Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Pygmalion with a Twist: Villiers de l'Isle-Adam's The Future Eve

In 1886, the French symbolist Auguste Villiers de l’Isle-Adam published The Future Eve (L’Ève Future), which gives a new twist to the story of Pygmalion and the artificial woman that he creates for himself out of disgust for the impurity of all real women.

The Future Eve tells the story of the inventor Thomas Edison (a fictionalised version of the real Edison), who has been experimenting with the creation of a female android for some time when an English friend of his, Lord Ewald, asks him for help. Ewald has fallen in love with an exceedingly beautiful woman, an aspiring actress called Alicia Clary, who is in fact the exact likeness of the Venus de Milo exhibited in the Louvre. In other words, she looks as if that statue had come alive. Unfortunately, however, Ewald finds to his dismay that Alicia’s beautiful, goddess-like appearance is not matched by her character. Outside and inside are at odds. What her body promises, her soul cannot fulfil: “her inner self was in absolute contradiction to her beautiful form. Her beauty was quite foreign to her words, her conversation appeared out of place in such a voice.” It is almost as if “this woman has strayed by accident into the form of the goddess – that this body does not belong to her”.

So what exactly makes Alicia so unworthy of her beautiful exterior? There are various things that Ewald dislikes about her: she doesn’t sufficiently appreciate her own beauty and makes no attempt to live up to it. She has no “lofty aspirations” or “high ideals”. She sings to make a living, rather than for the sheer beauty of it. She eats heartily (i.e. not at all like a lady). She is interested in money. She has no principles. She tells him without embarrassment about an unhappy love affair that she has gone through, unaware that such openness is likely to “destroy all the sympathy and admiration” the high-minded Lord might have had for her. She is not exactly foolish, but she is silly. She has talent, but no genius, is a virtuoso, but no true artist. She doesn’t like Wagner (whose music, admired by Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, is “just a lot of bangs, just noise” to her) and when her admirer takes her to the Louvre and alerts her to her likeness with a particular marble statue, she exclaims: “Yes, that’s me, except that I have not lost my arms, and I am much more aristocratic-looking.” I’m sure most people would agree that there is nothing really repulsive about her character. She is just an average woman, not too bright, certainly no intellectual, a bit selfish or self-absorbed perhaps, but her flaws are nothing out of the ordinary, nothing that she does not have in common with millions of other people. For Ewald, however, this is exactly the problem: she is too common. The contrast between her divine features and her all-too-human character is unbearable. A woman who looks like that should not have any flaws. She should be perfect, ethereal, and the fact that she is not constitutes a moral outrage, a sacrilege, a violation of nature and reason. She is a living contradiction, a monster really: “Imagine a commonplace goddess! I have come to the conclusion that all physiological laws were overthrown in this living, hybrid phenomenon.” Ewald concludes his damning assessment of Alicia’s character by proclaiming that he “cannot love a woman who has no soul.” So Alicia, because she is disappointingly average and has no lofty aspirations (and also because she does not seem to be inclined to be as devoted to Ewald as he is to her and as he imagines he deserves it), is denied a soul. In Ewald’s eyes, she is merely a beautiful, but essentially hollow, form, which makes him cry out in desperation: “Oh, who could put a Soul into that body!”

Fortunately, Ewald couldn’t have come to a better place to ask that question: “’I can!’ exclaimed Edison. ‘I shall put a wonderful soul into that beautiful body!’” The irony here, probably not intended by the author, is of course that it is not, as we would expect, the statue (or the android that is eventually going to replace Alicia) that is said to be without a soul, but the living, breathing woman who has the temerity of deciding for herself what is important to her, what kind of life she wants to live, and whom she wants to love and whom she does not. That real and very much alive woman can only be denied a soul because the word “soul” is here just the name for an allegedly ideal condition, a mode of existence that has transcended all the apparent pettiness and coarseness of our common human concerns and that is entirely devoted to the higher realms, whatever that means exactly. Conveniently this mode of existence coincides with a complete submission under the wishes and desires of the man who wants to see her thus transformed. And it this kind of “soul” that the professor promises to provide: “Twenty-one days from now, at this same hour, Alicia Clary will stand before you, not only transformed, not merely a delightful companion, with a mind of the highest intellectual type, but reclothed in a phase of immortality.” She will no longer be a woman, but “an angel”, “not the cold Reality, but the Ideal.”

Edison then sets out to work and gradually transforms the prototype android that he had already created (an entity or rather “an electro-magnetic thing”, “a being of limbo”) into a perfect duplicate of Alicia (with soft, caressable flesh and skin), except that the new Alicia (or Hadaly, as Edison calls her), the “future Eve” of the story’s title, has a “soul”, meaning that she meets all the expectations that a male member of genteel society might have when looking for a suitable female companion. Tellingly, the creation of a soul for Alicia is described as an eliminative process. It is in reality the creation of an absence: her “selfish frivolity” is ‘annihilated’, her “insipid animality” ‘destroyed’. The new Alicia may even be “less conscious of herself”, perhaps not conscious at all, but “what does that matter” if her behaviour is “suggestive of impressions a thousand times more beautiful, more noble, more elevated”? I take this to mean that it is not even necessary for the new Alicia to actually feel or think anything at all, as long as she (or her creator) manages to make people believe that she does. Thus the desired “soul” is located exclusively in her appearance, in what the new Alicia says and does. What she feels or not feels is entirely irrelevant – she might just as well not feel anything at all. It is only the expression of certain sentiments (love, devotion, tenderness) that her lover needs, and that expression of a sentiment is to all intents and purposes the sentiment itself. That is why Ewald, as the professor assures him, will actually feel less alone with the new, artificial Alicia (even if she should turn out to be “less conscious”), than he does presently with the real one (who quite naturally is not focussed entirely on her lover and does not live for him only). “I do not think that it will be a very great loss if Hadaly is lacking the kind of a conscience that her model has – do you? It will be to her advantage not to have it, at least, in your eyes, since Miss Clary’s conscience seems to be deplorable, a blot on the masterpiece. The conscience of a worldly woman – bah!”

However, occasionally it is suggested in the text that the new Alicia most likely will have feelings of some sort. Thus Edison warns Lord Ewald that when he and she are going to take the ship back to England, it is best if she spends the journey in a coffin-like box (just like Count Dracula in Bram Stoker’s novel, which was to be published 11 years later, in 1897). Why? Because her “serenity should not be ruffled; she should not be humiliated by the sight of the defective organisms of her human companions.” So she is expected to be capable of feeling humiliated, though it is unclear why she should feel humiliated (instead of proud) by the fact that she is more perfect than ordinary, “defective” human beings – unless, on that occasion, she identifies with humanity. What is suggested here seems to be a curious reversal of Gunther Anders’s Promethean Shame: instead of us humans feeling ashamed about our own inferiority when we compare ourselves to the wonderful machines that we have created, it is here the machine that feels humiliated (perhaps on behalf of us humans, who don’t know yet how inferior we actually are?).

In any case the new Alicia will be a creature that is completely under the control of her lover, who can activate and deactivate her and direct her movements and speech by pushing certain buttons cleverly hidden on her anatomy. “She is loyal to only one person, she will recognize one only – her master.” So her newly gained “soul” shows itself primarily in a loss of freedom and autonomy. She is no longer her own master, which is just as it should be. And she will not only be exactly what it says on the tin, but she will also stay that way. Deplorably, every real woman ultimately proves illusive. She can never live up to what her beauty promises. What we see in her is just an illusion, facilitated by “cosmetics, creams, powders, and beauty patches”. Strip her of this, and what remains is an “old witch”, a grotesque imitation of the ideal that she pretended to be. In any case, she will soon lose all her charms to middle age. So “why not build a woman who should be just the thing that we wanted her to be”, one who is always beautiful by her very nature, and beautiful forever? This would definitely solve the problem that the over-curious young man in Swift’s “The Lady’s Dressing Room” after his look behind the scenes struggles with, namely how to live with the fact that no woman is a goddess. The answer suggested by Villiers de l’Isle-Adam is simple: don’t live with it. Make your very own Goddess instead. And why not? Every man, it is suggested, has in fact a natural right to his own goddess. If the plan succeeds, then Man’s “lost paradise” will be restored to him, life will be as it should have been all along, and he will once again be master of the situation, or in short, “the dominator”. The new Alicia, who is the real Alicia, that is Alicia as she was meant to be, will always say what her lover wants to hear. “Her conscious utterance will no longer be the negation of yours, but will become the semblance of the soul that responds to your melancholy. You will be able to evoke in her the radiant reality of your exclusive love, without fearing, this time, lest she repudiate your dream. Her words will never disappoint your hopes. They will always be sublime (...). Here, at least, you will have no fear of being misunderstood, as with the living woman”.

In the end, Edison delivers what he has promised, and it turns out that he has not promised too much. Lord Ewald is entirely satisfied with the outcome: “The false Alicia was more perfect, more natural, than the living personage.” What a strange thing to say: that the android, an artificial thing, is not only more perfect, but more natural than the woman on which it was modelled. But then again, for Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, it is only the perfect that is natural, only the ideal that is (completely) real. What we commonly take for real is just a bad, defective copy of the ideal, which is, in a Platonic sense, the really real. The machine allows us to introduce the world of ideas into the world of appearance, to merge the two worlds into one, to bring heaven onto earth. Thus the (dead) machine is more real than the living human who is nothing but a “phantom” in comparison.

The new Alicia knows no sickness or death, and she never changes, which also means that she will never stop loving Ewald as he wishes to be loved (and don’t we all wish to be loved unconditionally and eternally on some level?). She will always stay devoted to him, and to him only: “I shall be the woman of your dreams – all that you would have me be.” The author seems to fully endorse this idea. Yet towards the end of the novel, Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, almost despite himself, nonetheless gives voice to a certain unease that sheds doubt on the whole project of replacing admittedly flawed, annoyingly wilful, and constitutionally unpredictable human beings with flawless, completely reliable and always obliging machines. “Her heart”, we learn, “will never change, because she has no heart.” Can we really want that? Isn’t that too high a price to pay for the illusion of eternal love? L’Isle Adam seems to sense this himself when he lets his Edison reflect on the greatness of his achievement after Ewald and his future Eve have left him to live happily ever after in England (only for her to perish in a fire soon afterwards): “This is the first time that science has been able to prove that she can cure man – of love.”

So love is seen as a problem, or more precisely a disease, and technology provides the cure, not by facilitating the fulfilment of love, but instead by getting rid of it altogether. If that is what truly happens here, then that would also explain a remark that Edison made earlier in the novel and which, at the time, seems rather out of character. When Ewald has to decide whether he really wants the professor to go ahead and create a new, purified Alicia for him, he is initially undecided and asks Edison what he would do, and he replies: “I would blow out my brains first”, which is a very odd thing to say really, given that it was his idea in the first place and that at all other times he seems absolutely committed to the project.

Friday, 25 October 2013

Celia Shits: on Jonathan Swift's "The Lady's Dressing Room"

Swift’s notorious poem in which he describes a lover who is utterly disillusioned by the discovery of his beloved’s basic humanity and flesh-and-blood physicality is often read and understood as some kind of misogynistic diatribe against female presumptions of nobility. A woman’s beauty and refinement is in truth but a thin veneer that covers her true nature, which consists in filth of various sorts, in dirt, sweat, snot and earwax, in obnoxious smells, and worse. If you venture a look behind the scenes, then the apparent Goddess is quickly revealed as what she really is: not a mere woman - which would be disappointing, but bearable -, but in fact nothing but an artfully disguised pile of excrement. Thus our hero’s educational journey is completed with the discovery of his beloved’s full chamber pot, culminating in the horrified cry: “Oh! Celia, Celia, Celia shits!” - Who would have thought?

D.H. Lawrence, in a postscript to Lady Chatterley’s Lover, gives the proper response to the panic that befalls Swift’s comic hero when he finds undeniable evidence that Celia is, contrary to his expectations, not a Goddess at all: “The mind’s terror of the body has probably driven more men mad than ever could be counted. The insanity of a great mind like Swift’s is at least partly traceable to this cause. In the poem to his mistress Celia, which has the maddened refrain: ‘But – Celia, Celia, Celia shits!’ we see what can happen to a great mind, when it falls into panic. A great wit like Swift could not see how ridiculous he made himself. Of course Celia shits! who doesn’t? And how much worse if she didn’t. It is hopeless. And then think of poor Celia, made to feel iniquitous about her proper natural function, by her ‘lover.’” Indeed.

However, I do not think that expressing his disgust of women, or humankind in general, is at all what Swift was doing in this poem. Lawrence is right, but he misunderstands Swift. If we take the last quarter of the poem into account, which is usually ignored, then a very different and not at all misogynistic or misanthropic reading suggests itself. It seems to me that Swift is much closer to Lawrence’s own view than Lawrence realised. After the lover runs away from his discredited lover’s chamber, the reader is reminded how foolish both his actions and his reaction to his discovery of Celia’s bodily functions were. He may have discovered the truth about Celia (or a truth about her, which is of course also a truth about each one of us, male or female), but it is the kind of truth that can easily ruin your life if it is all that you can see. If life’s a piece of shit when you look at it too closely, then you had better keep a healthy distance. Swift suggests that Celia’s lover is being severely (and rightly) punished for his hubristic attempt to lift the veil from a mystery that had better be left alone, not unlike the youth, “impelled by a burning thirst for knowledge”, in the German poet Friedrich Schiller’s “The Veiled Statue at Sais” (written some 60 years after Swift’s “The Lady’s Dressing Room”), who is warned not to lift the truth-concealing veil from a statue of the goddess Isis. It is forbidden by the gods, for the truth is dangerous, perhaps even deadly. But the youth doesn’t listen and won’t be deterred. He “lifts up the veil./ Would you inquire what form there met his eye?/ I know not, - but, when day appeared, the priests/ Found him extended senseless, pale as death,/ Before the pedestal of Isis’ statue./ What had been seen and heard by him when there/ He never would disclose, but from that hour/ His happiness in life had fled forever,/ And his deep sorrow soon conducted him/ To an untimely grave.” Who knows, perhaps he saw a chamber pot.

Swift’s hero does not die, but he is, like Schiller’s youth, lost to the world: blinded by what he has come to see as the truth about women, and incapable of perceiving anything but foulness, he is destined to live a miserable, joyless life. But he is mistaken: it is not the world that is foul; it is his imagination. Because beauty is just as real as the messy physicality that lies underneath, and what is truly astonishing is that the one can arise from the other, that “such order from confusion sprung,/ Such gaudy Tulips rais’d from Dung”. It’s like the transmutation of base metal into gold that the alchemists tried in vain to accomplish. And it is utter foolishness to refuse to see and appreciate the gold just because it has been created from nickel. The crucial couplet in the poem is this one: “Should I the Queen of Love refuse,/ Because she rose from stinking Ooze?” The answer that Swift suggests is no, because the Queen of Love is still the Queen of Love. No goddess perhaps, but still a beautiful woman, and none the worse for it.

This healthy attitude, with which the poem concludes, is very different from the one that, we may assume, characterised the curious young man before he makes his seemingly gruesome discoveries. What we have here is not simply, as some interpreters have suggested, a return to false idealisations, a desperate (and laughable) attempt to retain the illusion and hide the truth, and to hang on to a distorted view of female (and human) perfection and elevation. It is, instead, the synthesis that has resulted from a dialectical process of thesis and antithesis, a more mature attitude born out of the realisation that the two opposing views are equally untenable, both the view that a human being can be an angel (an ethereal, pure and essentially bodiless being) and the view that all humans are animals (that is, essentially bodies). The fact that we are bodily (and that means messy, dependent, vulnerable and ultimately mortal) beings doesn’t detract from our beauty and dignity. On the contrary.    

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Do robots love you if they tell you so?

I just finished David Levy’s Love & Sex with Robots, which was first published in 2007 (HarperCollins), and which interested me because of my current research focus on posthumanism in general, and more specifically on contemporary visions of our posthuman future. The book is fairly predictable and its content can be summarised in one sentence: we will, very soon, love robots and have sex with them, and that is absolutely fine and in fact to be welcomed since it will solve a lot of relationship problems that we regularly suffer from today.

As is customary among those who believe in the power of man-made technology to eventually “achieve all things possible” (F. Bacon), Levy seems to have no doubt that robots will soon be able to think and feel just as we do, or most likely even better than we do.“The robots of the mid-twenty-first century will (...) possess human-like or superhuman-like consciousness and emotions.” (10) Will they really? How can we possibly know that? Yet Levy has little patience for people who doubt his confident assertions. He compares strong AI sceptics to those Christian fundamentalists who refused to accept human evolution as a fact and to those who insisted despite all evidence to the contrary that the earth was flat (21). And just as Darwin and Galilei have been vindicated, Levy believes he will too, when we will have seen all his predictions come true. Except that in Levy’s case there is not a shred of evidence that machines will soon be able to think and feel. It is not a matter of ignoring the evidence. There is no evidence. All we have managed to achieve yet, and all we are likely to achieve in the foreseeable future, is the creations of machines that can appear to be conscious and to possess certain emotions. 

Levy spends many pages of his book providing evidence that humans have a strong tendency to perceive and treat inanimate objects as living, conscious agents even when they know that they are not really conscious or alive. And people can fall in love with the strangest things, even computers. But all that proves, if it proves anything, is that we are easily duped. It may indeed turn out that once we are able to build robots that are sufficiently convincing in their appearance and behaviour we will find it very difficult not to attribute consciousness to them when we interact with them. But that doesn’t mean that they are conscious, or that we are justified in attributing consciousness to them.

However, Levy disagrees. For him, the appearance of consciousness is not only in all practical matters just as good as actual consciousness (the pragmatist approach), but it actually is one and the same thing (the logical behaviourist approach): the (behavioural) appearance of consciousness is consciousness. “There are those who doubt that we can reasonably ascribe feelings to robots, but if a robot behaves as though it has feelings, can we reasonably argue that it does not? If a robot’s artificial emotions prompt it to say things such as ‘I love you,’ surely we should be willing to accept these statements at face value, provided that the robot’s other behavior patterns back them up.” (11) But why “surely”? It does, after all, seem to make sense to distinguish between someone who merely says that they love us and someone who really does. But of course Levy’s point is that the only way we can judge whether someone really loves us is by analysing their behaviour. The fact that somebody verbally declares their love for us might not be sufficient to attribute real love to them, but if in addition they are always there for us, listen and talk to us, look after us, always cover (and scratch) our backs, kiss and embrace and caress us and have sex with us whenever we need or want it, then we would be hard-pressed to deny that they really love us. If they do everything that we can reasonably expect anybody who really loves us to do, then it is hard to see what it can possibly mean to say that, despite all, they don’t really love us. And if we cannot find a real (meaningful) difference between a human person who loves somebody and one who consistently and permanently behaves as if they did, then why should there be such a difference when the one doing the loving is not a human person, but a robot?

It seems to me, though, that there is indeed an important difference between the two cases. If a human being behaves in all respects consistently and constantly just as someone would behave if they really loved us, then by far the best explanation for their behaviour is that they really do love us. It just doesn’t seem possible that somebody who does not love us would always behave to us in a manner consistent with real love. We would expect them to show their lack of real love in some way. It need not be something obvious, and it need not be obvious to us, but we would expect there to be something that distinguishes the behaviour of the person who really loves us from the one who only pretends to do so. It would be nothing short of a miracle if a pretended lover would, throughout his life, act exactly like a real one, precisely because such behaviour would be entirely inexplicable.

This, however, is not the case with robots. If they behave in all respects exactly like we would expect someone to behave who really loved us, then we have a perfectly good explanation for why they behave like that, namely that they have been designed that way. Levy claims that our knowledge that robots have been designed to manipulate us into believing that they really love us is irrelevant and should make no difference to us: “Even though we know that a robot has been designed to express whatever feelings or statements of love we witness from it, that is surely no justification for denying that those feelings exist, no matter what the robot is made of or what we might know about how it was designed and built.” (12)

“Surely” (again)? I think it makes all the difference. Again, we might be tricked into believing that robots truly love us, but that doesn’t mean that they do. And while it might make no sense to distinguish between the real and the merely apparent when it comes to human behaviour that is consistent with the actual presence of a certain emotional disposition - simply because we would not be able to plausibly explain such behaviour -, the fact that we know the other to be a robot, that is a machine designed to behave as if they loved us, is, by providing a perfectly good explanation for such behaviour, sufficient to justify our refusal to believe that they really do.