Thursday, 5 April 2018

Creation/Destruction: Annihilation

An object burns through the Earth's atmosphere and smashes into a lighthouse somewhere in the swamplands of the southern United States. Slowly, things in the area begin to mutate in inexplicable ways. A strange "shimmer" appears over the area and this shimmer begins to grow in size. The area is evacuated and the authorities send teams into The Shimmer, which they refer to as Area X, but no one from these teams ever comes back and as soon as they enter The Shimmer they become cut off from the outside world. Communications devices don't work, compasses refuse to obey their magnetic imperative, even human memories are warped and seemingly wiped away. Everything is changed.

                        The lighthouse at the moment of impact

The is the setup for the plot of the newly released film, Annihilation, by British writer/director, Alex Garland. Amongst other credits, Garland wrote The Beach, 28 Days Later, Sunshine and Dredd and his directorial debut, which he also wrote, was Ex Machina, a film I also loved and discussed HERE. Annihilation is not originally a story of Garland's but is a book, part of a trilogy, by Jeff Vandermeer. I had not heard of the book and so neither do I have any knowledge of how the story in the book differs from the film although I understand it does. Garland re-wrote the story for the screen as a memory of reading the book and so he has taken a few new directions of his own - with the original author's permission. In what follows there may be a few gentle spoilers for the film so if that bothers you now is the time to bail. I intend to discuss its themes and ideas arising from the film in the main.

                                 The Shimmer

If we ask what Annihilation is about perhaps the answer that gets to the heart of the many themes skillfully threaded through it is CHANGE. A metaphor running through the on screen action is that of a cell which divides, as cells always do since this, at cellular level, is exactly what life is, a ceaseless reproduction of cells, a division of the one into more of the same. The absence of this behaviour is death and cells which did not die would be immortal. A character in the film remarks how this death is actually a genetic fault. Cells should live forever. Yet we see death as the pre-ordained outcome of life, creation which carries within it the seeds of destruction. Yet even this death of cells would not be the end for from death always comes new life even as fruit, once part of a growing plant, once picked, ceases to live yet, as it rots, new life uses it as a source of its own, a ceaseless dance of life/death or death/life. From the cellular perspective things are always changing for cells are always dividing and sometimes mutating. We are literally not the people we used to be and are constantly becoming someone new.

                       A cell divides and mutates in Annihilation

As I explained in the setup, inside The Shimmer the rules are changed and "change" itself is the guiding principle. We see numerous plants and creatures in the film that should not exist, strange admixtures of DNA that have created (or destroyed, from another point of view) strange chimera. We also see that in The Shimmer duplicates of things can be created and these duplicates can even retain memories or personal characteristics. Here the guiding metaphor is that creation is destruction is creation, creation and destruction are functionally THE SAME THING. When something is destroyed something else is created, when something is created something else has been destroyed. This is inevitable and unavoidable. We carry this destruction as creation within us. Each of us was created and yet within us we carry the genetic material of our own destruction... which will lead to the creation of something else in a functionally endless cycle. We can no more end this destruction than we could affect our creation. One symbol of this is an ouroboros tattoo which plays a part in the plot of the film. It symbolises infinity. One character, exposed to The Shimmer, is asked about what has happened to him and he answers, "What does it matter?" a person alone in the context of the forever actions of creation and destruction that he cannot stop for he is changing, creatively and destructively, even as he speaks. This theme is also played with in the film in the context of self-destruction. He, like all of us, is change. Not only is this physically true, we literally are the engines of our own change and eventual death, but also psychologically, we have self-destructive urges which destroy our characters and create new ones as the film makes clear. This also has a social application as each "cell" of society, each of us, changes and so changes society itself which is the greater organism.

         Two white deer from Annihilation with branches for horns

Plants that have mixed with the human genes which determine human bodies

Change, destruction and creation are very basic themes behind the film without giving away too much plot. But I now want to discuss some of the ideas arising. One such is the idea of human identity which is something we all highly prize but which, in cosmic context, is insignificant, empty and meaningless. That which makes up all that is takes up human identity for only infinitesimal fractions of its existence and amounts to a vanishingly small percentage of the whole and yet, as those identities, we value them highly in a way that the rest of the cosmos simply does not. For things in general do not concern themselves with what they are. Such a thing is irrelevant and neither was it any purpose. Cancer, for example, another metaphor in the film, does not want or desire anything. It would be useless to ask it what it was doing and why. It just functions. In a similar way it is useless to ask any cell why it divides, why it reproduces and survives. It just does. There is no purpose, no desire, no will here. Only function. Applying this to identity it becomes clear that human life equally has no purpose, and its not remotely important that you or I as specific examples of it exist. You specifically are merely a vehicle for something else and self-importance, importance as yourself, is utterly misplaced. Self merely facilitates survival. And survival occurs not through static identity but through change.

So, echoing that earlier character, "What does it matter?" We are collections of cells that grow and then die in which our identity was not the point of the exercise but merely the means, the means to certain genes reproducing and surviving if they can. I mentioned earlier that in The Shimmer memory fades or even disappears, unsurprising if everything there is exaggerated change, but what would lack of memory do to your identity? Don't you literally need your memory to be who you are, to remember who you are? Isn't identity partly based on the notion that you can remember a narrative of self that tells you who you are? And then there is the issue of the duplicates that The Shimmer can generate. Does "another you" change who you are or recontextualise it? In all this identity talk I am powerfully reminded of Buddhist or Taoist notions that there actually is no "self". These spiritual outlooks regard this as an illusion, something to be got past. They view it as a static way of seeing what is actually moving and so not a very helpful way of seeing, one at odds with their view of life as constant change, an ever-changing stream of "now moments." In the cosmic context of Annihilation (the film and the existential fact) this is brought more clearly into focus.

This highlights for me a facet of my own character that I have always noticed. When I was a teenager, at that age when people at school or parents ask you "what you want to do with your life," I instinctively knew my answer: I wanted stability, a stable, secure situation that I could imagine lasting forever. This, of course, was naive and unrealistic and you will be unsurprised to learn that it hasn't turned out that way. Yet its worth thinking about for a moment. I did not want wealth or fame or even a salary. Just give me stability, a static life of known quantities. It is ironic that in the light of the themes of Annihilation I was wishing for the one thing I could never have. I was, perhaps, even wishing for a metaphorical divinity, the ability to be forever the same, unchanging, ineffable. I did not realise that I am part of the realm of change, of creation and destruction, of annihilation. I am myself change, destruction, creation, annihilation. Coming to appreciate this is a part of an appreciation of what we are, of human being, of what being means. We think of will and purpose as essential characteristics of self, of identity, but are they too just functions, means to that eternal end of reproduction and survival? It may be important to you WHAT you want but at another level perhaps it is only important THAT you want and that this illusion of self enables reproduction and survival, the functions of existence, the eternal story that is blotted out by several billion egos that think they matter but don't even realise they never really mattered at all and will soon not exist as themselves anymore.

This understanding can become spiritual or mystical and Annihilation hints at this (not least in its ending which I won't give away) and sometimes seems to regard this forever change in which we are submerged and of which we are irredeemably a part as the greater context to life which many religionists conceptualise as a divinity of some kind. I myself can do this and when I think of my own annihilation, as I often have, I can only regard it as a peaceful, mystical experience, not something to be afraid of but something for which I was always destined. (Of course the physical signs may be more traumatic as we daily notice ourselves falling apart.) The character Ventress in the film seems to take this view and her story is a very visual representation of this. It is naturally human to muse about that which is beyond it and this film does a similar thing in an engaging way that is not immediately obvious and with numerous twists. It is a film for people who think about who they are or why they are... or even why anything is. It discusses life, what it is, what contextualises and conditions it, and tells a few home truths about human beings and their self-destructive urges. It does this in a way which perhaps questions if we can even help ourselves when we do this. But then, what does it matter? Everything that comes to be changes, everything that is is changing. Everything faces annihilation. Do we embrace it or resist it? What does it matter?

Tuesday, 3 April 2018

Walking and War

Yesterday I went for a walk as I often do. Normally I have in my head the route I will take, this being chosen as I put on my shoes and go through the various several routes I have taken over the previous few years. This was also the case yesterday and as I set out I had pre-selected one of the shorter routes. But about 15 minutes into the walk, as I was walking through my local park, a thought suddenly occurred to me. This thought was that my next hour had been planned out in my head ahead of time by my decision. By pre-selecting the route I knew where I would be going, probably what I'd see, etc. I thought about this as I kept walking and compared it to what would be case if I'd not pre-selected my route and just set off at random, not deciding ahead of time which direction I would take at junctions and, therefore, not knowing where I'd be going. The second option seemed suddenly more attractive, especially the not knowing and the consequent unfolding surprise such a walk would be. 

I was coming to the path at the bottom of the park where I would be forced to turn either left (as I'd preselected) or right and suddenly in my head there was a jeopardy for, suddenly, I imagined not knowing which way I would go. I thought to myself that I would go left anyway, as I wasn't feeling particularly energetic and this way was the shortest. I settled into this idea for a minute. But then the possibility of turning right and going the longer, unprepared for, way began to reassert itself as a possibility. I vacillated back and forth, not knowing what option I would take. Then, annoyed with myself, I determined to stop this nonsense, enjoy the moment of my walk and let a momentary decision decide when I actually got to the point a few hundred meters ahead of me when I would have to make a choice. I did notice, however, that the rest of the walk then became better as a result of this choice, this not knowing what would happen, this living in the moment rather than having my immediate future pre-planned and decided.

The last book of the Christian bible and so, logically, the culmination of the bible's story, is a vision of a cosmic war. One of the things this book describes itself as is a prophecy by which, in common parlance, we take it to mean a foretelling of the future. It is a fact you may become aware of in the unlikely scenario that you ever take a course in biblical studies that "prophecy" is not usually regarded as "foretelling"; its more a case of "forth telling" but I digress. In any case, should you be one of those who thinks of prophecy as foretelling the future then Revelation presents itself as the story of the end of the world, the way God wraps up the whole story of this creation he has, according to the script of the bible, made. It is not a pleasant scene. Here God sends his champion, that Jesus fella who was formerly in the bible saying "Blessed are the poor," healing sick people and telling people to turn the other cheek, on a big white horse to slaughter all the unrepentant people who don't believe in God. Basically, what we have is the notion that, at the end of all this "God is love" business you might have heard of, God is actually just going to kill all the people who haven't done what he wanted. Its divinely sanctioned violence. That is the story of the world, that is our future foretold.

Now as with my walk, I'm not too happy about this when I realise that someone has written a story in which "the end" is apparently foretold. (Put aside the question of if its true or not. Its not, but that doesn't matter.) In my new, post-realisation mind set, not knowing things gives a better opportunity for a fresh look at and appreciation of life than one that is planned out. And then there is all this violence business. Its bad enough that actual people will be violent to each other without the gods joining in. But do I have this the right way round? I wonder how many Christians over two millennia have read Revelation, seen that the way the story ends is by God killing all the bad guys, and then thought, "Well if that's what's going to happen in the end anyway then what's the problem with dusting off a few unbelievers right now?" 

Since Revelation was written we have had Crusades and an Inquisition and I sense a latent desire from some good old white Christian boys across the water (and not just across the water) to kill the unbelieving Muslims because they are on the wrong side of this pre-decided history. Preachers of hate such as Britain First, a ragtag band of self-aggrandizing troublemakers made more famous when Trump retweeted their error-strewn material, have expressly used "Christian" imagery in their ideological war against immigrants as, apparently, it is their lack of "Christian values" that marks them out as not like us the most. Which "Christian values" are these, I wonder, the ones from Revelation where all the ones not on our Christian side will be slaughtered for making the wrong choice?

So there is a problem with divine violence in Revelation and its not a Muslim problem or a problem of any other religion (although I won't deny their problems with a similar thing either): its a Christian problem. Revelation, so at least two New Testament scholars I respect have said, is "the most violent book in religious history." The problem is that by telling us the violent end of the story this book has apparently mandated violence in the name of its God and religious violence is probably the most insidious form of violence for how do you stop someone convinced that a divine being has authorised their activities? As I intimated before, its only bumping up the schedule if we good Christians dust off a few bad guys now, its not fundamentally changing the script. And what's worse, God is actually shown to be approving of violence in Revelation. Revelation acts as a divine endorsement of divine violence. Jesus, that nice fella from the gospels who was, in the time-worn phrase, "meek and mild" is not very meek and mild in Revelation. He is a Terminator or a Predator hunting down all the people who don't follow a certain religious path. And chopping their heads off. No more "King of Kings," he is now "Warlord of Warlords". In fact, as someone who has worked on "the historical Jesus" at university for PhD studies and written a couple of books about it, I don't recognise this guy. Whoever wrote Revelation has a massive hard-on for killing and death for Revelation is a major revenge fantasy. They've taken Mr Meek and Mild and turned him into a violent killer and called it "good news"!

I mentioned earlier that, of course, Revelation is not true. I also said it didn't matter because, as with any literature, what matters is what it disseminates and motivates and not whether its true or not. Things don't need to be true, they just need to be believed. Have we not learned this lesson by now? Does it matter if Revelation is true if Christians across the centuries see in it a warrant to kill the enemies of God? I imagine the writer of Revelation never figured as he wrote his revenge fantasy of the Christians beating their persecutors that before too long the Christians would actually be running the show and could begin the timetable of Revelation a bit early. Oops. But there we are, what's done is done. I do wish, however, that the writer had not decided to tell us the end before we got there because, in a way, he has ruined everything and there's blood on his hands. In retrospect, isn't it just better not knowing and trying to enjoy each moment we get without worrying about ultimate destinations? Do we need to exist in our own version of the Final Destination films where we know there will be a grisly death and its shadow blights everything we do? Ends can always cast mighty long shadows and not really for any good. At least, that's how it seems to me. 

So, there are some stories we human beings probably shouldn't tell for, in the end, we cannot blame gods for them. Revelation, on the face of it a tale about how God subdues and takes over everything, making it wholly divine, is actually a story about how God just becomes a man, a man like us, a man who, when things haven't gone his way, resorts to killing to resolve his problems. Revelation is a book which shows God as very manly, aggressive and violent. Go on son (of God), knock him out! We here on planet Earth still have our own violence problems, of course, and many still envisage themselves or their countries as in a violent struggle for resources as, apparently, that people from one country prosper and survive is more important than that people from another one do. I wonder where such people see their story ending and what destination they have pre-selected? Is it in Orwell's perpetual war of 1984? On the other hand, don't tell me. I don't want to know.

PS I turned right.