In Defense of the Illogical

By Jin-yeong Yi 

“Where is reality? Can you show it to me?”

—Heinz von Foerster

Early this year, I wrote in “The Magic of Fiction”

…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.

PZ Myers does a rather fine job of illustrating my point with his critical blog post on Man of Steel:

The falling woman trope. It’s everywhere. The poor woman is plummeting to her doom at the terminal velocity of 200 km/hr, and superhero swoops upwards at even greater speed and catches her. This doesn’t work. At that speed, invulnerable super-strong arms are like blunt blades and are going to messily trisect the victim.

Slugfests. In every case, bad guy meets good guy and you know that shortly they’ll start throwing roundhouse blows at each other. This is not how people interact with each other, except when they’re very drunk and stupid. These are supposed to be super-intelligent, powerful beings, and their standard response to any challenge is to punch someone in the nose.

There has to be a witness. This is a corollary to the absence of deaths. A couple of the secondary human characters face the most traumatic event ever — one of them is stuck under a pile of rebar and concrete (don’t worry, they pry her out and she’s completely uninjured!) so they can stand around and gawp as the superclowns rampage all over their city. Titanic forces are shattering whole buildings, but they stand there getting a little dust in their faces, and that’s it. (Emphasis mine) 

It’s understandable that someone so firmly grounded in the hard sciences as Professor Myers is would view fiction in this light. It’s not “right” or “wrong,” but I simply don’t think that the laws that govern the prison of the real need to encroach upon the free lands of the unreal. If the tyranny of logic is absent in the realm of the imagination by default, why must we go out of our way to voluntarily enforce it? I render unto reality the things which are reality’s, but when it comes to fantasy, I embrace the illogical–and the impossible.      

As James Cameron put it, “[T]he beauty of movies is that they don’t have to be logical. They just have to have plausibility.”

I would go a step further and say that the content of movies, and fantasy in general, doesn’t even need to be plausible–just imaginable. If something can be conceived, be imagined, that is enough. For what matters is the experience. 

Advertisements

Thanking God It’s Friday (with Reservations)

By Jin-yeong Yi

George Bellows - Dempsey and Firpo

“Let me tell you something you already know. The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. It’s a very mean and nasty place, and I don’t care how tough you are, it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain’t about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward; how much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done! Now, if you know what you’re worth, then go out and get what you’re worth. But you gotta be willing to take the hits, and not pointing fingers saying you ain’t where you wanna be because of him, or her, or anybody. Cowards do that… [U]ntil you start believing in yourself, you ain’t gonna have a life.”

—Rocky, Rocky Balboa 

During the daily grind of work, one repeatedly recalls the scene in the Shawshank Redemption where Warden Norton, having had Tommy murdered by Captain Hadley, pays Andy a visit after leaving him in isolation and darkness for a month.

Andy: I’m done. Everything stops… Get someone else to run your scams.

Norton: Nothing stops. Nothing. Or you will do the hardest time there is. No more protection from the guards. I’ll pull you out of that one-bunk Hilton and cast you down with the sodomites. You’ll think you’ve been fucked by a train. And the library? Gone. Sealed off, brick by brick. We’ll have us a little book barbecue in the yard. They’ll see the flames for miles. We’ll dance around it like wild Injuns. You understand me? Catchin’ my drift? …Or am I being obtuse? 

“Nothing stops.” Although Norton here is presumably talking about the money laundering operations, I also detect a profound, metaphysical truth hidden in his eloquently twisted speech: nothing in Nature stops. Its laws are forever in effect, and they are constantly bringing forth and setting into motion objects and events. The cosmos is one wild ride, and we are powerless to stop it.

The Warden’s words can also be interpreted in a third sense, which has to do with the nature of work. If Norton is an archetype of the tyrannical executive, then the scene in question can be read as an illustration of the totalitarian grip that the demands of modern society have over our lives, particularly in the form of the modern job.

What I realized during my first job was that the workweek is a lot like a boxing match, with three chief differences being that 1) it is more psychological than physical, 2) it is one-sided in that you are only receiving the blows, not dealing them, and 3) it goes on for an indefinite number of rounds–often dozens upon dozens of rounds. Your spirit is subjected to blow after blow, from the morning commute to the office to the eight hour workday to the evening commute back home. The traffic hits you, your customers hit you, your boss hits you, your colleagues hit you, an unexpected illness hits you, your family hits you. You can never hit back. You can trying throwing a punch, but you can never hit anything but the concrete manifestations of what the world throws at you–you can never actually hit the world itself. All you can do is weather the blows as best as you can, for as long as you can.

In Calvin and Hobbes, Calvin says, “I can never enjoy Sundays because, in the back of my mind, I always know I’ve got to go back to school the next day. It’s like trying to enjoy your last meal before the execution.” Substitute ‘work’ for ‘school,’ and boy, how relevant and spot-on it is! When the workweek draws to a close, we gratefully say, “Thank God it’s Friday,” but in the back of our minds we know that a weekend is just another brief rest period, in which we hastily ice and patch up the wounds of our weary and battered spirits before the bell rings for the next round.

Nothing stops. Nothing.

The Shawshank Redemption and the Prison of the Real

By Jin-yeong Yi

Park in France (photo by Georges Noblet)

“[A fundamental mistake of man is] to think that he is alive, when he has merely fallen asleep in life’s waiting room.”

—Idries Shah

“What if you slept, and what if in your sleep you dreamed, and what if in your dream you went to heaven and there you plucked a strange and beautiful flower, and what if you when you awoke you had the flower in your hand? Ah, what then?”

—Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Why is The Shawshank Redemption the #1 film on IMDb? People regularly question the wisdom of the multitudes on this count, as can be seen from posts on the movie’s forum.

Having watched it for the third time last weekend, I can say with confidence that The Shawshank Redemption is the film for our age–for all ages, past and present.

Freedom, or at least the idea of freedom, is tremendously important to most people. Did Patrick Henry not say 238 years ago,

“Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, Give me Liberty, or give me Death!”

The thought of freedom is constantly on our minds, and the word is constantly on our lips. In this light, it’s no mystery that The Shawshank Redemption would strike a chord with so many people. We don’t need freedom to survive, but we need freedom to feel that survival is worth the trouble in the first place.

Once during a visit to a Buddhist temple or Shinto shrine (I can’t remember which) in Japan, I was conversing with a fellow exchange student who was an atheist and an individualist anarchist. At one point he asked me, “How do you define freedom?” As an aspiring Orthodox Christian at the time, who was inspired by the lives of the saints, I could only think of one answer: “Freedom is freedom from vice.” My interlocutor conceded that there was some merit to my definition, but he was obviously dissatisfied. We drifted away from this subject shortly after. (Interestingly, we watched The Shawshank Redemption together with some other people during a short sojourn in Kyoto.)

Years later, after having accepted atheism and nihilism, my definition of freedom changed radically. Now I define freedom as having no restrictions on the will, having no barrier between fantasy and reality. In other words, to be free is to be able to do anything one can imagine doing. My definition of prison expanded to the same degree. Now I define prison as a state in which freedom is restricted in any way whatsoever. Prison is not merely political–it is metaphysical. It is the boundaries of time and space, the laws of nature.

In his review of the film, Roger Ebert mentions the theory that life is a prison. Life is not a prison; life is what is being trapped and suffocated in prison, its potential stultified by its walls.

Some might argue that prison is nothing more than a matter of perspective. The unhappy fate of Brooks could be adduced for this view. However, if the message was that prison is completely internal, that prison is in the mind and nowhere else, then the film would not have been about Andy escaping Shawshank, but instead accepting it and finding peace within its walls. Prison is very real, as real as anything–and only part of it comes from within. The question is: is freedom real?

Despite the fact that the chief villain in The Shawshank Redemption is a piously Christian man without an atom of compassion or empathy, I do not view the movie as being antireligious or anti-Christian. I do, however, see it as being heavily naturalistic. There is no God who cares, no liberty, no justice, no miracles. Andy Dufresne is innocent of the crime he is charged with, but Lady Justice is not omniscient and there’s no God to rectify human errors…and “justice” is a human construct to begin with. There is no Lady Justice. There is only Lady Luck, and she’s blind as she is indifferent.

Furthermore, Andy is a man of science rather than a man of faith. His weapons of choice are not scripture and prayer, but the practical tools of logic, mathematics, physics, and geology. He is well-versed in the rules of reality. And it is with this knowledge that he is eventually able to win freedom.

But this film is not about science. It’s about something that is innate in humanity, something that existed long before science did.

Fyodor Dostoevsky once said, “Beauty will save the world.” Beauty is one of the things that keeps Andy going, whether it is the sublime beauty of a Mozart record, the sensuous beauty of a Rita Hayworth poster, the noble beauty of a genuine friendship, or the transcendental beauty of a cherished dream.

One day, Andy fortuitously receives a recording of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro given as a library donation. Understanding the power that music has to sustain and revitalize the human spirit, Andy risks severe punishment to play the record on the public address system. Why exactly he decides to do this is not completely clear, but my guess is that he wanted to remind everyone in Shawshank State Penitentiary that their tiny world is not the entirety of the universe, that life and its possibilities extend far beyond what their eyes can see.

Mozart’s music flows out of the speakers like cool, pure, crystal-clear water in a hot desert. Red describes the moment thus:

“I have no idea to this day what those two Italian ladies were singing about. Truth is, I don’t want to know. Some things are best left unsaid. I like to think they were singing about something so beautiful it can’t be expressed in words, and makes your heart ache because of it. I tell you those voices soared, higher and farther than anybody in a gray place dares to dream. It was like some beautiful bird flapped into our drab little cage and made those walls dissolve away. And for the briefest of moments, every last man at Shawshank felt free.”

Free from worry, free from fear, free from the confines of language, free from the world and its petty rules. All the walls and shackles vanish, leaving only a glorious moment, however transient, in which fantasy and reality unite.

The message of The Shawshank Redemption does not seem to be that only the Andy Dufresnes of the world can find redemption. If it was, the film would be relevant to only a small segment of humankind. Not everyone is blessed with Andy’s ambition and determination, to say nothing of his level of intelligence and education. The key to redemption is, if nothing else, something that just about anyone can find within themself: hope.

Returning from two weeks in solitary confinement, Andy joins his friends in the mess hall, and the following dialogue takes place:

Y-y-you couldn’t play somethin’ good, huh? Hank Williams or somethin’?

They broke the door down before I could take requests.

Was it worth it? Two weeks in the hole?

Easiest time I ever did.

Bullshit. No such thing as easy time in the hole.

That’s right, a week in the hole is like a year.

Damn straight.

I had Mr. Mozart to keep me company.

So they let you tote that record player down there, huh?

[Taps head, chest] It was in here…and in here. That’s the beauty of music; they can’t…get that from you. …Haven’t you ever felt that way about music?

I played a mean harmonica as a younger man. Lost interest in it though. Didn’t make much sense in here.

Here’s where it makes the most sense. You need it so you don’t forget.

Forget?

Forget that…there are…places…in the world that aren’t made out of stone. That there’s a…there’s something…inside…that they can’t get to, that they can’t touch. That’s yours.

What’re you talking about?

Hope.

Hope. …Let me tell you something, my friend. Hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane. It’s got no use on the inside. You better get used to that idea.

Like Brooks did?

Pace Red, it can be argued that the “inside” is where hope has the most use. Hope is not necessarily false expectation; it can be the feeling that maybe, just maybe, things will turn out better than expected. Hope is not a belief in the inevitability that one’s dreams will come true; hope is a belief in the possibility that one’s dreams will come true. Hope is the inner flame that give one the strength to persist, to endure in the face of all odds. As Andy later tells Red:

[H]ope is a good thing, maybe the best of things. And no good thing ever dies. 

If one wants a basic guide to life in the prison of the real, one need not look any further than The Shawshank Redemption. Its advice is simple and sound: educate yourself and keep your wits about you. Be good to others. Retain your integrity and self-worth. Fill your life with beauty. Persist. Above all, never, ever accept prison as an absolute. Keep hoping and dreaming…until the bitter end.

Beauty and hope are intertwined. Like hope, beauty may, in the last analysis, be nothing but an emotional reaction, but in any case it gives me the feeling that maybe, just maybe, true freedom is not only possible, but that it is also waiting on the other side.

Ring of dark matter (Hubble Space Telescope)

All these landscapes are timeless,
And this is all just a part of cosmos,
But all is mine and past and future is yet to discover…
Much have been discovered, but tomorrow
I will realise I existed before myself.

I will be reborn
Before I die.

I will realise planets ages old,
Created by a ruler with a crown of dragon claws,
Arrived with a stargate…
A king among the wolves in the night…
An observer of the stars.

—Emperor, “Cosmic Keys to My Creations and Times”

The Master, Motorcycles, and Meaninglessness

By Jin-yeong Yi

The Master motorcycle scene

“The formula for my happiness: a Yes, a No, a straight line, a goal.”

—Friedrich Nietzsche

One evening my brother-in-law and I went to see Paul Anderson’s The Master at the cinema. Afterwards, as we were driving back home, we discussed the scene where Lancaster and friends are in the desert, where they choose an arbitrary point in the distance and ride in its direction by motorcycle.

“That pretty much sums up [the pointlessness of their religious movement],” my devoutly Christian brother-in-law chortled. “Pick a point…and go for it!”

I thought about what he said, and I realized that, while the motorcycle exercise was indeed pointless, it was, in the grand context of things, not much more pointless than the other activities we do from day to day. I realized that the scene ironically did a good job of illustrating how a nihilist approaches the problem of finding purpose in life.

To have a goal is to have a certain end to work toward. If you are a working adult in a country with a relatively high degree of personal freedom, chances are that you have a number of hours each day in which you have nothing to do but what you will, empty stretches of time that you need to find some way to fill.

Let’s assume that you are a working adult with no hobbies. You have nothing to do after returning from the commute except watching TV or drinking at the local bar. But one day, you wake up and decide that you’re sick of having nothing except work and trivial pleasures to look forward to, so you decide that you’re going to take up an avocation to complement your vocation.

But where to start? There are so many options, and nothing in particular strikes your fancy. Learning death metal drumming looks about as appealing as learning computer programming, you have as much interest in studying Finnish as you do French, and you have as much motivation to write a novel as you do to paint a picture. You can’t think of a compelling reason to choose one goal over another.

What to do? You pick a point, any point, and go for it. Roll a die or flip a coin if you have to. Then you stick to your chosen course and don’t stop until you’ve reached your destination. It’s OK if the destination is arbitrary, because you just might be rewarded by the journey you take to reach it.

Life Lessons from They Live

By Jin-yeong Yi

“This is how you create meaning. Recognize that life itself and your life are both sacred, and that no instant is anything but pure joy. Even the horrible moments have a certain epic quality to them, like a necessary part of the story. You need the greatest darkness before dawn in order to have dawn be breathtaking and inspiring. This means that in order to have good you need bad, and vice-versa. Most people focus on the bad because they feel bad about themselves. The first step is seeing the whole thing as an adventure.”

—Brett Stevens, “Life”

“If we accept life as not absolute, we see that we ourselves are not absolute, and that we should find a goal for which to aim which makes our daily struggles and eventual deaths pale in comparison to the meaning we find in life.”

—Spinoza Ray Prozak, “Crux”

I watched John Carpenter’s They Live for the third time last weekend. If you’ve seen it before, then you know that it’s a conspiracy theorist’s fantasy come true. (There are people who swear that the film accurately depicts the dark powers allegedly controlling the world from the shadows.) It might also be seen as John Carpenter’s Guide to Life.

For me, one of the most noteworthy aspects about the movie is the admirable attitude of the protagonist. In the beginning of the story, he stays positive in spite of the grim economic conditions and the fact that he doesn’t have a stable job or a home. When he finds himself enveloped in a massive extraterrestrial conspiracy, faced with extremely powerful foes that he has little hope of conquering, he gets discouraged at times, but he never despairs. He’s never bitter; he never asks himself, “Why me?” He only asks himself, “What’s my next move?” He recognizes that the universe owes him nothing and promises him nothing, and that if he wants something, it is up to him to pursue it. And when he’s mortally wounded and about to die, he accepts his fate, flipping the bird at the alien oligarchs he has defeated, a satisfied smile on his face. He lives like a badass and dies like a badass. His is the sort of courageous, heroic, life-affirming attitude that gloomy pessimists like me can learn a thing or two from.

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

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.