This is the final post in a series that begins below with ‘Stage & Screen 1’
In ‘The Truman Show’ (1998) Truman Burbank is the unwitting star of a hugely successful documentary TV show based on his life. The show runs continuously, following Truman from the moment of his birth into adulthood. Truman is completely unaware of the fact that everyone in his life, ranging from his wife to passersby in the street, is an actor hired to make him think he is an average guy doing normal things. The show, watched by millions, takes place in a specially constructed dome with a fully controllable climate and 5,000 concealed cameras. The setting within the dome is a seaside town. As the film unfolds Truman gradually becomes aware that something odd is going on and, after severe disillusionment and much frustration, is able, at the age of thirty, to escape the dome into the real world beyond.
In ‘Synecdoche New York’ (2008) Caden Cotard, an unsuccessful theatre director, starts to show signs of breakdown when his wife leaves him. When he is unexpectedly awarded a large ‘genius grant’ he determines to spend it on creating a piece of theatre of surpassing realism that will be enacted by a cast of hundreds in a vast replica of the city, constructed in an enormous warehouse. Rehearsals take several years, in the course of which Caden even employs actors to play the parts of himself and his assistant. While life in the warehouse city becomes increasingly hard to distinguish from the real thing, Caden cannot bring himself to open the ‘show’ to the public and he and the cast grow increasingly isolated. Eventually he employs an actress to play himself while he takes her former role, that of cleaning lady. The new director guides him through his last days as the cast dwindles away and at the point of his finding a way to finish the play she gives him one last instruction: “Die.”
Truman Burbank is, at first glance, the dupe of a pervasive and overweening media whose productions synthesise classic Orwellian surveillance with a hyperextension of the logic of a game show. The film invites comparison with our own lives with its proposition that a comparable constraint is exerted upon us all. This is apparently the view of the film’s director, Peter Weir, who has said that essentially the film is about ‘Control. It’s a system of control that is larger than the one Truman lives in, at least.’ Weir also states that ‘…the primary influence – or call it control – in our lives is television, so the metaphor of the movie certainly applies to things we see all the time.’ Breakout is advocated. You must escape the compelling comforts of the false to find the real (see also ‘The Matrix’ (1999)). Such a critique and its suite of recommendations have force but they are a bit tired and familiar.
If, however, Truman’s plight is introverted so that it’s more about him and less about surveillant media-dominated consumer society blah blah then the film describes an individual’s psychological delusion. Plotwise, Truman is not suffering from delusion – a highly skilled team is maintaining him in a state in which he believes all is well. He is deluded in this belief but not because he is psychologically frail. The delusion that one is the subject of a continuous TV reality show is, however, apparently on the increase. This New York Times piece reports growing numbers of individuals presenting the ‘Truman Show Delusion’ at psychiatric clinics, some ten years after the movie opened. While it is quite possible that some of these patients saw the film and found in it a tipping point (the NYT piece confirms this), other patients suffer the delusion without having had the inflight entertainment.
The delusion is not a simple mimetic phenomenon as in ‘See the Movie, Get the Delusion!’ or a new psychiatric formation so much as the product of a hitherto contested mode of transmission, in which a condition has a broad source of generation rather than arising from distinct sets of unrelated circumstances. The transmission, in other words, is cultural. An example of a culture-specific condition would be genital retraction syndrome, wherein the subject experiences great anxiety due to his conviction that his penis is withdrawing into his body. The syndrome is largely restricted to societies within which witchcraft is prevalent.
There is controversy in psychiatric circles about the status of culture-specific conditions. I am not familiar with the specifics of the debate but suspect that it may reflect a territorial conflict regarding the mechanisms of the formation of neurosis. The history of psychoanalysis unfolds from seminal case studies of neurotic middle class individuals who were deemed to have been psychically damaged in some way by prior experience. This experience was restricted to the impact upon the patient of significant individuals, often family members. While the playing field has subsequently been considerably enlarged (including by Freud himself), it may still be the case that there is an influential body of opinion favouring the restriction of psychogenesis to small and accountable networks.
Once this limitation is relinquished we enter the territory of, to quote the Bill Murray character from ‘Ghostbusters’, ‘Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria!’ Once families are seen as filters for pervasive social malignancies which they pass on to their offspring then, at last, society is to blame! We are living in the Laingian schizogenic society (see ‘Stage & Screen 3’) and it is the Prime Minister, as well as my Mum and Dad, who has fucked me up. What a relief! Now I can focus my anger in a more socially constructive manner. Now we can listen to Patrick Schofield (see ‘Stage & Screen 4’) without secretly thinking ‘His Mummy didn’t love him, the loser.’
Patrick was ejected from his place of confinement, Truman had to fight his way out. I’m afraid the unwhimsical truth is that Patrick committed suicide three years later. I saw him quite a lot after the bin and before his death. It may be that he found life outside to be merely a more skilfully choreographed production of the same violent theatrics he had endured and analysed in the mental institution.
In ‘Synecdoche…’ Caden Cotard also dies but he has had the opportunity to make the world in his own image, thereby sealing it against the viruses that had unravelled his real life. The project is grandiose and it achieves a grand scale before the world maker is revealed as the bearer of the virus he wishes to extinguish.
Caden in 2008, unlike Truman Burbank in 1998, has acquired the power attributed to the secret police by the anonymous author of the American ‘surveillance theatre’ document (see ‘Stage & Screen 1’). The conceits of ‘The Truman Show’ would not now beguile us as they did when the movie came out. We have moved on. As we near the end of the first decade of the 21st Century the prospect of being duped by ‘the system’ is not so interesting. It’s obvious. It’s obvious in part because the dramatic collapses of crucial structural elements of the system have served to expose something of the mechanics – the manual has been leaked into the public domain.
The 80s in the UK taught us, confusingly, that we were emperors and that we were shit. Digital technology, in the 90s, offered new (virtual) places to go where shits could be emperors and nobody would know they were shits. A lot of men (rather fewer women) thought that it was only a matter of time before every shit would have his own hand-carved haven. This, despite its grandiosity, is not the Truman Delusion – Truman was a victim. This is a delusion of authorship in which the victim rewrites the dictionary so that there is no longer an entry for ‘victim’. In the world thus created there can be no pain, only scenarios depicting it. After all, we have seen the manual and it has shown us that much of the system is a charade so clearly the way forward lies in theatrics.