The first time we watched the Ship of Theseus, we spent the evening thinking up all the different human organs that can be replaced, and came up with stories for each of them. As the night had us in a stupor, what began with heart and lung transplants, ended with cosmetic dentistry, sex reassignments, nose jobs and hair extensions!
I like this type of storytelling. I call it The Shell approach. It is when you take a philosophical question, thought experiment or a moral lesson, a.k.a. “the shell”, and create stories that best explore them. In The Ship of Theseus, the filmmaker likens the human body to the ship, and whips out three Hip of Theseuses! And because there are as many human body parts as there are ship parts that can be replaced, the creative possibilities of churning out such stories is as limitless as creating new songs from the same melodic modes. Moreover, the filmmaker is careful to keep the allusions partial, so we can explore each story in our own way within the confines of the overarching philosophy.
In the “shell” movies, you spend your time judging the quality or anatomy of the stories, how they are treated artistically, how true they are to “the shell”, and how deeply they explore it. If you were previously familiar with “the shell”, you also have the privilege of comparing how you perceived the same philosophy to that of the filmmaker, and how you may have explored his stories differently.
I think the beginning of a human personhood happens when the gametes fuse to form the zygote. From then on, every biomarker indicates how one has grown as a person, until the time of their death. To some others, the beginning of a human personhood is when one comes out into the physical world and takes in their first breath of air and interacts with the environment.
Regardless of where you mark the beginning of your personhood, you will agree that every moment from that beginning is only about change. There is nothing about us that is constant. We are not the same people we were a second ago. There is always a cell renewing, so much that, in seven years, every cell in our body will have been replaced by new cells, and none of the old remain. We are physically not the same person. And most of this happens in the absence of free-will.
This is the case even with our beliefs. I like to think that our beliefs change entirely in seven (or some other number) year cycles so that everything that was true then is false now, and everything that is true now is false later. And most of what we are is a result of our evolutionary history, our genetic makeup, our innate qualities, our personal experiences that are shaped by our environments, our physical and mental health (especially the interaction between our conscious and unconscious brain), and other deterministic or stochastic factors! But, in spite of the lack of real free-will, the idea of free-will is the prerequisite to living, if not life itself; because living is all about embracing change, and we do so by making choices under the sham of free-will.
I just finished reading Brecht’s essays on theatre and philosophy. The essays in the book are arranged in chronological order of when they were written by him, and span 38 years, starting in 1918 when he was 20 years old. What I love most about this chronological ordering is that I am able to take in how his ideas evolved over time, either to the contrary, or by becoming more developed, but always being consistently thought-provoking. He often ridiculed his own work.
Yesterday, I watched the Ship of Theseus for the second time after reading Anand Gandhi’s interview on Kindle. Coincidentally, it was only a few weeks ago that I watched The Turin Horse, which Gandhi talks about in his interview.
So during this viewing of the Ship of Theseus, where I came fresh off the Brecht fryer and loaded with Gandhi’s interview, everything was refracted through their ideologies. I was under their sway. And any cracks and fault-lines I saw in the film, were a result of the overlap between my way of seeing and their way of showing, and my ability to reflect their stories in my mind’s mirror without distortion; and that is not entirely up to any of us. What Brecht and Gandhi have in common is the ability to present social and character contradictions, and how causation impacts one’s choices and beliefs. They also make everything seem strangely familiar (read: verfremdungseffekt), as if you are looking at the familiar lines on your hands with a magnifying lens, and learning to read them. They both deal with the facticity of the world, and give a lot of weight to verisimilitude. But, they allow you to work out the immanent meanings behind the motives of the characters in their stories. But, the one important way in which Gandhi and Brecht differ (apart from their techniques to achieve their goals) is in how the former leads us to contemplate the world, but the latter leads us to change it.
I wonder which of the two approaches might inspire new philosophies? When is the last time you heard a new philosophical question that was posed only in the 21st century?
For every “shell” way of storytelling, there is a “non-shell” way, where the readers are allowed to engage with the stories without being limited to the confines of any one philosophy. Nothing is ever unformulated in storytelling, but the stories that intend to reflect reality and not change it are conceptually limited to what is, as opposed to what can be. It is when the story’s elements can take any shape or form of the audience’s choosing, that they become more socially active and create many stories and many different ideas out of the original. It is when actors become real people, and audiences become the characters, and the story mimics reality, where reality is mimesis, that some new philosophy may originate.
Sometimes, you may also create a story with a certain idea in mind, but that may not be what the audience takes from it. For instance, Brecht was unhappy that the critics of Mother Courage and Her Children sympathized with Mother Courage. He even made the necessary changes to the play to get his point across, to no avail. More on the Brecht book after I watch the play next week. I plan to be very unsympathetic.
Ship of Theseus is available online for free.