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”

Of Thistles and Thanksgiving

By Jin-yeong Yi

Cloud in the sunlight

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

“Prayer is wonder, reverence. Prayer is receptivity for the miracle that surrounds you. Prayer is surrender to beauty, to the grandeur, to this fantastic experience. Prayer is a non-argumentative dialogue with existence. It is not a discussion… it is a love-dialogue. You don’t argue… you simply whisper sweet nothings.”

—unknown

“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

Some of the most difficult words that one could possibly utter: “Glory be to God for all things.” For to thank God for all things is to express gratitude for not only everything one regards as good and beautiful, but also everything one regards as evil and ugly. For every inconvenience, disappointment, lie, betrayal, bankruptcy, robbery. For every disease, abortion, miscarriage, rape, murder, suicide, accident, famine, disaster, plague, war, genocide. This is what it means to love life unconditionally.

Can one look at the world in its totality, at the grand interplay of light and darkness, and embrace it all, declaring, with complete sincerity, “Glory be to God for all things?” That is a question that each individual will have to answer for themself.

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.

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.

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.