Monday, September 10, 2012

The Midknight & Philosophy, Pt. II

NOTE:  The following essay contains spoilers to my book The Midknight. If you have NOT read the story, I suggest you read it first before reading the following essay.

Part II:  Love, Friendship & Letting Go

Throughout The Midknight Jesse often has trouble with letting go. Not only with present feelings and situations that humiliate or sadden him, but also of his past -- especially the hurtful memories -- and the future (he is always worried about what will become of him and the ones he loves). Rather than living in the present, Jesse often wastes his valuable time reflecting on the past, thinking of his family and reliving the unfairness of being separated from his loving mother and sisters. These strong emotions of love and loss that Jesse lets overtake him are what lead to his eventual downfall. He does not care about what happens to anyone else in the world around him. All he cares about is him and his family and his girlfriend and it is this worry for their well-being that unconsciously transforms into a fear of losing them, which is a form of greed.

How is fear of losing someone seen as greed? Well, it depends on the context. While some might say that you should fight for what you want and keep a hold of it, most philosophers would argue that no person is something that you should have to "fight for" nor is someone an object that you can or should "hold on to." If someone decides to leave you, that is their conscious decision to make and they have a right to make it. Whether they leave because of not wanting to be around you anymore or because they don't feel connected to you anymore or because of some other circumstantial situation, it is their decision and should be respected. To not let go and try to keep a hold on a relationship they no longer want would be only beneficial to your desires and that is greed.

On the other hand, if they were taken from us through means beyond either their or our control (such as death), then it becomes an issue of accepting the natural process of life. No matter how difficult, some eventually accept it and some don't. After all, death is a part of living and we all must deal with it, regardless of how early is comes to those we care about or not. When Jesse sees his sister Karen killed, his love for her is then turned to a bitter rage that drives him to murder her killer.

A world in which people love their parents, siblings and children so much that they are willing to go to great lengths to save them or avenge them is a morally better world than one in which people lack such feelings. People are more likely to develop a strong moral character, and to have richer lives in general, when they are capable of such great and unconditional love for others. And because of this, it is a byproduct of his family's love that drives Jesse into his rage, and that is understandable. Nevertheless, his anger (toward the killer) eventually turns to a sad "woe-is-me" feeling that he turns toward himself. He wishes he could've done more even though the situation was actually out of his hands. Just as the lives of those we care about are out of our hands most times, so it is with Jesse and his sister. His rage and guilt over her death are all part of a downward spiral that will echo throughout the story and lead him to a depressing life. For all the good it creates, the love of family is not always a good moral motive. Certainly, love is a powerful motive -- more powerful than hate or anger as most disputes are born out of love or concern for someone close to us (when was the last time you heard of someone willing to die over someone they disliked?) -- and it can be difficult to control. In addition, the capacity to love is itself intrinsically good, and it thereby creates a great good in people's lives.

Still, despite its great potential, love can also be morally selfish. There's a huge difference between unconditional love and erotic/romantic love. Unconditional love is a form of compassion, a higher and more universal form of love, while erotic/romantic love can become an intense personal attachment which leads to fear of loss and greed. More precisely, compassion is a selfless love, involving a deep, cherishing concern for each individual as having intrinsic value. That is, individuals are valued for their own sake, regardless of their capacity to acheive anything else.

And, as seen in The Midknight, this kind of attachment can be to anyone (even family). It's when we focus our attention exclusively on those we love, that we then can become blind to the anguish of others. They can cease to exist for us morally and that's when personal attachment leads to greed and selfishness. The exclusive love of our own families and our own groups (or significant other) is the root cause of the intolerance that leads to too many of the great crimes committed by humanity.

Another kind of connection to those we love is friendships. Aristotle's analysis of friendship comes into play in regards to Vanessa, her best friend Amanda and Amanda's boyfriend Mark -- the three friends in the story who find their relationship challenged once Jesse comes onto the scene. Their friendship is built on their popularity (moreover, at the beginning, Vanessa and Amanda are friends merely because of their social status and interest in clothes); in most ways, it is a friendship of pleasure. The change that their friendship undergoes is a metaphor for the change that all younger people, teenagers especially, go through when they hit a certain age. Unfortunately, a young person's friendship of pleasure is not often stable. Aristotle explains: "For their lives are guided by their feelings, and they pursue above all what is pleasant for themselves and what is near at hand. But as they grow up, what they find pleasant changes too. Hence they are quick to become friends and quick to stop."

As for the small bond that both Jesse and his counterpart, Gideon, have --whose relationship is merely one of utility, they are different. Although Gideon and Jesse's first encounter seems somewhat friendly and Gideon tries to persuade Jesse to join his team, he is only keeping Jesse alive for something that he wants: the serum. Clearly, what we have here is a case where there could be no continual relationship or friendship. A virtuous man (Jesse) cannot use the services of a vicious man (Gideon) in such a way that it constitutes a friendship. Collaboration with corruption corrupts. So perhaps we should view utility friendships as having this in common with complete friendships: if one party is virtuous, then that constitutes a constraint on what the other party can be. If one of the friends descends into evil, even an utility friendship with a virtuous person must end.

Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant said, "We should always act so that we treat humanity ... always as an end in itself and never as a means only." By putting other people's lives or needs under our loved ones, we are using them merely as tools for our own purposes. We do not respect them as full human beings with their own goals and values, but as something expendable whenever they get in our way. Moreover, to do so when those actions will not even help our loved one treats people as mere beasts. And that is such a fundamental moral flaw that anyone's capacity for love can't redeem their character.

Most intense love relationships stem from a deep passion. Jesse's undying love for Vanessa certainly does. In The Midknight, Jesse's concern for her life outweighs any other person's civil rights, such as their classmate George. Sure, George is a bad guy, but he doesn't necessarily deserve the fiery, painful death that Jesse dishes out. Because of Jesse's passionate love for Vanessa, he goes to extremes to protect her and takes someone's life. There is no virtue in his action and, as it is quite often shown throughout the book, his passion and love drive him to corruptible, vicious acts.

This kind of passion can become a driving force for evil in a way that we didn't know possible. For instance, a crucial moment in Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit is the love of the intellectual and magician Faust for the young maid Gretchen (a half-inspiration for Jesse and Vanessa), a love that is made possible only through Faust's bargain with the devil -- to give up his soul in exchange for the intense experience of life that can only be found through love. This is indeed what the power of love seems to be for the separate ego -- the very loss of one's soul. Such love, which Faust obtains by giving himself over to the powers of darkness, brings about death to Gretchen as well as peril to the immortal soul of the lover. And even though the true meaning of the sacred journey of the hero is infinite love, it is a love for all of mankind and not simply one group or person.

Just like Faust, what starts out as a good intention for someone you love might turn out to be their destruction and maybe your own (the first example that comes to mind is Anakin Skywalker and Padme Amidala in Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith). The "law of unintended consequences" ensues and can be seen in everyday life; someone ends up committing a horrendous act, to their own surprise, and against the very people he was aiming to help, or at least avenge. The knowledge or action that he thought was sufficient to take or guide him ended up being a tissue of fantasy and falsehood, and it led to tragedy. Certainly, this happens to Jesse and Vanessa. After she is beaten by her alcoholic, estranged father, Jesse hunts him down to avenge her (even though he promised Vanessa he wouldn't) and beats the man to a bloody pulp. At the end of the story, it is not any of the book's main villains that lead to Vanessa's demise but her own father who is seeking to protect his daughter from being touched by "the piece of shit" he believes Jesse to be, because Jesse unmercifully beats him. The father shoots at them and unknowingly kills his own daughter. And the father came after them because Jesse's love for Vanessa overcame him and drove him to disobey her and beat on her father. That led to the father's own malice and the only innocent of the group is killed.

Our ancestors, in both the east and the west, thought of emotions as things that are external to the self which, when allowed to determine our actions, undermine our freedom and autonomy. We think of the emotions as internal to the self, and we correspondingly consider emotional expression to be an expression of the true self. The word "passion" interestingly comes from the same root as the word "passive," because, for our ancestors, it was part and parcel of being under the influence of a passion that our ability to determine our own actions -- that is, our ability to act freely -- was being seriously undermined.

One main group of philosophers who believed in this (and would find in The Midknight many great examples of why their teachings are important) were the Stoics. Stoicism is the ancient Greek philosophy that originated in the third century B.C.E. in the "Stoa" or porch where Zeno of Citium taught in Athens. Stoicism counsels acting virtuously and without emotional disturbance while living in harmony with fate (think of Yoda in the Star Wars movies).

The Stoics understood "passion" (pathos in Greek) to be a disturbing, unhealthy movement of the soul. They believed that there are no degrees of goodness either. Until a man is good, he is bad. However, the Stoic is not devoid of all emotion. They believed that there were three "good emotional states" that were not pathological movements of the soul, namely, benevolence (wishing someone good things for their own sake), joy (in virtuous deeds), and caution (reasonable wariness). On the other hand, emotions seem necessary to motivate action, and despite the presumption that they hinder the exercise of reason, emotions are sometimes capable of an intuitive canniness that guides reason when it falters. Aristotle, for example, observed that without a certain type of anger, one would be unable to perceive when one is unjustly dishonored. However, anger is the emotion of aggression, and aggression without reason is brute danger. The ancient Roman Stoic Seneca called anger "the most hideous and frenzied of all the emotions." Seneca thought angry people were insane, saying of anger: "Oblivious of decency, heedless of personal bonds, obstinate and intent on anything once started, closed to reasoning or advice, agitated on pretexts without foundation, incapable of discerning fairness and truth, it most resembles those ruins which crash in pieces over what they have crushed."

Jesse's anger is as a result not so much from the serum (albeit it enhances his emotion) but comes from the loving relationships that he longs to hold onto and keep. The anger all stems from the romantic ideas of love and concern and being afraid to lose them; Jesse becomes so twisted up in his protecting and loving his family and girlfriend that he soon is willing to sacrifice others for them. His care turns into greed and that greed spawns suffering and hate, which, in contrast to Aristotle's point, turns him, and his "mission," into a brute danger for her peers and those he loves. He has no other concern other than them and loses "the big picture."

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