Monday, February 29, 2016

The Power of Nonsense

NOTE: I am copying sixteen essays from my old blog ("Random Notes") to this blog. Some are cited in other essays, but most are simply essays that struck me as interesting while I was going through my search for essays to fix broken links.

I started this same post several times, as I never quite got it right, but I think I finally see the point behind it all. Which is actually rather impressive, given that it was inspired by a truly mediocre horror film and the lyrics to "A Whiter Shade of Pale". But from such humble beginnings, sometime profound thoughts grow. So, without more preface or embarrassing revelations about what inspires my writing (well, except for the opening paragraph), allow me to dive right in.

Friday, as my son was not home to be disturbed by the content, and my wife was not home to mock my bad taste in films, I decided to watch They on cable. Now, I have seen it before, so I knew in advance it was a stupid movie, in fact a very stupid movie. It made little sense, even less than those "dead schoolgirl" movies the Japanese seem to love, and it is chock full of nonsensical plot device. (For example, why do these things steal kids, then send them back to steal them again? Is there some demonic Fish and Wildlife Service that makes them throw back souls that are too small? Is it some sort of infernal "catch and release" program?) But, despite the high level of stupidity on display, the film still manages to disturb me. For a few seconds after watching it, I remember what it felt like to be a little boy and find the dark terrifying. For a few moments I am truly disturbed.

And that made me think about all those films that manage to make me uneasy, that bring that sensation of the uncanny to mind. And, the funny thing is, they are usually the worst horror films. Well crafted, sensible horror tales, or skillfully made horror films, the ones that make sense, that flow in an intelligible manner, usually don't trouble me. But the really stupid ones, or the related Italian films which aren't stupid per se, just completely unconcerned with plot, those nonsensical films really manage to get to me. In fact, usually the parts that are most effective are the "set pieces". the "isn't that cool" scenes  which seem to have little to do with the rest of the film, that are obviously just dropped in to be a shock. But, because they are so disconnected and nonsensical, I think they probably are all the more effective.

It is a topic I have dealt with before, most notably in "Humor and Nightmare", though I dealt with it earlier (in terms of humor rather than horror) in "Wit and Wisdom?" and "The Problem". My basic premise in those posts being that humans tend to greet the uncertain and unpredictable with horror, though, should the unpredictable outcome turn out to be benign, it may then turn into humor instead. And that actually helps to explain why bad films are often more effective, my the plotless, senseless, absurd horror film may often unsettle more than the well crafted one. The schlock film, due to sheer incompetence, may be all the more uncertain, and thus more effective, simply by lacking any coherence.

Partly this horror arises from something in human nature. In the nature of all living beings, actually, though most developed in humans. The brain, in all animals, acts as a filter. Whatever else it may do, it definitely serves to filter events to find patterns. We can argue to what degree it abstracts those patterns, how complex the patterns lower life forms can conceive, and so on. But I doubt anyone would deny that all creatures, to some degree, learn. And to learn, creatures must be able to find patterns.And to find patterns, we must look for regularities.

Which is likely why horror fills us with such dread. Actually, why two forms of horror work as they do. First, there is the overwhelming type of horror, the horror where nothing makes sense. For example, films like Eraserhead, where there is no anchor to reality, where we can form no patterns as nothing seems connected to anything else. Confronted with such films, we begin trying to form patterns, fail, try again, and so on, eventually feeling such frustration that we give up. However, unable to even begin to form patterns, cut adrift from out most basic tool, leaves us filled with dread. Second, there is the "twist", a world that seems predictable but then changes. These are effective because we form patterns as usual, make assumptions, only to have them overturned, leaving us to doubt our ability to find patterns, causing the same sort of dread.

Actually, you can see how basic pattern finding is to humans. Look at how they react to nonsense. When confronted with something absurd, but which others treat as significant, be it a film, a song, a poem, or something else, humans, convinced there are patterns everywhere, will try to find meaning in, look for patterns. Just look at all the profundity teens seem to find in the nonsensical lyrics of various bands and you will understand how desperately the mind seeks patterns. From the numeric fixations of psychotics to the quest after equidistant letter sequences in scripture, even our madness seeks after patterns. It is an inherent attribute of the human mind, of all minds, human and animal. Patterns are the stuff on which the brain subsists.

So, what is my point? I have written about this before, but always with a political twist. So, where is that twist tonight?

Tonight there is none. I have no political spin, or at least not one that is purely political. Instead, I just wanted to show how badly our minds handle uncertainty, how much it can drive us to despair. And I want to ask, besides all the obvious ills of arbitrary government, besides destroying our ability to plan, keeping us from all the wealth that long range plans give, making it more difficult to be sure we are acting in accordance with the law, and so on, what are the psychological effects of arbitrary government?

It is not as absurd as it sounds. One need only read tales of everyday life in Nazi Germany or the former USSR to notice that something akin to despair seemed to taint the lives of everyone living under those regimes. Not just because of poverty, not just because of wars, or even secret police, but because of something more fundamental.

And I think that fundamental pain was suffering form the lack of certainty, of recognizable patterns. Unable to know whether doing the same thing would bring the same results, people were uncertain what to do. Not knowing whether tomorrow would be like today, or something wildly different, not even knowing if tomorrow they might suddenly be at risk of arrest or execution for no reason at all, all those things introduced an existential despair that is characteristic of modern absolutism.

Among all the other harms of absolutism, the destruction of joy for everyone, from the elite to the lowliest of the common men, that is unique to the modern dictatorship. And something we should consider before allowing government more power to "fix" our problems. 


I know it is customary to speak of modern absolutism as something different from earlier kings and tyrants, but in this case there is good reason. Prior to the modern age, the modern sort of absolutism was impossible. Without communications, record keeping, and the excess wealth necessary to establish the infrastructure of tyranny, medieval rulers could only exert their influence on their immediate underlings. Peasants, though their lot in life was miserable, were mostly beneath the attention of anyone but their immediate lord, and thus enjoyed a life largely unobserved by the rulers. In addition, prior to the skepticism of the modern age, religion and tradition served as some small check on absolute tyranny. Yes, many rulers broke religious laws and cultural traditions, but, even when they did, enough of their underlings still obeyed that most peasants, farmers, merchants and burghers could expect traditions to protect them to some degree. It is only now that we have managed to establish absolute control that reached down to the absolute lowest levels of society with no external checks.


For those who want a fictional expression of my theory, I recommend Stanislaw Lem's Memoirs Found in a Bathtub. The protagonist, trapped in a crazy world where he is told "everything is code", eventually goes mad looking for patterns in everything, if only to try to understand anything that has happened. As none of it makes sense, he begins to see other patterns, find far fetched explanations, as he can't live without order and patterns. It is almost a perfect embodiment of the thesis I presented above. Plus, after Fiasco, and -- maybe --His Master's Voice or Chain of Chance, it is my favorite Lem novel. (I like Imaginary Magnitude and A Perfect Vacuum even better, but those are collections, not individual novels. However, they remind me of the best of Borges, and so are likely my favorite Lem works overall.)

Originally posted in Random Notes on  2010/03/15.

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