Thursday, 23 December 2021
The Unbearable Lightness of Planescape
The Unbearable Lightness of Being begins with Kundera's famous riff on Nietzsche's myth of eternal return. As Kundera's narrator points out, we don't (at least as far as we know) live our lives over and over again. Instead, we only live once.
Because we only live once, we have no way of knowing whether any decision we have made was the right or wrong one, even after the fact. We can never know what would have happened if we had acted differently. This, the narrator suggests, liberates us. We can never really blame ourselves for any decision we make, because we never act with foresight. If we had chosen differently, things could have been worse, and there is never any way of knowing.
But, the narrator goes on to observe, as well as being liberating, this fact that we only live once makes our lives ephemeral: we can't go back and correct our mistakes, with the benefit of hindsight. Every decision we have made stands, and cannot be undone. It would be one thing if our lives were a rehearsal before the main event, so we could make a better go of it second time around. But since that's not the case, our lives are 'unbearably light' - we cannot blame ourselves for anything we have done, but nor can we right all of our many wrongs. In the end, since we only live once, 'we might as well not have lived at all'.
It must be pointed out that although Kundera writes in the first person here, the argument is being made by an unreliable narrator and the whole point of the novel (spoiler alert) is that this nihilistic notion must be utterly refuted. But there is something to this idea that total liberation is attendant on existence being ultimately futile. Absolute freedom presumes there being absolutely no constraint on one's field of action, which means absolute absence of consequence. But the consequence of that is an 'unbearable lightness'. Where our actions have no consequence, we might as well not act, or exist, at all.
I was thinking about this while looking through old Planescape materials yesterday. There is something intangible, airy, ineffectual about Planescape. Yes, the art is beautiful, the production values second to none. Yes, it has a mood and a tonal palette that is totally different from any other fantasy setting. Those qualities impressed me as an adolescent. But now it feels inconsequential, in all senses of the word - like a museum piece, to be regarded and admired, rather than a real world to be explored. Nothing going on within it really seems to matter.
The problem, I think, is that in an infinite multiverse in which anything can happen, one slips easily to the conclusion that nothing might as well happen. What, ultimately, are the consequences to anything one does? A character dies, another comes along, totally different to the one before; one location is explored, another multitude of others presents itself; one level of the Abyss is visited, and an infinite number more await; the cosmic ballet goes on - and the setting remains, held in a ball of infinitely large aspic.
It is a little like the experience I now have whenever I put on Netflix or another streaming service. A million options present themselves, and ennui sets in. It's not as simple as 'analysis paralysis', though that's part of it; it's something deeper. It's that, given so many options, the very act of choosing itself becomes diminished. If one can watch only four channels, as was the case when I were a lad, the choice is imbued with significance: you might end up watching something bad, and missing something good. If one can watch more or less anything, and switch between them at will, the choice becomes so insignificant and devoid of consequence that it hardly feels worth being made. If one can watch anything, why indeed watch anything at all? If one can play any sort of campaign in an infinite multiverse, why play anything at all?
Posted by noisms at 04:39