The Great McGuffin

Yesterday I saw the current Broadway production of The 39 Steps. The play faithfully follows the plot of Hitchcock’s film, scene for scene, but turns it into a wild (and very funny) farce. What was particularly interesting to me was that all of the humor on-stage was based on playing with Theory of Mind. I’ll explain.

The basic strategy of the play is to point out, right from the start, that we are watching an artifice, a thing of pure unreality. Which of course is a given, since we’re actually watching a play – mere actors on a stage. But here the artifice is ratcheted up further by the fact that the several dozen characters from the film are played by only four actors, who continually swap in and out of costumes and personalities. At times actors switch costumes so rapidly that they are able to have entire extended dialogs with themselves.

Please understand, this is all done very well, a feat which requires split-second timing, instant shifts of acting technique and razor sharp choreography of movement. The cast is more than up to the job.

Of course the real subject of the play is not Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps. That is merely a McGuffin. The play is really a comic essay about the phenomenon of theatre itself. Specifically, the contradictions of an art form predicated on spending one’s evening watching real people pretend to be imaginary people.

As I watched the actors shift in and out of the “reality” of the story, I realized that at its core I was witnessing the power of Theory of Mind. The audience’s ToM is being given a continual workout, by being asked to join the cast in the wild exercise of constructing ephemeral views of mental states and emotional relationships, while the quotation marks that serve to nest those views within one another are continually put on and taken off.

The humor comes from seeing the world of theatrical emotion continually deconstructed. And the audience never tires of the joke, even though in some places it is repeated multiple times in literally the same way. At the performance I attended, the audience laughed, on cue, every time, no matter how many times they had already seen the same trick.

My favorite moment came near the end of the play when a character – the arch villian – becomes enraged to see his fiendish plot foiled by an event so meta-, so outside the reality of his character, or even of the play itself, that the moment is as absurd as watching a sock puppet jump off a performer’s hand to rail against the sock manufacturing industry.

Now you must understand that the actor who is playing this particular moment has just slipped into the arch-villian character mere seconds ago. In the last several minutes alone we have probably seen him play about ten wildly different characters, including several women. And yet the audience recognizes and responds enthusiastically to the frustration of the arch-villian, this sock puppet, this utterly transitory being.

The playwrite understands perfectly that we, the audience, will embrace any dramatic being that makes a heartfelt claim on our emotions, no matter how absurd that being may seem. And to me that shows, right there, the enormous power of Theory of Mind in fiction.

ToM foolery

When I first read Douglas’s comment, I thought he was implying that Republican strategists want us to think Obama is worried that voters might end up concluding that black people actually buy into Reverend White’s incendiary belief that all whites are racist.

Well, that was nine levels of nested attributed mental states, so I guess yesterday’s commenters were right to point out that our ability to nest attributed mental states depends mightily on how things are presented. I’m sure somebody else could do better than my example, but it’s already pretty clear that with a little care we can go much deeper than five levels.

It would be interesting to make a computer game in which winning depends on successful use of Theory of Mind. For example, maybe to win the game you need to figure out such things as whether knowing that Ellen was lying when she said that her sister wanted to sleep with John actually tells you that Ellen’s sister was only pretending to be jealous after Ellen announced that John had said he wanted to marry her. Well, you get the idea.

If nothing else, we might get a whole new demographic of game players and game designers!

I think you suspect I believe you agree with my opinion.

I’ve been reading Lisa Zunshine’s wonderful book Why We Read Fiction – Theory of Mind and the Novel (Ohio State University Press, 2006), which ties together literary theory and cognitive psychology – specifically “Theory of Mind” (ToM is the mental model we construct of what people are thinking/feeling). The book shows how the pleasure we get from reading about fictional characters derives from the pleasurable sensation of continually testing the evolutionary adaptation that allows us to form such mental models.

The underlying science, in brief: Well developed ToM improves group/clan cooperation and bonding, and therefore is good for species survival, so individuals in our species have evolved to find pleasure in maximizing those abilities. Our brains get so much pleasure from working out peoples’ motivations and underlying emotions that we seek out such mental activities even in fictional contexts.

All of this ties in with the “Hack the Character” theories that I talked about on January 9 and in related posts, and that I sometimes talk about in public. I think that’s why she gave me a copy of her book. šŸ™‚

I’m at the point in the book now where I’m reading about the experiments conducted in the lab of Professor Robin Dunbar at Oxford, to find out what limits there might be on the complexity of the ToM mental models we can form. Specifically, how many levels can we nest thoughts like “he thinks that she believes that they agree with…” before we get lost. Dunbar et al designed some really clever experiments which showed that most people have no trouble nesting four levels deep, but start to lose it at five. For example, I suspect that the five-nested sentence in the title of this post might be pretty tough for most people to decypher.

And that suggests what might be an interesting game. Can we carefully construct sentences that require highly nested theory of mind, and yet won’t confuse people? For example, I’ve managed to make a sentence that nests five-deep, which I’m guessing will be completely clear to most people reading this:

I think Obama worries that voters won’t like his Pastor’s belief that white people are racist.

Can we go deeper than this, and still make sense? Or are our poor little minds not up to the task, no matter how clever we are in trying to circumvent our limited brain power? I’m open to suggestions.

Infelicity

In addition to the incomparable Miss White, my other eighth grade teacher was Miss Felice. She too was young, and full of good humor. My feelings toward Miss Felice were less, um, hormonal, but nonetheless I appreciated her enthusiasm, wackiness and energy level, wonderful qualities generally found only in the very youngest middle-school teachers.

It was only years later that I figured out that the sometimes bitter and cynical older teachers in our school had probably once been more like my two young English teachers, before all the joi d’ecole had been knocked out of them by years of battlling with the public school system.

Miss Felice (even her name was happy) was the person who introduced me to the magic of Nina. Some of you might already know about Nina, but it was Miss Felice who turned me on to this wonderful bit of urban culture, a beautiful gem tucked away in the corner of New York life.

Al Hirschfeld was possibly the greatest caricaturist of the twentieth century. He died only a few years ago, at the grand old age of ninety nine and a half, after having drawn, with his magic pen, the defining image of pretty much everybody of note who popped up during the eighty years or so of his mighty reign, including just about every celebrity and major politician, as well as various gangsters, gin runners and assorted riffraff.

He had the uncanny ability to capture the pure essence of a famous person, fusing appearance and personality together with a few well chosen lines, somehow completely bypassing mere “realism” on his way to something far deeper and more true. For many years Hirschfeld was the image of The New York Times Arts and Leisure section. And one day Miss Felice pointed out to me that just to the right of his signature, he usually put a small number, like 3 or 5. It was the number of occurrances in the drawing where he had hidden the name of his daughter Nina.

At the time, I thought that was just about the most wonderful gift a father could give his child, and I was utterly charmed by the entire idea of it. Thenceforth, every Sunday morning when The Times was delivered to our house, the first thing I would do was find all the Ninas. I got really good at it after a while. Of course, by the time I learned about all this, Nina was already grown up, but that didn’t take anything away from the experience. And he kept it up too, until he passed away at ninety nine, by which point Nina was fifty eight.

So I became a big fan of Miss Felice. Then, oddly, one day she too had her Miss White moment, but with a twist. It was the day I noticed a cute miniature figurine of a teddy bear on her desk. I asked her what its name was. Miss Felice replied, in her usual bright and perky way, “Gladly, my cross-eyed bear!” I looked more closely, and sure enough the little fellow was indeed cross-eyed.

And then about a minute later it hit me. This little knick-knack was a token of religious faith. It gave her a way to say, out loud: “Gladly my Cross I’d bear.”

To me there was something dubious about this. For Miss Felice to communicate her Christian faith to a schoolboy through the prism of a bad pun was completely consistent with her endearingly loopy nature, but to my twelve year old brain it was all a bit troubling, a little like thinking you’re watching Avenue Q, and then suddenly the goofy puppets start acting out scenes from Left Behind.

When my beautiful Miss White had tried to steer my impressionable and love-struck young mind down the path of Scientology, she had merely broken my heart. In that moment she had ceded her coolness, and so the whole episode had held no threat.

But with Miss Felice on the other hand, I was encountering something much more troubling. I was forced to realize that even when people are cool and goofy and have appropriate respect for the supreme majesty of bad puns, they might still be trying to sell you something.

And that’s scary.

First day of Spring

Today is the first day of Spring. The Vernal equinox, cuspus proventus, when the day once again overtakes the night. It is the time of year when, according to ancient lore, the great Goddess Ostara carries forth her basket of eggs, accompanied in her joyous revels by her spouse, a pagan god who takes the earthly form of a hare. And you thought the Easter Bunny was just for kids!

Speaking of which, if you grew up in New York State, the first day of Spring has great significance. Unlike certain other places I could mention, New York has actual seasons. It gets too cold here in the winter, and too hot in the summer. Of course each of these seasons has its childhood compensations. For example, Winter has sledding, iceskating, building a snowman, and all those other wondrous activities based around the fact that water gets really really interesting when it freezes.

Summer may get insanely hot and humid to the point where everything becomes disgustingly sticky and unpleasant, but Summer too has its compensations. For example, you can go swimming. And not only that, but also, um, well ok, that’s pretty much it. Swimming. Unless you are into fishing or playing baseball, and I was never into either of those two time-honored activities. Fishing because it was unfair to the fish, and playing baseball because it was unfair to my easily bruised adolescent ego. Did I mention swimming?

But just around Springtime, everything gets perfect. Leaves begin showing up on the trees, a soft and inviting breeze follows you around the whole day long, everyone starts to get all happy and relaxed, and the entire world seems to put on a smile.

On some level, even if they don’t talk about it, people know what Spring is about. Spring is about the promise of renewal, and it is the season of second chances. Sure, maybe you got everything wrong last year, screwed it all up, fell flat on your face. But this year is gonna be different. I can feel it on that breeze. This year hey, look out World!

And every year, when Spring comes around, you know you have another chance to get it right. You can feel it deep down in your bones. I don’t think you ever lose that feeling. I still have that faith in the Gods of Springtime just as strongly now as I did when I was a kid.

Although I have to admit it creeps me out just a little to think about that goddess and the Easter Bunny, um, doing it…

Astonished

I try not to talk about current politics here, but yesterday I was completely surprised – no, astonished – by Barack Obama’s speech on race relations in our country. I deliberately refrained from watching the video, but only read the text. I didn’t want to be swayed by a politician’s charisma, but rather wanted to find out what he had to say. You can read the entire text of the speech here.

I hadn’t expected to be astonished. I suppose I had gotten used to the politician’s self-protective crouch, the safe sound byte, the way even the most thoughtful of public speakers have now learned to carefully dumb it all down, to assume that any real attempt to speak to the intelligence in their listeners would not be worth the risk of having their words taken out of context, that anything complex they try to say would somehow be turned against them.

So I was not prepared to be spoken to with true respect, with actual reasoned intelligence, for a speech to contain complexity, historical context, to frankly discuss the enormous varieties of anger that tear at this country, or to talk honestly about the causes of our nation’s rage, without giving in to that rage.

When was the last time you can remember a major politician in this country actually daring to respect the intelligence of our people, the complexity and contradictions of our culture? Think about it for a moment. When was the last time?

Ever since we entered our current bizarro era of presidential image building, in which a major war is started by shouting “Mission Accomplished” while wearing a silly costume, in which being “presidential” means being periodically driven to a fake ranch for pretend wood chopping, in which wartime photo-ops are staged with plastic turkeys, it feels as though our nation’s citizenry has taken on some of the characteristics of of a chronically abused spouse: After we’ve been slapped upside the head enough times, we begin to believe that we deserve the punishment and humiliation.

By the time of Katrina, when unconscionable neglect was inflicted by an uncaring and incompetent government upon its own citizens, the obscene jokiness of a line like “Heck’va job Brownie” had come to seem normal. Our nation had already been beaten into submission, had been convinced it must really be a race of idiots, undeserving of real democracy, let alone legal niceties like the protection of Habeas Corpus.

We had learned to look down so Daddy wouldn’t smack us again, to keep our voices low and to take off our shoes at airports, while anesthetizing our suppressed rage by sneaking off to watch John Stewart and The Simpsons, the way a generation of enraged teenagers used to sneak off to read Mad Magazine. Anything to escape the scary people who had somehow taken on the role of a nation’s grown-ups.

So to read something like this, a speech so subtle, complex, reasoned, so respectful of its listeners, a speech which gives us the benefit of the doubt that we are indeed capable of holding two ideas in our heads at the same time, this has made my heart leap for joy. I had given up on such possibilities.

I don’t know who will become our next president. But meanwhile, bless you for this moment, Mr. Obama. Bless you. For the first time in years I remember what a privilege it can be to be part of a nation of ideas, a nation of people who are capable of mutual respect, who continue, even while disagreeing, to hold each other’s steady gaze.

I remember again what it feels like to be an American.

Scenes from the Novel III

It was nearly five o’clock in the afternoon when Drog finally arrived. Needless to say, Clarissa was not pleased. “Sir, I have been positively drowning myself in Jasmine tea. While this is indeed a delightful concoction, a tonic for both body and soul, particularly when taken with lemon, one must acknowledge that after a certain point in the afternoon it tends to lose its charm.”

Drog grunted in a way that she chose to interpret as an apology, and gradually lowered his massive bulk to sit facing her, his deep-set eyes flickering over the afternoon crowd. Clarissa peered curiously at his deshevelled appearance. “You look as though you have been having quite the day of it, my friend. Have you anything new to report?”

Drog swung his heavy head slowly around to return her gaze, and for a long moment he simply looked back at her impassively, his coal black eyes flashing with dark fire. When at last he began to speak, his expression as unmoving as stone, the sepulchral voice that emerged seemed to belong to another place entirely, a place of savage and howling winds. “Yes … I have seen the night flyers,” he began. “Their hunger grows. The dripping flesh of their approaching minions crawls with scarabs and rejoices. The scuttering claws grasp, they tear, they burn. The Dark One’s terrible caravans of war are filled with the long-dead eaters of souls, and the mere things of Earth are broken and destroyed beneath their chain’d wheels of hideous fire. The enemy draws nearer. Ever nearer.”

Clarissa nodded curtly. “All as I had suspected, my friend. Thank you Drog, you are such a dear. I don’t suppose you would care for a scone? I believe that they are freshly baked, with just the merest hint of coconut.”

Her companion barely shook his massive head in response. His hooded eyes were gazing into the distance. A few moments later the waitress approached their table. “Can I get you…” she began. When she laid eyes on Drog she stopped dead in her tracks, and her face went ashen, the words dying in her throat. He glared back at her, his sharply protruding lower incisors gradually stretching out his glistening lips into a shape that distantly resembled a grin.

“Oh, dear me, I am so awfully sorry!” Clarissa exclaimed, “my fault entirely. One does tend to take things for granted.” Delicately she put down her teacup, and made an almost imperceptable gesture with the slender fingers of her left hand. For an instant the room seemed to swim, and a few moments later the waitress approached their table.

“Can I get you anything else?” she asked amiably, barely glancing at Clarissa’s new companion. Ugly as sin, she thought absently, but then again, you get all kinds in a place like this. Whatever. As long as they can pay, they can stay.

“My dear lady, thank you ever so much,” Clarissa replied politely, “But I fear we had best be going rather soon. We shall just be needing the bill, at your earliest convenience. I am afraid that my companion is on a somewhat restricted diet, and there is really nothing here for him to eat.”

Clarissa smiled with fond amusement as her large companion’s gaze wandered around the crowded restaurant. “That is to say,” she added cheerfully, “nothing on the menu.”

Sadder but wiser

Back to the beautiful and bewitching Miss White, eighth grade teacher beyond compare, light of my life, fire of my puberty. I knew, from the first moment I saw her, even before she introduced us to the mysteries of Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle and Other Modern Verse, that she was the one for me. I would sit in class each day, gazing raptly at my beloved, all the while doing fervid mental calculations in my head, mostly along the lines of “Let’s see, when I’m old enough to marry, she will still only be…”

Until the day it all changed. Seeing that I was an inquisitive young man, on that fateful day Miss White lent me a book, telling me that it had some exciting ideas, and that I really aught to read it. The book was called Dianetics by L. Ron Hubbard. Devoted slave as I was to my enchanted teacher, I shyly took the proferred book from her lovely hands and dutifully read it, cover to cover. And that’s when I ran into a snag.

Some of you might recognize this book as the core introductory text of Scientology. Being only twelve, I knew nothing of such matters, but I did know that what I was reading just didn’t add up. It seems, according to the estimable Mr. Hubbard, that the only way to achieve true happiness is to allow experts to remove all your little neurotic tics, or “engrams”, at which point you become an enlightened person – or as he termed it, a “Clear”.

Well, I quickly realized that everything I most cherish about my little brain comes from the very flaws and neurotic tics that this nice book was proposing to surgically remove from it. I mean – to establish some context here – I grew up with Woody Allen and the Marx Brothers!

And that was when the bubble burst, my great love for Miss White dissolving into a sorry puddle, and I became a sadder but wiser adolescent. And yet, who knows? If only I had embraced my inner Scientologist, I might have ended up marrying Nicole Kidman. šŸ™‚

Time, you thief

In response to yesterday’s comment, I too memorized Jabberwocky in high school. I remember that it was a weekend afternoon when I was fifteen, and I was hanging around at home with nothing to do except browse through a book of old poems. That day I also memorized The Walrus and the Carpenter and Leigh Hunt’s Jenny Kissed Me. And I vowed that I would memorize at least one poem a day.

Well, I can still recite all three of those poems word for word, but I never made good on my vow. To this day, those are the only three poems that I can recite by heart. Rather sad, actually. I assume that anyone reading this knows about The Walrus and the Carpenter, but for those of you who don’t know Jenny Kissed Me, Leigh Hunt was a minor romantic poet – a good friend of Shelley, Byron and Keats who was never quite up to their level. He wrote this poem to the wife of his friend Thomas Carlyle. I’ve read that it captures an actual moment between them. And really, what more could you ask of a poem?


Jenny kissed me when we met,
Jumping from the chair she sat in;
Time, you thief, who love to get
Sweets into your list, put that in.

Say Iā€™m weary, say Iā€™m sad,
Say that health and wealth have missed me,
Say Iā€™m growing old, but add
Jenny kissed me.

Reflections on a gift

I was thinking back to poems I used to love as a kid, and my mind kept going back to one by John Tobias, a gift from our eighth grade English teacher Miss White (upon whom I had the most intense schoolboy crush, which at the time I was quite convinced was true love). I hadn’t thought about this poem in years, and I was afraid to look at it again, worried that I wouldn’t like it anymore.

I am very happy to report that I like it just fine. In fact, even more. I’m sure some of you know this poem. For the rest of you, happy discovering! Does anyone else happen to have a favorite poem from childhood, one that still resonates for you now?


      Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle
        Received from a Friend Called Felicity

During that summer
When unicorns were still possible;
When the purpose of knees
Was to be skinned;
When shiny horse chestnuts
    (Hollowed out
    Fitted with straws
    Crammed with tobacco
    Stolen from butts
    In family ashtrays)
Were puffed in green lizard silence
While straddling thick branches
Far above and away
From the softening effects
Of civilization;

During that summer--
Which may never have been at all;
But which has become more real
Than the one that was--
Watermelons ruled.

Thick imperial slices
Melting frigidly on sun-parched tongues
Dribbling from chins;
Leaving the best part,
The black bullet seeds,
To be spit out in rapid fire
Against the wall
Against the wind
Against each other;

And when the ammunition was spent,
There was always another bite:
It was a summer of limitless bites,
Of hungers quickly felt
And quickly forgotten
With the next careless gorging.

The bites are fewer now.
Each one is savored lingeringly,
Swallowed reluctantly.

But in a jar put up by Felicity,
The summer which maybe never was
Has been captured and preserved.
And when we unscrew the lid
And slice off a piece
And let it linger on our tongue:
Unicorns become possible again.