Saturday, March 14, 2009

If Only...

See how the child reaches out instinctively
To feel how fire will feel
See how the man reaches out instinctively
For what he cannot have

The pull and the push of it all

Kate Bush

I won't say much about the Watchmen film except to join many others who have deemed it a curious, but ultimately dully slavish translation of the graphic novel. It is to the book as anatomical illustrations are to erotic drawings; characters and scenes that are charming on the page become cold and absurd on the big screen.

But I thought Dr. Manhattan came off reasonably well, all things considered, and I was thinking lately of the striking scenes in which he "relives" various scenes of his past in the present tense. I scare-quote "relives," of course because Dr. Manhattan, as a being to whom all times are as the present, cannot really be said to redo anything. It's hard to explain why these scenes do not come across as mere flashbacks; perhaps their conjunction with the clock motif emphasizes the inevitability of the past (and of the future, although in the story a gimmicky but necessary "tachyon burst" obscures the future to Dr. Manhattan and restores the temporal suspense that is necessary to human experience).

Those scenes reminded me of something similar, and just today I realized what: the episodes from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind in which Joel relives his memories of Clementine as they are, almost unbearably, erased. That movie manages to be both poignantly beautiful and metaphysically obscene, combining the fragile contingency of the past with a misguided determination to remake oneself from whole cloth. It brings to mind paradoxes of acceptance and choice.

Psychotherapy is all about enacting the Serenity Prayer: grant me the serenity to accept the things I can't change, the courage to change those I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. Like many seemingly simple tasks, this proves to be extremely difficult in practice. Unlike the folks in Spotless Mind, we all know intellectually that we can't change the past. But that doesn't stop many from being consumed with regret and resentment over what they or others did or failed to do "back then."

To my mind many folks both inside and outside the consulting room emphasize either fate or choice more than they ought to. One leads to passivity and enabling, while the other leads to contempt of self or others. We all seek some precarious middle ground that blends acceptance and aspiration.

After long dabbling in philosophy and in life, I've come to see what should have been obvious to me all along: determinism is metaphysically true, while free will is psychologically and pragmatically imperative. Looking backward in time, causation being what it is, events could only have unfolded as they did. Universes that unfolded differently are parallel universes, unattainable by us if not altogether fictitious.

The self that comes to psychotherapy is a compound that is both determined and free, and the intermingling of these two can only be worked out over time. Time will tell--all. The future is metaphysically foreordained, but because we are, thankfully, ignorant of which future this is, we can only act as if we can make a difference--because we do. But not from Dr. Manhattan's perspective; it's a good thing he's just a blue guy in a comic book.

Psychotherapy is a kind of narrative node in which we seek to bore new tunnels through the Moria we're wandering through. But the tunnels were really already there all along, just as our "choice" to come to psychotherapy was fated as well. But what are we to do, just sit here while the mind reels? No, we have no choice (!) but to feel that we are free to change our lives, starting--now. But we must be prepared to forgive ourselves, from the morning-after perspective of fate, if we fall short. Perhaps the art of life is all about proper handicapping.


Retriever said...
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Anonymous said...

If we could selectively erase memories would we haphazardly degrade the integrity of our perceived choices by wantonly sabotaging any higher order thought process involved in concretising decisions by simply taking a random stab in the dark of infinite possibility, and then with the wisdom of hindsight/consequence, prune the eventualities/memory scars not to our taste? Would humans be reduced to automata capable of generating every programmable scenario cmpletely devoid of any meaningful impetus, with each option being theoretically equal until given retroactive status?

Or conversely, is the theoraetical ability to 'choose' from a plethora of endpoint memories make for an enhanced decision outcome? Or, does the inevitability of the best choice make for a dull existential neutrality? Would we sacrifice the essential self in exchange for a flawless memory slate that's over-refined to the point blankness? We know how too much choice in trivial life matters results in the endless torturous loop of 'what if/if only....' dissatisfaction. Imagine the consequent existential catastrophe/malaise of choosing how to edit your core being, and then having to live with hell of self-talk - I mean, how can you be sure the chosen memory will result in the best state of being; whta looks ok in the brochure, so to speak, may become hideously mutilated in translation to the reality of your present lived-in mindscape. Or even if you could re-edit/undo memory erasure, and re-establish other possibilities, wouldnt you just drown in pathological indecision, always switching never committing - a perpetual state of not-being; reduced to a process of becoming an idealised parody of the self, no longer longer human? The paradox of being a prisoner of free will...

Memories determine us. Maybe amnesiacs are the ultimate freewillers. But what's the point of willing if you can't remember the freedom that elicited it? Yet another prison...

Determinsm is a life sentence. Free will is a temporary feeling of reprieve; a micromoment dissociated from thought; a phenomenon that's real as long as it lasts and can't be broken by physics.