October 05, 2004

Who Dreamed It?

Brian blogs (TAR, CT) on the "Westphall hypothesis":

The reasoning is as follows. The last episode of St. Elsewhere revealed that the entire storyline of that show hadn’t really (i.e. really in the fiction) happened but had all been a dream of Tommy Westphall. So by extension any story involving a character from St. Elsewhere is really (in the fiction) part of Tommy’s dream. And any story involving a character from one of those shows is also part of Tommy’s dream, etc. So all 164 shows that are connected to St. Elsewhere in virtue of character sharing are part of Tommy’s dream.

Brian objects to this six different ways. Five and six, he claims, are the really decisive ones. And while I think five and six establish that it is possible to have the following be true:

The entire action of TV series X was a dream, but series Y and Z that share characters with X are not part of X's dream

I really doubt that they establish that this is possible in Tommy Westphall's case. (Though since I've never seen St. Elsewhere, I haven't read the CT comments, I haven't clicked the link to check out the character-sharing network, and I probably haven't seen most of the shows involved in that network, I'm probably not the best person to judge.)

Here's Brian's objection six:

This is related to the previous objection. From the fact that a character appears in two different TV shows, it doesn’t follow automatically that those shows take place in the same fictional world.
We can see the logical point here by simply noting that the fact that a city appears in two different fictions doesn’t mean those fictions take place in the same world. For instance, recently I saw two romantic comedies set in London, one with tennis (Wimbledon) and one with zombies (Shaun of the Dead). The presence of London in both movies doesn’t mean they take place in the same fictional world. And if cities can be cross-fictional so, logically, can people....

The point about London is taken. But the thing is that London is in the real world, and Wimbledon and Shaun are fictions that take off from that real world. Arguably, Shaun London inherits most of the properties of Real London as a sort of default--Shaun London is on the Thames in virtue of the fact that Real London is on the Thames even if this doesn't come up in the movie at all, unless there's something about the movie that makes it false. But Real London doesn't inherit any properties of Shaun London--the fact that Shaun London contains an apartment with such-and-such mess doesn't make it true that real London does.

(This is put hypothetically because I haven't seen SotD. Nor, for those counting implicatures, have I seen Wimbledon, so stop saying that! You know who you are.)

The same relation can hold true between fictions. Kenneth Koch's The Duplications contains a lot of quite surprising stuff about Mickey and Minnie Mouse and Donald Duck. Duplication Donald inherits many characteristics from Disney Donald, although the defaults are probably overridden quite a lot here--still, I'd say that Duplication Donald is white with a yellow beak, even if it doesn't come up explicitly in the poem. But Disney Donald doesn't inherit anything from Duplication Donald. It is not even default true in the world of Disney that Donald is eventually beaten to death by Mickey in a jealous rage and then resurrected by Mickey, using his newly acquired Olympian powers, only to be turned into a piece of text art shortly thereafter. I mean, that wouldn't even be true as a default, even if it weren't overridden by other things in the Disney world.

What Brian needs is that the St. Elsewhere characters that are shared with other series don't inherit their properties from St. E. But I doubt he can have that, at least not for many of the characters. The asymmetry here is between works that are somehow derivative of others; that play off their popular perceptions, that exist within the worlds of the other series, that for sure come later. That won't be true of any St. E spinoffs--though if St. E is in fact spun off from other series, those may be off the hook.

(There's an interesting question lurking in the area about the status of multi-authored sprawling works like the land of TV. I'd say, for instance, that it is not true in Love American Style that there is humanoid life on other planets, even though Mork is a character in Happy Days which was a spinoff--I think I've got that right. And I don't think that's because Happy Days is asymmetric in the way SotD and Real London are. But that's for another time.)

(There's also another interesting question--what if two rival authors start incorporating the others' characters into their works, making them do things that obviously aren't meant to be true in the original work? Like, P.G. Wodehouse starts having Bertie make an ass of Sherlock Holmes, whereas Conan Doyle has Holmes send Bertie to prison several times--my chronology's off here, but I'm in a hurry. That would be a somewhat cool premise for a story kinda like Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, but it would be much, much cooler if it happened in real life. By my standards of cool.)

Well, I'm in a hurry, but Brian's objection 5 is basically that you can dream about real people. And that is true, but is that likely to be what Tommy's doing? It sounds as though, for this to be true, Tommy would have to be dreaming about the characters doing exactly the things they do in real life, and that's quite lacking in what PD Magnus (in Brian's TAR comments) calls "interpretive coolness."

Posted by Matt Weiner at October 5, 2004 03:28 PM

I think you're underestimating objection 6. Remember that it's part of the _Friends_ fiction that those six guys live in New York, some of them have jobs etc etc. That looks like it is overriding anything that is even possibly imported in by the long chain of connections. (As you said, we're allowed to override what is imported.)

Also it's worth noting that some of the connections to St Elsewhere go via older shows. That is, in some cases it is St Elsewhere that has done the importing. So if there's an asymmetry here (and I guess there is, but it's only a default) it tells against the St Elsewhere hypothesis.

Finally, the objection 5 doesn't require that much at all. All it requires is that the people Tommy dreams about do things close enough to what he dreams about that their interactions with characters in other shows, especially _Cheers_ and _Homicide_, is somewhat in character as they are in real life (i.e. the fiction outside Tommy's dream). And that seems very plausible. Remember, when we have de re dreams we do normally dream about people doing things similar to what they actually do.

Posted by: Brian Weatherson at October 5, 2004 03:41 PM

Paragraph one: Either this is drawing support from argument 4, the Moorean argument, or it's getting at the reason I actually think the Westphal hypothesis is entirely false. That is--Is it true that all those guys* and gals really live in New York, have jobs, etc. (by which I take it you mean true-in-first-level-fiction, not true-in-a-dream)? Well, it is, if they're not characters in a dream, and looking at Friends alone there's no reason to think they're characters in a dream. But if the world of Friends is the same as the world of the St. E frame, or derives from the world of the St. E frame in the way fanfic derives from the original fictional world, then they are characters in a dream, whose events of the dream are as described in Friends. Unless we assume from the beginning that Friends isn't a dream, nothing that takes place within Friends contradicts the inherited fact that Friends is a dream, and so the dream-hypothesis isn't overridden. (This is supposed to echo a standard objection to Mooreanism).

Analogy: Michael Chabon's "The God of Dark and Mocking Laughter" is written by a character in Wonder Boys. In TGODAML taken by itself, it seems to be true that there are a couple of weird cults running around Pennsylvania. But if you take WB+TGODAML as a world, it's just not true in that world that those weird cults are running around PA**, because TGODAML inherits from WB the fact that the author is a writer of weird horror tales. So you can't argue that TGODAML isn't doubly fictional by citing all the things that happen in it; its doubly fictional status is inherited, and the happenings in the story don't contradict it but must be read as doubly rather than singly fictional. [Er, this isn't very clear.]

OTOH, my actual take is that many fictions--especially multi-authored, multi-episoded, sprawling fictions like the TV-verse--have overlapping locally consistent worlds that can't or shouldn't be consistently combined. I think that's what's going on here--when you're interpreting what's going on in the other stories you just have to ignore the last episode of St. E. (I also expect that you should do that when figuring out what went on in St. E, by the Law of Crappy Sequels which I have had occasion to mention.)

I might try to elaborate more on this overlapping consistency idea, though on my To-Do list that is somewhere several items below "Get a Job."

Second paragraph: Agreed; but there may not be an asymmetry (in normal sequels there isn't), and we probably don't want the Westphal hypothesis to be true even of strict descendants of St. E..

Third paragraph: That seems as though it could work--it might depend on how much of the specific action that took place in St. E. was imported into the next show (and how much of the specific action of that show was imported into the next, etc.). If the characters in one show cite something that took place exactly like that in Tommy's dream, we have a problem, I think.

One of the issues I had is that it seemed unlikely that Tommy would have met enough real people to incorporate the way they act into his dream--but then it's even less likely that he's dreaming a dream that's that elaborate, isn't it? So I like objection 5 better than objection 6.

And speaking of being in a hurry, I should go close some tags in the main post.

*I don't think "guys" is gender-neutral; I think Douglas Hofstadter cited the sentence "I've even heard guys refer to girls as 'you guys'!" Perhaps this means there's a gender-neutral sense and a gender-specific sense. This seems like the sort of thing I should try to get you to figure out rather than working any more on it.

**I originally wrote "That there are weird cults running around PA," but I would hate to claim that that is a property inherited from the real world!

Posted by: Matt Weiner at October 6, 2004 02:34 PM