Saturday, June 18, 2016

Love and MacGuffins and Truth

I was just thinking about the interesting and counterintuitive use of MacGuffins in film noir.

A little background. Hitchcock -- and most suspense writers -- use MacGuffins to retard the love story. A MacGuffin pulls a narrative down a track criss-crossing the love story that will make the movie end happily. We want the happy ending, but not too soon -- we want (as George Ainslie says in his great essay on "Money as MacGuffin") to build up an appetite for it not ruined by being satisfied too soon. That's why we go to the movies instead of just day-dreaming all the time: we can have anything we want in our day-dreaming restaurant, and so we never end up really wanting anything. But movies -- even romantic comedies -- delay the happy ending and make it all the more rewarding by doing so. Still, as Ainslie says, it's not just a question of waiting for the happy ending: it's seeing it blocked, and often more and more blocked as the tell-tale compression of minutes that remain (to allude to Northanger Abbey) seems to make the happy ending less and less likely, more and more a mere daydream. That's how climaxes work: there's no way out! Ginger Rogers has actually married Bedini. Almost as bad as when Ingrid Bergman actually marries Alex Sebastian. (I am using stars' names and character names advisedly: part of the point is the star we want to see in a happy ending in this movie marries: some other character, and not the other star.)

So because we don't control the fiction, we worry that we won't get the reward the desire (or "literary need," as I've been calling it in earlier posts) for which has been building and building. Okay -- that's one way of describing the most basic plot: want something and wait for it. But what's great about Hitchcock, and Hitchcockian plots in general, is the way he counterpoints that desire with another one: the desire to know the significance of the MacGuffin.

It's not that the MacGuffin is just an objective the hunt for which brings the lovers together. That's a pretty standard plot too, and it makes sense and it works. But in Hitchcock, the MacGuffin is always a puzzle. "What are the 39 Steps?" Why does the Lady Vanish -- what could her significance possibly be? What is it that James Mason is trying to sneak out of the country? What's in the wine bottles that makes them so significant? Of course we sometimes know what the objective (really) is in Hitchcock, but his movies seem deepest when we don't.

So this makes possible the interplay of two stories: one about love, the other about knowledge. (Vertigo telescopes them together in interesting ways.) The love story can end at any time if the lovers just walk away, which is just what the male characters keep urging: Carey Grant to Ingrid Bergman, and to Eva-Marie Saint, Robert Donat to Madeline Carroll. (Occasionally, and interestingly, it will go the other way, especially if the male star is Jimmy Stewart, doggedly ignoring the good advice of Kim Novak or Grace Kelly: but then she gets into it.) So we could get the reward of the love story with a happy ending if we gave up on the knowledge.

But we also want to know, so that we find ourselves torn between two conflicting preferences. Go away or search the wine cellar? Figure out what James Mason is up to, or check in to a lodge at Mt. Rushmore? And the audience always chooses knowledge, deferring and risking the love story in order to try to have it all. It's important that the knowledge is never worth it -- it's a gap more interesting than its solution. (How couldn't it be? Narratives about the search are always more interesting in their middles than in their endings. Mistah Kurtz, he boring (even when played by Marlon Brando); Alaska, she dead (spoiler, sorry!).

So the end of a Hitchcock movie gives you a quick -- a very quick -- revelation of what the MacGuffin really was. Our thirst for knowledge is slaked, and because that slaking can't be of the order of the desire it satisfies, the solution would be (often is) a disappointment if there weren's something else converging with that conclusion: the consummation of the love story. So the MacGuffin is the mechanical white rabbit (or undetached rabbit's foot, as in the Quinean Mission Impossible III) that leads us down its own track or rabbit hole to the deferred and longed-for conclusion.

So back to noir, and the femme fatale. The genius of movies (and sometimes novels) like The Maltese Falcon and Out of the Past is that the MacGuffin's formal status as MacGuffin is part of the plot, that is part of what the noir (anti)hero is doing. Spade or Jeff Bailey are not, or not fundamentally, in love with the femmes fatales (disclaimer: yeah sorry, the movies are sexist, it's the formal structure I'm interested in). They both know, and know from the start of the main action, not to trust the women they are teamed up with. And they're barely interested in the MacGuffins, the "dingus" as Spade calls it, at all. Rather they want to understand the crimes that have organized themselves around the MacGuffins. It's still a question of knowledge. Spade knows who done it from the start (as we find out at the end), but not why. So the forties noirs use what might be called fake MacGuffins, objects the detectives are not really interested in, even in the fictional world, and fake love stories, stories for which the detectives have no ambition or dersire for a happy ending, in order to find out the MacGuffin of all MacGuffins, the truth.

That means, of course, that noirs are about truth rather than erotic satisfaction. But the truth is about human character, not the value or history of the dingus (even if it's worth as much as Dr. Evil's "ONE MILLION DOLLARS!"). The noir detective uses the MacGuffin to find out the truth about human motivation. That truth is not erotic, and so the MacGuffin in noir doesn't lead us circuitously to erotic satisfaction: the detective uses the MacGuffin as a decoy that seems to map out that circuitous route, in order instead to undermine the erotic interest in favor of the truth. In Hitchcock the search for truth is a well-paced route to love. In noir the detective controls the pacing of the falsified love story through the MacGuffin in order to find the route to the truth.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Literary Need -- VI

You know how there are talismanic quotations that you know, sufficiently so that you don't quite think them through? I think that's partly a result of rhythm: strict endings complete a line (that's a rule of Indo-European metrics); and rhythms structure and sometimes anchor the remembered words.

I've always loved these lines of Stevens's, from "The Plain Sense of Things":
Yet the absence of the imagination had
Itself to be imagined. The great pond,
The plain sense of it, without reflections, leaves,
Mud, water like dirty glass, expressing silence

Of a sort, silence of a rat come out to see,
The great pond and its waste of the lilies, all this
Had to be imagined as an inevitable knowledge,
Required, as a necessity requires.
Some time long ago I abbreviated them, without knowing it, as "The absence of the imagination had itself to be imagined, / Required, as a necessity requires." And it was only the first of those two pseudo-lines whose meaning I thought much about. The imagination would never be absent! To think so was to rejoin it, to imagine even that. "Disillusion as the last illusion," as Stevens says in a later poem. Or Beckett's: "Imagination dead, imagine!" (my punctuation).

The end of the poem, the end of my abbreviated version, was only what filled out the stirring, saving, Berkeleyan self-contradiction of trying to imagine the imagination absent.

But now I begin to wonder why the absence of the imagination was "required"? Why makes its absence, or imagining its absence, necessary?

I think if I thought about it at all that I took "required" to mean just a way of repeating had in "had to be imagined." It is required that you do euthanize your faith. But that's because I didn't really pay attention to the as of the last line. As a necessity required. We need to imagine necessity too. Ananke is not the iron law we cannot escape. It is the law we imagine we suffer under, but we need to imagine it. The rat can come out to see, whenever it wants to: it's a placidly, self-contained Rilkean animal, a denizen of the immediate.

But we need necessity, and the only question is whether our need for it is enough to count as need -- as we need it to be.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Exit Chantal, to the west

Word has just come today of the death of Chantal Akerman yesterday (October 5).  I spent a week with her in 2001, just post September 11; we really hit it off and I always hoped to see her again and imagined I would (because who would have thought I'd ever meet her anyhow?).  I arranged for the U.S. premiere of La Captive, and she came to discuss it, and to talk about Jeanne Dielman in my film class.  Leslie Camhi and Stanley Cavell joined Chantal (as it seems more faithful to my memory of that week that I should call her) for a discussion after the screening of La Captive.

Chantal insisted in class and in conversation (which always took place through a cloud of Gitane smoke) that Jeanne Dielman was not a feminist movie -- she hated hearing it described that way; she hated seeing it analyzed that way.  Stanley talked about it a little bit after the screening of La Captive: he saw it as being about skepticism, about being part of the line of theatrical and cinematic treatments of the desire to be a skeptic, to abolish other minds, to secure oneself from the world, that he has traced from Shakespeare to screwball comedies and melodramas.  Jeanne's murderous response to having an orgasm was for Cavell a response to losing control (of course) because of her relation to another, followed then by the abolition of the other.  Although he didn't say this, Jeanne's relation to her son would be part of that skeptical dynamic, that skeptical recital which Jeanne's whole life constitutes.  Cavell sees the creation of a world for another, so that skepticism can't be the point or the shield, as the reason that Shakespeare's women don't hide within skepticism.  They transcend it, but that's something that Jeanne manages to dodge.

Unskeptical myself, at least among the truly great, I worried about how Chantal would respond to Stanley.  I needn't have.  She was ecstatic.  This was one of those rare moments where I felt perfectly happy to embrace the intentional fallacy.  Well, that's what was thematized, wasn't it?  Chantal's sense of Delphine Seyrig's sense of Jeanne -- all of them other minds.

This was partly the case because Chantal had a very intense relation to her actors, and there was some continuity between actor and role (as when she played in her own movies).  I liked how much she loved and mourned Seyrig.  I was fascinated by her dislike for Juliette Binoche, who starred in A Couch in New York (she liked William Hurt well enough).  I liked her arms-length professional-peer memories of Godard, who let her observe him making movies in the late sixties.

After that week, she was off to Douglas, Arizona, to make her documentary on Mexican immigrants, De l'autre coté.  I'd been to Douglas, and to Agua Prieta, on the Mexican side.  Douglas was a dirt-poor town, Agua Prieta a ridiculously energetic place.  It seemed great that we both knew those obscure towns.  We had fun talking about it, and about everything else.  I am so sorry that will never happen again.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Patty Duke of Ilyria

We know that the Elizabethan stage used doubling a lot: one actor, several characters. That saved money and made possible plays with a large set of characters. But it also allowed (like The Wizard of Oz) for a kind of metatheatrical linking of characters, and we know that Shakespeare loved metatheatrical moments: "too long for a play"; "my father died within these two hours"; or the moment when Jaques notices that a prose line (in a scene that's all prose) is also iambic pentameter, as many, perhaps the plurality of our fully formed sentences are:

ORLANDO: Good day and happiness, dear Rosalind!
JAQUES: Nay, then, God be wi' you, an you talk in blank verse.

Thus doubling can link Hamlet Senior to Claudius, if they're played by the same actor, or again the Fool to Cordelia (since they both very likely were played by Robert Armin), or Mamillius to Perdita.

So I was wondering about near-identical twins in Shakespeare -- he liked such Plautian stories as we know from The Comedy of Errors. But what about writing plays so that one actor can play both twins? Well if the twins are going to meet (and they are), you need two actors. But do you need them all the way through? I was thinking about this in Twelfth Night, and noticed this. Viola (dressed as the boy Cesario) exits Act I, Scene v after expostulating with Olivia. But the scene isn't over: Olivia broods about loving "him," then summons Malvolio to send him the ring, etc.

Next scene (II.i): enter Sebastian and Antonio. If the same actor is now playing Sebastian, the business at the end of the previous scene has given him time to change. They talk, express their love and mutual admiration, etc., and then off goes Sebastian. But Antonio stays on stage to say some more about how much he likes Sebastian and also why he (Antonio) has to be discrete. This gives the actor enough time to change again and begin the next scene (II.ii) as Viola/Cesario.

We next see Sebastian in III.iii, in a scene considerably later than Viola's last appearance in scene i; then after Sebastian's exit at the end of scene iii, Viola reappears in the next scene, but only half-way through it (again, plenty of time for the actor to change). She exits near the end of the scene, but some business after her exit between Sir Toby, Fabian, and Sir Andrew allows the actor time to change costume and re-enter as Sebastian in IV.i, where he first meets Olivia. Neither of them is in the next scene, so Sebastian doesn't have to change before he re-enters in IV.iii.

But he stays till the end of IV.iii, so Shakespeare has to write a little interchange for the beginning of the next scene (V.i) between Fabian and Feste before the actor re-enters as Viola/Cesario a few lines later. Into this last scene, of course, Sebastian will also enter, and he and Viola will reunite. But I suggest that it's only in this scene that a new actor plays Sebastian, so that he can appear on stage at the same time as Viola. (If you did a play version of The Prestige or of Dead Ringers it would be the same deal, I think.)

So I am now going to Google to see if this is generally known -- but I think it's a pretty cool thing and I am glad to have worked it out myself.

*Googles*

Well, apparently this is not general knowledge, since Stanley Wells generally knows. But I am sure it has to be true. So: COOL!

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Shakespearean slips

I am wondering whether Shakespeare invented the Freudian slip.
Did other people before Shakespeare represent mistakes on stage? I am thinking of the way Shakespeare has people make everyday mistakes (the mistakes of everyday life), as in certain kinds of forgetfulness
Courteous lord, one word.
Sir, you and I must part, but that's not it:
Sir, you and I have loved, but there's not it;
That you know well: something it is I would,
O, my oblivion is a very Antony,
And I am all forgotten. (Cleopatra)

what was I
about to say? By the mass, I was about to say
something: where did I leave? (Polonius)

HOTSPUR    Lord Mortimer, and cousin Glendower,
Will you sit down?
And uncle Worcester: a plague upon it!
I have forgot the map.

KENT               I am come
To bid my king and master aye good night:
Is he not here?
ALBANY   Great thing of us forgot!
Speak, Edmund, where's the king? and where's Cordelia?
I don't think this is just the reality effect, though it is that. Or maybe it would be better to say that the reality effect is one in which something real is going on, something real offered and bargained for and exchanged and clarified.  It matters to Polonius that he was about to say something, and it matters that Reynaldo reminds him of what he wanted to say, show's him a kindness where Hamlet would scorn him.  It matters that Albany forgets Lear and that he has to remember him before Edmund is willing to help: recalling the fates of Lear and Cordelia makes Edmund count.

In a previous post I alluded to Grice's distinction between naturalistic and non-naturalistic meaning.  A fever of 102 degrees F means you're sick, whether you say so or not; "I'm sick and can't come to work today" also means you're sick, whether you are or not.

Freud (we know) had trouble with theorizing repression, because the unconscious mind seemed split between the part that wanted to tell the truth (about its desires, judgments, demands, etc.) and the part that was censoring the part that wanted to tell the truth.  The result of this split was a compromise formation: the unconscious got to tell the truth slant.  Parapraxes -- Freudian slips -- were good evidence for this, he thought.  Whether this is true or not, it's certainly true in some literary contests, where a writer or performer imitates a telling and revelatory lapsus linguae.  But how do we analyze how it's telling?

Does an unconscious communication, a hysterical symptom, a slip of the tongue, mean naturalistically (it's a sympton! like a fever) or non-naturalistically (it's discursive! it knows what it's saying and wants to say it).  Some extreme Freudian formulations (I am looking at you through my -- gulp! -- myopic eyes, Otto Fenichel) saw all symptoms as non-naturalistic meaning, as expressions of unconscious intentions.  Although the intentions themselves might not have been intentions to express, so that naturalistic meaning can come back that way, this doesn't seem true of slips of the tongue: they are my unconscious talking, and my unconscious is talking to you.  So they may have naturalistic meaning on a conscious level (they mean I am repressing something) and non-naturalistic meaning on the unconscious level: they say what my unconscious mind wants to say.

I am interested in costly or honest signaling, how such signaling evolved, what happens when such signaling interacts with conscious expressive intention, what such signaling hopes to elicit (e.g. Reynaldo's aid, Antony's love, Hotspurian enthusiasm; in the Lear case, it's more like we've all forgotten, and need Edmund as he needs to be needed: Albany's forgetfulness is his as well, and only Kent remembers).  One argument in favor of Freud's view is that Freudian slips would be uncontrollable and therefore honest signals, and cooperative species, especially hypercooperative species like our own, need honest signals.  Freudian slips, and maybe the Freudian unconscious, solve a problem in cooperation for a species that has to be able to use language in an extremely skillful and fine-grained way, without being able to lie too easily and at will.  We need to be able to tell when someone is lying, and the way to tell that is both by detecting lies and by detecting truths that they might not wish to admit.  (Some of these truths can be happy ones: she's too shy to admit it but she does love me! Upon that hint I'll speak!)

Anyhow, I think Shakespeare saw this and used it.  Here are two examples of classic Freudian slips, a quick one and a more subtle and therefore more telling one (since what's telling about them is the point).  The quick one is this: when at the end of Twelfth Night Orsino realizes that his page and friend is actually a woman, Viola, he's delighted.  He can marry her.  His repressed homoerotic affection for her now finds heteronormative (sorry, seriously) legitimation.  And so he speaks, and calls her... Cesario.

Cesario, come.
For so you shall be, while you are a man...

He quickly corrects himself, but the mistake isn't one.  That she is pricked out as Cesario is not a bug but a feature.

Here’s my other, longer example, from Richard II.  Richard has gone to Ireland, his rebel cousin Bullingbrook has landed at Ravenspurgh in Yorkshire.  York is the last, despairing survivor of the previous generation.  The trouble in the play begins when his brother (Bullingbrook’s father) the Duke of Lancaster dies; now he receives news that his sister-in-law (“my sister Gloucester”), who had been the close confidante of the last two surviving brothers has just died, and he is the last surviving member of the great generation of Edward’s sons and their widows.  The Duchess of Gloucester doesn’t count as one of them in the psychology of the play because she is not a widow, but a wife and mother who will be called on to interpose between husband and son.  Shakespeare has a bit of playcraft to do here; he has to make plausible the fact that York will change sides, and that the Duchess of York isn’t reason enough to stay loyal to the old regime and its legacy, though loyalty is his natural instinct.  The whole play is about the counterpoint, divergence and convergence between public, politico-theological fidelity and obligation on the one hand and private loyalties and motives on the other.  Shakespeare must represent York as a figure who believes himself to be acting according to the dictates of political theology (as his brother Gloucester certainly had), but who nevertheless is too weak-willed and weak-minded to represent the true principle that he wishes to and thinks he does.  So Shakespeare makes him needy: what’s best is to feel that public duty and private commitment coincide.

Shakespeare has already begun this portrait of his character by showing how Richard manipulates him (in the same way but far more easily than he manipulated Lancaster into voting to banish his own son) by making him his deputy when he goes to Ireland, playing on York’s desire to show his loyalty against his own private preferences, while realizing that this desire is itself a private preference. The Queen contributes to that.  Everyone capable of loving loves her (a fact Bullingbrook capitalizes on); we do, and York does too, so that she adds a private incentive to his preference to do the right official thing.  The Freudian slip that Shakespeare writes for York shows his neediness, his loneliness, his fecklessness and confusion, all of which are necessary to his character, even while adding another touch to the portrait of the sorrow of the Queen, whose husband is later to be murdered just as the Duchess of Gloucester has been murdered.  Off York must go to prepare for Bullingbrook’s invasion, and he takes the Queen with him, calling on her (as Orsino has called on Cesario):
Come, sister,--cousin, I would say--pray, pardon me.
He wants her to be his sister, to replace the sister he has just lost who herself replaced the brother he had lost before.   But she is not his sister and won’t be Queen long, and he no longer has a friend or close relation to support him in his last attempt to support his generation’s view of the world.  He is like Polonius, flustered by a new world, whose grimness his discomfiture underlines. We see he's flustered, we see his need.  Shakespeare, at least, thought such slips worth the telling.  He may not have invented, but discovered them.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Emotional experience as the internalization of costly signaling

Costly signaling may be a universal biological phenomenon, an essential part of the structure of all biological activity.  Yeast do it and so do ants and so do humans.  They do it because it is the nature of costly signaling to be reliable, and the reliability of signals is of paramount importance.
For most organisms, though, signaling is not intentional.  Paul Grice distinguishes between naturalistic and non-naturalistic meaning.  Naturalistic meaning is the kind of thing characteristic of symptoms of disease.  A fever of 102 degrees means an infection, for example.  It doesn’t mean infection because the microbe or the person it infects is trying to declare that an infection is occurring.  It means infection as a natural consequence of the microbe’s interaction with the body (e.g. the body may be reacting in such a way as to make itself an inhospitable environment for the microbe).
On the other hand, if I say that I feel feverish, nothing about those words naturally means that I might have a fever.  You’d need to know English, and to know that I was uttering an English sentence, to know that my saying that meant the possibility of an infection.  Utterances of this sort involve non-naturalistic ways of meaning.
Now one might think that these two kinds of meaning are actually two completely different phenomena.  Naturalistic meaning might better be described as evidence for or consequences of some state of affairs.  Whereas nonnaturalistic meaning means to mean, so to speak.  Its function (or at least a major part of its function) is to be interpreted.  We don’t produce a fever in order to get our physicians to intervene (or when we do, that's interesting).  But we do tell them we feel feverish in order to get them to intervene.
Grice is right, though, to connect these two kinds of meaning.  The reasons peacocks have such elaborate tails, the reason flamingoes are pink, the reason some frogs are blue, is precisely that it is (at least a major part of) the function of such phenomena to be interpreted.  Costly signaling (as in all three of these examples) and warning signs (as in the third) are “designed” (i.e. evolved) to be the object of assessment and appropriate response.  Peacocks and flamingoes signal their fitness by showing (respectively) that they can afford the costs of carting around so large and easily damaged a tail, or the costs of ingesting the poisonous foods that turn flamingos pink.  And some frogs are blue, as is well known, to warn predators that they are poisonous and should be avoided.
In such cases a kind of automatic process of signaling and interpretation occurs.  It’s equivalent to a “flag” in computer programing.  Both the existence of the flag and the appropriate response to it come about automatically.  The flag requires interpretation but does not require deliberation.  Biological signals in general are part of a circuit of interpretation without deliberation.  They’re game theory automatized.  The basic idea of evolutionary game theory is that dominant strategies are selected automatically, because they are the ones that are successful, and success is an automatic selector.  Signals are indeed meaningful, in a fuller sense of the term than is captured by the idea of evidence, residue, trace, relic, byproduct or some other such term implying the post-facto possibility of reconstruction a state of affairs.  Evolutionary advantage accrues to organisms that can respond appropriately, relevantly, and efficiently to the state of affairs by seeing how various flags are natural ensigns meaning that such a state of affairs obtains, and to the organisms whose signals are well- and easily-interpreted.
Cybernetics began as the science of automatic communication within a system, whether biological of mechanical.  Automatic communication follows many of the same principles in both domains.  For example ants follow chemical trails and touch antennae when they meet each other, modifying their activities and pathways as a function of the frequency of their interactions.  Deborah Gordon has dubbed this system the anternet because it turns out to work pretty much the way that the Internet automatically looks for the most efficient pathways between nodes.  (The development of the Internet allowed scientists to notice the same sorts of things in the anternet.)
Now, at some point signaling and reception became more deliberative activities.  Signalers became aware of the efforts and costs of signaling; receivers became aware, at least, of the signalers’ awareness of these things.
There are various evolutionary pathways that might lead to the development of non-automatic deliberation. Not all strategizing can be automatized.  It is a basic theorem in automatic computation that novel situations will arise within a system that the system cannot solve optimally.  Risk-taking, and eventually deliberate and therefore conscious risk taking, will sometimes lead to very high payoffs (even if they will also sometimes lead to disaster).  In evolution novelty will also appear with the appearance of any new externalies (in ecology, environment, population, climate, or unexpected events).
In all such cases of genuine novelty there is no automatically dominating strategy.  That’s what makes novelty novelty.  The probabilities that enter into the calculation of expected utility and thereby govern decision-making are not established.  They are therefore what we call subjective and not objective probabilities.  As Richard Jeffrey argues, subjective probabilities are those that there is no independent way to check. Novel situations will always require subjective assessments of probabilities.  (That’s what’s novel about them.  Hume consistently argued that all probability was subjective, because every situation is novel.)
Once the production and assessment of signals becomes a matter for deliberation, then both the signaler and the receiver will have to take into account the fact that the signaler is choosing to signal.  Conscious signaling, whatever else it signals, also signals that fact.  Signals become a sign of the deliberation that produces them, and to the extent that the receiver reads them that way, she recognizes the subjectivity of the signaler, who has deliberatively and deliberately made the choice he has.  Because the choice isn’t automatic, the signaler is individuated.  Here we have the beginnings of an irreducible individuality, a subjectivity that isn’t simply exemplary of species-being.
By "deliberative" here, I don’t mean a necessarily lengthy, careful, or well-considered process.  All I mean is that subjectivity becomes part of the equation, so that some signals become expressions of subjective attitudes and commitments.  These are the kinds of signals we call emotions or emotional expressions.
It is for this reason that it’s right to say (with Anthony Kenny and those he draws from) that emotions are reasons, not causes, for action.  But I would add that their function (as signals) is to give reasons to others to act.  They can only give reasons for others to act if they signal honestly that they are also giving those who express them reasons to act as well (which is a standard view of emotions).  Emotions therefore have to appear causal to those to whom their expression acts as a signal: they have to start looking as though they are causal.  Not automatically causal, though, but quasi-causal since they are routed through the subjectivity of the signaler.
If we were to try to express the schema of the expression of emotion in its most skeletal sense it would have to contain the following recursive component: Part of what I am feeling is that I am really trying to make you see that I am really trying to make you see what I am feeling.  The really-trying aspect is the part of the emotion that points to the fact, or is pointed to by the fact (they’re the same thing) that the expression of the emotion is costly.
Emotions arise from and promote intersubjectivity.  If the signaler is recognized as deliberative, then he also must consider how to signal to a receiver capable of such recognition.  From an evolutionary standpoint, they are therefore emergent properties of the vast and intricate kinds of cooperation predicted by non-cooperative game theory (that is game theory where cooperation isn’t a prior part of the set-up or rules, but has to come about, if it does, on its own).
Consider supplication, as a kind of gold-standard expression of desperate emotion. The costs (measured as risks) of supplication are very high.  The suppliant is utterly defenseless. In this way he shows that he really wants, is really trying to make the dominant figure who has the choice of mercy or murder to see that he is defenseless, and that he really wants the dominant figure to see this.  He gives such urgent reasons for being spared that they begin to him to feel like causes.  They aren’t causes, but he needs them to be.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Macbeth's friendlessness

I've always been haunted by this soliloquy --
Seyton!--I am sick at heart,
When I behold--Seyton, I say!--This push
Will cheer me ever, or disseat me now.
I have lived long enough: my way of life
Is fall'n into the sear, the yellow leaf;
And that which should accompany old age,
As honour, love, obedience, troops of friends,
I must not look to have; but, in their stead,
Curses, not loud but deep, mouth-honour, breath,
Which the poor heart would fain deny, and dare not. Seyton!
-- by the way Macbeth begins by calling upon Seyton, twice, the way it interrupts itself and then begins again, and then interrupts itself once more to call for Seyton again.  I vacillated between writing "the way it interrupts itself" and "the way he interrupts himself."  But it's the speech that's interrupting itself: the sense of social agency that belongs to a person speaking is over now, or all but over.

This is the first time that Macbeth calls on Seyton, the first time he's mentioned.  Shakespeare was writing Antony and Cleopatra at the same time as Macbeth, and in both plays he is interested in the last unimportant figures who stay loyal to the end, whose loyalty is only noticeable, who are themselves only noticeable, at the end (in A&C it's the schoolmaster Antony sends to negotiate with Caesar).  Seyton matters here because he's the only person Macbeth can count on, because Macbeth still knows that persons are what you count on, that being a person, being able to speak, means being able to speak with someone, to have them care what you say.

I think I'm obsessed by the minimalism of this soliloquy (as in sonnet 73, the language is headed towards the lesser adjectives: sear to the understated yellow; cf. yellow leaves, or none, or few, as though "few" were fewer still than none, as yellow is consciously less sublime, less an achievement, than sear).  "Honour" isn't replaced by abasement but by "mouth-honour," a repetition with a difference that is not revolution.  And he must not look to have these things: it's not just that he won't have them, but that he can't dally with their false surmise.  But he can call Seyton, good air, his only friend.

"When I behold--": prelude to some grand comment on life and its depths, as in the roughly contemporaneous Sonnet 12:
When I do count the clock that tells the time,
And see the brave day sunk in hideous night;
When I behold the violet past prime,
And sable curls, all silvered o'er with white;
When lofty trees I see barren of leaves,
Which erst from heat did canopy the herd,
And summer's green all girded up in sheaves,
Borne on the bier with white and bristly beard,
Then of thy beauty do I question make,
That thou among the wastes of time must go,
Since sweets and beauties do themselves forsake
And die as fast as they see others grow;
And nothing 'gainst Time's scythe can make defence
Save breed, to brave him when he takes thee hence.
Shakespeare questions even the young man's beauty and its defense against time, when he beholds the violet past prime; Marvell worries, "When I behold the poet, blind yet bold," that Milton will ruin the sacred truths; Wordsworth's heart leaps up when he beholds a rainbow in the sky.  But Macbeth doesn't need to finish the thought: there's no lesson to be learned here, no reaction that matters, no when which marks any sort of achievement or perspective.  He has lived long enough to be past whens (she should have died hereafter, either way, so when doesn't matter).

I love this soliloquy, I think, because it doesn't state anything, any insight, any generalization, or rather it's all generalization, since there are no particulars that matter any more, nothing he may look to have.  "The poor heart" isn't it's own, but it's what all hearts are now, thanks to him.  He calls Seyton, I think, partly to interrupt these thoughts, but partly to confirm them: calling Seyton and being alone are the same thing.  Not that Seyton is indifferent to him, but that being alone is the human condition in a different way from the way we imagined.  It's not that we're irremediably separated from each other; it's that we're alone together, that we think for others (that's what soliloquies are always about), but what we think about for them is being alone.

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NoteDo not say that Shakespeare is writing a hysterical speech for Macbeth here, that he's calling Seyton so insistently so as not to be alone with his own thoughts, like Lear calling on the storm so as not to ponder on things would hurt him more.  Seyton is more like his Fool, but without any of the Fool's presence: most of the Fool's loneliness is internalized in Macbeth, and Seyton represents more the residual element in Macbeth's character that corresponds to the part of Lear's heart that is sorry for the Fool yet.  But Macbeth is not sorry for Seyton: that's just not in question within the residual affect of the scene