Monday, September 23, 2013

Can a stranger share your memories?

This entry could be considered a follow-up to last year’s post, Aah, Memory... A Review of “And She Was” by Alison Gaylin. I hope you’ll read that one too.

“Can a stranger share your memories?” asks the blurb on the back cover of Alison Gaylin’s new(ish) suspense novel Into the Dark. For me that’s an intriguing question, a place from which to launch an investigation. So that’s what this post is: an investigation, not a book review.

I am addressing the same question in the novel I’m currently writing. But I’m approaching it from a very different angle.

Into the Dark’s recurring protagonist, private eye Brenna Spector, is blessed/afflicted with a rare condition called HSAM, or Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory (also called Hyperthymesia). When she encounters someone who seems to have knowledge of past events only Brenna or her missing sister could know, she is launched into a fast-paced whodunit with personal impact and an escalating body count.

SPOILER ALERT! Because this is a genre mystery, of course there is an explanation, and this one is both clever and surprising: a stolen diary. A filmmaker and his hired actress have managed to get possession of Brenna’s missing sister Clea’s teenage journal and are exploiting it for the sake of “art” (pornography, actually). And, a genius touch: the diary itself has a name, as if a person in its own right.

I love the rich questions and implications entwined in this plot: Does autobiography become fiction if authorship is claimed by someone not the author? Might it be legitimate for an artist to co-opt the private life experiences of a stranger (especially if that stranger is dead or missing)? Is this comparable to “found object” art? Or is it thievery because what is in question is not merely an object (a book), but the content found within, content whose value may be proportional to its private, personal nature?

If the diary were not “true,” would there be a crime? How can such truth be verified? Whose intellectual property is the diary of a dead person; who owns the copyright? If the crime is plagiarism, based on verbatim use of Clea’s writing, would it have been legal if altered, even if the core events remained the same? Legalities aside, where are the boundaries between ethics and art? Isn’t that what writers and filmmakers do all the time: rip off stories from people’s lives, tweak them a bit, put them out as art (“grist for the mill” and all that)?

What relationship to the “real” Clea does the actress have as she performs Clea’s private writings? If the actress is adopting a persona (Latin for “mask”), and the content of the persona is the intimate life memories of another person, who is really behind the mask?  Might personal identity, the “self,” be actually nothing more than the book of memories we carry, the stories we tell ourselves and others about who we are?

Let us not forget: this entire story occurs only in the mind of Alison Gaylin, and subsequently, in the mind of the reader. Brenna is a fiction, whose fictional “memories” are the only place Clea exists. So Clea is something even less “real,” a fiction once removed, whose own “memories” (now twice removed, just a diary) are spoken by a fictional actress posing as someone not herself -- not even as a person, but as a book with a name. It becomes a spiraling fractal, a fiction-within-a-fiction-within-a-fiction. Speaking both metafictionally and metaphysically, this is a perfect metaphor for the illusory nature of “self”-- the Big Truth that every mystical tradition tells us in one way or another: “You” are simply an aspect of the Absolute, a single viewpoint in the One Consciousness.  As Alan Watts puts it, “I” is just the Universe “eyeing.”

Yet, like characters in a novel, we must carry on, acting out our lives, fully engaged in our roles. The only thing we may have that imaginary characters don’t is awareness -- the capacity to hold both truths at once: our own Duality within Nonduality.

So, “Can a stranger share your memories?” Because it is masterfully true to its genre, a pop artifact embedded in a culture founded on mechanistic / materialistic philosophy, Into the Dark would answer “No.” The memories were not really shared, because there is a “real-world” explanation: a stolen diary. Mainstream mysteries need solutions; questions must have answers -- or so goes the conventional wisdom. I don’t necessarily agree. To my way of thinking, “mystery fiction” could more accurately be called “no-mystery fiction.”

That’s why I’m drawn to what is sometimes called the “metaphysical detective story,” ala Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy, in which answers never come. The real search is internal, for the seeker’s own identity. And in addition, external: a postmodern, metafictional exploration of the nature of authorship.

For me, questions are lovely: aromatic, enticing, delectable. They linger. Answers are pedestrian; they fall with a thud. Mysteries are rich, subtle, sweet. Solutions are just endings: “Done. Next!”

Granted, the reading public may not share this sentiment. So be it (sigh). Carry on.

Now… what if there were no pilfered diary at all, but one’s memories still appeared to be stolen by a stranger? In my novel-in-progress, that’s what happens. The question “Can a stranger share your memories?” might be answered, “Yes, but I can’t explain how it works; it’s a Mystery.”

Trouble is, I am also a product of this mechanistic/materialistic society (and I don’t love most science fiction or fantasy), so I want to have some sort of a foundation that makes sense to me. Fortunately, a combination of ancient philosophy and cutting-edge science begins to provide one. It goes like this: if my personal memories are not actually locked away inside my skull, like a little armored safe -- if instead they exist like television signals in the open air -- then maybe someone else, someone with just the right kind of mental “receiver,” can dial them in.

The latest book by controversial British biologist Rupert Sheldrake, Science Set Free, challenges the “10 Dogmas of Science.” Dogma Number 8 is “Memory is stored in material traces in the brain.” In an interview found here, he says:

In considering the morphic resonance theory of memory, we might ask: if we tune into our own memories, then why don’t we tune into other people’s as well? I think we do, and the whole basis of the approach I am suggesting is that there is a collective memory to which we are all tuned which forms a background against which our own experience develops and against which our own individual memories develop. This concept is very similar to the notion of the collective unconscious.
He goes into more depth in The Sun Magazine, February 2013, interviewed by Mark Leviton:
Leviton: If, as you say, memory does not reside in the brain, then where is it? And can it survive the death of the individual to whom it belongs?
Sheldrake: “Where?” is the wrong question. Memory is a relationship in time, not in space. The idea that a memory has to be somewhere when it’s not being remembered is a theoretical inference, not an observation of reality. When I met you this morning, I recognized you from yesterday. There’s no photographic representation of you in my brain. I just recognize you. What I suggest is that memory depends on a direct relationship across time between past experiences and present ones. The brain is more like a television receiver. The television doesn’t store all the images and programs you watch on it; it tunes in to them invisibly.
It may sound radical, but this idea was put forward not only by Bergson [Henri Bergson, Matter and Memory] but also by philosophers Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein. They all challenged the notion that a memory has to be somewhere in the brain. The whole of the past is potentially present everywhere, and we access it on the basis of similarity. I think we’re tuning in not only to our own past experiences but to the memories of millions of people who are now dead — a collective memory. It’s similar to psychologist Carl Jung’s concept of a collective unconscious or Hinduism’s akashic records, which store all knowledge on another plane of existence.
Yes, there’s the potential for the memory to survive the death of the brain. Whether there’s survival of an individual’s memory, my theory doesn’t predict one way or the other. It leaves the question open, whereas the conventional theory is that, once the brain decays at death, all memories are wiped out.
For conventional science, an even harder problem to explain than memory is consciousness itself. Sheldrake’s Morphic Resonance theory may be supported by brain research conducted by physicist Sir Roger Penrose and anesthesiologist Stuart Hameroff. Their “Orch OR” model gives evidence for the non-local (that is, not confined to an individual brain) nature of consciousness. Extending that theory even further, here is the abstract of a paper called Quantum Consciousness co-authored by Hameroff and Deepak Chopra:
The concept of consciousness existing outside the body (e.g. near-death and out-of body experiences, NDE/OBEs, or after death, indicative of a 'soul') is a staple of religious traditions, but shunned by conventional science because of an apparent lack of rational explanation. However conventional science based entirely on classical physics cannot account for normal in-the-brain consciousness. The Penrose-Hameroff 'Orch OR' model is a quantum approach to consciousness, connecting brain processes (microtubule quantum computations inside neurons) to fluctuations in fundamental spacetime geometry, the fine scale structure of the universe. Recent evidence for significant quantum coherence in warm biological systems, scale-free dynamics and end-of-life brain activity support the notion of a quantum basis for consciousness which could conceivably exist independent of biology in various scalar planes in spacetime geometry. Sir Roger Penrose does not necessarily endorse such proposals which relate to his ideas in physics. Based on Orch OR, we offer a scientific hypothesis for a 'quantum soul'.
I enjoy this thick sciencey stuff, walking the murky borders of the unknown, although I get quickly lost trying to dig into the technical meat of it. One of the main points of this whole investigation for me, and one of the things that motivates all my writing, both fiction and non-, is touched on by this quote from Sheldrake:
So for materialists it’s a simple two-step argument. Memories are stored in brains; the brain decays at death, therefore, memories are wiped out at death. Whereas, if memories are not stored in brains then the memories themselves are not wiped out at death. They’re potentially accessible. That doesn’t prove they are accessed, that there is personal survival. It just means that’s a possibility, whereas with materialism it’s an impossibility. So one position leaves the question closed and the other leaves it open.
Potential! Possibility! Whether we’re choosing among personal philosophies or approaches to scientific inquiry, I say let’s choose Open over Closed. How solid are  scientific “facts,” anyway? I agree with Dean Radin, Ph.D., Senior Scientist at IONS, who says in his book, The Conscious Universe:
That scientific assumptions evolve should come as no surprise. One of the most profitable consequences of science as an "open system" of knowledge, as opposed to rigid dogma, is that the future Laws of Nature will bear as much resemblance to the "laws" we know today as the cellular telephone does to smoke signals.
Okay, I seem to have wandered far afield from where I started. In Into the Dark, Alison Gaylin did her usual excellent job of keeping readers intrigued, tracking like bloodhounds the scent of an answer. I hope the story I’m trying to tell, currently titled Midnight at the Diner, can do something similar, keeping you rapt and curious, fully immersed in a question.

“Can a stranger share your memories?” Yes. And who knows what other amazing, marvelous things are possible in this infinite Universe?

Friday, May 17, 2013

More Moments

This post is a follow-up to the one called “Moments” from almost exactly a year ago. I hope you’ll read that post as well, and watch the videos!

Just today I was looking back through one of my old journals, 13 years past, and discovered that it was this very week in 2000 that the idea and the title for my collection of short stories, The Principle of Ultimate Indivisibility first popped into my mind. The title came from a story I had already completed, “Family Man,” and all I knew was that I wanted to expand on a feeling of connection between members of the human family. That was a little moment of inspiration that has rippled through my life for all the subsequent years. I had just begun to study independent publishing, and I then proceeded to go on a detour away from my own writing to publish others, in the form of Bliss Plot Press and the literary journal, Prima Materia. It wasn’t until 2009 that I birthed the finished book of my own stories into the world, and the years since have been frequently occupied with shepherding its slow growth.

So, obviously, a single moment can be profound: a turning point in one’s life. But that is not really what I’m exploring here. Rather, I’m interested in those moments that either simply pass by with little consequence, too often unnoticed, or those moments into which we fall like a meditation, a brief creative trance outside of time, here then gone.

The “occasional video” art project I described a year ago has continued: short spontaneous videos shot with my little Bloggie camera, with no editing except for trimming head and tail. In that project, I look for a balance of random banality and ephemeral beauty, something that might fit the Japanese aesthetic called wabi-sabi, which suggests that poetry and grace can be found in the "imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete."

From the past twelve months, here are my latest four video moments (about 1 minute each):

Moments: Sitting in the Watery Boneyard
Moments: Sidewalk Politics & Window Shopping

Moments: Accidental Video While Walking the Dog

Moments: My simple way of enduring a shopping trip...
And here’s a different kind of moment from my current novel-in-progress. The protagonist is feeling various stresses: ex-wife, kids, money, and a new mystery: who is stealing his life story? So this is how he uses a little slice of time to escape all that.
At Father Demo Square, he found the perfect view up Sixth Avenue and set up the tripod. He loaded a roll of Ektachrome 160 into his Canon SLR, attached the quick-release plate using a nickel in the screw slot, and seated the camera on the tripod head with a solid click. He screwed the delicate cable release into the top of the shutter button. Then he framed through his zoom at about 150 mm, with the flow of traffic in the foreground, the Bleecker Street sign at the middle left, and the glowing red and blue spire of the Empire State Building piercing the black sky in the upper right. 
These shots were going to be time exposures, turning taxis into streams of light and people into ghosts, all motion gone liquid and translucent, rivers of life flowing through the concrete immoveable canyons of the city. On his budget, film and processing for the sake of experimental art had to be strictly rationed. He had one roll, 36 exposures, to work with tonight, and he hoped for at least one beautiful image from the roll. He worked carefully, selecting different combinations of f-stop and shutter speed, writing down each exposure in a tiny notebook. He pushed the plunger of the cable release with his thumb as he counted along with the second hand on his watch, lit by a miniature flashlight held in his teeth. Five seconds, seven seconds, ten seconds, f 5.6, f 8, f 16. For the last third of the roll, he brought out his flash unit and, without attaching it to the camera, held it high over his head and sent a bolt of illumination into the scene as he held the shutter open. Any moving object catching the beam would appear a little more solid than the surrounding swirls of cloudy motion. 
He was like a boulder in a stream, standing still while everything flowed around him. With his full attention given to the work, he experienced time in an all new way. The moment stretched out without limits, nothing existed but the immediate task, all past and future forgotten, his very self and all its stories gone, melted entirely away, merged with the air and sky and all the vibrating waves and particles of the animate and inanimate worlds upon worlds surrounding his centerless center. 
It lasted a few minutes, a quarter of an hour, and then he packed up and walked home, smiling.

I invite your thoughts about the value of being mindful of moments, and about the challenges of capturing them in art. Thanks for visiting! 

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Book Review: Milligan and Murphy by Jim Murdoch

I’ve always been fascinated by stories of doubles, twins, doppelgangers, minds and actions mirrored (perhaps as a reaction against the profound truth that each of us is utterly unique, and therefore alone). Jim Murdoch’s short novel, Milligan and Murphy, is not really one of those stories, but it toys with the trope of twins who together make a single person. The half-brothers Milligan and Murphy (both named John!) are not twins but are enough alike that their non-twinness is just a technicality. Murphy, the firstborn, may be a shade more introspective, and Milligan a trifle more action-oriented, but essentially they are one mind, and the fact that they inhabit separate bodies is primarily a storytelling device. Without it, the extensive dialogues exploring their limited reality would become claustrophobic solipsism. Such is the reason for the respectable literary history of twins, brothers/sisters, bosom buddies, even the hero/sidekick construct: it works.

Murdoch, an active blogger, plainly acknowledges his interest in Samuel Beckett’s pairs of wanderers, and as we follow his unassuming Irish duo through a barren landscape, setting out on a whim to walk who-knows-where (doppelganger is German for “double walker”), we carry with us the phantoms of Vladimir and Estragon waiting on the road for the elusive (illusive) Godot. But there are other phantoms as well: the mythological twins Castor and Pollux, whose inseparability is immortalized as the constellation Gemini... Lewis Carroll’s Tweedledum and Tweedledee, whose convoluted conversations feel simultaneously demented and true... and for me, the image from my childhood of Mormon missionaries, young men dressed alike going two by two about the world on a philosophical, impractical quest -- tilting at windmills, one might say (and Quixote had his Sancho Panza).

Speaking of Quixote, another lens through which to read Milligan and Murphy is the picaresque. In current usage, that term refers to “an episodic recounting of the adventures of an anti-hero on the road” (Wikipedia). So M. and M. is picaresque x 2. Critic Daniel Green writes, under the title One Thing After Another, “There's not really a sense of progression in the picaresque narrative, just a series of episodes, and usually the protagonist remains more or less unchanged, undergoing no transformation or ‘epiphany.’” I agree with him when he goes on to say that a revival of the picaresque is in fact, a welcome break from “the tyranny of story--the creation of narrative tension by which too many stories and novels are reductively judged...” and that this form (not “formless” at all) frees the writer for effects not generally available in today’s conventional “workshopped/crafted” psychological narrative. Murdoch has handled the form masterfully, which comes as no surprise if you’re familiar with his other works, not a conventional tale among them.

Perhaps the key factor in Milligan and Murphy’s success is Murdoch’s confident use of a narrative voice that is all too rare these days. It is a variety of third-person omniscient that some critics have dubbed “universal omniscient.” The difference is that the universal omniscient narrator reveals information that the characters do not have, and makes clear the fact that the narrator is not involved in the events of the story. This is sometimes called "Little Did He Know" writing, as in, "Little did he know he'd be dead by morning." (Wikipedia) Murdoch’s narrator observes both inner and outer action from a bit of distance (more than arm’s length, less than bird’s eye), with a dash of wry wit and an almost paternal fondness for his protagonists. This narrator likes the hapless brothers but never spares them when their behavior is less than stellar.

But Murdoch takes third-person a step further. Much to my enjoyment (because I appreciate multiple levels of meaning), he mysteriously, occasionally introduces the first-person pronoun so that we wonder, who is this unnamed being who knows all? There is no answer. This is a narrator who shares some of the dry, witty tone, with asides and commentary, of Lemony Snicket (A Series of Unfortunate Events), but unlike Snicket, is never revealed as an actual character in the story. This is a narrator who acknowledges he is telling a story to “you,” the reader. It’s fun to read, but it’s more than that. Murdoch is using a postmodern metafictional device to thrust us into the midst of a Big Question. Every meditating yogi is facing something similar: who is the Observer?

The mysterious “I” first appears on page two with this sudden insertion in an expository passage about the brothers’ history: “I bore witness to each confinement and have followed the boys’ lacklustre progress with something of a paternal interest over the years.” Then again on page six: 

Our story, such as it is, begins with our heroes, such as they are, sound asleep in bed. That is to say, they were asleep in their own beds. I’ve mentioned that they were close and I’m not about to take that back but it is equally true to say that it had been many years since they had enjoyed the one bed, nevertheless they continued to retire each night to the same room, the bedroom they had shared since infancy.
This charming self-referential witness appears perhaps another half-dozen times throughout the book’s 169 pages, doling out information, opinion, and wisdom, and adding immensely to my reading pleasure.

From a philosophical point of view, I can’t be sure what Murdoch intended, but I can say what he actually did, on the level of emotional subtext. He wrote an anti-atheism book. I won’t say a religious book; it thankfully stops far short of that. But in Milligan and Murphy, Murdoch posits a universe in which we are not alone. It is a universe with a Supreme Being. If the narration had been strictly third-person omniscient, this would not be so, because the reader would not have been given an explicit reference to an observing consciousness. In M. and M., there is a Someone, a super-character, the “I,” who watches over our simple heroes (naifs, everymen). This Someone knows everything about everything, but does not participate in the action. The “I” remains unnameable, a benevolent, ever-present mystery.

A skeptic might say, well, in every book there is the obvious parallel: author/creator = god. However, I am not referring to the author here, but rather to the persona “hired” by the author to narrate this particular story. Within the world of this book, there is a God. I am not a “believer” but I do not find this objectionable. Rather, I find it true to my felt experience as a human on this strange planet. Murdoch has personalized Awareness, the field in which all experience exists.

A sly bit of evidence is at the end of a scene in which the brothers meet an old man who has been waiting by the road, waiting for someone who never arrived, waiting even beyond the death of his longtime companion. Of course, if we know Beckett (which the brothers don't), we recognize him... is it Didi or Gogo?  As they turn to go, Milligan says:

“...I wonder who he was, Murphy.”
"God alone knows, Milligan. God alone knows.”
 That He did.
After the two John M.s wander the muddy roads under rainy skies, from town to gray town, and encounter a handful of characters who equal or surpass them in grit and wackiness and homespun wisdom, their final act is simply... to keep going. They’ve reached the sea, and perhaps here, Beckett’s couplet applies: “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” There is a ship in the harbor needing hands and the brothers get lucky (and, let us remember, the twins, Castor and Pollux, are the patrons of sailors). As M. and M. gaze at the dark waves, I’m reminded of Knut Hamsun’s unnamed hero in his seminal 20th-century novel, Hunger, who starved and suffered senselessly until he was done, finished with this phase of his life, then simply got on a ship and sailed away into an unknown future.

It is then that Murdoch’s benevolent observer appears one last time to deliver the book’s beautiful final lines:
Neither of them moved. The ship sailed on regardless; the earth kept spinning on its axis and circling the sun whilst the whole universe continued a sigh begun twenty million years before. And that’s the end of our story as much as any story has an ending.
I, of course, know exactly what will become of of them but that really is another tale, the ending of which you more than likely know already.
Milligan and Murphy is a quick read and fun, but it is never shallow. If you look for alternatives to the garish and trendy, this book’s for you.

Perhaps irrelevant, perhaps not, here’s a final note: two local treasures here in Woodstock, New York, Mikhail Horowitz and Gilles Malkine, giving us their own Beckett homage: “Rappin’ for Godot” (video by Stephen Blauweiss). Enjoy!

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Happy New Publishing

The world just ended, then began again, faster than the blink of an eye. It’s a new year and we’re all reborn. I choose not to look backward at this blog’s empty months, and I don’t intend to make predictions about its future (futures don’t exist). But I do want to draw attention to an article by Nina Shengold in this month’s Chronogram magazine about the healthy state of self-publishing in the Hudson Valley. I merit a couple of minor mentions as well as appearing in the group photo, and I think it’s safe to call myself a veteran in this rapidly changing field since I’ve worked in it for over a decade (see Bliss Plot Press).

Read the article here: Brave New Books: Hudson Valley Self-Published Authors Take the Reins.

I’m sure each of us surveyed provided a wealth of information that Nina didn’t have room to use. Want to know more? I’m happy to share my experiences with anyone who asks.

If you think self-publishing might be for you, but you need help finding the services that will bring your book to a professional level, please feel free to contact me. As the one-man production team for Bliss Plot Press, I’ve developed solid skills in both editing (in addition to Bliss Plot, see this) and book design (also this and this), but I have a rather full schedule, so I would gladly act as connector to hook you up with very competent editors and designers that I know.

Also, browse my YouTube page for eight video book trailers (among other things) I’ve produced.

Happy New Era of Author-Friendly Publishing!