January 21st, 2006

Brad @ Burning Man

Follow-Up: More on "More"

The other day I asked as many of you as can spare the time to go watch the Internet version of a short animated video called "More," and (so far) six of you did, and thanks. Adding your interpretations of it to kukla_tko42's, and my own fragmentary interpretation of it, I think I sort of understand. Like all bits of Terribly Meaningful Art, it means something a little different to each person. My primary concern was to try to understand what it meant to Kukla, and why she (mistakenly, this time) thought it would be powerfully meaningful to me.

The opening scene is of what we're given to understand is a dream of a happy memory from childhood that haunts our hero. He wakes from the dream into an ugly room in a dreary city, rides a dreary bus to his dreary job, where his screaming boss bullies him to make the only non-gray object in his whole gray world, a popular consumer product called Happy, faster and faster. Our Hero fancies himself an inventor, and eventually finds a way to design something even better than Happy, into which he's invested some of his own happy memories and his own spirit, which he calls Bliss. Bliss is so much better than Happy that he becomes wealthy and famous, and he takes over the Happy company. Now the same screaming boss pesters the same workers (plus his replacement) to make more Bliss, faster and faster. And in the CEO's office, our hero suddenly realizes that while everybody else is buying Bliss, his original source of bliss, the happy memories inside him, has gone out; he no longer has any joy of his own. Gazing out the window, he sees in the distance a group of children playing ... just like he was, in the happy memories he can no longer reach.

Now, here's the part that seems to be the point of confusion: just what the heck is Bliss? Bliss looks like a high-tech pair of binoculars, and when you look through it, the gray and ugly world stop-motion animated world disappears and is replaced by a bright, cheerful, rainbow-colored cell animated world. Bliss is a product that lets people step out of their ugly world for a while and live in a beautiful world. And the point of contention between Kukla and me was over whether or not that's a good thing. As someone who remembers the time, fairly long ago, when I used to make approximately annual use of LSD, she assumed that I would share her opinion that seeing the world as a beautiful thing instead of as an ugly thing, and feeling momentary bliss, was a good thing. She saw our hero as a man who'd made a messianic sacrifice to share his bliss, the energy he got from his uniquely-preserved memory of happy childhood, with a needy world. To the extent that I have any opinion at all (because the whole thing left me strangely unaffected, truthfully, the way that most non-"doggerel" poetry does), it's that what he's done is a monstrous thing. Because when I compare the world as seen through his manufactured Bliss to the real world, he's doing people a horrible disservice by encouraging them to see the world other than as it is.

Isn't that what I took LSD for? God's teeth and miserable dentures, no. This goofball idea that hallucinogens make you see things that aren't there is a popular media misunderstanding. In my youth, even on the rare and mostly regretted times when I didn't take the sacredness of the drug as seriously as I should have, and even when I've taken far more than the recommended dosages, and regardless of which drugs I've taken, I've never seen anything that wasn't actually there. I took those drugs to learn from them. I took those drugs not to muddle my thinking, but to clarify it. I valued those drugs for their unique power to call my attention to things, both inside me and outside of me, that I had been ignoring. Some of those things were beautiful, and the drug taught me much about the beauty in my world that I might otherwise not have known to look for. (But mostly not. I've always been inclined to see beauty in the world around me.) Some of those things were ugly things that I'd been half-consciously overlooking because I wasn't ready to face them. But all of them were there before the drug showed them to me, and are still there decades later.

She thought that I took the drugs to revel in the roughly 15 to 20 minutes of intense bliss that happens at the peak of the experience. That would be foolishness at best and insanity at worse if it were true. It's an 8 to 14 hour experience. Setting aside 8 to 14 hours of my life, incapacitating myself for 8 to 14 hours, for 15 minutes of artificial mood elevation? God's teeth, I'd never do that. It's what I learned and saw and felt in the roughly 4 to 10 hours of the most powerful parts of the non-peak experience that I valued enough to do it again and again until it had taught me as much as it had to teach me. When Those Who Have Seen It came back to Eleusis for their chemically-enhanced experience, as some of them did several times to serve as volunteer guides to the new initiates, you can't tell me that they put themselves through all that work just for the 30 seconds or so of intense experience at sunrise; I believe that they must have valued the whole experience. As intense as the brief peak from that weak hallucinogen was, the experience of it was repeated from year to year; it had nothing new to show them after that first time. It's the rest of it, and the sharing of that other many hours with a hundred or a thousand other new and returning initiates, that brought them back.

It deeply disappointed Kukla, I think, that I would have preferred to see the gray real world in "More" and to find the beauty in it, than to have paid money for a consumer product that let me escape into artificial hallucinations of beauty that isn't actually there. For this, she called me a bitter pessimist. Would a bitter pessimist think that there was beauty enough in the real world to look for it? I don't need to ignore any ugliness or pettiness or ignorance or casual negligence or even the infrequent actual malevolence in my real world to know that there is more beauty in it than has any right to be there, and to take comfort therein. I'm not an optimist, if by optimist you mean someone who doesn't see the ugliness and pettiness and ignorance and negligence and cruelty. And if there are only optimists and pessimists in the world, and no third or fourth or nth alternative, then I guess not being an optimist makes me a pessimist. And yet, somehow, I don't feel pessimistic.

I make frequent recourse to the joke about the Thirteenth Beatitude: "Blessed are they who expect the worst, for they can be pleasantly surprised." I don't, truly, expect the worst. (One could say that I aspire to that blessed state, but that would be being silly.) But I know that I live on a planet that only evolved intelligence a few hundred thousand years ago, that only evolved even rudimentary civilization perhaps twenty thousand years ago, and among a species to whom the blessed gods who live forever only revealed to us the happiest and best way of life (perhaps because they had only just learned it from some of us) and began to reward it less than three thousand years ago. I know, with the certainty of mathematical proof, that it is hard for human beings to do the right thing some times, that the temptation to cheat each other and war against each other for short term personal gain is part of our biological heritage. Knowing these things doesn't make me a pessimist. It makes me someone who is delighted every day to see, every day and everywhere I look, the vast majority of people doing more or less the right thing, doing not only the best that they can but sometimes even doing better than there is any reason to think that they could. And I refuse to call someone like myself who sees that and delights in it on a daily basis a pessimist.