Saturday, August 17, 2013

that's an unusual problem, mr. connors

We have all some experience of a feeling, that comes over us occasionally, of what we are saying and doing having been said and done before, in a remote time - of our having been surrounded, dim ages ago, by the same faces, objects, and circumstances - of our knowing perfectly what will be said next, as if we suddenly remember it!

That’s Dickens in David Copperfield. He’s talking about what we call déjà vu.

Déjà vu gets namechecked twice in Groundhog Day. When, Phil asks Mrs. Lancaster if she ever has déjà vu, she mistakes the term for some sort of food—you know, a good fun jibe at those hicks in Punxsutawney. When Rita asks Phil if he ever has déjà vu, he replies with the classic, “Didn’t you just ask me that?”

From the French for “already seen,” we usually throw out the term déjà vu for any situation that seems a little too familiar, like it’s already happened before but we can’t consciously remember it. Like we’ve read someone’s blog entry already but it isn’t exactly the same, but it feels the same. For Phil Connors, it’s a little more literal. Claire Flaherty-Craig, a consulting and treating neurophsychologist at Hershey Medical Center describes the actual condition as a “disconnect between objective unfamiliarity and a subject sense of familiarity.” That is a sciency way of saying, we feel familiar with something with which we are not. Seems a little too formal and I feel like I’ve heard that description before.

But, you know what’s more interesting than what science has to say about déjà vu?

What life has to say. What poetry has to say. What fiction has to say. Phil Connors tells us that “small town people are more real” but what matters here—and I don’t mean this literally—is that we non sciency people are more real. At least when it comes to déjà vu. Déjà vu is about feelings. I think this bit from David Levithan’s Every Day gets at the heart of déjà vu more than talk of temporal lobe seizures or short circuits in the brain:

What is it about the moment you fall in love? How can such a small measure of time contain such enormity? I suddenly realize why people believe in déjà vu, why people believe they've lived past lives, because there is no way the years I've spent on this earth could possibly encapsulate what I'm feeling. The moment you fall in love feels like it has centuries behind it, generations—all of them rearranging themselves so that this precise, remarkable intersection could happen. In your heart, in your bones, no matter how silly you know it is, you feel that everything has been leading to this, all the secret arrows were pointing here, the universe and time itself crafted this long ago, and you are just now realizing it, you are now just arriving at the place you were always meant to be.

Now, Levithan’s narrator is a teenager—and not a normal teenager, either (if there is such a thing), but a teenager stuck in a new body and a new life every morning—but this romanticized version of love and how it is twisted together with memory and expectation and time and history and everyone and everything really is what matters when we can step back from trying to be logical and make sense of things. Déjà vu should not be made sense of. I mean, sure, the science might help us understand the brain a bit more. But, the experience itself—that transcends science, doesn’t it?

Don’t get me wrong; there are serious flaws to operating under the whiggish assumption that all roads have led to here, so this moment, you are the culmination of history. Putting that much meaning into where we are and who we are—that leads to horrible things, because we can then safely assume that other people, the poor, the downtrodden, are supposed to be where they are, also. But, on an emotional level, it makes sense. We always want meaning, we want purpose. Arguably, that is the point to Groundhog Day; Phil Connors is learning that his life has an purpose beyond his own amusement. Phil is not just his ego. He is just one human among many, and connections between and among those humans—that is what matters. If it can feel magical to connect with someone, falling in love, or simply a momentary sense of déjà vu, then life is that much better.

This is why Rita has no apparent problem with Phil telling her that he loves her on that last night. It isn’t just about Rita’s experience, or even Phil’s. It is about the experience we all share. For us, the audience, it feels right that Phil and Rita are happy together at least for now. When he says, “No matter what happens tomorrow or for the rest of my life, I'm happy now, because I love you,” it doesn’t matter if Rita should believe him. It matters that we do. It doesn’t have to make total logical sense, because it feels right.

Today’s reason for repeating a day forever: to come up with better déjà vu-related humor. And, more importantly, to allow for a sense of wonder and magic, even though I know it’s just the firing of neurons.

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