Archive for February, 2010

On the need to explain and how some people delight in ambiguity.

Earlier this week I watched David Lynch’s famously confusing film, Mulholland Drive. Without giving anything away, I will simply say that the ending is very challenging because it offers no explanation for what preceded it. It is the antithesis of a standard film because it fails to offer ‘closure’. All it offers are questions.

Like Franz Kafka, Lynch is capable of creating dream-like worlds which are apparently void of meaning. In such a world, all that exists for certain are raw human emotions: love, hate, fear etc. The rest – the facts and the details – are unbearably ambiguous.

Why is it that we find it unbearable to watch, read or experience something which is seemingly entirely without meaning or explanation? Rather than accept the ambiguity of something, we go to great lengths to create complicated theories of explanation.

Immediately after watching Mulholland Drive, I was desperate for an explanation. At the time, it was a matter of feeling comfortable or feeling uneasy. I chose to feel comfortable, but even hearing of possible explanations is not enough to satisfy the questions which the film raises long after it ends.

The need to explain is one of the oldest impulses humans have. It led to the birth of philosophy, religion and the arts. Today, it is the driving force behind scientific enquiry.

In the 1990s the need for explanation was given the trendy term, ‘need for closure’. The term ‘closure’ was often used to refer to reaching a resolution following a traumatic event. However, it was also used to refer to the desire for solid explanations as opposed to ambiguity.

The problem with closure is that what appears to be a solid explanation becomes very fluid, when certain questions are asked of it. What seem to be facts become uncertainties, when subjected to a thorough enquiry.

A film director like David Lynch eschews closure, creating instead an uncertainty which baffles viewers, but which is arguably closer to life than films which have straight-forward narratives and neat, tidy endings.

Life is full of uncertainties, and if we were to search for solutions to all of them we would probably go mad in the process. Yet any person with an inquiring mind – even if they profess a religious faith – will always discover questions which challenge their notions of what is certain.

I doubt that it is possible for someone to be comfortable with eternal ambiguity but it is possible for them to create from uncertainty, and to find happiness in that process.

In the absence of certainty there is creativity. Artists who understand this – and David Lynch is one of them – create visions of such perplexing beauty that a single explanation could never do them justice.

Photo credit: P/\UL

Thoughts on what it means to live authentically in a world of virtual identity.

A person who professes to believe one thing and does another is commonly known as a hypocrite. Their beliefs and actions lack congruence and so their very existence is inauthentic.

In everyday life however, we often act in ways which are in conflict with our beliefs – professed or otherwise. Is it worth striving for congruence if we are all hypocrites anyway?

In Herd, Mark Earls reflects on the ancient Greek problem of akrasia – or “weakness of the will”. The problem features in one of Plato’s dialogues, and means acting against your beliefs or judgement.

Earls sums it up when he asks: “How can a person be said to truly believe something and yet not act in accordance with that belief? … Surely, if you don’t act in accordance with your beliefs, doesn’t that suggest that you don’t believe them at all?”

Within akrasia is the problem of incongruence. Somebody who behaves this way is untrustworthy and unreliable. Practically speaking, how can you trade with a person who does not walk his talk? How can you form alliances with him, to protect your family/tribe/community?

Religion reinforces our distrust of such people. Jesus uses the word akrasia when he calls the Pharisees hypocrites. Throughout the New Testament Jesus talks of a god that looks at your inner self and not your outward appearance. In doing so he makes it clear that the state of akrasia is an immoral state – that beliefs and actions should be congruent.

Jean-Paul Sartre also argued for congruence, calling it “authenticity”. For Sartre, authenticity means staying true to one’s ‘inner self’ in the face of external pressures. Of course, this raises a host of other questions, such as how do we know what our ‘inner self’ is? How much of our ‘inner self’ is influenced by language and culture?

Many existentialists believe that you can only really know your inner self after a brush with death – an experience which removes all external influence and forces you to find value in yourself. (Read this for a good overview of Sartre’s existentialism).

All of this is difficult to stomach if you, like me, often find that your actions do not match your beliefs. It becomes even more problematic with the rise of the internet and the ‘virtual’ self.

The ‘virtual’ self is the online version of the ‘real’ self. For me, it exists on my blogs and on Facebook. With the rise of the virtual self we have an interesting situation where for some people, the virtual self feels more real than the real self.

For example, somebody could be gay in the virtual world, but ‘in the closet’ in the real world. That person is likely to feel liberated by their virtual self. A different example could be a person who writes at length about ‘family values’ on their blog, while having an adulterous affair in the real world. In both cases, the virtual self expresses beliefs that the real self does not act on.

Does it matter if the virtual self and the real self are not congruent? Can’t they just exist separately, with the virtual self embodying all beliefs that cannot be acted on in the real world because of social/cultural pressure, or lack of will?

The Japanese seem content with this idea. They even have specific words for the two different versions of your self – honne (referring to a person’s true feelings or desires) and tatemae (literally ‘façade’ – a person’s public behaviour).

Samuel Johnson was also understanding of this divide. In Rambler No. 14 he wrote,

“Nothing is more unjust, however common, than to charge with hypocrisy him that expresses zeal for those virtues which he neglects to practice; since he may be sincerely convinced of the advantages of conquering his passions, without having yet obtained the victory, as a man may be confident of the advantages of a voyage, or a journey, without having courage or industry to undertake it, and may honestly recommend to others, those attempts which he neglects himself.”

Johnson seems to suggest that people who have not achieved congruence of the virtual and real selves have not yet had “victory” over the forces that prevent that congruence: social/culture pressure and lack of will. However, Johnson says, this lack of victory should not prevent them from expressing themselves.

Many people see the virtual self /real self divide as an inevitable fact of life, necessary for the smooth running of society. Does this make us all hypocrites? Maybe so. After all, ‘hypocrite’ comes from the ancient Greek word ‘hypocrites’ which means “stage actor”.

This view of humanity argues that we are all essentially actors, born to play different roles at different stages in our lives. While one role might seem more real than another, it is not. It is just one of many in the great theatre of life.

What is your experience of the ‘virtual’ self and the ‘real’ self? Do you believe that congruence is something to strive for? What is your opinion?

Photo credit: Karola Riegler