Showing posts with label Eric M Nilsson. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Eric M Nilsson. Show all posts

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Fool on the hill

On 14 December 2006, in my article entitled Why? How? [display], I explained that my Swedish filmmaker friend Eric M Nilsson had asked me to participate in a philosophical project inspired by these two basic questions. I've just browsed through Eric's film, which will be broadcast on Sweden's channel 2 at 10 pm on 21 October 2007. Since the one-hour documentary is in Swedish, I'm incapable of appreciating the exact ways in which Eric has amalgamated my words with those of the other main participant: a Swedish pastor. But Eric assures me that it's good TV, and I trust his artistry and his judgment. Click on the following stylized rendering [by Eric] of the Cournouze mountain seen from Gamone to hear an introductory statement [which may or may not be honest] from the scientific Fool on the hill:

Monday, March 5, 2007


When my Swedish cineast friend Eric M Nilsson visited me in December 2006, he shot a few images of me talking about Gamone, first in English, then in French. Click here to watch this video sequence. For me, it's amusing to see and hear myself speaking French. I'm not surprised that people notice instantly that I speak with an accent. The only individuals who never considered that I spoke French with an accent were my children, when they were kids. Apparently they would disagree with schoolmates who dared to suggest that I had an accent. For my children, their father spoke "normally".

At home, Christine and I always spoke French together, and with the children. So, they did not really grow up in a bilingual environment. But the intonations of my voice apparently rubbed off onto François, who became proficient at garbling in a way that sounded as if he might be speaking English. Meanwhile, he started studying English at school. One day, his teacher asked my wife: "Please explain something that has been puzzling me for ages. I often hear your son François speaking something that sounds like good English. Then, a moment later, I have the opposite impression, namely, that he doesn't understand English at all. Please tell me: Does François really speak English?" I love that story, because I knew my son well enough to appreciate exactly what was troubling his teacher. He has always been an instinctive actor, particularly apt at playing the roles of people he observed: in other words, a talented imitator. So, it was perfectly normal that he should start out by imitating the voice and accent of his father.

I've just finished reading a great book about imitation: The Meme Machine by Susan Blackmore. The term 'meme' (rhymes with 'cream') was invented in 1976 by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene. It designates cultural entities that humans acquire by simply imitating other individuals who have already acquired such entities. For example, the art of using a mobile phone can be thought of as one of the countless memes in modern society. It so happens that I've never got around to acquiring that meme... mainly because nobody ever dials my mobile phone number, and I've not been sufficiently motivated to learn how to use this communications device... which I don't particularly like, preferring e-mail. When I ask my daughter to tell me the best way of learning how to use a mobile phone, she always explains that urban adolescents have seen how to use these gadgets simply by imitating the behavior of experienced friends who already knew how to use them. So, the art of using a mobile phone can indeed be thought of as a pure meme. And this meme has spread throughout society like an epidemic, through imitation.

Susan Blackmore is a fine writer, whose eclectic interests range from the psychology of consciousness through to meditation, paranormal phenomena and near-death experiences. The subject of her book, referred to as memetics, is a new discipline whose scope is awesome: the acquisition of all human behaviors and skills, from language through to the greatest achievements of the intellect. Since opening Blackmore's book a few days ago, I've had the constant impression that this is surely one of the most important books I've ever encountered, because it deals with every imaginable aspect of the whole human being. As I said, the underlying theme of memetics is that we've acquired everything that makes us human, all too human, simply by imitating others. (The general concept of imitation includes, of course, the possibility of reading books on a subject, and asking questions.) This ingenious explanation sounds almost too simple to be true.

Saturday, December 16, 2006


This morning, Eric did some shooting around Choranche. He climbed up to the crest of the hill behind my house, where the panoramic view to the east is superb. My donkey Moshé galloped up, to see what Eric was doing, and they were quickly joined by my billy-goat Gavroche. Eric told me he got some fine shots of the animals and the landscape. Then he shot a short sequence, in front of the house, of me talking about Gamone. After that, Eric went off on his own in his automobile to shoot images further up the road, beyond the village of Choranche, in the Gorges of the Bourne. Half an hour later, when he returned to the house, Eric informed me that he had just escaped a calamity by a hair’s breadth. When parking his automobile on the edge of the mountainous road, he hadn’t put the brake on firmly enough. All of a sudden, he saw his automobile sliding slowly backwards. Eric tried vainly to halt the vehicle with his bare hands, but it carried on until it bumped into the stone wall on the edge of the road, causing minimal damage to the rear bumper and taillights. Back at my place, Eric patched up the damaged plastic with cardboard and adhesive tape, while reflecting upon what might have happened if there had been a break in the stone wall at the spot where the automobile was sliding backwards.

On the theme of mountain roads, I told Eric about a recent discussion with my son. Seeing me halt on a steep and narrow road because of an approaching vehicle, François said that, if he were at the wheel in this kind of situation, he would normally accelerate, instead of halting, because he considered that two vehicles could best move around each other “in the fluidity of their respective movement”. (This translation into English might not represent faithfully what my son was trying to say.) I remember being shocked by the point of view of François, who seemed to be appealing to some kind of magic beyond the realities of elementary arithmetic, as if the concept of fluidity could, somehow or other, reduce the widths of the two vehicles... almost like the famous Einsteinian diminution of length due to high velocity. Once again, it was a domain in which the distance between my son and me was a question of wavelengths.

Friday, December 15, 2006

With an eye on the future

Eric M Nilsson is a strange fellow in that he often seems to know what’s just about to happen. Once upon a time, he was making a documentary film in the heart of Stockholm, using the services of a newly-hired but not-very-bright Canadian cameraman. An ideal cameraman sets his machine in action just before the action starts, not after it’s finished. So, he needs to be capable—like Nilsson—of predicting future events. As far as the Canadian was concerned, this was not the case, and tension was developing between him and Nilsson. At the end of yet another’s day unsuccessful shooting, the crew went out to a restaurant for dinner, and they eased the tension by consuming a lot of red wine. The cameraman complained that Eric wasn’t giving him explicit orders on what had to be done. “Well here’s an order,” shouted Nilsson, who was both furious and slightly drunk. “Rendezvous tomorrow morning at 4.30 am on the central square of the city.” After a few hours sleep, and nursing a hangover, Nilsson wandered along to the central square, wondering whether his cameraman would be turning up. The Canadian was already there, shivering in the cold. At that time of the year, there was already sufficient light in the sky to contemplate filming, but neither Nilsson nor the cameraman could imagine what on earth they might shoot, since the square was totally deserted. “Point the camera at that door,” ordered Nilsson, indicating the entry into Stockholm’s underground train system, “and start shooting.” The machine whirred for two minutes, but nothing was happening. Later on, Nilsson would admit to himself that, at that moment, he wondered if he had not become a little insane as a consequence of his stressed and frustrated state of mind. Then the door opened, and a little fat middle-aged man emerged. He was wearing a hat and huge coat, and carrying a briefcase. At the top of the stairs, he took out an aerosol can of paint, walked towards a nearby marble wall, and wrote the words SOCIAL DEMOCRATIE. Without realizing at any moment that he was being filmed, he turned around and disappeared back down into the train station. Nilsson and his cameraman were amazed and elated. They had captured this extraordinary spontaneous scene. In the context of his future film (on the theme of the city of Stockholm), Nilsson was already convinced that these amazing images would start the ball rolling, as it were. In ways he only dimly imagined, the spray-painted words would surely become the departure point of Nilsson’s documentary on the city. However, later that day, when the rushes were developed, Nilsson was terribly disappointed to discover that the Canadian cameraman had been so disturbed by the idea of seeing something unexpected happening at the other end of his lens that he simply forgot to focus it. And the images of the little man with the spray can were totally unusable. Nilsson fired the cameraman on the spot. He then exceeded his budget by having to hire a competent cameraman who could predict the future, but the outcome was one of Nilsson’s finest documentaries.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Why? How?

My filmmaker friend Eric M Nilsson contacted me a couple of months ago, asking me to participate in a documentary of a philosophical nature for Swedish television on the sense of the two questions: Why? How? This is the distinction evoked by Richard Dawkins on page 56 of The God Delusion:

It is a tedious cliché (and, unlike many clichés, it isn’t even true) that science concerns itself with how questions, but only theology is equipped to answer why questions.

Eric arrived at Gamone yesterday, and we talked about the project during dinner last night. I suggested that he might like to shoot the interview in the fields alongside the splendid monastery of the Grande-Chartreuse, an hour away from my home. I felt that the background image of the great monastery would create a nice harmony. The thirty monks who spend their existence in that glorified prison, allegedly praying night and day for all of us on the outside, are convinced that the why question is valid, and their unique answer is Jesus. As for me, I explained on camera (like Dawkins) that the why question, applied to our human existence, is no more than a nonsensical alignment of words, not a valid question, and that science is obliged to carry on answering how questions exclusively.

Here I am in the snow-covered fields, answering Eric’s questions:

It was a delightful sunny outing. The only thing I regretted was that I hadn’t brought my dog along with us to participate in the discussion. Sophia could have clarified certain issues. After all, “dog” is “god” spelt backwards.