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.

May 11, 2012

Passage illustrated III - the Flemish painting

Who says that passage into the unreal is restricted to movies as destinations? Whatever generates its own fictional world is a candidate. It could be a painting, for instance:

This is from The Dutch Master, a 1993 film that was intended as the flagship production of a collection of erotic shorts. Whatever its credentials in that genre may be, it uses an old dramatic device, namely: the interpenetration of the real world and the world of some sensually stimulating piece of art.[1] But in contrast to, say, Flaubert's 1834 novella Omphale, in this film it is not a fictional character who steps out of an unreal world into reality — it's the other way round. The protagonist, Teresa (Mira Sorvino), walks into the painting.

Passage in this case is established in a gradual buildup: when she first encounters the painting, Teresa is just fascinated and pleased by it; later on, the picture seems to come to life for short moment, and one of the characters smiles at her; then further into the film there is a scene in which she is practically invited into the picture and then walks in; after that she begins to make the passage deliberately and from her own initiative.

1) From the three excerpts in the video above, it remains unclear whether Teresa actually walks into the painting or whether she remains physically in her everyday world. In other words, the story leaves it open whether she's not simply imagining or daydreaming to be inside the painting, while physically still sitting on the museum bench.

Whenever there are other people with her in the room at the museum, the painting remains just a painting. It comes alive (and invites her in, so to speak) only when she is watching it alone. So there is no way to decide, from what the film shows, whether we are supposed to think Teresa is 'just imagining' all this, or whether, in this film, things such as stepping into the world of a painting can happen. Needless to say, in the real world, such things don't happen anyway. It's only because we're already in a story, the story of the movie, that we can even ponder the possibility. What the question comes down to, then, is whether the world of The Dutch Master is just like the real world but contains a protagonist who is prone to daydreaming, or whether that movie world is a fantasy world in which people can travel between reality and paintings.[2]

The movie artfully leaves that question open until the end. While Teresa becomes more and more involved with the painting, her real-life friends and family become more and more irritated. (Though there is a notable lack of concern; they're just irritated, nobody's really worrying.) The climax of this conflicting development is reached when Teresa disappears at the day of her wedding, leaving her fiancé, her family, and the wedding guests waiting for her in front of the church. The final sequence of the movie then suggests that she has withdrawn into the painting for good. If Teresa remains missing, that is, if she in fact has vanished from the world outside the painting, then what we've got here is a fantasy world in which passage into the unreal is possible.

2) There is no interaction between Teresa and the characters in the painting; they simply ignore her. When she is inside the painting, it's like a holographic film. She stands in the middle of what's going on, but nothing she does seems to impact the scene in any way. She's watching from inside the room, but she's still only watching. On the other hand, the physical elements of the picture do seem to impact her: when one of the characters blows some smoke from his pipe towards her, she coughs.

It's different when Teresa is outside the painting. One of the characters smiles at her and invites her into the painting with a nod; and there is also a brief scene when Teresa steals into the museum by night and it's dark, and she points the flashlight to the painting. The people in the painting act bedazzled. So the rules of interaction are frustratingly limited: The fictional characters can communicate only with her, and only when she's outside; the real-world characters can't interact with the characters in the painting at all.

There seems to be a parallel here between the indifference of the people in the painting towards Teresa and the lack of concern for her increasingly becoming distant in her everyday world. As I've observed above, none of her colleagues or her family seem really to worry, they're just puzzled. And while the narrative sometimes mentions something Teresa said or claimed, in all of the plot she doesn't utter a single word. (It's a romanticist cliché: the artist, or in this case simply the imaginatively gifted person, is estranged from her world, withdraws into a world beyond it which is associated with art and eros, but where real fulfillment isn't possible either as long as there are ties to reality etc. etc. But I don't really want to go into an interpretation of the story here. I'm only interested in the phenomenology of passage into an instance of unreality.)

3) We have now discussed two general questions: does the story involve passage into the unreal? and: what are the rules of interaction between the real and the unreal in this particular fictional world (i.e., the world of The Dutch Master)? Let's also take look at the elements of passage I have extracted in my previous postings about Die Einsteiger and Sherlock Jr.. I have identified three such elements: first, a setup-and-recognition structure; second, a departure sequence and an arrival sequence; and third, what I've called shifted transfer: the characters transfer into the instance of unreality at a different time than the audience does — while the characters have already arrived at the destination location, the audience's perspective is still at the departure location. Can we identify the same elements here, where the destination isn't a movie, but a painting?

Well, there is clearly some setup going on: the painting is explained in some detail by a museum guide, who fills the audience in on historical background and sharpens the eye for some detail that might easily go overlooked without a bit of experience. (Would you have noticed the statue of Mercury on the cupboard in the bedroom?) We also get some detail views of the painting before it comes to life, and when it does, the scene with the drunken woman rolls up once or twice as a kind of movie in a picture frame before Teresa actually witnesses it from inside the painted room. Many of these things are repeated in the passage sequences and clearly contribute to our understanding that we (together with Teresa) are now 'in the picture', thus they constitute the recognition end.

Moreover, since this is a painting we're talking about, there is a clear sense of a static frame present all the time, even when we're inside the artificial world. The number of rooms is limited to three, and most of them are already in sight at least partially from the viewer's perspective at the museum. The wooden, rectangular frames of the room and the windows, cupboards, and the like add to this sense of a mostly static, changeless room. All the animation comes from the people moving around in them. And even that seems to happen mostly in a scripted sequence that unrolls every time Teresa steps in. Thus even though she has now entered that fictional world, it is still somewhat different from the real world: it's in 3D, and it's animated — and yet it feels static and rigid to some degree.

It is more tricky to locate the departure sequence than to find the arrival sequence. That is mostly due to the gradual buildup I've mentioned. The departure sequence, I think, is distributed over several scenes in the movie. It begins when Teresa's fascination with the painting sets in and ends when she is drawn into the picture for the first time and sets her foot into the room inside the painting. The film marks the actual transfer with a simple fading of the museum setting into black, which then re-occurs on the trip back. Let's compare this with the corresponding departure sequence in Die Einsteiger, as I have analyzed it in my earlier post: it begins when the 'video integrator' device is switched on, then there is some blinking and beeping, a suggestion of the characters being drawn into the device, and finally they vanish. The corresponding marks in The Dutch Master are the first viewing of the painting, the smile and the nod of the man in the painting at Teresa, and finally her stepping in.

Compared with that, the arrival sequence is relatively short. It consists mainly of another iteration of the movements of the drunken woman (as they had happened before, when Teresa watched them from the outside). After this, Teresa makes another step forward and approaches the man with the pipe who remains seated in the room, and from that moment, we're immersed in a story that wasn't already visible on the painting when it was still frozen. The arrival sequence is over.

What about shifted transfer? This element is missing here. The perspective of the audience moves immediately into the destination location when Teresa gets up from the museum bench and the camera turns its direction into the painting. There is no discernible lingering of the audience's point of view outside. (There is no shot of the painting after Teresa has moved in, with her standing in front of the fictional characters, or some such thing.) So it seems that shifted transfer is not a necessary element in tales of passage. It might be featured, but it doesn't have to.

I think there is a good reason that this particular film doesn't use shifted transfer. I have remarked above that the movie leaves it open whether Teresa actually walks into the painting or whether she just imagines that she does. These two options are meant to remain open until the ending of the film, and shifted passage would have been a too strong indicator for one of them, shutting out the other. More precisely, if the director had used shifted passage, and the camera (and with it we, the audience) would have remained in the museum setting after Teresa had stepped in, then we would have seen either an empty museum room or Teresa inside the painting, both of which would have clearly indicated that she actually did step into the painting (as opposed to merely having daydreamed it). And that would have defeated much of the expositional strategy used in the plot of the movie. Compare this again with Die Einsteiger. There, the intention is exactly not to leave it open whether passage is possible in its fictional world. Passage into movies is the main plot device. So it's important to make it clear that it really happens.

[1] A painting that is a version of Pieter de Hooch's 'Young woman drinking', with the interior of the room very similar, but the people in the picture somewhat changed. (The painting is actually not in New York, but at the Louvre in Paris.)

[2] When the question is posed this way, some might reply that it is neither: it's a symbolic world, in which the museum, the painting, and the act of passage stand for an artistic or erotic inclination in the protagonist that is awakened. (And that may well be a sound interpretation of the director's intentions.) But even so: in order to understand a symbol, one needs first a grasp of its literal meaning, and this is what we're concerned with here. This is an investigation in the mode of phenomenology, where we're interested in the way things are presented, not in their symbolic meaning (if there is one). When we just look at what's manifestly happening (the analogue to looking at the literal meaning of a symbol), we're faced with the two options I've listed.

May 7, 2012

Passage illustrated II - the dreaming projectionist

An early forerunner of the geeks who traveled into movies in my previous post, in Die Einsteiger, is Buster Keaton, who does a similar trip in his 1924 film Sherlock Jr.

While the 1980s were a period in which the dramatic device of choice was a blinking and beeping machine, this earlier film from the 1920s uses a more traditional approach: the protagonist is just dreaming that he enters the movie world. Here's how it looks (watch until approx. 22:30):

Keaton plays the operator of a movie projector at a film theatre; he falls asleep while a picture runs and dreams that the characters in the film transform into people from his own life. He then walks up (still dreaming) to the screen and steps right into the scene that is being shown. In other words, he enters the world of the movie and starts interacting with its characters.

This is a very early example of how such a situation is staged. It's a comparatively prolonged and elaborate sequence, as the film tries to get the idea across that the main character is now entering a movie. But it includes all the elements I have discussed in my previous analysis.

Let's begin with setup and recognition. Before the actual passage happens, we are introduced to the world of the movie into which Buster is about to step. It is set in a villa and there's its owner, his daughter, and a young man (presumably her suitor). Each of the characters is briefly shown and then turns around and transforms into a person from the projectionist's world, noticed by the dreaming Buster. This is what I've called setup: elements of the destination world are introduced to us (the audience), as part of the departure sequence. Later on, in the arrival sequence, these elements are then used to show us that the traveler really has arrived there. In the case of Sherlock Jr., the plot of the movie into which the protagonist steps resumes in earnest (after a bit of slapstick comedy) with the daughter of the house and her suitor on the stage. This is supported by one or two cinematic tricks: one of them is a circle-open effect (as if we're opening our eyes to the scene); another is that the camera now zooms in so that the stage of the nested movie fills the entire frame. So far, we have watched the movie-within-the-movie on a cinema screen, with bits of the orchestra and audience visible. Now it has become exclusive: there is no intruding outside world any more, we're fully immersed in the nested picture's world. We have now moved into the recognition part: the elements that were introduced earlier, during the setup, are repeated so that we know we have arrived. (In this case, it's only we, the audience, who have arrived. Buster will follow, though he is already mentioned in absentia as "the world's greatest detective".) We witness a bit of interaction between the daughter of the house and the suitor, and then the villa's owner discovering the theft of the pearls. With the telephone call for Sherlock Jr. and Buster's subsequent appearance (not in this extract), the arrival scene ends.

Where exactly would we pinpoint the departure and arrival sequences? I'd say that the departure sequence spans the time from Buster falling asleep to the end of the slapstick intermezzo (where he is thrown into one location after the next). When he finally fades out of the picture, in the setting with the empty park bench (quite conceivably the front garden of the villa), he has entirely vanished from the surrounding setting in the movie theatre, has lost his presence in the outer movie's world, so to speak. He really has departed. The arrival sequence, on the other hand, somewhat interleaves with the departure sequence. In a sense, the arrival begins when he first steps into the frame of the inner movie. He is promptly knocked out of it again, and then needs another attempt to step in until it holds. When the departure sequence has ended, and the inner movie resumes its plot, this is made clear by the cinematic tricks I've mentioned above. A little later on (not in this extract any more), Buster appears in the role of Sherlock Jr. — at this point at the latest I think the arrival sequence is completed.

Finally, note that again there is a shifted transfer: when Buster has already entered the world of the inner movie, we (the audience) are still located with a perspective that includes both the outer and the inner world, the origin and destination locations. Only after Buster has completed the passage and is firmly located at the destination, the audience's perspective also changes to focus exclusively on the inner movie's world.

May 6, 2012

Passage illustrated I - the 'Video Integrator'

Let's start with a film I have mentioned before: Die Einsteiger. This one is in German, but I have added English captions in a couple of relevant places.

In a nutshell, this has all the elements of what I call a trip into an instance of unreality. In the film's world, there are movies (such as the Western that happens to be in the video tape recorder in this clip). Movies are instances of unreality — imaginary worlds which belong to a fiction. And one of the characters in the film is an inventor who has built a device that lets you travel into such imaginary worlds. (Just as in dozens of other movies people have invented machines to travel into the past or the future, or into dream worlds, as in Inception.) Of course we don't have a clue how the thing works. (Just as we don't have a clue how time machines or 'shared dreaming' technology work.) But whatever the technical detail, we are supposed to imagine that, in the world of this film, there is a device that lets you travel into films-within-the-film, fictions within the fiction.

How does the movie convey that such a passage into unreality has just happened? There is a lot of blinking and beeping going on, of course. More importantly, we can observe that the device is somehow acting on the two people in the scene: the funny rotating radar screen seems to be scanning them; then for a moment it looks as if some wind or airstream is ruffling their hair, as if something is drawing them towards the device; finally they vanish from the picture. Let us call this the departure sequence. Note that it is a real, physical departure. It's not just that the two travelers close their eyes and imagine (or dream) themselves into the world of the Western. We take it that they are actually, physically moved elsewhere, and that they are now 'there' (wherever 'there' is, in terms of the spatiotemporal universe we inhabit), and no longer 'here'. They have no physical presence any more in the room out of which they have just vanished. If anyone would walk into that room, he wouldn't see them. For the time of their trip, they have been 'beamed' elsewhere.

In the world of the Western, there is a counterpart arrival sequence. Beforehand, we get some idea of the basic inventory in the Western's world from the images we see on the video tape: the houses are there, some Western stereotypes are rolling off (riding, shouting, and shooting), and one of the characters who is to appear later is shortly visible: the tough guy who will insist on their hanging lights a match by scratching it on a wall (something he will repeat just a moment on, when the travelers have arrived). All this we can watch on the television screen before the departure of the travelers. Then, directly after they have vanished from the room, we can see their faces on the video screen. It is as if we, the audience, linger for a moment longer in the departure lounge while the travelers have already done their trip, verifying, as it were, that they have safely arrived, by checking up the video tape, on which we can now see them. Only then the camera moves us (the audience) into the arrival scene as well. Beginning from that point, we're all in the world of the Western, and the events there unfold now. And now, of course, the elements that were set up earlier are repeated, so that we recognize that we're now in the other world. The tough guy lights his match again, we see the houses, there are people shouting.

Thus there are several elements needed to make this kind of scene work. First, there is both a departure and an arrival sequence; second, we have a setup-recognition structure; and third, there's a shifted transfer.

(To be continued.)

April 21, 2012

Conceptual blending, imagination, and other people

This nice, short talk about the power of imagination includes a number of concrete examples for what I have termed sedimentation of unreality into reality. Conceptual blending is the operative term; this means that some perception of physical reality blends with an abstract idea to generate something imaginary, which is then treated as real. (In addition to what I have called sedimentation, this notion is also related to Colin McGinn's discussion of imaginative seeing in the third chapter of Mindsight.[1])

In the second part of the talk, he gives a number of examples for how our imagination shapes (and often generates) our idea of other people. (This is what I have also identified in my book as one of he main functions of imagination.) Again, some good illustrations of how such ideas sediment into reality subsequently.
[1] Colin McGinn, Mindsight. Image, Dream, Meaning. Cambridge: Harvard University Press 2004, 48–55.

April 10, 2012

Improbable fiction, continuity, and personal identity

I have written about continuity of personality in fictional characters involved in passage into the unreal. Here's a little sidetrack investigation, namely: does this discussion carry us into the philosophical topic that is typically headlined 'personal identity'? Can we learn anything interesting about the idea of personal identity from fictional settings that involve passage into an instance of unreality? I don't think so — there isn't much of special interest here as far as I can see. Here's why.

Much of what is discussed by philosophers of personal identity focuses on cases where it isn't clear (at least not on the face of it) whether someone is still the same person under some hypothetical change of circumstances. So for instance, if Fred wakes up one morning and has lost all his memories of the past, we might ask whether he's still the same person or whether his personality has been somewhat reduced by such a loss of recall. We might then go further and ask what we would think if it turns out that instead of his own memories, Fred now has the memories of someone else — is he still, in this changed scenario, the same person as yesterday, or should we say that he's now someone else, transferred into Fred's body? At which point would we have to conclude that we're no longer talking about one and the same person? Does it depend on how we lay out the scenario, that is, do our intuitions here depend on the kind and order of changes we gradually introduced? There is a stream of literature on these and related questions about personal identity. But it's mostly, as I said, about constructing borderline cases, scenarios in which we can test our intuitions and assumptions.

In our discussion here it's the other way round. It's not a scenario in which we are uncertain about the identity of a character at all. When I wrote that Arnold is the same person in act I as he is in act II (when he is thrown into a fictional world), that claim is a simple assumption, or stipulation.[1] He's the same person because we take him to be the same person. The playwright supports that assumption by arranging the first switch to a fictional world so that it almost suggests itself. At the end of act I, Arnold stands in the middle of the room, when there are suddenly a thunderstroke and a few seconds of darkness — after that, the scene has changed (the telephone, as the primary passage marker, has disappeared), the other actors have suddenly appeared in different costumes. Arnold is standing at exactly the same place, in the same clothes, and gives a surprise interjection. Thus it's a very natural assumption that, while much around him has changed, he's still the same. But when we make that assumption, it's exactly that: an assumption. Arnold is still Arnold because we take him to be still Arnold.

Contrast this with the cases that are interesting to the philosophy of personal identity. There, we have some reason to ask ourselves whether someone's identity has changed, and from that we can start a philosophical reflection on the notion of (and our intuitions about) that sort of identity. In our case, however, most of the interpretation of the rest of the play is based on taking the character of Arnold as continuous. So our imagination is clearly directed to taking him as the same person throughout. It is stipulated that Arnold is still Arnold (even as he has been transferred into the world of a fiction).

So personal identity, instead of being questioned and explored in a borderline setting, is taken for granted here, and there is some effort to construct the scenario precisely in a way so that there is no question about it. In the case of Improbable Fiction, this is competently done, and it simply works. Obviously, there might be a limit to such a construction. If, let's say, the play wasn't a play, but a novel, and instead of simply being transferred to somewhere else, Arnold would also find himself in a completely different body, perhaps even the body of an animal, say, a crocodile, plus fully unable to remember anything from earlier times, and incapable of speaking and thinking at all ... well, you get the picture — at some point the stipulation that this is still the same character, Arnold, would become unintelligible. And now we might ask ourselves where exactly that point is. Is it when Arnold has become an animal? (But then, Kafka's Metamorphosis seems intelligible.) Is it when he cannot remember anything anymore? (But would we say that someone ceases to be a person just because they suffer amnesia?) And so on. We might explore our intuitions about such cases. We might do some 'experimental philosophy' to find out empirically how widely exactly which intuitions are shared. And so we might learn something interesting about our concept of personal identity.

But none of this really plays a role in our understanding the plot of Improbable Fiction (and similar plays, movies, or novels), and the continuity of a character in it. And that's because that continuity is essential to the device of passage into an instance of unreality. So an author has to simply stipulate such continuity, to make us naturally assume it. He'd only ask for trouble if he would stage it as problematic. These plots are not designed to discuss the question of personal identity (as the scenarios in the philosophical literature are). Rather, they're designed to avoid or preempt that question. Thus it doesn't seem to me that we can learn anything interesting about the philosophy of personal identity from them.
[1] The notion of stipulating identity, rather than discovering it, is the same here as that on which Saul Kripke insists when he criticizes the idea, vented by some, of 'trans-world identification' in the first lecture of his Naming and Necessity. (I'm as much an antirealist about possible worlds and fictional worlds as Kripke, just in case there was any doubt.)

April 9, 2012

Improbable fiction and character continuity

I have written about the concept of passage markers and used the example of Alan Ayckbourn's play Improbable Fiction to illustrate that notion. There is another interesting aspect we can explore by means of that example.

I have called the characteristic that characters travel into fictional worlds a passage into unreality: passage, that is, into the world of an instance of unreality. The stories and novels that provide the fictional worlds in act II of Improbable Fiction are such instances. Passage means here that someone, namely Arnold, travels into the worlds of these fictions, instances of unreality. (Obviously, the notion of traveling itself is a metaphorical notion, just as 'passage' is; but let's ignore that issue at this point.)

No such thing can happen in the real world, of course. You and I, real people, cannot travel into the world of a story. (Except in the trivial sense that we can read a story and then imagine the world of that story. But we won't simply find ourselves, physically, in a Victorian house in the middle of the 19th century, as Arnold does in the play.) So passage into the unreal is something that only fiction allows: a fictional character can travel from within his own fictional world into the world of a fiction-within-fiction. So does Arnold, only that he visits not just one, but actually three different fictional worlds, all of them constructed out of materials from his friends' works.

I mentioned that the characters in the play are not all on a par when it comes to traveling into fiction. More precisely, the only character who does travel into the fictional worlds of the writers' works is Arnold. In order to travel, you have to first be in one place, then in another place, and you have to remain one and the same person in both places. And only Arnold is in fact still the same person in act II (through all those fiction-within-fiction settings) as in act I (when the writing group met and discussed their works). The other characters are not. True, they are played by the same actors, and they retain some characteristics. Much of the comical effect is based on this (such as the Brevis gag I mentioned in my previous post). But that kind of continuity is comparatively weak. It's just a similarity in appearance and behavior. Mostly, they are simply the characters in those nested fictions, nothing else. They don't have any memories or experiences from the surrounding world, the world of the play proper. So for instance, Brevis, who is in act I a retired schoolteacher who writes musicals (that is, he's a composer of music) transforms into a solid doctor in the Victorian setting and then into a senior agent of some kind in the science fiction setting. In none of those he seems to have any memory of his schoolteacher personality. He's just reduced to being these fictional characters. In other words, he's not really Brevis at all. The most we can say is that he appears in various roles with Brevis' appearance and some (not all) of his personality attributes.

Arnold, on the other hand, remains the same person. Not only does he keep his memories and basic personality (and also his name) in all the fictional settings, he also considerably struggles to recognize that he is now within those fictional worlds at the beginning of act II. He is a person from the 'real' world (the world of the play) who has just traveled, inadvertently, into a fictional world, and he has to find out about that new situation first. He is, in that respect, in a similar situation as we, the audience, are. Of course, in contrast to us, the audience, Arnold doesn't just watch, he is involved in all kinds of interaction, and he's even suspected of murder at one point. Arnold, in a word, maintains a continuity of personality; none of the other characters does that. Even though he has traveled into fictional worlds, he still has the memories of the originating world, and he has to unlearn some behaviors from there. For instance, he needs to learn the names of the other characters inside their respective worlds. When he encounters Clem for the first time in the early twentieth century murder mystery, he learns that Clem is by no means Clem, but 'Jim'. (Clem has taken on the role of a detective inspector in the crime fiction world of one of the writers' works, and in that role he goes by the name 'Jim'.) So Arnold calls him 'Clem', is corrected, and henceforth calls him 'Jim'. No such adjustment goes on with any of the other characters. They appear to have never been anywhere else but in that world in which they currently are. They haven't come from the surrounding world (the world of the play).

I think that such continuity is a necessary condition for passage into an instance of unreality. What would happen if, in contrast to the actual way the play is written, Arnold would have had no continuity of memory, and personality? What if he, just as all the other characters, had fully transformed into a character of the Victorian story, the murder mystery, and the science fiction romp? In that case, what we would have witnessed in act II would have been much more abstracted from the events in act I. We would have seen a first act that featured some writers talking about their writings, and then a second version of those writings, now acted out by people resembling the actors in act I, but without connection to them. Thus one effect of Arnold's continuity of person is to connect: to bind act I and act II together more strongly, and also to draw us, the audience, deeper into the events. After all, he is in a way in the same situation as we are. Just as we, the audience, remember the content of act I, so does he. By providing a possibility to identify with him, the play makes it easier for us to engage imaginatively. Arnold is, so to speak, 'our man on stage'. He is closer to us than the other characters, because he has the same memories of previous events as we have (and the other characters seem not to have), and he has to make sense of what's going on, just as we have, too.

The continuity of personality in Arnold and our sense of plunging from the world of the play into the worlds of those fictions within that world are two sides of a medal. If there were no traveler such as Arnold, the only thing we could perceive would be a sequence of, first, a play in which stories are talked about, and second, a number of dramatic performances of something resembling those stories — and we would perceive that as an arrangement made by the playwright (or the director). It's rather similar to reading an introduction to a dialogue of Plato, say, where the introduction quotes extensively and summarizes the content of the dialogue, and then continuing to read that very dialogue which comes in the same volume, after the introduction. There is an external editor behind this constellation. Compare this to the scene in Sophie's World in which Plato himself appears in a video recording and gives his spectator introductory questions that lead into his philosophy (which is afterwards explained to Sophie in a written overview article).[1]

Thus there wouldn't be passage at all if none of the characters had any continuity through the different worlds. There's nothing impossible about a play being constructed that way. But it wouldn't feature any sort of passage any more. Passage requires continuity in at least one character, continuity throughout the world of the fiction and the world of the fiction-within-fiction. It must be the same, continuous person in the originating world and the destination world. It's the same thing with passage in other forms. When people enter dream worlds in movies like Inception, they retain a good deal of their personality from the world outside the dream — including their plans, of course, for otherwise the plot of trying to steal something specific (such as vital business information) during the dream would not be feasible. Likewise, no timetravel story really would make sense unless the timetraveler is the same person in the destination world (that is, the world at some past or future time) as in the originating 'present' from which she started.

[1] Jostein Gaarder, Sophie's World. New York: FSG 2007, 77–78. There are more interesting instances of passage in that novel, but those are for another time.

April 8, 2012

Improbable fiction and passage markers

I remember that a few years ago, on a trip to Oxford, I watched a play called Improbable Fiction by Alan Ayckbourne. The cast of characters consists of people who meet for a session of their creative writing circle; the first act introduces both the individuals, their relationships, and their writings (a colorful assortment of genres: crime fiction, science fiction, children's books, and more). In the second act, then, during a thunderstorm, all these fictions are brought to life, and the characters find themselves in a world that has been created out of their writings.

Much of the fun in this comedy comes from the writer characters being in turn characters in their own fictions, sometimes in unlikely positions. For instance, there is Brevis, a retired schoolteacher who angrily corrects Clem (the author of complicated science fiction), whenever he misuses a foreign or technical term. Later on, when the science fiction setting has become real, Brevis is the character from Clem's fiction who utters one of these the wrong terms after the other, totally convinced and with a straight face. There was one laugh after the other from the audience. Part of what this shows, of course, is how cleverly all the fun in act II was prepared in act I.

When I just wrote that the characters find themselves in a world created out of their writings, that's not fully correct — in two ways. First, strictly speaking only one of the characters actually 'finds himself' in the strange setting. That character, Arnold, suddenly notices that his surroundings have somewhat changed, and gradually comes to understand that he is now exactly within those fictions he has heard about earlier in the evening (that is, in act I). The others haven't any noticable consciousness of the change. They just act as the characters of those fictions-within-fiction. Jess, for instance, who was in act I an aspiring writer of historical romances, is now the narrator of a Victorian fortune-hunting mystery tale, and she shows no sign of having ever been anything else than an inhabitant of that story. Arnold, on the other hand, first calls her 'Jess' and only gradually comes to understand that she now has transformed into someone else, namely a person from a fiction. So, the only character who maintains a continuity of consciousness from act I through act II is Arnold (he is, in this respect, rather in the same position as we, the audience).

The second way in which it's not quite correct to say that the characters find themselves in a world created out of their fictions is this: there are actually three alternating fictional worlds in which Arnold (and the audience) is thrown. So not all the fictions from act I are combined into only one world. However, some of them are merged: at the peak of the turbulent action in act II, in the science fiction setting, there is also suddenly an appearance of the Hoblin the Goblin (from an illustrated children's book by one of the writers), and all this happens to music which was composed by a member of the circle for a musical. So the worlds of their fictions are partially merged, partially they are held separate. There is an old Victorian setting, an early twentieth-century setting (a classical murder mystery), and finally a modern setting which has the science fiction and fantasy elements in it.

Since these alternate frequently and rapidly, how do we know in which one of them we are, at any given moment in act II? There is a strike of thunder that often signals a switch between fictional worlds, and normally there is also changed lighting and different costumes. These indicators all subtly hint at a change of setting. In part they belong to the conventions of the theatre stage — so if there is a change in lighting, we normally recognize that as a signal (for instance, it could mean that time has passed by and it's now evening where it was just mid-day, or in a more abstract setting it might mean a change to a different room, or again it might signal a temporary stepping out of the stage plot altogether, into a soliloquy designed to express some character's feelings or plans). But then on the other hand, these signals are only understood by us, the audience. What about Arnold, the character who is also drawn into those fictional worlds? I haven't checked the text of the play yet, but as far as I remember, he doesn't reflect on the change of lighting, or the difference in costume. So we can presume that these signals are meant for the audience, not for him. How does he, as a character who just traveled into a fiction, recognize that this is what happened?

In other words, what we are looking for here are passage markers: details in the world of a fiction-within-fiction which signal to a character that he has just traveled from a fiction (the world of Ayckbourn's play, in our example) to the world of a fiction within that fiction (one of the worlds of those writers circle members' fictions). In the terminology of this blog, I call such a trip a passage into some instance of unreality. Fictions, that is, stories or novels, are instances of unreality; thus, if a character travels into a world of fiction, that's called a passage into an instance of unreality. So we're looking for signals that let such a character recognize he is now within the world of a fiction. (Just to give a few more examples: other ways to travel to an instance of unreality are timetravel, where you travel into the past or the future, or entering the world of someone else's dream, as in movies like Inception. In the first case, how do you know that now you are 'in the past', or 'in the future'? If you think about it for a moment, it's not quite trivial. The same applies to dreams — what are signs that show you you're now 'within someone else's dream'? I'm not going into these other examples here, but stick with fiction. But I wanted to mention the parallel.)

If an author wants to make it clear to his character that he's been traveling into a different world (such as the world of a fiction), he builds passage markers into that world which demonstrate the fact to that character. And so did Ayckbourn. The passage marker in this case is a telephone, which sits on a sideboard throughout act I. At the beginning of act II, when we are suddenly in a Victorian setting, the phone has vanished, and promptly Arnold is perplexed when he wants to use it and notice it's gone. Then we switch to the early twentieth century and its murder mystery, and there's an old-fashioned phone sitting in the right place — but Arnold confusedly notes that this isn't his phone. In the modern science fiction setting, the phone's back where it belongs. By now everyone, including Arnold, has realized that the phone being there or not, and being a modern one or not, indicates in which world we currently are. I remember when watching the play, the first thing I looked at whenever something strange happened was the phone: a quick check to make sure I was oriented about where (in which of the fictional worlds) I was. And of course, so did Arnold on stage.

So the telephone in Improbable Fiction serves as a passage marker: it shows us that a character has been transported from his world (the world of the play) into another world (the world of one of the fictions within that fictional world). In this case, not only does the marker indicate that passage has transpired, but it also shows us in which of the different destination worlds we have arrived now. For passage into the unreal, then, that is for travels of a fictional character into some other world than his or her own world (like worlds of stories, dreams, or the past or the future), passage markers are a central device that helps both the audience and the characters themselves to realize they have successfully reached their destination.

March 4, 2012

Creating fictional worlds

Every time we encounter a new fictional story we create a new world. The default assumption is that this world contains everything the real world contains. We then modify this representation based on several constraints [...].[1]
This talk of representation (and world creation) can easily mislead, and the formulations in Skolnick and Bloom's paper are a good example for this, so let's have a closer look.

Fictional worlds are a product of the imagination; for example, when we read a story, we imagine a fictional world in which the characters of that story live, and in which the events that make up the plot of the story happen. There are, however, different senses of 'imagining' a fictional world. When you read a Sherlock Holmes story, you imagine an early-20th-century London with a certain famous detective and his sidekick investigating complicated cases there. Of course, in some sense you are creating that world in your imagination — perhaps you visualize some of the settings or characters when you read passages in which they are described; perhaps you even imagine the coldness of a certain evening or the dusty smell of a train compartment; perhaps you feel sympathy or disgust for some of the people in the story. But then there is a second, different sense of imagining the Sherlock Holmes world: the sense in which its creator, Arthur Conan Doyle, has fixed the recipe for your imaginative processes by writing those descriptions, playing to those emotions. The world of the story is the product of the author's imagination in a different sense from that in which it is the product of a reader's imagination. The imaginative processes of writing a story and so constituting that world are different from those of reading it and constituting the world — although they probably overlap in some significant portion.

Let's first note, then, that the sense in which Skolnick and Bloom talk of creating a fictional world must be the first sense, the sense in which a reader imagines the world of the story she reads. Clarifying this, and keeping these senses apart would do away with a confused statement they make about the use of the term 'story':
Our theory states that we create a new world every time we encounter a new story. But this is a little misleading, since it hinges on how we define 'story'. Surely it is not the case that every novel or movie is its own story, since that would involve creating new worlds for sequels. [...] A story must thus be broader than a single work of fiction."[2]
If this were correct, then we would be wrong to say that there are 56 short stories and four novels featuring the famous detective, which each have a plot and tell a story. What we would have to say instead is that there is a single story that is spread over these 60 literary works, and presumably over many others which include guest appearances of Sherlock Holmes, plus films and television series', all of which belong to the same single story. The story wouldn't even be complete: if someone writes another novel as a sequel of Conan Doyle's works, that would be part of it, and there might potentially infinitely many such sequels. But we don't really think that 'the Sherlock Holmes story' is incomplete and open-ended in principle, do we?

The reason for this bizarre new way of talking would be that whenever we read one of the different texts, we create a new world, one distinct from all other worlds created so far. Not making the distinction introduced above, between different senses in which we create a fictional world when we imagine one while reading fiction vs. writing ficton, this makes it seem as if we'd 'create' a new world in the sense in which Conan Doyle thinks up the Sherlock Holmes world whenever we merely read one of the novels or short stories. And since that obviously can't be right, we seem to need a revised use of 'story', a use in which all the texts belonged only to a single story (one that was produced by the author).

But there is nothing wrong with multiple stories being set in the same fictional world, and still be different stories. The fictional world of the Sherlock Holmes literature is not created afresh every time some reader encounters one of the stories. It has been created once, by the author, when writing those pieces, and it's been one and the same since then. Of course, whenever some reader encounters the stories, she would have to imagine that world afresh, and so in a different sense 'create' it. But in that sense, this causes no problem whatsoever, and therefore no need to revise the usage of the term 'story'. (What Skolnick and Bloom must have had in mind when they say that new worlds aren't created by sequels is the first sense: of course the author doesn't think up a new world when he writes a sequel.)

Compare: every time someone draws the rabbit-duck picture on a sheet of paper, he 'creates' the drawing; but that doesn't mean that there are infinitely many inventors of that particular image. There is only one inventor, the person who created it in the first place. And the sense of 'create' in which that person did create it is a different sense from the one we use when we say that you create it by drawing it on a piece of paper.

[1] Deena Skolnick and Paul Bloom, "The Intuitive Cosmology of Fictional Worlds", in The Architecture of the Imagination, edited by Shaun Nichols, Oxford: Clarendon 2009, 73–86, 77.

I think I will refer some more often to this paper; although I start here with some criticism of its terminology, it contains some interesting results and ideas. But that's for a later post.

[2] Ibd., 81.

January 30, 2012

Introductory book about the ideas behind this blog

During the fall months of the past year, it's been a little quieter than usual on this blog. The reason was that last summer I found that I needed something more of a coherent presentation of the ideas behind it — a kind of backgrounder and introductory text. So I sat down to write that. The result has taken the shape of a small book, which is now available in a draft version. (There is still some formatting work I want to do to optimize readability, and possibly smallish corrections in wording and grammar.)

You can download the pdf version here.

The table of contents looks like this:



  Living your life · Reflection · Imagination · Philosophy


  Beauty · Excellence of character · Eudaimonia


  Unreality · Interplay · Apartness · Present


January 26, 2012

Hinting at the difference

In Jasper Fforde's series of 'Thursday Next' novels that begins with The Eyre Affair, the borders between reality and fiction are permeable: they can be crossed from either side. What's more, there are multiple ways to do the trick. One way is open to young children with strong powers of imagination. The main character recalls:
my mind was young and the barrier between reality and make-belief had not yet hardened into the shell that cocoons us in adult life. The barrier was soft, pliable and for a moment, thanks to the kindness of a stranger and the power of a good storytelling voice, I made the short journey — and returned.[1]
Let's put romanticism about childhood experience aside (Fforde exploits this cleverly in this passage, but it's not this rhetorical aspect I'm interested in here). What is the function of such explanations about the "barrier between reality and make-belief"? (Which are explanations, really, about the theory or metaphysics underlying the world of the book.) What do they help to achieve in the process of our consuming (or appreciating) fiction?

It is sometimes said that their function is to motivate what is going on in this instance of fiction (i.e. in this book or movie), that they are included in order to make the goings-on (the events, the reaction of the characters) plausible. Their function then, on this view, is to help us believe what we observe; they move us from incredulity to acceptance; they enable suspension of disbelief.

Now this is certainly not entirely wrong: such formulations probably do all these things. But suggestive though it may be, this way of putting it also obscures an important distinction. We don't perceive worlds of fiction. We imagine them. (No doubt we perceive, visually and auditorily, what goes on on a movie screen. But that's not the same as perceiving the imaginary world. In order for the latter to become accessible, there must be a process of imagination, just as there must be such a process when we read a novel. The imagination may be greatly supported by the movie images and sounds, both of which aren't there when we read prose. But what constitutes the fictional world, in both cases, is a process of imagination.) In contrast to perception, then, what we do isn't in the first instance belief-forming, but something more like stipulation.[2]

What phrases such as this one do is not to make the fictional world believable, I'm going to contend. Rather, these are hints to the imagination, design hints. They guide the imagination in fundamental aspects of the fictional world it constructs. They control the frame of what we imagine.

For instance, in the quote above from the Fforde novel: what we are told here is not that, contrary to our everyday belief, the borders between reality and fiction might be more porous than we thought, after all. (How would that be a plausible claim, even if it were made with the intention to appear as one? Countless experiences and the whole body of common knowledge weigh in favor of the contrary.) Instead, it is an indicator, given by the author, of the kind of fictional world we're in. It gently nudges our imagination in a certain direction. We're to imagine a fictional world (that is the world of the novel The Eyre Affair) in which, much in contrast to the real world, the borders between this world itself and any nested fiction (nested unreality, such as that of the book Jane Eyre as referred to in the novel The Eyre Affair) are permeable. It's more subtle than the traditional "Imagine, dear reader, a world in which the borders between reality and fiction can be bent, so that one might travel between the those two..." — but the function is exactly the same. It isn't intended to make such a thought more plausible or believable; it's intended to point out ways for us to imagine such a world.

Such pointers, such hints at differences between the fictional world we're dealing with and the real world, have something in common with the bits of fictional export I mentioned in the previous post. The author provides us with them so that we are better able to imagine the fictional world in question. The materials for fictional export hold also in the real world, and they are included by the author in his fictional world because they are required for the narrative. (Think explanations of forensic methods in crime fiction.) The differential hints I'm discussing here are of course explanations of differences between reality and fiction (this particular fiction). But they serve the same function: helping us to better understand what sort of world we are to imagine in order to make sense of the narrative.
[1] Jasper Fforde, The Eyre Affair. London: Hodder and Stoughton 2001, 63.
[2] Both perception and imagination are incredibly complicated processes, which haven't been researched in all detail by cognitive science and other disciplines yet. A good starting point for reading up about the differences in phenomenology is Colin McGinn's Mindsight. Image, Dream, Meaning, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press 2004, especially chapter 1.