October 29, 2015

The Twilight Zone preamble

Looks like I’m going to be posting thoughts about episodes of The Twilight Zone.

Why have I decided to post thoughts about episodes of the Twilight Zone?

In every other project on this site, my agenda is almost entirely supply-side: I want to see myself articulating thoughts, and then daring to let them be public, rather than not. It’s all very much a “rather than not” kind of endeavor.

But the present case is different! It arises from a desire to get something across to others.

I have this grand ambition to communicate a “big idea” I’ve got in my head: a philosophical perspective that encompasses both the content of culture and the nature of culture, and the fact that these things psychologically invert and give rise to one another, in an endless Möbius loop that is the foundation of the human experience.

The problem is, I don’t think very much is actually communicated in abstractions like those.

So my current whim is that a fuller, truer sense of where I’m coming from might gradually manifest itself to the reader through the accumulation of whatever comments happen to be elicited by, yes, episodes of the Twilight Zone.

The reason why I think that’s so — and why I’ve chosen The Twilight Zone, of all things — will, hopefully, be part of what becomes apparent.

I believe that if I’m sincere enough in what I express, readers will come over time to have an intuitive sense of my premises without any need for me ever to explicitly hash out any kind of (god help us) “theoretical framework.” So I’m going to try not to get too far from the show itself. Everything can be said about everything — I repeat, everything can be said about everything — so there’s no need to go on long rhetorical detours. Letting an idea accumulate organically, like falling snow, is a much more natural way of communicating than trying to shovel it over in one unliftably heavy load.

Plus who doesn’t like The Twilight Zone? My competing whim was to propose a Twilight Zone discussion club, which this could perhaps evolve (or revolve) into. Or it could burn out almost immediately! Who knows?

(The show is available on Netflix. That’s how I’m doing this and that’s how you can too. Probably.)

So what exactly is this “twilight zone”?

As of the series premiere, Friday October 2, 1959, 10 PM EST on CBS, here’s Rod’s answer (please ignore the stupid tag from “DuDf”):

There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man.
It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity.
It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition,
and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge.
This is the dimension of imagination.
It is an area which we call… The Twilight Zone.

This flows so splendidly, in the authoritative manner of the era, that my ear was initially inclined to hear it as just meaningless pulp boilerplate. But that’s a mistake: firstly, because boilerplate is never meaningless; it just carries meaning that transcends the words, which generally means a particularly deep and powerful kind of meaning. Secondly, because despite the commercial cadence, this speech does not express a cliché. It has been written with care and I think it deserves to be taken seriously.

The culmination of the speech, and the unifying theme of the show, is the term “imagination.” Pop culture tends to think of “imagination” as referring simply to things that are “made up,” fictional rather than actual. So Rod’s claim that imagination is a “dimension” might at first blush seem to be a familiar conceit: let’s make believe there’s a magical land where the impossible is possible — like Narnia, or Oz, or Wonderland, or Neverland, or The Neighborhood of Make-Believe. This is a standard frame for works of fantasy because it’s somehow intuitive: imagination does seem like some kind of a place.

But in those sorts of cases, there’s always some whimsical device that explains how one gets from here in reality to there in fantasy — a hot-air balloon or the Hogwarts Express or whatever. Whereas in life, of course, access to one’s imagination and its contents is immediate, direct, and purely interior; it involves no physical travel at all. Everyone knows this perfectly well… and yet in its broader implications, this fact makes people deeply uncomfortable!

To recognize that we all have the capacity to feel that we have gone somewhere else, somewhere strange, when we haven’t moved our bodies… this touches on questions of sanity, and for most people those are toxically shameful questions. It’s actually a source of great anxiety that the free-for-all zany-zones of Wonderland and Neverland are so intimately close at hand: right at the center of our heads, in fact. So in depictions of “the dimension of imagination,” the geography tends to be carefully managed and reassuringly cordoned off — set off at some infinite distance or across an impossible divide, connected only by gimmicks like Narnia’s wardrobe or Alice’s rabbit-hole, which serve as valves by which we can imagine the flow from one world to the other to be securely regulated.

This metaphor of the imagination, as a fabulous island with a single ferry to and from, fundamentally distorts the true nature of the mind. “Imagination” is not just some mental machinery that generates charming absurdities to populate fictions, like flying monkeys and talking rabbits. It is in fact the faculty of conceiving any and all images, which is to say it is the foundation of consciousness. The phenomenon by which we experience our actual circumstances as coherent is exactly the same as that by which we experience hallucinations, hypotheticals, dreams, flying monkeys, etc. etc.

The sense organs do not themselves generate awareness — their input has to be run through the imagination to be turned into images, experiences. But it’s a black box; there’s no assurance that the experience that comes out has anything to do with what goes in. The imagination is where we see Neverland and Wonderland and the refrigerator and the wall and the toilet and our own face in the mirror and the ghost faces that keep us awake at night. All are equal. There’s no ferry because there’s nowhere to go. You’re already there.

Fear of insanity makes this fact very uncomfortable, which is why authors of fantasy have taken such pains to reassure us that no no no, before experiencing the full thrilling power of the imagination, you must first have passed far out of normal waking life — by going up in a cyclone to another world, and/or getting klonked on the head and knocked unconscious. The important thing is, one way or the other, you are assuredly not in Kansas anymore.

If you were in Kansas, fully conscious, seeing that stuff, we’d lock you away.

This then is the game generally played by cultural products that deal explicitly in “imagination”: they give the audience permission to savor their own irrationality by creating some phony excuse for it, some metaphorical technicality that saves the audience from violating the taboo against admitting that consciousness is indistinguishable from hallucination.

With all this in mind, The Twilight Zone, and Rod’s “twilight zone” speech above, seems to me strikingly bold about breaking the taboo. These tales of are not going to come from The Marvelous Land of Oz, they’re going to come from universal psychological space. But they’re still going to be tales of fantasy, of things impossible. The stories on The Twilight Zone will come from a “twilight zone,” “the middle ground betweeen light and shadow, between science and superstition,” from the place where we can deny neither our rational nor our irrational nature because we are aware of them both.

The actual reason imagination feels like it must somehow be a “place” is because the imagination is the seat of all spatial awareness; part of the experience of any image is the impression of its existing in space and time. But the irrational core of that impression is unmeasured, unbounded; specific distances or durations are rational tags we apply later. In a state of full openness to the ineffable truth of our imagination, we will indeed perceive all our awarenesses as “vast as space and as timeless as infinity” — not unlike the surrealist skies and deserts and caves and cliffs, all in general imitation of Dalí, seen in the visual. Dalí, like The Twilight Zone, might seem at first glance to merely have been a dealer in weirdness for its own sake, but he too was (at least initially) genuinely interested in the workings of the human mind. He did not arrive at that imagery arbitrarily.

Tales From The Crypt might be scary because they’re full of ghouls and curses and whatnot, but they are reassuring insofar as they are From The Crypt, just as tales from Oz are from Oz. But tales from The Twilight Zone are scary because they aren’t going to posit some Oz or some Crypt that lets us off the hook. These stories are attributed just to the imagination, and we’ve all got one of those. They’re eerie because “the call is coming from inside the house,” and most of us live in some degree of denial of just who’s in this house. If there is horror in The Twilight Zone, it is our horror of admitting that we are irrational, in real life, right now. And if there’s pleasure in it, it’s for the same reason.

Of course, it’s still a TV show for a mass audience, so after touching that live wire, it’ll always do its part to back away, to calm everyone down. “Hey, look at this: an excuse that lets us all off the hook turned up after all!” We always get to drink the magic placebo and flush out the poison.

As Rod Serling said in his pitch to sponsors: “We think it’s the kind of a show that will put people on the edge of their seats — but only for that one half an hour; we fully expect they’ll go to the stores on the following day and buy your products!”

That’s part of what fascinates me here. It’s one thing for high art to say scoldingly “we must take a hard look at what scares us about life.” It’s quite another for Sanka-selling prime-time TV to say “Have fun everybody!” and then have the fun consist of being given the willies about the existential condition. It means that there is a sincere and intuitive appetite for those willies. To me that’s a sign of a deeper drive, an important one.

Yes, everything I’ve just talked about could equally apply to Edgar Allan Poe or any number of other 19th-century authors who depicted life as eerily hallucinatory. But that’s because there was a 19th-century fashion that carved out a certain kind of cultural space for such ideas. They were less taboo, for a time. What’s uniquely striking to me about The Twilight Zone is that it returns to that same kind of outlook but in a time of a much stronger taboo against it, and without having to resort to retro Romanticism. It creates an authentically 20th-century space in which to put a toe in those waters.

Maybe it sounds like I’m making big overreaching claims that don’t jibe with the actual flavor or value or fun of The Twilight Zone. But that’s exactly what I’m trying to address, that very flavor and fun, nothing else. I love this stuff and I’m confident that I love it just like everyone else does, not in some alternate intellectualized way. It’s just a question of words seeming phony when one is talking about the subconscious, a place without words.

This will all be clearer soon when I’m talking about actual stories, which make direct appeals to the subconscious and so provide more obvious handles.

Sorry that my good advice-to-self about not getting too abstract and general wasn’t really applied to this first entry. But come on, this was the preamble, where I had to talk about THE ZONE! The zone itself! What choice did I have but to get vague and grandiose? It’ll be more on point from here out I swear. I swear!


  1. I get it.
    Count me in!
    Cue the snow.

    Posted by MRB on |

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