Another sonnet. Highly conventional (and probably dull) in terms of stanza structure. This was written, for the most part, ages ago but forgotten. I found it recently, and wanted to complete it. However, in the interim I lost what I wanted to say. The second quatrain is newest, and I’m not sure it fits the rest.We pare down meanings with thick blunted knives Discard crude flesh, expose the deeper bones They rattle wicked death o’er jangling life And laughter mocks the grave, the pauper’s throne Condensing truth into the barest spark To burn beyond our feeble watery light As lightning blazing strikes the mortal heart Then vanishes in vast immortal night No words immortal linger in the dust No song remains beyond time’s stronger call A siren sumptuous luring us to trust As starker echoes haunt once hallowed halls Fast legacies elude the grasp of proof As barren silence speaks the silent truth
A cat and a radioactive source are in a box. A quantity of poison will be released if radioactivity is detected. Is the cat alive or dead?
**Massive Disclaimer: I’m not in any way a scientist.**
I got an A in my physics A Level, but that was a while ago now. I do, however, remember being told about the challenge of observation when the things that necessarily accompany the act of observation can affect that which one wishes to observe. And this, in a vague, please-don’t-quote-me-on-this, kind of way, is part of how I understand this thought experiment. To be ever so slightly more precise with the specific quantum physics, some form of observation of measurement stops the thing ideally to be observed from being a superposition of states, with it becoming either one state or the other.
Fortunately, however, I don’t wish to dwell on the physics. I merely wish to note that in this thought experiment, until the box is opened, there is no way of knowing whether the cat is dead or alive. The question thus prompted is the degree to which it could be said to either both or neither.
What I wish instead to focus on is literary character. The critical discourse on this is huge, and I’ve read my small wedge of it. I shall not, however, engage with specifics but summarise the two extremes of position.
- Characters are to be read as (quasi) people.
- Characters are fundamentally textual elements in a linguistic text of many elements.
Neither stance alone is very satisfactory. Character seems more than a syntactic unit; its function in a text is more than a form of determination of the allocation of actions. ‘[He/She/It] did [x] to [him/her/it]’ can be assigned to different syntactic subjects, but without a more humanised notion of an agent, subject, or object something seems lacking. And indeed, without a similarity between characters and people we fail to really grasp the full literary effect or import of a character. This humanising also permits us to assimilate more to the subject than its own acts, be it inferences from environmental context, or our desire to supply the character with a life that extends beyond the duration of the text’s focus and the individual instances of the character’s appearances in the text.
Furthermore, the personifying of character can be seen as the reciprocal side of the coin of the characterising of the person. If I speak of my friend, I employ very similar lexis to speaking of a fictional character. I can remark that ‘Helen has brown hair’ and ‘Lynne has brown hair’ and it is only the contingent fact that for me one seems to reference (or at least attempts to reference) a real person that introduces an ontological difference between ‘Helen’ and ‘Lynne’, if indeed at the level of the language or the text such a difference exists.
However, let us consider Charlotte Brontë’s Villette. I enjoyed Jane Eyre, but the ending was nauseating. I similarly enjoyed Villette, but the ending was fascinating. In short, the protagonist’s loved one, embarks on his return voyage from a duration abroad. Bad weather, we are told, claims the lives of many loved ones on board. Yet, we are also informed of the joy to be felt by those whose loved ones could still return home. Thus the novel ends, without telling us into which category the protagonist and her man fall. Brontë herself remarked on the debate that arose, on correspondence she received asking whether the character lived or died. She, to my knowledge, refused to answer.
For me, the answer is obvious. He did neither. Or both. He, as a literary character is akin to Schrödinger’s Cat. For me he is not, I should clarify, technically both dead and alive: the human-ness which is invoked in his description would make that trait unviable. He is, however, underdetermined on this aspect. As a person he must, at the fictional spatio-temporal point of the text’s close, have been either dead or alive, but as a character he is characterised by indefinitely embodying both possibilities, with the qualification that either possibility would preclude the other.
Thus, character is not person.
We can again consider the flipside. People I know who are not here with me may now, for all I know, be dead. As with absentee characters, unless they figure in the witnessed now of the text, they are unknown. If we espouse a radical idealism, of course, like character they might no longer exist. But typically we’d say that for real people the issue is epistemic not ontological. As material beings they have a definite state and location; we just cannot know it. For characters though, it seems as if the inverse might be the case, that their fundamental ontology is one bound up in our epistemological access to them, and thus is distinctly non-human.