The Malkovich Transformations

Page one, chapter one, Mirrors of the Mind:

The protagonist in the 1999 fantasy film Being John Malkovich is Craig Schwartz, an out-of-work puppeteer. One day Craig discovers a hidden doorway behind some cabinets in an office building where he has landed a temporary job as a filing clerk. Intrigued, he crawls into what seems to be a damp tunnel. Suddenly the entry door slams shut behind him and Craig is hurtled through a space-time vortex that thrusts him into the mind of the film’s namesake, actor John Malkovich.

Later, back in the office, Craig tells the story of his amazing experience to his coworker, the opportunistic Maxine. She speculates that other people might be willing to pony up for a brief sojourn in a famous person’s head. They place a newspaper ad and soon people are lining up at the portal after work hours with cash in hand. Delivered through the tunnel, the mind travelers delight in experiencing the world through the eyes of a celebrity, even if he is engaged in such mundane activities as ordering towels over the phone, rehearsing lines for a play or flagging down a taxi.

These mind trips are short-lived. The eavesdroppers are again sent flying through the vortex only to come tumbling down into a ditch beside the New Jersey turnpike just outside the Holland Tunnel. Craig retrieves the dazed travelers and guides them back home. These mind ventures seem to have an effect like travel to a foreign country. The sojourners not only have a vicarious experience of another person’s life, they also gain new insights into the existence from which they were temporarily extracted.

Summing up the experience, Craig exclaims to Maxine: “I don’t think I can go on living my life as I have lived it.” For him, the journey “raises all sorts of philosophical questions about the nature of self, about the existence of the soul.”

What we might call the Malkovichian transformation is an exaggeration, or perhaps even a parody, of what can occur when we read a work of fiction, watch a play, study a painted or photographed portrait, or participate in other acts of the imagination. We are released from our current preoccupations and drawn into the life and times of other human beings. We may feel the guilt of Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov, the sorrow of Shakespeare’s Ophelia, the joy of the figures in Matisse’s painting, The Dance. Characters and scenes stay with us as if etched in memory and come back to us, unexpectedly, in times of struggle or triumph or boredom.

Though it is not quite like reading a novel or looking at a painting, delving into the autobiographical works of individuals who have made the life of the mind their central preoccupation – certain highly influential philosophers – can produce something along the lines of the Malkovichian transformation, triggering for us, as it did for Craig Schwartz, important questions about “the nature of the self, existence of the soul.”

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