The Meaning of Life and The Daddy of the Internet
The Fly (1986)
by Oscar Mardell
If, in June 1957, you happened to have been perusing the latest Playboy ‘for the articles’, then you might have found – nestled away between the regular ‘After Hours’ and a feature on some (presumably short-lived) fad called “Rock ‘n’ Roll” – something to justify your life decisions: a George Langelaan story entitled ‘The Fly’. The tale begins with a phone call: Hélène Delambre rings her brother-in-law, François (a factory owner in Lyon and the story’s narrator) to let him know that she has killed her husband, André. Hélène doesn’t seem to be lying – the police find André’s body, flattened and mangled, in the Delambre factory’s hydraulic press – but she refuses to disclose a motive. She does, however, become strangely agitated when François mentions that her son, Henri, has discovered a fly with an unusually white head. Suspecting that something is awry, and that this fly might offer some clue, François threatens to tell the police about her agitation if Hélène doesn’t explain herself.
Hélène commits suicide but leaves François with a written confession: André recently succeeded in creating a teleportation device – a machine that ‘disintegrated’ matter at one end and ‘reintegrated’ it at the other. Not only this, he managed to travel through it. The problem is that he wasn’t alone – a fly travelled with him. When the two were ‘reintegrated’, some cross-over occurred. Slowly, the fly became more like André, developing fly-sized versions of his arm and head; André, meanwhile, became more like the fly, developing human-sized versions of its arm and head. Realising that these developments were irreversible, André requested that Hélène kill him – or what remained of him – and she dutifully complied.
On reading this confession, Police Inspector Charas concludes, ‘I think it proves very definitely that Madame Delambre was quite insane’. But nothing here is definite at all. In the story’s closing paragraphs, Charas and François are burning Hélène’s manuscript when the latter mentions a fly that he crushed earlier in the day: “Its head was … white … all white.” Is this the fly that travelled with André? Is the head ‘all white’ because it was human? Though it seems possible, no confirmation is offered either way, leaving us unable to discern if André did create a teleportation device (and if the fly crushed by François had his brother’s head), or if he didn’t (and if his sister-in-law is simply mad, therefore). Each would be ghastly enough in itself, but the situation in which either might be the case is vastly more unnerving.
But ‘If this be madness, there is method in’t’: even if Hélène was, as Charas puts it, ‘quite insane’ (and if this particular teleportation was only imaginary, therefore), her confession yields a potent allegory of the problem inherent in teleportation more generally – namely, that if a person is ‘disintegrated’ in one place, then ‘reintegrated’ in another, then their essential ‘integrity’, their continuity as an organism, has been destroyed. Such a person hasn’t simply ‘travelled’, they’ve ceased to exist and a duplicate – indistinguishable but ontologically distinct from the original – has been brought into being elsewhere; they’ve died, in other words, and new life has been wrought. Whatever emerges from a teleportation device, then, is always a compromised version of whatever went in – a monster, so to speak, something undead, a human-fly.
And yet, we are always undergoing a version of this process. Within seven years, every cell in my body will have died and been replaced by another. I am constantly being ‘disintegrated’ and ‘reintegrated’, killed and revived – only, slowly. The very notion of some essential ‘integrity’ was an illusion from the outset: I have always been a monster, a compromised version of myself, something undead, a Mardellfly. What Hélène’s confession allegorises is the nature of life – biological life – itself.
That, and the inherent strangeness of what by 1957 was already a banal device – the telephone. The opening words of François’ narration are these:
TELEPHONES AND telephone bells have always made me uneasy. Years ago, when they were mostly wall fixtures, I disliked them, but nowadays, when they are planted in every nook and corner, they are a downright intrusion. We have a saying in France that a coalman is master in his own house; with the telephone that is no longer true, and I suspect that even the Englishman is no longer king in his own castle.
Why does this ‘intrusion’ make the narrator so ‘uneasy’? How can an innocuous phone-call rob him of his autonomy? Here we might do to remember Proust’s description of his first experiences with the telephone:
… the admirable sorcery for which a few moments are enough to bring before us, invisible but present, the person to whom we have been wishing to speak, and who, while still sitting at his table, in the town in which he lives (in my grandmother’s case, Paris), under another sky than ours, in weather that is not necessarily the same, in the midst of circumstances and worries of which we know nothing, but of which he is going to inform us, finds himself suddenly transported hundreds of miles (he and all the surroundings in which he remains immured) within reach of our ear, at the precise moment which our fancy has ordained.
Which might, in turn, remind us of William Gibson’s account of the advent of voice-recording technology:
An English clergyman had gone to a garden party, and he’d heard an Edison wax-cylinder Victrola. And he’d come home and was just completely traumatized by it…He said that he had heard “A voice from Hell”: this “undead, hideous parody of the human voice”, and that mankind was “doomed”, and, “how could God let such things be?”
For François, perhaps, to receive a telephone call is already to be brought through a sort of teleportation device. To have the sound of his voice ‘disintegrated’ and ‘reintegrated’ is to have it turned into a ‘hideous parody’, the voice of the ‘undead’. For as long as he keeps a landline, it seems, François’ will never be King in his Castle, only the ghost in its corridors; he might remain biologically alive, but he’ll never again be able to boast that he possesses much of a ‘life’.
EMERAC – the early generation computer which threatened to replace the library staff in Walter Lang’s 1957 film Desk Set – has some notable afterlives. It goes on to automate the nuclear-powered submarine in Irwin Allen’s 1961 film Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, as well as that in the 1964–1968 television series of the same name. But it’s in Kurt Neumann’s 1958 film adaptation of ‘The Fly’ that EMERAC really shines, forming the centrepiece of the laboratory of Dr André Delambre (David Hedison), the processing power behind his teleportation machine.
EMERAC’s presence, however, comes at a price: in Neumann’s film, the ambiguity of Langelan’s story is done away with altogether. Hélène (Patricia Owens) doesn’t commit suicide, and doesn’t have to leave a note, therefore; her confession is delivered in the form of a flashback in which we are shown, explicitly, the monstrosity that became of André. Not only that, we learn what became of the fly as well: as the film is drawing to a close, we see it caught in spider’s web; it has André’s face, and is screaming desperately, ‘Help Me! Help Me!’ Though Hélène will be diagnosed mad, we know full well that she is perfectly sane here.
Lost as well is François’ tirade against telephones. The film does, however, provide an equivalent. Explaining his teleportation device, André tells Hélène, ‘Fifty years ago, if my father were told he could sit in Montreal and watch a World Series in New York as it happened, he’d say it was impossible…This is the same principle exactly’. Far from calming us, however – far from making the new machine feel innocuous – André’s explanation only illustrates the inherent strangeness of television itself: when Delambe Senior, sitting in Montreal, finds himself ‘[brought] before’ a World Series in New York, ‘invisible but present’, he loses something of his essential integrity – only, without having his atoms ‘disintegrated’ and ‘reintegrated’. He too, remains biologically alive, but he isn’t really ‘living’ – just staring blankly at a screen.
Of course, to watch The Fly in the internet-era is to know full well that EMERAC’s descendants will exceed this strangeness a thousandfold.
‘Computers are dumb’, declares Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) in David Cronenberg’s 1986 remake of The Fly. ‘They only know what you tell them.’ Hence, his own teleportation device (powered, not by EMERAC, but by what the script describes as ‘an extremely serious-looking control module complete with computer console and monitor’) has only succeeded thus far in turning a ‘monkey’ (actually a baboon) ‘inside out’:
It can’t deal with flesh, with living things. It only seems to work with inanimate objects. Nothing that’s alive…It must be my fault…
I must not know enough about the flesh myself. Gonna have to learn.
And learn Seth does. The next shot shows him waking in bed with journalist Veronica Quaife (Geena Davis) after what one presumes to be a thorough instruction in voluptate carnis. After some standard pillow talk (interrupted, mind, by the discovery of a computer chip cutting into Seth’s back), Veronica announces: ‘I just suddenly wanted to eat you up. You know – that’s why old ladies pinch baby cheeks. It’s the flesh, it makes them crazy.’ Inspired by her remark, Seth cooks up two steaks. He sends one through the teleportation device, then asks Veronica to try them both. Of the first, she declares, ‘It tastes – synthetic’; of the second, ‘It could use some finesse, but it tastes like a steak’. Accordingly, Seth expands on his original hypothesis:
Computers are dumb. They have no poetry. They do exactly what you tell them to do. Life is poetry. Even a good steak is poetry. The computer is giving us its interpretation of a steak. It’s rethinking it for us, translating it rather than reproducing it. And something is getting lost in the translation…
The ghost in the machine. The life essence. Soul. Yeah. So. I know what you’re gonna say. You’re gonna say, ‘But a steak is dead.’ Sure, a steak is dead – but it’s dead life!
… It’s the flesh. It should make the machine crazy, just like those old ladies pinching babies. But it doesn’t, not yet. I haven’t taught the machine how to be made crazy by the flesh, the poetry, the steak.
Here, Seth proffers what I think remains a useful definition of ‘poetry’ – that which resists translation. When you ‘disintegrate’ the literal meaning of a line (say, ‘I heard a Fly buzz – when I died –’) then ‘reintegrate’ it within another language (say, ‘J’ai entendu un bourdonnement de mouche – quand je suis mort –‘), the ‘poetry’ of that line can be found in the additional sources of meaning that are ‘lost’ along the way (its stark brevity, its staccato monosyllables, its regular iambs, its droning onomatopoeia, its sudden conclusion on a voiced alveolar stop, etc.). But what is lost when ‘flesh’ is ‘translated’? Where, in other words, lies the ‘poetry’ of a ‘good steak’? What kind of ‘life’ can occur in something that isn’t alive? And how, moreover, might we ‘reproduce’ it? These questions aren’t simply academic; they’re of central importance in the effort to produce convincing meat alternatives.
Seth’s hypothesis, however, is complicated by a mistake on his part: namely, he seems to have confused the two steaks. The smaller steak is the one which doesn’t pass through the machine, but it is this one which, in Veronica’s blind test, tastes ‘synthetic’. In a sense, Veronica is right: there’s nothing ‘natural’ about any steak (even one that hasn’t been teleported); the domestic cow from which it is cut is the product of intensive breeding programmes determined not by ‘natural selection’ but by human desire. But it is the explicitly artificial steak – the one that has been ‘disintegrated’ and ‘reintegrated’ by the machine – of which Veronica remarks, ‘it could use some finesse, but it tastes like a steak’. Hence, what the computer has failed to produce is not the ‘Soul’ of the steak (it never had any to begin with), but the additional ‘finesse’ supplied by the cook – which seems, therefore, to be one and the same as that which Seth calls ‘poetry’.
As it happens, Jack Bellicec – whom Goldblum plays in Philip Kaufmann’s 1978 film Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) – is also a struggling poet (so for that matter is Dusty in The Kirlian Witness). Early in the film, Jack attends a literary salon, hopeful to read some of his work, but the night is dominated by the psychologist-cum-self-help-guru, Dr. David Kibner (Leonard Nimoy). Jack doesn’t bother to hide his feelings:
Jack: The book is awful. Kibner’s book is awful. His ideas are garbage. Pure garbage.
Kibner fan (actually played by Rose Kaufmann, wife of the director): How can you say that about a man like Kibner?
Jack: Not a man like Kibner. I’m saying it about Kibner. He dashes a book off every six months. Takes me six months to write one line.
Kibner fan: Why?
Jack: Cos I pick each word individually.
Woman: What’s so hot about that?
Jack’s phrasing here – like that of any poet – is crucial: ‘individually’ indicates, foremost, that he selects his words one by one – that he doesn’t repeat stock expressions, and that he’s not just attentive to the literal meaning of his lines but also to their additional sources of meaning (brevity, monosyllables, iambs, onomatopoeia, alveolar stops, etc.); but ‘individually’ also suggests that Jack operates ‘as an individual’ whilst making his selections – that his diction stands in opposition to the collective discourse, and that it functions as an expression, therefore, of his own unique character. ‘What’s so hot about that?’ The obvious answer, I think, is that this particular character is played by Jeff Goldblum who – let’s not be coy here – is unsurpassably ‘hot’. If Jack’s ‘poetry’ is any good, Invasion seems to be saying, it is only because it succeeds in ‘translating’ Goldblum’s physical ‘finesse’ – his radiant skin, his fantastically broad shoulders, his towering height – into verse. It isn’t that Goldblum is ‘the word made flesh’ (though this might well be the case); rather, that poetry is Goldblum’s ‘flesh made word’.
What’s truly ‘awful’ about Kibner is that he doesn’t seem to change. Even after he’s been taken over by a pod-person – even after his body has been replaced by an alien duplicate, void of human emotion – he’s just like he was at the start of the film. The consistency is what makes his final speech – or, strictly, pod-Kibner’s final speech – so unnerving:
There’s no need for hate now. Or love… Don’t be trapped by old concepts. You’re evolving into a new life form. Come and watch. We came here from a dying world. We drift through the universe from planet to planet, pushed on by the solar winds. We adapt and we survive. The function of life is survival.
It isn’t that these words are wrong as such; it’s that phrases such as ‘Don’t be trapped by old concepts’ fit so comfortably within the mouth of the new-age shrink. The implication is clear: well before any actual ‘invasion’, that shrink’s ideas were those of a passionless, alien, vegetable – alive, but desperately needing ‘to get a life’. Jack is right to dismiss these ideas as ‘garbage’ – knowing full well that, whatever the ‘function’ of life, its ‘poetry’ lies far beyond mere ‘survival’ – so far, in fact, that it might flourish in things that have actually died, things like ‘a good steak’.
Why, then, is this ‘poetry’ absent from the steak that Seth Brundel doesn’t pass through the teleporter? It can’t just be that Seth is bad at cooking. The more obvious reason, I think, is that this steak is made of cow’s flesh and not Jeff Goldblum’s – a deficiency which is immediately remedied when Seth passes himself through the teleporter. What emerges, in that instance, is no ‘translation’ of Jeff Goldblum’s body, for that body – its bulging biceps, rippling abs, its taught buttocks – is pure poetry, the Ur-poetry – of which Jack Bellicec’s actual, verbal poetry is itself a mere translation. What emerges is Jeff Goldblum’s actual body: a body comprised entirely of ‘life’ – the ‘life’ we seem to lack when we’re told to ‘get a life’; a body whose ‘finesse’ so vastly exceeds the requirements of mere ‘survival’ that it can be killed off, and replaced with a duplicate, without losing its essential integrity; a body besides which any that’s appeared in Playboy looks positively dead (excepting, of course, Goldblum’s own appearance in 1993). Goldblum’s beauty allows his Brundel to succeed where Hedison’s André (handsome though he is) simply couldn’t; it’s just a nuisance that a fly manages to get in this time as well.
‘I hate computers’ announces Dr Grant (Sam Neill) at the outset of Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (1993). And who, perhaps, can blame him? Until about three-quarters of the way through the film, the park’s dependence on computers appears to be the principal source of its trouble: everything might have worked out, it seems, if only the security system hadn’t gone digital, and if programmers like Dennis Nedry (Wayne Knight) hadn’t been granted so much power. But this position transitions to a subtler one when Lex (Ariana Richards) saves everyone’s lives with her hacking skills. It’s not the computers, it turns out, it’s what you do with them.
The other hatred that Dr Grant reserves at the outset of the film is for children. His partner, Dr Sattler (Laura Dern), indicates that she’d like them to have some of their own, but Grant refuses, insisting, ‘They’re noisy, they’re messy, they’re sticky, they’re expensive.’ But this position also transitions to a subtler one, as Dr Grant discovers much to like in Lex, and even in her brother, Tim (Joseph Mazello). By the end of the film, he’s nothing short of a father-figure to them, usurping the role of their actual guardian, Dr Hammond (Richard Attenborough) – who was always too keen on parenting dinosaurs to care for his actual wards. That Hammond, indeed, thinks of himself as a parent to those creatures is made explicit when he announces, at the hatching of a velociraptor chick:
They imprint on the first living creature they come in contact with. That helps them to trust me. I’ve been present for the birth of every animal on this Island.
In Jurassic Park – where there is, explains Dr Wu (Bradley Wong), ‘no unauthorised breeding’ – the principal conflict, fought between Drs Grant and Hammond, is to be the better daddy.
Could either man have foreseen the prominence which computers would assume in our lives? The infinite teleportations, the network of ‘disintegrations’ and reintegrations’, the legions of undead, made possible by the internet? Presumably not – for if he had, then he would have known – as every Twitter user knows full well – that there was never any competition in the first place: that Dr Ian Malcolm – the very man who gave the film it’s catchphrase ‘life…finds a way’ – is the supreme daddy, the Heavenly Father, whose infinitely potent loins (always faintly visible in Malcolm’s skin-tight pants) bestow this very ‘life’ on all of us.
What, then, is the meaning of that ‘life’? It’s hard to translate into words exactly, but to ‘get a life’ is simple: be like Ian Malcolm. How do we find ‘poetry’ in tempeh? ‘Finesse’ in pea-protein? It’s been much easier since Goldblum went vegan.
About the Author
Oscar Mardell lives in Auckland, New Zealand, where he teaches English, French and Classical Studies. His poetry and essays have appeared in a variety of publications, including War, Literature & the Arts, The Literary London Journal, 3:AM Magazine, PopMatters, DIAGRAM and Terse. He is the author of Rex Tremendae from Greying Ghost and Housing Haunted Housing from Death of Workers Whilst Building Skyscrapers.
The frontpage image is from Jurassic Park (1993).