What is Freedom?

By Jin-yeong Yi

“Liberty? Why it doesn’t exist. There is no liberty in this world, just gilded cages.”

—Aldous Huxley

For me, the fundamental problem of life is not suffering or “sin.” The problem is unfreedom. From my perspective, this world is fundamentally a prison. Prison is not so much a place as a state, a state in which freedom is restricted in any way. In this sense, prison extends far beyond the gray walls of the buildings in which offenders of the law are confined. Schools are part of this prison. So are places of worship. So are offices. Supermarkets. Restaurants. Libraries. Movie theaters. Hospitals. Malls. Bars. Casinos. Airports. Roads. Beaches. Forests. Mountains. Tropical islands. Even home sweet home is, at the end of the day, a glorified jail cell. A free-range prison is still prison. No matter where we are or what we are doing in our waking lives, we are slaves to time and space, our imaginations shackled by the immutable decrees of nature.

This state of unfreedom is not limited to a particular geopolitical region or era. If the historical record speaks the truth, there was never any “Golden Age” in the past, and it seems most unlikely that there will ever be one in the future. While I am not indifferent to the earnest and unceasing efforts to improve the human condition, I recognize that the best I could hope for from the sum of all ideological, military, and scientific victories is a more comfortable incarceration. You can’t redeem a prison, even supposing that you manage to eradicate war, poverty, ignorance, and corruption and develop technology that is indistinguishable from magic. The invisible yet palpable metaphysical walls and shackles that deny us true freedom would still remain. The only real redemption is escape.

Along with everyone else, I am serving a prison sentence that will come to an end only when I die. Any sentence here is a life sentence. I recognize that in all likelihood nothing I do will ever change this. No matter how my fortunes change, those vicissitudes will always occur within the context of a metaphysical Shawshank. Even if all the world’s wealth were to fall into my lap tomorrow, the most I would be able to do is purchase a more luxurious corner of this prison in which I exist. I would be comfortable, but not free.

What is freedom? When we think of freedom, we often think of political rights or something along those lines, when real freedom would be existing in a state where there is no need to bother with politics in the first place. Indeed, per my definition, real freedom would mean existing in a state where there is no need to bother with anything at all, even the laws of nature. In other words, true freedom is being able to do anything you can imagine yourself doing–to be a God.

I don’t believe that we will ever know an existence outside of prison. But since hope, unlike belief, does not require justification, I continue to hope that liberation does not mean extinction, and that I and everyone else will one day live life as free men and women. I may be wishing for the impossible, but I don’t think I would be able to settle for anything less.

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Giving the Devil His Due (or, The Case for Satan)

By Jin-yeong Yi

Inverted pentagram (white)

“There are no lines in nature, only areas of color, one against another.”

—Edouard Manet

“Rebellion is the salt of the earth.”

—Joseph McCabe

“If God and the Devil were playing football, Manon would be the stadium that they played in, he would be the sun that shined down on them.”

—Nancy Downs, The Craft

Without Contraries is no progression.
Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy,
Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence.
From these contraries spring what the religious call Good & Evil.
Good is the passive that obeys Reason.
Evil is the active springing from Energy.
Good is Heaven.
Evil is Hell.

—William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

“I am the Lord, and there is none else, there is no God beside me: I girded thee, though thou hast not known me:

That they may know from the rising of the sun, and from the west, that there is none beside me. I am the Lord, and there is none else.

I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things.”

—The Bible, Isaiah 45:5-7 (King James Version)

Where would Star Wars be without Darth Vader? The Lord of the Rings without Sauron? The Matrix without Agent Smith? Where would the traditional Christian narrative be without Satan?

Now, I don’t believe that Father Satan actually exists, but I do tend to take Him seriously as a symbol. Where would God be without an antithesis, without something to provide juxtaposition and conflict? For me, Satan is a reminder that we can’t have light without darkness, purity without corruption, pleasure without pain, sweetness without bitterness, elation without disappointment, joy without sorrow, kindness without cruelty, love without hatred, nobleness without baseness, beauty without ugliness, life without death. Even as I try to avoid the hideous and horrible side of life, I can’t help but think that without it, or the knowledge of it, or at least the ability to imagine it, life would be lifeless.

Of course, Satan and His relationship with God can be perceived in different ways, in the same way that in Hinduism the various aspects of Brahman can be expressed in a plethora of different theologies. There are at least two ways of looking at the relationship: the orthodox perspective, according to which Satan is an independently operating antagonist of God (though not equal to God); and an unorthodox monistic perspective, according to which Satan and God are equal aspects of a single, unified Godhead.

Either way, by contradicting God, Satan complements God, intentionally or not. Satan conspires with God in painting upon the canvas of space-time the picture of all existence. Without Satan, Life would not be Life. For this reason, the more daring among Christian religious naturalists might consider dedicating a small altar to the Prince of Darkness in their churches, if only as a concrete reminder of the indispensable role He plays in the grand design and drama of the cosmos.

If Conflict Did Not Exist, It Would Be Necessary to Invent It

By Jin-yeong Yi

“Contradiction in nature is the root of all motion and of all life.”

—Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

“Be happy, but never satisfied.”

—Bruce Lee

“Actual happiness looks pretty squalid in comparison with the overcompensations for misery. And, of course, stability isn’t nearly so spectacular as instability. And being contented has none of the glamor of a good fight against misfortune, none of the picturesqueness of a struggle with temptation, or a fatal overthrow by passion or doubt. Happiness is never grand.”

—Aldous Huxley

Conflict, it seems to me, is one of the key ingredients of life.  I am not speaking of petty, trivial, soul-killing, and never-ending “conflict” such as financial problems or familial dysfunction; but something I find much more meaningful: the kind of conflict found in stories in which the risks of life-threatening danger are balanced by the thrill of adventure and opportunities for heroism and glory–the stuff of myths and legends. The kind of conflict found in a struggle against misfortune and tragedy–the stuff of poetry. If conflict did not exist, it would be necessary to invent it. It hardly needs to be pointed out that conflict is one of the pillars of narrative structure, and that a story could not exist without it. That’s probably why many fairy tales traditionally end with something along the lines of “And they lived happily ever after,” because once all problems are resolved there is little left to talk about. No conflict, no story.

It seems to me that we seek conflict all the time. Real adventures with real perils (and prizes) are out of the question for most of us, so we settle for the virtual and the vicarious: novels, movies, plays, soap operas, video games, professional sports. We turn to these to satisfy our natural craving for adventure, thrills, and glory, or simply the juxtaposition between different colors.

Many of us tend not to seek conflict within our own lives not only because it’s inconvenient, but also because we know that, unlike a video game, life is unforgiving. Injuries heal slowly, what is lost is regained with difficulty (if regained at all), and if we get a Game Over, that’s that. No wonder we tend to aim for cushy lives of convenience and comfort.

Nevertheless, the desire for conflict never fades because it is, arguably, in the midst of conflict that we feel most alive. And for some of us, feeling alive is more important than feeling happy.

The Magic of Fiction

By Jin-yeong Yi

“A true story, or one taken as true, doesn’t need embellishment and it doesn’t need artistic interpretation. Its truth gives it an intrinsic interest, and that’s enough.
Fiction, on the other hand, is offered as an invention—a lie. The fiction writer’s task is not to tell the literal truth, but to lie artfully—to lie so well that the reader’s interest is engaged as if he were reading the truth.”

—Damon Knight, Creating Short Fiction

“Art is precisely the means by which man makes sense of, and transcends, his own limitations and flaws. Without art—or the arts—there is only flux.”

—Theodore Dalrymple, Our Culture, What’s Left Of It

“Science may set limits to knowledge, but should not set limits to imagination.”

—Bertrand Russell

“‘What is there?’ It can be answered, moreover, in a word—‘Everything’—and everyone will accept this answer as true.”

—W. V. Quine

The power of fiction continues to amaze me. While I’m aware of the brain’s propensity for misinterpreting data and generating illusions[1], I still can’t help but find it remarkable how one can have real emotions about imaginary people and events while being fully aware that they are not real. A fictional story is essentially one big lie from start to finish, and yet we often have no trouble swallowing one whole. Yes, there is a difference between facts and truths, and fiction can illustrate truths, but that’s beside the point. Again, what I find astonishing is that we treat imaginary people as if they are real, even when we know that they are not real. We can react to them in any number of ways. We can get angry with them. We can get annoyed by them. We can share their disappointments and elations, their joys and sorrows. We can fall in love with them. We can even envy them (yes, envy people who don’t exist!). And surely most of us can think of at least one fictional person that our world would be poorer without.

We treat the worlds of novels and movies as if they were parallel universes that actually exist. Of course, imaginary people can “exist” independently of novels and movies; they don’t need a world of their own in order for us to perceive them as “real.” (That’s why virtual pop singer Hatsune Miku has fans from around the world who go to her concerts when they get the chance.)

Also, I find that fiction makes the most sense when I view it as a dream. From this perspective, plotholes, as well as realism and plausibility in general, aren’t exactly of earth-shattering importance. It’s imaginative fiction. It’s a dream, not a documentary. Dreams are often logically inconsistent and are not infrequently downright absurd, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t be enjoyable or edifying, or even enlightening and life-changing. Why must fantasy be brought down to the level of reality? Is not the fundamental goal of fiction to convey an experience, which is something that can be appreciated with or without the element of realism?

When it comes to objective reality, probabilities trump possibilities. But when it comes to subjective fantasy, possibilities far and away trump probabilities.

Notes

[1] See You Are Not So Smart: Why You Have Too Many Friends on Facebook, Why Your Memory is Mostly Fiction, and 46 Other Ways You’re Deluding Yourself by David McRaney and Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

Therefore I Pray to Politics to Make Me Free of Politics

By Jin-yeong Yi

“The theory that the universe is run by a single God must be abandoned, and that in place of it we must set up the theory that it is actually run by a board of gods, all of equal puissance and authority. Once this concept is grasped all the difficulties that have vexed theologians vanish. Human experience instantly lights up the whole dark scene. We observe in everyday life what happens when authority is divided, and great decisions are reached by consultation and compromise. We know that the effects, at times, particularly when one of the consultants runs away with the others, are very good, but we also know that they are usually extremely bad. Such a mixture of good and bad is on display in the cosmos. It presents a series of brilliant successes in the midst of an infinity of bungling failures.”

—H. L. Mencken

“Liberty of the people is not my liberty!”

—Max Stirner, The Ego and Its Own

Arthur Schopenhauer, whose pessimistic writings arguably rival the Book of Ecclesiastes, deliberately paid little attention to politics. As he put it, he minded “not the times, but the eternities.” While I sympathize with this way of thinking, I tend not to ignore politics for the same reason that I don’t ignore the rat race. I recognize that these things affect me directly, and that if I want myself and the people around me to at least be comfortable in the prison in which we exist, I’d do well to devote a reasonable amount of time and energy to them. This is simply one of those “necessities” that come with the “real world,” or what I prefer to call the “lowest common denominator world.” Each of us is a God or Goddess of our own world, but we’re forced to exist in a common world where no one is truly in control (though just about everyone fights for control). In this common world, politics is one of the mechanisms by which the conditions of our common prison can be improved or worsened.

So I do my part, as infinitesimally trivial as that may be, reasoning that doing something is better than doing nothing. I vote, and I advocate any ideas and policies that appear to be the best bet for creating an optimum balance of individual freedom and collective stability, as well as an environment in which the arts and science can flourish. Whether my politics can be called liberal or conservative or libertarian–or a mixture of these–is not terribly important to me. Whatever I may be out of practicality, I am fundamentally an individualist anarchist in spirit–for me, true freedom would not come through politics but from being relieved from the necessity of bothering with politics in the first place.

The Most Precious Pearl of Them All

By Jin-yeong Yi

“‘The person has two states: this one and the state of the other world. The third, intermediate, state is that of dreaming sleep. When he rests in the intermediate state, he sees both states: this one and the state of the other world. When he has gone by whatever way it is that one gains the state of the other world, he sees both evils and joys. When he falls asleep, he takes with him the material of this all-containing world, himself breaks it up, himself re-makes it. He sleeps by his own radiance, his own light. Here the person becomes lit by his own light.
‘There are no chariots, nor chariot-horses, nor roads there, but he creates chariots, chariot-horses and roads. There are no pleasures, nor enjoyments, nor delights there, but he creates pleasures, enjoyments and delights. There are no ponds, nor lotus-pools, nor rivers there, but he creates ponds, lotus-pools and rivers. For he is a maker.’”

The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad

“Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal:

But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal:

For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”

—The Bible, Matthew 6:19-21 (King James Version)

“The self is dearer than a son, dearer than wealth, dearer than any other thing, and deeper within. If someone were speaking of something other than the self as dear, and one were to say of him, ‘He will weep for what is dear to him’, one would very likely be right. One should worship only the self as dear: then what is dear to one is not perishable.”

The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad

“You are walking on the earth as in a dream. Our world is a dream within a dream; you must realize that to find God is the only goal, the only purpose, for which you are here. For Him alone you exist. Him you must find.”

—Paramahansa Yogananda

Here is a riddle for you: What is infinite in size, yet lighter than a feather; greater than all of the wealth in the world, but does not require a safe or a vault for safekeeping?

Do you want to know what it is? More importantly, do you want it for yourself? I will tell you where you can find it.

You do not need to gather any money for it, because it’s not for sale. If it were, not all the gold in the world would be able to buy it, because it is infinite in value. You do not need to risk your life on a long, arduous, and perilous quest for it. It is already within your possession. It is invisible to the naked eye, but it can be easily located. You’re sitting on it. Or, rather, it’s sitting on you. Or, rather, it’s sitting within you. Or better still, it’s a part of you. It has always been a part of you, because you were born with it, by virtue of being human.

It’s your mind.

Am I merely engaging in cheap rhetoric, playing with words, performing verbal card tricks? Let us take some time to examine it, and then you can decide for yourself.

Your knowledge, your thoughts, your memories, your emotions, your desires, your hopes, your dreams–all of these treasures are stored inside of the vault of your mind. Are there many things in this world that you would trade these away for?

Your mind is also a sanctuary. It is your only real refuge from the incessant noise of the so-called “real world.” You can’t find absolute stillness in even the most luxurious vacation resorts, but you can find it in the penetralia of your mind when you go to bed each night. It is the only place in the world that you truly have to yourself.

Your mind is a palace, a palace of the most majestic kind. All the royal edifices that have been created by human hands, as beautiful as they are, look like tawdry playhouses by comparison. The palace that is your mind is not merely vast–it is boundless, fathomless. If you have the necessary knowledge, your palace can be whatever you wish it to be, for you have the power to mold it according to your will. If you do not know how to use your power, you can learn. When you are within your palace, seated upon your throne, fully in control of your native powers, the greatest kings and emperors look like pitiful paupers by comparison. For you are nothing less than a God.

More than anything else, your mind is a universe. It’s your universe, and it is for you to rule, and yet how much larger it is than you! How mysterious it is, how much there is to discover! You will never finish exploring it, not even after billions of years. Its riches and marvels will never be exhausted. It is the only place where all of your wishes are granted, the only place where all of your dreams come true, the only place where your life is a fairy tale.

Perhaps best of all, this treasure of treasures is always with you, no matter where you happen to be on the three-dimensional plane of reality. “Home is where the heart is,” because your mind is your home. You will never need to fret about losing it, because it will exist and be yours for as long as you live.

So why obsess about attaining wealth? You already have the greatest wealth.

Why obsess about attaining power? You already have the greatest power.

Why obsess about attaining a home? You already have the greatest home.

All you need to do is unlock them from the treasure-house that is your mind.

The Perfect Dream

By Jin-yeong Yi

“Who lives longer: the man who takes heroin for two years and dies, or the man who lives on roast beef, water, and potatoes till ninety-five? One passes his twenty-four months in eternity. All the years of the beef eater are lived only in time.”

—Aldous Huxley

On the night before New Year’s Eve, before going to bed, I watched Galaxy Express 999 for what was probably the sixth time. I’d planned to do this before the arrival of the new year, and how wonderful it was to see this movie again and be reminded why exactly I cherished it. This viewing, however, was especially different. This time I understood what the movie actually meant to me.

Summarizing a 113-episode anime series clocking in over 37 hours in a 2 hour feature film naturally entails a great deal of simplification, and no doubt this makes the movie “inferior” to the original series in many ways. But it was precisely that brevity which helped me to realize a few things about the movie as well as fiction itself. What occurred to me for the first time that night was that Galaxy Express 999 was the perfect dream, the kind of dream that I had always wanted to have. I think the movie describes something that many of us have longed for at some point in our lives: an epic poem that is not read but lived, with oneself as the hero.

The narrative of Galaxy Express 999 is an epic poem lived within a dream. It would be impossible for me to make sense of the movie by looking at it in any other way. It would be impossible for me to get around the tremendous implausibility of it all: a homeless teenager accompanied by an immortal princess from another planet, traveling to different worlds on a space train, meeting space pirates, infiltrating a castle (complete with human skulls decorating the stairs) and killing the cyborg who murdered his mother and kept her body as a trophy, and almost single-handedly annihilating an entire planet and surviving to tell the tale with nothing but a few bruises at most. It’s a dream that has a sense of completeness, containing heroes and villains,  joy and sorrow, pleasure and pain, glory and dishonor, love and hatred, beauty and ugliness.

Needless to say, plausibility doesn’t matter in the dream world. After all, what makes the dream world great is precisely what makes it different from the real world–not being bound by rules. The moment you step into the universe of your mind, the laws of nature no longer apply. This strange world needs no apology for absurdities. Things happen, and you don’t question any of it. You just go with it. Because it’s all about experience. It’s about living life without limitations. Living life to the full.