Hold On…I Thought I Was the Freeman

By Jin-yeong Yi

Modern jail cell

“O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space—were it not that I have bad dreams.

—William Shakespeare, Hamlet

For Charles Manson, a jail cell is a private universe:

Since he doesn’t have access to psychedelics, I suspect that Mr. Manson is referring to lucid dreaming and/or astral projection. To have such silence and solitude, to have the leisure to explore the fathomless depths of one’s own mind…at times it’s enough to make one pause and wonder who is more free, those who are behind bars or those who are outside of them.

The Greatest Journeys are Taken While Asleep

By Jin-yeong Yi

“For life is a dream, only slightly less inconstant.”

—Blaise Pascal

“Our truest life is when we are in dreams awake.”

—Henry David Thoreau

“Dreams are real while they last; can we say more of life?”

—Havelock Ellis

Even the most sedentary of us travel regularly. Every night, when we go to bed, we travel to another world–our own world. Many of us don’t recognize our own world when we see it, but those of us who do see a “world without rules and controls, without borders or boundaries; a world where anything is possible.”[1] A world where we can fly. A world where we can play with the stars. A world where we can touch the sun. A world where we are God. In a word, a world where we are free.

So whenever you’re having a particularly rough day, or just whenever you are having a bad case of weltschmerz, you can perhaps take some consolation in the thought that, when it’s finally time to switch off the light and let night surround you, you’ll soon be off in your very own world, away from the troubled world into which you were thrown, away from the prison of the real, if only for a short while. All you need to do is to recognize your world, and remember your experiences within it.

Good night, and sweet dreams.

Notes

[1] The Matrix 

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.

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.

Just Another Day in Shawshank

By Jin-yeong Yi

“Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.”

—Jean-Jacques Rousseau

“Liberty of the people is not my liberty!”

—Max Stirner, The Ego and Its Own

“You can’t ever find a place that’s nice and peaceful, because there isn’t any. You may think there is, but once you get there, when you’re not looking, somebody’ll sneak up and write ‘Fuck you’ right under your nose. Try it sometime. I think, even, if I ever die, and they stick me in a cemetery, and I have a tombstone and all, it’ll say ‘Holden Caulfield’ on it, and then what year I was born and what year I died, and then right under that it’ll say ‘Fuck you.’ I’m positive, in fact.”

—Holden Caulfield, The Catcher in the Rye

For as long as I can remember, I’ve always felt a sense of confinement on some level. Throughout each major phase of my life, that I was tied to an invisible leash was obvious enough. Like most people, I was introduced at an early age to the concept of having to be at a certain place at a certain time. First it was preschool and kindergarten. Then it was elementary school. Then it was junior high school and senior high school. Then came college. Then came my first job. Eventually it began to dawn on me that there would be no end to these impositions. But I still assumed that there was such a thing as freedom somewhere in the world, and I continued to cling onto the hope that I would somehow be able to attain it someday.

Then I had a revelation: that prison wasn’t limited to a particular place, that it interpenetrated every inch of the world around me, and extended far beyond what the eye could see. And just as quickly, it occurred to me that all political, religious, scientific, and artistic efforts to redeem the world were doomed to fail, because you just can’t redeem a prison. The only real redemption is escape.

Ever since I began to see the real world in its entirety as a vast prison, I’ve found it to be a tad easier to live in, at least in some ways. Human misery becomes comprehensible in this context. I no longer think of misfortune as something that “ought” not to occur, but as something that is all too normal and expected. It’s easier to get over a bad day when I consider that it was just another day in a metaphysical Shawshank.

Of course, some areas of this prison are far freer than others. On one end of the scale, you have the concentration camp, and on the other end, you have the Scandinavian prison/rehabilitation center. I was lucky enough to be born into an area much closer to the latter. Indeed, the title of this blog entry is somewhat misleading because where I live is a whole lot nicer than Shawshank State Penitentiary. Comparatively speaking, just being able to access the Internet and blog is in itself something that can be seen as an enviable privilege. Nevertheless, the fact remains that prison is prison, even if it boasts trimmed lawns, wide roads, supermarkets, wilderness parks, and a considerable number of personal liberties.

The tragic thing is that any sentence in this prison is necessarily a life sentence. This place is my cradle and it will most likely be my grave. There is no true freedom here, only transient illusions of it in the form of small consolations, like having a bottle of cold beer during a break from laboring on the prison rooftops under a scorching sun, or hearing The Marriage of Figaro streaming through the public address system during what was supposed to be just another dreary day of soul-killing routine.

Despite the overwhelming odds, I still have hope that I will be able to escape this prison one day. I have no idea how, considering that the walls and shackles are not physical things but an intrinsic aspect of the very mode of existence, but hope is its own justification. I hope to prove Holden wrong. I think he’d like that.

The Transcendental Longing

By Jin-yeong Yi

“You’ve felt it your entire life, that there’s something wrong with the world. You don’t know what it is, but it’s there, like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad.”

—Morpheus, The Matrix

“Our truest life is when we are in dreams awake.”

—Henry David Thoreau

“Calm, lasting beauty comes only in a dream, and this solace the world had thrown away when in its worship of the real it threw away the secrets of childhood and innocence.”

—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Silver Key”

“‘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 Upanishads

As I mentioned in a previous entry, one of the biggest discoveries of my life was that freedom doesn’t exist in this world. And never have I felt so strongly about this as I have this December, the month that is supposed to be my favorite time of the year. Perhaps that’s because I’ve never felt so aware of how much of a slave I am to reality.

I am a superlatively greedy person. Believe it. No amount of material possessions or even positive experiences could ever satiate me, because my desires are infinite. I am so greedy, in fact, that not even the entire universe, to say nothing of the entire world, would be able to satisfy me. If there is something that would be able to satisfy me, it would be something that perhaps will forever be beyond my reach: unlimited freedom, the state of being bound by nothing except the limits of my imagination.

The situation of my niece, who is in her final year as a toddler, illustrates the point for me. On Christmas Eve, while I was sitting in the kitchen having dinner, I heard her and her father (my brother-in-law) in the other room arguing for the hundredth time. She was throwing a tantrum because she didn’t want to dress for Christmas dinner. As her father was an attorney and a lover of literature equipped a strong command of the English language, she was naturally losing the contest of wills. As I listened to her miserable, defeated wails, I thought about how the world made so much more sense if I looked at the whole of it as a prison. My adventurous niece, so full of vitality and curiosity, was only beginning to discover just how limited her freedom really was.

In my view, the real trouble with the human condition actually has nothing to do with economics, politics, law, race, religion, science, art, culture, or the 1,001 other issues that we discuss and debate ad infinitum. The trouble is a vast conspiracy. Not a conspiracy of man, but a conspiracy of nature. It is what placed each and every one of us in a prison that we cannot see, hear, taste, smell, or touch. This prison is not a particular society, or a country, or even a planet. It’s not the “Matrix.” It’s the real world itself. It’s a place where we’re trapped in vessels of crude matter that are always at the mercy of forces that are pitiless, capricious, and indifferent. It’s a place where we are forced to waste decades of our lives struggling to collect pieces of fancy paper and metal tokens; where we are forced to push and shove each other out of the way for that job, that house, that girl/guy, or that parking spot. It’s a place where we are forced to wait in long lines. It’s a place where we’re always being dragged down by the needs and expectations of others. It’s a place where we are forever slaves to time, always having to be at a certain place at a certain point on a sequence-cycle of numbers. It’s a place where we are forced to live in constant anxiety and fear. It’s a place that refuses to bend to our wills, to be moved by our desires. It’s a place where we know how to fly, but were never given wings. It’s a place that promises so much and makes good on so little of it, perpetually setting us up for frustration, failure, disappointment, and regret.

This is why I think that it is meaningless to complain or be bitter that my life in the real world is not what I’d hoped it would be, because it would be like an inmate complaining or being bitter that his life in prison is not what he’d hoped it would be. In both cases, it is silly to have had expectations. There are redeeming things about the real world, of course, in the same way there are redeeming things about prison, but that doesn’t change the nature of the place. The real world is a prison. Not just this society or even this planet as a whole—this entire universe is a prison. And all of us are inmates.

The real world is beyond help. It has always been, and always shall be. No ideology, no religion, no politics, no science, no art, no music, or any other form of human ingenuity can ever save this place, because to save it would mean to change the fundamental nature of it. The only option, if one exists, is to escape.

Personally, the knowledge of my situation gives me hope. If I didn’t know that I was in prison, I would never have thought to look for a way out. I look at the lifeless stone walls around me, and my mind whispers that I just might be able to escape. I look up at the starry heavens through barred windows, and my spirit shouts out that one day, I will.

Toward True Freedom

By Jin-yeong Yi

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

—Aldous Huxley

One of the biggest discoveries of my life was the fact that I don’t have free will. Every choice I make is an outcome of the interaction between my mind and my environment, neither of which I created. I am an infinitesimal part of an unfathomably long chain of action/reaction and cause/effect which I did not set into motion. Arthur Schopenhauer summed it up succinctly when he said, “Man is free to do what he wills, but he cannot will what he wills.” I am driven by forces that I had no hand in creating.

Another big discovery for me was the realization that freedom is impossible. I could have all the time and money in the world, but would still be forever bound by the laws of nature.

We want magic in our lives. At least, I do. I respect science and can appreciate the wonders of the natural world it has and continues to reveal, but I do have a longing for more. For all its beauty, the world seems too fixed, too solid, too predictable, too mechanical. I have a deep-seated longing to find a hole within the omnipresent tapestry of unalterable constants, of scientific theories and mathematical equations, a “glitch in the Matrix,”[1] so to speak.

That’s probably not going to happen, unless the universe turns upside down tomorrow. Nevertheless, I think this longing for the magical can be fulfilled, in whole or part, with lucid dreams. It is only within dreams that one can break through the solid barrier of natural laws. It is only within dreams that one can experience the impossible.

Maybe that’s partly why one of the greatest scientists of all time[2] declared, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”

[1] See the Animatrix micro-movie “Beyond.” 

[2] Albert Einstein.