The Ultimate Continuum

The much celebrated 2014 film Birdman, gives an insightful review of human (in)significance in one key scene between Sam [Emma Stone] and Riggan [Michael Keaton].

Riggan, an ageing actor and artist who is suffering an identity crisis, is counselled by his daughter as to how her recent stint in rehab helped her come to peace with her own anxieties. She methodically draws small dashes onto squares of toilet paper, 150 dashes per square, until she fills and entire roll.

Then she unfurls the paper roll and points out that one meagre square of tissue represents the entire span of human existence. One dash alone equals a million years and the roll entire, the 6 billion odd years of space and time. In so doing, her own and Riggan’s agonies over life significance are put into perspective.

The illustration questions any worries about life achievements, fame, or success. Indeed, there seems little difference between doing ‘something’ and doing ‘nothing’ with ones life, little difference between becoming a trillionaire even, and becoming a subsistence farmer.

Any sense of achievement then is simply won in comparison to our peers, those whose admiration we might crave or whose love or fear we might seek. Ultimately, however, we remain a small fleck within an infinite sea of darkness, a darkness within which giant stars burn for millions of years and even they remain dwarfed by galaxies, in turn dwarfed by the magnitude of space and time.

Is such an epiphany calming? or more anxiety inducing? Why in fact should we make any effort? and for what ultimately, is any effort of value?

What indeed then, is the difference between committing mass murder verses committing ones life to charity and community service? If ultimately, we are atoms afloat in an infinite sea of nothing, then nothing indeed is of meaning, is it not?!

The story explores the primal questions that existentialist philosophers have asked for millennia. It brings us back to the ground of being which is in our feelings, our hearts, our emotions and our soul. The difference between committing one’s life to harm verses help, lies in the significance of the human experience, in our feelings, our heart and soul. We draw our being from love, not from our achievements, our wealth, our power, fame or grandeur.

We don’t draw our significance from our stature amidst infinite space and time, for it renders us ridiculously finite; we draw our significance from the face of love, which is the face of God.

The question still stands, to what do we commit our little life to then, the hours we have, the time in our hands? The biblical story of the ‘talents’ [Matt 25:14-30] expounds on this very point. If you have one talent, double it; if you have five talents, make them ten. Whatever you have, work with it, double it, increase it.

And more than anything, do all you do, with love.

Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang!: When Men Write Women

I have recently completed several seasons of Peaky Blinders, a gangster series set in 1920s Birmingham, based on the real life family The Shelby’s and their illegal betting and black-market trading businesses.

The story is clearly a boys fantasy, while couched in history, the heroes and villains become caricatured and superheroesque and women fall into two broad categories, wives and lovers.

Initially, leading female characters seemed plucky, tough. However they soon devolve into wives with children who hover in the wings, or mothers vigilantly attending their sons. They’re sassy and have their own minor narrative arcs, trysts and adventures however they largely fall into two dimensional supports for the boys.

To be faithful to bygone days, women did not have the rights and agency of men to run businesses, bear weapons, own property or take a professional career, nor do they have the physical strength to engage in fisty-cuffs as typified in gangster sagas. What is sorely missing is not girl-versions of boy gangsters, but females with rich, varied and nuanced existences, intellect, entrepreneurship, humour, allure, mendacity and creativity of their own.

Thomas Shelby, the gang leader, is a male fantasy. Women throw themselves at him one after the other, while men either love him or want to kill him [and even the ones who want him dead will happily collaborate with such a decent foe].

What presents as a nuanced period piece, the 1920’s world brought to life amidst IRA tensions, a young Winston Churchill in office, ethnic gang wars between gypsy travelers, Italian mafia and Jewish business empires, an wider back drop of the dying and corrupt Russian Empire, the early stirrings of communism and of a second World War, becomes a disappointing two dimensional fantasy of bad boys gone badder, rolling in money, cocaine and power, breaking all the rules except the code of brotherhood and seeing foes and beautiful women falling in front of them with ease.

There is not one woman in the series who is not oriented to the men as lover, mother, wife or more crudely, an object of desire. No strong character, weak character, evil character or good redeeming character has any other place in the narrative except as part of the family or as a side interest. And this where good writing falls down.

Sociological vs Psychological Storytelling

Game of Thrones, in its eighth and final season, enjoyed audiences of more than 17 million people per week. However, fan and critic reaction though out the season indicated many of those millions loathed it.

Where did the season go wrong and why exactly did it go downhill? In May 2019, Zeynep Tufekci published an article in the Scientific American entitled, ‘The Real Reason Fans Hate the Last Season of Game of Thrones.’

Her thesis was simple; the original narrative created by George R. R. Martin struck a cord with audiences because of its unique subtlety as a sociological story which stood out among Hollywood narratives characterised by being psychological and individually motivated.

It’s not just bad storytelling—it’s because the storytelling style changed from sociological to psychological .

She explains that in sociological narratives, characters evolve in response to the broader social, political, economic and cultural incentives and norms that surround them. Author George R. R. Martin drew from medieval and renaissance history for his characters and plot devices, as well as from European myth and legend. In doing so, he specialized in having characters evolve in response to the broader social fabric and beliefs within which they were placed.

On the other hand, psychological narratives features characters driven by much more individual quests and motives. The preference for this narrative style in Hollywood is understandable: the story is easier to tell and we gravitate toward identifying with the hero or hating the antihero, at the personal level. The hallmark of sociological storytelling however, is it can encourage us to put ourselves in the place of any character, not just the main hero/heroine, and imagine ourselves making similar choices. The complexity made it much richer than a simplistic morality tale, where unadulterated good fights with evil.

An example of the power of Martin’s sociological storytelling was his willingness to kill off major characters frequently without losing the thread of the story. Narratives driven by psychological and individual motives rarely do that because the main characters are the key tools with which the story is built. Given the dearth of such narratives in fiction and in TV, this approach clearly resonated with a large fan base that latched on to the show.

Showrunners, D. B. Weiss and David Benioff, took the narrative beyond Martin’s books, and turned the later seasons into Hollywood psychological narratives. In the final season, none of the main characters are killed early or unexpectedly and the motives and movements of the protagonists and antagonists became ever more internally wrought. What resulted in season 8 was ‘deus ex-machina’ styled defeat of the forces of the dead, and simplistic dissolution to good vs. evil interplay between main characters.

And it was the story’s richness which was lost in season 8, moving fans and critics to openly pan the final episodes online. Meme’s abound like the image below featuring a young woman’s Halloween costume literally ‘trashing’ season 8.

You can read Zeynep Tufekci’s full article on Scientific American, HERE.

The Power of Reading

In an earlier post, I examined what would happen ‘If All the Books Disappeared.’ Ricky Gervais pointed out that science is the axiom the universe, an unchanging constant that would be discovered again and again should we lose all knowledge and records of learning. He contrasted this to religion which would reappear in a different form because it is couched in culture, language, and context.

For Gervais, science is worth believing in. Religion was not.

In contrast, C. S. Lewis an atheist until his early 30s, described himself as a “reluctant convert” to Christianity,  because as an intellectual, he found he had no choice but to accept what he clearly saw to be truth.

In his essay ‘Is Theology Poetry’ he mused,

I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it but because by it, I see everything else.

C. S. Lewis

This little comic articulates the importance of ideas to shape the way we see the world. Should we lose all books, humanity would have to reprocess the fundamentals of ‘knowing’ and ‘seeing’ the world, in order to test, examine and rediscover science.

Without ideas of being, notions of truth and identity, we would in fact ‘see’ the world very differently. Science would not only have to be relearned but would have to in fact be ‘re-seen.’

This process of epistemology, the process of ‘knowing’ is philosophical and tied to notions of belief, truth, and identity. This is why humanity are story tellers, and our narratives of identity which form the basis of religious beliefs run parallel to, and indeed fundamental to, the scientific process.