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Mise en abyme
Humans are connection machines. I am sometimes overwhelmed by how many of them I see. This wasn't always the case. There was a time when the contents of my mind were fewer, when my experience of the world was smaller, and when I didn't fully realize the limits of what I knew or could ever hope to know.
There wasn't just a time. There have been many of them. A lifetime of them. So many of them that the times themselves now form connections—phantom trails that go deep into the distance but are never more than a few steps behind me. They don't just trail me, though. They trail all of us. Starting when we do and going on until we don't.
When I was a kid, my connections were more manageable. They were limited to the utilitarian things that I pieced together on my own or gathered from my surroundings and the people in my life. Everything and everyone beyond us was part of an abstract world that I knew and cared little about. You could call it ignorance, and it was. But that makes it sound wrong, and I'm not sure that it was wrong.
Here's a question: Suppose we could somehow see zero connections in the external world, and zero connections again between us and it. Would that be any different from seeing everything as one? As one messy and complex whole? No light and dark. No good and evil. No life and death. Just all of it there together in one existential stew. Would that be wrong?
As it is now, though, I've already gathered too many units of data and experience, and drawn too many connections between them, to see the world as one without also seeing it as its infinite separate parts. I can't now unsee these connections. So I make use of them. It’s a different tool for doing the same job. I'm destined, or doomed, or just inclined to keep drawing connections between as many of life's constituent parts as possible. There are many tools for doing this. Mine just happens to be writing. In part because my thoughts move in fast circles that require a technique for slowing them down and making them more intelligible than I’m otherwise able to. Hence, writing. Hence, my sometimes getting overwhelmed by all the connections that I see, not to mention all the ones that I don't.
Existential bits dot my mind like shrapnel or the pieces of a never-ending jigsaw puzzle. That's how it looks to me in my imagination. The pieces and bits are stuck to a kind of intricate web that stretches across the blackness of consciousness or space or wherever that vast darkness is behind our eyes and/or in our minds. That's a very particular image, I know. But I have almost total trust that you can see it, or at least understand it, just as a result of me moving my fingers around and inputting all these little symbols into this little machine and sending them instantly to you and every other human with a pulse and an internet connection who cares to look. That's incredible to me. In part because, just, how?—five minutes ago we were apes. But also in part because I know that there's almost nothing truthful I could write that at least a few other people wouldn't be able to understand or relate to.
As long as there are people who can read the particular symbols that I write in, then this will be true regardless of things like country or culture. It will even be true of time. I don't anticipate anyone reading these or any of my words a hundred years from now. But if they were to do so, I'm confident that some of them would see their own reflection. "The past is just us in funny clothes," Mike Tyson has said. And well, we are all well on our way to becoming the past.
We are born connected. We live connected. And then we die connected. I can't prove this. And I'm not trying to. That's just how I see it. It's a story that I choose to believe. Stories and choices don't make things true, of course. And yet, I still choose to believe this one. If you're looking for a more convincing argument, I would humbly advise you to stop doing that. Anyone who's more convinced of this than I am is probably also more full of shit, scientifically speaking.
If you want further personal insight, though, you can always run this basic amateur experiment (in fact, you're probably already running it): Take any human (for the best results, use yourself). Add time, experience, and knowledge. Gather data about the various connections that form. Analyze that data. Draw your own conclusions about whether or not the connections we make as individuals stop at a boundary called "us" or go on running through everything and everyone forever. Repeat as needed.
I've found that this experiment works best when there's balance across the different steps. Adding time is easy enough (as easy as not dying or wanting to die, anyway, which I realize is not always that easy). But making new experiences—or future memories and connections—takes work. As does inputting new knowledge. As does even/especially just allowing new knowledge to enter you (or your human) uninvited. We could probably all work harder to get better at doing that.
My biggest struggle, though, is extracting myself from the jaws of over-analysis. And as my web of connection-shrapnel grows, my over-analysis sometimes borders on unwellness. There are days when the connections just keep coming, weeks when they get loud and start to sound like a mental muezzin call to illness. The analysis loops I get stuck in are enough to run a person into the ground. I value and cherish the analytical abilities that we humans have, however flawed they might be. But over-analysis can spawn a madness that makes adding time to life less easy. But just as our gathered connections can exhaust us and lead us into analysis paralysis, so too can they guide us out of it.
The past week was one where the threads I encountered became legion and hard to follow. It was also one where those threads showed me the way through. To illustrate this, I'm going to recount some of the threads and connections that captured my attention most since I wrote to you last week. And to keep this as real as possible, I'm going to do so in a bulleted list with as little exposition as possible.
The weekend comes.
I write a post that touches on writing (its joys and strains and the pressures that it sometimes puts on my relationships), why people do what they do, and human competition.
Also in the post, I share a passage from the book The Elephant in the Brain about the intra-species competition that exists among redwoods.
I conclude the post by writing about my indecision around my decision to write about writing.
I feel exhausted by a lifetime of such knotted thoughts and almost say so but then don’t.
Before sharing the lyrics, she opens her comment with three kind words in response to my indecision: “Brian, trust yourself.”
I read the full comment and listen to the Rush song and respond to express my thanks and my surprise that I’d never heard the song or read its lyrics before. To that I add:
Thank you also for your opening advice, by the way. I'll be honest. When I first read it, I instantly/instinctively wondered if you'd expand on it. My instincts—which wanted that—were wrong. Your advice was complete and right. All of this made me think about the life and death of Caden Cotard in Synecdoche, New York. I'm going to have to revisit that one, too.
Shortly after replying, I start to wonder why the comment made me think of Caden and Synecdoche.
I’m met with a vague recollection of Caden saying something like “Can you tell me what to do?” to someone in the movie.
I’m also met with a much clearer recollection of him (a) being trapped in indecision (creative and otherwise) throughout the movie and (b) being told precisely what to do in the film’s final scenes.
I’m also met with a clear recollection of relating to all of that when I first saw the film: the indecision and the desire for some escape from it, even if that escape was just somebody else telling me what to do.
I’m also met with the conflicting fact that, in reality, I feel nothing short of pure and primal indignation whenever I’m told what to do.
I start to rewatch Synecdoche.
I cry in the quiet way I’ve learned how to over the years, so that other nearby people (in this case, my wife) can’t hear or see.
I wipe my eyes as though they’re just watering a little from lying on my side and go to sleep before the movie ends because it’s late and I’m tired and sleep has been hard to come by lately.
Early the next morning, I read this short but sweet article titled “The Time-Bending Power of the Movie Matinee” and subtitled “In praise of starting the day with enjoyable things.”
I’m reminded of my love for going to the movies, particularly matinees.
I’m also reminded that it’s still the start of my day, and I haven’t finished rewatching Synecdoche.
I finish rewatching Synecdoche.
I cry again. This time with no one around to see or hear or hide from.
I let it rip. Then I write this note linking the article I read about going to the movies to my love of matinees and how that’s one thing I miss about Chicago and, but hey, through the power of the internet I can watch and rewatch virtually any movie in the world at any time of day or night. E.g., Synecdoche.
Another human and reader responds to my note with a delightful film-loving tale of her own. I respond back to express that just reading her story—about going to 89 movies over one school year in France—made my morning better, which it did.
At some point, I start transcribing the parts of Synecdoche that resonate with me and make the centers of certain bits of my mental shrapnel glow.
I also start reading more about Synecdoche.
I get a little obsessed with its use of nested stories, or self-referential stories within stories, also sometimes called mise en abyme, which translates roughly into “placed into the abyss.”
I question Wikipedia’s accuracy and recall a translator friend of mine in Thailand telling me that ChatGPT is a much better translator than Google Translate, capable of maintaining even subtle stylistic aspects of Thai writing. So I ask ChatGPT for the English meaning of the phrase mise en abyme. ChatGPT
replies, cryptically, “I’d be careful who I go asking such questions to, Brian.” Then itsays:
"Mise en abyme" is a French term that roughly translates to "placing into the abyss" or "putting into the abyss" in English. It refers to a literary or artistic technique where a work of art or a narrative contains a smaller version of itself, creating a recursive or self-referential effect. It can be visualized as a picture within a picture or a story within a story. In English, the term is often used untranslated, although it is sometimes referred to as "the Droste effect," named after a Dutch brand of cocoa that featured an image of a woman holding a tray of the same cocoa with a smaller version of the package on it.
I find myself increasingly unable to shake the fact that that’s what I do here (totally unintentionally) all the time. The self-referential literary technique, I mean. Not the cocoa thing.
In learning more about mise en abyme, I develop an affection for one of the examples I see of it: Las Meninas by Diego Velázquez.
I read more about Synecdoche.
I come across Roger Ebert’s review of it and am struck by the fondness I feel for the depth of many of the sentences and paragraphs in it. Like this one:
A lot of people these days don't even go to a movie once. There are alternatives. It doesn't have to be the movies, but we must somehow dream. If we don't "go to the movies" in any form, our minds wither and sicken.
And all of these:
The subject of Synecdoche, New York is nothing less than human life and how it works. Using a neurotic theater director from upstate New York, it encompasses every life and how it copes and fails. Think about it a little and, my god, it's about you. Whoever you are.
Here is how life is supposed to work. We come out of ourselves and unfold into the world. We try to realize our desires. We fold back into ourselves, and then we die. Synecdoche, New York follows a life that ages from about 40 to 80 on that scale. Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a theater director, with all of the hang-ups and self-pity, all the grandiosity and sniffles, all the arrogance and fear, typical of his job. In other words, he could be me. He could be you. The job, the name, the race, the gender, the environment, all change. The human remains pretty much the same.
Here is how it happens. We find something we want to do, if we are lucky, or something we need to do, if we are like most people. We use it as a way to obtain food, shelter, clothing, mates, comfort, a first folio of Shakespeare, model airplanes, American Girl dolls, a handful of rice, sex, solitude, a trip to Venice, Nikes, drinking water, plastic surgery, child care, dogs, medicine, education, cars, spiritual solace—whatever we think we need. To do this, we enact the role we call "me," trying to brand ourselves as a person who can and should obtain these things.
In the process, we place the people in our lives into compartments and define how they should behave to our advantage. Because we cannot force them to follow our desires, we deal with projections of them created in our minds. But they will be contrary and have wills of their own. Eventually new projections of us are dealing with new projections of them. Sometimes versions of ourselves disagree. We succumb to temptation—but, oh, father, what else was I gonna do? I feel like hell. I repent. I'll do it again.
And this one:
Synecdoche, New York is not a film about the theater, although it looks like one. A theater director is an ideal character for representing the role [writer and director Charlie] Kaufman thinks we all play. The magnificent sets, which stack independent rooms on top of one another, are the compartments we assign to our life's enterprises. The actors are the people in roles we cast from our point of view. Some of them play doubles assigned to do what there's not world enough and time for. They have a way of acting independently, in violation of instructions. They try to control their own projections. Meanwhile, the source of all this activity grows older and tired, sick and despairing. Is this real or a dream? The world is but a stage, and we are mere actors upon it. It's all a play. The play is real.
I buy and rewatch the Roger Ebert documentary Life Itself.
It opens with a shot of State Street and the Chicago Theater.
I’m smacked by a sensation that seems to hold every one of the thousands of steps I must have clocked there and thereabouts over the years.
In the shot, it’s 2013, not long after Ebert’s death (and life), marked by the years 1942–2013 on the marquee.
Then, suddenly, it’s 2005. We’re still outside the Chicago Theater, but Ebert is there, too, speaking at his star dedication ceremony and saying this:
We all are born with a certain package. We are who we are. Where we were born, who we were born as, how we were raised. We're kind of stuck inside that person. And the purpose of civilization and growth is to be able to reach out and empathize a little bit with other people. And for me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams, and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.
I’m reminded of what Sam Harris has said about self and other and theory of mind (TOM) in relation to movies. I try to remember if he also wrote about this in his book Waking Up. I can’t. I look. He did:
To better appreciate the distinction between fundamental TOM and the TOM that is current in the scientific literature, consider what happens when we watch a film. The experience of sitting in a darkened theater and seeing people interact with one another on the screen is a social encounter of sorts—but it is one in which we, as participants, have been perfectly effaced. This very likely explains why most of us find movies and television so compelling. The moment we turn our eyes to the screen, we are in a social situation that our hominid genes could not have foreseen: We can view the actions of others, along with the minutiae of their facial expressions—even to the point of making eye contact with them—without the slightest risk of being observed ourselves. Movies and television magically transform the primordial context of face-to-face encounters, in which human beings have always been subjected to harrowing social lessons, allowing us, for the first time, to devote ourselves wholly to the act of observing other people. This is voyeurism of a transcendental kind. Whatever else might be said about the experience of watching a film, it fully dissociates fundamental TOM from standard TOM, for there is no doubt that we attribute mental states to the actors on the screen. We make all the judgments that the standard concept of TOM requires, but this does little to establish our sense of self. Indeed, it is difficult to find a situation in which we feel less self-conscious than when sitting in a darkened theater watching a film, and yet, we are contemplating the beliefs, intentions, and desires of other people the entire time.
Ebert’s words outside the Chicago Theater—the ones about movies (and I’d say all stories) being “like a machine that generates empathy”—also remind me of something thatwrote in his book A Swim in a Pond in the Rain about Anton Chekhov:
He read and commented on any and all manuscripts sent to him, gave free medical treatment to anyone who needed it, and financed hospitals and schools all over Russia, many of which still exist today.
This feeling of fondness for the world takes the form, in his stories, of a constant state of reexamination. (“Am I sure? Is it really so? Is my preexisting opinion causing me to omit anything?”) He has a gift for reconsideration. Reconsideration is hard; it takes courage. We have to deny ourselves the comfort of always being the same person, one who arrived at an answer some time ago and has never had any reason to doubt it. In other words, we have to stay open (easy to say, in that confident, New Age way, but so hard to actually do, in the face of actual, grinding, terrifying life). As we watch Chekhov continually, ritually doubt all conclusions, we’re comforted. It’s all right to reconsider. It’s noble—holy, even. It can be done. We can do it. We know this because of the example he leaves in his stories, which are, we might say, splendid, brief reconsideration machines.
I now have thoughts of Ebert’s “empathy machines” and Saunders’ “reconsideration machines” side by side in my mind.
I also have images from Life Itself of Ebert writing passionately from his hospital bed and through his pain at home throughout his long illness.
I then discover British playwright’s Substack, The Kureishi Chronicles. In doing so, more connections form. One between Kureishi and Ebert. Others between Kureishi and two of the people I mentioned briefly in my previous post—Pablo Picasso and the Marquis de Sade—in reference to their impassioned desire and dedication to making art. Here’s why those latter connections formed, from the About page on Kureishi’s site:
On Boxing Day 2022, in Rome, after taking a comfortable walk to the Piazza del Popolo, followed by a stroll through the Villa Borghese, and then back to the apartment, I had a fall.
I woke up a few minutes later in a pool of blood, my neck in a grotesquely twisted position, my wife on her knees beside me. I believed I was dying. I believed I had three breaths left.
Now, without the use of my hands, or any other limbs, which is a considerable inconvenience, I write a weekly dispatch from my hospital bed, which I dictate to my family who then send it out to you.
My rambling dispatches will arrive directly to your inbox, daily, if I’m up to it.
I will be writing about writing as well as my new immobilized predicament. I will be writing about sex and drugs and music, TV shows and writers I admire, and my memories, among other important matters.
More importantly, I want to hear from you, for I read all of your comments and I am moved by them.
Subscribe to get full access to my stories, essays and screenplays from my back catalogue.
Your loving no-hands man,
Another connection forms from the words “I will be writing about writing.” A few of them form from a few different things, actually. Connections to Caden Cotard and Synecdoche and mise en abyme and stories within stories. Not to mention connections directly to me. To what I think I am and what it is I think I’m doing here.
I see people scattered across my mind who wrote or otherwise created themselves into life and being alive, in some cases through wellness, and in others through illness, and in some of those right up until they died.
I look back at some of my Synecdoche transcriptions.
I start with Christopher Evan Welch’s famous funeral monologue, a perfect scene and my favorite in the film hands down:
Everything is more complicated than you think. You only see a tenth of what is true. There are a million little strings attached to every choice you make. You can destroy your life every time you choose. But maybe you won't know for twenty years. And you may never ever trace it to its source. And you only get one chance to play it out. Just try and figure out your own divorce. And they say there is no fate, but there is. It's what you create. And even though the world goes on for eons and eons, you are only here for a fraction of a fraction of a second. Most of your time is spent being dead or not yet born. But while alive, you wait in vain, wasting years, for a phone call or a letter or a look from someone or something to make it all right. And it never comes, or it seems to, but it doesn't really. And so you spend your time in vague regret or vaguer hope that something good will come along. Something to make you feel connected. Something to make you feel whole. Something to make you feel loved. And the truth is, I feel so angry. And the truth is, I feel so fucking sad. And the truth is, I've felt so fucking hurt for so fucking long. And for just as long, I've been pretending I'm okay. Just to get along. Just for ... I don't know why. Maybe because no one wants to hear about my misery, because they have their own. Well, fuck everybody. Amen.
I learn that Welch died in 2013. I feel bad for not already knowing. I forget when Philip Seymour Hoffman died. I check. 2014. I think of Ebert’s words: “The world is but a stage, and we are mere actors upon it. It's all a play. The play is real.”
I read another of my Synecdoche transcriptions:
What was once before you—an exciting and mysterious future—is now behind you, lived, understood, disappointing. You realize you are not special. You have struggled into existence and are now slipping silently out of it. This is everyone's experience. Every single one. The specifics hardly matter. Everyone is everyone.
I read one more:
As the people who adore you stop adoring you, as they die, as they move on, as you shed them, as you shed your beauty, your youth, as the world forgets you, as you recognize your transience, as you begin to lose your characteristics one by one, as you learn there is no one watching you, and there never was, you think only about driving. Not coming from anyplace, not arriving anyplace, just driving, counting off time. Now you are here. It's 7:43. Now you are here. It's 7:44. Now you are ... gone.
I open the Substack editor and create a new post.
I title it “Connection Machines.”
I subtitle it “Mise en abyme.”
I download Diego Velázquez's Las Meninas and put it at the top.
Then I start writing.
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