Zen, Signs, and the Arrival of Meaning
Even though they were widely panned when they came out and have now been mostly forgotten, I have a soft spot for M. Night Shyamalan’s films from the early 2000s—Unbreakable, Signs, and The Village. Signs, especially, I thought was a satisfying, intimate-scale sci-fi film about alien invasion, but it lost many of its viewers by the end because the aliens were a bit cheesy, as was the ultimate message. This is always Shyamalan’s problem: He frequently has interesting paranormal premises but can never quite pull off making them believable; you kind of have to see through the faults to appreciate what he’s attempting.
Zen is the religion of our future precognitive selves. When we step out of the linear world of desire, we enter the circular world of enjoyment, taking immense pleasure in things just as they are.
“Synchronicity” is the ideology of most Hollywood cinema, and Shyamalan is blatant about pushing belief in it as the moral of the story in Signs. After his wife’s death, Mel Gibson’s character (a former Episcopal priest) has lost his faith, no longer believes anything has meaning, etc. His kids and his younger brother (Joaquin Phoenix) hate him for this. But in the end, he rediscovers his faith in “signs” (i.e., synchronicity) when his family is threatened. He beats the alien intruder in his home by piecing together the random flotsam of his family members’ foibles into a coherent, life-saving message that the universe was all along trying to send him: his wife’s dying words that his brother, a former failed baseball player, should “swing away,” plus his daughter’s constant annoying habit of leaving half-drunk glasses of water around the house. He realizes his brother just needs to splash the alien with a glass of water using his baseball bat and then go to town on it. (I suppose, when you put it that way, it is kind of dumb.)
Denis Villeneuve’s recent masterpiece Arrival reminds me of all the best things about Signs minus the overreach, cheesiness, and problematic message. For one thing, Signs’ slow, suspenseful opening act, centered on one family’s experience, via the media, of the ominous appearance of UFOs over major cities, might as well be the template for the first act of Arrival. The structure of both films—telling the story of a tense and uncertain “first contact” via a character living under the shadow of loss—is the same; both films tack back and forth between the present alien conflict and “flashbacks” of the death of a loved one. And nearly identical to Signs is the way Louise Banks (Amy Adams’ character) in Arrival solves the problem facing her and humanity by realizing the true meaning of her random thoughts, which she had previously overlooked or misinterpreted.
In other words, Arrival is like a permutation of the same set of thematic elements or mythemes (including even somebody’s wife’s dying words playing a key role), but they are rearranged into a much more compelling narrative in which the “meaningful events” that seem like the standard tragic Hollywood backstory (dying family member, etc.) in fact emerge as a story the character chooses, warts and all, in her future—a forestory. As I mentioned in my previous post, I don’t agree that precognition could ever be so conscious or clear as depicted in Arrival; but I admire the effort and the fact that Villeneuve told a much more interesting cinematic story on these themes than most other directors would have. The “uplift” at the end of the film is just right: a brief and inspiring peek into a world where we realize that we are prophetic beings but just don’t know it. I obviously really believe this is true—there is abundant evidence for it, both experimental and anecdotal.
These similarities, but crucial differences, between Signs and Arrival are really instructive for clarifying the difference that I have tried to persuade people about on this blog: between the Jungian “everything is (already) meaningful” idea—which can only ever ultimately amount to a kind of reassuring but empty metaphysical oatmeal or, at worst, the basis for manipulation and religious dogma—and the more challenging, more thought-provoking, and more liberating perspective of Arrival, that meaning always is something that arrives from the future. We make our lives meaningful, and renew those meanings in our actions; and our best and most creative insights seem to come from reaching into the Not Yet in obscure and subtle ways.
Going in Circles
The fact that our moral and spiritual lives must be a constant active project, not just finding meaning ready-made, is a deep irony, given the objection most often raised against a universe in which fate and foreknowledge exist: If everything is predestined, why get up in the morning and do anything? Why lift a finger, since everything will happen anyway?
The predestined future includes all your “freely willed” actions that bring it about. There is no escaping the responsibility of action.
A moment’s thought reveals the fallacy there: If you don’t reach and pick up your spoon, your oatmeal will not magically levitate to your mouth. The predestined future includes all your “freely willed” actions that bring it about. There is no escaping the responsibility of action. The notion of ‘just lying in bed because what’s the point’ is to be beguiled by an image, a stage-representation of passivity, not anything real.
Predestination, the Minkowski block universe, fate, wyrd, post-selection, whatever you want to call it, presents a koan, forces us to confront the real meaty question: Instead of “do I or don’t I have free will?”—a canard—the more pertinent thing you should ask yourself is, “who am I to even ask this question?” … as well as “what should my attitude be?” Hint: In my Twitter feed, the wonderful @BabaRamDass is always advising that we adopt a spectatorial role in our lives, to identify with the witness of our actions and not the “actor.” He’s right. When you really make a practice of this, it has a transformative effect. Mysteriously, it doesn’t make you any more “passive”—the opposite, in fact.
It seems no accident that (as my wife pointed out when we saw Arrival) the heptapods’ glass screen is the same dimensions as a movie screen, and the whole experience of the film is staged to express the idea that we are basically spectators of something. This seems like a nod to Kubrick, who did the same thing in 2001—the slab is like an up-ended movie screen, and many of that film’s major moments are also spectacles or demonstrations that are watched or witnessed. “Witnessing” seems indeed to be the attitude of the heptapods toward their own existence; “If they’re scientists, they don’t ask very many questions,” as Jeremy Renner’s narration puts it during the montage.
Although the choice faced by Louise Banks at the end of Arrival is particularly stark (for the purposes of telling a good story, you have to make these choices stark), and although, again, precognition would never be as vivid and clear as it is portrayed, I agree with the Zen message of the film: Life is in the enjoying of it, however things turn out. This is I believe precisely how precognitive creatures would approach life, and why I do believe Zen is the religion of our future precognitive (or, somewhat more precognitive) selves. When we step out of the world of desire (aims, goals, ambitions, cravings), which is linear and ultimately the source of frustration and suffering, we enter the world of enjoyment, which is circular/directionless and takes immense pleasure in things just as they are. I’m sure it was intentional that the Heptapods’ written language as portrayed in the film so closely resembles the brushstroke circles that are ubiquitous in Japanese Zen art and Zen book covers.**
Postscript: The Alien and Death
On his blog, David Halperin has a great post on Arrival, reading the story in terms of its interesting similarities to the UFO abduction literature, e.g., Strieber. He rereads the future events in Louise Banks’ visions as really past events (the way the viewer assumes throughout the first half of the film). Although I’m all for deconstructing paranormal stories by removing the paranormal element and seeing what you are left with, in this case it is only an interesting thought experiment; there is no evidence this is (at all) what the filmmaker, scriptwriter, or Ted Chiang had in mind.
Misrecognized precognition may be precisely what enables the brain to turn our denial of death into a paranormal experience.
Halperin doesn’t want to believe in precognition (or the paranormal in general) and thus finds the precognitive aspect of the story silly. Obviously I don’t agree, and I would cite ample experimental evidence in my defense here (and recommend he actually take the J.W. Dunne challenge before he dismiss precognition). But I do like his insights about the relationship of “the alien” and death, as part of the secret equation in these narratives. Somehow UFOs and aliens may be manifestations of our desperate denial of death, he suggests, and I think this is spot-on. Both Signs and Arrival draw the equivalence vividly. However, I think misrecognized precognition may be precisely what enables the brain to turn our denial of death into a paranormal experience.
For Halperin, the alien is the dead (imagined, conjured into being). What if the alien is instead the dying … ourselves, or our loved ones, in the future? Death is an “alien” thing, as Halperin says, and it is always by definition from the future that it arrives for us. Could some “alien encounters” be precognitive of a diminutive, frail, pallid, bald loved one dying of cancer, or ourselves in such a condition, seen in the mirror?
In Strieber’s collaboration with Jeff Kripal, The Super Natural, he acknowledges his recognition that the weirdly erotic feminine alien for which he is so famous was really somehow related to his wife Anne. It makes me wonder whether his “visitor experience” could have been informed partly by premonitions of Anne’s struggle with cancer decades later, and whether experiences of “greys” more generally are not precognitive of a distinctly new (in the late 20th Century) experience: caring for family members undergoing chemotherapy/radiation treatments. It can only be a hypothesis—the only way to examine this would be to look at family histories of “abductees,” both prior and subsequent histories. A tall order, I’m sure.
There is much in the abductee literature and Strieber’s own writings resembling the Victorian construct of hysteria, and in their classic 1895 text on the subject, Josef Breuer and Sigmund Freud noted that the origin of hysterical symptoms is often a period of caretaking in a patient’s past. For example in one case study, “Fraulein Elisabeth Von R.” developed hysterical leg pains after feeling sexual attraction for a man, which she denied expressing because she was then busy caring for her dying father. The conflict between the grave, self-denying business of caring for a mortally ill family member and sexual or otherwise life-affirming feelings that feel morally incompatible with that situation precipitates a “symptom.”
Precognitive symptoms originate from similar scenes, and similar conflicting emotions (which I have sometimes called “jouissance“), in a person’s future. The conflict might not only be sexual feelings, but also the most basic reward signal, “but I survived,” which is unbearable in the context of grief for a loved one (or shock at the loss of anonymous others, as in a disaster like the Titanic or 9/11). As I’ve argued elsewhere, it is precisely that sublime reward signal of survival in the context of loss or destruction that appears to become “displaced in time.” Because no one believes in precognition, those displaced emotions and experiences will almost always be misunderstood and misinterpreted.
I wonder if it is our fear of death that leads us to fear and thus deny that our synchronicities and OOBEs and other paranormal experiences are really precognitive. Death is the ultimate bad thing lying in wait for us in our future. Among other tactics for beating death is simply killing (or ignoring) the messenger.
* The other film comparison that comes to mind with Arrival is Don’t Look Now, Nicolas Roeg’s 1973 masterpiece also on the theme of misrecognized precognition. In that narrative too, the inciting incident is the death of a child (such a scenario is, I suppose, low-hanging fruit for a storyteller who wants to establish ultimate loss and grief as the counterweight to subsequent events in a story about fate and foreknowledge); and as in Arrival, the psychic protagonist, the girl’s father John Baxter (Donald Sutherland), misrecognizes all subsequent premonitions as meaningless coincidences, including a vision of his wife that leads him to believe she was abducted, propelling him to his own murder.
Minus the full-on tragic dimension, this is really the way precognition works, particularly the way rationalists resolutely in denial of our more extraordinary natures will find themselves falling victim (usually in less consequential, merely annoying or neurotic ways) to the logic of the precognitive unconscious. The only “mistake” in Don’t Look Now is that (if I’m right) John Baxter would have seen and misinterpreted a vision of something preceding his death, not a vision of his funeral afterward.
** On the afternoon before first seeing Arrival, my thoughts for no apparent reason went to a Daisetz Suzuki lecture on those brushstroke circles that I had read about several years ago in the context of their influence on the composer John Cage; then in the movie, when the heptapods first produced their writing on the glass, I was happily amazed. This is precisely how precognition works—for all of us—a subtle skewing of our thoughts toward exciting and rewarding experiences in our (usually imminent) future. That same afternoon, the earworm in my head was a line from a Simon and Garfunkel song, “Somethin’ tells me it’s all happening at the zoo…”—also directly relevant to the climactic plot twist in Arrival.
Just pay attention—precognition is a constant process in our thoughts. And yes, by the very nature of the beast, it is usually impossible to prove that it’s not hindsight bias. Usually, but not always.