Episode 101 – “Cavender is Coming”

How should one lead a life? What makes a life a good life? What does it take to live well, to to achieve well-being, both for some interval in one’s life, or better yet, for the duration of one’s life? At this level of generality, we would expect answers to this question to also be quite general and abstract, and philosophers have  provided us with such answers. But “Cavender is Coming” approaches the problem from the bottom up, by raising the question in the form of a task for Cavender, an angel trying to earn his wings: Take a particular life that is being led, and make it better.

This episode bears a striking resemblance to “Mr. Bevis,”  in which a guardian angel was dispatched to improve the lot one Mr. Bevis. Now the subject is Agnes Grep, and the angel is Cavender. Both Bevis and Grep are quirky, off-beat characters, subject to frequent job changes and unusual interests. Neither is fast-tracked on career or social ladders, but both appear to be closely connected to their neighbors and to individuals who work in the neighborhood. Both guardian angels are mature males, with conventional values and expectations for others.

The two episodes introduce questions about well-being and about what constitutes a good life. Against the standards of middle class America in the 1960s, Bevis and Grep, from the perspective of their angelic handlers, appear ripe for improvement.  Their handlers’ strategy is simply to elevate the social and economic rank of their charge. Grep finds herself hobnobbing with the rich at the Morgan Mansion.  But she finds herself in such settings without context and without preparation, and more significantly, without any connection to the people with whom she now intermingles.

The efforts of the guardian angels fail to achieve the goal of elevating the happiness of their charges, in large measure because, drawing on a distinction made by Shelly Kagan, they can make changes to someone’s life, but they can’t change who the person is. Grep’s life is changed when Cavender alters her social connections, but that doesn’t alter Grep’s likes and dislikes, proclivities and values. The interests and values of her new associates don’t resonate with her, and she can’t take an interest in their interest, and she doesn’t see how she can help them or participate in their lives the way she could in her prior setting.

Both “Mr. Bevis” and “Cavender is Coming” demonstrate the pitfalls of attempting to assess happiness and the quality of life from the outside. Both angels fail to “get” their charges. Their conventional conceptions of the good life simply do not apply to the mortals they are trying to help, who are really early hippies.  The fact that the angels can perform miracles, and do,  doesn’t make their jobs any easier.

With that said, it would be a mistake to take these episodes as arguing for hedonism, or other views that take well-being to be based on self-satisfaction.  Rather, they make the case that the two mortals, Mr. Bevis and Ms. Grep, are models of individuals who have already achieved well-being before their guardian angels appear to try to help them.  Bevis and Grep are not self-promoters. They are, however, tuned into the needs and cares of the children, care-givers, and modest merchants in their modest neighborhoods and dwellings.  Both struggle with managing their own finances and jobs, but that’s not because they are incompetent, but rather because it is not their focus. Instead, they derive pleasure from the interaction with and support they provide others, regardless of their social status. They treat others as ends in themselves, to use Kant’s famous phrase.


Further Reading:

Feldman, Fred, What is This Thing Called Happiness? (Oxford University Press, 2010).

Kagan, Shelly, “Me and My Life,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, New Series, Vol. 94 (1994), pp. 309-324.

Kant, Immanuel, Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, H. J. Paton, trans., (Harper, 1964).

Posted in reflections | Tagged , | Comments Off on Episode 101 – “Cavender is Coming”

Episode 100 – “I Sing the Body Electric”

An electronic data-processing system in the shape of a woman capable of giving loving supervision to your children. That’s the claim of Facsimile Limited. It fits the bill for a family of five, reduced to four by the death of the mother. This is the early sixties, and a family without a mother is incomplete, and something must be done. At Facsimile Limited the kids get to choose the parts – the eyes, ears, hair, and other body parts. They are thrown in a hopper and sent to the factory where “Grandma” is assembled.

The title “I Sing the Body Electric” is from a Walt Whitman poem of the same name. In that poem Whitman celebrates the human body – all human bodies. Whitman critiques dualism:

And if the body does not do as much as the Soul?
And if the body were not the Soul, what is the Soul?

It’s not a simple matter to see how the story and the poem align. One connection may be that Grandma is somehow the sum of her bodily parts. Her eyes – chosen by the boy because they are the same color as his marbles – form an essential part of Grandma’s character. But Grandma is also an electronic data-processing system who will survive her own bodily dismantling. Will she still be Grandma, without a body, or with a different body?

When Grandma appears at her new suburban home, she earns the loving appellation when she demonstrates that she can essentially do what amounts to magic. The younger two children accept Grandma immediately. The older child, still reeling from her mother’s death, is the skeptic. She says “You make believe, father, that’s what you do. You make believe, that she’s real. But she’s just an old machine.” The machine responds with a declaration of love for the child who rejects her. A moment later she proves her love by readily putting her “life” on the line for the child.

Grandma celebrates the ways in which she is not human. She can’t die. She can’t leave the family. She’s not a living thing. “That’s my job: To live forever!”

When the children are grown-up and headed off to college, Grandma leaves. She describes what will happen. Her mind, her soul, will continue to exist, even when her body is disassembled. She’ll go into a room of voices with the other machines. Grandma is describing her immortality. Does she become a disembodied mind in the room of voices, or is it just that her bodily shell is removed, and her core computer is networked to other computers to enable high speed uploads and downloads of data?

At the end of the episode Grandma says that if she’s really lucky someday she’ll get the best gift of all, the gift of life. But what would life give her that she doesn’t already have? Maybe there’s still a burden in being different, even when different appears better.

Posted in reflections | Tagged , , , , , | Comments Off on Episode 100 – “I Sing the Body Electric”

Episode 99 – “Young Man’s Fancy”

The term “fancy” was used in 17th and 18th century philosophy as the name of the faculty of imagination, and what one fancied is what one imagined. Although the term isn’t used that way anymore, it is used in a related sense to refer to what one desires. You might be asked whether you fancy a hot fudge sundae as you pass an ice cream parlor. Perhaps you weren’t thinking about ice cream, but the question might prompt you to imagine a hot fudge sundae, and then to either desire one or not, and then to respond appropriately. “Young Man’s Fancy” is about what we would describe as a not very young man, Alex Walker, both imagines and desires. His ice cream parlor is his childhood home.

Alex apparently had a wonderful childhood, and has wonderful memories of it,  fueled by remaining in the home in which he was raised by his loving mother. Now, a year after his mother’s death and his recent marriage,  he has agreed to sell the home  and begin married life elsewhere.

The problem is that this new plan is not what Alex fancies. What he fancies is to be a child again, to be coddled and pampered by his mother, to delight in the toys in his toy chest, and to bask in the shelter of his home, away from adults, and their demands.

The episode explores the way that belief, memory, and imagination shape how we perceive the world. Alex and has new wife, Virginia, enter the same house, at the same time, but what they see is radically different. Virginia sees an aging, antiquated home, filled with outdated artifacts, like a grandfather clock that doesn’t work, but then seems to work, and an old-fashioned telephone, probably from the 1930s or 1940s. Alex sees the same objects, but seeing them sparks both his memory and his imagination. The thought of selling the house and its contents, of making a radical break from the past, becomes suddenly unbearable to him.

We confront these two, incompatible perceptions of the same house, and with it, ultimately two incompatible persons, with different memories, and as a result, different fancies.  It’s the same house to us, but two Alex and Virginia, there might as well be different houses, since the connection of what they see to their memories, imaginations, and desires differ so radically. Although our view is outside the perspective of the two interested parties, we can’t say who sees this world correctly. There is an argument for some form of relativity here.

Posted in reflections | Tagged , , , , , | Comments Off on Episode 99 – “Young Man’s Fancy”

Episode 98 – “The Dummy”

The form of comedy practiced by ventriloquists was popular through the 1960s, a holdover from the vaudeville era. The ventriloquist appears with a prop, her or his dummy, usually a large doll, placed on the lap, or on a chair next to the comedian, and the movements of the dummy are clearly carried out by the ventriloquist, to whom the dummy is joined. The audience knows that the dummy is a dummy, a lifeless hunk of wood, screws, wires, in appropriately sized clothes. The illusion is that a dialogue takes place, a dialogue between the ventriloquist and the dummy. The illusion is the skillful artistic creation of the ventriloquist, who does all the speaking, but some of that speaking appears to come from the dummy, rather than from the ventriloquist. Again, the audience knows that the appearance of a dialogue between the dummy and the ventriloquist is a mere appearance or illusion, but it is an illusion where important features correspond to the actual features of “real” dialogues, and for this reason the ventriloquist’s act engages the audience. Goldblatt and Hagberg call it “illusion without deception” (p. xi).  Like any work of fiction, the fiction must have some things in common with reality.

This fact alone makes ventriloquism a fertile ground for philosophical reflection on the nature of language and communication. The ventriloquist has to understand the nature of real dialogue, in order to create the illusion of it occurring between a human speaker and an inanimate object. Clearly, controlling the mouth of the dummy is important, as is making it appear that one’s voice is coming from the dummy when it speaks, and also  making sure that the ventriloquist’s mouth does not appear to move when the dummy speaks. But that’s not all that’s needed: The ventriloquist must put the appropriate words into the mouth of the dummy. That is, the ventriloquist has to create a dialogue that is in important respects just like one would have with a real person, or at least with a real person pretending to be a dummy.

In the opening gag between Jerry, the ventriloquist, and Billy, the dummy, Jerry plays with the fact that he’s talking to  a doll, noting that when he expresses his superstitions he knocks on wood, and then he demonstrates by knocking on Billy’s head. Billy responds by claiming that he would be a better ventriloquist than Jerry. And then Billy demonstrates it: they switch roles. Billy appears to be projecting his voice onto Jerry. The audience knows who is really speaking, but is titillated by the idea that the control can be reversed.

The ventriloquist’s act , then, is all about distinguishing imagination from reality, and also about infusing reality with the imagination. An audience has to buy into something to find the ventriloquist’s act compelling. We have to accept that the ventriloquist is not merely talking to himself. We have to buy into the appearance, without being deceived, or at least by being willingly deceived. The ventriloquist creates the deception, and so knows that it is a deception. But can this condition fail? Can the ventriloquist be deceived by his own deception? That’s what has happened to Jerry.

Perhaps it is more appropriate to call what the ventriloquist creates a representation rather than an illusion. A painting of a landscape is a representation of a landscape. It’s possible, though unlikely, that one, even its creator, could mistake the representation for the thing represented.  But the representation created by a ventriloquist is different. It is not a static object, but a dynamic object responding to the input from its environment, though it requires a persistent connection to its creator to  so respond. And it also represents what it is not, that is, an autonomous person, independent of the person whose lap it occupies.  Willy is an active, dynamic representation of a person who is independent of Jerry.  And in this case, it is Jerry who is deceived.

When Jerry asks: “How can you be real when you’re made of wood?”, Willy replies: “You made me real.”   Willy is the creation of Jerry. Willy’s thoughts are really Jerry’s thoughts.Whatever claims the dummy makes, are really claims of the ventriloquist.The problem is that they are not under Jerry’s control. That can be true for anyone; we often find ourselves thinking of things, spontaneously imagining things that we haven’t willed to imagine. In Jerry’s case these imaginings are not spontaneous, but recurring and persistent, and very scary. Jerry takes a creation of his own mind for something outside of him.

Further Reading:

François Cooren , and Bruno Latour; Action and Agency in Dialogue: Passion, Incarnation and Ventriloquism (John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2010)

David Goldblatt , and Garry L. Hagberg;  Art and Ventriloquism (Routledge, 2005).

Posted in reflections | Tagged , , | Comments Off on Episode 98 – “The Dummy”

Episode 97 – “The Gift”

Philosophy attempts to come up with and to answer our most basic questions. Those questions can include questions about philosophy itself, including the question of whether the questions of philosophy really are basic questions. Is philosophy is constrained by our social, cultural, historical, and economic circumstances or can philosophical inquiry transcend or bypass such contexts? Are the philosophical questions raised by such philosophers as Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Descartes, Kant, Kierkegaard,  and Wittgenstein, really fundamental questions, or do they depend on assumptions and influences of the conditions under which they were formulated, such as the prior beliefs, cultural practices, and even language? Asked positively: Are there philosophical questions that can be raised and apply to all cultures, historical periods, and can be formulated in any natural language?

Whether philosophical questions are truly universal or instead are culturally relative is raised in “The Gift” when Serling, describing the location of story as forty miles south of the Rio Grande, in Mexico, adds, “But any place – and all places, can be … the Twilight Zone.”  His point is that our ability engage the imagination to consider possible worlds is not constrained by the the details of the setting or location for that engagement. Any actual time or place can be used to construct a possible world which can serve as the basis for our philosophical investigation.  Of course this is just a claim and not an argument. But the use of Mexico as the setting, a setting that would have been very unfamiliar to most U.S. television viewers in the early 1960s, is at least the beginning of an argument.

The particular imaginative exercise in “The Gift” asks us to consider h0w we would act if confronted by a being clearly unlike us, a being from another planet or realm, a creature bearing gifts.  The exercise is similar in some respects to that of “To Serve Man,” where visitors from another planet also arrive with gifts, and after some initial skepticism, we place our trust in them. In “The Gift” we fear and then quickly destroy the visiting stranger and its gift.  The difference in the two cases is that in the former, the aliens’ gifts were just lures to attract and deceive us, while the gift in “The Gift” was real and significant.

Perhaps the conclusion we should draw is that we are not particularly good at distinguishing threatening actors from benefactors, particularly when they come from
beyond the stars. This may be a particularly good example of a feature of human nature that really is universal, and not historically or culturally bound.  The fear-fueled reaction of the rural Mexican town are not the result of their occurrence in Mexico, or in a rural area, but are the typical responses of human beings anywhere.

Could more appropriate responses be learned and mastered over time? The question is raised in “The Gift” when the visitor draws the explicit parallel of his treatment to the treatment of Jesus. He says that it’s taken a few thousand years for people to come to grips with Jesus’s visit among people, and so it is not surprising that he’s met with a hostile reception. Maybe we learn to curb our emotions and more accurately assess threats and benefits, or maybe we can learn to have the appropriate emotions in response to novel interactions.


Posted in reflections | Tagged , | Comments Off on Episode 97 – “The Gift”