.
And e) follows from c) and d) by modus tollens.

3) So far, so good. The argument is valid, but its cogency would depend on the rather large claims about how we lead our lives. And evaluating those claims would mean to engage with the whole argument of The Thread of Life. But I’m not concerned with whether the argument is cogent; I’m concerned with the question why Wollheim thinks that it is circular.

To answer that question, it will be helpful to understand why Wollheim is interested in the idea of q-memory in the first place. The reason for that is that
“centered event-memory is best studied for the contribution it makes to the way in which persons lead their lives […] Specifically, it must be sufficient for the identity of a person’s life.” (TL 110)
In Wollheim’s picture, we can use centered event-memory as sufficient identity criterion for the life of a person (the totality of all events, actions, perceptions etc. in which that person is ever involved). If you have a centered event-memory of an episode (such as walking down the street from your house to the office this morning), this is sufficient for concluding that both the episode and your remembering pick out the same overall life.

Thus, the overall argument reads like this:
i) If q-memories were possible, centered event memory would not be a sufficient identity criterion for lives. 
ii) If q-memories were possible, then people could not be brought under the influence of the past. 
iii) People can in fact be brought under the influence of the past. 
iv) Q-memories are not possible. 
v) Therefore, centered event-memory is a sufficient identity criterion for lives.
Here, premises ii) to iv) are the equivalent of a) to e) above, and iv) follows from ii) and iii). As it stands, the argument is not valid, but it now fully reflects the line of thought which Wollheim presents. Supposing it could be made valid (which I think possible), it is now also quite clear where the circularity lies. For in order to state premise ii), one must assume something very close to v).

[1] Sydney Shoemaker (“Persons and Their Pasts”, in: American Philosophical Quarterly 7 (1970), 269-285), and following him, Derek Parfit, (“Personal Identity”, in: The Philosophical Review LXXX (1971), 3-27).

[2] Strictly speaking, the notion of q-memory is construed so that it contains memory as a special case, so when you’re having a q-memory, you are remembering something either from your own or from another person’s life. But the latter is of course the more intriguing possibility.

[3] Richard Wollheim, The Thread of Life. The William James Lectures 1982. New Haven: Yale UP 1984. Quoted directly with TL and page number.

April 14, 2013

Kugelmass: symmetry, time-mappings, and foreign translation

Woody Allen's satirical short story "The Kugelmass episode"[1] has an unattractive, middle-aged literature professor jump into Flaubert's novel and make love to Madame Bovary.

Passage into unreality in this case is effected by the messy craft of an obscure magician, and the workings of the device are themselves satiricized:
Persky reappeared, pushing before him a large object on squeaky roller-skate wheels. He removed some old silk handkerchiefs that were lying on its top and blew away a bit of dust. It was a cheap-looking Chinese cabinet, badly lacquered. [...]
"If I throw any novel into this cabinet with you, and tap it three times, you will find yourself projected into that book." (349–350)
There is no pretense of an explanation in quasi-scientific or technological terms (as there would be in science fiction). There is no indication that the world of this story is one in which magic is the norm: it's not a fairy-tale world. The only element of magic is this one device, and in contrast to typical fairy tales, it's also unreliable and messy — rather as technology is in real life. (It is, in other words, a case of what I've called locally restricted fictionality).

1) An interesting element of the use of passage into unreality, in this story, is its symmetry. Passage works here in ejection mode. (The word Persky uses in the story is 'project', but in the terminology I've used in this blog, this is what I've called ejection mode, rather than projection mode.) While Kugelmass is in the novel, he vanishes from the real world:
Persky rapped three times on the cabinet and then flung open the doors. Kugelmass was gone. At the same moment, he appeared in the bedroom of Charles and Emma Bovary's house at Yonville. (350–351)
Conversely, when Emma Bovary is with him in reality-New York, she's absent from the world of the novel. (A Stanford professor notices that "now she's gone from the book.", 355) Moreover, not just does the novel reflect her absence — it also faithfully reports Kugelmass' presence when he is with her:
What he didn't realize was that at this very moment students in various classrooms across the country were saying to their teachers: "Who is this character on page 100? A bald Jew is kissing Madame Bovary?" (352)
The complication that the book itself is, as book, part of the real world, is thus preserved: changes in the real world are just changes in the real world; but changes in the world of the novel are reflected in the real-world book which is about that world.

The magic doesn't just transform a single person's experience (namely, that of Kugelmass). So it is different from, say, Kugelmass only imagining the whole thing. If it were just an elaborate and exceptionally life-like dream, for instance, then the dreamer would have the experience of roaming around in the novel, of talking (and, actually, more than just talking) to Emma Bovary. But the outside world would know nothing about it. As it is, however, the events happen out there, in the world, and the real-world novel's text is transformed.

(We're ignoring the fact that Kugelmass would have to be described in Flaubert's prose, stylistically correct and everything. We just assume that's the case, which means that the magician's task is even larger now — the necessary adjustments in the real world reflect changes to the text, not just Kugelmass' absence from New York and the injection of some experience into his mind.)

2) It seems that the timelines are aligned this way: while Kugelmass is absent from the real world and present in the book, the original text of Flaubert's novel reads differently; it includes Kugelmass as character. The moment he pops out of the book, the text is restored. Thus there is talk of Kugelmass as "the sporadically appearing character in the Flaubert book." (358) I take it that 'sporadically' means here not that the character appears at several different points in the book, but consistently over different readings, but rather that the character appears in some readings (occasions when someone reads the novel) and doesn't appear in others. If you happen to read through Madame Bovary just on an afternoon when Kugelmass is visiting her, then you'll read about him; otherwise not. The text oscillates between a version including him and another one which doesn't.

Conversely, when Emma leaves the novel, she disappears from the novel (which seems a rather grave change to the text, but that's not elaborated).

But what about Emma's timeline? Kugelmass, it seems, is inserted into the book at about the same page every time:
"Make sure and always get me into the book before page 120," Kugelmass said to the magician one day. "I always have to meet her before she hooks up with this Rodolphe character." (353)
This sounds as if the book cycles through its story every time Kugelmass makes a visit (and that implies a pretty repetitive existence for Emma), and he jumps in at a certain point each time. Somewhat inconsistently, though, it's not as if he meets her for the first time each time. On the contrary, the two develop a relationship, which means that Emma can remember his previous visits just as he can.

(If you are fit to allow a little confusion into your life, stop for a moment and think about what "at this very moment", or "at the same moment" can possibly mean in the quotes I have given above.)

3) What about different editions? Emma Bovary speaks "in the same fine English translation as the paperback" (351), which the magician has used to send Kugelmass into the novel. But does that mean that, say, a French reader who peruses a different edition will not notice anything of the whole affair? But if not — then how many instances of Emma Bovary are there? Is a French-language one still sitting around bored while an English-translation one enjoys an affair with Kugelmass?

(We're ignoring more pedantic questions, of course, such as why nobody would have started comparing the changing text of the paperback edition with the French original, or even another English-language edition.)

4) Now, don't get me wrong: I know this is just a dramatic device and the real topic of the story is on a wholly different level. It may be ironic comment on society, adultery, or the relationship between text and reader. In either case, we do understand the plot device well enough to get immersed in the plot, and we don't care about the finer points I've just laid out. And that's fine. But I'm interested in the workings of the device itself.

The magical projection into a novel is an unrealistic plot device. Like all such devices, it wouldn't work in reality, it's just that our imagination is misled into thinking it might. The implausibilities are glossed over or disguised. My purpose, though, is precisely to uncover those implausibilities, and to investigate the ways in which they are covered up. The goal is not to criticize the text as being unrealistic (there would be no point: everyone can see that, and everyone can see that it never aimed at being realistic; one could even make the point that it deliberately displays how unrealistic it is, in order to refer us to a different level, that of ironical comment). The goal is rather to learn something about the workings of the imagination, and the ways of triggering the imagination by using such tricks. As it usually turns out, these tricks work because they play on hidden assumptions we carry around, and making these assumptions explicit is my goal.

This is not to deny that the real interest of the story lies in its ironic comment on adultery (or, depending on your view of things, the relationship between text and reader, or whatever). It is to analyze the craft that went into it, especially in aspects (of that craft) which are not as plainly in view as the satirical character or the social comment is.

[1] Pages 347–360 in my paperback edition of The Complete Prose of Woody Allen, New York: Picador 1998.

July 22, 2012

More on excellence as momentum from reality

What is excellence? Part of the answer lies in an analysis of what it means to excellently engage in a practice. (You can engage in a practice without excellently engaging so; the point of the analysis wouldn't be to find out what it means to engage in a practice, but precisely what it means to engage in it excellently.) This is for another time, however; let's simply assume we know well enough what that means.

Even then, it is only part of the answer, because I believe excellence is also rightfully attributed to persons, not just to single episodes of a person's actions, thoughts, and feelings; and we need to say something about the relationship between a person's excellently engaging in practices and the ascription of excellence to her as a person.

What makes a person excellent is more than that this person frequently performs excellently in practices; excellence in a person is not simply her mostly thinking, feeling, and acting excellently; to put the point differently: to attribute excellence to a person is more than just a shortcut for 'when she engages in practices in her life, she often (or mostly, or typically) does it in an excellent way, she is frequently excellent in what she does'.

Rather, I think that it's the other way round: excellence in engaging in practices flows from someone's excellence as a person; of course, it then also reflects on that person, and makes us see and admire her as excellent. But excellence in engaging in practices is not constitutive of excellence in persons, it is how that excellence manifests itself (shows and articulates itself) in that person's actions, views, and feelings.

Engaging excellently in a given episode of a practice never exhausts the excellence of the person who engages in that episode, there is always more to that person than is revealed in a single episode. There is also always more to a person than is revealed even in a series of episodes of a given type. Excellence as a person unifies excellence in engaging in various episodes of diverse types. But even if you take the sum total of all episodes in which a person has (yet) engaged and extract how excellent the performance of that person has been in those episodes, you wouldn't have arrived at the excellence of that person. You would also have to consider all episodes in which that person might have been, and how she would have acted, thought, and felt then.

By now it would seem that we have arrived at a conception of excellence in a person which takes it to be equivalent to a structure of dispositions: the dispositions to act, think, and feel in any given episode of the various kinds. But even this wouldn't be enough: for these dispositions (and this total structure of dispositions) will inevitably change all the time, and it will change precisely (if only minutely) every time a person engages in a practice. There is no fixed structure of dispositions to act; there is a dynamic structure which continuously changes.

This has two important consequences. The first consequence is that excellence as a person can neither be determined by the actual episodes of that person engaging in practices nor by all the possible episodes of such engaging. It cannot be determined by the space of all possible situations in which a person might find herself and the way she acts, thinks, and feels in those situations: this is too wide; it leaves out the crucial ingredient of which episodes actually happened and shaped the structure of dispositions to engage in practices. And it cannot be determined by the concrete set of actual situations (so far) in which that person found herself and in fact engaged, that is, it cannot be determined by the factual history of that person: this is too narrow, for it leaves out ways she might have responded to circumstance which simply by historical accident didn't occur. Thus, the first consequence can be put this way: when we're looking to figure out what excellence as a person means, we have to consider both the entire space of possibilities and the actualities that have in fact obtained. In other words, the way events have unfolded in reality has a part in determining the excellence of a person (as a person).

The second consequence is that excellence of a person is something that develops. Every time you respond to how events unfold in an excellent manner will move you towards your excellence as a person. There is no fixed structure of dispositions; there is an ever-changing structure as long as you live (or, more precisely: as long as you live your life, by acting, thinking, and feeling in response to the world around you; this might leave out some merely vegetative states, although the borders here might be fuzzy). Shaping your ways of acting, thinking, and feeling so that they become more excellent means thus to become more excellent as a person. Conversely, letting yourself go, taking your own weakness as given and not improving on them will move you, on the whole, away from excellence.

Both trends are self-perpetuating. The reason why they are self-perpetuating has to do with the first consequence above: reality itself (by the more or less random chain of events in which you find yourself partaking) plays some role in shaping your excellence. Thus when you are moving yourself towards excellence as a person, you will after a while find yourself supported by how events run: you will gain, as I put it in my book, momentum from reality. If, on the other hand, you let yourself go and forgo excellence in what you do, you will sink further and further towards weakness, and the gravitational force of events will compound that effect. Both going for excellence and refraining from that quest have a self-perpetuating characteristic that comes from the role which reality plays in your engaging with it.

June 25, 2012

Wandering, soul-wandering, and magnetic rapport

After a day-long hiking trip in the Ragged Mountains near Charlottesville, Virginia, Augustus Bedloe has an astonishing tale to tell: was it a dream? a vision? or even a real experience — that he was transported to a different time (almost fifty years earlier) and a different place (the Indian city of Benares), where he got entangled in a riot, lived through the last hours in the life of a hot-blooded young officer and a strange after-death experience, until he then found himself back on his walking trail and returned home?

What are we going to make of "A Tale of the Ragged Mountains"[1] like this? Among those who hear of it is Dr Templeton, a physician who has been treating Mr Bedloe for some time, and who has established a kind of 'magnetic rapport' with him. After Bedloe has finished, we learn that Dr Templeton, at the exact time of that strange experience, had written an account from his own memory of those riots in Benares of the year 1870 in which his good friend, the young officer Oldeb, had died in an ill-judged attack. More coincidences: there is a portrait of Oldeb that remarkably resembles Bedloe, whose name incidentally is almost what you get when you read the officer's name backwards.

1) Two possible ways of explanation suggest themselves: one based on metempsychosis, the other based on hypnosis. Let's begin with the latter. The explanation would go somewhat like this: Dr Templeton is an enthusiastic follower of the theories and practices of Mesmerism, which postulates an 'animalistic magnetism' that accounts for a deep connection between physician and patient. Treating Bedloe, Templeton has achieved a remarkably stong influence on him: "between Doctor Templeton and Bedloe there had grown up, little by little, a very distinct and strongly marked rapport, or magnetic relation. I am not prepared to assert, however, that this rapport extended beyond the limits of the simple sleep-producing power; but this power itself had attained great intensity. [...] the will of the patient succumbed rapidly to that of the physician, so that [...] sleep was brought about almost instantaneously, by the mere volition of the operator, even when the invalid [i.e. Bedloe] was unaware of his presence."[2] (941)

Given this way of influence without observable interaction, perhaps Templeton's recounting and writing down of his earlier experiences have been sufficient to draw Bedloe, in the solitude of his walk (and under the influence of a strong dose of morphine; 942, 943) into a vision that shared its content with Templeton's memories. Templeton, as it were, telepathically transferred the recall of what he eyewitnessed a long time ago into Bedloe's weakened and suggestible mind, by either deliberate or accidental use of his 'magnetic' connection with his patient.

So that would be one possible explanation of what happened to Bedloe; the one based on hypnosis. If it rather seems bizarre to you, then wait until we get to the other one, the one that's based on metempsychosis.[3]

Before we get to that, however, let us check on the merits of the hypnosis explanation. On the one hand, it would account for the inexplicable similarity in content of Templeton's written tale and Bedloe's vision. On the other hand, it would be of no help with some of the other strange facts: no simple mental connection could have caused the resemblance in looks, and the close similarities in the names (spelled forward and backward), of Bedloe and Oldeb. So the 'magnetic rapport' between doctor and patient cannot be the whole story.

2) What about metempsychosis, then? The Greek term means soul-wandering, and the idea would be that in some sense, Bedloe is Oldeb, that the officer's soul was reincarnated in the other man. What Bedloe experiences on his trip is an actual memory from his previous life. We must remember that Bedloe, although a young man, has a certain air of coming from the past: "He certainly seemed young — and he made a point of speaking about his youth — yet there were moments when I should have had little trouble in imagining him a hundred years of age." (940)

Now this accounts for the coincidence in looks and names, and a couple of other details. But if that is what is going on, then how would we account for the apparent connection between Bedloe's experience on the trip and Templeton's writing an account of just those events? Perhaps we have taken it the wrong way round: we have assumed that Templeton is the sender and Bedloe the receiver. (Why does this seem the more natural reading?) But maybe we'll have to correct that. Maybe Bedloe's vision comes from an anamnesis of his soul, a remembrance of things past, and what he experiences is then sent via his 'magnetic' link to Dr Templeton. (Note also that Templeton is clearly shaken when listening to Bedloe's account. From this we can infer that he didn't suspect anything strange was going on when we was writing his account. Only once Bedloe has returned Templeton began to see the coincidences. So, strangely, Bedloe on his trip was aware that something extraordinary was going on; Templeton, writing his account, wasn't.)

Moreover, what Bedloe experiences is not a direct replay of Templeton's memories, for Bedloe experiences the whole thing from the point of view of Oldeb, not Templeton. This supports the interpretation that bases the vision onto metempsychosis, not thought transfer: if it were Templeton's memories that were transferred, then we would have expected the whole thing to play from Templeton's point of view.

But then why is the story set up so that Templeton doesn't merely receive the vision, but had himself been a witness of the original events fifty years ago? Why, for instance, couldn't Templeton just listen patiently to Bedloe's tale, then go off to a library and come up with the facts about India, Benares, the insurrection fifty years ago, and so on? What is the significance, for the story, that Templeton knew Oldeb himself?

3) Let's also note that much care is taken in the story to invoke the topos of independent verification, in a somewhat original manner: Templeton produces a notebook in which he has written an account of the very same events, at just the time when Bedloe, on his hike, had a vision of them.

The story doesn't state this, but we are obviously supposed to assume that what we would find in those pages would closely resemble what Bedloe had just narrated. (Templeton says so, but the actual text of the notes is not part of the story, nor does the narrator tell us anything else about them than what Templeton says.) So let's assume that Templeton's notes indeed contain a tale very like the one we've just heard from Bedloe. We are told by the narrator that the pages appear to have been freshly written.

4) So where does Bedloe's vision come from? Is it a case of soul-wandering, i.e. has the dead soldier's soul possessed the wanderer for a while, making him experience the events from around the time of his own (bodily) death? Or is it a case of thought transfer, i.e. has the connection between Templeton and Bedloe caused the latter to experience the events just as the former was writing them?

(Nothing precludes of course that Bedloe might have heard from Templeton about them. In fact, we could easily imagine the whole episode of Bedloe telling his story a pre-arranged confidence trick supposed to demonstrate super-natural powers. But even without assuming the intent to deceive, a simple explanation would be that Templeton may have talked about these events before and Bedloe just remembered the tale and visualized it under the influence of the lonesome setting out there in the mountains, the drugs, and possibly illness or exhaustion.)

The text supports both interpretations to some extent. That the 'magnetic' connection between Templeton and Bedloe has mitigated a transfer of Templeton's memories into Bedloe's vision seems mostly supported by the demonstration setup, that Bedloe is in fact a reincarnation of Oldeb, the officer and friend of Templeton's who died in Benares, seems to be supported by the similarity in appearance, and also by the subtle indication that Bedloe sometimes has an air of being a hundred years old.[4]

Maybe the idea was to have it both at once. So then there would have been soul-wandering between Oldeb and Bedloe and a magnetic communication of Templeton's memories to the latter. However, if the guiding question is what accounts for the extraordinary thing that happens to the wanderer, then the answer seems to be overdetermined here. Bedloe, on this combined interpretation, lives through the experiences of his former incarnation and the recall of his physician which coincide with his trip; it's so vivid and coherent because it's his actual former live and the doctor's memories; and finally, it's triggered by his physical exhaustion and mental relaxation and via the magnetic rapport with Templeton. This seems to be too much of a good thing.

So here we are with two interpretations that are too weak individually and too strong if combined. That's a pity, because I'm now going to analyze an element in the story that seems to me particularly well done, namely: the way Bedloe's immersion in the world of his vision is narrated. I would have liked to have the question of the main story line out of the way; but as it is, it's going to hover unresolved over what I think can be extracted from that element.

[1] Edgar Allan Poe, "A Tale of the Ragged Mountains", in: The Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe. Volume 3: Tales & Sketches II, edited by Thomas Ollive Mabbott, Cambridge: Belknap 1978, 935–953.

[2] The theory of Mesmerism with its 'magnetic rapport' that Poe builds into his story was widely discussed at his time. The view has been discarded long since, but there was some core of real phenomena behind it which is today known as hypnosis.

[3] But note that we're working here, of course, with the materials of the story. I don't mean to suggest that telepathy and the like take place in the real world. However, Poe himself might have assumed that at the time of writing his story — he might have taken it as valid science, that is, he might have been in the business of creating science fiction; or he might have assumed that his audience would take it as valid science. That's all that is required to base an interpretation of the story on it.

[4] It also seems to be a convention of the genre, at least for Poe, to kill off the host character after a successful soul transfer. That commonality might also count for categorizing it with metempsychosis plots. Compare "Morella", and "Ligeia".

June 7, 2012

Recalling and recounting

Let's look closer into memories. In the video excerpt from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire we have seen what we might call a trip into the past. The protagonist sees with his own eyes some events that have taken place years before. This is achieved by means of a magic device, not by some recording technology, but either way, the way the protagonist comes to witness those past events resembles a kind of highly sophisticated, multisensory holographic film playback. More interestingly, we immediately realize that we're looking at past events that are in some way recounted. We understand, at the latest when we hear Dumbledore's explanatory comment, that we have just re-experienced an episode out of his memory.

So far, so good: the scene has served its function. However, if you think about it for a moment, you'll notice that appearances notwithstanding, all this is in fact very different from memories as they work in our lives.

When you remember an episode from your past, normally you won't go through the whole sequence in minute detail. If it is a vivid memory, then you'll probably have no difficulty to invoke the mood, the general feelings you had; you're probably also able to make some key images or sounds present again in a kind of sensual way (that is, you'll see them with your mind's eye, or hear them with your inner ears); and you'll be clearly aware of spoken words and sentences, though very likely again not all of them, but some that stand out for you in your recall. For me, one of the strongest memories I have is of a particular concert given ten years ago by a violinist I admire; it was the first opportunity for me to listen to her playing live, and I can recall clearly many of the details: the way the room looked, the row in which I was seated, the setup of the stage, the orchestra, the acoustic impression I had, the excitement I felt, the way the music affected me. And yet of course when I recall this experience, I don't go through the whole of the concert, movement by movement, in sequence and in tempo. What I recall are the feeling, the general flair, and several key impressions.

If that is how memories usually work, then why can we still understand what the film wants to express (namely, that Harry has just lived through one of Dumbledore's memories)? It's because there is something of which it reminds us. But that is not a typical memory, but recounting a memory, more precisely, the recounting of a memory for the benefit of someone else who wasn't there. When I'm not just recalling a past episode for myself, but want to relate it to someone in order to help him imagine what it must have been like to have been there, then what I do must be more structured and more detailed than simply recalling the feeling, the general flair, and several key impressions. What we do then is to tell a story. We describe the surroundings; we point out the key characters, their look, words, and actions; we narrate the events in a certain order that leaves out the unimportant ones but brings the important ones into an intelligible sequence.

So what the scene in Dumbledore's office resembles is not recalling a memory, but recounting a memory in dramatized form. It's not as if Dumbledore would remember, but as if Dumbledore narrates what he can remember. The past events are brought into a story-like structure for the benefit of a listener. (Or, in fact, for both a listener and us, the audience.) True, the job is done not by Dumbledore himself but by a magical device (the Pensieve). But the structure is still the structure of telling-it-to-someone-else, not the structure of simply remembering.

Consider this: a classical flashback would have served the exact same function. We can easily imagine Dumbledore and Harry sitting in the office, with Dumbledore saying something like: "I still clearly remember, it was a few months after the war, when we were all convened at the ministry...", and then blending over into the scene of the hearing. In that case, it would have been easier to detect that we're not simply witnessing the process of remembering, but the structured and dramatized recounting of a past scene. (There is of course a reason why the magical device is used instead of a classical flashback: the Pensieve has some role to play later on in the plot, and it's introduced here in preparation of that later role.)

Thus passage into memories (as a variety of a past world) will be rather passage into a narrated version of those memories; memories themselves are too unstructured to constitute a proper destination location. (Compare this with dream worlds, which are also strictly speaking to unstable to make a good destination, but are prepared by fiction that features passage into them in a manner that addresses this difficulty; I have discussed this in an earlier post.)

May 17, 2012

Ejection and projection

I have written that fiction that includes passage into an instance of unreality highlights the perspective of the passenger, thus emphasizing an element that makes the travel metaphor seem particularly apt. There are exceptions, such as the shifted passage technique, which has the function of verifying that passage has actually happened in the world of a fiction (in our examples, these fictions were all movies). But on the whole, the perspective of the character who makes the trip is closely attended to.

A further characteristic that is sometimes in line with the travel metaphor and sometimes not is this: the character who does the trip sometimes fully departs from his world, vanishes physically, and at other times remains there, albeit oblivious of, and incapable to interact with his surroundings for the duration of the trip. In order to have some labels, let's say that a character sometimes leaves his world in the mode of ejection, and at other times in the mode of projection.

Thus in the clip from Die Einsteiger we have a clear case of ejection: the two travelers vanish from their own world for the duration of their trip. Shifted passage is used to demonstrate this to the audience; but the fact is also often referred to in the course of the movie, when the trips get more and more extensive and some characters even decide never to return from the fictional worlds they have entered. In contrast, in Dreamscape we have seen a typical example of projection (the word 'project' is actually used in the film itself as a term for the act of entering dreams of other people).

Entering dreams or memories seems to suggest projection mode more than ejection mode, perhaps because it allows closer modeling on the (real) dream state, which is very similar to projection: you're asleep, you physically remain in your room, though oblivious to your environment, and the only sense in which you're 'there' in the dream world is mentally, even though it may not look and feel that way to you while you're immersed. On the other hand of the spectrum, trips into fictional worlds and time travel seem to suggest ejection more strongly. (In particular time travel stories would struggle to use projection mode: it's rather counterintuitive to suggest that a character can be a two different times at once, whatever 'at once' can mean in this context. Remember that all passage stories, time travel not excluded, have to keep up the metaphor of traveling, and that requires a sequential personal time for the traveler, even as she jumps from one spacetime-location to the other.)

There can be hybrids: in the extract from Sherlock Jr. the protagonist doesn't simply enter the world of a movie, he dreams that he enters a movie. So we have a more complicated setup: there is the world of the Buster Keaton movie itself, then nested inside it the world of the dream, which allows passage into movies, and then again nested inside that dream world the world into which he steps when Buster walks into the movie screen. The latter is a clear case of ejection, for the in-dream-Buster vanishes from the world surrounding the movie screen when he walks in. But then there is also the dream itself, which is a case of projection. (The sleeping body of the projectionist remains visible for us, the audience, unresponsive to the surrounding world, but not physically away.) Probably the motivation for this complicated setup was a hesitation to make the movie too phantastic. It's one thing to create a fiction in which people dream (not unusual in the real world, too), but another to create one in which people walk into fictional worlds through a movie screen. (To wrap the more extravagant elements of a fiction into a dream is a time-worn device, just think of the epilogue of A Midsummer Night's Dream.)

Note that there is no difference in the experience of the passenger between ejection mode and projection mode. The passenger is immersed in what happens at the destination location. The only difference is what an additional observer would see at the origin location during the time of passage.

Yet shifted passage neither implies ejection nor projection. We have seen ejection in the clips that included shifted passage, but as I have noted, there could easily have been shifted passage in Dreamscape, where we're clearly in projection mode. Likewise, in The Dutch Master, there's no shifted passage, which I argued is by design; yet both ejection and projection might be in play here — the movie leaves it open, thus allowing both interpretations, but this very fact shows that there might be both cases in which we have no shifted passage and projection and cases in which we have no shifted passage and ejection. So the distinction between use of shifted passage or not on the one hand and projection mode vs. ejection mode on the other are completely orthogonal.

May 16, 2012

Shifted transfer

In the extracts from passage scenes in movies that I have given in my recent postings, I have identified a technique which I called shifted transfer. The idea is that when a character makes a trip into an unreal world, such as the world of a movie-within-the-movie, or the world of a painting, there may be a difference between the perspective of the character himself and the perspective of the audience. The audience can remain at the origin location while the character already has been transferred to the destination location. (The audience is transferred later than the traveler, hence 'shifted' transfer.) Thus in Die Einsteiger, we're still there, in the now empty room, while the two travelers are already inside the video film; in Sherlock Jr. we can see the large movie screen into which the protagonist has stepped even when the character himself is already inside, and thus no longer in the room which contains that screen. We have seen, though, that not every film that includes passage into some instance of unreality uses the technique of shifted transfer. In The Dutch Master, the perspective of the audience and the perspective of the protagonist who steps into an old painting remain closely tied to each other. In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the protagonist is drawn into a memory which is dramatized as if in a holographic 3D-film, and the point of view is strictly that of the character, there is no lingering of any kind for the audience when the character moves.

In the latter cases, the subjective element is emphasized, while in the former cases we (the audience) are more in the mode of observers, objective onlookers. This makes shifted transfer a cinematic means to achieve a double-check on whether passage has actually happened. What would you do if you were the inventor of a device that lets you enter movie or dream worlds? You would probably set up an experiment that lets you verify, from some good, external vantage point, both that the traveler has arrived at the destination and that he has vanished from the origination location. That would convince you, as the inventor, that the device does enable such a trip. Shifted passage has exactly the function to convince the audience, in exactly the same way. Where the film wants to keep the question open (such as in the stepping into a painting in The Dutch Master), shifted passage is consequently not employed. Where the subjective experience of the passenger is to be emphasized (as in the passages into memories in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and into dreams in Dreamscape), it's also avoided.

May 15, 2012

Passage as travel

Let's begin to clarify some notions. I have introduced the idea of traveling into an instance of unreality, such as the fictional world of a movie, or a dream. The use of 'traveling' is highly metaphorical, of course: if you travel, that means a change in location, usually going from some origin location to a fairly distant destination location; and the act of traveling itself typically takes time. Obviously, in the normal use of 'traveling', both the origin and the destination locations are places in the real world, to be reached by some means of transport. Another element of the meaning of 'traveling' has to do with what one experiences: broadly speaking, you're widening your horizon, see new and unfamiliar places, strange customs (strange, that is, to you, not to the people in the places you visit).

The trips I have illustrated in my recent series of posts can be metaphorically described as 'traveling' into an unreal world, because some of these meaning elements still apply: there is an origin location and a destination location, which is removed and distant. The process of passage itself doesn't take much time, but the trip as a whole occupies a span of time during which the passenger cannot interact with the origin location any more. There are strange and unusual things going on at the destination location, making for a new and stimulating experience. (That's the point, after all, of using passage as a dramatic device in fiction. The movies from which I have extracted some excerpts for demonstration all rely on passage to get some central plot lines going.)

There's an important difference, too. The distance between the origin and the destination is not a spatial difference, as the distance between two places in the real world is. Rather, it's the gap between the real world and an unreal world — the difference (however it is conceived) between reality and fiction, or reality and dreams, reality and memories, and so on. I have used the term 'metaphysical apartness' before: just as the metaphorical use of 'passage' and 'trip', that term also suggests some kind of gap or distance — and the gap or distance is taken to be metaphysical, that is, to be described in terms of reality and unreality (metaphysics being the study of what, in general, makes up reality).

Describing something as a journey adds another important element: it suggests a continuous, linear structure. There is a departure (possibly some preparation before), then there are the events of the trip itself, including the actual travel, the arrival at the destination location, the events there, and then in reverse the trip back with its final arrival at the origin. All these events typically form a continuous process with an ordered structure. Even more important, this structure is tied to the experience of a traveler: it only makes sense to bring events in that order with reference to someone who undergoes the process. Without a traveler from whose point of view there is a time-ordered series of events, there is no such thing as a journey.

In all the illustrations I've given, the perspective of the passenger (one or more characters in the movie) is crucial. That is why the plot usually follows the perspective of the character who undertakes the journey very closely. The only deviation from this principle is the technique I have called 'shifted transfer'.

May 14, 2012

Passage illustrated V - the shared dream

We have looked at fictions and memories; let's now examine something you get when these two are combined: dreams.

Already in 1984,[1] the movie Dreamscape had people enter other people's dream worlds, by means of a combination of technology in the sleep lab and rather obscure 'psychic' abilities of the passengers themselves. (One character learns, over the course of the film, to 'project' into others' dreams by means of pure concentration.)

Some subtle setup is going on in the dialogue before the actual trip: the protagonist mentions that the test subject (the other man whose dream he is about to join) is a steel worker; then we recognize that the projection has worked in part by the character of the setting, a construction area on top of a skyscraper. A familiar scene for a steel worker, though it's probably not something in most other people's everyday experience. The recognition is supported by a short verification dialogue after the trip back as well, when both dream subjects recall what they've experienced and it matches. (A more serious scientific verification would have both participants record their recall separately from each other, but understandably this has been contracted for the purposes of the dramatization.)

There is a rather elaborate departure sequence. The film tries to establish an authentic-looking scientific setting, drops some references to actual sleep science (such as entering REM phases), and then also visualizes the process of passage into the dream in a manner that fits descriptions of dream subjects falling asleep (such as the hypnagogic imagery, the feeling of falling through a tunnel onto the dream scene, and random sound effects). Just as all the other movies I've discussed so far (with the exception of Sherlock Jr.), there is a clear suggestion of the character being drawn into the unreal world he enters. Compared to all that, the arrival sequence is very brief — the protagonist looks around for a moment, but then is quickly absorbed in the action.

Just as before, no shifted transfer here, although we could easily imagine how it might have been staged. There could have been a shot of the scientists who monitor the sleepers, or of the sleeping characters themselves, interleaved with the dream sequence itself. Of course, there would have been little benefit to such an interruption of the dream sequence. Especially when presenting dreams, movies tend to replicate the grip they have on us in our real lives by leaving such sequences uninterrupted. (Look out for this when you next see a dream sequence in a movie: they are very rarely interleaved with any other plot elements.)
[1] That is, long before Inception; of course, the idea is much older. Dreamscape itself was based on a 1966 novel by Roger Zelazny entitled The Dream Master.

May 13, 2012

Passage illustrated IV - the dramatized memories

Let's widen the scope a little. The spectrum of unreal worlds is not restricted to those created in fiction.

Harry Potter (in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire) encounters a magic item called the Pensieve, which can be used to externalize memories. That way, one can re-examine what one has experienced before; and it is suggested that this works without the effects of fading or distortion that our memories in the real world suffer. When Harry gets close to the Pensieve, he is drawn into the memories of its owner (Dumbledore, the headmaster of the school).

There is no interaction between the protagonist and the past world; Harry is just watching. This seems appropriate if we remember that what the movie presents us with is a memory from the past, which is supposed to be unchangeable, since it already has happened; moreover, it is someone else's memory — so it's doubly removed from any possible outside influence.

We have here short, but discernible departure and arrival sequences. Is there also a setup-recognition structure? Yes there is: Harry (and we, the audience) can recognize both the room in which the memory scene takes place and some of the key players in the scene (apart from Dumbledore himself, the camera also catches 'Mad Eye' Moody, Ivan Karkaroff, Barty Crouch, and Rita Skeeter); and Harry (and we) can do so because there was a scene earlier in the movie in which he was in the exact same room in a similar situation (formal hearing), and all the key players involved were of course introduced already in the exposition of the story. Thus we can recognize that we must be in a memory (played in a kind of holographic cinema) from several clues that were carefully prepared beforehand.[1]

There is, however, no shifted passage, and it also appears that the character is not physically away from the origin location. Harry is mentally fully absorbed in the scene which he experiences, but he remains in the room with the Pensieve. It's comparable rather to getting immersed in a dream (in which case you're still physically there, lying asleep somewhere) than to actually travel, where you fully depart from the origin location. Again, this seems appropriate if we consider the nature of the departure location; after all, this is a memory, a mental item, so it seems natural to get immersed mentally, but not drawn in physically. (Compare this with the instances in my earlier post, where the destination locations, such as scenes in movies or a painting, were fictional worlds we are supposed to imagine as 'being there somewhere'.)
[1] Strictly speaking, it would be necessary to distinguish whose recognition is the relevant one in setup-recognition-structures: that of the passenger, or that of the audience? That's an interesting question, but let's collect some more samples before we go deeper into it.