Monday, March 31, 2008

Whose movie are you in?

Today, as spring break came to its lamented but inevitable end, I finished reading a work I'd been wanting to get through for some time.  Robert M. Pirsig's Lila is a sort of sequel to his wonderful Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, one of my favourite books (Amazon; full text).  Pirsig employs, in both works, a hybrid structure which is part autobiography, part novel; part travelogue, part philosophical tract.  In the hands of a great writer, I find this use of travelogue-memoir as vehicle for other kind of investigation enormously effective (it's also used in Bruce Chatwin's The Songlines, and Sven Lindqvist's Exterminate All The Brutes -- both of which books I love and recommend wholeheartedly).

So, I don't want to ramble on about this, but just pick out, for my own interest, really, a pair of related insights which jumped out at me from Lila, and to which I think I may want to return at some point:

When you enter a movie theater you know that all you're going to see is 24 shadows per second flashed on a screen to give an illusion of moving people and objects. Yet despite this knowledge you laugh when the 24 shadows per second tell jokes and cry when the shadows show actors faking death. You know they are an illusion yet you enter the illusion and become a part of it and while the illusion is taking place you are not aware that it is an illusion. This is hypnosis. This is trance. It's also a form of temporary insanity. But it's also a powerful force for cultural reinforcement and for this reason the culture promotes movies and censors them for its own benefit.

Phædrus thought that in the case of permanent insanity the exits to the theater have been blocked, usually because of the knowledge that the show outside is so much worse. The insane person is running a private unapproved film which he happens to like better than the current cultural one. If you want him to run the film everyone else is seeing, the solution would be to find ways to prove to him that it would be valuable to do so, Phædrus thought. Otherwise why should he get he get "better"? He already is better. It's the patterns that constitute "betterness" that are at issue. From an internal point of view insanity isn't the problem. Insanity is the solution.

~Lila, pp. 408-409.

There's an interesting contrast with an earlier passage where Pirsig (again, writing of himself in the third person as Phædrus, his narrator character) reflects on a meeting with Robert Redford in a New York hotel (described pp. 278-284), about turning his preceding book, the bestselling Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, into a film...

That's what was wrong with making a film about his book. You can't film insanity.

Maybe if, during the show, the whole theater collapsed and the audience found themselves among the stars with just space all around and no support, wondering what a stupid thing this is, sitting here among the stars watching this film that has nothing to do with them and then suddenly realizing that this film is the only reality there is and that they had better get interested in it because what they see and what they are is the same thing and once it stops they will stop too. . . .

~Lila, p. 367

Bear in mind that these are just brief asides in a very wide-ranging book.

Yet this metaphor of film as cultural script (or scenaric universe) contains something essential, it seems to me.


Anonymous said...

Hi Stuart! It's nice to see you posting again!

I found this post of particular interest due to my experience in the field of psychology and mental health. Rarely are we invited to share personal accounts of life experiences - especially those that involve mental illness. Yet I took one course at MIT with a professor who invited us to do exactly that. He had assigned The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and asked us to keep a journal, inviting us in particular to detail experiences involving simply being. This was one of the most memorable courses I have taken in psychology, and I ended up adopting several of these ideas and methods when teaching my own psychology courses.

When considering how this relates to futures, I am reminded of your intro quote about whose movie we are in. It seems that the movie in which we act now helps to predict/dictate/pick-your-own-word the movies that we select to involves ourselves with in the future. That is, whatever movie we are selecting in the present is exactly what creates those futures.
I dapple with this quite a bit in psychology and believe that changing the future means changing the now. That is, selecting a different future means selecting a now that differs from the then. It's incredible how difficult that is for people to understand! It's much easier to simply walk in and out of a reality created by others involving walking into movies and movie theater and becoming immersed in shadows and fake lives and, really, lies that evoke emotions and take us away from the now that's outside of the movie theater. It's much harder to simply exist in the now and become immersed in it in the same way as one would an illusion. Why is the now so scary to simply experience? And if it is, why don't we change it right now?


Just some run-on thoughts. Thanks again for your posts! They're always a great read!!

Warmly yours,
Your Biggest Fan

Stuart Candy said...

Hi fan!

Thanks for your comment.

I'm glad the movie metaphor resonated.

It would be really interesting to hear a little more about how the selection of Pirsig's book related to the apparently unorthodox approach taken by your professor at MIT.

One difficult question in all this, which your response highlights for me, is the tension between simply "experiencing" (for instance, through meditation), on the one hand, and the rather effortful construction of a narrative or narratives which deliberately recast the present as a prelude to a desired future, on the other hand. For short, we could call these approaches "being" and "futuring" respectively.

Futuring -- which is of course the basis for much of my work -- is quite labour intensive. Being doesn't necessarily come easily either, but both processes appear to entail different degrees of intellectualisation of experience.

I agree with your point about the easier (yet, I think we'd agree, ultimately less empowering and satisfying) option being to play along in the movies that others script for us. Which doesn't seem to correspond to being or futuring. (More like sleepwalking, perhaps.)

But this leaves some important questions on the table:

- How much do being and futuring differ?
- Is one to be preferred over the other, and if so, when?
- How reliable is the relationship between futuring and what comes to pass? (I ask this because I'm less sure than you seem to be about the proposition that "whatever movie we are selecting in the present is exactly what creates those futures". I add emphasis to "exactly" because that word implies a sort of 1:1 relationship of intention and outcome which I don't really see.)

And finally, I think a major point of the metaphor Pirsig proposes is that we cannot access directly what happens "outside the theatre": different movies or scripts are, by definition, all we have available.

Which could mean that any aspiration to purely "being" (unmediated experience) is simply illusory.

Can we do without a narrative altogether?

I don't know if we can -- for more than brief periods, anyway...

What do you think?

Anonymous said...

Dear Stuart,

You always offer quite a bit of material to contemplate. Let me attempt to address each thought separately.

1) What exactly happens “outside the theatre?” Is it defined by that which is outside our experience? If so, then that assumes there can be things outside of our experience. And while I cannot argue otherwise from personal experience, I have read and heard of gurus who do argue otherwise. Namely, that you can become one with everything and everyone that ever was, is, and will be. If this is indeed possible, then perhaps it is more that Pirsig’s comment might apply to most of us unenlightened folk :)
2) You question whether any aspiration to purely being may yield illusory results. (Is this correctly paraphrased?) Perhaps, yes. I would want to operationalize most of those terms to fully comprehend what it is we are discussing (e.g., being, purely being, illusory, etc.). Another possibility is to find a way of being that transcends aspiration and simply is. Again I think of gurus.
3) You ask if we can do without a narrative. Again, let’s first operationalize narrative. What is it and how is it constructed? Does it involve automatic or meta-analytic thought? Does it involve the lens through which we see the world? If so, it would be hard to think of an example of living without a narrative. Does it involve the interpretation we assign to the information that enters through our lens? This is easier to imagine living without, though not easy. Again, the epitomy of a guru comes to mind.
4) With respect to being and futuring…
a. You ask how much they differ. Again with the operationalizations :) (I bring this up repeatedly to highlight the importance I place on wanting to verify that we’re on the same page in defining these constructs.) When you describe futuring as effortful construction, do you mean that the person must have conscious intention to engage in the process of futuring? Can it ever come automatically, whether learned or innate? If it can, then perhaps it does not have to be different from being – although it can be.
b. Is one preferred and, if so, when? I imagine that is person and context specific. Some times it might be useful to engage in some form of futuring is when faced with a new situation that evokes fear and considering the most ideal of potential ends to this situation. I bring up fear because futuring might allow you to consider fleeing, and if this is a novel situation, you might not have that response automatically encoded. However, you may wish to consider being when wishing to experience a situation or life void of thought. Again, gurus and their followers come to mind. So do individuals with anxiety who feel they overthink and frequently ask how to just “be” and experience. Which process is preferred would depend on the person answering this, I imagine. :)
5) And now for the relationship between futuring and what comes to pass. When I used the word “exactly” in saying, “whatever movie we are selecting in the present is exactly what creates those futures,” I used the term as an intensive – perhaps precisely makes more sense in that context? I also do not see a 1:1 relationship of intention and outcome. However, I do believe that the areas on which we focus our attention in the moment help to shape our future experiences and places on which we focus our future attention :)

What do you think?