Friday, October 30, 2009

You Must Play

Woody Allen tells the story of a French resistance fighter who at the crucial moment fails to kill a Nazi collaberator. It is entirely within his power but he simply has not the will, he can't force himself to do it, there is something deep inside of him that refuses to be a murderer. Walking away from the scene of his 'failure' he is overcome by a horrible case of existential nausea, a sickness that can only be cured by an existential alka-selzer, a pill the size of a hubcap.

We all have our existential moments. Those times when we confront our demons head on, and stare straight into those truths we spend most of our lives denying, times when the three laws of thermodynamics refuse to be silent; you can't win, you can't break even, you must play.

For some people those facts are relentless as daylight, overwhelming as a newborn child; the sense of futility never leaves them and any attempt to evade or ignore the sheer pointlessness of human life is for them worthy of mockery and derision.

But other people go through their lives with the unmitigated enthusiasm of a family pet; you know the one, that Labrador retriever when you come back from the grocery store, its tail wagging a mile a picosecond, butt wiggling faster than a debutante's fan, front paws prancing in half-audition for bipedality, that little eh, eh, eh, eh, eh squeal that says it is pure joy, to be alive.

Now the question for me is, is it possible that these two attitudes represent two fundamentally different types of intelligence; one that is anxiety ridden and constantly depressed, and the other with a bouncing bliss at the mysterious fact of being itself, refusing to see the half of certainty that is more certain than taxes.
The issue is, suppose these two different types of intelligence are themselves amenable to evolutionary natural selection, that each group has a different fitness, a different ecological utility. Which one do you think is more likely to survive?

Or, putting it a different way, suppose you lived in a dictatorship where the state police routinely came around and pointed a gun at your head and asked if you lived in a country where everyone was equal and free. Everyone who says no is executed immediately. Everyone who says yes is left alone to do what they want for another week, as long as they don't challenge the privileges of the dictator, whose Christian name is Democracy.

Imagine now the situation after several generations of this. Everyone who has managed to survive this long has gotten the habit of saying the system is fair and that all are free --- but perhaps some due to some fluke of genetic mutation do this almost reflexively. They support the dictatorship without thought or effort --- they tell their lies, as it were, genetically.(inadvertent) But others (it is difficult to say how many) may lack this genetic adaptation and find that they have to lie if they want to keep on living. They are tortured by the absurdity of this, and depressed both by the required repetition of hypocrisy and the enthusiastic compliance of their genetically 'adapted' brethren.

Finally, suppose that among these depressed, anxious, and existentially obsessed people there arises an exquisite irony that depicts the situation much the same way as I've just described, and that this irony provides them with a joyful humor that comprehends both the happiness predicated on the genetic lie, and the angsty depression of those who are too intelligent and too honest to celebrate hypocrisy.
What will such a person say when asked if the system is fair and free?

Now if you would just put down that gun, I'll tell you.

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