Handel on – Free Will

Alcina – Meghan Lindsay and the Artists of Atelier Ballet. Photo by Bruce Zinger

Alcina – Meghan Lindsay and the Artists of Atelier Ballet, Toronto. Photo by Bruce Zinger.

Driving serenely Eastwards towards London in the middle lane of the M4 amidst dense, though well-ordered, traffic, I listen to Arleen Augér sing an aria in Alcina – Handel’s oft ignored but exquisite opera, and one with an amusingly bizarre libretto. Juggernauts dourly and stately process their tonnage along the slow lane to my left, whilst eager, besuited deal-makers, along with those for whom time runs too fast today, speed past upon my right at a steady, metronomic tick. A Toyota cocooned I, sandwiched, fore and aft, port and stern, in the middle lane, sail contentedly along. Hundreds of minds doing precisely what were required to remain safely within reach of their goals. A taut calmness holds, whilst all rests upon fine judgements, an invading bee, or the inopportune, nerve-vibrating alert of an anxiously awaited text – carnage, staved off, for now. So, sing your honeyed song, evil sorceress; though your spell enchants, I animate for now; just for this now.

A towing truck begins to drift in front of me – a well-judged, if impertinent, call by its driver; or rather one which may have been deemed so had he not forgotten that he was once again towing, and the length of his charge was double that which he had assumed. Brain takes over: get out of the way Hariod; I need to be driving this thing, not you. Brain calculates that hard braking is too risky, and anyway, the Toyota would still get broadsided by the dumb, forgotten trailer. Three, maybe five, 360 degree rolls to follow? Arleen continues oblivious. No option but to drift into the fast lane, hoping amidst insufficient certainty that the oncoming deal sorcerer and his Audi’s stoppers can help Brain save the day – vorsprung durch technik! Save it, that is, for Brain, and much other grey matter besides. Hariod knew none of this silent, synaptic work – axons, dendrites, quantum vibrations in micro-tubules silently orchestrating. Bravo! Enter Hariod stage left, as the driver.

Whither Free Will in all of this? We believe we have agency, meaning we feel we have autonomous, volitional control over events. It feels almost as if a guiding homunculus – or is she a mythical sorceress? – resides benignly within our craniums, directing matters, dutifully thinking our thoughts for us, experiencing our experience, driving our Toyota, cursing careless truck drivers, and appreciating Handel. Most of us consider ourselves largely free to choose as we wish the course of our decision-making, and by thinking of ‘ourselves’ we relate back to this imagined sorceress, or homunculus. Those who may object to this imagery must describe exactly what this agent of Free Will is, or conclude – most counter intuitively – that there is no such thing at all. We exist as embodied, thinking persons, as individuated social constructs or social selves, but not as the agents of Free Will we imagine ourselves to be in our own private La Fenice, our personal operatic myth.

The Songs of Handel's Alcina - Published 1735

The Songs of Mr. Handel’s Alcina – First edition, published London, 1735

Why and how do we experience the illusion of agency and Free Will? The short answer is that we are subject to what psychologists call a Postdictive Illusion – a post hoc mental fabrication of events which reinforces a sense of agency and selfhood; the latter likely being artefacts of evolved survival means. In any situation, an array of possibilities exists as to how we might respond to our current or envisaged environment. What happens is that subconsciously felt predispositions incline towards one particular option, and so motor action of the body initiates accordingly. Following both such occurrences, some or all of these options appear in consciousness, and a postdictive – meaning an explanation after the fact – illusion of choosing appears to be made ‘now’. In fact, the apparent choosing occurred after its consequences were subconsciously felt and after motor action initiates. A sorcery of the mind has tricked us; so let’s get back to Alcina in the Toyota.

This incident struck me so because there was no prior deliberation of how to deal with the situation, no thought of ‘shall I brake, or veer to the right?’ Everything happened far too quickly for any conscious thinking, and I was left with a clear sense that it had nothing to do with any ‘me’ as one might normally think of oneself. This happens frequently in daily life; just try thinking – as you do it – of how to dance, or strike a tennis ball, or tie a shoelace, and see how the whole process becomes impossibly convoluted and clunky. We get a proprioceptive sense of ‘me doing something’ as we throw our shapes, drive that backhand, or tie the laces, and this feeling feeds recursively into a sense of self and agency, just as does the apparently willed choice to have initiated those actions. In fact though, we are devoid of self-agency, just as Arleen is uninhabited by a sorceress called Alcina. As a great artist, she inhabits the role, yet her script has already been written.

I hope not to have dwelt overly on dry technicalities; it being far more fun to be dressed-up on the stage of life acting out our dramas, is it not? Still, when the curtain falls, the bows being taken, we then return to the dressing room to wipe away the make believe in the mirror of self-reflection. If the mirror is perfectly clean, what we see is no longer the sorceress willing so freely, or the homunculus determining things on our behalf. We instead see ourselves as links in a vast and beginningless ocean of interrelatedness. In Handel’s opera, Alcina the sorceress is a wicked seductress, casting spells upon many lovers who, spellbound, arrive upon her mystical isle. After using them, she turns them into stones, animals, waves or trees. Finally, Alcina comes truly to love, and with it her powers dissolve; she sinks into the isle’s ground – way out in the vast ocean – and it is seen that both Alcina and her isle were only ever the illusions of her now reanimated victims.