Elove: What Does Fiction Know?


The ability we have to simulate and to guess the thoughts of the other and share her feelings has generated several neighboring concepts such as sympathy, compassion, theory of mind and mind reading. I will use here the term “empathy” to designate in a large sense this ability we have to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and recognize her thoughts, feelings, motivations, intentions. Empathy consists in a simulation of what we think the other person is feeling. It is a pervasive motif in fiction dealing with AI or loving machines. Just to mention a few, in “Maelzel’s Chess-Player," Poe imagines going inside the player to demystify it in a gesture not unlike John Searle’s Chinese room experiment. And we remember, of course, one of the first scenes in Blade Runner where Leon is examined by the authorities to determine whether he is human or android and is asked what he would do if he came across an overturned turtle. The dilation of the pupils supposedly indicates whether the response is empathetic.
It is empathy that guarantees a certain reciprocity/interaction between Nathanael and the machine. In thinking, feeling and speaking for the machine, he transforms the automaton, which appears to be human, but is mindless and incapable of empathy, into a complete human being. The speech he attributes to the machine comes from him and is precisely what he wants to hear. Objectively speaking, what happens between Nathanael and the automaton is not empathy per se since there are no feelings or thoughts coming out of Olimpia. Rather, it is Nathanael who, in an act quite close to ventriloquism, generates these feelings and thoughts. To distinguish between the empathy occurring between humans and the kind of feeling shared with a machine, it is perhaps more accurate to call it “false empathy." It is this false empathy that transforms the machine into a human being and guarantees reciprocity.
To summarize the Hoffmann effect: if a body, a machine, an automaton or a modern day cyborg, could be said to think, feel and love, and expresses those thoughts and feelings, it is only with the help of an interested interlocutor. In a reversal of roles, the interlocutor becomes, in effect, the prosthesis of the machine instead of the usual configuration where we use machines as our prostheses.
And it really doesn’t have to be a machine. Text, written ambiguously enough, such as horoscopes, or configurations of stones in the sand or coffee grounds at the bottom of an empty coffee cup, “speak” to us, saying what we want them to say. Lewis, in E.T.A. Hoffmann’s short story “Automata” says it clearly to his friend, Ferdinand, who was deeply affected by an answer to a question by the Turk automaton: “I should think you are tacking some unduly important meaning onto the oracle’s ambiguous reply. Chance, I should imagine, has educed something which by accident is appropriate to your question” (84). “As a result," he says later, “it is we who answer our own question; the voice we hear is produced within ourselves” (92).
Villiers, via his Edison, understood and exploited this inverted dynamic and adopts it as a theoretical component in his making of Hadaly, the “AndrĂ©ide." He also explains it. Interestingly, he has Ewald explain that mechanism in a scene that performs the very concept he is explaining. It is not a Turk “speaking” this time but a statue (and what a statue!). In one of Ewald’s answers to a series of questions Edison puts to him concerning Alicia, he starts by speaking for himself but soon switches to the supposed voice of the statue of Venus, a pure body, in whom Alicia had recognized herself. In doing so, he takes on Alicia’s tone of voice and manners in a falsely empathetic and ventriloquist gesture. And as it happens, what the statue “speaks” is precisely the reiteration of the Hoffmann effect. Here is Villiers, as a good writer of fiction, simulating (I am tempted to say “ventriloquizing”) Ewald who is simulating what Alicia would say in having the statue Venus speak:

I am Beauty, complete and alone. I speak only through the spirit of him who looks at me. In my absolute simplicity all thought defeats itself since it loses its limits. All thought sink together in me, confused, indistinct, identical, like the ripples on rivers as they enter the sea. For him who reflects me, I am the deeper character he assigns me (41).

Automaton-like, Alicia/statue of Venus becomes an individual, mechanical or otherwise, only through the gaze of the other. Moreover, she becomes exactly what the gazer assigns her to be, an individual made to measure, assuring thus the idiosyncrasy of love. She thus functions similarly to Olimpia and her “Ah! Ah!" but, in Villier’s hands, in much more subtle and modulated ways. In a skeptical moment, Ewald wonders what the results of Edison’s engineering will be. He asks him, “I’ll love her?” To which Edison answers, “ Why not? Won’t she be incarnate forever in the only form under which you can conceive of love?” (67); the person Ewald loves in Alicia is, in any case, “this objectified projection of our own soul that you call on, you perceive, that you CREATE in your living woman, and which is nothing but your own soul reduplicated in her” (68).

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