Friday, December 31, 2010

Being There

In 1990, a film was released called Total Recall, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and directed by Paul Verhoeven. It employed a narrative device - or "gimmick" - around which the action of the film revolved. In a world of the future,(1) trips to Mars are so routine that people can travel there for their vacations. So a company, calling itself Total Recall, introduces an invention that can implant memories of an experience directly into a person's mind so that, for example, instead of going to all the expense of time and money for a trip to Mars, he could simply pay for a whole series of memories of the experience without ever leaving earth or missing a day of work. When the process is complete, the person would remember having made a trip to Mars in person, with selected details involving everything from sight seeing to sexual partners.

This gimmick had one serious philosophical flaw that, for me, compromised the film completely. It is the notion, which I don't think anyone would agree with, that a memory of an experience is of equal value to the actual experience - that simply remembering an event in one's past is as important as having lived through it. In other words, the film lamely argues, remembering having visited an extraordinary place, or tasted some marvelous fruit or made love to an exquisite woman, is as good as actually being there - seeing the place for the first time, eating the fruit, making passionate love. It assumes that experience is not so much the moment to moment direct sensations and direct reactions to life, but what we remember.

How dull it must be to have nothing but memories, nothing but past experience, to remind oneself of what being alive was like, of what it could be like again if one would simply open oneself to life, to the surprises and frustrations of the moment. Being caught between the two is where most of us live. Robert Frost addressed the dilemma directly in his poem "Carpe Diem":

Age saw two quiet children
Go loving by at twilight,
He knew not whether homeward,
Or outward from the village,
Or (chimes were ringing) churchward,
He waited, (they were strangers)
Till they were out of hearing
To bid them both be happy.
"Be happy, happy, happy,
And seize the day of pleasure."
The age-long theme is Age's.
'Twas Age imposed on poems
Their gather-roses burden
To warn against the danger
That overtaken lovers
From being overflooded
With happiness should have it.
And yet not know they have it.
But bid life seize the present?
It lives less in the present
Than in the future always,
And less in both together
Than in the past. The present
Is too much for the senses,
Too crowding, too confusing -
Too present to imagine.

A much more compelling film, called After Life in the U.S., could as easily, but for copyright laws, have been called Total Recall.(2) The film's central creative concept is that, upon one's death, one arrives at a nondescript place in which people, like guidance counselors, inform newcomers that they are dead and that the task before them, which lasts one week, is to choose from among all the memories of their lives the one in which they will spend eternity.

One old man, who has spent a lifetime in the pursuit of sexual exploits with strange women, chooses the memory of his daughter's wedding to dwell in for eternity. A teenage girl at first chooses a trip to Disney World, but changes her mind for a memory of being with her mother in her infancy. One young man refuses to choose, and winds up staying on as a case worker in the afterlife way station.

On the final day, once they have all made their choices, one by one each dead person disappears into their memories. In a statement accompanying the film, the film's director, Hirokazu Koreeda, stated that

"My grandfather became senile when I was six. the word Alzheimer's did not yet exist and no one in my family or in our community understood what happened to him. His forgetfulness began with pestering my mother to serve meals we had just finished eating. Gradually he began to lose his way on familiar streets and had to be escorted home by the local police. One day, he no longer recognized our faces. Finally he could not recognize his own. As a child, I comprehended little of what I saw, but I remember thinking that people forgot everything when they died. I now understand how critical memories are to our identity, to a sense of self. . . . Our memories are not fixed or static. They are dynamic, reflecting selves that are constantly changing. So the act of remembering, of looking back at the past, is by no means redundant or negative. Rather, it challenges us to evolve and mature. The recreation of memories allow the dead to come to terms with the past, affirming and accepting their lives in the process. It offers respite to those who couldn't find meaning in their past."

If I could choose one memory, one day of my life to relive for eternity, I wouldn't make an obvious choice, like one special birthday, or a Christmas from my childhood, or the day I met a certain girl, or my wedding day. I think I would choose a last day - the last day of a precious vacation, or the day before I was to leave home for a tour of duty in Korea, or indeed the day before I came here to the Philippines. I would awake on the morning of that day with the knowledge that it was the last day. And I would lie down at night knowing that when I awoke I would have to say goodbye and leave someone behind, a beloved place or a lovely time in my life, for an unknown stretch of months or years - or forever. But when I awoke, it would be the same day rewound to the beginning, the last day to live all over again.

It wouldn't be hard to discover what memory Alun Lewis, the Welsh poet, would have chosen. He captured it in a poem - his last night alone with his wife before embarking on a troopship in the Second World War - a journey from which he did not return. It is a familiar scene, repeated every time a soldier is deployed far from home, but it has never been as beautifully expressed:

So we must say Goodbye, my darling,
And go, as lovers go, for ever;
Tonight remains, to pack and fix on labels
And make an end of lying down together.

I put a final shilling in the gas,
And watch you slip your dress below your knees
And lie so still I hear your rustling comb
Modulate the autumn in the trees.

And all the countless things I shall remember
Lay mummy-cloths of silence round my head;
I fill the carafe with a drink of water;
You say 'We paid a guinea for this bed,'

And then, 'We'll leave some gas, a little warmth
For the next resident, and these dry flowers,'
And turn your face away, afraid to speak
The big word, that Eternity is ours.

Your kisses close my eyes and yet you stare
As though god struck a child with nameless fears;
Perhaps the water glitters and discloses
Time's chalice and its limpid useless tears.

Everything we renounce except our selves;
Selfishness is the last of all to go;
Our sighs are exhalations of the earth,
Our footprints leave a track across the snow.

We made the universe to be our home,
Our nostrils took the wind to be our breath,
Our hearts are massive towers of delight,
We stride across the seven seas of death.

Yet when all's done you'll keep the emerald
I placed upon your finger in the street;
And I will keep the patches that you sewed
On my old battledress tonight, my sweet.

(1) Just as in RoboCop and Starship Troopers, Verhoeven makes this world seem remarkably unpleasant.
(2) The Japanese title is from the kana for "Wonderful Life" - Wandafuru Raifu.

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