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Permanence

May 17, 2009

I recently read the wonderful short novel The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares. Jorge Luis Borges, one of my favourite writers, was a friend of Casares and described The Invention of Morel as a “perfect” novel. On a deserted polynesian island, the titular Morel has discovered an unusual form of immortality; he has perfected a method to record and playback the entire physical state of the island, including its inhabitants. The drawback of his system is that the process recording process destroys the original, leaving the  copy to be replayed ad infinitum. An unnamed criminal on the run makes his way to this island, hoping to evade the authorities, and slowly puzzles together the nature of what has taken place.

 Watching one of the recordings, of a woman named Faustine, he falls in love, unaware that the woman he is watching no longer exists in a state that can even acknowledge his existence, if ‘she’ still exists at all. Morel seems to believe that his recordings are conscious, since the process destroys the original he infers that something akin to a soul must be transferred in the process. The fugitive is initially skeptical, but undergoes the scientific equivalent of a deathbed conversion at the heartbreaking conclusion of the novel.

This illustrates one of the fundamental questions about a physical theory of the mind; if it were possible to to recreate the physical orientation of every particle in a human body (which is in essence what Morel’s invention does), what would this entail for the consciousness? Would a new consciousness, with a complete set of memories be created, and if so how could it be distinguished from a philosophical zombie,  which reacts in every way like a conscious being, but without self-awareness? Alternatively, would a joint-consciousness, inhabiting both ‘bodies’ result, or as the novel suggests, would the consciousness migrate to its new physical (potentially immortal) form? 

 

Last year in Marienbad

Last year in Marienbad

Despite denials from its writer, Alain Robbe-Grillet, the novel also seems to have been an influence on the Alain Resnais film Last year in Marienbad. The Czech resort is mentioned by name in the novel, and scenes in which party crowds move through each other seemingly oblivious to each other’s existence are highly reminiscent of it. One scene in particular (shown on the left) in which the guests lingering in a garden cast shadows while the trees do not recalls the part of the novel where the fugitive reflects upon the two suns that have appeared in the sky. In addition there is the central matter of the film, in which an unnamed man and an unnamed woman discuss a romantic liaison between them that he seem to remember while she does not.

Uncertainty of meaning is central to the film, and like a narrative parallel to the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics, it forces the viewer to simply accept that it cannot be ‘understood’ in a traditional sense. In which case, the idea that the entire romance between the two main characters could be a fabrication of the same kind as created by the fugitive at the end of The Invention of Morel is as valid (and makes as much sense) as any other interpretation.

Both the book and the film essentially deal in different and novel ways with the idea of memory, the one way in which everyone can hope to attain immortality of a sort. However, both also seem to show that not even memory is not immune from the ravages of time; on each repetition, a memory faces the risk of corruption, of being tainted by the circumstances of its recollection, meaning that the only pure memory is one that has never been relived.

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