In what might have been a scene straight out of Videodrome, filmmaker and novelist David Cronenberg spoke to philosophy professor Mark Kingwell about sex and violence, the mind-body problem, and the influence of Toronto at a event co-hosted by PEN Canada and IFOA.
Cronenberg has been heavily featured in the media lately promoting his debut novel, Consumed (Hamish Hamilton Canada), but inevitably – as was the case last evening – the conversation circles back to his considerable body of work as a filmmaker and its underlying philosophical motivations.
Here are a few highlights from the conversation:
What the novel is “about”…
I never know what anything I do is about. I couldn’t say that the novel is about [one’s search for an intimate connection]. That’s certainly an element, and it depends on which part of it presses itself upon you the most. I don’t really know how you decide – if it’s a complex enough work – to be able to say what it’s about as one thing.
“The internet can become part of our neurology”
It used to be thought that the human brain was a static thing, and that at the age of 18, 19, the brain reached a stasis point where it stayed the same, and your neurons were fixed, and you didn’t grow any more of them and eventually some of them died and you got older and stupider. But we now know that this is completely not the case. The Nobel Prize–winning neurologist Gerald Edelman said that there was a huge struggle for dominance in the brain amongst the neurons, and the more you used them, the more sensitive the synapses between them got, and the less you used them the more they would whither away. When you combine that with the understanding we now have that even our DNA is not a static thing, that in fact the complement of genes and genetic structure we have might be fixed, some of the genes can switch on and off other genes in response to environment. So, in fact, your genetic structure can modify depending on your environment, as can your brain.
I think things like the internet can become part of our neurology. Our nervous systems are different than before the internet. I always thought that the nervous systems of the ancient Greeks, who were the first terrific philosophers, were completely different from ours. For me, neurology is reality. I think the Internet is changing us in a physiological way, and it is changing our understanding of reality.
“The body is the first fact of human existence”
My mantra is the body is the first fact of human existence. I don’t see a separation of spirit and body, I think its one thing. But we are in a world, and there’s a constant flow in and out of the body, and therefore in and out of soul or spirit or mind. It’s constantly in flux – taking things in and exuding them. As a filmmaker, you folklore-ize the human body – you’re recording the voice, which is basically an expression of the human body. So your subject matter as a filmmaker – unless you’re just doing landscapes – is the human body. And to me that’s correct, because as an artist, your subject matter has to be, really, the human condition. To me, that leads directly to the body.
On the influence of Marshall McLuhan…
There’s no question that I was very influenced by my time at the University of Toronto and growing up in Toronto. And yes, McLuhan was a huge force then in the ’60s, when I was in university. He was a media philosopher who suddenly attained huge international media stardom, which was unprecedented really. I hadn’t thought of this before, but he was as close as we’ve ever come to someone like Jean Paul Sartre – that is to say, a public intellectual who could pronounce on things beyond just his field of study. He could pronounce on global affairs, he could star in a Woody Allen film – for one second anyway. It’s still a regret that I never took a class with him.