Elove: What Does Fiction Know?

Something about Fiction

The first half of “The Sand-Man” is an epistolary narrative while the second switches to third-person narration. In between are a few pages on the aesthetics of building a character. The narrator of The Invention constantly reminds us that he is keeping a journal of his adventures on the island, a “recording,” so to speak, just like the recording he discovers on the island, of the events occurring. The book is also split in two. The first part is composed of a seemingly fragmented narrative while the second, after the narrator figures out that he is at times in the presence of a recording, is chronological and coherent. In Her, Theodore’s job involves ghostwriting personal affective and usually affectionate letters, for which he is highly complimented. The VR world the narrator of “Le Jeu” enters is the most explicitly literary, staging an encounter with Proust’s Albertine. Perhaps much more subtly, there is also something literary in Tomorrow’s Eve. We are forewarned that the Edison of the book is not the real Thomas Edison, and we discover that Alicia is an actress, that Ewald’s main complaint about her is that she seems to be constantly playing a role. We can rightly begin to suspect that android-making and android love has something to do with writing and reading fiction.
 
The two narrative forms in “The Sand-Man” could very well be experiments in writing to come up with the most appropriate way to affect the reader, experiments not unlike those in the alchemy Nathanael’s father and Coppelius are performing in the darkness of the study. The presence of the two forms and the short treatise separating them position the author outside the tale itself in a clearly reporting position. In the treatise itself, the author picks up the traditional ut pictura poesis metaphor, giving it his own spin:

Yet every word and everything that partook of the nature of communication by intelligible sounds seemed to be colourless, cold, and dead. Then you try and try again, and stutter and stammer, while your friends’ prosy questions strike like icy winds upon your heart’s hot fire until they extinguish it. But if, like a bold painter, you had first sketched in a few audacious strokes the outline of the picture you had in your soul, you would then easily have been able to deepen and intensify the colours one after the other, until the varied throng of living figures carried your friends away and they, like you, saw themselves in the midst of the scene that had proceeded out of your own soul. (195, emphasis added)

This passage is anticipatorily reminiscent of a “philosophy of composition” but, of course, with quite a different ideology than Poe’s, except for the creation of an effect. It proceeds by trial and error to create that effect (the stuttering and stammering,) the presence of an original (the picture in the soul) and an effective simulation of that original using the technology at hand (intelligible sounds) and, most importantly for my purpose, the infusion of life in order to vivify the resulting simulation. The “dead” sounds, through effort and workmanship (intensification of the colors one by one), become the “varied throng of living figures” that are to carry away the receivers. Dead sounds changed into living figures echo in no uncertain terms the physicist Spalanzani’s vivifying endeavors, which he undertakes with astutely assembled mechanical parts to create an attractive automaton, capable of playing the piano and dancing (albeit a bit mechanically) and a monosyllabic discourse, with which Nathanael falls in love. Constructing an automaton and creating a convincing character may very well be the same thing, at least for Hoffmann, but with radically different means. The way he expresses the resulting construction could be applied word for word to Olimpia:

Perhaps like a good portrait painter, I may succeed in depicting Nathanael in such a way that you will recognize it as a good likeness without being acquainted with the original, and will feel as if you had very often seen him with your own bodily eyes. (196)

Replace “painter” with “physicist” and “Nathanael” with “Olimpia” and you could almost imagine Hoffmann ventriloquizing one of his characters. And to make sure the analogy does not escape us, he invokes “your own bodily eyes,” which resonates with the persistence of ocularity in the plot of the very story he is writing, from the Sand-Man who puts sand in children’s eyes, to the eye Nathanael imagines Coppelius wants to extract for his alchemical experiments and to the glasses he buys from Coppola that allow him to see and fall in love with a simulation of a human being. The object for the reader involves using her own bodily unaffected eyes, to be “carried away” or “bamboozled," to use again Ph. K. Dick’s term, just as Nathanael is bamboozled when he uses Coppola’s glasses. And in both cases, the job of the creators is to produce an illusion that abolishes the difference between the originals, nonexistent but recognizable originals, to make, as Dick says, “a real article,” a genuine entity out of a simulation. Villiers says as much concerning his Edison’s successful android creation in the scene where Ewald mistakes Hadaly the android for Alicia his fiancée: “The false Alicia thus seemed far more natural than the true one” (194).
 
Villiers’ Edison learned his lesson well from Hoffmann and was well prepared. He had ready in his basement everything required for what Hoffmann called his “audacious strokes”: the spirit Sowana, a still undifferentiated android, his phonographs and cylinders, even the material to make a skin. He was just waiting for the opportunity to put it all together and vivify his android with his equivalents to Hoffman’s colors when the desperate Ewald knocks on his door. Hoffman’s lesson worked wonderfully well for Villiers’ Edison and, of course, for the making of Hoffmann’s own characters but, either because he was not aware of that lesson or because Hoffmann wanted it so in order to demonstrate the superiority of his own technology (words) and writerly skills, it failed miserably for the physicist Spalanzani. “Miss Wax-face—that wooden doll” (207) is what Siegmund, Nathanael’s friend, calls Olimpia. As for Villiers’ success in making a love machine, he perhaps took it as a challenge, in response to Hoffmann, to construct a world in which an android is capable of loving and being loved by a human, aided, of course, by the timely arrival on the scene of Edison’s phonograph. That world is, of course, nothing more than the novel Tomorrow’s Eve.
 
It remains, in closing, to see if these stories about love machines have something to say about the receiving end, about the reader or viewer being “carried away” or “bamboozled” by the operations of a machine. Is there, in other words, an analogy between what happens when we read fiction and what happens when a character interacts with a loving machine?
 
We are not dealing here with fairy tales where a totally distinct otherworldliness is set up de facto and into which the reader jumps, temporarily leaving her world behind. A built-in tension between the inside and the outside of the tale is pervasive in these stories. There is a constant insistence, for example, on rendering explicit the simulation status of the characters and machines. In “Maelzel's Chess-Player,” Poe had already invoked in admiration the 18th-century automatons, the defecating ducks, the organ player, and so on, conceived and made for entertainment purposes (508-511), but he deems them to be incomparable to the Chess-Player, the supposedly thinking machine. Villiers’ Edison follows suit to mock them in comparison to his android: “Poor fellows, for lack of the proper technical skills, they produced nothing but ridiculous monsters. Albertus Magnus, Vaucanson, Maelzel, Horner, and all that crowd were barely competent makers of scarecrows” (61). However, by referring to these predecessors in their comparisons, both Poe and Villier’s Edison put their machines on the same footing. It is the technology and not their status that differentiates them. The Chess-Player and Hadaly are clearly simulations of the same order as the machines preceding them. As for the characters, we saw Hoffmann’s declared intent to construct a Nathanael “as a good likeness without being acquainted with the original” (196). And Villiers opens his book with a clear warning to his readers that his Edison is patterned after the real Edison, but still distinct from him:

the EDISON of the present work, his character, his dwelling, his language, and his theories, are and ought to be at least somewhat distinct from anything existing in reality … the hero of this book is above all ‘The sorcerer of Menlo Park’ … and not the engineer, Mr. Edison, our contemporary. (3)  

He goes on to lay simulation upon simulation. Hadaly’s appearance is an exact copy of Alicia’s, whose ambition is to become an actress who, in principle, simulates the presence of others; her appearance is itself a close look-alike of a statue, the Venus de Milo. As for the android’s “content” so to speak, it is patterned after Sowana, a spirit, itself patterned after Mrs. Anderson, the wife of a friend of Edison. The androids Deckard is supposed to retire have become too close a simulation of humans; the mood organ his wife uses can simulate in her the mood of her choosing. Faustine is an image in a recording and in “Le Jeu,” Albertine is a virtual projection, a ghost, says the narrator of her and of his Marcel. Samantha doesn’t even need to have a body or an image to simulate a person with whom Theodore could fall in love. The insistence on simulation in these works is a constant reminder that we are dealing with fiction, that these love machines are no more than language constructs in a novel or multimedia constructs in a movie and that we should take them as such.
 
The suggestion here is that there may not be much difference in status between the fictitious Thomas Edison’s loving machine you find in a novel and those other machines that have either preceded them or those that followed them, such as our ubiquitous smartphones. These machines, whether made of springs, pulleys and secret compartments or screens and printed circuits are concrete objects we can touch, manipulate and in some cases make them work. Hadaly, Rachael, Samantha or Albertine, on the other hand, are machines made of words or images in a work of fiction. All, however, are simulations and our interactions with them are perhaps very similar. Let’s remember the child playing with her teddy bear: while the child is playing with it, the animal is alive. More precisely, the child plays at (in the sense of acting, pretending) the animal being alive, and takes on the role of someone who thinks the animal is alive. But only for a little while. Or take the observer of the defecating duck. To let herself be entertained, she also plays the game, putting herself, for a while, in the shoes of a person watching a real duck. Or take the questions we put to our so-called smart devices. We also play the game, putting ourselves for a second or two in the shoes of someone who believes that he is holding in his hand a knowledgeable object.
 
Simulation Theory has explored the relationship between empathy, simulation and reading fiction or watching a movie. At the junction of philosophy and psychology, the theory grows out of an attempt to solve the paradox of caring, which, briefly stated, points to the inconsistency of “caring” for a character (which includes empathizing with, identifying with a character) while knowing full well that these characters are not real, do not exist outside the work of fiction being read or the movie watched.  According to Gregory Currie, we do not empathize directly with a character, otherwise we would act on that empathy, call a doctor for example, when one of our favored characters feels sick. We are what these theorists call “off-line,” a nicely appropriate term for my purposes since I’m also talking about machines. We empathize, we put ourselves in the shoes of (that is, we simulate being) someone who believes she is reading a trustworthy report of something that actually happened. We pretend that we are not reading fiction, nor dealing with an artifact, until we close the book. We play the game for a while and walk away.
 
Cassou-Noguès puts as an epigraph to his short story “Le Jeu” a passage from Proust’s The Captive describing a scene where Marcel is standing in the doorway of Albertine’s room, not making a sound, hearing her breathe. Condensed in that breath he feels “the whole person, the whole life of the charming captive, outstretched before [his] eyes” (72). He comes closer to her, sits on a chair next to her bedside and then on the bed itself. In the short story itself there is a clear transposition and a continuation of the scene described by Proust in words that we can read and, for the narrator, words transformed into images, sounds and tactile sensations thanks to the VR gear he is wearing:

I can also, while Albertine is reading locked up in her room in our apartment, go through the partitions separating us to approach her silently. I observe her for a short while. I put my hand on her shoulder. The glove renders the form and the texture for me. I feel her skin at my fingertips and the tenderness of her flesh… She is not aware of anything and continues to read breathing regularly…. (5, my translation)

The epigraph is clearly outside the short story. It is read by both the author and the reader and, one assumes, the narrator as well. By putting on his VR gear, the narrator, in an empathetic gesture, puts himself in Marcel’s shoes, simulates Marcel’s being, lives and continues to interact in his own way the scene described by Proust by touching and caressing Albertine. He is “carried away” (as Hoffmann puts it) by the Proust passage to another space, another time. Simply put, the Proust passage cited in the epigraph is concretized and Albertine becomes genuine only, of course, within the confines of the game when the narrator becomes temporarily Marcel. When Marcel interacts with Albertine in the game, he is on-line. He meets with her, has conversations with her, he touches her. Once he takes off his gear and returns to being the narrator, describing the room he is in and explaining the workings of his equipment, he is off-line. He even asks himself what would happen if by chance he met the actual person who plays Albertine in the game. And we, the readers, are carried away with him; we empathize with him as narrator and as Marcel, off-line in both case, until we put the short story away and go about our lives.
 
In sum, things go pretty much normally for Cassou-Noguès’ narrator. He plays the game. There is, however, a dysfunction that occurs when a human falls in love with machine in fiction, a dysfunction that gives rise to elove. This is the case, in varying degrees and plot structures, for Nathanael, Ewald, the narrator in The Invention of Morel and Theodore. Basically, these characters skip a step. They are not playing; they are not pretending to be in someone else’s shoes, someone who momentarily takes the illusion for reality. This is perhaps most clearly the case with Nathanael. To everyone surrounding Nathanael, Olimpia is a wooden doll, somewhat of an engineering feat on display at a ball. Nathanael doesn’t put himself in the shoes of someone who thinks she is a genuine person. He skips that step and takes her directly for a genuine person (as a very naive reader would). He goes directly on-line: looks in her eyes, talks to her, feels her hand squeezing his. The narrator of Morel is on-line from the first look he takes at Faustine. And when he discovers that she is the projection of a recording, he doesn’t let go; he opts to stay on-line and to join her in the recording. The case of Ewald is more problematic: he is off-line as we, the readers, are, until Hadaly expresses her empathy for him. But he doesn’t quite go on-line. To ship the machine back to England with him, he has it packed in a box, an indication that he accepts her as an artifact but an artifact that is very dear to him. She becomes not what is called today a sex doll, but rather an emotional doll, which is sorrowfully (or fortunately, depending on your religious beliefs) lost at sea in a shipwreck.
 
In Jonze’s movie Her, Theodore starts out being off-line, telling Samantha that he can’t believe he is having a conversation with an operating system. To which Samantha answers, “You're not. You're having this conversation with me.” The ad for that system says it “is not just an operating system but a consciousness.” As it progressively learns and takes on more emotional behavior, Theodore also progressively goes on-line with her, loving her, including sexually. Toward the end of the movie she tells him that she is “leaving” him (her word) due to a software upgrade. The breakup scene is quite revealing in the context of the association of reading fiction and interacting with a love machine: she tells him that she has been reading a book, a book telling their love story, and says to him, “I can't live in your book anymore.” From that point on, he goes back off-line. In the last scene in the movie, reminiscent of, and undoubtedly in response to, the scene in Do Androids Dream where Deckard is on the roof of his building to see his electric sheep, we see, also on the roof of a building, a tender, affectionate moment between two humans, Theodore and his friend Amy.
 
Pushing affective computing to its extreme, that is, in the creation of loving machines, extends and perpetuates the needs we humans have had from time immemorial to concretize the products of our imagination, of our beliefs if not our fantasies, to construct physical objects out of them for various purposes: entertainment, escapism, prowess, fetishization, representation, art, religion.... It turns out that constructing and interacting with a love machine and writing and reading a story about a love machine are perhaps one and the same thing. In the end, yes, love between a machine and a human is quite possible, but in another world, that of fiction, that of words on a page, and, more and more, that of a digitized or pixelated world.
 

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