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The Mary Poppins Effect

Nigel Sanitt on waiters, actors and bad faith.

Let me start with a story. Yesterday, I met Mary Poppins. Perhaps I should explain a little more. I was talking to the concierge at our hotel in Disneyworld – my children insisted that we included this stop on our holiday in the United States – when an exotic figure appeared in my peripheral vision. My eyes did a double-take but my mouth just carried on talking – although I had no idea what I was saying. The concierge seemed to notice my reaction and she informed me:

“It’s Mary Poppins.”

I reacted with some expression of disbelief but she continued:

“Have you ever met Mary Poppins?”

Still overcome by amazement, I managed to indicate that I had not, at which point she called loudly across the hotel foyer to the figure:

“Oh, Mary Poppins, come over here and say hello to Nigel, he wants to meet you!”

The figure turned round, fixing us with a permanent smile, and with a swish of her umbrella – it was well over 85 degrees outside the hotel – she briskly approached us.

“How do you do, Nigel”, she said as I shook hands with her. After a suitably polite but almost inaudible reply from myself, we were quickly surrounded by a pack of children eagerly seeking autographs and taking pictures. After a few minutes she waved goodbye and disappeared from view. I turned back to the concierge who said to me in a conspiratorial voice:

“You met Mary Poppins!”

Well I suppose in a way I did. But on the other hand, surely the only person I met was an actress playing the role of Mary Poppins. Mary Poppins is not a real person but a fictional character. The reality of the situation is the person I met – whoever she is – and not the role which she was playing. As Jean-Paul Sartre explained particularly in his play Kean, to refer to an actor by the part that is being played is an act of bad faith. Even as we go about our daily lives, we may be guilty of this bad faith by actively trying to play a part rather than being ourselves. The waiter who assiduously clears the tables and deftly sets out the cutlery (an example used by Sartre), is trapped in a role which limits his freedom of action to a point that he is guilty – according to Sartre – of bad faith; he is playing the role and not being the person. Consider further the plight of Kean:

Kean: There was nobody on stage. No one. Or perhaps an actor playing the part of Kean playing the part of Othello. Listen – I am going to tell you something. I am not alive – I only pretend.

And what about the plaintive opening lyrics of the song in the Willy Russell musical Blood Brothers sung by the tragic heroine:

“Tell me it’s not true, say it’s just a story.”

We know that it is a story, but nevertheless within the performance there is a certain veracity. After all, fiction depends on the truth for its effect.

A similar idea can be found in comedy. During a television interview of Roseanne Arnold by Terry Wogan, when shown an excerpt from her comedy series and asked the question: Is that you? Roseanne replied:

“Yes, it’s me when I’m acting; this is me as I am”.

We have here different levels in a hierarchy. Roseanne’s role as a comedy actress in a series, as interviewee and perhaps her role or roles as a person. For, in a sense,we are all in part at least the sum of all the roles which we play. Obviously in a theatrical setting on the stage, film or television the assumption of a role by an actor is deliberate, involving an artistic aim with an audience in mind. To describe someone as playing a role in their everyday life is slightly different; we are refering instead to a particular behaviour pattern. But this pattern has as its aim a way of handling the world and in particular, relations with others, mirroring what the American philosopher George Herbert Mead refers to as ‘social intelligence’. Roles thus are created by a society and serve to act as a representation of that society. Consider the words of Epictetus:

“Remember that you are an actor in a drama, of such a kind as the author pleases to make it. If short, of a short one; if long, of a long one. If it be his pleasure you should act a poor man, a cripple, a governor, or a private person, see that you act it naturally. For this is your business, to act well the character assigned you; to choose it is another’s.”

The literary role or fictional character or entity has an added dimension in that there is an underlying literary aim which is paramount. Also, since a character in a novel is made only of the sentences describing him or her, there are many linguistic devices which can all add to the formation of the character. Take, for example, the name Murdstone (suggestive of murder and a stony heart) in Dickens or the famous “ritual gesture of the hands” of Uriah Heep – a name which also provokes disgust. The underlying aims can be quite varied, but all have the common thread of trying to influence people. Whether the aim is political (the author’s commitment can give a sense of purpose to a work), or to highlight social problems or even just to make us laugh and share other emotions, literature is much more than just communication.

Scientific entities

At first sight the idea of talking about scientific entities – even superficially theoretical ones – under the same heading as fictional characters seems absurd. The world of science is after all the actual world, and not some invented arena. On the other hand, most perceived differences between fictional and scientific entities result from a lack of clear ideas about the nature of truth in each of these domains. A better understanding might be gleaned by focussing on the resemblances between the two sorts of entity – science and literature may not be that far apart.

I want to concentrate on theoretical entities, although all entities are theory-laden to some degree or another. Several kinds of entities are postulated in science. Mathematical ideal entities, (for example, point masses) are not considered real objects in themselves. Others, which usually start life as postulated though unobserved entities, either become more established (like electrons, for example) or fall by the wayside (the fate of the aether). When an entity becomes successfully established it is not necessarily because it has been observed or detected, but because it has become enmeshed within the framework of questions and answers which constitute a particular theory.

So whether we talk about gravitational waves, cosmic strings or the charge on an electron, the reality is the collective phenomena of nature and scientific theories are only our human way of coping with the world by ascribing a role – albeit temporary – which we consider nature is playing.

If that is bad faith, then so be it. So, where does that leave us? – well, yesterday I met Mary Poppins …..

© Dr. Nigel Sanitt 1994

In addition to his business activities based in north-west London, Dr. Sanitt is an astrophysicist with an interest in philosophy.

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