When I first discovered the structure of “Kubla Khan” I immediately began thinking in computational terms. Here’s the grouping structure for the first 36 lines of the poem:
Those triple branchings looked like some kind of nested loop control structure was a work. THAT is sort of thing, of course, that you find in computer programs.
And so I have, at various times, played around with writing pseudo-computational procedures – they’re not even pseudo code – that would produce that result. But I’ve never been able to come up with anything that was even halfway plausible. It always seemed like an empty pro forma exercise.
I’m ready to try again. But not with “Kubla Khan.” First I give a completely made-up nonsense example. Then I look at The Sorcerer’s Apprentice segment from Disney’s Fantasia. I conclude with some discussion of Apocalypse Now.
FindW, Something Very Important
Let us imagine someone, call him Wally, who is trying to accomplish some task. At some point Wally needs to know the value of W. We need not worry about just what W is or why Wally’s interested in it. Just assume that he needs to know.
So, Wally calls a program, FindW, that’s designed to find the value of W:
FindW: Wally’s mind starts working and at some point it needs the value of X, which isn’t immediately available. So it calls FindX.FindX: Wally’s mind starts working and at some point it needs the value of Y, which isn’t immediately available. So it calls FindY.FindY: The machine – for that’s what Wally’s mind is, a machine of some kind – starts working and at some point it needs the value of Z, which isn’t immediately available. So it calls FindFindZ: The machine calculates the value of Z. Z is an apple. It passes that back to FindY.FindY: The machine can now calculate the value of Y. Y is the state of Maryland. It passes that back to FindX.FindX: The machine can now calculate the value of X. X is a thunderstorm. It passes that back to FindW.FindW: The machine can now calculate the value W. W is 42.
Wally is satisfied, W = 42. Now he can go on about his day, fixing breakfast, walking the dog, and so forth.
The process Wally enacted in finding the value of W describes a classical ring, but Wally wasn’t explicitly programmed to enact that particular sequence of events. Wally had various routines for calculating the values of certain functions. The process we traced out above simply happened at a certain time and a certain place as Wally went about the ordinary business of life.
I can think of at least one kind of story that enacts such a sequence in a fairly explicit way: the multi-party swap:
Fred has a refrigerator he doesn’t need, but is looking for a toaster.He knows Janice, who has a toaster she doesn’t need, but is looking for a ride to the state capital.Molly can give Janice a ride to the capital, and, you know what, she’s looking for a refrigerator. So, Fred gives Molly the refrigerator,Molly takes Janice to the capital,and Janice gives Fred the toaster.
The swap is generally more extended than that, but the result is always the same.
Someone we can call the Initiator starts things off. The Initiator makes a chain of provisional deals until he can finally close one. Once the Initiator has done that, the results of that swap can cascade through the entire chain of provisional deals until the Initiator finally gets what he was looking for in the first place.
Exchange, of course, is a fairly general kind of thing, and need not always involve explicit goods and services. And if I’m going to put on my evolutionary psychology thinking cap, albeit in the style of Mark Changizi, I’m going to be thinking about how our neural machinery for social interaction is being harnessed in the telling of stories, even aspects of stories that aren’t straightforwardly about social interaction among humans. I’m thinking, for example, about the exchanges between the human and the animal world that are so important in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. But that’s a distraction in this particular context.
Now let’s look at The Sorcerer’s Apprentice segment in Disney’s Fantasia. Let’s read it as an investigation into the mentality of the Sorcerer, where the Apprentice is also understood to be much like the Sorcerer was when he was young. This is not a necessary reading, but, given what we know about Disney and the making of the film, it’s not unreasonable either. Disney himself voiced Mickey Mouse, who plays the apprentice, until 1947. The Sorcerer was known as Yen Sid around the studio; that’s “Disney” spelled backwards. This background information really isn’t necessary to the reading, though. It could be justified in other terms if need be.
Our investigation might go something like this:
What’s the Sorcerer like? He’s skillful and he trusts his apprentice to keep things tidy around the workshop while he goes to bed. In fact, he was once much like the Apprentice himself. But right now he’s tired, so he gives his Apprentice a job to do and goes off to bed.What’s the Apprentice like? He’s a bit lazy and really doesn’t want to carry all that water from the well down into the workshop. At the same time he’s also ambitious and he has skills of which he is proud. So he decides to put his skills to the test. He dons the Sorcerer’s hat; animates a broom, and puts it to work. Now he too can rest, and in the Sorcerer’s own chair.While asleep the apprentice dreams of controlling the world with gestures of his hands, just like he used in animating the broom.But things have taken an unfortunate turn and the broom’s kept bringing water into the workshop long after the cistern has been filled. The workshop floods, the Apprentice awakens and tries frantically to stop broom. He’s so desperate that he even attempts to kill his creation, the animated broom. It doesn’t work. He desperately seeks help in the Sorcerer’s book, but to no avail…The Sorcerer senses that something’s amiss, and comes down to the workshop. Even without his hat he’s got magic powers and quickly stills and disperses the water. All his saved. He chastises the Apprentice, but not too severely. And the Apprentice meekly gets back to work. The end.
We’ve now got our ring, though it’s a bit forced. I really don’t have anything in this account that’s analogous to those routines, FindW, etc. and the variables they govern. Still it’s a start.
Further, that dream the Apprentice has, that’s very important in the context of the entire film, as I argue in this post on the importance of hands as a motif in Fantasia. But that’s to the side of the issue we’re discussing.
Let’s return to our original question: What motivates the Sorcerer? Well, the Sorcerer was once an apprentice, just like Mickey. And what motivated him to become an apprentice, just like Mickey? Maybe, just like Mickey, he dreamt of controlling the world merely by waving his hands about.
That gets us to the center point of this story. What gets us back to the top? Well, those dreams of controlling the world will inevitably fail. Sooner or later the world will assert itself over and against any dreams we might have. That gets us to Mickey drowning in the sea let loose by his untutored ambition. And now the Sorcerer sees his apprentice in trouble and uses his powers, not to rule the world, but to rescue his beloved, if somewhat rascally, apprentice.
Do I believe this? Not really. But I’m not ready to dismiss it either. It seems to me that it’s worth thinking about.
What would it take to extend this kind of reasoning to Apocalypse Now, which is obviously very different from The Sorcerer’s Apprentice? I think we’ve got to start reasoning from the center point, the sampan massacre. What did we “acquire” there that can cascade through to the end? That is, we’re being shown something, we’re being given a revelation if you will.
We’ve learned how the men in the boat function in a tricky situation. We’ve got conflict between Willard and the Chief, and the Chief’s got his orders. In turn, he orders Chef to search the sampan. Chef doesn’t want to, and says so, loudly, while doing the search. Something moves, the crewmen panic. That panic is one of the things we learn. They also exhibit compassion for the badly wounded woman; another thing learned. Willard shoots the woman, calmly, coldly. We all, crew and audience, learn from that. And the crew take an orphaned puppy on board.
Whatever that adds up to, that’s what we the audience learn at the midpoint. That’s what we need to follow the film to the (bitter) end.
What happens from here to the end is: 1) three of the crew die – Clean, the Chief, and Chef, in that order. 2) Willard fulfills the terms of his assignment. 3) He brings Lance back with him. Note that Lance had, by this point, gone over to Kurtz. But Willard still claims him, and Lance willingly goes with him.
How do we fit those events into something like my analysis of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice? I think we have to ask ourselves two questions: 1) Why did Lance survive, and 2) why did the others die? Why ask those questions? What else is there? That those men die, but Lance does not, that’s a big part of what happens in the rest of the film.
I’m suggesting, then, that in terms of the film’s underlying myth logic, if you will, there is a reason why those men die and Lance and Willard do not. This is not a moral issue in any ordinary sense of the word. Coppola is not passing moral judgment on the men. Something else is going on, though I’m not sure of how to talk about it.
In my earlier work on the film I devoted a post to the question of why Lance is the only crewman to survive: Parallelism in Apocalypse Now, a Note on Lance Logic. I don’t want to try to summarize that post here. To the extent that it comes up with an answer to the question of why Lance lives, that answer is some variation of “he’s an innocent.” I vaguely recall Coppola making some remark to that effect on his director’s commentary on the DVD.
Beyond that, Coppola goes to some pains to set up a parallel between Lance and Willard – which I say a great deal about in that post. The parallel is visual. In the opening montage we see Willard going through martial arts moves. There are two points later in the film where we see Lance also going through martial arts moves. No one else in the film does that. So, while Lance is very different from Willard – it’s hard to imagine him as an effective assassin – he does seem to be playing the Apprentice in this film to Willard’s Sorcerer.
That leaves us with the need to account for the deaths of the other three. But I want to let that go for the moment. I’m sure I can come up with something – I already have notes on each of them – but that’s not the point for now. One can ALWAYS come up with something. I’d just as soon let that simmer in the mental background.
There’s one more thing: the order of things. Here’s the order of the deaths starting after the sampan attack: Clean, the Chief, and Chef. If we’re looking for an order in Apocalypse Now that’s analogous to that I’ve played with in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, then we’re going to be looking for things that happen prior to the sampan attack and in the reverse order: Chef, the Chief, and Clean.
It’s not obvious to me, however, that strict symmetry is necessary. After all, the argument I’m making about this film is simply that it exhibits center point construction, and that doesn’t demand symmetry. That requires a midpoint and an appropriate relationship between the beginning and the end, which we’ve got. All I think is necessary is that we learn about these men through their actions. The exact order in which we learn this or that about whomever, that’s a secondary matter.
Finally, do I believe this, incomplete though it is? As I’ve said with The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, not really. But I’m not ready to dismiss it either. I’ve written it up so I can think about it. It seems to me that it’s worth thinking about.