Epistemology in Doctor Strange (2016)

“No, I reject it because I do not believe in fairy tales about chakras or energy or the power of belief. There is no such thing as spirit! We are made of matter and nothing more. We’re just another tiny, momentary speck in an indifferent universe.”
Dr. Steven Strange

Marvel Studio’s Doctor Strange opens with a character exposdoctor-strange-posterition of a man who is equal parts sardonic and insufferably full of himself; he navigates the confines of the operating theatre with surgical accuracy—a kind of medical Sherlock Holmes, so to speak. The dramatic irony is deafening. Later in the film, Steven Strange vehemently professes to be a radical materialist (no surprise there) for whom the spiritual realm does not exist. There is for him only one substance that constitutes the universe—matter, and nothing more.

His skeptical and monist convictions very much struck a deep and resonating chord somewhere in the recess of my belief system. Even as my eyes remained transfixed on the moving image on screen, there was a sense in which an inner discourse was unravelling; my thoughts were set in tense negotiation with what I had just heard on screen. Those words could very well have been uttered by yours truly—every syllable of it.

At some imperceptible point in my life, there was as it were, an asymptote of faith which inaugurated a movement towards the kind of paradigm subscribed by Strange. A young man who once championed an unerring confidence in an almighty deity had fallen away, like a withered leaf from the bough of a great oak. Even the word ‘falling away’ is contentious here, because it presumes a right path from which one could possibly diverge from, and in so doing, ‘fall’ or err. A proper materialist and agnostic would do away with such loaded terms.

I cannot remember exactly when this epistemological turn transpired—but the shift was pre-philosophical, even before my formal engagement with academic philosophy in my early twenties. All I remember was feeling an instinctive indignation at all the evil that was blossoming unchecked around me, and this whittled away any faith I held in an omnibenevolent higher being. Prayers for my own and my family’s safety began to feel immensely self-serving. Then I realised everyone else around me was doing the same. Prayers for others felt like incidental whispers in the dark—perhaps motivated by the need for our conscience to be heard in what seemed like an ‘indifferent universe’. We pray for divine assistance and expect help to fly in choruses of angels to Syria or the Rohingyas—for some miraculous change of heart in the antagonists whom we unwittingly believe belong to the fairy tales of bedtime rituals. Stories of glorious conversion and poetic justice. The mortal realm is regrettably far more complex than our consoling imaginations of the divine can fathom.

Yet even as I shape these seemingly wayward thoughts into words, a part of me is shaken still with some oscillation of uncertainty at my own convictions. How sure am I in my implicit claims to understand the ‘divine’—whether it is physical or metaphysical, real or imaginary, or perhaps a linguistic feature? Do I know enough to know that there is no transcendent reality beyond my own? These are precisely the types of unstable beliefs and claims to knowledge that the exposition of Doctor Strange seeks to challenge. Never mind if the philosophical problem is quickly and formulaically answered with displays of dramatic mysticism and CGI in the Marvel universe. It is nonetheless a question that still persists in our own—and it is one that I’ve been forced to confront time and again with renewed vigour.

At one point in the film, The Ancient One reprimands Strange with powerful counter-empiricist rhetoric:

“You think you know how the world works? You think that this material universe is all there is? What is “real”? What mysteries lie beyond the reach of your senses?”

The implicit conclusion here is that there are other ways of knowing beyond sense or reason. Knowing therefore becomes an event of meaning. There is no longer universal truth in the strictest sense, but only knowledge that makes sense within a specified context of knowing. And surely, this context we speak of is not one of culture or nationality or ethnicity—it is one of dimension: of the senses, of the mind, of other uncharted media. In claiming that we know how the world works, the only truth in that statement is the knowledge of how it works through the use of our senses or reason. That’s it. We can say nothing more of knowing beyond those human faculties.

I am as such, at every possible waking moment, myself reminded of the limits of my senses that no recourse to reason or a rationalist worldview could possibly bridge. There may be a vast repository of non-sensory or irrational phenomena unfolding around or within us that neither sense nor mind can decipher, much less detect.

And who knows—perhaps God resides in those gaps of silence.

Saving Oedipus in Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963)

While it is never explicitly revealed why the birds started getting all belligerent in the first place, there is an overt speculation by one of the Bodega Bay townsfolk, a mother of two who turns hysterical as events take a turn for the worse. She openly brands Melanie Daniels (the female lead) as the cause of the avian blitz on grounds that it is only after her arrival in Bodega Bay that the attacks transpire. However, that itself is at best a weakly grounded correlation, since there is hardly any screen evidence for her being in any way consciously malicious, and thus no reason to believe that this hypothetical evil in her has caused this uncanny event.

However, I do not think that this unequivocally absolves her of all possibility of being a causal agent in the movie’s narrative trajectory. If anything, we may have sufficient justification — at the psychoanalytic/symbolic level — for positing that her sudden presence in Bodega Bay and within the Brenner household is, if not the direct cause, then at least the anchoring premise that leads up to the bird attacks.

Despite the movie’s (or Hitchcock’s) conscious and explicit declaration that the relationship between Mitch Brenner and his mother is anything but Oedipal in nature, our spectator’s intuition grates against the grain of this suspicious profession. Perhaps that is exactly Hitchcock’s intent — to bring the unconventional mother-son relationship to the fore by denying its strangeness even when there is strident cinematic evidence to assert otherwise.

Let’s suppose the dyadic relation between mother and son here is precariously Oedipal; after all, Mitch’s father is dead, and Mitch has effectively usurped the position of the patriarch in the household. The Oedipus complex has re-emerged, short of mother and son being interlocked in forbidden desire. Really? I’m of the opinion that the mother in fact desires Mitch (possibly a transference of affection from husband to son), and this prompts us to observe an inversion of desire dynamics within this localized Oedipal system. Now, it is the mother who desires the son-as-husband. Regardless of this modification, the Oedipus complex retains its structural integrity — the boy/son Mitch remains ensnared in the drama of desire. Only this time it is not him that must negotiate this forbidden desire, but his own mother.

Enter Melanie Daniels, an attractive young lady for whom Mitch develops affections and eventually pursues romantically. Immediately, it is evident that the mother becomes jealous, at certain junctures almost to the extent of being hysterical (such as the bed scene above). She is afraid of losing her husband-in-Mitch to another woman — this is almost an uncanny case of extramarital affairs (and perhaps even qualifies as a second death of her husband). The mother begins to overtly exhibit nuances of possessiveness that verge on being very much like the spite of a jilted lover. Inevitably, his mother’s aversive response to Melanie’s presence compels Mitch to develop an awareness of this abnormal relationship with her; castration anxiety instinctively follows this consciousness of the familial taboo, and this forces Mitch to disavow his mother’s subversive attempts to claim him as her lover.

On screen, this castration anxiety is squarely displaced onto the fear of the bird attacks. If we notice carefully, the unfortunate deceased of these attacks always have their eyes torn out or gouged out — this resonates neatly with the tragedy of Oedipus who, when he finds out he has married his mother, proceeds to blind himself with her brooch as self-punishment. Blinding is therefore an act of symbolic castration — a psychoanalytically necessary consequence of indulging in incestuous relations. The deaths of Annie Hayworth and Mitch’s neighbour (and more saliently their blinding) therefore qualify as harbingers of Mitch’s castration, a trauma which would come to pass should he not sever himself from the prohibited desire of his mother.

In this sense, Melanie Daniels’ arrival is not so much an omen or malediction to Bodega Bay; at least to the Brenner household, it is a salve or corrective force that forestalls what would have been an instance of psychosexual trauma in a coastal suburban family.

Metaphysics in Rooftop Prince (2012)

Rooftop Prince (옥탑방 왕세자) (2012)

So just last afternoon I closed the covers on the highly acclaimed Korean drama serial Rooftop Prince, which I started following last week after a friend — having perhaps known that I was just done with Lie To Me — ardently recommended it. As I turned the last few leaves of this trans-temporal romance and allowed its closure to settle in, I began to realise that my emotional reception of the ending was very much modulated by my vested interest in metaphysics, in particular personal identity. And no, there really is nothing at all ostensibly intellectual about this realisation — it isn’t an instance of critical reading or interpretation. It is simply a matter of making sense of the ending beyond a generic dismissal of the drama as a blissful, fortuitous romance driven by a benevolent fate; I say this because the denouement (resolution) is anything but idyllic — romantic perhaps, but certainly not celebratory. In fact, it left a bittersweet aftertaste on my palette palate that was more bitter than sweet — I thought it was almost tragic.

In a nutshell, the drama is centred on the temporal translocation of the Crown Prince and his three-man entourage (over a span of three hundred years) from the Joseon era to the present time by some twist of fate. This facilitates his investigation of his beloved Crown Princess’s murder, which occurred shortly before his displacement into the future (and is presumably the impetus of the uncanny event). Fate — capitalized — appears to be a very real force directing the narrative trajectory. Anyway, the longer the Crown Prince lingers in the modern present, the more he realises that there is in fact a one-to-one correspondence between the past and the present. He discovers that there is in fact someone (Tae Yong) who looks exactly like him, but who supposedly went missing. In short, every key individual in the present has a corresponding doppelganger/double in the past; but more than that, the scandalous events surrounding the murder of the Crown Princess in the past seem to repeat themselves (albeit in a different guise) in the tumultuous corporate landscape of the present.

Soon enough, the Crown Prince realises that he has been propelled three hundred years into the future to solve the mystery of her death precisely because of this narrative symmetry between past and present owing supposedly to reincarnation. As he begins to unravel the threads of fate, he falls in love with a woman (Park Ha) who is ostensibly the modern analogue of the Crown Princess’s sister (Boo Yong), and soon finds out that the Crown Princess was hardly the person he knew, but had been in truth a scheming collaborator involved in his attempted assassination, just as she is a compulsive liar in the present. Park Ha’s past doppelganger Boo Yong would have been installed as Crown Princess if her sister had not scarred her face with a hot iron and taken the former’s place when they were young. In fact it is revealed that it was she who had been murdered, and not the Crown Princess (who in actuality went into hiding after her sister took the rap for her). All this points to the fact that both the Crown Prince and Boo Yong were destined to be lovers (to phrase it rather simplistically). To cut to the chase, Fate returns the Crown Prince irrevocably to Joseon after he solves the mystery, leaving his lover Park Ha behind in the present. However, the Crown Prince’s present double reappears (after awaking from a coma) and makes contact with her, thereby bringing the narrative full circle by reuniting the lovers who were tragically forced asunder by circumstance three hundred years ago.

***

The final meeting of the reincarnations — of both the Crown Prince and Boo Yong — marks the close of the dramatic narrative. But it is at that juncture that many philosophical issues begin to break the surface of the reader’s literary consciousness, disturbing the placid waters that have settled in the narrative’s aftermath. Even long after the curtains have fallen, we are perhaps made to wonder if the ending is in any way a proverbially happy one: is the reunion and the ensuing romance an authentic one? Is the man who arrives to meet Park Ha at the end of the narrative (Tae Yong) the same man whom Park Ha had fallen in love with (i.e. the Crown Prince) over the course of the story? What constitutes personal identity, or the same person? Identical memories and experiences? Identical physical constitution? Identical souls? I am obviously tempted to discount the identical soul theory as a possibility since I’m very much a self-professed materialist who believes that physical configuration determines consciousness — that is to say, consciousness and thus personal identity is an emergent property of our biological arrangement. Our bodies grow, die, and decay. The end of life is the terminus of consciousness/identity.

If one subscribes to materialism, then the concept of the soul (eternal or transient) is irrelevant and superfluous as a marker of personal identity. Therefore philosophically speaking, I am more inclined to say that the continuity of memories and experiences (biologically limited consciousness) defines the individual, rather than this fuzzy, intangible entity known as the soul (regardless of whether it is eternal or not). Although I believe we do have souls in some sense, but like heart, I am of the opinion that it is a linguistic metaphor, in this case one for the intimate consciousness of our present existence.

But I am not writing now to elucidate the metaphysical logic behind whether or not Tae Yong (the reincarnation) is the Crown Prince. Much more immediate and intuitive than the intellectual food-for-thought was the emotional response that the ending invoked in myself, which bordered on a kind of resignation at some irredeemable loss even though a serendipitous reunion had taken place across the chasms of time and space. This stemmed primarily from my instinctive belief that Tae Yong and the Crown Prince are not the same person. I was thus made to imagine how Park Ha must feel when she encounters someone who looks exactly like the person she fell deeply in love with (and married briefly), but who is at once a different person —  Tae Yong does not have the memories and experiences essential to the romance that blossomed between his past double (the Crown Prince) and Park Ha. To be honest, this is my one major qualm with what would have qualified as a poignantly affirmative love story that is so not because it transcends space and time, but because Fate here is a constructive force in all its determinism. The tight symmetry and circular closure of the narrative, in its literary perfection — like the union of two complementary puzzle pieces made to fit — I think obscures with its romantic idealism, and even renders irrelevant some of the intimate phenomenological consequences of such a resolution.

Suppose Tae Yong and the Crown Prince share the same soul. Yet what is an identical soul without a persisting memory? Memory is an imperative keystone of personal identity — it affirms the Past of an individual, which is the premise of the Present; for how can there be Present without Past? Who we are is defined hardly by who we are now, but much more so by who we have been (and to some extent, who we can be). If we grant that reincarnation is possible — that there is the transmigration of souls from body to body after biological death, then all that follows is the existence of a perduring soul; we are not allowed to conclude that the memories associated with each life is an aggregate of previous iterations of memory. After all, according to doctrines of reincarnation, subsequent incarnations do not remember their past lives. As such, there would be an ostensible disjunction in memory between each life even though the soul is carried over. Therefore, to love an incarnation of someone (who is in every way outwardly identical to his/her previous iteration) would not be a simple matter of continuation but transference. We would not be loving the same person (who has passed on), but in fact relocating the love object and transferring desire onto the (re)incarnation. Even if we manage to accomplish this shift, I’d imagine that there would always be a lingering sentiment of interpersonal disjunction at the level of shared experience and memory, which may culminate in an uncanny resistance to the person; she is at once herself and not herself — herself in body (and even soul), but another in consciousness. The person we have loved all this time would be dead and absent to us, and what remains for us to grapple with is a fiction in the guise of a painful physical echo — an active simulacrum that torments by reminding us not so much of what we have lost, but what we are left with: a vacuous shell of the original that can never return our love in the same way.

To end off, another sentiment that struck me profoundly was the feeling of irrevocable loss when the Crown Prince disappeared against the fading light of sunset right before Park Ha’s eyes, after they exchanged wedding vows. How it must feel watching someone you love slowly ceasing to exist — or worse still, returning three hundred years back into the past. To return to the past would effectively be to die, or to be dead in the present, and dead for almost three centuries — to be dead before having met the other and loved. Once that person disappears — at the very moment when no tangible trace of him remains — he would have lived out his entire life and died, all in the atomic fraction of a heartbeat. And for the time traveller there is no gradual languishing from life to death — there is only life or death, and the passing from one state to the other is so acute and sudden, that the magnitude of loss becomes so excruciatingly apparent to the observer. For someone to have vanished, it is most painful for the one that remains because any empirical testament to a shared history would have accordingly ceased to be accessible, and one would be compelled to wonder if anything ever happened, or if the memory of that time spent together were at all real. Even a lifeless cadaver would qualify as immaculate evidence of having known and loved someone. After all, tombstones are memories and histories made corporeal; they are the desperate scratchings on lacquered marble proclaiming that this sorry pile of ash beneath them had once reveled in the privilege of sentient existence.

One day, they too will be forgotten when those who spend their lives remembering them become memories themselves.