exits and returns

exits and returns

In the closing moments of the film The Truman Show, the titular character battles man-made tempests to attempt to escape the reality show that has been the only world he has ever known. He finally arrives at stillness, and then, an ending: a painted set backdrop of the clouds and sky. He tries and fails to break through. But then he notices a set of steps off to his right. He climbs the steps - the moment he has always unconsciously waited for, without realising - and finds a door. The unfailing voice of the show’s Creator speaks to him, urging him not to leave, telling him “there’s no more truth out there than in the world I created for you”. He leaves, after uttering his catchphrase a final time.

In the ‘intended’ ending of the game The Stanley Parable, after following the Narrator’s directions to the letter, you find yourself exiting the mind control facility. FREEDOM WAS MERE MOMENTS AWAY, says the narrator. But Stanley remains puzzled. WHERE HAD HIS CO-WORKERS GONE? HOW HAD HE BEEN FREED FROM THE MACHINE’S CONTROL?. The Narrator paradoxically announces that Stanley is finally free to live whatever life he wants, unshaped by the machine’s mind control. STANLEY STEPPED THROUGH THE OPEN DOOR. He does. The Narrator speaks of Stanley’s freedom, describing it as EXACTLY THE WAY, RIGHT NOW, THAT THINGS WERE MEANT TO HAPPEN. A locked door, an outside.

In the final scene of Christopher Nolan’s 2010 film Inception, Leonardo Di Caprio’s character, Dominick Cobb, spins a spinning top a final time to check whether or not he is in a dream. He walks away from it to greet his children, at long last. The camera focuses on the totem. Moviegoers for years argue about whether or not the totem falls, determining whether or not it is a dream, entirely missing the point that the spinning top is an unreliable totem, because it’s not his, and so should not be trusted, and the real point is that Cobb is finally happy to walk away, it doesn’t matter to him whether he’s in a dream or not - he’s found his ending.

The characters of Westworld on subtle loops they alter tiny pieces at a time. The way you have to piece things slowly together through multiple time loops in the game 12 Minutes.  The ‘outside’ that the Black Lodge offers in Twin Peaks. The slow retreat of memory in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind setting up a circular narrative that still gets me every time. The… well, everything about The Time-Traveller’s Wife. And About Time, for that matter. Groundhog Day, obviously. I might even include The Lake House or Majora’s Mask, even.  The Butterfly Effect is a great example. A really tenuous one that maybe two of you, max, will get - the creation of Daqar Keep in the Divergent Universe in the Eighth Doctor’s run on Big Finish. Hell, even the prophecy of The One in The Matrix.

All of these touch on what I feel are two inexplicably linked ideas - exits and returns. Exits are the exception; returns are the rule. Stanley in The Stanley Parable leaves, is told he is free whilst following orders, then returns again because there is more to explore. Truman spends every day thinking something is wrong until he finally is able to embrace his exit from the show. Cobb may or may not have left the loop of the dreamscape, but no longer cares, resigning himself to the return, or finding an exit through his resignation. Agent Cooper finds an exit from his world in the shape of the Black Lodge, but then is caught in a cycle of returns through his entire life, the two worlds of season 3, and then the life of Carrie Page.

When does a return become an exit? I’m thinking about this in a bunch of different ways. The first is philosophical. In Thus Spake Zarathustra, Nietzsche writes of a ‘dwarf’ that guards a gateway called “Moment” with two eternal roads that run out in front and behind. The dwarf answers that “all that is straight lies… all truth is crooked; time itself is a circle”. Just one part of Nietzsche’s argument about the ubermensch, this section of the book is normally taken to support his idea of eternal return: that the übermensch should always act in such a way to avoid existential resentment. That if the world - and your life - would recur, over and over, you should act in such a way that you won’t become reactionary and regressive by living that life. As he says in The Gay Science:

What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence’ … Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: ‘You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.’

Aged 19, this was of huge importance to me. Which sounds strange, now that I think about it, but hey, I was a weird second year student. Learning about eternal recurrence and the idea that you actually be an affirmative actor in the world was life-changing. Suddenly the formless existential dread I’d been feeling for forever had something to put itself to: I should act in such a way I couldn’t regret, over and over, til time burns itself out. But there’s also a profound sadness in Nietzsche’s formulation of eternal return. We can never do or be anything new. We are like Truman, stuck in the show, or a Westworld robot that can never find agency. Of course, in the mythical ‘first time’ of eternal return we might have agency; but why can’t we be free to do it differently, over and over? To experiment, to play, to be something ‘radically Other’?

If we can’t be anything new, that draws us a bit closer to our current situation. I don’t know how many times I have to do the primer - people, go read Fisher’s Capitalist Realism at a minimum pls, it’s rly short and I’ll keep talking about it until you’ve read it. But essentially, capitalist realism - the idea that we can’t even imagine a coherent alternative to capitalism anymore - comes down to this collapse (or appropriation, commodification, or colonisation) of the new. Our popular culture cycles around 80s references. Ready Player One exists. And all of these media become obsessed with exits and returns. A latent desire for something else, expressed through the language of dreams, outside spaces, robotic loops, time travel, reliving the same day until you do something right, forgotten memories. The world keeps cycling round the same old elements, unable to find what ‘new’ to do with it because everything has already been done; history ended, remember? Now all we have is reruns and The Simpsons never ageing but their birth days changing as the years go on. Homer Simpson was an adult in the 90s; now he is a teenager in the 90s.

So how do we break out? How do we find an exit, an egress? I don’t know - isn’t that the question we’re all asking ourselves, from those experiencing addiction to those of us who chase adrenaline and go skydiving every weekend. But I suspect the answer might lie in the figure of the threshold. The threshold is what lies between us and outside. Or inside, if you’re figuring it that way around. Do we need to leave and see what is beyond or do we need to go deeper and understand the more focused content of everything?

What would it mean to explore the threshold? The closing words of Capitalist Realism assure us that 'from a situation in which nothing can happen, suddenly anything is possible again'. The threshold can help us to explore those possibilities. Must we go chasing limit-experiences, breaking ourselves from our selves? Or should we be seeking ego-death in the midst of meditation, pushing our consciousness from itself? It would be easy to see the threshold as the place of boundary; a constraint, something to keep us away. But what if thresholds are the spaces-between that create possibility? Something at the very edge of experience - and if only we could go through that door...