Mary Gaitskill

Human Machines: Nowhere Girls, Heartbreak

B-Movie, “Nowhere Girl” (1982); images from “Metropolis” by Fritz Lang

This combination of two small, beautiful things — ancient film clip and 80s pop song — is visually about a human and a machine, a human trying to waken humanity in a machine. Aurally, its about a human trying to waken feeling in another human. The human in the song is a girl who is acting like a machine, that is, robotically repeating a pattern of life that doesn’t allow anyone or anything to touch her.

The pathos and fun of film and song put together is partly in the contrast between the demon-faced, dead-limbed scientist (all sulpher-eyed evil plus open-mouthed buffoonery: ‘What about this pronged thing? Maybe I’ll stick that in this other thing! Yeah!’), and the glowing mystery of the machine.

The mash-up is not about “metal and technology crashing into flesh,” as described in Markus Kirschner’s “F#@&ing Machines.” The song is about the mechanical nature of human feeling and non-feeling, a theme deliciously present in the music of the song even more than the words; delicate, plaintive melody expressed in manic synthpop. The clip is from a movie about powerful people trying to seduce and control other people through a machine that will mechanically trigger raw emotion.

This is seduction at its most basic; the seducer has less actual feeling than does his or her object, and so can artfully present a mechanical imitation designed to waken and then manipulate the real thing — which then, curiously, feeds the machine.

Together song and flim clip are playfully and incidentally about the machine that is us. Or part of us. Being human machines, it’s hard to say when we are controlled by, say, the machine of instinct or when we are nonmechanically responding to love. Or hate. Or seduction. Or something else.

Ridley Scott, “Blade Runner: Retiring Zhora” (1982)

This is a scene from “Blade Runner,” a movie based on Philip K. Dick‘s novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” The plot concerns a slave class of androids who, because they have developed the ability to feel, have become dangerous, and so must be hunted down by hired killers like the one played by Harrison Ford.

Stories about machines who turn out to have feelings will always be poetically fascinating not because (to paraphrase Kirschner) we are embracing the fake, but because what is fake and what is real in a human is sometimes impossible to separate, and so sometimes impossible to differentiate. Machines are in some ways the opposite of the vulnerable body; in other ways, they are a reflection of its nature. Sometimes the feeling machine is dangerous; sometimes it is poignant.

brokenheart, “My Wife Is Having An Affair” (2009)

I find this almost too painful to look at; it feels a little obscene to use it in this context. I mean no disrespect to the man who made it, who did, after all, display it for public viewing. What I find astonishing about it: whatever its maker’s intentions, it is a picture of someone whose human feeling has been so badly hurt that he has for the purposes of this video become, in sight and sound, as a machine.

Pain is a purely animal/human experience; no machine feels pain. Yet emotional pain in humans sometimes takes on a rote, compulsive quality, something people keep helplessly repeating or referring back to for an impossible-to-understand complex of reasons that over time takes on a life of its own and mechanically operates regardless of what the hurt person wants or thinks he wants. In other words, the human becomes a screaming creature caught in the cogs and wheels of the machine his own feelings brought into being — or is it his reaction to his feelings that have brought it into being?

When I first watched the heart-broken man, I was first struck by the way he described his relationship to his wife, in terms of marriage vows, obeying the rules of the contract, refraining from abusing her, the good financial situation he provided, his amazement that she would desire someone who could “not even afford his own place.” As hurt for him as I felt, his ideas of relationship seemed mechanical, unaware that passion or love has nothing to do with things like vows or good financial situations. But as he continued, it was impossible not to hear that this man’s love for his wife is powerful, pure and real; it is also mysterious, and he is only expressing it in the language he has at hand, which even he probably knows is inadequate.

But what if the reason the wife can’t feel it any more is that, as strong and pure as it is, it’s somehow become detached from her yet continues pumping away regardless of her? After all, the heart, which we traditionally speak of as the locus of our deepest feelings, is a kind of functional little machine, complete with valves.

The second thing that struck me was much more sad: That he needs to express himself into a YouTube machine because he has no one close to talk to.

Ridley Scott, “Blade Runner Final Scene” (1982)

This is the last scene from “Blade Runner.” The android, at the moment of triumph over its adversary, has run out of juice and expired, choosing finally to spare his enemy in a display of humanity more human than anyone has shown him. The fake has turned out to contain something more real than “real” understood, and not because the fake was somehow better: its motor has simply broken down and loosed its metal claw.

The deepest reality is finally glimpsed as it disappears, much as we might glimpse a pure and ephemeral feeling flitting through the unbearably complicated and inadequate machine of our fleshly brain, our wind-up personality.

Mgawl singing “Nowhere Girl” by B-Movie

- Mary Gaitskill

  • Amy P

    I am so tremendously affected by this piece — can’t comment yet because I still feel the world flowing through me after seeing and reading (imagine I will for a long while). Thank you for the beauty, the saving beauty.

  • Masha Tupitsyn

    This makes me think of a line from Paul Morrissey’s “Flesh,” where drag queen Jackie Curtis says, “Lots of things feel real that aren’t real.” I think we’ve become a culture that’s entirely moved by fakes. See “Lars and The Real Girl”–catharsis comes in the form of silicone.

    • Mary Gaitskill

      There is a lot of truth to what you say, though I would put it more like, people are so indunated by the manipulated, the illusory and imitative, that their natural passions are often tricked, the instincts falsely triggered. But this phenomenon comes I think from human nature itself; the way we are emotionally is so complex and so layered, and sometimes so reactive to manipulation or certain visceral triggers. Our bodies are really like innocent animals that way. On top of that, emotions can get hardened so that they become mechanical, which isn’t exactly the same as fake.

      Everybody must know what I’m talking about, emotional habits or patterns that get reinforced and are real as feelings, but sometimes respond blindly and wrongly to a situation that has nothing to do with what the person is really reacting to–some ancient love or rage that has gotten built into the self in an impossible to understand way. I certainly don’t understand it, I don’t think anyone does, its totally mysterious, and I believe always will be. I only tried to talk about it here because these images speak of poetically of the conundrum, to me anyway. I’m not trying to come up with an answer or even a coherent logical statement. But yeah, what you’re saying is scary true, though I don’t agree with the word “entirely.” I see people still wanting and knowing the real. It’s just harder now.

  • Masha Tupitsyn

    Part I: Yes, but how do we get to the real now? Through what and through whom? And what happens to the real and to us in the process? This question is important, I think. What does the real even look like after its been packaged, branded, staged, manufactured, and regurgitated? And is the real we get after that even worth anything? Can we get to the real without the fake? I think this is one of the most important questions we can ask right now. Can we get beauty, for example, without plastic surgery? Or reality without Reality TV? Can we get talent without a nationally syndicated contest? Do people matter if they’re not SEEN mattering? I think Lars and The Real Girl is really a perfect example of this phenomenon—the authentic-fake or fake-authentic. The real you can buy into your life the way Lars buys Bianca, the blow-up doll, which jumpstarts his repressed feelings. In the movie, much is made of the profound, deep, and innocent longing Lars has for connection, intimacy, and love, and yet these yearnings can only be communicated and channeled (and romanticized by the culture at large) via something entirely fake and manufactured—Bianca, with whom Lars falls in love and in whom he believes wholeheartedly. It is only through the fake that Lars can feel alive.

    • Masha Tupitsyn

      Part II: Then there’s also the problem of narcissism. Is it simply important that we feel, feel for the sake of feeling, regardless of WHAT we’re feeling or feeling for? Does it matter what/who is on the receiving end of that feeling? Only through the fake does love feel natural to Lars. The whole town goes along with Lars’ delusion because in today’s world, it isn’t a delusion. They only care that Lars is feeling something, for someone. They don’t care about the source. So while our desires and needs might still be very real, the vehicles for their expression (their ability to come across as real), are often synthetic and contrived. This is what makes the Blade Runner replicants so moving, as you point out—the fact that they’re more human than the humans of the future. They are the humans of the past. Rather than being defunct mechanisms (hardware) of the future, the replicants are relics of the past, and perhaps of what we were once capable of being and feeling. While our media culture pretends as though it gives us constant vehicles for the expression of our deepest desires, it feels as though what we’re expressing and feeling looks and sounds a lot like what we’ve seen and heard on TV. In a movie. On Oprah. Lars projects and transfers his desires onto something fake and this makes his desires and experiences “real” (as I noted before, catharsis comes in the form of silicone). But in the meantime, where does the real end and the fake begin? Before fake was outside. Not all the way in. fake was on top of real, or alongside it. Fake was divisible from real and real was divisible from fake. There were seams and we could see them. Today, there is less and less room for fake to hide. Not because there is less fake now, but because fake has gone inside, and for most of us, that’s as good as real.

      Anyway, thanks for your thought provoking piece. It is what’s been on my mind for a long time.

  • Mary Gaitskill

    Okay, part one: How do we get to the real,’ I hesitate because I’m not sure we’re talking about the same thing but here goes. To me, reality TV shows and that which can be ‘packaged, branded and regurgitated’ don’t have much to do with it. I realize that is a big piece of the overweening culture now, but that is mass culture and that is not something that I live in most of my time on a daily basis–I don’t think its where most people live basically because you can’t live in it. In my case, I don’t even have a TV–its just circumstantial, its not a philosophical statement, I’ve just not been that interested most of my life. I get to the real in being with people, either casually or deeply. I can hear in it their voices, see it in their eyes, feel it in touch–or not. I think you can get it in a quick conversation with somebody on the subway; you have a nice exchange and you see the life in their eyes, they see yours. Its the simplest thing there is. You can also get it by yourself, just looking at things. I think you are being rhetorical by asking if beauty can exists without cosmetic surgery, but just in case, I have known many beautiful people and none of them have had cosmetic surgery. I’m not against cosmetic surgery, I’m an older person, and in NYC, I see it alot; if its done well, it can tweak a person’s natural beauty in a very flattering way and make them look better. But it can’t create something that’s not there at all, or I’ve never seen that. The reason Courtney Love’s surgical transformation did not really work: it gave her a face that was technically beautiful but had nothing, nothing to do with her inner quality, the way she feels when you stand in a room with her, and for that reason she did not read beautiful. On the other hand, there’s people who, when you look closely, are not technically beautiful, but they are able to project in such a way that they read beautiful. That has something to do with their character, nothing to do with goodness or morality, more with vitality. What I am talking about is very hard, btw, to brand or package.

    • Mary Gaitskill

      But I think we are basically agreeing that the real has a complex relation to the fake. I’ve never seen the movie you’re talking about (”Lars”) but it sounds metaphorical, the fake boob thing, and a metaphor for something which has been happening forever. Lolita was written a long time ago, but its a story about a fantasy of crushing power, a potent unreality that demonically blurs with reality–and eventually yields its pith of actual love, which is in a way more terrible because it can exist with the ruthless nature of its fantasy casing. Bleak House by Dickens is even older, and one of the big parts of the story is how people–Lord and Lady Dedlock–have built totally fake personas for themselves, fakes in which at least one of them absolutely believes, until he is forced to break and the true character emerges. People have always been willing to take the false deep inside because it’s flattering and protective, and people often prefer to see themselves through its lens. Sometimes too it works to express things that are too private to show in the raw natural state. That is what art is for, but that’s a whole other subject, and I”m probably going off the deep end already.

      But thanks for responding, its a very compelling subject for me too.
      Oh, one more thing, that is the devil has always been largely about fake. THat is why he’s so closely connected to fun, costume parties, Halloween. And he is old as dirt!

  • Markus Kirschner

    I really enjoyed this piece. I couldn’t help but thinking of one of my favorite novels, Madame Bovary. That book is such a great depiction of a human trapped in the mechanism of her own desire. Emma Bovary is a woman “robotically repeating a pattern of life that doesn’t allow anyone or anything to touch her.” And the irony is that all she wants is to be touched. It’s like she’s addicted addicted to emotion and the machine inside her won’t ever let her be content. There’s no satiating her appetite, certainly not from the machines playing in the background of that novel – the printing press churning out the trash romances she reads, the lathe making the napkin rings, the looms weaving the cloths she buys on credit. It’s odd how contemporary that novel feels to me. If only we could all break free, maybe something would finally change:

    • Mary Gaitskill

      THanks Marcus, I just looked at that Emma Bovary/Queen piece, its really nice!

  • Amy P

    I loved the Bovary/Breaking Free piece too. I believe we can break free, and do each time we see the life in someone’s eyes, or read, write or experience something approaching Mary’s extraordinary recognition here:

    Lolita was written a long time ago, but its a story about a fantasy of crushing power, a potent unreality that demonically blurs with reality–and eventually yields its pith of actual love, which is in a way more terrible because it can exist with the ruthless nature of its fantasy casing.

    All these things are actually connection with another person, with their art or with the life force: they’re about being part of the eternity of human experience. This takes feeling and warmth, or in their absence abstract faith and trust. This kind of trust is hard to have, but if you can last through the forest fire, the new growth is exquisitely sweet and tender. We do revive after life scrapes us empty. There’s great power in this coming back to life.

    The woman in Wallace Steven’s poem Sunday morning says ” I am content when wakened birds, Before they fly, test the reality Of misty fields, by their sweet questionings.” If you’ve ever watched birds take off from a roof or a field, you you’ve seen this and know that even birds in their animal innocence (thank you Mary, for that idea of beauty) are unsure what to trust, what is real. Which brings us to the machine and the real, and how we are made mechanical by grief. I love Mary’s description:

    In other words, the human becomes a screaming creature caught in the cogs and wheels of the machine his own feelings brought into being — or it is his reaction to his feelings that have brought it into being?
    It’s so beautiful to ask that question, because of course if we can figure out what brought the machine into being we can (we hope) find our way out — break free. We don’t know why nowhere girl is the way she is — it could be as simple as she is trying to avoid her suitor, but intuitively I felt that she had been hurt in some horrendous way and was twisting in that terrible machine.

  • Amy P

    I was a hooker for ten years, and during that time I remember seeing a movie at the Paris cinema, next to the Plaza. It was a love story but I don’t remember anything about the film. I just remember being lost in cascades of grief as I watched the onscreen couple kissing. I felt my entire body was encased in ice much like the metal of the robot girl in Metropolis. It seemed there’d always be a ravine between me and any other. It seemed I’d always be alone and crying, as I was then in that velvety dark theater, trapped and cold in a block of ice that kept me far from everyone. It seemed I could never be real, break free.

    I got out eventually, and one of the things that helped the most was a technique dancers use called body awareness. The principle is basically: if you can’t feel your foot, or your hip or your finger – make something up in your imagination and say that’s what it feels like. It helps dancers gain exquisite control of their bodies. It helped me literally feel my body come back to warmth and life — to real. And it definitely was real, because we can only experience the real with our imagination, with the mind.

    This didn’t help with another painful problem, which was that while being around mean, cruel people was something I was used to and could handle with ease, being with kind people terrified me, splintered me, and I couldn’t stay with them — I had to run away. What helped the most was realizing I was doing this, and deliberately trying to stay with kind people a little longer each time we met. Expecting the discomfort and fear, but enduring through it. Amazingly it worked. I went from brief cups of coffee with friends to being able to spend an entire night with my husband. It was tough for awhile, this staying with no space in between. Wittgenstein said the only way to understand something is to experience it. I had to experience the staying molecularly in my body, not just understand it with my mind.

    We are all so moved the pain of the video machine man who’s wife has left. I’ve thought a lot about this: But what if the reason the wife can’t feel it any more is that, as strong and pure as it is, it’s somehow become detached from her yet continues pumping away regardless of her? After all, the heart, which we traditionally speak of as the locus of our deepest feelings, is a kind of functional little machine, complete with valves.

  • Amy P

    It’s a mysterious, beautiful question. We can’t know the answer without knowing more about the couple — sometimes love can become as terrifying as the love within the perverse machine in Lolita Sometimes people should not be together. Sometimes they should.

    I do believe that if the wife wanted to feel the man’s love, it would be possible to do so. It would probably take time. At the beginning it would be an act of will. But I think love awareness can be practiced like body awareness. If you don’t feel the love at first, create a feeling for what you know is the love (just as you know what is your left big toe, for example). It will become a real feeling and you will bask in it’s warmth. At least, that’s how it’s worked for me.

    Of course, feeling and sensing is neurologically easier for some than others. In addition to all the terrible effects of trauma which profoundly impact sensation, people are born with different neurological patterns. Some people can’t neurologically feel light touch, but feel and long for deep muscle contact. Some people have a neurology that takes in the vastness of life without filters — in this wider awareness of the world, people are smaller and farther away, thus harder to connect to, to feel. Thus what sounds to most like an orchestra sounds to them like instruments screaming at each other in cacophony.

    I believe Nabokov had such a neurology. He was able to cultivate the hyper reality he lived in. Through this he found a way to spiritually transform the terrible losses he went through into the tremendous gift of seeing every moment as new and strange, and he passed this on to us with the meaning and beauty of his work. It’s why his writing has no sense of the ordinary. It’s how he broke free. We can re-experience that freedom when we read him, and in doing so our own experience of the world becomes wider more beautiful: his words change our molecules and how we experience the real. Your writing does this too Mary.

    This vast experiential neurology also helps explain why Nabokov could write rapturously of a young man listening to his lover play the piano in the story “Sounds,” while N couldn’t listen to his beloved son Dmitri sing in an opera with an orchestra and chorus, and had to attend performances wearing ear plugs. One piano was beauty, while scores of instruments together became (neurologically) unbearable.

  • Amy P

    Thank you so much everyone for giving me such beautiful things to think on. I wish you all real-feeling beauty, pressing your lips and eyes and hands.

    Like a rose rabbi, later, I pursued,
    And still pursue, the origin and course
    Of love, but until now I never knew
    That fluttering things have so distinct a shade.

    Wallace Stevens, from Le Monocle de Mon Oncle, a poem about love in Middle Age.

    Here is a video ofSandra singing Maria Magdalena from 1985. A kind of Eurowave Traviata with a Metropolis theme

    (My husband’s favorite video from back when he as 14, for which I am eternally grateful :-D)

  • Amy P

    I in no way mean to suggest that someone should force themselves to feel love when they don’t want to or be with someone they don’t love. But love is is not only something that feels or does not feel real. Its what you do, the decisions you make. I was referring to a situation where one wants to feel or be attached to someone’s love because in the past they did feel it. And they want that back, because the person still loves them.

    I don’t mean to be preachy. I just hate to think of wonderful people trapped by machines and in pain.

    Of course in sadness we experience transformation:

    that is why it is so important to be solitary and attentive when one is sad: because the seemingly uneventful and motionless moment when our future steps into us is so much closer to life than that other loud and accidental point of time when it happens to us as if from outside. The quieter we are, the more patient and open we are in our sadnesses, the more deeply and serenely the new presence can enter us, and the more we can make it our own, the more it becomes our fate.”

  • Amy P

    When a polar bear releases trauma after tranqulization, he seems caught in a machine:

    I’ve found s-induced neurogenic tremors (like the polar bears’) incredibly healing, re that caught in machine feeling:


    • Amy P

      There’s a lot more videos about these neurogenic tremors (which are currently being induced via machine but can be self-induced) at:

      I know this is a very applied response to profound philosophical questions — just including it as another aspect of being real and the body, soul as machine

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Mary Gaitskill is the author of the novels: "Veronica," "Two Girls, Fat and Thin," and "The Mare." She has also written three books of stories: "Bad Behavior," "Because They Wanted To," and "Don't Cry," and a book of essays, entitled "Somebody with a Little Hammer." More Mary Gaitskill here.