Of Time, Narrative, and 'Cast Away'

modified from a presentation to the American Academy of Psychoanalysis,
New Orleans, May 4, 2001

Douglas H. Ingram, M.D.

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
--from Four Quartets, T. S. Eliot

Cast Away, a shameless jamboree of product placement, expresses the best and worst of Hollywood--the best in its dramatic and psychologically astute depiction of the physical, psychological and spiritual challenges of the castaway--and the worst in its reliance on sentimental mush to employ the challenge of interpersonal relationship. It is, really, two movies. We need to overlook the tedium and predictability of the love story and appreciate the cinematic artistry showing the castaway's plight. The film begins as it ends, at a crossroads somewhere in Texas--in the middle of a nowhere that contains the potential for everywhere. In ending where it begins, Chuck Noland (Tom Hanks)--a FedEx executive with legendary adherence to the company's ethos--is revealed as having entered an enigmatic dimension beyond both time and space. Relationally, he is suspended between the secularity of his fiancée Kelly who is contextualized by civilization and the city of Memphis, and the spirituality and aesthetic of Bettina whose isolation reprises his own. Annoyingly (to this viewer), in the final camera shot of the movie, Noland peers inscrutably into the camera as if to suggest something between himself and the film's audience. A touch of irony plays into his expression. We are supposed to imagine he has understood something about the real value of life, or whatever.

To me, the brilliance of the film is in the depiction of the vicissitudes of the castaway's mental state. Apparently, according to the official Cast Away website, the screenwriter William Broyles, Jr., actually lived briefly on a barren island in order to learn what it might be like for the character he was creating. Broyles, we are told, also reviewed the writings of castaways to gain insight into the difficulties they encounter. He succeeds: it is in his depicting how a castaway maintains some semblance of psychological integrity in a prelapsarian world that Broyles triumphs.

How does his character Noland manage? After getting no reply to calls for help or to his "help" sign consisting of logs on a beach, he tries to escape from the island. The breakers toss him helplessly back on the sharp coral that reefs the island. We learn much later that he could retain some sense of mastery over his little world by killing himself--a less hopeful approach and rather without charm--and yet that, too, fails.

The solution, astounding and compelling, occurs with his discovery of how to make fire. At a blow--beyond the material benefit of fire which now enables him to eat crab, the most nourishing food available--he gains two critical psychological advantages: first, he achieves ego stability, and, second, as another partial expression of the same process, he reconstitutes time. We will regard these developments through a narrativist sensibility, considering each in turn, but interpolating a discussion of transference-related material.

The Dialogic Other and Ego Stability

The Other comes into being after Noland lacerates his hand trying to make fire. In a rage, he violently smacks his torn and bleeding hand against the Wilson-brand volleyball that had drifted to shore in a FedEx package. With sweat and spit, he draws eyes and a mouth on the bloody smudge. He sets the ball on a rotted tree stump. The drawn face, darkly red, seems on fire. As Noland resumes rubbing sticks together to make fire, he glances at the volleyball and asks, "You wouldn't have a match by any chance, would you?" At that moment, smoke is emitted and flames soon follow. His request for a match turns out to be a petitionary prayer. With the making of fire, an epiphany of creation celebrated through singing and dancing, Noland calls out in ironic exuberance, Look what I have created--I have made fire! Yet we suspect Noland secretly believes that it is not he who created the fire, but the newly vitalized volleyball that is responsible. It is a created idol, a fire god who has done the job. It is the prayer, and the serendipitous realization of the request that has sparked an independent discursive existence, a dissociated ego state, that invests the volleyball. At a stroke, fire is created and a god is created. Retrospectively, the act of praying created the god. Perhaps, we speculate, at the dawn of humankind language arose first in dialogue with a created Other, with a god. Chuck's next words, and now spoken to the ball soon to be known as Wilson, are, "You gotta love crab." The conversation begins.

Wilson is the ready recipient of a dissociated ego state that manifests as a dialogic Other. The process is non-psychotic. Although dialogic relationships are possible within a more unified psychic state, the utterances that result are random and have the quality of "talking to oneself." As such, there is no single dialogic Other, but instead an uncertain set of fragments. Rather like the child's invisible friend, Wilson is a well-organized, affectively competent persona. What is necessary is the replacement of monologism with dialogism, what Bakhtin calls double-voiced discourse. Once established, Noland enjoys dialogized self-consciousness. He addresses the discourse of the Other, which, as Lacan emphasizes, is more nearly himself than his own actual subjectivity. Because Noland's self-consciousness has become thoroughly dialogized, the loss of Wilson is loss of self. Once Wilson comes into being, he is present in every scene with Noland. They are never apart.

Wilson is not merely an invented friend of random characteristics or a cinematic device to avoid reliance on voice-over. Wilson possesses specifiable dissociated traits of Noland, himself. His is the discourse of the reasonable, prudent, civilized man Noland once was. Although empathic and caring, Wilson is something of an authority. He is conservative and mildly ironic. His is the voice of concern about there not being enough time to build the raft leading to escape from the island. He seems to articulate fears about leaving the island before Noland does, and he seems to counsel against leaving. He insists that Noland retrieve rope from the trial hanging of the year before. And it was he, at that earlier time, who suggested that Noland test the rope and noose with a log. Wilson, the idol, the fire-god, the repository of a benign superego, receives Noland's anguished apologies both when Noland angrily smacks him out of the cave and, later, when Wilson drifts helplessly away from the raft. What a poignant scene, that latter! What a testament to Zemeckis and Hanks that we feel so strongly as Noland must choose between Wilson and the raft! There is nothing for Noland after Wilson's loss but loss of self, of life--unless there is a return to civilization.

Why cannot Kelly, his fiancée from Memphis, serve as the dialogic Other? She is an icon of the civilization from which he has come and to which he hopes to return. Similarly, Bettina, the sender of the Fedex package with its painted angel wings also is not indigenous to the island. Each provides hope and continuance of identity, not companionship. The photo of Kelly provides an everlasting image of hope and identity in its secular dimension. The photo, in its meaning, trumps by far and underscores the pointlessness of the non-functioning pocket watch in which it is encased. The FedEx package with its angel wings, its unknown sender, unknown recipient, and--importantly--unknown contents, promote hope and identity in a spiritual dimension. In this, the Fedex corporation embodies an idealized vision of mastery and control through the act of punctual deliverance. The forbearance in opening the package and the hope of its eventual delivery provide an ongoing antidote to despair, different but no less important to psychic stability than the dialogue with Wilson or the image of Kelly. It is because the bloody smear on the volleyball is more entirely a creation of Noland, a direct consequence of his misfortune, and seeming to be the author of fire that it serves as a dialogic Other. It is constituted, materially, of Noland's own blood, after all. The adaptive, stable dissociative process that renders Wilson an effective Other, a vital attachment object worth risking his life for, attests to the meaningfulness of this psychic device. In adaptive living, Noland's Wilson, born of a Fedex package, Noland's own blood, and vitalized into an effective dissociated ego system by its seeming to enable fire-making, will be shed on Noland's return to civilization. Meanwhile, with the simultaneous creation of fire and Wilson, Noland's internal and external worlds stabilize.

"Wilson," Apostrophes, and the Analytic Relationship

I would now like to take another turn at this matter. Wilson is an apostrophe--which I will explain in a moment. Since those of us who practice clinical psychoanalytic therapy are in a manner of speaking also apostrophes, we may feel a curious identity with "him."

By apostrophe, I do not refer to the upwardly displaced comma inserted in contractions, that word form our English teachers once warned mustn't be used in formal prose. In fact, the more general meaning of apostrophe is as a rhetorical term referring to something that is used to represent something else that is absent or gone. It was Lacan's contribution, or maybe his trick, to partially reference what these days we call defense mechanisms as Greek rhetorical terms of art. Condensation and displacement are famously viewed by Lacan in the rhetorical dimension as metonymy and metaphor. In drawing our attention to this, Lacan's observations serve us well. After all, for Aristotle and his compeers, it was in rhetoric and poetics that we most nearly encounter what we call psychodynamic psychology nowadays. If we take a bit of time to explore other rhetorical devices used by the Greeks, we come across apostrophe.

Transference implies apostrophe. As a transference apostrophe, the analyst substitutes for some aspect of the absent parent. That is, what the patient says is regarded as partially responsive to what the patient interprets the analyst to be saying or thinking. The patient responds to the presumed discourse of the unconsciously constructed parent. The parent is apostrophized as the analyst. Enough said. Now, back to Wilson and company.

As already noted, before the simultaneous creation of fire and of Wilson, Noland's vocalizations are what we might call monologic. With the advent of Wilson, Noland speaks in a coherent thoughtful way to a specific other and Noland gains dialogized consciousness. As psychoanalysts in the consulting room, we want to learn how this dialogic Other is constituted, what are its historical antecedents, and whether it possesses conflictual components. We also consider the behavioral and affective correlates that proceed from the dialogue. Wilson is an apostrophe organized as a non-psychotic dissociated ego state that, by enabling dialogized consciousness, provides the central psychic stability Noland needs for survival. A tenet of discourse theory is that every word, spoken, written, or silently imagined, must have a receiving audience. All coherent language requires an interlocutor, imaginary or otherwise.

The integrative function of the psychoanalyst is akin in certain respects to that of Wilson. Both are apostrophes. Both provide a device for effective dialogue, for dialogized consciousness through which autobiographical narrative can be evolved, enriched, and integrated. Of course, as analysts we provide through our own aliveness and attention to technical matters more than a imaginary dialogic other. We are not solely apostrophes, after all. We enable the working through of unconscious obstacles to the enrichment of narrative and we enable the internalization of a regulatory capacity for narratives lively emotional coloration. It is our task among others to assist in the correction of those misidentifications inherent in transference distortions.

Perhaps like Wilson, each of us in our role with our patients springs into a life fashioned largely by our patient's psyche in the castaway's world that constitutes the analyst's office. Through projective mechanisms I think that happens far more than we realize. Perhaps in their alienation, our patients are more truly castaways than they, or we, imagine. Perhaps like Wilson (who becomes graced with a straw hair that matches his "creator"), each of us is essentially a construction and substitution--an apostrophe-- for some imaginary and largely unconscious sector of our patient's psyches. As part of this process of construction, the experience of time is reconstituted--a matter that is notably prominent in the film.

Reconstituting Time

It is the timely delivery of packages that is envisioned as signifying both the triumph and vacuity of modernity, especially in its commitment to time consciousness. Noland is marooned on a tropical island in the South Pacific barren not only of human habitation, but of animal life including birds and insects, flowering plants and even (zounds!) of a music soundtrack. The company motto, 'The World on Time,' is mocked by the flotsam of FedEx packages that drift ashore from the plane wreckage. For Noland, the linearity of modern time collapses into the cyclicity of pre-modern time, really, the timelessness of diurnal rhythms, of tides, and annual shifts in how the wind blows. As any dyed-in-the-wool Horneyan knows, the individual psyche is structured along cultural lines and, in this case, we observe Noland's loss of what is so central to our modern culture, namely, Newtonian time. Newtonian or clock time, rather a recent idea in the eons of human existence, holds time to be regular, unerring, and inexorably advancing regardless of what events might be happening within its frame. Even God, since Newton (never mind Einstein), exists within regularized time. This loss of linear time, we think, creates a challenge to psychic integrity that Noland must overcome. It is the loss of linear time that, with his aloneness, Noland finds his greatest challenge after food, water and shelter.

Says Noland in his passionate address to the Moscow FedEx personnel at the opening of the film: "We live or we die by the clock. We must not commit the sin of losing track of time . . . It took 87 hours and 22 min for the package to be delivered from Memphis to Moscow... It took less time for the cosmos to be created!" Not much later, Noland's first action after washing onto shore is to check the time, first on his beeper and then on the pocket watch given to him by Kelly. It had belonged to her grandfather who used it, ironically, in the South Pacific. She gave it to Noland as a Christmas gift, reciprocating his Christmas gift to her, a beeper--all the better to tell time with. Doused in sea water, neither of Noland's timepieces function. We expect that soon after he washes ashore he will begin to track time-- setting up a sun dial, constructing a calendar a la Robinson Crusoe, or cleverly mapping the position of the stars and planets and the phases of the moon. He does mark the days and months, determining how and when the winds and tides shift. But that's all. We might reasonably wonder how the compulsive attention to time, a deeply felt punctuality, has no manifestation on the island. In fact, even for one less obsessionally organized than Noland a careful tracking of the winds, tides, stars, phases of the moon, and a sequencing of the days could be regarded as a useful means for retaining psychic stability. He is on the island, he writes on his would-be epitaph, for "1500 days." Would we expect him to round off to the nearest hundred? No. Would not a person of his character structure show precision--especially when precision doesn't cost anything? He is perfectly comfortable with mathematics, calculating in moments the search area (twice the size of Texas) and, later, of establishing precisely the number of feet of rope he will need to build a raft. Also, would not camera shots showing the change in markings on a primitive calendar have been preferable cinematically to the caption, "Four Years Later?"

Before we fault the screenwriter for lacking the capacity to create a cohesive character or the director for perhaps sacrificing mimesis for the sake of viewers who might find such obsessionalism too nerdy, let's consider another possibility. Time, as he knew it, was lost for Noland when he arrived on the island. He was time's servant--and time's master. Time was his constant companion. Linear time abandoned Noland and Noland, out of a perverse vindictiveness, I submit, was not going to reconstitute time in the same way. Time abandoned him. He would abandon time. Now, on the island, time was almost without relevance. In these circumstances, keeping the time and date could only be little more than an amusement. And Noland was not amused. Past and future had no meaning. Only the present mattered. As Eliot writes, "If all time is eternally present/All time is unredeemable." The hell with time. Besides, who needs time when you have Wilson?

Once Wilson is created, there is dialogue and narrative. Narrative, as I am using it here, pre-exists time. Dialogue is a special kind of narrative--it affirms and regularizes narrative. But now, I want to be especially careful. By narrative, I refer to some pre-subjective neural processing engaged in sequencing and through which the experience of time is enabled. Narrative, by this definition, precedes language let alone time. Language, however, prompts subjective awareness of internal narrative, much the same as rhythm and music. This gives us, here, an opportunity to bring the neurosciences into play.

In Antonio Damasio's 1999 study of consciousness, a novel conception of narrative--one that I will take as requisite to the experience of time--is set forth. Damasio argues that what we take as an extended consciousness with its linguistic capacity rides "on top of the foundational core consciousness which we and other species have long had and continue to have ... Telling stories, in the sense of registering what happens in the form of brain maps, is probably a brain obsession and probably begins relatively early both in terms of evolution and in terms of the complexity of the neural structures required to create narratives. Telling stories precedes language, since it is, in fact, a condition for language." (p. 188-189)

Mapped within the structures of the brain are the internal states of the organism. These constitute first-order mappings. These mappings are re-represented on second order mappings. Second-order mappings probably occur in specifiable brain structures, most likely the superior colliculi, the cingulate cortex, the thalamus, and some prefrontal cortices. "[O]ne might say that the swift, second order nonverbal account narrates a story: that of the organism caught in the act of representing its own changing state as it goes about representing something else. But the astonishing fact is that the knowable entity of the catcher has just been created in the narrative of the catching process." [author's emphasis] (p. 170)

Manfred Spitzer provides a more detailed explanation using neural net theory. He explains that in what is called an Ellman network, there is a hidden layer of neurons that map one-to-one the contents of a primary layer of neurons, the so-called context layer. The primary layer of neurons is modified first, then, almost instantly, the identical modifications occur in the hidden layer. Further modification of the context layer occurs, again followed by the same change in the hidden layer--and so forth. This creates the possibility of contextual meaning, sequence and memory--the essentials for experiencing the tenses of time and duration. From this perspective, spoken narrative captures some small fraction of the neural narrative. Conceptually, the investigations of Damasio and Spitzer reinscribe our sense of time experience as narrativist.

As much as possible, Noland dispenses with time. Time exists in its most primitive form as simple reflexive timing, as in his precise spear-fishing. When leaving the island becomes an organized possibility, timing is replaced by time. Temporal planning emerges once again. Until then, the external markings of time are largely dissolved in the dialogue with Wilson. With the eventual loss of Wilson and Noland's return to civilization, ordinary linear time is reconstituted again--but not quite. Can Noland ever care again about punctual FedEx delivery? The package he brings to Bettina was the package that she had sent. He returns it to her, undelivered. And in his car beside him, easily overlooked by the viewing audience, is ... a brand new Wilson volleyball.


Damasio, Antonio R. (1999). The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness, Harcourt Brace & Co., NY.

Spitzer, M. (1999). The Mind within the Net: Models of Learning, Thinking, and Acting. MIT Press,
Cambridge, MA.

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