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Body Snatchers!: The Invasion of Philosophy
David Suits on the philosophical lessons of a cult classic.
The dark events of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers take place in the small town of Santa Mira, where Wilma Lenz is one of the first persons to notice that something strange is going on. Her uncle, Ira, seems to have changed, and now something about him is not right; he is both Uncle Ira and he is not. Wilma talks to Dr Miles Bennell about what she feels:
With this – this Uncle Ira, or whoever or whatever he is, I have that feeling, the absolutely certain knowledge, Miles, that he’s talking by rote. That the facts of Uncle Ira’s memories are all in his mind in every last detail, ready to recall. But the emotions are not. There is no emotion – none – only the pretense of it. The words, the gestures, the tones of voice, everything else – but not the feeling.
Eventually we learn that seed pods came to Earth from outer space, and out of them are growing exact duplicates – “atom for atom” – of human beings. At first a pod-thing is only a rough physical approximation of the human who is being duplicated. But as it grows, the humanoid form gains more and more detail, and finally it is a physically indistinguishable replica of its victim. Then, when the person is least vigilant (when he or she falls asleep), the pod-being ‘takes over’ the human’s mind, memory for memory. Though it is not fully explained what happens to the original body, somehow it disappears. A human being goes to sleep; a perfect physical and mental duplicate wakes up.
The pod-persons have taken over nearly the entire town. The story’s narrator, Miles Bennell, and Becky Driscoll are falling in love with each other, and they are two of the few – perhaps the only – humans left. When they are captured by the pod-persons they are given a fuller explanation.
“I wish you’d relax, and take it easy,” Mannie said, brows lifting, smiling at us in frank concern for our comfort. “We’re not going to hurt you, and once you understand what we … have to do” – he shrugged – “I think maybe you’ll accept it, and wonder what all the fuss was about… Well, first of all, it doesn’t hurt; you’ll feel nothing. Becky, I promise you that. … And when you wake up, you’ll feel just exactly the same. You’ll be the same, in every thought, memory, habit, and mannerism, right down to the last little atom of your bodies. There’s no difference. None. You are just the same.” He said it forcefully, convincingly, but for the least fraction of an instant, a hint of disbelief in his own words flickered in his eyes.
“Why bother, then?” Miles asks. Indeed, what would be the point of converting you into you? No wonder that disbelief flickers in Mannie’s eyes, because, as he comes to admit, the duplication is not complete after all; a pod-person has no passions. There is a sinister doubling in Mannie’s “you’ll feel nothing”: the conversion itself is painless, and afterwards you will never again feel emotion.
“All right, Miles,” he said quietly, “so you know. We tried to make it easy on you, that’s all; because after it was over, it wouldn’t have mattered, you just wouldn’t have cared. Miles, I mean it” – his brows raised persuasively – “it’s not so bad. Ambition, excitement – what’s so good about them?” he said, and I could tell he meant it. “And do you mean to say you’ll miss the strain and worry that goes along with them? It’s not bad, Miles, and I mean that. It’s peaceful, it’s quiet. And food still tastes good, books are still good to read –”
“But not to write,” I said quietly. “Not the labor, hope, and struggle of writing them. Or feeling the emotions that make them. That’s all gone, isn’t it, Mannie?”
He shrugged. “I won’t argue with you, Miles. You seem to have guessed pretty well how things are.”
“No emotion.” I said it aloud, but wonderingly, speaking to myself.
We, too, may wonder about that. What is life without passion? What would even a few years without emotion be like? This and some related issues figure prominently in the story, and they raise in dramatic form some important philosophical concerns.
We all undergo various experiences in life, some of which change us a great deal. Yet we somehow seem to retain our identities. Does that hold for conversion to podhood? Is the pod-person identical to the original human, but with some changes? Am I still me after the conversion? Or upon conversion to podhood is there a different being entirely (which merely appears to be me)? Do I die in my sleep? Who wakes up? Miles seems to be convinced that he is talking to a changed Mannie and not to a mere simulacrum.
Similar questions concerning personal identity have been raised in other science-fiction stories through the device of a matter transporter. Does the transporter make a copy, destroying the original, or does it decompose the original and cause it to be reassembled elsewhere? Either way, will that make a difference in respect to personal identity? Cloning a human body is already a real possibility. Suppose there were some way of cloning a mind as well. Would you be sanguine in the face of your demise if you were assured that a perfect physical and mental clone would take your place? In the Invasion story, you are supposed to believe that it would be you who would continue as a pod-person, although you would be significantly changed – you would no longer have typical human emotions, including love. Why should that make such a profound difference?
Marriage and love
Miles and Becky had been friends in high school. But then they went their separate ways and lost track of each other. Each had married, fallen out of love, and recently each had divorced. Those losses of love were followed by the invasion of the pods, which prefigures another way in which love is lost. But the parallel is only rough, because when Miles and Becky meet again, love begins to grow. In contrast, becoming a pod-person entails the permanent loss of love.
The pod-people pursue Miles and Becky, planning a union for each of them with a growing pod. But such a union has nothing to do with love and is in fact the final end of love. Granted, a ‘marriage’ of a human and a pod has some of the qualities thought to belong to a romantic union: two beings become one, a ‘couple’, wherein the seed pod contributes the substance and the human contributes the form and its details. But this wedding of the two together is complete and irrevocable; divorce will not be possible.
Both Miles and Becky are horrified at the prospect. Such a union would actually be a loss of love, a loss of meaning and a loss of purpose. For them, love requires two separate, ongoing selves, where each remains an ‘I’ and a ‘you’, such that to say “I love you” could continue to be meaningful. In the film, Becky says to Miles, “I want to love and be loved. … I don’t want a world without love or grief or beauty – I’d rather die.” But would they be better off, as the pod-people claim, without that sort of passion?
Two millennia ago the Stoic philosopher Epictetus pointed out that some things are under our complete control, and some things are not, and if we try to control anything which is not under our control, then we are setting ourselves up for frustration, which is a kind of unhappiness. So in order to avoid unhappiness, we ought to give up trying to control the uncontrollable. But which things are those? The answer, for Epictetus, was simple: Everything outside of your own thoughts is not completely under your control. What matters is your attitude. Epictetus recommended an emotional detachment from the world, which is accomplished only by accepting the world as it is, being satisfied with what actually happens and not railing against the gods for making the world be one way when you passionately wanted it to be otherwise. Give up those passions; they pave the road to frustration. But it is hard to cultivate an untroubled mind, because it requires considerable wisdom, strict reasoning and unbiased logic. Yet there is no higher serenity than being a spectator. To be a player is to gamble with happiness and to risk losing. (And according to Epictetus happiness is strictly equivalent to the absence of unhappiness.)
Epictetus might have appreciated the character of Star Trek’s Mr Spock, who, although half-human, was also half- Vulcan, and who managed his affairs through a life of logic. But would Epictetus have praised the pod-people? Would he have been willing to drift off to sleep, knowing that he would wake up as an entirely passionless being? One important difference between Spock and the pod-people is that Spock chose to detach himself from his emotions, and at any time he could let them loose and revisit the chaotic world of passions. It was a matter of pride for him that emotional detachment was an on-going accomplishment. Not so for the pod-people; they are as passionless as carrots. They have no passions because they can have no passions. But would that have made a difference to Epictetus?
It is clear that both Miles and Becky want nothing to do with a passionless life. Not only are they in love with each other, they are in love with love. They are willing to risk the pain of failure for the sake of ongoing involvement. They even talk about marriage – certainly an arrangement which tempts fate.
Suppose you are curious about the Stoic-like life of podhood and wish to consider seriously the prospect of conversion. One reason why you might be cautious is that conversion is irrevocable. On the other hand, aren’t all actions irrevocable? Once having done something, you cannot make it the case that you did not do it. But that is irrevocability in a trivial sense. It is more important to look at the effects of a choice and whether such effects can be undone. Many ordinary decisions can be undone in some practical sense. You can write a word but later erase it. You can pick an apple, but another will grow. You can get married but later become divorced. So for some choices even salient consequences can be undone.
But when the effects of a decision are very important, and when it is practically very difficult to reverse them, then we might say that such decisions are momentous. For example, a decision to travel to the nearest star by cryogenic suspension is momentous, because when you get there you will have abandoned all reasonable hope of participating in the culture you left behind. And conversion to podhood would be more momentous even than selling yourself into slavery, for while a slave might become freed, there is no known process for converting pod-persons back into humans. So the decision to submit to conversion is momentous because it concerns irrevocable and fundamental changes to your life. But how are you to make momentous decisions?
Qualities of life
John Stuart Mill (Utilitarianism, Chapter 2) claimed that some kinds of existence are more worthwhile – of a higher quality – than others. A human life, he said, is better than a non-human life, because humans are capable of both more profound pleasure and more profound suffering than other animals. But why should that mean that a human existence is better? Who is to pass judgment on pleasures, or experiences, or life-styles, or kinds of existence? The proper judge, Mill said, is whoever has experienced each of the alternatives. The simpleton might say that he would rather be a satisfied fool than an unsatisfied Socrates. But Socrates would never choose the happy life of a simpleton, and Socrates is in a position to compare the alternatives, because, like all persons, he has played the fool – at least he was at one time a child and then an adolescent, lacking wisdom, and for a time living an unexamined life.
But if experience with each of the alternatives is necessary in order to judge which is better, then the pod-people might be better judges, because they have been both human and pod-beings, whereas humans have not, and the pod-people tell us that they are better off without emotions. Yet Miles and Becky resist conversion – they do not wish to have a podexistence, even though they have never lived as pod-persons.
Or maybe they have. Surely we have all suppressed, repressed or otherwise hidden our stronger emotions. The book (though not the film) tells us that a pod-person will live only a few years. So perhaps you can imagine what pod-life would be like by recalling some episode in your own life where you purposely distanced yourself from what was going on around you; now project the thought to encompass a few years of passionlessness.
A kind of life
Although emotionless beings might imitate humans, podpeople do not merely imitate; rather, they appropriate. Because they die within a few years, and because they cannot reproduce themselves in humanoid form, they have to feed on humanity. With cunning and stealth they appropriate for themselves what has been created by others, coming into your house at night when you are asleep and taking not your possessions, but you yourself.
They sneak into existence as completed beings, who got where they are not by choice and will, not by negotiation and cooperation, not by experience and struggle, but by coercion. And they cannot go further – they are neither self-reproducing nor self-transcending beings. Such a life is indeed ‘nasty, brutish and short’. They harvest us like crops, but they are poor conservationists, because to the extent that they are successful at appropriation, to that extent they have fewer and fewer humans to harvest. Some day they will have to move on to a different planet, obedient to their one drive: survival.
The pods have that one and only motive. For humans, however, the issue is life of a certain kind. True, the podpeople live life of a certain kind, but it is not an issue for them, because they have no choice to live a different life. They cannot say “This kind of life is better, more satisfying, more noble than that other kind of life”, because there can be only one kind of life for them. They can of course imagine a different life; they know that humans lead lives full of passions. But the pod-people, being denied emotions, cannot wish to be other than they are. Having no emotions, they have no motive to change.
But might there be positive value in being passionless? It is sometimes thought that ideal science is a quest for objective truth; that ideal science must be value-free; and that by means of free and equal discussion, experimentation and theorizing, we can arrive at the truth – or at least approach nearer to the truth. If that is the case, then pod-persons are as capable as humans of doing real science, because pod-persons are clearly able to reason and to discuss, provided they have the liberty to do so. Mill claimed that the liberties of thought and tastes and pursuits do not apply to children or idiots, but only to “progressive beings” – adults who are “capable of being improved by free and equal discussion” (On Liberty, Chapter 1). So now we might ask, Can pod-people be improved? Or does their lack of emotion prevent improvement?
Some people investigate butterflies, or the rings of Saturn, or the causes of kidney disease. Why do they do so? Why would anyone want to? And that’s the crux. Some people want to, whereas pod-people do not. In the book we learn that the pod-clones of the intellectuals in the town are no longer continuing their research; the town’s businesses are closing; houses are not being built; streets are not being repaired. Yes, the pod-people have the ability to reason, but motives are not given by reason. Rather, reasoning is carried on in the service of obtaining what one’s emotions and passions have already made important. For the pod-people there can be only a cold Cartesian “I am”, and never an “I yearn for”. Pod-persons are not progressive beings precisely because they are passionless.
The fullness of incompleteness
The paradoxical fact of pod-people is that they are both finished and unfinished. They are finished, first because each will die not long after coming into existence, and second because they cannot change in any significant way. And the pod-people are unfinished, also in two respects. They are, like us, involved in survival, and survival is always an on-going project, always incomplete. But human life is far richer than mere survival. The pod-people live, but they live entirely as unfinished persons, without emotions which characterize a full life. Even their laughter is a failure: “They all laughed – soundlessly – their lips pulled back from their teeth, their eyes … utterly cold…”
Humans, too, are unfinished. Miles and Becky know unsuccess: they are both divorced. Yet they talk of marriage, and so they appreciate their incompleteness as offering the possibility of growth. As Jean-Paul Sartre said, we are our own projects: we are what we shall become, and what we shall become is a matter of our choices. We want to grow, to achieve, to find, to discover, to make, to produce, and to reproduce – in short, we seek those activities in life that matter to us. So although we are unfinished and incomplete, we are progressive beings. We never achieve finality, but we are always becoming something more.
Concluding unending romance
Despite its occasional inclusion in the genre of horror, The Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a genuinely romantic story. Romance is an appreciation of the ‘not quite yet’ – a vision of change, growth, movement. And in romantic episodes, two people are involved in making connections which were not there before. But suppose they were to succeed completely. In Plato’s Symposium, the playwright Aristophanes tells a story in which the god Hephaestus makes an offer to lovers that if they truly want to be united, he will weld them permanently together. But is that what lovers should want? Such ‘intimacy’ would be not the culmination of romance, but rather its end and conclusion. Like the lovers in other romances, Miles and Becky are drawn by the ‘not quite yet’. Even if it were said that ‘they lived happily ever after’, that would not be the end of their own story.
© David B. Suits 2001
David Suits teaches philosophy at Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, New York. He would like to thank Christine Sage Suits for many insightful comments and suggestions.
The Body Snatchers Kept Coming Back…
In 1954 Jack Finney published The Body Snatchers as a serial story in Collier’s. In 1955 the story was expanded into a novel published by Dell, and a year later a movie version appeared with the title The Invasion of the Body Snatchers. In 1978 there was a remake of both the book and the film. And in 1993, two years before Finney’s death, a third movie version appeared, this time with the original title. In this article I focus on the first book and film. (The later versions snatched at the essence of the originals, but are not quite replicates.) All quotes are from the original book, reprinted by Award Books in 1965.