Tuesday, January 17, 2006

The metaphysics of the elevator

Partly for fun, partly for my book project, I've just finished reading Colson Whitehead's debut novel, The Intuitionist (1999). Its style reminds me of DeLillo, with a dash of Ben Marcus's Notable American Women thrown in. In terms of what it's up to, though, it is similar to, though smaller (in scale) compared to, Ralph Ellison's examination of inter- and intra-racial politics in his magnificent novel, Invisible Man. All of which is to say, The Intuitionist is worth your time.

The novel's world is that of elevator inspectors who work in a never-identified city that is, nevertheless, New York City all over. Below the fold, I've included a longish passage from the novel in which the subject is something like, "If an elevator opens on a floor and no one is there to meet it, does it really arrive there?"


The scene, you should know, takes place in an class for elevator inspectors during a discussion of a book by James Fulton called Theoretical Elevators that the novel's heroine, Lila Mae Watson, is attending. You didn't know this--and neither did I before I read this novel--but once upon a time elevator inspectors divided themselves into two camps with regard to their methods: Empiricists, who closely examined gears, pulleys, cables, motors, etc.; and Intuitionists, who simply rode in the cars and, by listening and feeling, could determine its mechanical shortcomings.
The instructor has just asked, "What is the Dilemma of the Phantom Passenger?"
Morton [. . .] stated, "The Dilemma of the Phantom Passenger asks what happens when the passenger who has engaged the call button departs, whether he changed his mind and took the stairs or caught an up-tending car when he wanted to go down because he did not feel like waiting. It asks what happened to the elevator he summoned."

Professor McKean said, "That's right. Fulton asks this question and leaves it to the reader, abruptly proceeding to the psychology of the Door Close button. How do you think Fulton would answer his question?"

"Obviously," Gorse said, "the elevator arrives, the doors stand for the standard loading time, and then the doors close. That's it."

Johnson [. . .] ignored Gorse and offered in his stumbling voice, "I think that Fulton would say that the elevator arrives but the doors do not open. If there's no need for the doors to open, then the vertical imperative does not apply."

Professor McKean nodded. "Any other theories?"

Bernard [. . .] said, "for one thing, the vertical imperative applies to the elevator's will, and doesn't apply to passengers. I think what Fulton was referring to in this section was the 'index of being'--where the elevator is when it is not in service. If, as the index of being tells us, the elevator does not exist when there is no freight, human or otherwise, then I think in this case the doors open and the elevator exists, but only for the loading time. Once the doors close, the elevator returns to nonbeing--'the eternal quiescence'--until called into service again." Bernard sat back in his metal chair, satisfied.

Professor McKean said simply, "That's good. Anyone else?"

Lila Mae waited for someone to give her an answer. No one did. Lila Mae cleared her throat and said in a thin voice, "Fulton is trying to trick the reader. An elevator doesn't exist without its freight. If there's no one to get on, the elevator remains in quiescence. The elevator and the passenger need each other."

Professor McKean nodded quickly and then inquired of his pupil, "And what if we set up a film camera in the hallway to see what would happen, what would we see when we developed the film, Watson?"

Lila Mae met his eyes. "By leaving the camera there, you've created what Fulton calls 'the expectation of freight.' The camera is a passenger who declines to get on the elevator, not a phantom passenger. The film would record that the doors open, the elevator waits, and then the doors close."

"Very good," Professor McKean approved.

Gorse [. . .] was unable to contain his contempt. Spat, "Just because you can't see it doesn't mean it's not there!" and slammed a fat fist onto the table. The fundamental battle.

Professor McKean frowned. He pushed his chair from the conference table until it hit the wall with a dull bang. With his right hand, he unpinned his war medal from his sleeve. His jacket sleeve, unhinged, swayed back and forth pendulously. "Gorse," Professor McKean said, "Is my arm here or not here?"

"It's . . . not there," Gorse responded timidly.

"What's in this sleeve?"

"Nothing," Gorse answered.

"That's the funny thing," Professor McKean said, smiling now. "My arm is gone, but sometimes it's there." He looked down at his empty sleeve. He flicked at the sleeve with his remaining hand and they watched the fabric sway. (101-102)


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