25 September 2007

Scattered notes on ephemeral illusions, Part II

(Second page of notes on The Book of Illusions by Paul Auster)

"We might not have met until yesterday, but we've been working together for years." ~ Alma

Thanks to Brian (of the excellent Five Branch Tree) for mentioning this brief interview with Paul Auster and his new film, The Inner Life of Martin Frost. (It's a good interview, but rife with spoilers—so beware.) To be honest, I got goosebumps when I read his comment. This post has been in draft form since the beginning of the month, as I was about to discuss...The Inner Life of Martin Frost. To discover that Auster had recently made this into a film was a bit unnerving.

  • Page 217: "At some point, we notice that the philosopher's name is written out in block letters across the front of the sweatshirt: BERKELEY--which also happens to be the name of her school. Is this supposed to mean something, or is it simply a kind of visual pun?" Both, of course.
  • As an undergrad, I was able to visit Berkeley Castle while studying for a term in England ("Where Edward II was murdered, where the Barons of the West gathered before Magna Carta and where Queen Elizabeth I hunted and played bowls."). There are many stories connected to the place--and it's where I learned that UC Berkeley (and the town) was actually named after the philosopher, George Berkeley (although the British pronounciation is "BARK-ley" and the American is "BERK-ley"). Even though Zimmer doesn't seem to be aware of this, Auster certainly is. (Wheels within wheels within wheels...)
  • Claire reads from The Principles of Human Knowledge:
    And it seems no less evident that the various sensations or ideas imprinted on the sense, however blended or combined together, cannot exist otherwise than in a mind perceiving them. And again: Secondly, it will be objected that there is a great difference betwixt real fire and the idea of fire, between dreaming or imagining oneself burnt, and actually being so.
  • My first real (conscious) encounter with Berkeley's thought came from reading Through the Looking-Glass—actually, The Annotated Alice (brilliantly edited by Martin Gardner), which explains the scene of the Red King sleeping underneath the tree as Alice argues with Tweedledum and Tweedledee about the nature of existence:
    “I’m afraid he’ll catch cold with lying on the damp grass,” said Alice, who was a very thoughtful little girl.

    “He’s dreaming now,” said Tweedledee: “and what do you think he’s dreaming about?”

    Alice said “Nobody can guess that.”

    “Why, about you!” Tweedledee exclaimed, clapping his hands triumphantly. “And if he left off dreaming about you, where do you suppose you’d be?”

    “Where I am now, of course,” said Alice.

    “Not you!” Tweedledee retorted contemptuously. “You’d be nowhere. Why, you’re only a sort of thing in his dream!”

    “If that there King was to wake,” added Tweedledum, “you’d go out—bang!—just like a candle!”

    “I shouldn’t!” Alice exclaimed indignantly. “Besides, if I’m only a sort of thing in his dream, what are you, I should like to know?”

    “Ditto,” said Tweedledum.

    “Ditto, ditto!” cried Tweedledee.

    He shouted this so loud that Alice couldn’t help saying “Hush! You’ll be waking him, I’m afraid, if you make so much noise.”

    “Well, it’s no use your talking about waking him,” said Tweedledum, “when you’re only one of the things in his dream. You know very well you’re not real.”

    “I am real!” said Alice, and began to cry.

    “You wo’n’t make yourself a bit realler by crying,” Tweedledee remarked: “there’s nothing to cry about.”

    “If I wasn’t real,” Alice said—half-laughing through her tears, it all seemed so ridiculous—“I shouldn’t be able to cry.”

    “I hope you don’t suppose those are real tears?” Tweedledum interrupted in a tone of great contempt.

    “I know they’re talking nonsense,” Alice thought to herself: “and it’s foolish to cry about it.”
  • As Gardner aptly notes,
    This well-known, much-quoted discussion of the Red King’s dream (the monarch is snoring on a square directly east of the square currently occupied by Alice) plunges poor Alice into grim metaphysical waters. The Tweedle brothers defend Bishop Berkeley’s view that all material objects, including ourselves, are only “sorts of things” in the mind of God. Alice takes the common-sense position of Samuel Johnson, who supposed that he refuted Berkeley by kicking a large stone. [...]

    An odd sort of infinite regress is involved here in the parallel dreams of Alice and the Red King. Alice dreams of the King, who is dreaming of Alice, who is dreaming of the King, and so on, like two mirrors facing each other [...].
  • Jostein Gaarder's novel Sophie's World is another obvious example of Berkeley's philosophy at work in fiction. (There are many, many more—feel free to list them in the comments.)

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