Tuesday, September 10, 2013

...where would you like to be?

I think we in the “west” or the “global north” or the “core”—whatever you want to call the more privileged nations where we like to enjoy having options in our lives, things like traveling to see the world for example—are spoiled. I’d been thinking of Phil’s stay in Punxsutawney as horribly isolating geographically. But, I realized a couple things recently:

1. It’s a limited perspective to assume that geographic isolation is such an aberration as to be horrible. So many people in this world spend their entire lives within small areas. Whole cultures are so geographically isolated that they are still only barely getting infected by the so-called modern world.

2. That being said, Phil’s story could only take place in such isolation because the culture that produced the story is just the type of culture that would find said isolation scary. I think, in fact, that Phil’s visit(s) to his mother in Rubin’s original—after he steals a plane and flies through the blizzard—for example, would have detracted from the story. If Phil has the entire world, then he is not forced to change… of course, it’s worth debating whether or not he is forced to change. I would say, that given the circumstances, change is the only thing that was possible, not because of force but because that is what time does to us, regardless of geography.

(Additionally, Phil visiting his mother wouldn’t work on another isolating level as well. It is perhaps vital that Phil is in not just a place he doesn’t particularly know or like but is there with (almost completely) strangers. His personal issues are removed. His mother. His girlfriend Stephanie. The hang-ups and escapes he’s got back in Pittsburgh. He is removed from his element and there, just as in a science experiment you want to isolate your subjects, Phil is able to recognize himself and find something new.)

And what he finds is, as we all should know, himself over and over and over again. The eternal recurrence of Phil Connors.

Nietzsche’s concept of eternal recurrence involves the repetition of everything. Though Nietzsche didn’t necessarily mean it simply as a psychological exercise—

(He may have meant eternal recurrence to be taken as a literal idea, though P. D. Ouspensky suggests in A New Model of the Universe that Nietzsche “felt emotionally the idea of eternal recurrence very strongly. He felt the idea as a poet.” However the idea should be taken, it serves well as a perspective to practice.)

—if we take it as just that, an exercise, it’s a way of measuring each and every one of our actions. We cannot isolate the present, cannot think that this is just a onetime thing, I’ll do it this time and be good tomorrow. With eternal recurrence, this particular day will come again. So, what we choose to do will not only have immediate consequences, but we will have to repeat the same decision over and over again. This is how Nietzsche describes eternal recurrence in Will to Power:

To endure the idea of the recurrence one needs: freedom from morality; new means against the fact of pain (pain conceived as a tool, as the father of pleasure; there is no cumulative consciousness of displeasure); the enjoyment of all kinds of uncertainty, experimentalism, as a counterweight to this extreme fatalism; abolition of the concept of necessity; abolition of the “will”; abolition of “knowledge-in-itself.”

Of course, Phil Connors doesn’t experience the pure repetition of Nietsche’s idea. Michael Faust at Philosophy Now suggests that Phil is experiencing something more like Gilles Deleuze’s interpretation of eternal recurrence. Nietzsche’s concept involves the repetition of the same exact events over and over again. As Pythia wrote in Battlestar Galactica, “All this has happened before. All this will happen again.” But, with Deleuze’s version, each return of events “selects the life-enhancing while rejecting the life-denying, leading to each iteration being more affirmative than the last,” according to Faust. Faust does point out that Groundhog Day does not wholly fit with this version either, as Phil’s journey clearly does not take a strictly improving route. In this manner, the film also contradicts Jeff Atwood at Coding Horror

Phil doesn't just go on one date with Rita, he goes on thousands of dates. During each date, he makes note of what she likes and responds to, and drops everything she doesn't. At the end he arrives at—quite literally—the perfect date. Everything that happens is the most ideal, most desirable version of all possible outcomes on that date on that particular day. Such are the luxuries afforded to a man repeating the same day forever.

—as Phil does not, in fact, arrive at the “perfect date.” Instead, he achieves an illusory experience that he thinks is the perfect date only to discover through a series of failures that, well, he’s doing it wrong. Interestingly, in my first round of impromptu speaking at a college competition a few years back involves this quotation from Havelock Ellis: “The absence of flaw in beauty is in fact a flaw.” And, one of my examples to prove the idea that things can only be “beautiful” if they are also flawed was Groundhog Day. I don’t remember exactly what I said. I know I references further quotations—from Shakespeare, “Better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all,” and from a short-lived 1992 NBC show, Nightmare Café, “Better to have loved and lost than never to have lost at all”—and I used the extremes of 60s radicals as one of my other examples. I know that I argued that Phil Connors could never have improved himself if he hadn’t first given in to his base urges.

But, I was talking about eternal recurrence. Phil’s experience involves neither the “return of the identical” nor a constantly affirming repetition. And, really, this is because Phil’s journey is not—however much I may regularly argue otherwise—all of ours. It is not a universal journey except in the abstract. On screen, it is solely Phil’s journey, so the level of affirmation possible from one iteration into the next comes from Phil, from where he is in his larger journey. Rubin originally imagined Groundhog Day as

…a young man’s journey through life, like Siddhartha. A twenty-eight-year-old man mired in a life of shallow relationships and superficial aspirations was perfectly understandable to me as a similarly aged man when I wrote it. I never felt those things particularly described me, but I sure knew a lot of people like that.

When Bill Murray was cast, the description “late twenties” no longer applied. What’s interesting, though, is that the story works just as well describing a man approaching middle age, dealing with what he thinks he wants out of life and coming to realize what’s truly meaningful for him.

And, despite what I just said, the story works just as well describing any of us at any time. And, it tells us… it tells me that I am the sum of all of my parts. The way to improve who I am, in the present, is to make sure the “positive” parts outnumber the “negative.” Not necessarily to destroy the negative or to, as Nietsche puts it, “wage war against what is ugly.” But, to affirm the positive, affirm love and camaraderie and all the good things in life. Like Phil Connors coming to abhor his own existence, I could become “an angry spectator of all that is past” (another line from Nietzsche), and like Phil, the one true statement I might be able to say about myself is, “I don’t even like myself.” But, I can choose not to. Rather than face all those slaps, I don’t have to cheat my way toward perfection only to find it isn’t real—

(And, now is as good a time as any to mention a stray observation I made recently. While Rita slaps Phil 10 times on screen (and, it’s ok if you think it’s just 9), the quick montage of slaps is 8 of them…

Turn that on its side, and what do you get?

Just saying.)

Rubin’s reference to Siddhartha is interesting because Siddhartha’s journey, if we reorder the events a little (or somehow equate being a weatherman in Pittsburgh with being a Samana), then Siddhartha goes through a lot of what Phil does, though his “adolescent” phase is necessarily different, as Siddhartha is, well, not an immoral American news man. Siddhartha’s early goal, with the Samanas, is arguably Phil’s late in his journey; he had one single goal—

…to become empty, to become empty of thirst, desire, dreams, pleasure, and sorrow—to let the Self die. No longer to be Self, to experience the peace of an emptied heart, to experience pure thought—that was his goal. When all the Self was conquered and dead, when all passions and desires were silent, then the last must awaken, the innermost of Being that is no longer Self—the great secret!

Now, arguably, Phil never really has this goal. I don’t think he deliberately sets out to be a better man, per se. I think there is a natural progression to life and Phil just happens to experience most, if not all, of it in that one day in Punxsutawney. And, coming back to the geographic isolation that started this, I think about that day and what was missing from it. Not just family, not just friends. There would be no travel. There would be no ocean, no big city crowds (though the tourists gathered together with the locals there in Punxsutawney could probably create a bit of a swarm). And, a big loss for me—and Phil’s choice of music as one of the things he learns is an interesting one in this regard—would be creativity. For an artist, there would be no audience, no lasting effect, no lasting art at all. You couldn’t write stories—well, you could, but then they would be gone. You couldn’t paint paintings because they too would be gone. All Phil has is what happens then and there. Maybe he’s lucky he’s not the creative type, or maybe he is the creative type and Punxsutawney is his canvas.

There’s an interesting bit in Siddhartha, while Siddhartha is in the service of the merchant Kamaswami that I think echoes Phil Connor’s stay in Punxsutawney in a way:

Once he travelled to a village in order to buy a large rice harvest. When he arrived there, the rice was already sold to another merchant. However, Siddhartha remained in that village several days, entertained the farmers, gave money to the children, attended a wedding and returned from the journey completely satisfied.

He goes there for business but stays there for life. And, that satisfies him. Siddhartha manages this in several days. It takes Phil a bit longer, but I think he manages eventually. Before Siddhartha leaves Kamaswami, he has an epiphany:

Then he suddenly saw clearly that he was leading a strange life, that he was doing many things that were only a game, that he was quite cheerful and sometimes experienced pleasure, but that real life was flowing past him and did not touch him.

Phil Connors, sitting in his room with the sluts in Ramis’ revision, losing Rita night after night in the film—I think he would understand this sentiment. True, real life is literally flowing past him, but also, in effect, real life was already passing him before. Phil knew only the game, doing what felt good now and real life is about more than that. Circling back again to eternal recurrence, real life would be making choices that you can not only live with now, this moment, but that you can live with when they come back around again.

The worst thing you’ve done—could you live with it if you had to experience it again and again?

Siddhartha has the sense that he “had spent his life in a worthless and senseless manner; he retained nothing vital, nothing in any way precious or worthwhile. He stood alone, like a shipwrecked man on the shore.” Or like Phil Connors atop that Pennsylvanian Hotel. Siddhartha nearly comes to suicide, feeling that “there was nothing more for him but to efface himself, to destroy the unsuccessful structure of his life, to throw it away, mocked at by the gods.” On some level, he succeeds in killing a part of himself. Phil, also, succeeds in killing part of himself. Perhaps the second true thing he says in the film, again to Rita, is, “I’ve killed myself so many times, I don’t even exist anymore.” The soul of Phil Connors is still there, but he has become someone else. Like Govinda not recognizing the new Siddhartha, when Rita sees Phil on stage, she doesn’t recognize the man she’s seeing either. She’s caught a glimpse before—she did see his Chekhov report—but it is good that in the film she does not follow along, seeing each of Phil’s good deeds. She must discover who this man is there at the banquet. And, it is at this banquet that we also see Phil anew. Like Siddhartha late in his life, Phil

felt as if these ordinary people were his brothers. Their vanities, desires and trivialities no longer seemed absurd to him; they had become understandable, lovable and even worthy of respect.

No longer are they just “hicks” to Phil. He has become part of the community, even if, when you think about it, it doesn’t make much sense for some of that community to embrace him as readily as they do. The key is not to think about it too much.

Now, I wonder where I am in my journey, because I think about everything too much. What is it Rita says we all want—career, love, marriage, children? In theory, I’m on track for a career as a teacher. It’s taking its time coming, but it’s coming. I’ve experienced love more than once. I’ve been married. I have three beautiful children. But, like Phil Connors or Siddhartha, I can’t help but want more.

Today’s reason to repeat a day forever: to experience something wholly new, and to know just who I am in doing so.

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