I will argue that The Affair is a philosophically interesting piece of TV drama which raises deep questions in the areas of memory and our access to “the truth.” Some of these may be understood by reference to Nietzsche’s account of truth (and some of them relate to interpretations of quantum mechanics!) There are no significant spoilers and no references to events beyond the first episode.
The aspect of The Affair that is most immediately apparent is that it is told from multiple perspectives. This is made dramatically arresting by the way it becomes clear that the different perspectives are incoherent with each other — and probably with themselves. In this, the situation parallels real life.
Moreover, the cinematography seems to reflect this. Noah’s view seem somewhat brighter literally and metaphorically. Alison seems more beautiful, which partly perhaps reflects the way she smiles more in his section and could also mean that he perceives her as being more beautiful than she perceives herself to be. It is also a reflection of her affective state, presumably. There are interesting feminist points to be made here also about the male vs the female perspective.
I will focus on a single tiny episode and note the multiple readings. As a preliminary, I should point out that the story at this point is being told in flashback from a subsequent police interview.
The episode in question is when Noah is approaching up the driveway of Alison’s house while she is having sex with her husband in the driveway. The sex is rather aggressive and it is unclear to Noah whether an assault is taking place. The precise event I wish to discuss is that in Noah’s version, Alison shakes her head. Noah appears to interpret this as meaning “no, this is not an assault.”
The head shake does not appear in Alison’s version. There are at least seven readings of this.
- Noah remembers it because it happened but Alison does not remember it.
- Noah remembers it falsely and Alison does not remember it because it does not happen.
- Noah does not remember it because it did not happen but is reporting it to the police for reasons of his own.
- Something happened which Noah remembers as a head shake but which Alison remembers as something else.
- Noah remembers the head shake correctly but Alison has forgotten it.
- Both Noah and Alison remember the head shake correctly but Alison has omitted to mention it because it does not seem important to her.
- Both Noah and Alison remember the head shake correctly but Alison has deliberately not reported it for reasons of her own.
I hope it will serve as an indication of the dramatic quality of this production that this amount of consideration needs to go in to a single micro-event!
How does this relate to Nietzsche?
The starting point of Nietzsche’s doctrine of Perspectivism holds that we need to take multiple perspectives to approach the truth. In a way, it is post-modern in that it denies there is any one truth. There are only truths from a perspective. Put another way, since god is dead, there is no omniscient unbiased perspective from which there could be a single truth.
This does not mean Nietzsche is a nihilist or someone who thinks there can be no better or worse ways of proceeding. He instead claims that the optimal approach is one that adopts multiple perspectives. He then adds a couple of typically radical Nietzschean riders which really give the position a strong flavour.
Many philosophers would proceed thus far and then say “but it is important to avoid contradictions.” Not only does Nietzsche not do this, he does the exact opposite. He says that the wisest choice is to hold multiple perspectives especially when they are contradictory!
This is what I think is being brought out in The Affair with great aplomb and intelligence. I commend it to you.
(I won’t discuss the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics here, but I think it is also in play, not least because it is actually mentioned by Noah.)