Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Being There

It was Sunday. Chance was in the garden. He moved slowly, dragging the green hose from one path to the next, carefully watching the flow of the water. Very gently he let the stream touch every plant, every flower, every branch of the garden. Plants were like people; they needed care to live, to survive their diseases, and to die peacefully.

Yet plants were different from people. No plant is able to think about itself or able to know itself; there is no mirror in which a plant can recognize itself its face; no plant can do anything intentionally; it cannot help growing, and its growth has no meaning, since a plant cannot reason or dream.

It was safe and secure in the garden, which was separated from the street by a high, red brick wall covered with ivy, and not even the sounds of the passing cars disturbed the peace. Chance ignored the streets. Though he had never stepped outside the house and its garden, he was not curious about life on the other side of the wall.

Thus begins this amazing novel by Jerzy Kosinski. This 1971 book has stayed mostly dormant in my brain for over thirty years only occasionally popping to the surface. However, in my recent studies of McLuhan, it surfaced and requested that I reread it. I believe after rereading the book that Kosinski was drawing a metaphor for the impacts of electronic media on perception and thinking, and the emergence of the post-literate man.

Chance went inside and turned on the TV. The set created its own light, its own color, its own time. It did not follow the law of gravity that forever bent all plants downward. Everything on TV was tangled and mixed and yet smoothed out: night and day, big and small, tough and brittle, soft and rough, hot and cold, far and near. In this colored world of television, gardening was the white cane of a blind man.

By changing the channel he could change himself. He could go through phases, as garden plants went through phases, but he could change as rapidly as he wished by twisting the dial backward and forward. In some cases he could spread out onto the screen without stopping, just as on TV people spread out onto the screen. By turning the dial, Chance could bring others inside his eyelids. Thus he came to believe that it was he, Chance, and no one else, who made himself to be.

Chance, you find out in the story, is a person of unknown origin who lived his entire life tending the garden of a very wealthy man. His education was TV and the garden. When the old man died, his life was abruptly changed.

He rose early as always, found the breakfast that had been left at his door by the maid, ate it, and went into the garden.

He checked the soil under the plants, inspected the flowers, snipped away dead leaves, and pruned the bushes. Everything was in order. It had rained during the night, and many fresh buds had emerged. He sat down and dozed in the sun.

As long as one didn't look at people, they did not exist. They began to exist, as on TV, when one turned one's eyes on them. Only then could they stay in one's mind before being erased by new images. The same was true for him. By looking at him, others could make him clear, could open him up and unfold him; not to be seen was to blur and fade out. Perhaps he was missing a lot by simply watching others on TV and not being watched by them. He was glad now, after the Old Man died, he was going to be seen by people he never been seen by before.

Chance is called in to meet with the executors of the Old Man's will. He is found to have no papers, no record of his existence. The executors are unbelieving and fear a scam. Chance retorts,

"But you have me. I am here. What more proof do you need?"

He is told that the house and garden will be locked the next day and he must leave. On the morning of the next day, he dresses and packs his suitcase with the old, very expensive suits that the Old Man had given him, now back in style, and prepared to leave.

He turned on the TV, sat down on the bed, and flicked the channel changer several times. Country houses, skyscrapers, newly built apartment houses, churches shot across the screen. He turned the set off. The image died; only a small blue dot hung in the center of the screen, as if forgotten by the rest of the world to which it belonged; then it too disappeared. The screen filled with greyness; it might have been a slab of stone.

Chance got up and now on the way to the gate, he remembered to pick up the old key that for years had hung untouched on a board in the corridor next to his room. He walked to the gate and inserted the key; then, pulling the gate open, he crossed the threshold, abandoned the key in the lock, closed the gate behind him. Now he could never return to the garden.

Chance is now on the hero's journey described by Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

He almost immediately has an accident. A chauffeur driven limousine crushes his leg. The wealthy man's wife, Eve or EE, brings Chance back to her house to care for him. There through a series of misunderstandings his name gets changed to Chauncey Gardiner. Her powerful husband is old and very ill. The doctors already in the house care for Chance.

Chance thinks,

"When one was addressed and viewed by others, one was safe. Whatever one did would then be interpreted by the others in the same way that one interpreted what they did. They could never know more about one than one knew about them."

Chance wondered whether Mr. Rand would ask him to leave the house. The thought that he might have to leave did not upset him; he knew that he would eventually have to go but that, as on TV, what would follow next was hidden; he knew the actors on the new program were unknown. He did not have to be afraid, for everything had its sequel, and the best that one could do was to wait patiently for his own forthcoming appearance.

Benjamin Rand has a meeting with the President. He is prepared for the meeting by his handlers. Chance comments:

"I hope that you're feeling well, sir. You do look better."

Rand moved uneasily in his chair. "It's all makeup, Chauncey - all make-up. The nurse was here all night and through the morning, and I asked her to fix me up so the President won't feel I'm going to die during our talk. No one likes a dying man, Chauncey, because few know what death is. All we know is the terror of it. You're an exception, Chauncey, I can tell. I know that you're not afraid. That's what EE and I admire in you: your marvelous balance. You don't stagger back and forth between fear and hope, you're a truly peaceful man! Don't disagree; I'm old enough to be your father. I've lived a lot, trembled a lot, was surrounded by little men who forgot that we enter naked and exit naked and that no accountant can audit life in our favor."

Chance participates in the meeting with the president. The President and Rand are discussing the economy, which has recently taken a turn for the worse. Chance observes trying to emulate what he has seen on TV about how to act making sure that he looks straight into the President's eyes. The President turns to Chance and asks him a question.

"And you, Mr. Gardiner? What do you think about the bad season on The Street?"

Chance draws on the only knowledge he possesses, gardening, and replies.

"In a garden, growth has its seasons. There are spring and summer, but there is also fall and winter. And then spring and summer again. As long as the roots are not severed, all is well and all will be well."

Rand and the President are pleased. The President incorporates Chance's philosophy into his thoughts and in a national TV speech quotes him. This leads quickly to a TV appearance for Chance on a talk show.

Chance turned on the TV. He wondered whether a person changed before or after appearing on the screen. Would he be changed forever or only during the time of his appearance? What part of himself would he leave behind when he finished the program? Would there be two Chances after the show: one Chance who watched TV and another who appeared on it?

When Chance went to the studio for his telecast, Kosinski observes and comments.

Chance was astonished that television could portray itself; cameras watched themselves and, as they watched, they televised a program. This self-portrait was telecast on TV screens facing the stage and watched by the studio audience. Of all the manifold things there were in the world - trees, grass, flowers, telephones, radios, elevators - only TV constantly held up a mirror to its own neither solid nor fluid face.

Later:

Facing the cameras and the audience, now barely visible in the background of the studio, Chance abandoned himself to what would happen. He was drained of thought, engaged, yet removed. The cameras were licking up the image of his body, were recording his every movement and noiselessly hurling them into millions of TV screens scattered throughout the world - into rooms, cars, boats, planes, living rooms and bedrooms. He would be seen by more people than he could ever meet in his entire life - people who would never meet him. The people who watched him on their sets did not know who actually faced them; how could they, if they had never met him? Television reflected only people's surfaces; it also kept peeling their images from their bodies until they were sucked into the caverns of their viewers' eyes, forever beyond retrieval, to disappear.

When Chance gives his garden answer to the host's question on the economy, he becomes an instant national, and later even an international, celebrity. The story concludes with Chance being considered as a presidential candidate.

Chance is attending a large party for international dignitaries as the novel ends.

He crossed the hall. Chilled air streamed in through an open window. Chance pushed the heavy glass door open and stepped out into the garden. Taut branches laden with fresh shoots, slender stems with tiny sprouting buds shot upward. The garden lay calm, still sunk in repose. Wisps of clouds floated by and left the moon polished. Now and then, boughs rustled and gently shook off their drops of water. A breeze fell upon the foliage and nestled under the cover of its moist leaves. Not a thought lifted itself from Chance's brain. Peace filled his chest.

Marshal McLuhan wrote about three stages in the development of mankind - preliterate, literate and post literate. Preliterate society existed until the development of an alphabetic phonetic language. Literate society's development was accelerated by the invention of the moveable type printing press. Post literate society began developing with the invention of the telegraph and was accelerated by the development of TV and computers. Most of what we know is based on literate perceptions and means of communication.

McLuhan believed that the real impact of a change in a medium is in the medium's ability to alter our perception of reality. This altered perception of reality is nearly impossible for anyone to consciously notice, and therefore its impacts are profound. Media, which are extensions of man's senses, alter the ratio of our sense usage. Kosinski opens and closes the book with sense driven descriptions of reality.

McLuhan's post literate society has many of the characteristics of the preliterate society of the distant past. He labeled the society "acoustic", not that it was going back to being only an oral - aural environment of the preliterate age, but that it was going to be more "wavelike", as in the wave nature of matter. However, the post literate age was going to rely more heavily on the spoken word, rather than the written word of the literate age. And, instead of gathering around fires, we gather around the TV screens (TV or computer), in our caves.

Chance is Kosinski's conception of what someone would be like if they skipped the literate age entirely. Chance's learning is preliterate and post literate. He learned from nature and TV.

He draws a distinction in the second paragraph between nature and humankind in the ability to be aware and have intention. Later he points out that TV could portray itself, a feat unmatched in nature.

Kosinski gives hints about TV's ability to alter our sense ratios and it's impact on our perception of reality when he writes, "The set created its own light, its own color, its own time. It did not follow the law of gravity that forever bent all plants downward. Everything on TV was tangled and mixed and yet smoothed out: night and day, big and small, tough and brittle, soft and rough, hot an cold, far and near. In this colored world of television, gardening was the white cane of a blind man."

The last phrase is a particularly important piece of advice about how to cope with the changes when he advises the perception of nature as a way to achieve balance.

Chance is so altered by his TV education that he's not sure of his existence outside of the TV, and he thinks that he can change himself by changing channels.

In a literate world, existence is proven through demonstration of literacy and a written record. In Kosinski's post literate world, existence is proven by being seen.

"The cameras were licking up the image of his body, were recording his every movement and noiselessly hurling them into millions of TV screens scattered throughout the world," writes Kosinski. "Television reflected only people's surfaces; it also kept peeling their images from their bodies until they were sucked into the caverns of their viewers' eyes, forever beyond retrieval, to disappear." In a chaotic post literate world where electronic media have altered our perceptions of time, space, sequence, cause and effect, past and future, the present moment and temporality, Chance appears to be a wise man. He is "post literate" and wise in the way of the garden.

Being There
Jerzy Kosinski
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971

Also the movie:
Being There
Lorimar Production
United Artists, 1979
Screenplay by Jerzy Kosinski

For more information about McLuhan read my article The Wave of the Future.

3 Comments:

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