Sunday, June 07, 2015

strings on me, sometimes near dunes

A commonly noted detail of Avengers: Age of Ultron—whether it was viewed positively or negatively—was an unexpected deluge of assorted cultural references. Unlike the movie's characters, my usual social circle doesn't drop playwrights into casual conversation, so I didn't recognize the name Eugene O'Neill. But at least my steadily aging memory could identify the ditty "I've Got No Strings" from Pinocchio. For the titular puppet, the song was its overly cheery description of its visible uniqueness. For Ultron, the song was a wry motto for the capability to rebel (um, and murder).

Different as these two were, presumably they'd agree that having no strings is a symbol for the reality that humans aren't subject to involuntary control by anything else. And they'd be committing a ludicrous exaggeration. Countless moments every day, humans feel "strings" of psychological pressure to take/reject an action or think/avoid a thought. Meditation systematically exposes the variation and subtlety of such pressures, as I've stated before in past entries on the topic. Miscellaneous phenomena in the meditators' brains are like strings that repetitively pull on them. Instead of reflexively trying to tug back, they passively watch the strings tauten, have as little effect as a thread dragging a brick, then spontaneously slacken thereafter. Realistically sensing and knowing the strings is a crucial gain. Ignorance may permit hollow complacency, but it's useless for lasting improvement. Perhaps the enormous pile of meditation sayings can absorb one more: I meditate until I recover my sight of the perpetual strings on me—which can't happen while I persist either in decreeing the strings aren't there or in mistaking the strings for who I am.

Pinocchio and Ultron aren't alone. The theme of puppet-like control dominates the six novels of Frank Herbert's Dune series—notably without puppets/robots in the storyline. Time after time, the text portrays, or states outright in numerous asides, the disadvantages that plague the wretches who can't perceive their strings and compensate inventively. They're vulnerable to all kinds of exploitation and attack. They can't evade the predictability of their actions and thoughts. They settle into the grooves of the expectations placed on them. Their reactions are restricted by their previously established mental associations. They defer to repetitions of idealized pasts. They overvalue rigidity, stability, and constancy, and they chase these conveniences in the ritual shapes of religion and government. They stop asking difficult questions because they prefer the simplicity of "ultimate" answers. They worship authority. They refuse to take on the burden of making original decisions.

Further underscoring the centrality of this theme, a variety of strings show up: addiction, greed/lust, ambition, preconception, pride, fear, aggression, vengeance, indoctrination, threats, persuasion. These are alongside the sometimes less selfish strings connecting to family, romance, camaraderie, society, cultural tradition, mutually beneficial alliances, and the whole human civilization's destiny. The self-aware heroes don't "have no strings", but the strings on them neither manipulate them nor limit them. They view them in a manner that's full, unblinking, and well-reasoned. Thus, their strings don't provoke them into simplistic, heedless, short-sighted responses in the narrow categories of obedience or disobedience or indifference. To the contrary, they imagine innovative yet rational solutions which dismantle destructive cycles. Entrapped by a seemingly unwinnable scenario, they employ their knowledge, savvy, and creativity in tactics that more or less override the underlying constraints.

More profoundly, these momentous decisions act as equally radical rewrites of the deciders' own selves. Their unbridled decisions dictate their selves, not vice-versa. They boldly change who (or what, technically speaking) they are. By discerning then conscientiously defying their strings, they're able to become something totally different. In the middle of the choice, the "self" may be an unduly constricting abstraction to be laid aside. Notwithstanding the series' famously bizarre reinterpretations of religion, that's a lesson that I can respect.