[1944] Gaslight

Regardless of whether or not sonder is a “real” word, the feeling is essential to existence. Directly from The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows:

“…the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.”

In short, sonder is the response to a life of isolation, of predictable dread, and of mental instability. Nineteen forty-four’s Gaslight asks the audience to follow a life unexamined, but not one suspended by choice. Ingrid Bergman as Paula wonders whether her whole existence is sonder from herself. Her sadistic husband, Gregory (Charles Boyer), begins to encourage the idea of the whole world as random passersby living vividly; that everyone else’s ambitions are justified, while hers are shameful and squarely unique; that everyone else is the main story and that she is the extra in her own life. One might argue sonder is a stalwart of the human condition, predating the confines of its definition. A more narrow-minded skeptic would respond that the unbearable and crushing feeling of aloneness is a technocratic achievement, tipped in a free-falling direction with the advent of the Internet. Others might argue for tautology – “it is what it is,” and that without definition, the concept does not exist at all. Gaslight proves the first one more believably true. Without the Internet to spread the definition, Paula, trapped if not for deus ex detective, would have felt like a spectator to her own life. She is sonder.

As a piece of modern canon, “gaslighting” is a torture technique that works the psyche into delirium through repeated marginalization of thought, forcing the victim to entrap themselves in a limbo of belief. By breaking mind, the torturer hopes to extract information or pain, or both. While serving as the basis for the film, a further question presents itself: can sonder be learned or unlearned? Effectively, Gregory would manipulate and confound Paula’s environment so she believed that the environmental inconsistencies were her own projections and that the isolation was simultaneously her fault and for her own good. Gregory, motivations unknown for the time being, attempts to force the belief on Paula that she is living a life as a random passerby and that a rejection of societal norms and individual needs was not only in Paula’s best interest, but of her own choosing. But for external factors and that he did not go deep enough into her psyche, this plan ultimately fails, adding anecdotal answer to this question: sonder is not a nurtured condition, but a natural one, pertinent to lucid thought and introspection.

Going My Way won Best Picture in 1944, positioning the year as a softer take on the human spirit than Gaslight or Double Indemnity [ed. – this author’s favorite movie], and paints a different pattern than Since You Went Away or Wilson. The American spirit, as it turns out, cannot be broken by stick or stone. The Academy voting this way demonstrates a clear link between the zeitgeist at the height of the American storm, and the precipice of self-actualization and more complicated climate for the future.

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