Wednesday, March 08, 2006

(91) Concerning real experiences: Stepping (up and out!?) into another dimension and breaking the fourth wall

In Entry 85 I discuss the implications of scientists and philosophers being confronted with new prima materia through the occurrence of a paranormal event, and how when I was writing about that there was an exchange in the dialogue of a film showing on my TV where a character has walked out of the film on the cinema screen within the film and into his audience, i.e. he has "broken the fourth wall".
A lawyer observes that "Just because a thing’s never happened before doesn’t mean it can’t happen once!"

For some time prior to that I had been thinking about the nature of not unrelated devices sometimes used on screen, e.g. when in a soap opera a real life celebrity makes a guest appearance, or in the James Bond film Octopussy where at one point a secret agent, played by Vijay Amritraj who is disguised as a snake charmer, signals his identity to Bond by playing the first few notes of the 007 signature tune on his flute.

This tune is well known to filmgoers, but it had never been played in the action of a Bond film before that, so how is either Bond or Amritraj to be familiar with it?

What was occurring to me was how reality and illusion were being, you might say, almost casually confused by both director and audience.
Indeed that motif recurs in the last instance, for Vijay Amritraj was a tennis player who went on to pursue an acting career. In Octopussy the character he played was a tennis player called Vijay.
In Goldfinger, Sean Connery´s Bond has only a few seconds in which to disarm an atomic bomb. As he is about to, incorrectly, cut a wire, a hand stops his and then calmly turns a switch.
The dial shows that the countdown has now stopped at precisely 007.
And in the film Stormy Monday musician Sting plays a nightclub owner. But at one point director Mike Figgis shows him playing the double bass, almost to himself.

The incident of Entry 85 occurred in August 1992.

Around that time one of the characters in the only TV soap opera that I watched, Brookside, called Rod Corkhill, left the series, and also about then I spotted the actor who played him, Jason Hope, descending an escalator at London’s Holborn tube station as I went up an adjacent one.
It occurred to me that some time before that I had seen an episode of Brookside featuring the wedding of Police Constable Rod Corkhill. It had been held up through his trying to find and help a boy whom he believed to be under threat from some pimps who wanted him to be their prostitute.

Corkhill, in his wedding suit, was seen scampering up some stairs at Liverpool railway station, and as he did so it was clear that some women, ordinary members of the public, who were descending those same stairs, recognised him from Brookside.

That was the only occasion that I could think of where the public had realised that soap opera action was going on around them.

(See also Entry 139 for another instance of a Corkhill, this time his screen uncle, adopting a false persona.)

On the evening of December 10th 1992 I attended a lecture at Kensington library presented by the Society for Psychical Research and given by Dr Susan Blackmore
on The Near Death Experience: Visions of The Dying Brain.

She presented the materialist view, i.e. that man’s consciousness is produced by brain activity, as heat is produced by a fire.
The view that man is both spirit and flesh, with the spiritual component possibly able to survive the death of the physical body, she dismissed as mistaken.
To her the interpretation that people undergoing extraordinary experiences in near death situations are experiencing another reality and/or things via an extrasensory medium is wrong.
She expounded a theory whereby the dying visual cortex of the brain might well produce a pattern which, to the experiencer, might seem just like the tunnel that so many of those who report NDEs claim to have passed down.

I find her theory quite unconvincing for there are so many aspects of the putative experience for which this explanation patently fails to take account.

For instance, the ineffable feelings of peace and joy, which so many of the people report, she dismissed as "endorphins released by the dying brain".

And then there is the beneficial and life-transforming impact that an NDE often, or even usually, has.

Another point, critical for science, was that some people who claimed to have undergone NDEs were able to verify events to which they could not possibly have had sensory access.

Blackmore dealt with this by saying that her own independent attempts to verify these claims had met with no success.
She mentioned a recent book which described a girl, blind since birth, who had been able to recall in great detail events that had occurred in a hospital whilst she had been technically unconscious, undergoing an NDE.
But when she checked this out with the author he admitted that the story was just a fabrication.

Likewise her efforts to confirm the tennis shoe story of Entry 88, "perhaps the most famous NDE case ever", had been stymied, for the hospital staff and the patient had both been quite uncooperative.

As with all other attempts to investigate any spiritual possibility, here too Nature’s response had been to insist on preserving her ambivalence.
I was impressed by her refutations of these "strong pieces of evidence": the stories were not confirmed when she checked them out.

But I was also left with a thought that had struck me before: she had to be there.

By that I mean that the history of science’s reaction to near death and/or out of the body experiences has developed along a line where firstly they were either denied or ignored.

Then the claimed experiences started to gain more publicity (I can remember reading an article about the Second Body in SHE magazine circa 1972) so scientists began to acknowledge that they were going on.

Then they set about providing monistic arguments for explaining them away.
One of the first of these was put forward by Carl Sagan who argued that the experience of travelling down a tunnel was a memory of being born.
But when they found that some NDE experiencers had had Caesarean deliveries Sagan’s theory was abandoned.

After a while Blackmore took his place as the prime defender of reductionism with her own theory.
She may be right, although I do not think so, but one thing is for certain; orthodox science needs her to be there.
Without her theory, the reductionist/materialist basis to the life sciences would be in danger of immediate collapse.
With her there it remains, for the time being, defensible, since it can be reasoned that these potentially world-changing accounts are simply not real.

Incidentally, at the start of her lecture the lights in the hall flickered and went out… and then they came back on again a moment later.
She looked uneasy and made a nervous joke about odd things happening when one addresses an SPR gathering.
No true sceptic, e.g. James Randi, Paul Kurtz, Wendy Grossman, Stephen Fry, etc would ever have reacted so.

Many people, including myself, do not think Susan Blackmore - who in 1989 stated on TV
" There´s no God. There´s no meaning. There´s no purpose..."
is what she claims to be.

See Entry 231.

After the lecture I caught the 10.30 train from London St Pancras to Sheffield. I noticed that the journalist Matthew Parris took the seat in front of me. He wrote a topical and witty column in The Times, which I was apt to read.
He now produced a word processor and began to type. I had seen him that morning on BBC Breakfast TV giving a humorous review of the day’s papers.
... ... ...
The following afternoon I was asked to attend a conference, which our company was staging in Westminster, called European Marketing Leaders.
A man from Saatchi and Saatchi was delivering a talk. I was uncertain of the nature of the event, but was advised to attend because it was a "bums on seats" job.

A witty lecture on creative advertising was given. At one point a video advertising cheap weekend breaks in Paris was shown.
A man was walking along by the Seine talking to camera, with a pretty girl by his side.

After a few seconds a girl seated not far from me shouted out
"It can’t be!!" and then a few seconds later "It is!! NIGEL!! Who’s that you’re with??"
She then got out of her seat and stormed down the aisle to the front where she shouted "Nigel!!" at the guy in the video.
He quickly "became aware" of her and began to "talk back".
The dialogue between them was perfectly synchronised, and the girl in the video also "cottoned on" to the two-timing scenario and got angry as she too joined in the conversation.
Each girl left, one walking out of shot and the other out of the room, leaving the deflated Nigel on his own to confront the camera.
... ... ...
The next day I watched Brookside.
The TV personality Sarah Greene made an appearance as herself, the only time until then that I could recall a real person having appeared in the soap.

But, Paula Yates would have a cameo role as herself in an episode Brookside in which she was interviewed in a boat by the character Karen Grant.
See Entry 166.

Later I was surprised to note in the newspaper TV guide for that evening that there was to be a broadcast of Luigi Pirandello’s play Six Characters in Search of an Author.
A few weeks earlier I had asked Phillip van der Gucht, whom I knew to have an interest in the theatre, to tell me something about Pirandello’s work.
Several years earlier I had come across a reference in a work of Sir Laurens van der Post’s to man’s universal need to find meaning and to explore religious questions. To van der Post this confirmed that, "we are all Pirandello characters in search of an author".

I asked whether Pirandello had written works where the characters looked for the identity of the hand that penned them. Phillip said "No" and that the classic characteristic of a Pirandello character was that he was expansive and larger than life.

Eugene Shuman then interjected that he believed that Pirandello had written this play Six Characters in Search of an Author.
I had not heard of it before that.

I caught the end of the TV production and saw that it is about the concerns of the characters in a play doing just what the title implies. There were also scenes where the director is presented with the problems of the characters by those characters themselves.

That is to say, the parts in Pirandello’s play, and not the actors playing those parts, nor the actual actors playing the parts of those actors.

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