We All Live in Purgatory

By Jin-yeong Yi

Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry - Fiery Purgatory

Trapped in purgatory
A lifeless object, alive
Awaiting reprisal
Death will be their acquisition

The sky is turning red
Return to power draws near
Fall into me, the sky’s crimson tears
Abolish the rules made of stone

Pierced from below, souls of my treacherous past
Betrayed by many, now ornaments dripping above

Awaiting the hour of reprisal
Your time slips away

Raining blood
From a lacerated sky
Bleeding its horror
Creating my structure
Now I shall reign in blood!

—Slayer, “Raining Blood”

One time in an art class in high school, I was listening to a conversation being held among classmates I was sitting with. One of them, a female punk, wondered aloud if this world was Hell itself. When her friend disagreed, arguing that it wasn’t “bad enough,” she immediately shot back with “How do you know?” Incidentally, the late Chuck Schuldiner (Death) actually once said that this world was Hell, and that there were demons in people.

I tend to take a more moderate position. In my post on Painkiller, I noted that I saw the game as a metaphor for life, and I feel strongly as ever about this. This world is neither Heaven nor Hell. This world is Purgatory. Unlike Heaven and Hell, Purgatory is a mixed bag–here one finds beauty as well as ugliness, good as well as evil, reasons to live as well as reasons to die. Also, unlike Heaven and Hell, Purgatory is not static; it’s a journey rather than a destination. It is a temporary state of being, one full of perils–and possibilities. Above all, it’s a perpetual war, full of uncertainty, chaos, horror, suffering, and death.

If we’re here for a reason, I doubt it’s to pursue happiness, which is as elusive as a pot of gold on the other side of a rainbow. The sum of my observations and experiences suggests to me that, if we’re here for a reason, it’s to do battle, to oppose our wills and wits to the howling fury of demons within and without us.

So pick up your sword–or your Painkiller, if you happen to own one of those–and brace yourself for the next battle, with a smile of grim determination on your battered and bloodied face. Having some kickass music playing in the background wouldn’t hurt either.

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Some Thoughts About Life After Life

By Jin-yeong Yi

Illustration from the Egyptian Book of the Dead

“Please don’t think that when you die / You’ll spend eternity up high / When what you really ought to know / Is just how far your life will go”

—Atheist, “Piece of Time”

I desire an afterlife not so much because I fear death (I probably fear pain more than I fear extinction), but because I love life and would like more of it, especially if it can be lived with more freedom and more beauty.

Yesterday I finished reading Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife by Dr. Eben Alexander, a Harvard neurosurgeon who contracted an extremely rare and extremely deadly form of bacterial meningitis and lived to tell the tale, after spending a week in a coma—and, supposedly, paradise.

Prior to reading the book, I’d read part of Dr. Sam Harris’s critique of it[1], and had thought that it would be an interesting exercise to compare my observations with his. I think Dr. Harris and neurologist Dr. Oliver Sacks make persuasive points, but since I’m not a neuroscientist, I think it will take me a long time—perhaps the rest of my life—to draw anything resembling a comprehensive conclusion regarding the nature of NDEs, and the dualism-monism debate as a whole. So for now I shall limit myself to imaginative speculation.

While I’m not convinced that Dr. Alexander’s account constitutes “proof of Heaven,” I found it to be remarkably well-written, engaging, instructive, and even awe-inspiring. Even if his experience took place entirely within his mind, it was nonetheless an amazing and unforgettable experience that would be entirely natural to cherish forever.

In his own critique of the book[2], Mark Martin wraps up by writing:

“What I can say is that Dr. Alexander’s heaven offers no comfort to me. A posthumous future where ‘You have nothing to fear’ and ‘There is nothing you can do wrong’ sounds like infinite boredom — inhuman and alienating in its contentment.”

After quoting a poem by Vladimir Nabokov, Mr. Martin continues:

“‘Proof of Heaven’ sullies the subtle, exquisite, personal and easily forgotten possessions of this sublunary world. Dr. Alexander’s pink fluffy clouds and divine orgasmatrons are a cosmic vulgarity. Thinking so, why would I commit the giant act of condescension required to imagine this vision good enough for others?”

What I got out of Mr. Martin’s critique was mainly further confirmation of the simple notion that we humans will never agree on what is good, what is beautiful, or what is desirable, whether in life or in death. That’s why I think the closest thing to a utopia we could have on Earth is a personal virtual reality simulation for each and every individual.

“I don’t think Hell exists,” says retired Episcopal bishop John Shelby Spong. “I happen to believe in life after death, but I don’t think it’s got a thing to do with reward and punishment.”[3]

It wouldn’t make much sense to me if it did. The notion that this life is some kind of moral test is quite preposterous to me, given the fact that 1) so many people are prevented from taking this “test” in the first place and 2) individuals cannot ultimately be held responsible for their actions, since they did not determine the genetic and environmental factors that account for much of their tendencies and choices from the cradle to the grave.

If there is a divine Being controlling this universe from the “outside” (wherever that is), I would imagine that He/She/It is more concerned with imparting experience rather than conducting some kind of cosmic eugenics program (i.e., separating the wheat from the chaff). It would certainly explain the scientific data better.

Remember the short-lived TV series Dead Like Me? I rather like the idea that there is a custom-made afterlife for each individual, specially tailored to his or her deepest desires and dreams that were not realized during life, and I can’t help but hope that that is precisely what we will find when it is time to depart this world.

Notes

[1] “Science on the Brink of Death” by Sam Harris 

[2] “Dr. Eben Alexander’s so-called afterlife” by Mark Martin

[3] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SF6I5VSZVqc

Until Everything Rots in Hell

By Jin-yeong Yi

“[The] knowledge of the non-freedom of the will protects me from losing my good humor and taking much too seriously myself and my fellow humans as acting and judging individuals.”

—Albert Einstein

“Conceive, I beg, that a stone, while continuing in motion, should be capable of thinking and knowing, that it is endeavoring, as far as it can, to continue to move. Such a stone, being conscious merely of its own endeavor and deeply interested therein, would believe itself to be completely free, and would think that it continued in motion solely because of its own wish. Now such is this freedom of man’s will that everyone boasts of possessing, and which consists only in this, that men are aware of their own desires and ignorant of the causes by which those desires are determined….As this misconception is innate in all men, it is not easily conquered.”

—Baruch Spinoza

“To understand everything is to forgive everything”

—Gautama Buddha

“Pardon’s the word to all! Whatever folly men commit, be their shortcomings or their vices what they may, let us exercise forbearance; remembering that when these faults appear in others, it is our follies and vices that we behold. They are the shortcomings of humanity, to which we belong; whose faults, one and all, we share; yes, even those very faults at which we now wax so indignant, merely because they have not yet appeared in ourselves. They are faults that do not lie on the surface. But they exist down there in the depths of our nature; and should anything call them forth, they will come and show themselves, just as we now see them in others. One man, it is true, may have faults that are absent in his fellow; and it is undeniable that the sum total of bad qualities is in some cases very large; for the difference of individuality between man and man passes all measure.

In fact, the conviction that the world and man is something that had better not have been, is of a kind to fill us with indulgence towards one another.”

—Arthur Schopenhauer, “On the Sufferings of the World”

“Happiness and misfortune, rise and fall, health and sickness, glory and dishonor, wealth and poverty; everything comes from God and must be accepted as such.”

—Elder Michael of Valaam

“Feeble, vain mortal, thou pretendest to be a free agent. Alas! dost thou not see all the threads which enchain thee? Dost thou not perceive that they are atoms which form thee; that they are atoms which move thee; that they are circumstances independent of thyself, that modify thy being; that they are circumstances over which thou hast not any controul, that rule thy destiny? In the puissant Nature that environs thee, shalt thou pretend to be the only being who is able to resist her power? Dost thou really believe that thy weak prayers will induce her to stop in her eternal march; that thy sickly desires can oblige her to change her everlasting course?”

—Paul-Henri Thiry, Baron d’Holbach, The System of Nature

“Everything begins with choice,” says Morpheus. I disagree, not because I think choice is an illusion (pace the Merovingian), but because I think there is something that precedes choice: predilection. The latter makes the former possible. Ultimately, our decisions are predicated on our preferences for (or inclinations toward) one outcome over another, and we certainly could not have chosen our preferences.

As someone who not only believes that free will doesn’t exist, but that it is impossible even in theory, I look upon ressentiment as being utterly empty and meaningless. I can blame and condemn people as much as I want for the “evil” that they do, but I recognize that it is mistaken to believe that the root of “evil” lies within them. The notion that it does rests on the assumption that people somehow designed their natures before coming into the world, which is absurd. It is practically tantamount to saying that acorns determine what kind of trees they will grow into, or that the apples which grow on trees choose to be fresh or rotten. In other words, people did not choose to be who they are. They did not choose their level of intelligence, physical constitution, or character. They did not choose their place of birth, which means that they did not choose the options available to them or the cultural influences that shaped them in their earliest formative years. In other words, they did not choose the initial parameters of the trajectory of their lives, which in turn proceeds via an unbroken process of cause and effect.

The futility of acting on ressentiment is a major, underlying theme of the anime series Hell Girl[1]. Someone requests the damnation of a certain person at the cost of their own soul, convinced that the permanent removal of the offending individual will pave the way for a happy life , or at least a peaceful one, when all they will have done is destroy a manifestation of conflict, not its fundamental cause (a la the classic example of the hydra and its many heads). Conflict manifests itself in an infinite variety of forms, and none of these forms are self-created. The true cause of conflict is not this or that entity, but a whole web of connections between entities. But we tend to blame the manifestations because they are readily perceivable; they have faces, unlike the unseen forces which drive them.

We see the consequences of ressentiment in our world all the time, whether they come in the form of shooting sprees, ethnic cleansing, domestic violence, individual murder, or systematic passive-aggression. These are the ramifications of the mistaken notion that people have chosen to be what they are. If there is something that bears true responsibility for the human condition, it is God–that is, the laws of nature as revealed by mathematics and science. God is the ultimate source of all pleasure and pain, all kindness and cruelty, all joy and sorrow, all love and hatred, all beauty and ugliness. God determines what is possible, what is probable, and what actually takes place, and God’s decrees are absolute. Nonetheless, if we desire change, we must act. If we desire to live in harmony as a civilization, as a species, in the brief time we are together on this earth, we have little to gain from turning on each other under the pretext of “justice.” We can start looking upon what we regard as “evil” as an illness to be cured, rather than a choice to be punished, and treat it accordingly.

Maybe unconditional forgiveness, then, is the way of the future. We might acknowledge that responsibility extends far beyond the level of the individual and learn to forgive others–as well as ourselves–unconditionally, not because we are somehow obligated to do so, but because that may be the only way humanity can break free from the age-old cycle of self-destructive hatred and start looking for methods of healing instead of vengeance. We do not have to forgive or heal. But neither do we have to withhold forgiveness and healing.

Ai Enma, the anti-heroine of Hell Girl, declares that there will be no end to resentment, that it will persist “until everything rots in Hell.” Maybe she’ll be proven to be right. But fatalism is unjustified as long as the future is uncertain. I daresay there’s still hope for us, even without free will, because we still have the capacity to learn and change our ways. We can never turn this world into Heaven, perhaps, but we can always move in that direction, away from Hell. Whether that is something we actually want or not is up to us.

Notes

[1] See Hell Girl: Two Mirrors, episode 6 and Hell Girl: Three Vessels, episodes 9-10.

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.

Painkiller

By Jin-yeong Yi

Painkiller was an unexpected discovery for me. I found the game on sale on GOG.com during one of their weekend promos. As a longtime fan of first person shooters who had recently rediscovered gaming, I was definitely eager to exercise my trigger finger again. So when I saw Painkiller, I thought, “A gory, M-rated FPS that has you starring as God’s hitman? Good enough for me.”

It’s about a man named Daniel Garner who was killed in a car accident along with his wife Catherine when he was taking her out to dinner for her birthday. Catherine goes straight to heaven, but Daniel is stuck in purgatory, fighting for his soul against Lucifer’s legions. Eventually, God takes notice of Daniel’s fighting abilities, and sends one of His servants to make a deal with Daniel. If he successfully assassinates Lucifer’s four generals, he will be allowed into heaven and be reunited with Catherine. With little left to lose, Daniel naturally accepts, and begins his long trek through purgatory.

I found that Painkiller was definitely not my standard FPS. Save for the boss fights (in terms of sheer size, I’ve never seen creatures that deserve the title of “boss” more than the gargantuan, Lovecraftian monstrosities found in them), there is generally very little strategy to speak of. Stealth is meaningless. Your weapons don’t need to be reloaded. You can’t even crouch. The game is basically the polar opposite of, say, Rainbow Six or Deus Ex. Your only real goal is to kill, kill, kill.

The game apparently gets its odd title from your basic weapon, which is a hideous device that can alternately shred or pierce through flesh and bone with blades that can be either rotated or discharged. The rotating mode is called “Pain” and the projectile mode is called “Killer.” Pretty apt, if you ask me.

In spite of its cheesy plot, tactical simplicity, and quirkiness, the game works. The music is highly generic and unoriginal heavy metal, and yet it gets me pumped up for a fight, as it is undoubtedly supposed to. The locations (ranging from opera houses to Middle Eastern palaces) are beautifully crafted and often imbue each battle with a sense of grandeur. No other video game I’ve played hitherto makes me feel like such a badass as when I’m nailing unruly ghouls to walls with a stake gun, blasting them apart with a shotgun, or sadistically slicing and dicing them with a mutant buzz saw.

I find that Painkiller can be taken as a metaphor for life itself: Sometimes, God fucks you over, and you find yourself with two choices: lie down and perish, or “take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them.”