I REALLY want to like “Halt and Catch Fire,” but the endless cute in references like characters named “Gordon Clark” and “Cameron Howe,” and “Computers aren’t the thing, they’re the thing that gets us to the thing” are extremely distracting. Come on guys, you have a good script. Just go totally original and stop snickering at your own cleverness.
The philosophical entertainer, Alan Watts, said that every person should consider two fundamental things:
- Your own death – really study it in detail – the certainty that you will pass into nothingness and that everything you are doing will be washed away with the sands of time.
- The possibility that you are nothing but a scoundrel – that everything you do is only for your own self interest and nothing more.
These two thoughts lead to other possibilities. If you study them, think about them, you begin to see that the only reality, if there is such a thing, is that the only reason that you are here is to be here. To be the universe observing itself, and that the future and the past don’t matter, because the only reality is here and now, what’s in front of you, around you, the relationships you have built and the care you pay to every moment. Worrying about the future doesn’t matter. No matter what you do, how much you fight the natural tendency of the universe to be a certain way, things will go back to their natural ground state. And that’s neither good nor bad, it just is. People will continue to suffer, people will continue to experience joy, and that you can’t have one without the other. They are two sides of the same coin, so stop trying to get one without the possibility of the other. Just be.
Meanwhile, culture tells you that you must go to school, and then go to college, graduate school, and ratchet your way up the corporate ladder, and that in the future, there will be a reward. And so you spend your entire life striving for that reward, which is always in the future. And you ignore what really matters – the present moment, the relationships, the living of life. They’ve tricked you into running a race, and the reward is either some promotion, or some nice retirement that you’re too tired and worn out to enjoy, or some afterlife which it turns out doesn’t exist – because you get there and you’re nothing. And you’re disappointed by your rat race of a life.
The ethnobotanist, metaphysicist and entheogeneticist Terence McKenna talks about the toxicity of culture in a similar way. That culture tricks you into doing these same things – reaching, striving, instead of actively living your life open to the possibilities of the world around you. He believes that we have become so enmeshed in this “dominator culture” that we have lost sight of the true possibilities of the universe, that are every bit as real as our material world. That our ancestors were in touch with these things as recently as 2,000 years ago, but that we have lost sight of getting in contact with the “wiring underneath the switchboard of reality” because culture tells us that the spiritual (in the oldest sense of the word) is not real, and that getting back in touch with entheogenic substances (literally, “generating the divine within”) is morally wrong and is in fact illegal. Meanwhile, McKenna argues that these door-opening drugs in the form of naturally occurring substances – hallucinogenic triptamines (psilocybin, DMT) are fundamental to accessing this other reality, one that the dominator culture intentionally detaches us from to trap us in our prescribed modes of behavior. In one lecture, McKenna talks about a dream he had which was so initially disconcerting that he believed it was not the truth, but rather a good idea for a sci-fi novel. In this dream, a “fractal soliton of improbability” – in other words, an unlikely and singular event in the universe that in fact happened, intersects with and bisects history in the form of the “Demiurge” (a platonic/gnostic idea of the trickster artisan through whom the universe came into existence) willing itself into existence, 2,000 years ago in the Levant. This soliton had a quantum half-charge, and it split the world into two separate realities – in one, the charge was present, and it affected the course of history in the manifestation of Christ, whose legacy is a series of ideas. In the other reality, where the charge was absent, that idea lineage did not exist.
In other words, the embodiment of Christ in history is a bifurcating event. On one side of that divide, we have our reality, in which Greek science was set back 1,000 years by Christianity. In the other reality, that setback never happened, and the ideas of Christ never interfered with the evolution of mysticism either. So in that reality, both technological and spiritual advancement were allowed to flourish in a way that put them 1,000 years ahead of us. McKenna posits that the beings that are encountered in the psychedelic experience are actually the highly evolved humans in the other reality, trying to contact us and save us from the inertia of our own history.
Where am I going with these two lines of thought – both more or less “dangerous”, controversial or even “crazy,” depending on your point of view? In many ways, the practice of mindfulness and meditation is a way to access the wiring underneath the switchboard of reality, without the need for exogenous enthoegens. This is some of what Alan Watts conveys in his talks – the duality of the human mind – the split between the rational and the metaphysical, the yin and the yang, darkness and light, good and bad, the rascal and the saint. The universe of this reality and the universe of possibility. Watts talks about accessing this universe of possibility by giving up the ego, the idea that you are something other than nothing, that the universe is something other than nothing – a wonderful nothing from which everything springs. To float on the water, you must relax and let yourself sink back. If you struggle to stay afloat, you will sink.
Movies are a way for us to tell stories. Depending on what side of the Platonic argument about memetic entertainment one comes down on, you could say that movies are “bad”, a distraction from a life of the mind, and that they create a desire for unnecessary drama in us. I tend to believe that while movies are certainly a form of mass entertainment, distraction, profit and culture-making, I also think they serve an important purpose. They are the modern day equivalent of the campfire, around which stories are told and knowledge conveyed – sometimes in stealth.
I believe that the core message of a couple of recent sci-fi movies (one based on literary fiction) are actually in line with Watts’ and McKenna’s world views. In “The Hunger Games,” the protagonist hero Katniss Everdeen realizes that the only way to beat the evil and deadly game, the centerpiece of a thinly veiled projection of our society into the future, where only one contestant can live at the conclusion, is to give up. To save her friend Peeta, she will sacrifice herself. After all, we are nothing but our connectedness to those we love. Through death, she will win, by saving Peeta. But Peeta feels the same way, he cannot live without Katniss, so he will sacrifice himself as well. When both decide to die, the game is broken, and the society itself, the sick culture, is destroyed is well. By sinking, Katniss and Peeta both float.
In “Star Trek,” in the original storyline for “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan,” Spock sacrifices himself to save the crew of the Enterprise, and to save his friend, Jim Kirk. With his dying words, he tells Kirk that “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one.” Spock knows that, logically, rationally, to allow the others to survive, he must go back into nothingness. This storyline is subverted by “Star Trek III: The Search for Spock,” in which we discover that Spock left his being, his spirit, his ego or anti-nothingness, in McCoy. He mind melded with McCoy before he died, and transferred his essence to him for safe keeping. When Spock’s body, devoid of his spirit, rises from death, is reborn, his being can be transferred back into his body. This is highly antithetical to Watts’ world view – “Star Trek III” promulgates the idea that your ego is the “bus driver” of your body – that the two are not inherently connected and that only the body disappears back into nothingness when you die. As if to put a fork in the message from the end of “Star Trek II,” at the end of “Star Trek III,” when asked by Spock why he, Kirk, came back to save Spock’s body and being and put the two back together, Kirk responds, “Because the needs of one outweighed the needs of the many.” To this, Spock says, “it is not logical.” Whether or not logic plays a part in it, Spock is right – it is antithetical to wholeness or holiness. As Watts says, the holy are troublemakers – tricksters. Sometimes, truly illustrating the reality of the world requires subverting that reality and showing the contrasting picture. It requires drama, it requires being a trickster. Perhaps this is the real storyline of these two core “Star Trek” films – Kirk and Spock as yin and yang, human and vulcan, emotional and logical, spiritual and physical.
This goofy and impulsive weaving together of the mysticism of Watts and McKenna with the fantasy of modern science fiction is nothing other than a whimsical thought process written down for my own delight. I could say that I am trying to say something fundamental about entertainment and culture trying to subvert itself and poke holes in the fabric of our every day, unquestioning mental subscription to this idea we have of “reality.” But what I think I’m really trying to do is to connect my own mundane, everyday existence up with some thoughts about how there is a middle ground between the extreme view, in one axis, of McKenna – of everything as a façade on top of a hyperspatial mushroom-reality which we have been brainwashed to forget, and between a super-concrete worldview that culture and science have evolved to demand. Our concrete, everyday existence and the culture we are immersed in can be its own trickster. You can access the wiring under the switchboard through cultural manifestations – poetry, the Internet (in certain places), but also through the spiritual and mindful practice of meditation. You are both nothing and everything, a scoundrel and a saint. You are the entireness of the nothingness of everything that ever has or ever will exist (you are made of stars, after all, hydrogen, baryonic matter which has existed since the beginning of time), and you’re also a dude or dudette, sitting on a couch, playing Bejeweled. You are the universe wasting its own time, and that’s OK.
I remember the first time I realized that the future was not going to be even remotely like it appeared in “2001: A Space Odyssey.” I was 18, living on my own, and taking classes at The University of Iowa. I watched my VHS tape (letterbox) on the couch one evening, and realized that the fictional year of the future Kubrick portrayed was only a few years away, but even then, there would be no Pan-Am Orion space transport (Pan-Am was defunct). There would be no brightly uplit, Howard Johnson’s festooned Space Station One (NASA and the Russians could barely assemble a few tiny modules in orbit). There would be no Clavius bases or moonbuses or banal administrative talk while eating perfectly square seaweed-based “ham” sandwiches en route to a lunar archaeological site. And, the reason that none of this would happen was not because it couldn’t – not that we weren’t technologically capable as a global civilization of doing these things. It’s that we wouldn’t. The future had forked at some point in the early 70s, and everything had changed out from underneath the possibility of that future.
I had discovered Kubrick’s masterpiece on a laserdisc at the Iowa City Public Library when I was 12. I watched the entire thing on a Sunday, with cruddy industrial plastic and metal headphones attached to a 19″ Sony CRT television, flipping sides on the stack of discs one after the other. The thought that this was the future (then, it still was) held me in thrall. That future seemed so clearly realized, so detailed, I felt that I was looking through a window at a reality that could exist, that would exist. My observational skills failed to note the presence of details in my own reality that were much to the contrary of the details in Kubrick’s diorama future.
The Internet should have been my first clue that things were not the same. Although DARPA and the beginnings of the global network were being created at the time Arthur C. Clarke wrote his book and he and Kubrick were working on the screenplay, neither of them, for all of their prescient inventiveness (there are iPads in the movie!), foresaw that hyper-connectedness would be the dominant paradigm of the future, not sterile disconnectedness, space-based bureaucracies and the cold war.
The leisure suits should have been my second clue. In hindsight, watching a show like “Mad Men,” the style, the attitudes, the smoking and drinking, the dominance of old boys’ clubs, the pink cashmere stewardess hats and all the other cultural accoutrements of the 60s completely saturate the visual style of “2001.” It is the past, set in the future. Looking at the awkward conversation between Dr. Andrei Smyslov, Dr. Floyd, and “Elena” (the future is so sexist, even though she probably has a Ph.D., she’s still only credited as “Elena”) in the lobby of the Space Hilton, you are struck by the character of the setting, the clothes, the drinks, and the non-character of the characters. These people are sitting casually on incredibly stylish and expensive red “Djinn” chairs, set against the striking white uplit floors, huge curved windows looking out at the blackness of space and the blue gem of the Earth, and ignoring it all. They are having a stilted and perfunctory conversation that would be just as appropriate were it to take place between Roger Sterling, Don Draper and Peggy Olson. Just replace “calibrating the new telescope at Tchalinko” with “convincing Conrad Hilton to buy a new spread in Life” and you’ve got it.
What’s fascinating about seeing a fictionalized account of a past I never experienced in “Mad Men,” but is so accurate that my dad can’t watch it because it’s so eerily familiar to his Manhattan upbringing, is that the characters can be, and strive to be, just as cardboard cut-out-y as the human characters in “2001.” But Matthew Weiner and the other writers won’t let that veneer hold. They puncture it, rip it apart, and show the seething humanity that struggles with its emotions and fights off the trauma of rapid cultural change, wars, technology and the artifice of civilization. They won’t let the self-defense mechanism of formality survive more than 5 minutes into any script. Kubrick, on the other hand, took the opportunity to criticize the fakery and superficiality of 60s culture by developing in the computer, HAL, the only fully realized human character, and contrasting that with the astronauts, who have the kind of personality that Don Draper wishes he could have.
When I was 18, I was so detached from the world around me – my social life consisted of sending text messages to my roommate via the ytalk daemon on our duct-tape and coathanger computer network in our condo, going to James Bond movies with my grand total of two friends after smoking up in the parking lot, and never, ever getting anywhere near a party or alcohol. The prospect of a clean, stylish, sterile and inhuman future (complete with a computer that I could relate to) appealed to a kid who had been on prozac for 10 years. Now, years, many friendships, and many social awkwardnesses overcome in my past, and not only do I realize that Kubrick and Clarke’s future will never happen, I’m glad for it.