Existentialism, Part 2

By | Thursday, October 11, 2007 1 comment
I'm not entirely surprised by the quality of the responses I got to yesterday's post on Existentialism. (Although plok's recounting of his seven-year-old self playing chicken with Destiny in a McDonald's was decidedly unexpected, I have to say!) I was also reminded of Jim Roeg's excellent essay on existentialism from last year. I highly recommend reading that if you haven't already. (For that matter, it's worth reading a second time if it's been a while.) But between those, I still see plenty more ground to cover...

The curious notion about free will, here in the real world, is that it is ultimately a question of faith. There simply is no way I can prove or disprove that my actions were or weren't preordained in some fashion. Even if I try, as plok once did, to continue making last second decisions of what flavor milkshake to get, there's no way I can show that I wasn't always going to make that exact decision at that exact time. Regardless of what I normally would do, and regardless of what I felt at the exact moment of making the decision, it still amounts to a matter of whether or not I believe that I was fully in control of that decision. Was I making that decision for myself, or was some unseen force guiding my thought processes for some reason?

The problem we have, as mere mortals, is a lack of omniscience. We simply can't know anything beyond our immediate realm of experience. Even our learning from the experience of others is something that we have to undertake ourselves, whether by reading or listening or some other method of knowledge transfer. And even then, there's still the matter of interpretation -- the original experience is recounted to us in some manner by someone(s) who will invariably leave out some level of detail and we, in the process of absorbing the information, will process and filter it based on our own personal experiences. We cannot know, with any accuracy, what it's like to walk on the moon unless we actually go there ourselves.

In comics, however, many characters are granted a level of omniscience that is impossible for us to truly fathom. There's a certainty in Ignatz's or Sluggo's or She-Hulk's knowledge that they are, at the end of the day, drawings on a piece of paper. We don't have that luxury. For as much as you may know that God exists or doesn't, your certainty in that "fact" is just an act of faith. We don't have the actual knowledge because our creator/s (if indeed we even have them in the larger context -- I'm not talking about your parents here) have not imbued us with it in the way Windsor McCay might have done with Little Nemo. The act of creating a character -- a paper doll to pick up on Roeg's metaphor -- gives the creator the right to implant as much or as little knowledge into him/her as is appropriate. Reed Richards is a genius because Stan Lee said he was. Dr. Manhattan was omniscient because Alan Moore wanted him to be.

This, of course, can lead to what is considered bad writing. Can you imagine the uproar among fans if, for example, Commissioner Gordon asked Batman about how Alfred the butler was doing? The relationship between Batman and Alfred is one that Gordon should have no knowledge of because his character has never been given that information within the context of continuity. But a writer, being the unseen force behind that exchange, does have omniscience of that world and can give that specialized piece of knowledge to any character at any time. It wouldn't make sense within how the story is presented, in all likelihood, but it's still the creator's prerogative.

Of course, there's the rub. For any story that presents free will and/or existentialism as "correct" the characters in the story are following a prescribed destiny. For any knowledge that a character might possess about the nature of free will -- for that matter, any knowledge the character possesses at all -- they are inherently bound by the will of their creator(s). The paper dolls simply cannot exist, much less have any meaning, without someone to create them. You can say Kang chose to defy Destiny itself in Avengers Forever but Kang really didn't have any say in the matter; his course of actions were laid down by writers Kurt Busiek and Roger Stern. "All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players."

Where does that leave us? That free will simply cannot exist because nothing we humans create is capable of it? Of course not. As noted earlier, we humans are stuck with limitations that make us decidedly less than all-powerful. Once upon a time, we couldn't create apples that tasted like grapes, either, but look where we are now. Who's to say that creating independent, free will characters is that far off? Wasn't that part of the reason why Phineas Horton created the original Human Torch? Why Noonien Soong created Data? Why Sivasubramanian Chandrasegarampillai created HAL 9000?

(As a curious aside, all those characters I just cited were used, in part, to explore the very notion of self. Is a being's own quest for life's meaning sufficient to consider it "alive"? Is life and a sense of self strictly limited to biological organisms? Does the origin of one's existence truly impact whether or not one can have free will?)

Man's quest for life's meaning is, for all intents and purposes, perpetual. Every day, we wake up and try to muddle our way through life, acting on a nearly infinite number of judgment calls. The next day, we do the same thing. Comics -- and, indeed, any media -- can show us possible alternatives that other people have considered; they can pass along messages about what other people think life means. They can go so far as to give us a taste of omniscience, seeing events through the eyes of any number of characters. But, again, the ultimate irony of the situation is that the very mouthpieces that we see as proponents of self-direction and choice are they themselves shackled to the will of others.
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Anonymous said...

Y'know, it's kind of funny that you should raise some of these points about fictional characters being deprived of any free will.

The other day, I was reading something about yet another Spider-Man cartoon, and had this odd notion of pity for the characters. How many different retellings of the basic Spider-Man stories have there been now, between comics, cartoons, movies...? How many times has Harry Osborn been driven mad, over and over again? How many times has Gwen Stacy had to die while falling from that damn bridge?

And I had this notion, asking what they might do if one or more of those characters somehow became aware of all their repeated incarnations. How immensely frustrating that would have to feel!

I feel like somewhere in that premise is a fascinating story. Even though the characters would still just be acting out the writer's script. (I think some writers might say that, sometimes, characters DO go their own way and refuse to follow what was planned, but one can of course still say that ultimately the writer decides.)