The Calagari Effect

In an earlier life, I was an opera singer and one of my first roles was a small supporting role in Verdi’s “La Traviata”. I would sit in the wings and watch rehearsals and performances following another role I hoped to grow into in the future. This character enters in the third act and begins to tell the heroine a story that will change the course of her life and consequently, the opera. The moment is etched in my mind; the character enters and tries to persuade the soprano to leave her lover for the good of the lover’s family and ultimately all concerned. Actually not that moment but the moment where I thought to myself, “is he lying?” It seems that in movies, plays and many other media that we assume that when someone is speaking that they are telling the truth. We never think that like Otello (or Othello if you prefer) we are being fed a lie, and are being manipulated. Indeed the greatest examples of this is from Robert Wiene’s “The Cabinet of Dr Calagari” where in the entire story we are being told turns out to be the point of view from a man in an insane asylum and may be entirely untrue. And yet for the entirety of the story we believe what he says having no reason to doubt our tale. This Calagari effect means that we take everything as true until we are forced by circumstance to prove it true or otherwise.
This “Calagari effect” takes on new importance in this internet age. Every moment we are on the internet we are being inundated with information and yet we have no ability to validate much of it. I work with an associate in Chennai India and on a lark I googled pictures of his city. Having never been there I have to ask, is this really Chennai? If so or not, how do I know? As we rely more and more on the internet to give us experiences and help us understand the world outside of ourselves, how can we divine that we are seeing what is truly there? Perhaps the greatest gift of the internet is instilling in us the doubt of what is really there and force us to look for truth beyond the keyboard.


a scene from The Cabinet of Dr Calagari