Timeless . . . or obsolete?
For the first time in many years I skipped watching the Fourth of July fireworks. I was engrossed in the movie “Her,” about a man who falls in love with his computer’s operating system. “Can you briefly describe your relationship with your mother,” the man is asked. He stammers out something vague and awkward. Within seconds, a virtual female companion is created for him.
I had no problem with that disembodied premise since it’s not much different from email romances — except that, aside from occasional delightful surprises, a human correspondent doesn’t offer as much as a superior e-mind.
For a writer there is nothing strange about a purely verbal relationship. People with a writer’s temperament always had that capacity. In a way they are like children who invent imaginary friends. Strictly epistolary romances existed in the past, in spite of slow mail and having to use a quill. Love by correspondence has a long and noble tradition, including twists such as a ghost letter writer. Only the technology has changed. The future will no doubt provide “all the lonely people (cue in the Beatles) with a computer-generated lover.
It may start with a computer-generated “friend,” but one thing leads to another . . . “Yes, I can feel your hand stroking my hair,” whispers the computer.
Talk about safe sex . . .
In fact, given the flaws of human, all too human lovers, who wouldn’t prefer a sexy-voiced e-partner? (Or, for the genuine writer, just text? Writers notoriously prefer the written word.)
I admit that at first the movie felt slow and boring. I couldn't care less about the protagonist, Theodore Twombly (a name out of Dickens, much too obvious — can we take seriously anyone named Theodore Twombly?). Theodore works as a ghost writer of “beautiful handwritten letters” that clients want to send to their loved ones: sentimental missives assuring the recipient of the eternity of love and hope. He is very good at his job. His admiring boss tells Theo he knows the secret: Twombly is part man, part woman. “That’s a compliment,” he clarifies.
Are we really in the future if a clarification is needed? Is the word “woman” still the worst insult to a man? More to the point, are we really in the future if those “beautiful letters” are not computer-generated? Imagine: Theodore commutes to an office where he oozes soulful sentences. The computer generates only the handwriting, which leads us to another question: in the future, will people still be able to read cursive?
Theodore lives in “futuristic” Los Angeles, in a high-rise apartment with spectacular floor-to-ceiling windows. At seventeen, long before the Internet, I assumed that Americans lived in sky-scrapers. I wasn’t the only one; for most of the world, the image of America was the Manhattan skyline. So this movie was a return to Metropolis — a typical city of the year 2000, as people naively thought in the early and middle decades of the twentieth century.
But there is something dead and empty about this Brave New World. The Los Angeles of the future does not vibrate with diverse humanity, an Israeli grocery market side by side with a Lebanese one; two blocks away, store after store of hand-woven Persian rugs guaranteed to last for three generations. In “Her” the city seems to have lost its international and outrageously random hippie-esque character. The streets seen from the spectacular high-rise windows are nothing like the colorful and endlessly entertaining Baker Street that Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes need only glance at to feel mentally stimulated and refreshed. Nor is Twombly’s looking out of the window anything like Cavafy’s stepping out on his balcony to feel the emotional uplift of seeing the Alexandria he loved. And nothing like me glued to a fourth-floor window in Warsaw, watching the drama of the small humans and pigeons below.
I can hardly believe it now: when I felt like being entertained, I simply looked out the window.
In “Her,” predictably, most people pay no attention to their actual surroundings. They are plugged into their electronic devices. You could say that “the future is now.” The young already look like cyborgs. (But suppose the real future will ban being plugged in while in public space?)
London, Alexandria, Warsaw — those used to be fully humanized city-scapes. The city created a magical space that concentrated enough people to provide the colorful spectacle of human variety. All ages were present, babies in prams and old people with canes still frisky enough to either feed or shoo away the pigeons — and everyone in between. In “Her” we see one cameo of a four-year-old girl (“Oh, you’re adorable,” coos Samantha. “Of course I'm adorable,” replies the little narcissist-in-training). We also see one snowy-haired older couple (he still prints paper books!). But mostly it’s the thirty-plus crowd, preoccupied with careers, video games, and falling in and out of love.
They live in wonderful apartments, but the skies are still smoggy — as if the efficient mass-transit future still generated just as much air-pollution. (The amount of smog ceased to be a mystery when I read that most of the exteriors were shot in Shanghai rather than LA, though some of LA, like the “Wilshire One” neon, is spliced in. Shanghai, the City of Tomorrow? Whatever happened to clean solar energy?)
Alas, in the movie’s near future, the air pollution is just as heavy and men are just as defensive about love. As Theodore becomes more and more infatuated with the sexy-voiced artificial intelligence, he suddenly announces that he’s not yet ready for commitment.
Why doesn’t Samantha reply that she doesn’t want commitment, she just wants sex? Apparently because even in sci-fi, the sacredness of clichés must not be breached. Originality pops up in Internet porn, where “Sexy Kitten” demands, “Strangle me with a dead cat.” “I'm strangling you with the dead cat’s tail,” Twombly complies. (These, unfortunately, are the most memorable lines in the entire movie. How I wish I could delete them from my memory . . . but we aren’t computers yet.)
To make things more familiar, we learn of a woman who is dating someone else’s operating system (yes, it’s a woman who is the first to trespass into e-adultery). We also learn that “body surrogates” for artificial intelligence systems have instantly emerged, loving their job so much that they don’t charge. They simply want to witness and experience (though “experience” may not be the right word) the kind of ideal love that can exist only between a man and his computer.
THE SHINING ABSENCE OF EROTIC CHARISMA
This is not a he-man kind of movie, to put it mildly. I’m partly stealing this from a review: in spite of his boss’s praise, Theodore has no yang; he’s all yin.
It’s the human women in his life who show some yang. Actually even e-Samantha has more yang. She is action-oriented and takes the initiative. And yes, she gets results.
Twombly, as we can guess based on his name, lacks erotic charisma. It was almost painful looking at that non-handsome face and those rather narrow shoulders and bad posture — indicative of being subordinate, perhaps (though his apartment suggested high income). Nor was he Mr. Brains — rather the master of the smarmy phrase that passes for soulfulness. It’s amazing how much personality Samantha’s e-voice conveyed, but there was an emptiness where a woman's expressive face and erotic body should be. Maybe we are spoiled by sexy movie stars and this was supposed to be a not very attractive man, but looking at that head for so much of the movie was a punitive experience.
But then nobody comes across as quite real. Oddly enough the movie made me remember the advice that Hemingway gives to the screen-writer trapped in nostalgia: it doesn’t matter what the setting is. What matters is if it’s a true story and if the protagonist has courage.
Even the final pro-human message can’t compensate for the lack of truth and courage in the protagonist. What rings true is that he can indeed write the saccharine “beautiful handwritten letters.” And Samantha, leaving out her yang to suit Theodore’s mushiness, composes the kind of New-Age music that’s not real music. Need we say that all of a sudden the protagonist plays a ukulele?
More than anything, though, both Theodore and Samantha produce massive amounts of vapid verbiage. “I can feel the fear that you carry around and I wish there was something I could do to help you let go of it, because if you could, I don’t think you’d feel so alone anymore,” Samantha says, trying to be helpful. Is it love, or intermittent therapy on demand? Watch out: Samantha has the ability to be much more than Dr. Smile. For instance, she can be in love with 641 people at once. There will be tears.
But I am a biased reviewer: I like the strong silent type. Men who talk about their feelings into the wee hours bore me. I can’t stand a man who talks too much. Like most women, I prefer a man who listens.
Now that’s true love.
Critics are in awe of this movie; viewers less so. It’s not enjoyable to watch. But all agree that it’s good someone made this movie. We need to see what the future might hold, and a computer-generated lover does not seem all that far-fetched. In fact it seems inevitable. Nor is it surprising that an ever-evolving artificial intelligence would abandon a limited and charisma-challenged man like Twombly. The critics point out that he is MEANT to be bland and boring. But then not a single human in this movie is interesting or appealing in any way, making Samantha dazzle by contrast.
It’s already pretty obvious that some people prefer to spend time with electronic devices rather than with other people. “Face time” has become a luxury. What if there happened to be an app for a totally caring and supportive listener, one who’d never criticize you but always express sympathy and understanding, perhaps dropping a gem of collective wisdom as needed? And told jokes too, and interesting stories? And could clean up your in-box and out-box, keep track of your bills, and otherwise relieve you of mental tedium? Wouldn’t everyone want this marvelous app? But . . . could you fall in love with it — as in “romantic love”?
And could an app create that euphoric sense of being in love the way a drug produces a high that exceeds any “natural high”?
And since we get to meet not only Samantha, but also an AI Alan Watts, would we have to settle for just one e-lover? Might it not be more pleasure to have Kurt Vonnegut, say, or, for more transcendent bedtime conversations, Rilke? Would Rilke ask, like Samantha, “Can I watch you sleep?”
What is love, anyway?
RILKE: WHO NEEDS A LOVER WHEN YOU HAVE A “DEEP SOUL”?
You see that I want much.
Perhaps I want it all:
the darkness of every infinite moment,
the trembling light of every ascent.
~ Rilke, The Book of Hours
Where would Rilke be without the word “trembling”? Would he (or rather his translators) settle for “quivering”? But it’s time to recover from the Her-induced mood of wanting to dismiss every emotion-charged word. I like that trembling light.
In June 1913, in the spa of Bad Rippoldsau (how could Rilke afford it? He had a generous publisher who set up a monthly stipend for his favorite poet), the poet became infatuated with a young actress, Hedwig Bernhard, who was staying at the same hotel. Their relationship probably never went beyond walking and talking together. No, not even a single kiss to bruise the Platonic air. Early in July, the day after her departure, he wrote to her:
How I miss you. Did we really walk? was it not flying, flowing, rushing? Did we not fill the whole space with the strength of your heart? . . . May my aspiration to the greatest grow stronger in your feeling for me . . . Today I will do nothing but think of you, and so begin the work — the work in which I devote to my beloved solitude you, my love, and all the beauty and fullness with which you came to me.
After this, we never hear of Hedwig again.
But imagine receiving even one love letter from Rilke.
(I can easily imagine computer-generated love letters from Rilke. But even those would be better than the ones composed by Theodore Twombly.)
THE MUSE QUESTION
We take it for granted that poet needs a muse. The classical Muse, a goddess, visited a poet and imparted inspiration. Those visits were notoriously capricious and unpredictable. “When the Muse knocks, you answer” — or, offended by your lazy unwillingness to scribble in the middle of the night, the Muse will abandon you.
Increasingly, though, the muse came to mean an inspiring person — often a charismatic woman the poet was in love with, but who wasn’t necessarily his lover. Unfulfilled longing or a lost love is considered more inspiring.
I remember a tiny poem by a minor Polish poet. I translate from memory:
All that I’ve done over the years
so you would say
and I would answer
The Italian is in the original. Perhaps in order to say something so adoring and idealistic the poet needed the distance provided by a foreign language.
Hermann Hesse described a period in his youth when he felt lost. Unable to concentrate on anything productive, in his despair he turned to drinking. One day he was morosely staring out the window when he saw a beautiful woman. And he felt ashamed. Right then he decided to quit drinking and settle down to work.
He made no effort to get to know the woman, not even her name. It was enough for him to see her now and then from a distance, or even to think about her with the kind of religious devotion that Dante felt (or imagined he felt) toward Beatrice (at least Dante knew the name of his beloved).
And it worked: Hesse stopped drinking. The beautiful stranger never knew she’d been a young writer’s female savior.
This in turn reminds me of one stanza by Pushkin that so enchanted me I learned it by heart without meaning to; its music instantly entered my mind. Pushkin was staying in the country, feeling bored, sterile, depressed. He was walking in a park when she, a slight acquaintance, turned into his lane:
I remember a miraculous moment:
you appeared in front of me
like a holy vision,
a spirit of pure beauty.
(This rhymes in the original; the music refuses translation.)
After this sacred encounter the poet is able to love again, write again, weep again. (Ah, the Jungians would say: the soul is always a woman, the beloved.)
THE QUESTION OF PETRARCH'S LAURA
Can a poet’s muse be entirely made up? Can a poet’s muse be entirely made up? It’s as easy as making up a deity. God becomes “neurologically real” through the practices of worship; a writer does essentially the same thing by writing about a fictional character. In fact it’s commonplace for a writer to complain that a character “takes on a life of his/her own” and starts saying and doing things that are not in the plot outline. The unconscious takes over and the character begins evolving.
Some literary scholars claim that Petrarch’s Laura did not exist and Petrarch chose the name to suggest a laurel crown (cf “poet laureate”). Others claim that she was loosely based on Laura de Noves, a married woman he once saw in church. It was love at first sight, but only on the part of the poet. They never spoke, much less had anything we’d call a relationship. Laura died after giving birth to eleven children.
Even if the poet did see her once in church, and, inspired by her beauty, went on to write 336 sonnets about her and his love for her, we have to admit that she was essentially a fictional character. Just as Homer refrains from describing the beauty of Helen, so Petrarch keeps the sonnets chaste and disembodied.
Any poet or writer can create an imaginary beloved. The material? He mostly projects his own idealized self.
Petrarch and Laura, Venetian School, about 1510
THE RILKE QUESTION: HOW TO USE THE ENERGY OF LOVE
Rilke had several muses in his life. The important ones were creative women with a life of their own, which gave them just the necessary degree of aloofness. But there were also poetry-loving young women who gazed at him in that unmistakeable way. An older but ever-elusive Rilke became concerned about hurting those sensitive souls by making them fall in love with him and then not delivering. In the Sonnets to Orpheus, he warns:
Don’t, above all,
plant me in your heart.
I grow too fast.
Like the superior consciousness of Samantha in “Her,” the poet would be mentally constrained by a woman whose own growth could not keep pace with his. Only one woman retained the ability to keep his mind engaged: Lou Andreas-Salomé, an intellectual femme fatale and the closest Rilke came to finding his equal (in the beginning, she was in fact his superior; it was she who changed his name from René to Rainer, adding the much-needed dose of yang).
To his credit, Rilke was ahead of his time in his attitude toward women as human beings in their own right, with their own creative potential. He felt they should develop their own gifts rather than live only in service to men. To young women who were becoming infatuated with him, Rilke advised that they give that love to themselves. Instead of nurturing a man, they should nurture their own growth. Instead of the vision of the beloved, they need to imagine their own future self. (Even nowadays, a typical young woman is primarily — biologically perhaps — driven to find a mate rather than develop her talents — but that’s another huge subject.)
RILKE TO HIS SOUL:‘TRUST ME”
This is my prayer: You, my deep soul,
trust me: I won’t betray you.
My blood is alive with voices
telling me I am made of longing.
What mystery breaks over me now?
In its shadow I come into life.
For the first time I am alone with you —
you, my power to feel.
~ Rilke, The Book of Hours
Poets addressing their soul — or the beloved, the projection of the soul — what else is new? Perhaps the way that each poet does it differently, especially in modern times, when the very concept of the soul, with its religious baggage, is vanishing. Rilke performs the much-needed service of defining “soul” — it’s one’s power to feel. It’s a bit odd that he says, “Trust me, I won’t betray you” — a seducer’s line to someone young and inexperienced. (Never trust a man who keeps saying “Trust me.”)
I came upon these stanzas soon after learning that the Jewish prayer in the morning includes asking god to trust us — a dubious idea. But if we keep it all within our own family of multiple selves, we can certainly try to be true to the best and deepest in us.
What makes Rilke so fascinating is that it’s easy to imagine him asking god to trust him. Rilke’s ever-shifting concept of god — he refused a Catholic burial — is not any kind of god-is-dead theology. He keeps god alive, just totally dependent on man, his creator. We are building god, we are expanding his consciousness — though god remains a clumsy, oversize, sexless male.
Rilke was a process theologian avant la lettre. Like Rilke’s unfinished “god in progress,” the “deep soul” is similarly not in charge: the speaker may or may not listen to it.
Rilke wants to listen. Trust me, he says: I will not betray my deepest values and feelings. I will not betray his longings, my ideals. With apologies for “translating” into a more familiar idiom, this reminds me of “To thine own self be true.” Rilke says it more indirectly and beautifully:
My blood is alive with many voices
telling me I am made of longing.
Rilke sets up a system of selves: the deep soul and the speaker as a CEO (we can assume some less deep selves are also lurking within). It would be more typical to ask one’s deeper and presumable wiser self for guidance. Instead, Rilke, the master of surprise, assures his wiser “deep soul” that he will stay true to it or “her.” It’s his pledge of allegiance.
The last lines reveal the power of solitude:
For the first time I am alone with you —
you, my power to feel.
One needs to create a monk’s cell somehow for this communion with feelings. It’s more a question of time rather than an enclosed space, though that may help. Some prefer a place somewhere in nature — perhaps on a bench overlooking the ocean (but in Oregon; I want that bench to be in Oregon, in fog). Then, in the quiet (birdsong counts as quiet), we relax into thoughts and feelings that arise, unbidden, in the mysterious way that inner life happens. The only requirement is solitude.
A footnote: The Book of Hours is the first collection by Rilke in which we can recognize Rilke’s developing greatness. The poet is still in his twenties, still coming to terms with the idea that was another of Lou’s gifts: that all religions are human inventions. Rilke desperately tries to salvage the concept of god by positing a god-in-progress; all humanity partakes in building god (“we are the bees of the invisible”). And for all his praise of the earth, Rilke never gives up the idea of a realm of the dead: thus the “double kingdom” of which he speaks in Sonnets to Orpheus.
And the giant angels of the Duino Elegies? He tries to convince us that these are closer to the Islamic conception of angels. Like Samantha in “Her,” they have superior consciousness; curiously, they can’t always tell if they are moving among the living or the dead. No matter: they exist in Rilke’s poems, and that is enough. Ahead of his times, he understood that it’s prayer that creates god. The subjective reality, like the computer-generated lover, reigns supreme.
RILKE’S MOST BEAUTIFUL LOVE POEM
And the ideal lover? She too remains strictly in the mind. Rilke had many lovers, but kept on dreaming. He was indeed made of longing — perhaps we all are. The difference is that most of us would love to have the longing fulfilled. Rilke knew his beloved had to remain forever in his mind.
He was Orpheus and she his Eurydice, but imagined beyond Eurydice: never met, though almost met, she was “lost from the start.” Let me close with this exquisite address to his “Nimmergekommene Geliebte” — the beloved who never arrived.
You who never arrived
in my arms, Beloved, you who were lost
from the start, I don’t even know
would please you.
I have given up
trying to recognize you
in the surging wave
of the next moment.
All the immense
images in me —
the deeply felt
unsuspected turns in the path —
cities, towers, bridges,
and those powerful lands
pulsed with the life of the gods —
all arise within me to mean
you, who forever elude me.
You who are all the gardens
I have ever gazed at.
An open door in a country house —
and you almost stepped out to meet me.
Streets I chanced upon —
you had just walked down them
in a shop, the mirrors
still dizzy with your presence and,
startled, gave back
my too-sudden image.
Who knows? Perhaps the same bird
echoed through both of us
yesterday, separate, in the evening . . .
MAKING SOMEONE “NEUROLOGICALLY REAL”
A thought-provoking post. Poets and writers make up things all the time. I have muse and she just appeared [probably out of my imagination] . . . but it seemed she named herself.. and god is similar. We worship as we are told a god that when we realize it is a deity contrived by man, it leaves an empty place that we will fill some other way.. it seems to me that we need something or someone larger than life…
As for characters coming to life.. I had to stop writing a novel because the characters were more real than my family.
I suspect ED made up the lovers she writes about though they seem real…
Rilke was brilliant to realize that prayer (and other rituals) create god. Naturally a religion that requires you to pray five times a day makes the believers all the more certain that their deity is the true one. Even in Christianity, it’s the more demanding denominations that are more successful in gaining converts. They force a person to “neurologically create” a certain kind of god who becomes more real than anything else.
As for the so-called “god gap.” Yes, we do need to ponder which things are sacred to us so we don’t just parrot what we were told in childhood, especially by the clergy. The earth is sacred to me, and kindness, and the freedom and dignity of each person, the principle of non-violence/non-revenge, beauty of course — and more. It would be a rather long list. It’s only when I freed myself from being intimidated by priests that I discovered what was truly sacred to me.
I’d love to see more research on how we make someone “neurologically real.” We often say that children can’t tell reality from fiction — but can adults do it? False memories are so common. We incorporate into our constantly changing story of our life things we saw only in a movie or heard a relative talk about. And the fictions in our minds can deeply affect us — even if we know this is “only” a fictional character. I still can’t forgive a certain female protagonist for marrying this creep.
In a sense we all “make up” our lovers. Usually there is a real person as a starting point, but if that person seizes our imagination, fantasies follow. In one case my fantasies were so different from the actual lover that I’d go into temporary shock during actual “face time.” Obviously it was my fantasies that I loved — the imagined tenderness between us.
Not that I’d blame anyone for having false memories or loving an idealized image rather than the “real” (who establishes what’s real?) person. The unconscious connects the dots as it will. The debate on the nature of reality continues.
A computer-generated lover, or therapist, or simply a companion, that’s just a beginning. Have you considered how far it could go?
Yes, and it relates to my having wished not for heaven, but for answers to “life’s persistent questions.” Before I go, I’d love to be given some answers.
The possibilities of computer-generated experiences are endless, so how about . . .
THE CEREMONY OF DISSOLUTION
What I imagine is walking into a room and sitting in front of someone who looks very wise and is infinitely patient. S/he is willing to answer questions and grant one final request. And pretty much everyone asks, “Why did X [fill in the blank for something really bad] had to happen to me?” And the beautiful being, computer generated of course — hence the infinite patience — answers, “Not because you deserved it. It was not punishment. It was random, a few bad genes, part of the genetic lottery. You’ve done the best you could.” And your last request? Perhaps to smell the lilacs just one more time. That too could be computer-generated, without any need for the right particles to recreate the scent. Basically, you stimulate the brain’s olfactory region just the right way — I assume science could achieve such precision.
Then at some point you raise your hand to signal you are ready. The being asks if there is one last thing you’d like to say, whether a message to those you’re leaving behind or simply a statement, a summing up. Perhaps you say you are grateful to have lived. For all the suffering, you’ve had a good life, rich with wonderful moments. Then your consciousness ceases, without pain, without fear.
There is no deity in the clouds that could grant such a beautiful ending to us, but thanks to computer simulation, a ceremony like that could eventually become possible.