Thursday, November 29, 2012

finding the character's virtual reality

"We all live in a virtual reality, and the brain is the final arbiter."

The Thinker
The quote, taken from a newspaper interview (NYTimes, 11/26) with Dr. M. Samuels, a neurologist at a Harvard, hospital teaching affiliate, was a cautious response to a colleague's best-selling book on a near-death experience and its accompanying visions ("Proof of Heaven," by Dr. Eben Alexander III).

The quote set me to thinking about an essay I'd just read, by Pablo Medina, titled "Lunacy and Longing: Don Quixote and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Writer's Chronicle, v.45, 2012).  Medina discusses related scenes and connections between the two fiction classics, which were interesting to think about in relation to our introductory quote on virtual reality (VR).

For example, there is the scene where Tom Sawyer persuades his friend Huck to accompany him on the ambush of a company of Arabs camped nearby with an entourage of elephants, camels, mules, and a rich treasure trove.  After the raid, Huck points out that it was just a Sunday-school picnic that they broke up.  Tom retorts that if Huck weren't so ignorant he'd have read Don Quixote, and would have known that the company of Arabs had been turned into the Sunday-school kids by their enemies, the magicians.  We observe that Tom is indeed acting out a borrowed VR, based on his reading of Don Quixote's adventures, while Huck's VR mirrors the down-to-earth, simple life realism of Sancho Panza.

Medina  suggests other parallels between the two books, some dealing with class distinctions and social mores of the two eras, but the idea of the brain interpreting the same scene as different realities for different characters is intriguing (and poses problems for a well-ordered society.)  Nonetheless, it has always been a classical, philosophical challenge to define any reality as 'truth.'  If you deviate too far from a contemporary norm, however, and do not have the mental capacity to grasp the difference, you could be in for difficulties.

The author of a fictional work, though he may strive to narrate his story in a third-person, omniscient, strictly objective point-of-view, will usually introduce some sort of VR for each of his characters, scenes and actions in the story.  And if his protagonist's VR is very unusual, like Don Quixote's, it may be well to have one or two characters with a more grounded VR, like Pancho's or Huck's.   Recognizing at least one character with a VR not too different from a norm might give a reader a little more confidence in staying around to see where the story is going.

To explore these ideas further, we could consider "Moby Dick," by Herman Melville.  Ahab's interpretation of a VR from his own experience is that it is possible for a brute force of nature, the great white whale, Moby Dick, to embody supernatural forces of evil.  He is outraged that this evil force has violated him by ripping his leg away in a past encounter, and so he has vowed to find and destroy Moby Dick.  Indeed, if God were to insult him, he would strike God, himself.  Such is Ahab's VR that he perceives himself to be an equal to God.

Ahab is intriguing, but his VR is so different from most reader's VR that it becomes difficult to find ways to sympathize with his character.  Fortunately Melville gives us a more grounded character, Starbuck, a brave and admirable ship's officer, who has a more down-to-earth VR, and gives the reader opportunities to examine the mind and character of Ahab during their shipboard discussions.  Starbuck is the Sancho Panza of the story, who sees Ahab's misfortune as simply another accident in a dangerous trade, and it is time to drop this Moby Dick obsession and get on with the business of hunting any and all whales, and filling the ship's holds with whale oil.

Well, the topic is certainly not exhausted in the foregoing, but probably worth revisiting in a future blog.

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