Blade Runner—further thoughts

2018.08.29 | By Gregory Nagy

§0. The anguish of a replicant named Roy in the story of Blade Runner is only one example of the unseasonality suffered by artificial humans. I explore another example here, where a replicant named Rachael experiences the shock of being told that she is not human. Unlike Roy, who knew all along that he was not human, Rachael never knew. Once she is told that she is not human, she weeps bitterly. But how can she be sad if she is not human? How can she have emotions, like sadness? How can she even feel human? And, if she feels emotions, are those emotions real? Or are such emotions hopelessly warped? Rachael’s anguish about such questions is comparable, I think, to the anguish felt by ancient Greek heroes who sense that their emotions are warped precisely because they are heroes.

Blade Runner_2_1280
After Blade Runner, directed by Ridley Scott (1982): Rachael.

“Clips Notes” Hour 2: comments on audio-video segments (“clips”) relevant to Hour 2 of The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours

§1. I begin by calling to mind the Greek word memnēmai in the sense of ‘I have total recall’, as introduced in H24H 2§1. In translating the word this way, I have in mind an interesting idea that I found in the storytelling of the science fiction author Philip K. Dick. I am thinking here of a short story he wrote, “We can remember it for you wholesale” (1966), which was later made into the film Total Recall, directed by Paul Verhoeven (1990; there was also a remake, in 2012, directed by Len Wiseman). The idea of “total recall” in this piece of science fiction is that you can have someone else’s memories of their experiences surgically implanted into your brain. And these memories can be filled with emotions that came with these experiences. For example, someone else’s memories of delight experienced in traveling to some exotic place can be implanted into your brain, and, this way, you can make those experiences the experiences of your own delight. Someone else’s delight now becomes your own delight.

§2. The same author Philip K. Dick is preoccupied with the same idea in his novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), which was later made into the film Blade Runner (1982). In this case, artificial humans or replicants are programmed by scientists to borrow the memories of real people, by way of having these memories implanted into their data-bases. The trouble is, if you are a replicant who has a real human’s memories of real experiences, interwoven with emotions, then how can you really tell whether or not these memories are really your memories? That is what happens to the character named Rachael in Blade Runner. She actually believes that her childhood memories are her own, and that the emotions shaped by these memories are her emotions—or so she has always thought, as long as she can remember.

§3. Clip 1: “Implants, that’s all, just implants.”

I show a clip of a moment when Rachael’s belief in her identity is shaken by the cynical “blade runner” named Deckard. Since Deckard secretly ran a test on Rachael earlier, he knows—or claims to know—where Rachael’s memories come from. As Deckard says to Rachael: “Implants, that’s all, just implants.” As Rachael hears this, she is starting to cry real tears. But how can an artificial human cry real tears? If Deckard is right, all of Rachael’s memories had been transplanted or implanted from someone else, from the niece of the scientist who created her. It was Tyrell’s niece, not Rachael, who really experienced all the things that she treasures in her memories.

§4. Clip 2: “You play beautifully.”

It was the scientist’s niece, not Rachael, who took piano lessons. The niece’s memories were simply implanted into Rachael. That makes Rachael unreal, does it not? Rachael sits down at the piano and starts playing music that she feels is part of her—music that interweaves with her emotions. She can read music, she can make music, but this music was implanted from Tyrell’s niece—or so Deckard had wanted her to believe. But the more Deckard tries to prove to Rachael that she is a replicant, the more “human” she feels. As she plays the piano, she experiences a variety of emotions: she is afraid, she cries, she is angry, she is falling in love, maybe—anyway, she is confused. All right, so the memories that she cherishes as her own are not her own: they belong to Tyrell’s niece. But now they are her memories as well, and she has emotions through these memories. She feels fear, grief, anger, love, in all sorts of combinations and permutations. I am fascinated with the way in which all these emotions are explored in the scene from Blade Runner showing Rachael at the piano. The thing is, music makes a difference here. In the case of music, why should Tyrell’s niece’s experience with music be worth any more than Rachael’s? Music is just as much an “implant” for the niece as it is supposedly for Rachael. Rachael is merely one step further removed from the music, but perhaps she can get nearer to the “original” music than even the niece ever could. How? By making music, by performing music, in the right context.

Albert Lord talking about heroic song

§5. The story told by Phoenix to Achilles in Book 9 of the Iliad is intended as a model for the story about Achilles, which is a story-in-progress. The kleos ‘glory of song’ that is inherited from predecessors is being set up as a model for the kleos that will belong tothe main hero of the Iliad. I translate literally the introductory words of Phoenix’s narrative in Iliad 9.524–525:

|524 This is how [houtōs] we [= I, Phoenix] learned it, the glories [klea] of men [andrōn] of an earlier time [prosthen], |525 who were heroes [hērōes], whenever one of them was overcome by tempestuous anger.

§6. Clip 3: from a video recording of a lecture by Albert Lord

We need to note in particular the expression klea andrōn, which I have translated as ‘glories [= klea = plural of kleos ‘glory’] of men’. This is how the heroic song of Homeric poetry refers to itself. In the video that I show here, we see a clip from a lecture delivered by the late Albert B. Lord about this medium of heroic song. Look for the way Professor Lord discusses the Homeric expression klea andrōn. He is comparing the ancient Homeric medium of heroic song with media of heroic song that survived into the present or at least near-present. Among these survivals is the tradition of heroic song in the South Slavic areas of the Balkans, specifically in the former Yugoslavia. Two Harvard professors, Milman Parry (died 1935) and Albert Lord (died 1991), pioneered the systematic study of oral traditions of heroic song in the former Yugoslavia, especially in Bosnia and in parts of Serbia. Both of these scholars were Classicists as well as ethnographers, and their knowledge of Homeric poetry turned out to be a valuable source of comparative insights in their study of the living oral traditions of the South Slavic peoples. For an engaging introduction to the pathfinding research of Parry and Lord, I recommend the well-known book of Albert Lord, The Singer of Tales (Harvard University Press 1960; 2nd edition 2000):