Academic journal article Nebula

Angels with Nanotech Wings: Magic, Medicine and Technology in Aronofsky's the Fountain, Gibson's the Neuromancer and Slonczewski's Brain Plague

Academic journal article Nebula

Angels with Nanotech Wings: Magic, Medicine and Technology in Aronofsky's the Fountain, Gibson's the Neuromancer and Slonczewski's Brain Plague

Article excerpt

Entry: Angels with Synapses

How many angels can dance at the head of a pin? This question perplexed Medieval and Renaissance scholars. For them, the fantastic was not a matter of science fiction, but science fact. There was much debate as to whether angels were material entities or forms of energy. Curiously, angels and spiritual accomplices are re-appearing in the current zeitgeist. On the lecture site "Ted.Com," the author of Eat, Pray, Love (2006), Elizabeth Gilbert makes a powerful plea for protecting our metaphors of creativity by re-adopting the Platonic models of the 'diamonic.' Cited in "The Myth of Er" (Book X of Plato's Republic), this spiritual entity is acquired by human souls in their pre-lives before they arrive on the planet. The diamon then accompanies us on our human journey, helping us to deliver on our pre-ordained purpose. If we avoid our destiny, it can quite literally raise hell. The diamon is also the accompanying 'genius,' or 'spirit.' Gilbert takes on this concept to suggest that we will be saner as artists if we drop the idea that it is humans themselves who are the geniuses, considering instead that we are aided in our creativity by forces beyond us. As literary scholar and ecologist Harold Fromm reminds us, from the ancients referring to their Muses, Milton speaking of his "Creator Spiritus" and W.B. Yeats surrounded by his writerly spooks, traditionally, many literary practitioners have been open minded towards spiritual discourses (2005). Gilbert's lecture might signify a revitalizing of the idea that artists need their mystical accomplices.

Yet there is a further twist. In the opening section to his article, Fromm suggests in his title "Muses, Spooks and Neurons" (2005) that there is a connection between the phenomenon of capricious spirits and neuroscience. Both spirits and neurons, argues Fromm, destabilize our sense that the mind is run by a brain with a "central meaner" to use Daniel Dennett's term (quoted in Froom, 2005: 147-148). The "Cartesian Theatre" is undermined (148) by spirits which come when least expected and rarely perform to order. Indirectly, Fromm compares this lack of central planning with the brain's electrical activity across the synapses. As neuroscientists have pointed out, neural feedback loops can operate irrespective of human will. (1) The same thoughts and obsessions return, as the brain receptors connect along the same grooves, the repetition process constituting a hard-drive that can function as an 'unconscious.' Artists rely on the unconscious but never know when the angel or demon of inspiration will spirit out.

Following Fromm's insight, I will be examining how some selected examples of cinematic and literary aspects of the 'neuroscientific' turn can find a strange bedfellow in what might be called, in the wake of Gilbert's lecture, the 'magical' turn. Discourses of religious myth and the occult can collapse the boundaries between external worlds and internal minds. In Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain (2006), Tom (played by Hugh Jackman), a neuroscientist, attempts to save his lover Izzy (Rachel Weisz). This is one of three thread stories, Hugh Jackman playing Thomas, Tom and the Space Traveller, all in three different historical and time-space setting: Renaissace Spain, North America in the present day, and somewhere in a space ship that is floating towards a dying star. Thomas wants to find the Tree of Life under a Mayan Pyramid for the sake of Spain's survival in the face of the Inquisition. Tom wants to cure Izzy using a tree herb from a South American Country, and the Space Traveller wants to save the Tree of Life in his space bubble; he can only do this by himself and his Tree passing through the quantum field or event horizon (the spectator is invited to imagine many possibilities) of the dying star. This is the only strategy with which to rejuvenate the tree. Tom's internal struggle is mapped out in the two parallel thread stories. …

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