Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The Uncanniness of Solipsism

I have been collecting for a while now instances of a particularly distressing form of uncanniness. Or, rather, since recognizing this category of uncanniness, I have been going back through my memories and marking all those instances of it which were already present.

I recognized the category while watching Woody Allen's 2011 movie Midnight in Paris. Gil, Owen Wilson's present-day writer, finds a magical contrivance which, at midnight, takes him back in time to the Paris of the 1920's, a period of cultural fertility which he idolizes. The movie is supposed to be a comedy, but it is not only that. Here Gil walks with Adriana, a 1920's Parisian played by Marion Cotillard:

Do you see anything wrong with this picture?

I do. There's nothing in it. A city is full of life, movement, people. Here the streets of Paris are oddly deserted. The stage is set and the crew have switched on the lights, but the actors are nowhere to be found.

This eerie underpopulation persists in all the 1920's sequences. Here Salvador Da and Man Ray meet up with Gil in a restaurant:

A few extras are artfully placed - but not enough extras to convince us that this is a real, functioning restaurant. The present-day sequences are full of noise and urban vitality. The 1920's sequences look like the 1920's, but apart from people speaking directly to Gil, they are nearly unpeopled and silent.

The effect becomes even more overbearing during a brief jump-within-a-jump to the gaslit 1890's:

Ignore the large number of people in the frame, they fall away as the scene progresses. All that remains are the dim lights, and a stifling velvet darkness.

Gil does not notice this spooky etiolation, so besotted is he with talking to his heroes - to Hemingway and Gertrude Stein and Picasso and F. Scott Fitzgerald. But the style of the filmmaking tells us that these are not his heroes. They are almost convincing imitations of them, set in motion to advance some unstated purpose. For my part, the menacing staging was reminding me of something, and I quickly remembered what it was: the hideous pollen in Haruki Murakami's The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. In this bewitching book, the main character, Toru Okada, repeatedly enters a dreamlike alternate Tokyo centered on room 208, a hotel suite:

The room is dark. A vase holds a massive bouquet of flowers, and the air is heavy with their suggestive fragrance. ... In the bed at the back of the suite lies a woman. I hear her moving in the sheets. The ice makes a pleasant clinking in her glass. Minuscule grains of pollen suspended in the air shudder with the sound, like living organisms. Each tiny ripple of sound passing through the air brings more of them to sudden life. The pale darkness opens itself to the pollen, and the pollen, taken in, increases the density of the darkness. 
(pp. 393-394)

This upsetting pollen reappears in further dreams of the room:

...a familiar sharp smell of pollen struck my nostrils. I was in that strange hotel room. ... All of a sudden, the phone began to ring. My heart froze like a frightened cat. The air's sharp reverberations woke the floating grains of pollen, and the flower petals raised their faces in the darkness. 
(pp. 550-551)

I'm not sure if the awful threat of the pollen translates in these brief excerpts. They intimate not only sex, but violence, in the book; they bode bloodshed. But worse than that, they suggest that this entire world does not exist when Toru Okada is not present. His entrance awakens a latent reality, it brings the Tokyo of room 208 lurching into a kind of half-life, a grisly mimicry of independent being. The longer he stays, the closer this world draws to an explosion of violence. He must keep entering the world, and awakening the awful pollen, and trying to reach his goal before the pollen finishes waking up.

We are now approaching this fresh category of uncanniness. Consider another instance of it, Coraline, book and film. In Neil Gaiman's story, a little girl discovers a passage in her house to a second house, with a second set of her parents waiting for her. They seem like her real parents at first, but better - more loving and more exciting -  and with buttons for eyes. As Coraline spends more time in this other world, it becomes increasingly phantasmagorical. In the film, she observes an intricate dance of blank-eyed circus mice which, for my part, made me want to run screaming from the theater:

Again we are confronted with a world which springs into being only as a single real character enters it, and which falls silent again when he or she leaves.

Coraline provides the most explicit key of these three instances to the uncanniness involved: the other world is a construct designed to delight and distract Coraline. It is a trap. Over time, everything in it softens and blurs, and the other mother clarifies - she is an arachnid, some kind of predatory soul-eater:

She's been out to catch and consume Coraline the whole time.

This completes the concept of the uncanny false world. Not only does it spring into being in response to the presence of a single real consciousness - a very close model of philosophical solipsism - but it proves persistently impossible to shake the feeling that a second consciousness created it to trick the target consciousness. It is as if one were stuck in the mirrored interior of a disco ball, and had a sense of something moving in the darkness outside. The uncanny menace of this type of world is as follows:

1. Because it exists for a single individual, it reeks of falsehood.
2. The texture of its falsehood is of a kind with intentional manipulation.

Here we have a good example of hopefulness in horror. What I mean is this - as children, some of us worry that the entire universe may be an illusion, that we alone can be said to exist. This is an instinctive formulation of the solipsistic argument. The urgency of the anxiety tends to diminish over time, but it is one of those peculiar arguments which cannot be dismissed; its claims are larger than all sets of contrary evidence can encompass.

For all that, the fact that all actual instances of the solipsistic universe are attended by this uncanny sense of falsehood and the unseen second consciousness provide some of the most powerful evidence available for the existence of an actual universe independent of ourselves. It is a kind of counterfactual proof: to suppose the truth of solipsism seems inherently to invoke this mood of the uncanny. The mood of the uncanny is a visceral, pre-rational evaluation of the solipsistic universe as utterly impossible. It folds obscenely.

This is no kind of analytic proof, but analytic proofs are posterior things. They come after fundamental things. The question of the independent existence of the universe is a fundamental question; we are scraping along the very bottom of the world when we ask about this. In this murky realm, intuition is elevated above its ordinary place. It is nearly all we have left. We are so constructed as to be unable to buy into a true solipsistic universe. This is some of the most powerful evidence we are going to get that our ordinary working assumption is correct: there is a universe. There are people in it. We are not alone.


Let me add here an excerpt from a conversation between Paul Éluard and André Breton.

left to right: Paul Éluard, André Breton (photograph by Man Ray)

ÉLUARD: How do you reconcile your love of women and your taste for sodomy?
BRETON: The question of reconciliation does not arise. I prefer sodomy for moral reasons and above all through considerations of non-conformity. No chance of a child with a woman one does not love, and that a woman one does love can so abandon herself seems to me infinitely arousing.
BRETON: From the materialist point of view, in the case of a woman I love, it is infinitely more pessimistic (shit's law) and therefore more poetic.
ÉLUARD: But why, for example, does not the idea of conception through coitus appear more pessimistic to you than shit?
BRETON: Because it is in conformity with growth which is mingled in my mind with the idea of well-being.

Oh, P.S., Éluard and Breton co-founded surrealism. This excerpt is from the Research into Sexuality, as quoted on page 91 of A Book of Surrealist Games. It took place in a part of Paris in the 1920's which Woody Allen somehow failed to include in his movie.

I am well aware that in a metaphysical sense, I consistently advocate for the principle of well-being sketched out, and rejected, by Breton. Philosophically speaking, I am Mr. Vanilla.

I am afflicted with a sense that this makes me very bland. There are all kinds of dark pleasures - whatever Breton would be into if he were around today - which, like two north magnetic poles pushed toward one another, I bend away from. While Breton and his friends have the whiff of brimstone about them, I myself am not sexy. I am not adventurous; I am neither wild nor mysterious; I am in favor of rendering good to the good, and bad to the bad; death has got no part of me.

I have spent a good deal of time considering evil, and I think in some ways I have the hang of it. I believe Socrates has it wrong about evil. It is possible not only to do evil, but to choose evil - to do evil in the context not of confusion, but of clarity. And though I can see my way to this, and to its awful strength, I cannot choose it. I believe that lacking even a tincture of the choice of evil makes me some way duller than I need to be, less daring and less great. But I cannot bear the stain.

This series of thoughts came up when I reached my set of conclusions about the uncanniness of solipsism. Why? Because I find it almost unbearably tedious that I can reason my way clear around the circumference of the universe and what I come up with is, "The universe exists. You are not alone." I am utterly unsurprised that this is the chipper conclusion I reach. It is in character for me, it is mundane, it is an obvious conclusion which did not require so much effort. I feel that the Breton crowd would snub me once they got to know me. I would not be cool.

While this is disappointing, there are compensations to the uncool position. Although I cannot get as much of hate and pessimism as I would like, I have so much love and well-being that I can give them away to other people. I can even write them down and make pictures of them. So, fine: we are all constituted in such a way as to have some nature which is our own nature. This is mine.

Thus do I assert myself.

I will never cease in praising the virtues, and though they are obvious, boring virtues, that does not diminish our happiness when we make a life in them.


Instances of the uncanniness of solipsism not discussed here:

A Maze of Death (novel), by Philip K. Dick (and most of the rest of his books)
They (short story), by Robert A. Heinlein
The Muse (short story), by Anthony Burgess
The Third Expedition (chapter), The Martian Chronicles, by Ray Bradbury
The Shining, as filmed by Stanley Kubrick
The Polar Express, as filmed by Robert Zemeckis

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