Friday, January 17, 2014

Galatea is "Her," and She Is Always Galatea

Confession: I live in the middle of radish fields, and the only movie theater plays nothing but "Smash and Boom III" and "Tyler Perry Presents Loud and Noisy." Consequently, I will sound like a moron if I talk about Spike Jonze's film, "Her." I will, therefore, instead, talk about reviews of the film and the premise of the film and hope that I don't miss any of the former that invalidate my commentary and that the latter is as it has been communicated.

Tentatively, therefore, I want to propose the following: "Her" plays upon the Classical myth of Pygmalion and Galatea, and yet it does so in such an attenuated and developed way that reviewers either miss the model or do not bring it up. This mythic structure has a great deal to offer us, both in terms of a contemplation of art and the powers of humanity, chaos, love, creativity, and, indirectly, politics. The story occurs in Ovid's Metamorphoses X, in one of the Orphic songs. You can read a translation here.

The song is very, very short, and the tale is very evocative. Pygmalion is a sculptor who is, in some versions, very ugly. In all versions he is very skilled. He makes a sculpture of a woman whom he could love -- the perfect girl. In Orpheus's version, she is chaste by virtue of her marble-whiteness. He loves the sculpture so much that he wants no real woman for a bride. At one point or another, Venus/Aphrodite turns the statue -- Galatea -- into a real woman.

The Victorians loved the story. W. S. Gilbert did a version, and G. B. Shaw (yes, yes, a Modern in . . . and yet not) did the famously class-based satire Pygmalion that became the rather denatured My Fair Lady. Of course Rousseau had written a Pygmalion as well, reflecting the later-Romantic fascination with the limitations of creativity, and this would show up in pictorial treatments by the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. For the artists of the turn of the 19th - 20th century, the theme seemed to be the power of imagination, and the dangers of fascination. "The Lady of Shallot" is, in some ways, a mirror of Pygmalion: that which can be imagined can be beautiful, but having it brings danger. Their versions of Galatea, like other products of artistic imagination, inevitably transferred human stains or impossibility when they crossed into reality. Either the human malleability of the lover or the demands of perfection would, like Frankenstein or Mr. Hyde, show the impossibility of the perfect more than they would affirm the value of the real.

The new "Her" would not be the first use of the Pygmalion theme with technology. We have a long, long, long line of silly and crude efforts, from 1970's science fiction fear films about super computers. "Colossus: The Forbin Project" from 1970 set the tone for the "Oh my gosh, it has taken over the world, because we're not logical enough," but "Demon Seed" had the best creep factor, especially with the explicit (at the end) Pygmalion/Galatea dynamic, with poor Julie Christie being the unwilling model. For the silly, we get everything from "Weird Science" (super models from a Tandy TRS 80!) to "War Games" (yes, it's silly, and the Galatea is the non-geek girlfriend).

"Futurama" had a great time with the social scourge of "robosexuality." In one episode, it was a way of discussing the hysteria and vacuity of Proposition 8's anti-homosexuality. The show even had Hubert Farnsworth do a parody of the self-parodying "storm clouds" ad from the National Organization for Marriage ("nom nom nom"). In another episode, though, Fry downloads his own Lucy Liu-bot. To discourage him, Professor Farnsworth shows him a government propaganda film, I Dated a Robot! (If you haven't seen it, you should click on the link, as it's one of the finest bits of parody in the show's history.)

Sculpture at Carrboro, NC farmer's market.

For a legitimate enactment of Pygmalion and Galatea, where there is potential culpability or unforeseen implications of reality, literary fiction had a flirtation with Galatea 2.0 by Richard Powers in 2004. It is a very well written novel with extremely fine style and control. The "Galatea" of the title is, ostensibly, an effort at natural learning for an AI. The neuroscience and AI in the novel is quite good, but the real Galatea of the novel is the novelist's own wife, who breaks away from him in the course of the book, having an affair as the marriage breaks down.

"Galatea," we may understand, is every romantic love. Men attempt to make their mates. (Neil LaBute plays assure us that women attempt to make their mates, too.) Consequently, we believe we find the image, but then we believe that we create the girl/boy inside the woman/man we love. After Venus gives the gift, though, comes the problem of change, life, and the fact that what was perfect only remains perfect if people are immobile or manage to move together.

The Shaw Pygmalion has to understand that his Galatea may not remain an experiment, that language does not remake the person, that class is or is not simply a disguise (it's not clear). (This ambiguity is gone in "My Fair Lady.")

The early Modernists had a strain of rejecting reality. W. B. Yeats's "Sailing to Byzantium" posits a reality of art that is parallel to the reality of daily experience. It might emanate from artworks, but it isn't coexisting. T. S. Eliot would argue for a Christian mystic experience that is, again, separate, superior, informing, but away from the quotidian, where all paths lead to the same place, and the place is not any one physical place.

The Victorians and early Modernists were living in a world where empire had shown Western aspirations and appetites in action on a global scale. Whether the Belgian Congo or the British Raj, the best practices had resulted in atrocities, repression, and oppression. Appetite had triumphed over planning. For the Modernists, the high minded belief in progress had smashed into World War I, when the most "civilized" nations on earth had used chemical weapons against each other.

Today? Are we stuck reiterating the tragedy of love alone, or can we look at Iraq, Afghanistan -- not to mention Honduras, Nicaragua and other places where American best practices have been at work -- and feel a similar skepticism about projecting human will into practice itself? Surely it is the fate of love, just as love itself, to be lashed to humans who do not live in sync, but is it in the realm of any human creation to breathe without carrying with it the stain of its creators?

If we re-tell Pygmalion/Galatea simply to explore the degree to which the beautiful can only exist fleetingly, and outside of the grasp of the mind, then we do not add much. It's true that the American public is cynical, that one doubts that even the architects of the neo-liberal invasion of Iraq and the supposed vision of a spreading garden of democracy achieved by the overthrow of Saddam believed what they said, but just crossing our fingers behind our back -- swearing that we didn't really mean it when we said that we thought we were making the world a better place -- does not absolve us from having done our best and having created. We, with our names and bumper stickers attached, sent troops to destroy and enforce governments. We, with our right wing radio telling us that Jesus was involved, did what we said we believed what was right and good.

We, with very sincere dreaming in print, made the Internet, opened it to the .com's, sold domains, and preached freedom. We created the world that spies on us in order to sell us pregnancy supplies before our daughters have missed their second periods. We created the super-intelligent super intelligence in our action movies, and now the 4th amendment is unknown.

An OS coming alive and loving its user sounds more like the Demon Seed than a lesson in love to me.