Sunday, November 28, 2010

Why dark is not (really) the opposite of light.

In our world there are basically two ways of looking at reality: the Persian way and the Hebrew way. That’s sounds fantastically archaic, but they’re really quite hip.

The Persian perspective is by far the most prevalent way of looking at the world. Made popular by Zarathustra, the Persian model insists that everything comes in pairs, which are opposites, and which together either create a cosmic conflict or some harmonious whole: good versus evil, light versus dark, up versus down, yin versus yang, and so on.
The Hebrew way of looking at things supposes that there are no two sides, just one side, or rather no side at all. It’s just us in a big world, and we evolve from a chaotic past to a harmonious future. Another important factor in the Hebrew way of seeing things is that evolution is towards some kind of attractor; some kind of central entity towards all things move, evolve or simply revolve.

All story telling focuses on conflicts, but the big difference between Persian story telling and Hebrew story telling is that in Persian story telling the antagonist always comes from the camp opposite the camp of the protagonist. The conflict ensues and a happy ending revolves around the camp of the antagonist being defeated but not annihilated. The enemy retreats, regroups and will surely be heard from again.

Hebrew story telling focuses almost entirely on conflicts that arise inside the favored camp, or even inside our hero’s head. If there is an antagonist camp, it usually receives very little screen time, and a good look at the story reveals that the actual conflict of the story is that of our heroes. If there is an enemy camp, that enemy will either be completely wiped out, or they will reconcile with our heroes and become one with them.

A typical modern example of Persian story telling is found in the Star Wars cycle. The “dark side” is an equal counterpart of the side we’re rooting for. It’s peopled by darklings and captained by some arch-darkling. The Hebrew answer to Star Wars (although they came first) is Star Trek, in which a federation of heroes goes out to encounter strange new worlds and become one with a greater realm. Star Wars is always about the battle against the others. Star Trek is most often about our own attitude towards antagonism, and our personal or collective growth. An insurrection in Star Wars tells of the good guys finally rising up against the utterly other bad guys. An insurrection in Star Trek most often has to do with a person or group that breaks away from the larger fold and turns on it.

Similarly comparative are the movies It’s A Bug’s Life (Persian, by Walt Disney) and AntZ (Hebrew, by Steven Spielberg & co), which were published pretty much at the same time and were obvious reactions to each other.

We’re free to admire and utilize either perspective and it would be folly to state that either Persian or Hebrew is the right one or the true one. But it’s also wise to realize that the Persian way of looking at things is as poetic or experiential as the word sunrise. Of course the sun rises, in our experience, although in fact the sun stays were it is and the earth turns. What to an observer seems like an act of the sun is in fact an act of the earth. Take away the earth-bound observer and the sun never rises again.

In that same way, up and down aren’t opposites; they’re merely directions from an observer’s perspective. Take away the observer and neither direction is either up or down. The same goes for warm and cold, or any other duo. Even darkness and light aren’t opposites. Light consists of substance (photons) but darkness is not the presence of some other substance. When we turn the light on in a dark room, the room fills with light, but nothing actually leaves. Darkness does not get replaced with light; it doesn’t go away. It just seizes to exist.

Because the Persian way of seeing things is so natural to any observer, even the Bible often gets interpreted in a Persian way. Many people believe that God and the devil are equal opposites, each with their realms and empires, and that darkness belongs to the devil while light belongs to God. But no, we can safely conclude that the Bible works the Hebrew way.

In the Bible God is the legal owner of everything. Light belongs to God but darkness as well. In fact, some of the core scenes of Scriptures occur in darkness (like the creation, the covenant with Abraham, the death of Jesus Christ). God, or at least communion with God, is that attractor that all evolution naturally aims for, and the devil ‘rules’ separation. A consequence of this is that only God’s realm is organized and based on understanding, forgiveness and communication. The devil ‘masters’ chaos, which is a paradox because chaos can only exists when there is no rule. The devil is the emperor of an empire in which the subjects aren’t subjects.

The same difference between the realm of God and the realm of the devil - a.k.a. Beelzebub, which means Lord Of the Flies - is the difference between a colony of bees and a swarm of flies. Bees are organized; flies are not. Bees adhere to central rule; flies do not. Bees have a home; flies don’t. Bees focus on flowers and help them reproduce; flies focus on corpses and dung and aid only decay, and if they help reproduction, it‘s the reproduction of diseases. Bees produce honey and care for their offspring; flies produce nothing and don’t care for their offspring. Bees are armed; flies are not. Any bee can venture into a swarm of flies unscathed. Any fly foolish enough to come close to a beehive, won’t even make it past the first line of defense, let alone come near the entrance.

Next time you watch Luke Skywalker battle Lord Vader with a light saber (an obvious metaphor for an intellectual debate; for any physical fight both have access to grenades and laser guns and the likes), or Captain Picard zip through the Briar Patch (Moses in Exodus 3) and engage the Son’a in favor of the Ba’ku, and so doing create a conflict within the Federation that threatens its very existence, maybe you should take off your shoes…

Maybe not.

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