Saturday, October 16, 2010

From One Extreme To The Other

Take a quick inventory of your friends, relatives, and co-workers. Can you spot the perky ones? The ones who always arrive with the hope that things will get better? Of course, you can. Even if they sometimes get on your nerves, these people have devised an emotional mechanism that gets them through the day with a smile on their faces.

Now consider the grumbling, cranky pessimists -- the ones who are convinced that the whole world is conspiring against them and that nothing will ever get better. They're just as easy to spot.

As a result, it's easy to guess which ones view their cups as half full and which as half empty. In the following clip from The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, author David Rakoff pushes his new book, Half Empty, in a hilarious conversation with his host.

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David Rakoff
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While the people who can consider their cups half full or half empty are fairly easy to manage, those who have reached the opposite ends of the philosophical spectrum may be more complex, more argumentative, and more determined to follow their thoughts to (what seems to them) a logical conclusion. Whether that conclusion will be bitter or brilliant depends on the subject at hand.

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Let's start with the bitter.  SFPlayhouse recently mounted a production of The Sunset Limited, a philosophical battle of wits between a bitter suicidal intellectual and the down-and-out African-American Evangelical Christian who saves him from jumping in front of a subway train. This time resolve triumphs over religion.

As Cormac McCarthy's dramedy begins, the audience meets White (Charles Dean) and Black (Carl Lumbly). White is played by a Caucasian and Black by an African-American. Could the symbolism be more obvious? Not until one digs beneath the top layer of each character -- his skin color.
  • White is a cantankerous senior who, after consuming nearly 4,000 books, has yet to read the entire Bible. Driven by a fierce intellect, a disgust with his fellow man, the conviction that things will never get better, and the urgent desire to end his life now rather than spend more tortured years waiting for the end to come, this fuddy professor is not what anyone would call "a happy camper."
  • Black, on the other hand, may not be well read, but is definitely a survivor. An ex-convict, Black has murdered people, helped junkies and alcoholics get through the night, and yet remains content to live in an apartment that is little more than a hovel. Having found religion and read the Bible from start to finish, Black is willing to be more generous in evaluating the gray areas of life.
As Black and White debate whether or not life is worth living, the viewer is quickly reminded of Karl Marx's warning that "religion is the opiate of the masses." In his program notes, dramaturg Nichols C. Pappas states:
"McCarthy is not lambasting religion. He is trying to warn us. He wants us to understand that accepting [that] people have their faults points us away from unachievable Utopian ideals and leaves us free to be ourselves, as we really are.  Understanding that we are violent allows us to keep our guard up and stay protected. His warnings seem to speak to those who believe that if one lives their life a certain way, they will attain a special Utopia in the afterlife. Quite simply, McCarthy rejects the possibility that humans can live in harmony.  Even further, he expects us to live up to, or at least acknowledge, our deeply-rooted violent nature as humans. Trying to change that nature, or pretending it doesn't exist only causes more problems than it solves."
Black (Carl Lumbly) and White (Charles Dean) in The Sunset Limited.
 (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

McCarthy's play rests on a simple device: As long as Black can keep White in his apartment (and occupied in conversation), he can prevent White from trying to board "The Sunset Limited" in another suicide attempt. While the difference in their respective levels of education reinforces their views of life, the simple truth is that if White is allowed to walk out the door early in the evening, the play comes to a screeching halt (an artistic type of premature ejaculation).

However, if viewed through the eyes of an atheist like myself, McCarthy's play is wasting a lot of time trying to debate something which is essentially not worth debating. Why not?

  • A confirmed atheist like White is not going to look to a supreme being or religious dogma for solace. He will only find them to be sorry reminders of the kind of abject stupidity and gullibility that allow people to cling to superstitions and fairy tales whenever they are forced to deal with a brutal reality.
  • A hopeful convert like Black, having been able to find no answer in his biggest moment of crisis, is relieved to relinquish his power, material possessions, and the occasional bitterness of logic to cling to whatever semblance of hope he can imagine. A hopeful convert will also drag out any argument about the existence of God for as long as possible because, to be defeated by a nonbeliever, is simply incomprehensible. 
McCarthy has stated that: 
'There is no such thing as life without bloodshed. The notion that the species can be improved in some way, that everyone could live in harmony, is really a dangerous idea. Those who are afflicted with this notion are the first ones to give up their souls, their freedom. Your desire that it be that way will enslave you and make your life vacuous."

Carl Lumbly (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

Under Bill English's direction, Charles Dean (White) and Carl Lumbly (Black) did their best to keep the play's momentum going. However, the mechanism that will end the play soon becomes obvious to the audience and, from that point forward, the countdown begins. The only thing in question is the quality of McCarthy's writing which, as usual, is solid and draws frequent laughs from the audience.

In a bizarre way, The Sunset Limited reminded me of an incident that transpired many years ago during a lecture about mathematical theory that I attended at Brooklyn College. A math professor was trying to explain how, if each time he moved he traveled half the distance from where he was standing to the door, then theoretically he could never leave the room.

One of the class clowns picked up his books and, as he walked out the door, muttered "Oh, yeah? Watch this, you jackass!'

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While The Sunset Limited deals with depression, disillusionment, disgust, and death, a new documentary entitled The Spirit Molecule (which will be screened as part of  DocFest 2010)  goes to the opposite extreme.

Produced and directed by Mitch Schutz, The Spirit Molecule is all about research into psychedelics, particularly the compound dimethyltryptamine (which occurs in plants and animals throughout nature). Often compared to psilocybin, dimethyltryptamine has provided some of the most intense hallucinogenic experiences known to man. Much of The Spirit Molecule involves the methodology and findings of Dr. Rick Strassman's research into DMT's effect on the human brain.

Strassman performed clinical research investigating the function of the pineal hormone melatonin in which his research group at the University of New Mexico documented the first known role of melatonin in humans. He also began the first new U.S. government approved and funded clinical research with psychedelic drugs in over 20 years. His studies have probed:

  • DMT's theoretical role in near-death and birth experiences.
  • DMT's role in alien-abduction experiences.
  • DMT's possible role in prophetic Biblical texts that describe DMT-like experiences.
  • DMT's role in the history and future of psychedelic research.

The Spirit Molecule is, in some ways, a wildly schizophrenic film:

  • A great deal of Schutz's documentary is focused on the talking heads of doctors, scientists, researchers, study volunteers (and even a rabbi!) who discuss the impact and importance of psychedelics on the human experience and their relation to spirituality.
  • The more enjoyable part of the film is filled with computer-generated graphics and kaleidoscopic patterns that now seem like some of the sweetest, most innocent hallucinations imaginable.
Director Mike Schutz with actor Joe Rogan

Say this much for The Spirit Molecule. Although at times it is horribly stagy, the research and testimony are credible, important, and deal with issues of drug use that threaten many Americans. Those who attend the annual Burning Man Festival, however, will no doubt feel that this film points to the kinds of experiences in spiritual enlightenment they have always sought.  Here's the trailer.

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