Wednesday, March 18, 2015

On Obfuscation and Clarity

Ever since I finished my second run-through of "Breaking Bad" (I'm finishing my third now), I've been pondering a particular aspect of the show: that all secrets are revealed. Every character who was lied to finds out the truth. Every moment when we felt the tension of knowing something one of the characters didn't has a corresponding moment of cathartic release. Hank finds out about Walt and Skyler. Jesse finds out about everything that Walt (and Huell) did. The cycle of setting up, maintaining and eventually releasing secrets informs the drama so conspicuously that it's clearly intentional and seemingly integral.

This aspect is interesting in light of twentieth century literature, which not only embraced confusion, but often refused to allow the characters one iota of clarity. Think "Waiting for Godot". A hell of a lot of twentieth century art is nothing but obfuscation.

Thinking over all this, it occurred to me that this attribute of revelation may be a characteristic of the western, and "Breaking Bad" certainly is one of those. Think about "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly". Think about the heroic tone of the western, and you'll probably come up with other obvious examples of characters who gravitate toward an inexorable revelation that is at least painful, and maybe deadly.

Wondering what this cycle of obfuscation and revelation implies about our storytelling impulses, I came to see it as a dialogue, a dance or a fight between modernism and its antithesis. "There are no absolutes," says modernism. "I will put the lie to clarity." And another aspect of our culture responds "There are absolutes. I will show people achieving clarity at any cost."

And then I thought about it some more. And I kept coming back to one particular pair of bookends: Jane's death, and its revelation to Jesse near the end of the show. When Walt stood there and let Jane choke, I wanted to scream "Noooooo! Jessie will never know... he has to know!" Yet three seasons later, when Walt threw the truth in Jesie's face, it was, if not the most horrifying scene, then easily the most gut-wrenching. As far as Walt knew, Jessie was about to die at his word. He had no reason to tell Jessie about Jane aside from cruelty. And yet... I wanted Jessie to know. I needed Jessie to know. And I think Jessie would have chosen to know, every time. Despite the pain, despite the consequences, Jessie wanted clarity.

...which leads me to the most striking example of Jessie wanting clarity. He was on his way to being disappeared, and he threw it away when he realized that Walt had poisoned Brock. He could have chosen to ignore the truth, to let it melt into the recesses of his mind as he melted away into Alaska. But he went back. Not only did he need to face the truth, he needed Walter to know that he knew: to look him in the eye and make him face the consequences of his actions and his lies.

When it comes to needing clarity, Walt is no slouch either. There's no better example in the whole show than Walt telling Hank that he didn't think Gale was Heisenberg. All Walt had to do was keep his mouth shut, let Hank believe he'd cracked the case, and live out his days happily with his family. But he couldn't let it go. He couldn't stand to see someone else get credit for his expertise. At that moment, he resembled nothing so much as Dustin Hoffman's character in "Wag the Dog"; he wanted the credit. He wanted it more than he wanted to live.

Those choices are striking in the moment. But from the point of view of having seen the entire story through to its completion, they're even more so. If Walt would have kept his mouth shut, he might have lived happily ever after, and Hank and Steve wouldn't have died. If Jessie had just done the easy thing and gone away, not only wouldn't he have been beaten and imprisoned, but Andrea wouldn't have died, leaving Brock an orphan. But in the universe of the show, it seems clear that this needed to happen. There's a sort of inexorable tone, and we're on-board with it; we needed all that death, all that pain, to happen. We needed the characters to know the truth: to achieve clarity at all costs.

That desire on the part of the audience is crucial. Without it, there would be little separating "Breaking Bad" from Shakespearean tragedy. The body count is similar. But in Shakespeare, we have a sense of impotent horror at the bloodshed. "If only they had known..." we lament. We see the tragedy as a manifestation of human flaws. But in "Breaking Bad", as in the broader western genre, tragedy lacks that regretful tone. We don't lament because we recognize the deaths as a necessary cost. Tuco died, Gustavo died, Hank died, Walt died... but it did not have a sense of grim inevitability. There was always an element of choice, and for all the darkness, for all the grimness—for all their foolishness and all their flaws—their final choices were virtuous. Because they chose clarity. They, and we, wouldn't have had it any other way. In the western, tragedy is not just heroic; it's chivalric.

I thought of all this--all these examples of characters shouldering aside easy opportunities for happiness in favor of clarity, and a word popped into my head: "enlightenment". That's a pretty good synonym for clarity, right? And it suddenly hit me: "Breaking Bad", and the western genre, have Buddhist overtones.

I know it's a stretch, and I'm the first to admit what little I know about Buddhism I know from my wife. But hear me out. In the Buddhist model, the world is pain. Pain cannot be avoided. On the contrary, attempting to avoid pain can extend one's journey through the cycle. The very best one can hope for is to achieve enlightenment, which is not a state of elevated being; it is un-being. Enlightenment means getting off the carousel onto which we are all born, and you can't get there except by riding.

In "Breaking Bad", and westerns in general, we're along for the ride not as rubberneckers wincing at pain that should have been avoided, but as solemn witnesses to pain willingly chosen. We know that avoiding pain is a fool's game. Pain isn't merely the cost of enlightenment; enlightenment is the only destination, and pain the only path to it.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Gratitude For Getting To Play

Lately I've been feeling a delight in my professional life for which I want to convey gratitude. It's a difficult feeling to describe, yet I imagine everyone experiences it at one time or another.

I've spent eighteen years as a computer programmer, slowly broadening and deepening my tool belt. During most of that time I felt pleasure at building upon my skills, and there's no question that I became more capable as time passed. But I can't recall feeling a perceptual sea change until about two years ago.

I would look at the code, and feel as though I was no longer seeing it as an assemblage of lines; I was seeing it as a shape in my mind's eye. I'd become familiar enough with its microscopic properties that I no longer had to think about them. Debugging or enhancing the code felt like playing with Tinkertoys.

During the last few weeks I've had a glorious opportunity to go back to the type of programming that I'm best at, and I'm getting that feeling more often than ever now. In my best moments, I feel as though I'm barely conscious of the details of what I'm doing; my hands are moving, and I'm pruning this and splicing that and extending the other and milling a new gear to pop in there. And the coolest thing is that I have a sense of what I don't need to look at. When I make a change, whether it's a fix or an enhancement, I see the flow of logic through that point and I know what that change will affect and what it won't. I imagine a mechanic with eighteen years of experience must feel like this. If she has enough experience with the qualities of the specific parts—how different engines behave and how the microscopic properties inform the macroscopic behavior—then she must reach a point where she doesn't really see the engine, yes? She sees what she needs to change and knows "Oh, yeah, I'll have to adjust this, that and the other thing." And she makes those adjustments not only without conscious thought, but without looking at the unaffected parts of the engine.

I'm smiling inwardly at all these metaphors, which feel a bit beside the point because the mental shift I'm trying to describe is metaphor. My brain has achieved a new level of abstraction, and it feels lovely. It feels joyous. It feels like a privilege.

I get to play. I'm a lucky guy.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

A Whiff of Teleology

The plane arced up over Lake Michigan and I looked down, tingling with wonder at the enormous sheets of dull white spanning the slate waters. I'd just spent days watching ice hummocking on the shore. Maybe it was that dramatic perspective shift, combined with the exhilaration of takeoff, that cast me into a peculiar lucidity.

I saw massive sheets of ice: a jumbled mosaic with tiles the size of city blocks, of neighborhoods and small towns. I saw the shear planes: how those gigantic tiles had separated along north-south lines and slid against each other along east-west lines. I saw how they had drifted—were drifting.

As I imagined the process, I saw my mind spin it into something more: a narrative. Here's a rough translation of the images and feelings that flowed through my mind.

The ice was forming a sheet over the whole lake, but the wind kept pushing against it, and broke it off before it could finish.

To understand why that strikes me as hilariously odd, you have to understand my core conceit: that I am a rational person. I love to think of myself as empirically-minded. "I'm a reductionist," I tell myself. "I have a mechanistic view of the universe. I don't believe in boggarts and spirits. I don't believe the objects around me have animus."

This informs how I think of religious and superstitious people. My inner face sneers at the thought of their sky bully, and bursts into braying laughter at their absurd notion that the universe cares one way or the other about our arbitrary numerology. I bathe in the ideation of what they are, and what I am not. I separate myself. I tell myself that teleology is anathema to me—that I'm all about the etiology.

And then my mind runs for teleology like a child for an ice cream truck.

Cold air blew over the lake, cooling the water and pushing on it. As the water froze, the ice broke up and moved west. That is what happened. But that's not what my mind saw. My mind saw intent. My mind saw drama. My mind anticipated the freezing-over of the lake as though it were a goal; the ice was longing for that moment when it joined into a continuous sheet, and the wind worked to thwart it. There was a good guy and a bad guy. In that single burst of images and feelings in my mind, there was heroism and villainy, mustache twirling and victimhood.

I wish I could convey this better. I feel like I'm painting a picture of me tripping my way through my life without the need for acid. I'm not. I don't think my mind works particularly differently than anyone else's; that's the point. I'm talking about the gap between my explicated mind—the me that works in the light of the world and tells itself what it is—and the real conceptual landscape that exists prior to, independently of and despite any explication. I don't see that gap very often; the meat is usually too good at functioning in the world to see it. But once in a while I catch a glimpse—a particularly vivid flash of thought—and it's as though the fingertips of my intellect brush against that conceptual landscape, and I feel the true shape of it. That landscape is nothing like what I usually think it is. It's a landscape of teleology. And seeing that helps me to hold onto empathy.

I pride myself on the mental constructs that help me interpret the world. But that process of interpretation happens long and long after the objects have formed, cooled and hardened within my conceptual landscape. That landscape is the ur-layer of my self. It is there to lick up the photons entering my eyes, the bearing and shearing stresses entering my fingertips, the temperature gradients sweeping over skin. It's the forge from which I draw the atomic-level building blocks of my existence and it is bursting with teleology.

I am a primate who weaves stories of intent and animus into its reality at the basement level. And if I, with all my hubris in thinking otherwise, can do this, then I must have empathy for my fellow primates who do it.