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Bewildering Stories

Challenge 573 Response:
Bewildering Stories discusses

Auto-Mate and Habit

with Bertrand Cayzac

Challenge 573 asks, in part: In Simon Smith’s “A Short, Happy Life,” in what way does the story not overstep our guideline about stories that end with “but it was all a dream” or the equivalent?

[Bertrand C.] Unlike Windsor McKay’s Little Nemo who disavows Slumberland upon awakening, the narrator fully acknowledges the reality of his own performance while in his state of suspended consciousness. To some paradoxical extent, unconsciousness empowers his mind with a more adequate perception and a deeper involvement into the matter at hand, although it can be said that dreams convey sure intuitions or signs.

I enjoyed these dense pages and their sharp-witted, clockwork style evocative of Victorian fantastic novels. Still the theme of the lost life and the end of the story make me think of Henry James’ novella “The Beast in the Jungle,” which probably tells us something about the prism of genre and certainly calls for a more authorized critic.

If I may add a few remarks here, I’d like to commend another speculative-fiction author who has discovered a function akin to the Auto-Mate into the neural system itself. My own fictional version of the device owes him much, but it is — literally — another story. This SF author is none other than Dr. Sigmund Freud!

Indeed, the “stimulus barrier,” a neural screen filtering the signals at the interface between senses and awareness, is among the notions introduced by Freud in his seminal 1919-1920 essay: Beyond the Pleasure Principle. According to the father of psychoanalysis, the self would be shattered by the energy of raw perceptions if this outer cerebral layer did not select and dim stimuli from the outside world.

Here is an extract, which is my own arbitrary compound of several translations, I’m afraid. Please see this link for an authorized one.

But we have more to say about the living vesicle with its stimulus receiving layer. This small morsel of living substance floats about in an outer world charged with the most potent energies, and it would be destroyed by the operation of stimuli if it were not provided with a protective shield against stimuli.

It acquires this owing to the fact that its outermost layer gives up its structure pertaining to living matter and becomes to a certain extent inorganic and now, as a special integument or membrane, operates in warding off stimuli; that enables energies from the outer world to propagate themselves, with a fragment of their intensity, to the next layers which are still alive.

Of course talking fiction sounds like a joke in a scientific context. But still, some ideas in this great work, such as the “death drive,” are just wild, according to Freud himself, wild and truly Bewildering, should I say.

But with regards to this Challenge, the stimuli-barrier seems less relevant than habit itself, as seen by the philosopher Félix Ravaisson. In his essay Of Habit — actually his doctoral thesis, submitted in 1837 — the philosopher describes a natural principle which can be seen as some sort of Auto-Mate built into life itself, although one might argue there is no exposed on/off button in non-augmented persons:

In man, the progression of habit leads consciousness by an uninterrupted degradation from will to instinct and from the accomplished unity of the person to the extreme diffusion of impersonality.

Automation indeed comes into play:

As effort fades away in movement and as action becomes freer and swifter, the action itself becomes more of a tendency, an inclination that no longer awaits the commands of the will but rather anticipates them, and which even escapes entirely and irremediably both will and consciousness.

But there is more. Of Habit is a deep meditation on life and being. I guess I have to make a short attempt to do justice to the text. The following extracts will hopefully give an idea of the metaphysical meaning of habit according to Ravaisson. To him, habit points to an end:

[Habit has] as a limit and final end the imperfect identity of the ideal and the real, of being and thought, in the spontaneity of nature [and partakes of a cosmic history]. The history of Habit represents the return of Freedom to Nature, or rather the invasion of the domain of freedom by natural spontaneity.

On this matter, the scholar would of course mention Aristotle, St. Augustine, Maine de Biran, Bergson and many other thinkers including William James, whose major work The Principles of Psychology (1890) features the chapters “Habit” (IV), which is followed by “The Automaton Theory” (V).

And something interesting is happening here. William is Henry’s elder brother! How strange: the spirit of the two brothers caught in the same tiny dream.

Lastly, to show how “A Short and Happy Life” has echoed in my mind — and bearing in mind that an echo is a sound wave bouncing back — let me mention William Burroughs' novel The Discipline of DE (in the collection Exterminator! “DE” means “do easy,” which is the opposite way, the (easy) way of mindfulness.

I hope the editor and the readers will pardon the liberty I have taken of going into such pedantic digressions in this response. I guess I will soon wake up and discover this is just the way my Auto-Mate writes when it comes across the story of a peer.

Sincerely yours,

Bertrand Cayzac

Copyright © 2014 by Bertrand Cayzac

[Don Webb] Thank you, Bertrand, for the erudite and informative discussion! We seldom see its like, and it’s very welcome.

Ravaisson seems to draw a common-sense conclusion about habit. And he reminds me of the proverb: Le mariage simplifie la vie et complique la journée — Marriage simplifies life and complicates the day. Thus it was that Immanuel Kant never married and was able to establish the immortal legend that the townspeople of Königsberg set their watches by the punctuality of his daily walks rather than by the town clock.

Ravaisson might say, “What did I tell you? Kant’s habits gave his intellect time and freedom to engage in its natural spontaneity and thus become one of the pilllars of modern philosophy.”

Now, Fitzroy Swackhammer, in “A Short, Happy Life,” uses the Auto-Mate — or so he thinks — to become quite efficient at completing boring tasks. He becomes so efficient, in fact, that he “auto-mates” his entire life. The consequences are hardly salubrious.

Swackhammer might substitute for his town clock, but he is no Immanuel Kant. Why not? For the same reason that he “simplifies the day” and thereby ruins his marriage and family life. And the reason can be discerned in his possible reactions to Ms. Bloch’s news that Auto-Mate has no real function.

How might Mr. Swackhammer react to Ms. Bloch’s letter:
  1. “Oh no! I’ve wasted my life!”
  2. “No! Set the prisoners free. Auto-Mate really does work!”
  3. “The fraudsters have been jailed for the wrong reason: Auto-Mate works too well. It’s turned me into a facsimile of Meursault, in Albert Camus’ L’Étranger.”

All three reactions are possible but not entirely plausible:

Taken together, all three reactions at once are plausible: “I believed Auto-Mate worked. As a consequence I’ve wasted my life by living like Albert Camus’ Meursault.” But the combination is possible only if Swackhammer recognizes his tragic flaw, namely emotional disengagement.

Sadly, he does not realize what he has done, regardless of his faith in Auto-Mate. At the end, he is only confused and perhaps disappointed that he has no one and nothing to blame but himself. We can imagine him muttering “green elephants” and tossing Ms. Bloch’s letter aside.

Copyright © 2014 by Don Webb

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