All has not been for the best in the best of all possible worlds1 recently. The world we knew seems increasingly meaningless, and our sense of control over the events of our lives has eroded to the point that my understanding of Voltaire has increased considerably. Unfortunately, the garden is too waterlogged to weed at the moment2.
It is hard to see an exit anywhere, and hard not to feel silly for having plans for our lives, for laboriously learning skills and hobbies we enjoy, but which now seem a bit superfluous. Why ever learn to swim, if we’re not allowed into a pool? Why learn to play the violin if nobody will be listening? I’ve gone a little nuts on the indoor exercise (another exciting blog post to come on rowing machines), but that is mainly in aid of not cratering completely, rather than wanting to get fit for anything in particular.
When I first read Candide, I was 19 and had just received the extensive reading list for my impending undergraduate degree. I was spending the summer sitting under a large tree, selling ice cream from a mobile stand. Every morning, I would plough through my reading list, as people don’t want to buy much ice cream before lunch. Every afternoon, as the sun lowered in the sky, it would fall on one side of the ice cream, rendering one of the flavours unsellable. I therefore always put my favourite flavour in that spot, and as soon as it became too soft to sell, I would retrieve it to eat surreptitiously under the counter. I was a bit fat by the time I started my French degree. My recollection of Candide is therefore a little jumbled up with chocolate chips, but I was very taken with this clear rejection of life having any real purpose. If all the catastrophes that befall him (despite the droll comedy, the underlying emotions of disappointment and horror were keenly written) are the fate of all humans, then indeed what point is there in trying to find a better life. Admittedly, I also couldn’t quite picture a better life than being paid to eat ice cream under a shady tree. If anything, I could see how it might be hard to improve on my situation with the passage of time – as my subsequent Christmas job packing geese in a freezer warehouse proved.
And now we seem to have collectively arrived at the il faut cultiver notre jardin stage of our existence. So I quite like to escape into the idea that given how pointless my existence is, perhaps it is not even real at all, or more enticingly, is not the best of all possible worlds.
The other day, we somewhat reluctantly watched the latest Amazon studios offering, featuring Owen Wilson and Penelope Cruz. The reviews were not encouraging. It had the unpromising title Bliss , and it did not live up to it. It was one in a long line of films that ask open ended questions about subjective reality, without ever going full hard sci-fi on it. It just goes for the rather dull suggestion of the beautiful alternate world being the consequence of drug addiction and/or mental illness. The only film that succeeds in making the mental ambiguity angle of subjective reality both completely gripping, and ambiguous, is Shutter Island.
So I’ve started getting through a watch list of all the movies or series that look at reality as a manipulation. It is somehow comforting to think that maybe we can somehow exit stage left, and find that the world we knew, and in particular the mistakes we made, was indeed a stage. The only problem is whether the real world is any better. After all, if these rather crazy theories of us living in a simulation are true, then there must be a rather unpalatable reason to have gone to all the effort of creating a simulation, with 7 billion people making mistakes all the time. Whoever did it must be hoping for some pretty major answers to some massive problem, and perhaps we wouldn’t want to find out what that problem is. That is why I don’t feel a major urge to watch the corresponding documentary.
Still, I am enjoying the list, albeit this was always highly likely given my overall obsession with science fiction.
Here are the ones I’ve got through:
I watched this years ago, just after my father died. It was so tempting, the idea of being able to remake the past, to live a life minus all the mistakes I made, or even just to have a little bit more time to talk to someone before they are gone forever.
This is a visually striking film, and also deals with trying to find ways around the finality of death. The snow-scapes of the setting in wintry northern Japan are beautiful – although it turns out to have been shot in Hungary. It is also quite nice to be watching a guy who is on his own in the wilderness, like he’s on his own personal lockdown. He spends all his time alone with his machines, a bit like all of us.
The ending is awfully cheesy and unsatisfying, but it’s otherwise quite an enjoyable dystopia, which certainly doesn’t seem very fictional any more. The more I watch my husband playing Cyberpunk 2077 (I’m too crap to play it myself), the more it seems like this is our future.
I suspect my husband is aware of why we watch a disproportionate amount of anything with Ryan Reynolds in it – but that also means he gets to watch Deadpool, so everybody’s happy. This offering, on the theme of remaking the world, is unfortunately not particularly well realised, and the big reveal feels rather flat. Still, he’s hot, that never changes.
This is more significant as Natalie Wood’s last film before her rather dramatic death, which seems fitting, given that the theme of the film is the physical nature of death – and the surely forever impossible feat of experiencing someone else’s bodily reality. It is also quite fun for looking at amazingly dated early 80s decor, in particular the very Marmite indoor pool:
The pace is a little wrong at the end, and the tech involved hilariously archaic, but the visual depiction of death is both beautiful and quite comforting. Christopher Walken is another draw.
My expectations were quite low, as this is a very low budget sci-fi that seems to have been shot in a few people’s houses. It is in fact quite a fascinating essay on the nature of reality as viewed through the dimension of time. Definitely worth watching, and at least attempts a bit more logic than most time travel movies.
Of course I should include The Matrix in this list, but what is there left to say about it? It already quite correctly ascertains that most people do not really want to ask big questions, because the answers might be too painful. Unfortunately, this has over the years morphed into some very tedious people believing themselves to be the arbiters of truth, whilst everyone else is in the “blue pill” world – which can be defined as whatever point of view one group believes to be wrong.
Voltaire is right. None of it matters, none of it is real in the sense that our hopes and dreams will always remain out of reach, the Eldorado we can only destroy by finding it.
Note 1 Voltaire, Candide Ch. 1: “Pangloss enseignait la métaphysico-théologo-cosmolonigologie. Il prouvait admirablement qu’il n’y a point d’effet sans cause, et que, dans ce meilleur des mondes possibles, le château de monseigneur le baron était le plus beau des châteaux et madame la meilleure des baronnes possibles.” [Pangloss taught metaphysical theological cosmolonigology. He proved admirably that there is not effect without cause, and that in this best of all possible worlds, the chateau of the baron was the most beautiful of chateaux, and his wife the best of baronesses possible].
Note2 – I’m sure most people are familiar with the famous closing line of Candide ; after decades of searching for adventure and perfection in pastures ever new, and very much finding the opposite, Candide realises that in fact, the simple and immediate pleasures of looking after a garden are a more humble, achievable aim – “il faut cultiver notre jardin”. Perhaps it also references the gardens that book-end the bible, and emphasized that in fact humans are in control of their destinies, rather than sitting and watching the perfect Eden, or indeed waiting for execution at Gethsemane. You tend your own garden, just as you make decisions about your own life – the perfect metaphor for the enlightenment, der Ausgang des Menschen aus seiner selbstverschuldeten Unmündigkeit (Kant. Translating it is too annoying, but it defines enlightenment as people learning to take responsibility for their own faculties of thought).