Sunday, October 1, 2017

Exit Monty Hall, but through which door?

Monty Hall will live on as the eponym of the Monty Hall problem.

Since it's now well-understood it might be worth recovering some of its spookiness. So I offer this recollection:

Among those who got it wrong at the time (early nineties) were the logician and philosopher Burton Dreben and the famous and eccentric mathematician Paul Erdös (I almost have an Erdös number of 2. If I can just convinced my friend to publish some sort piece with me!) And "Cecil Adams" of the Straight Dope, which is where I read about it. Marilyn Vos Savant got it right. I remember realizing that, after I read the Straight Dope take down of her, and feeling proud.

One night I explained it to Dreben with quarters over Sangria. We had three quarters, two even years and one odd. I would put them heads down (it was there coin Monty!), and ask him to pick the odd year. He'd pick, I'd flip one of the evens, he'd always stick, and lose 2/3 of the time.

Doing it that way was really eerie because there was a probabilistic ontology to the two remaining quarters, one being twice as likely to be odd as the other. They were physically unchanged and physically unremarkable, and yet this ghostly probability haunted and hung over them.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

David Lewis, uses fictional worlds as a way of exploring the idea of the proximity of possible worlds, but confesses he's not quite sure what to do with fictions within fictions.

One thing some writers have done is to write the actual (our-word) fictional work that some fictional work only mentions.  They give it to us for our use.  (This is the converse of the sort of thing that Borges and Lem do.)

A few such useful texts spring to mind right away, in chronological order:

Prencipe Galeotto: Dante has Francesca say of the book she and Paolo are reading together when they stop reading, "Galeotto fu 'l libro e chi lo scrisse."  So Galeotto -- Prince Galahad (perhaps; it's not clear whether Dante identified Galeotto and Galahad), vicariously catalyzing their mutual seduction -- is both the author and the book itself. Boccaccio gives the Decameron the sub- or alternative title Prencipe Galeotto, making it into the book that Paolo and Francesca were reading, and promising it as a conversation piece for later lovers to seduce each other with.

Spenser completes one of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, the Squire's, in Book IV of The Faerie Queene.  (Spenser takes it as complete -- a real thing that Chaucer mentions, but that we don't have.

"Where is the Life that Late I Led?"  Petruchio interrupts himself after he starts singing this song in Taming of the Shrew.  Cole Porter gives us the whole song (with a bridge and a slight modification of Petruchio's second line).
"Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came": Browning writes the poem that Edgar quotes in King Lear.
The Transfiguration of the Commonplace: From Muriel Spark's Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, the book that Sandy Stranger writes when she becomes a nun (Sister Helena). Arthur Danto (not Dante!) then wrote a book about the philosophy of art with that title.
The Secret Goldfish: D.B.'s "terrific book of short stories" in Catcher in the Rye, and the title of a book of short stories by David Means.

Can you think of others? 

Friday, June 16, 2017

A Comedy Romance in Pantomime

City Lights is a sound movie in pantomime.  There's a synchronized sound-track with many sound-effects, most obviously the kazoo-speech of the worthy's dedicating the statue at the beginning of the picture, the bells ringing in the boxing-match sequence, and the shots fired in the Millionaire's house.  These are examples of what's come to be called (wrongly but almost universally) diagetic sound, sound common to the world of the fiction and the world of the audience.  Non-diagetic sound (now) designates sound that only we hear: scary mood music when someone is exploring a haunted house that seems (to them) completely silent, for example, swelling strings when two lovers are about to kiss.

In some movies we can't tell whether the sound we're hearing is part of the fictional world: usually the surprise will be that it is, that music that we think is only for us turns out to be coming from a radio or a performer we hadn't seen.  And sometimes -- maybe most famously in the 1946 version of The Killers -- there's an interplay between the diagetic and non-diagetic music, so that the Green Cat piano-player's performance of Flight of the Bumblebee strikingly interacts with the Killers-leitmotif when they enter the bar.

But (as I noticed the other day) the opposite sort of thing happens in City Lights.  As with the three-decades of silent films it mimics and closes, there's plenty of sound in the world of the film that we in the real world don't hear.  Sound movies invert the relationship of sound to world that we find in silent movies.  Not quite -- while in silent movies all we can hear is non-diagetic sound, it is true that the silent characters don't hear that sound at all.  All they hear is diagetic sound -- to use a double solecism because this is sound we don't hear.

City Lights is the real inverse, though.  We and the boxers both hear the bell; we and the robbers both hear the gun go off.  And of course we hear all the non-diagetic music that we learned to listen for from silents, if not from opera and ballet, which the characters don't.

But the Blind Girl: what she hears we don't.  She plays a record on the phonograph, but the soundtrack music doesn't change.  More significantly, in the intensely reworked scene in which the Tramp, and the audience, come to realize that she's blind, we see her respond to the slamming of a car door that we don't hear, at about 8:35 into the movie (there doesn't seem to be a good way to start just at that point in this post but you can click on this link to start it at just the right place: )

You'll see her react to the slamming door, but we don't hear it slam: we just see it.

I think it's important that we never hear what she's hearing.  The Tramp can see but he can also hear and we can hear with him, just as we can hear with everyone else.  We can see that she can hear but we never hear what she's hearing, which means that we focus on her bodily relation to the world, on her touch.

At the end of the movie, when she sees the Tramp for the first time, there's no reason for her to recognize him.  But she would be able to recognize his voice, and that would be the natural recognition scene. And it wouldn't work.

What matters is that she should recognize him through touch, when unknowingly she gives him the change that she failed to give him before.  Now she can see, and the days of touch are over: we can see them touch for the last time.  All of this requires that the movie be silent, be a pantomime, so that the self-presence of sound doesn't enter into it.

It's another version of Orpheus and Eurydice, that central myth in which sight overwhelms sound -- the song that Orpheus sings -- with the result that touch is banished forever.    He looks back at her and loses her forever, sees her going but will never touch her again.  The happiest version is in Purgatorio: Dante looks back at Virgil, and he's gone, and so are his sweet songs; but he can truly see Beatrice now, though touch is no longer a relevant sense in the Comedy.  City Lights isn't the saddest version, but it is an exceptionally clear exposition of that moment when the pantomime has ended.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Nous autres

In class today we were talking about the differences between Vergil and Homer. The difference between the deep administrative state that Vergil is describing, and the eternally contextualizing hierarchy against which Homeric personal relations play out. Dr. Johnson sees the silence of Dido in Book VI of The Aeneid as one of the clearest ways in which Vergil ornaments his poem with sparkling Homeric lusters that he can't resist, and complains of how much less affecting it is than the silence of Ajax in Book XI of The Odyssey. But he misses the lesson of one of his own points: Vergil unites the beauties of The Iliad and The Odyssey, yes, but he reverses the order: the intense personal experience that burgeons throughout The Iliad and culminates in The Odyssey is in Vergil a turn away from that experience to the violence that the always emerging possibilities of political violence that state develops from and resists.  The end of the Vergilian Odyssey is in Book VI of The Aeneid, at which point Aeneas turns away from the Homeric characters in the underworld and leaves them behind forever.  Dido's silence is a recognition of this, and a forerunner of Lavinia's equally conspicuous silence in the last six books.  It's not about her, and barely about Turnus or Pallas or even Lausus and Mezentius, the Vergilian equivalents of Hector and Priam.  (We get something like Achilles's point of view, remembering his own father when Priam supplicates him, as Aeneas thinks of his own son when he kills Lausus and sees Mezentius's intense mourning and desire to die. Achilles threatens to kill Priam but takes pity on him and gives him safe-conduct back to Troy; Aeneas takes pity on Mezentius by killing him, so he needn't out live Lausus very long.  Another farewell to the Homeric characters.)

The deep state administers and monopolizes and so restricts the violence that threatens everywhere. That insight is what leads to the proto-Miltonic moments in Vergil, the moments when the narrator speaks, for the only time, from the perspective of the first person plural: we Romans, in Vergil, we fallen humans ("all our woe") in Milton.  And the place where I saw that today is in this moment which, of all people, Henry James may be picking up on in The Golden Bowl.  Vergil's narrative insight is to narrate any intense incident, more and more as The Aeneid progresses, from the perspective of those in distress or pain or despair. This is particularly true in the shifts in perspective in the last moment of The Aeneid, the loss and death of the supplicating Turnus.  We go from his perspective to Aeneas's when he sees Pallas's belt: of course the very last moment is the flight of Turnus's indignant (indignata) soul down to the shades.

But even before that Turnus has the nightmarish experience of being unable or barely able to hold his own:

...velut in somnis, oculos ubi languida pressit
nocte quies, nequiquam auidos extendere cursus
velle videmur, et in mediis conatibus aegri
succidimus  (XII.908-911) in dreams, when languid rest has pressed our eyes at night, we seem in vain to wish to stretch forth our eager running, and in the middle of our efforts we sink down exhausted.

As has been pointed out (e.g. by Christine G. Perkell), this is a Vergilian recasting of a description of dream-frustration in The Iliad (22.199-200)

James's omniscient (or near omniscient) narrator uses the first person far more frequently (singular and plural, though the plurals are a bit more specific, designating narrator and readers, not all human beings), but not like this, except perhaps for this passage near the end of The Golden Bowl:

He was so near now that she could touch him, taste him, smell him, kiss him, hold him; he almost pressed upon her, and the warmth of his face--frowning, smiling, she mightn't know which; only beautiful and strange--was bent upon her with the largeness with which objects loom in dreams.  (Chapter XLI)

The first person here is latent but all the more powerful for that: James knows, and we know, what our experience of dreaming is like.  This is James’s version of the Proustian nous, as impersonal a first person plural as we ever find in Proust, since it applies to all of us in our lonely and isolated dreams: a universal loneliness, a universal separation.  So too is Turnus all alone, as all are. For Vergil this is the birth of the administrative state, the real entity that has replaced Homeric human relation.  Blanchot says the choice in Homer is violence or speech.  In Vergil, in the modern state, our choice is only violence or silence.