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.

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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”

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.