Document 75619

Its my Heeeeaaaad!:
Sex and Death in Being
John Malkouich
Hell hath no limits,nor is circumscrib'd
In one selfe place, for where we are is hell,
And where Hell is, must we ever be.
Meruowa,Doctor Faustus
- Qsp1519pgen
Craig Schwartz (John Cusack) has discovered a portal into
another person. For fifteen minutes, he can experience the
world from inside John Malkovich: he seeswhat Malkovich sees,
feels Malkovich's arms and legs move, and hears Malkovich's
voice as if it were his own. When his time is up, Craig is mdely
ejected on to the New Jersey Turnpike.
An expert puppeteer, Craig soon works out a technique to
make the Malkovich body obey his will. What do he and the
others he lets in on the secret want to do with this fascinating
discovery? Maxine (Catherine Keener), his co-worker, decides
they'll sell tickets for a 'ride' through Malkovich. Craig,like his
wife Lotte (Cameron Diaz), wants to use Malkovich to make
love to Maxine. And the sinister director of LesterCorp (Orson
Bean), in whose building the portal exists, wants to live forever,
using Malkovich and others like him as 'vessels'.
The dominant visual metaphor of Bemg .lobn Malkouich
(199Dis confinement:
the chimpElijahin his cage,the absurd
dimensions of the "seven-and-a-halfth"floor of the Lester building, and the mask-like view from inside Malkovich's skull all
seem designed to inspire claustrophobia. This is no accident.
is rniranclself-absorptron
of tiremaincltaracters
roredin the narrowlimitsof the world they inhabit.But tite
visr"ralclaustrophobizralso reflects tl-retraditional view of the self
presllpposed by the movie. On this vier,v, associateclwith
f)escartes,the sell is a unified sr-rltjectthat exists over time ancl
is not necessarilytiecl to any particlllar body. This view tlnderpins the desires ancl goals of tl-ie main characters: ilnmortality
make.sno sense withcir-rtit, nor cloes the project of copulating
with someone r-rsit'tga third persol-I'sbody.
BeingJobn Malkot.,icb presents trs with a w:ry of reflecting on
ollr own preclicanietrt. Even thor.rgh the events of the film are
unlikely, mal-ly of tts are contmittecl to the Carte.sianview tl'rat
makes them possible.The tnovic's intriguing suggestion,I think,
is that this metaphysical vier,wis ticcl r-rpwith a rallge of destrr-rctive attitudes toward ollr own cleaths, romantic love, and the
meaning of lif-e.
If the movie presents a dc:spairing picture of l-ittmanbeings,
it also, perhaps in spite of itself, suggestsa way out. The goals
of the main chztrlcter.sltnd the overwhelming itnportance they
attach to them stand or fall with the particttlar vieu' of tl're self
as a non-physical 1 tl-rat can continLle to exist ap:rrt from the
body it now inhabits. Perhzrpsif we can see why this view is
wronl1.wc crn rcas()n ottr wrty, lts il were, oi.rt of ottr own
When Malkovicl'r disct>versCraig's '.rnc1Maxine's scheme, he's
unclerstandably upset: "It's my heeeaaad!" Think hou' differently the line reaciswith an entphasis on the possessive:"lt's my
heacl."r The cornplaint then wor-rld simply be tl-rat Craig and
Maxine have tresp;tssedon Nlalkovich'srights by appropriating
the interior of his skull for their own benefit. Br:t that wouldn't
capture what re;riiy botl-rersMalkovich about his predicament: if
there were a portal to, say, I'ris left calf, things wouldn't be
nearly so bad.
Wnyi Whrt's so special ;rboLltone's he1rc1/
At leasl pan of ilre
seems to
answer rnust be t)rat thatt.s
I As the iine is wlitten in Charliel('.rufmln'sscript avzrilablein urany places on
Being.John Malkovich
reside:it's the locus of our point of view on rhe worlci.\7hen
Craig goes through the portai, h" ,"", the wo.ld as if from
:r rj:rll.>we.:.
this is much louder from Craig's point of view than it would be
to an outside observer; it is as if his own head were being
scratched,and presumablyhe feels it as well, somewherein the
upper-right region of his 'ractile field'.
might call this the 'homuncular' view of the self. It is as
if each human body had another, much tinier human being
inside it, a 'homunculus' somewhere in the skull, which both
experiences the world through the body by receiving signals
sent by the sensesand controls the body's movements. Each of
us is really a very tiny puppeteer, controlling the nerves and
muscles of the body much as Craig controls what Lotte derisively calls his "dolls."2
in the world of the movie, of course, not everyone has a portal. Captain Mertin, the first discoverer of the portal, airns to live
forever by moving fiom 'vessel to vessel'. Unfortunately, the
vesselsarehard to come by. Whythis is the case is obscure, but
Mertin claims it has something to do wirh the potential vessel,s
DNA. Most of us have become expert puppeteers in our own
casesthrough childhood experience, becoming so adept that we
don't realizewe're doing it. So in these casesthe homunculus is
not a distinct person but ourselves. These selves rntrst be nonmaterial, since of course even by tire movie's standardsit would
be crazy to think that rhere is literally a tiny duplicate of Craig
inside Craig'sbody. Vhat animareshis body is Craig himseif, the
non-physical Ego. This is rhe view Gilbert Ryle stigrnatized as
"the ghost in ihe machine."
How does the movie commit itself to this Cartesianview? If
the self is non-physical, there's no problem wirh supposing that
more ihan one self animates a given body. When Craig (or any_
one eise) enters the vessel, the experiences they irave remain
their own, even while Malkovich hin-rselfhas preciselv the same
' There is an inreresdng paralrer *'ith some of the cnrder understandinss of
whichseemro slrggesr
rhar'manis . . . a clarkc"ellar
in whicha maidenauntanda sex-crazed
mo'key arelockedin mortalcor'-
bat, the affair being refereed by a rather nen,ous bank clerk, (D.
quoted in Ronald De Sousa,"Rational," in TIseIdentities of per-sons
edited by A.O. Rorry lBerkeley: Unrversity of Califbrnia press, l9:6J, Zt:').
walter ott
thattherecanbe fwo sets
of experiences
insidethe Malkovichvessel,one belongingto
Malkovich, and one to the intrurding mind. To satisfiT his lust for
Maxine, Craig enters tire portal and through (or alongside?)
Malkovich has sex with l-ier. IJut what rnakes it the case that
those experiences belong to Craig, rather than to Malkovich
alone? After all, if Maxine has the clap, it is Malkovich who will
suffer. The only w2ty to attribi-rte the conquest of Maxine to Craig
is to sr-rppose a Czrrtesian ego, a non-physical self that can
inhabit bodies at clifferent times. If we take it for granted that it
is Craig who has those experiences, we have already bought
i n to r he Cer t es ir n v i e w .
To draw this out, iet's consider some examples. Craig's goal
from the start is to seduce Maxine; when he learns she has nothing but scorn for him, he stumbles on the portal, and then,
seemingly, on 'lnother way to acirieve his goai. But will occupying Malkovich help him? Consider these cases:
1. Craig, wearing a convincing Malkovich mask and walking
on weli-concealed strlts, dupes Maxine into having sex
with him.
2. Craig br-rilds a lif-e-like robot and dr,rpes Maxine into havir r g s ex wir lr i r.
fantasizes about Maxine, while, unbeknownst to
hin, Maxine is having precisely the same fantasy about
him, down to the last detail.
h-r which of these cases do $,'e want to say Craig has succeeded? Case 1 is underhanded, to be sure, but successful; the
experiences are certainly Craig's. Case 2 would be much less
satisfying, but notice that it's not dilferent in kind from the first
case, if we are all Carte.sian homunculi: there's jr-rsi an extra
step inserted here between the 'puppets' that Craig and Maxine
control. Tl-iis is already an indication of tl-ie oddity of the
Cartesian view. Strictly speaking, wc should have to say that
even in Case1, Craig and Maxine have not had sex; their bod-
ies have perforntecl certain actions, but Craig and Maxrne
themselves,the homunculi staring out through the windows of
their bociies' eyes, have not. This lets us see how the Cartesian
view distorts olrr ordinary picture of the world, in which it is
of course possible for per.sonsand not just the bodies tney
Being John Malkovich
happento controi to have sex, and puts in its place a set of
thatmightwellleadust0 creig's"dance
of despair
tror we zrr-c alr Lrapptd
inJrclc a JKull, anct our
skill at maneuveringthe body we find ollrselvesin produces
the persistent illusion that we are those bodies. (people
manipulating robotrc anns in order to deal with radioactive
materials report that after a time those arms seen to be their
own.) Pierre Gassendi, a contemporary of Descartes's,illustrated this distortion of our ordinary ways of speaking and
thinking when he pointed or-rtthat Descartes mr_rstregard himself "not as a whole man but as an inner or hidden component" and goes on to call Descartes"Soul, or wlratever name
you want me to address you by . "3
So the only difference between Cases7 and 2 is the connection beNveen Craig, the Cartesianego, and the body he controls.
In one case, he controls a body that copulates with Maxine; in
the other, he controls a body rhat controls another Lroclythat
copulates with Maxine. But perhaps there is another way to
account for the difference, one that does not involve the
Cartesianself. Perhaps the difference lies in the very content of
the experiences Craig has in Case2: they will be from the point
of view of the Craig body, not from the robot's poinr of view.
He won't have the experience of Maxine's (or her robot,s) body
next to his, and he is (somehow) linked with the Craig body and
not the others, at least for now. If we were to ask Craig after he
is ejected from the portal why he thinks he has had sex with
Maxine, he might advert to his memories: ite can tell us all sorts
of things that only someone who has had .sexwith her can tell
us (although morally, perhaps, he should keep that information
to himself.)
On this view, what makes these experiences Craig,s is just
that he is able to remember therl: Lotte, Maxine, and Carrot Top
did not have those experiences because they cannot remember
them. This is a very popular view of personal iclentity, one
devised by John Locke. Bur now we shouid consider Case 3.
Recall that in Case J, Craig fantasizes about Maxine while
Maxine is having the identical fantasy about him. It seems prerry
3 Fifth set of objections
, tn 'fbe prtirosophicctr wntings of Descaries ed J.
Cottinghan'r,R. Stoothoff, and D. Murdoch (Carnbriclge:Cambridge
Press,1984),Volume ii. o. 181.
W]lter Otl
clearthatin this c'ase,CraigwoLrldnot be justifiedin carvinga
notchon his bedpostAnclyet from the point of view of his
everythingis exactlyas it would be in the case
where he, 'inhabiting'Malkovich's bocly, seducesMaxine. After
all, if the body plays no e.ssentialrole in making us who we
are, why shouldn't rnere fantasy count as much as experiences
had through another such body? The memory account will not
work fbr Case 3, fbr Craig's rnemories of his fantasy are precisely the same as those he would l-ravehad he actually had
sex with Maxine.
Perhaps the memory theorist has the resources to respond to
this objection. f'o have a rnemory, she might say, it is not
enough to be able to call to consciousness a particular set of
experiences.Genr.rinclnernoriesrequire, at least,llret tlte subject himself who seems to remember them really has experienced then. If we can draw this distinction befween real and
apparent memories, we can say that Case 3 doesn't really present any problerns ior the lnernory r.'iew, because Craig does not
really remember having hacl sex with Maxine, even if his fantasy is so vivid that he comes to believe it really happened.
Similarly,Craig-post-expulsionis the same person as Craig-inMalkovicl-r because he remernbers, and not just seelns to
rerlember, having had sex with Maxine.
Unfortunately, we have now gone in a circle. We set out to
explain why Craig's fantasies :rlrout Maxine, however vivid,
don't cour-rtas a sexttal conquest: even if he can call to mind the
smell of Maxine's hair, her perfume, erndthe way she looked at
him, those experiences, while his, are pure fantasy. \We then
suggested that thc ciifference lies in his abiliry to acrually
remember those experiences :rnd not merely to seen to remember them. But to draw this distinction we had to appeal to the
very fact we are trying to explain, nzrrnelythat they are had by
one and the same subject, Craig.aThe only account that allows
us to make sense of the movie invokes the persistence of the
'}grtt\h:\\thr rccountis circulrr;
eppeals to '(luasi-nlenrories to .solvc thi-sproblem. See Shclemaker's"Persons
and their PASts,"American Pbilosophical Quafterly 7 (1970'), pp. 269-285. for
a rejection of quasi-memories, sec Andiz Hamilton, "A New Look at Persolral
ldentity," Pbilosopbical Quu ttcrll, ui5 ( 1995), pp. 332-349.
Llcring Johrr MalkovicJ r
Problems with the Self
Malkouich as a
Despite tlre popular perception of Being
I:rnrasy,its core essumption ls wldespread. Ijor a true believer m
the immaterial self, occupying a dil'ferent bocly should seem ncr
rnore implausible than, say, any of thc events depicted in
Affiiction or School of Rctck.One way to read the film is as a
despairing look at the iruman conditior-r;another, as a parody of
a certain way of vieq,ing that condition. As I've alreaciy hinted,
I prefer the latter. But Charlie Kaufman's script itself suggests
tre incoherenthy btrilding in
that the rnovie'sprcsupposifiorrs
aft;itrary features.
As far as I can make ottt, tire met:rphysicalsituation is strpposed to be this: a homttncular Ego can occupy a clifferent body
for fifteen minutes at a time, after wLrich tl-re body originally
inhabited by the Ego is ejected,Ego and all, ot-tto the turnpike.
Tl-reonly exception is the vessel'sforry-for-rrthbirthday, when, at
midnight, it is possiblefbr an Ego to enter the vesseland remain
there permanently, but only if it is powerfr-rlenough to squash
the host's Ego back don'n into the subconscious, rn'hereit will
remain as a passiveobseler. Once someone like CaptainMertin
exhausts a body, he rnust find a new vessel and enter it at the
precise time when it is 'ripe', or else face bein5; 'absorbed',
where he will
shunted off into the next available baby (or f-etr-rs?)
remain imprisoned, experiencing all that th;rt body experiences
but being utterly unable to exert :tny influence on how that
body behaves.
There are other clues that the rnovie is to be taken as exaggerating the absurdiry of what was already a clifficult view to
swallow. Sfiren Craig first goes in to the portzll, he has a piece
of wood with him; when he is ejected, he no longer has it.
Where has it gone, he wonders?After he is permanently ejected
fiom Malkovich, however, the board reappears.Nfl-ry?
In one scene, lllalkovich hirnself goes through the poftal,
body and Malkovich-ego and all. This shourldhave no effectthe Malkovich-ego would now be inside the Malkovich-body,
where it was all along. Br-rtof collrse since the Malkovich body
has gone tl-rror-rgh
the portal, there is non' no body for the ego
to inhabit. Thus by the nrovie's own logic, tiris sl-rouldbe impossible. But the Malkovich-egofinds hin-rselfin e restaurantfull of
Malkovich 'bodies' (they can't be real bodies, since there's only
\\ktlter ()tl
one of tirose)ancl then enlergesintactonto the Turnpike,
thathe hasscenthings"no nltll shotrlcl
this a clever metalthcir for tl're egotistical .self-alrsorprion rhat
seetrl.s to be one o1' the hazarcis of tl're acting profession or a
confession of the rnovie's c>wn absLrrclityi11c--unbe both.
can aclcl to thc-se a trost of cither citrestions. Captain
Mertin/Dr. Le.sterclecicles to lrring a few-friencis with hin] when
he enters Mall<ovich. Vhat happens to these friends? Wl-ry
would they agrec to this, if iVlertin is to bc 'captain' of the vessel? PresurnaLrlytheir.sitr-rrtion wor-rlclbe no better than hacl they
been 'atrsorbccl'. Con.sicler tire pertr,rltimate .scenc, in which the
Malkovich vessel, trnclcr tire conniancl of the Captain, offers
Charlie Sheen inrurt>ftal lif-e along with hintself and his crew in
the body of Maxine's rrncl Lotte's child. Kaufman gives us a subtie hint tlrat thc- Mirlkovict homrlnculns is havtng at least some
effect on what u.sccl to be his bocly when he has that bocly tell
Sheen that they might invite Gary Sinise along fbr tl-re ricie. (The
real Malkovich ancl Sinise worked together in tire Steppenwolf
theater in Cl"ricago ancl starred in Of X'Iice ancl Men.')
This transparently silly n-retaphysical claptrap is, I think,
clesigned to point r-rp the '.rbsr-rrcliryof the Clrtesi'.rn .u,iew. The
view from insiclc the vcs.sel is zr nice illustration of tlie dangers
of conceiving the self as e kind of gl'rostly clenizen ir-nprisoned
inside a skull. Descartes hirnsell- saicl, "I tnt not in nty body as
a captain is in his ship,"s l.lut it is notorior-rsly herd to see how
he can offer rrny other picrtrrre. (Perhaps it is no ac:cident that
Kaufman m:rkes sr-rchr.r.seof nar-rticalvocabr:lary. )
There zrre other ploblems waiting in the wings. f o see this,
all we neecl do is what precisely the connecrion is strpposed
to be between the homlrncr-ilar Ego and its body. The self is
non-physical and so cennot l-iave a iocation in space. Or-rlv physical things are in space; thc seif is literally non'here, in the same
way the numlrer 2 or the nvereqe taxpayer are nowhere. How
can such a thing trring abotrt changes in ;r bocly, wltich of course
occr-rpiesa particular loclrti<tn at any one ntoment? Tl're pup
peteerand his pLlppei?Ireconnectedby strings;thc seif-as-puppeteer can have notlling :rnalogouson which to pull. The
problem is not jrrst lror,r.'
can take plece rvhen the
5 See De: c ; rr1 e s ' s
, l . l t t / i / , i / l r . , l VI
Beir)g Jolrn Malkovich
causeis not in the samelocationas the effect;gravify,arguably,
is onewayin whichtherecanbeaction
ata distance
di - c t:r nc e
hc tw een
-. -, -
Fl -)---j --. ^ l
i.- .,f
-, , , . , , t , -. ,
. , . -r--,
entirely. If the self were solnewhere, we could entertain the idea
that interactswith another spatially ertended object. Burtit't,
anci so we can't.
Even if we lay this aside, consider what the view does to ollr
knowledge of other people. Others are also ghostly homunculi,
at best giving us signs of their thoughts and feelings by pulling
their puppet's strings. How do we know they're in thcre? How
do we know utbo is in thereTAlthough dr-ialistshave tried rnany
naneuvers to escape this, the conclusion seems to be that we
are all imprisoned within our own bodies, at best inf'erring that
there are other minds out there like our own. But any view that
turns your best friend in to the oblect of an inference, however
well-founded, is one that no one but a philosopher could take
One way or another, the central goals of the main characters
center around romantic reiationships. Captain Mertin's own
chief goal, apaft frorn eternal life itself, is "to feel Floris's naked
thighs next to mine-I want her to shiver in zrspasm of ecstasy
as I penetrate her . ." Early in the movie, Craig fashions a
Maxine puppet; in his love for her, he l-rasthe puppet say,
"Would you like to be inside my skin? Think what I think, leel
what I feel? it's good in here, Craig. It's berrer than your wildest
drearns." Craig wants son-iethingmore than Mertin wants: not
just sexual satisfactionbut the sense of being her, being inside
her Carlesiantheater,feeling and experiencing everything as .she
would. Sadly, this is the very thing the Carresianview rnakes
impossible: his project rs bound to fhil, for he and Maxine are
irreducibly different minds.
Lotte has perhaps the most complicated set of desires. She
wants to sleep with Maxine but as a man; before she hears of
tl'reponal, she tells Craig she's going ro consuh her dentist, Dr.
Feldman, on the possibility of gender-reassrgnment.The
Malkovich vessel provides the perf-ectsolution: painless (if temporary) gender switching. But notice that she also gets the pleasure of 'penetrating' another person even more fully tl'ran
Walter Ott
Bein,q John Malkovich
physicalsex would allow;on learningof the portal,shesays,
we know about her, and what Craig otLgbt to know about her,
"it's as if Malkovich had a vagin'r."
For her part. M'axine enioys her trn-rewith Lotte/Nlalkovich
since it gives her a double dose of adoration. Craig alone has
moral qualms witl'r Mzrxine's relutions with Lotte/Malkovich; he
tells her simply, "you're evil." To justify herself, Maxine asks,
"Have yoll ever had two people look at yor-rwith totai lust and
devotion through :l single pair of eyes?"
There zlre L'ssentialiy fwo v:irieties of erotic love in the
movie. The first, Maxine's, is simple enoltgh. Like Mertin, who
fantasizesabout being worshipped by Floris (Mary Kay Place)
as "the Love God Eros," Maxine wants not jr-rstsexual pleasure
but dominance over her partners. One sensesthat Maxine, at
the end of the movie, coLrlcln'tbe happier tl-ianr,vhereshe is, at
the center of zr love rectztngle:Lotte, Crerig-inside-Emily,
presr,rmably Emily herself, ali in their clifferent ways, love
Maxine. Maxine doesn't want Cr:rig but is pleased that he loves
her: this is anothcr sor,rlshe can clominate, and if she has no
interest in the sexual pleasr,rrehe can afford, Craig offers a convenient object of ridicule ("The pLlppeteerdeclared his love for
me today," we I'iearher telling a friend on her cell phone.) It's
only when Craig learns to control the vesseland takes complete
possession of it tl'rat Maxine marries 'l'riru' (lVlalkovich/Craig).
'fhe essentialemptiness of Maxine's psyche is impressedon us
over and over again cluring the novie.
The second kind of love, Craig's,is at first .sightmore sophisticated.What he wants from Maxine is not yust"lust and devotion";
he wants, so far as possibie,to escape hin-rselfand the confines of
his own mind. For him, "consciousness is a terrible cllrse. I think,
I feel, I suffer, and all I ask in reflrrn is the oppoffunity to do my
work and they won't allow it becar.tseI raise issues."Craig wants
to use Malkovich not primarily to control others but to get as far
as he can to his go:11of dissolving himself in Maxine, escapinghis
Craig-nessin what he envi.sionsas the warmth and love of Maxtne.
Sex is the ciosest he can come to titis, br-rtthe scene with his
Maxine DuDDet indicates that it is a second-best to the ideal state
of affairs, in which l're basks in the glow of Maxine's own con-
thisis anaclof kindness
pert,for $epping
sciousness,seeing and feeling the world from her pont of view,
experiencingwlrat sltr e.rpcriences.
Unfortunately, rrs the rnovie sllggests, ti-ris second kind of
love cannot be l-racl.There is no portal to Maxine. Knowing what
that bearrtifil skrrll the Cr:iq-homrrncrrhrq
worrld diccovernny,thing but warmth. Moreover, such a poftal, even if it existed,
wouid only serve to ilh-rstratethe essential separatenessof pcrsons, on the Cartesianview: he can tour her subconsciousand
feel the sane sensations as she, but they will remain distinct
minds or souls. Maxine will go on despising him and would
only despise him tire more if lie got inside her head.
The lesson seemsto be this: only power over others and bare
sexual pleasure are goals worth aiming at. \Whatcver the true
content of Craig'shigher form of l<>vemay be, it is impossible,
a romantic illusion on which those of us who "see what they
want and go after it," like Maxine, clelight in por-rringscorn. If
we really are Cartesianminds, love can at best be an attachment
to another such soul: what counts, what makes the person you
now live with the salne person yoll fell ir-rlove witl-r, is just the
persistenceof one and the same mind. Such a mind can lose zrll
of its qualities, change all of its likes and dislikes, and still
remain the same. It as if there were an enduring essenceof the
person, permanently hidden within the prison-house of the
body, that is the object of love. However attractive mystical
hooey about 'soui-mates' can seem, the Cartesian view gets
things radically wrong. Casesin which a person's changing qualities preclude the same attitude are all too common. 'We often
say things like, 'she's not the same person I married,' and presumably we don't mean that a different mind inhabirs rhe same
body, but only that the qualities iitat made the person who she
was have changed.
and the Meaning
of Life
Vhen Lester/Mertin explains the secret of l-rislongevify*--carrot
juice-he adds, "l piss sitting down like a goddamned girlie-girl.
But nobody wants to die." The claim is patently false: life is not
a good thing in and of itself, and sorne of us, when life becomes
too painful, too humiliating, or jusr too boring will look for and
find a way to die. Mertin czlnnot see this becausehis desires are
so powerful he cannot conceive of anyone wanting to die. The
longing for immortaliry is parasrticon some other interest or ser
of interestsaround whicl-i one can construct a life. Absent
Bein€l Jol-in Maikovich
Wolttt Ott
is an openquestionwhzrtreasonone hasto go on livingat all,
no senseto wantnothing
muchlessto live forever.So it n-rakes
other than to live forever: we mllst want this. if at all. because
we think it will allow us to satisfy some of our desires and carry
oLlt our ground proiects.
ShoLrldwe wzlnt to live fbrever?The 'should' here is rational,
not moral: our question is not whether it is rnorally right to want
this, but whether it's r:rtional to want to live forever. \X/hatgives
us a reason to do anything? Otir desires are part of this, but so
is the fact that our time as living beings is limited. This familiar
fact is brought home by our behavior. Suppose you have an
entire weekend in which to write a take-home exam. Chances
are good that yor-r will not write it Friday night, for you have
Saturday and Sunday in which to do it. Now suppose that you
have an infinite amount of time in which to do it: what reason
do yotr hzrveto do it nout as opposed to tomorrow, or ten years
from now, or a million? Our reasons for doing things are conditioned on olrr nature as temporally limited beings. Obviously,
we always have reasons to seek our own pleasure. But larger
projects only make sense if we will, somedzry, die. Captain
Mertin is a fine example of thi.s:what else can he aim at, besides
shrupping Flori.s?
At the end of the film, we find Craig imprisoned in the body
of Emily, a girl who turns oLlt to be Maxine's and Malkovich's
daughter.The tragedy of his position is offset by the apparently
happier ending for Maxine and Lotte, who are now raising this
Oedipal monstrosiry. They, at least, get to be together. But we
cannot help but woncler whether Maxine and Lotte will, in tire
end, be any l-rappieror more fulfilled than Craig.
Many of our goals are no more laudable or more iikely to be
satisfied than Craig's or Mertin's. Even if they were ultimately
satisfied,as in the case of Mzrxine and Lotte, what would we do
then?\7e would either be forced to pick out a new desire to try
to satisfyor, perhaps even worse, we would find ourselveswith6ul nny
An . " ) . n l o
.r - " f.' *.,..1 .
It) .
lr .,.Jly
surpri -si ng
of ilespair
Immortality czrnnotbe the goal <tfa rational person. Our lives
make sense to us only on the assuutption that they wiil end. \X/e
can be interesting to or-rrselves<tnly io the extent that the nrrra-
tive of our lives is limited. Imagine embarking on an infinitely
t0 continue
longbook:thereis no feason
yoli knowtharthereisno
ending. Each event in the book woulcl t<t that extent become
meaningless. It is harcl enotrgh to motivate ourselves to read
tJlysses or Moby-Dick.
For any project we can think of, we can step back and ask,
in what way wouid achieving tl-ris goal make nry life n-reaningful? Whether we choose sexr,ral conquest or helping the poor of
Calcutta, achieving the goal only presents us with tl-ie problen'r
of meaninglessness all over again. Trapped in sr-rchan endless
succession of more or less ephemeral desires and goais, we
might well wish, witl-i Craig-in-Eni1y, to "look away."
Happily, the movie's presuppositions are incoherent. The events
it depictsare conceivableor imaginablebut not possible,just as
an M.C. Escherdrawing can present us with a scene that is, by
the laws of geometry, impossible.
\fhat view of the self, then, is open to us? Here's one worth
considering. On this view, each person, Malkovich, Maxine,
Lotte, is not a distinct being but zrconvenient grouping of more
or less continuous snccessionsof projects, de.sires,and memories. Wirether Craig-inMalkovich is numerically the same as
Craig-prior-to-entering-Malkovichis an en-rpty question. There
are similarities in their desires, goals. and rnemories; but these
sinilarities clo not ground, and are not grounded by, a single,
persistentself. Descarteswasn't entitled to infer I am (sum) from
I think (cogito); what follows is son-rethinglike, there's thinking
going on here now. There's no mystical self which performs
these acts of thinking: there is onlv a heap of tholrghts. If we
eliminate the Cartesianhomuncullrs, what we are left with is a
complex set of interreiated experiences.
On this view, the Cartesianself is what we rnight call a ,deep
illr,rsio'' illusions,like the MUller-Lyerillusion,oare easily
" In this illusion,subjectsare asketlto cornparcthe lcngthsof nuo line seg-
ments. one of which is bor-rndeclbv sreeter-than signs, the other, by less,thar]
signs. Althou-qhthe segmentsare in fecr of leneth, subjcct.src)utinely:;ay
that the former is longer than t[-relattcr.
V\kllter ( )tt
coffected,IJUIsomepersistin the light of benerknowledge.
Althoughwe ali know that physicalobjectshrtvenothingcorreperception
of colorandareonly
to ollr phenomenal
disposecl to l)olll-Ice diif-erent wavelengths of light et our eyes,
the intuition that objects really are recl, blr-re,or what have you,
clies h:rrc1.It is similarly h:rrcl to conceive of otrrselves :rs not.hing more th'an a haphaz:rrdcoliection of desires,thougl-rts,sensations,and projects; bLlt that is what we are.
To some, this will seem even more depressing than the
Caflesianview. Anci so it is, if rle cling to the clesirefor immortaliry. Br-rtthat desire i.sirrational. There are prirctical advantages
to my view as well. The separatenessof persons, transformed
into a metaphysicirl clivide between Cartesian minds that can
communicate only inclirectly, clisappears.\7e are no longer compelled to view love as either tl-redesire to dominate the other or
to achieve a kinci of union with another soul, a union that is
ruled out by the Czrftesianvien'.
There is a further moral consequence.Consider pain. On the
Cartesian view, I have a special reason to prevent my own
future pain simply bec:luse it will be tnine; I have only derivative reasons to prevent the pain of otl'rers.But if n]y continued
existence is a matter of degree, and the future 'self' I shall
become is only more or less related to the cLlrrent set of beiiefs
and clesiresthzrt constitlrte me, the pictr-rrechanges. I still have
a reason to avoicl causing this future self pain simply because
pain is baci and I am in the lrcst position to do something about
it. But the inelinrinable divide berween me and others is gone.
I now have reasons to be less selfish, less caught r-rpin Lotte's
project of 'self-actualization.'The pain of others matters to me
'Where there is
in much the same w2ry as nry o,t!'11future pain.
and should be a difference, it is a difference of degree, not kind.
Coming to l-rold a view like the one I irave sketched can be
consoling and liberatirrg. Derek Parfit reports that when he
believed that his own continr-redexistence wa.san all-or-nothrng
matter, zrsthe Cartesian view has it,
Be)inEJJohn Malkoviclr
Other people are closer. i atn less concerned about nty own life,
alloutthelivesof oihen.'
Tlre question,''fi/hat is the meaning of my life?',presupposes
that there is a gennine,unified self whose life can have or lack
meaning.Givingup on the Cartesian
ego can help reconcileus
to the fact that no answer could ever satisfy us. And without the
presuppositionof an immaterialhomunculus imprisoned in our
skulls, we shall be iess prone to ignore tl-resuffering of others
and less vulnerable to m),'thsabout romantic love. Being Jobn
Malkouicb shows that belief in a Cartesianego is not just a metaphysical blunder but a powerful source of human misery.
My life .seemecllike a giass tLlnnel, throllgh which I vv.asmovlng
faster every year-, and at the encl of which there lvas darkness.
$/hen I changecl n'ry view, the walls of rny glass tunnel disappearccl. I now live in the opeli air. There is still a difference
lxfween rny lite '.u-rcl
the lives of others. Br-rtthe diflcrence is less.
7 Reasonsand Persons(O>riord: Clarendon press,
1984), p. 281. parfit,s own
view is considerably more sophrsticatedthan thc one I have sketched here