A Brief Psychoanalysis of Human Drama
Copyright 2011, John Manimas Medeiros
Note that I did not say "the" human drama. I am talking about stage drama, play acting, and film, the phenomenon of a group of human beings sitting and watching another group of humans, usually much smaller than the audience, who "act" or perform. I am fascinated by this pattern of behavior, as a student of human nature, and I suspect it is the most unique of human behaviors. This question is the central focus of my examination of human drama: "Is drama the most unique of human behaviors?" By "most unique" I mean distinctly different from the repertoire of behaviors of other animals. A second question that naturally follows is "What does this mean?"
My formal education was in political and social science. My self-directed education thereafter has been diverse, however, based upon the content of my personal bibliography, I like to say that my field of study is social science, how people learn, and human memory. I am essentially an old time "naturalist" who studies human nature. I have been particularly devoted to the topic of the reconciliation of science and religion, or, if these are not well reconciled, then the details of the actual relationship between science and religion. That is a formidable topic in itself, and my unique viewpoint on that issue is that I do not believe there is a "battle" between science and religion, but I do believe that what we like to call "science" is primarily technology, or human artifact, rather than knowledge. I also believe that during the period of my life, the true religion of my culture -- the United States of America -- is science and technology, not Christianity.
One might find this proposition far more credible if I simply said that the true religion of the USA is "materialism," an observation that has been made by many people, from scholars and philosophers to those who push their appropriated supermarket carts through abandoned subway tunnels. I do see a profoundly important battle that is both old and new between theocracy and democracy. All these matters arise from and are dependent upon "how people learn." This means how we learn religion, and how we learn science, and how people often talk as though there is a cosmic conflict between the content of these two great forces, but that is perfectly normal and natural and we therefore actually live in two distinctly separate universes, possibly not both at the same time, but bouncing back and forth, until we finally leave the physical world of science and move on to the totally different and separate world of the spirit, or "heaven." This cosmic conflict has been described by college professors as a tension or conflict between what is "practical" and what is "moral." Like a primitive, tribal ancestor, I see no conflict between what is moral and what is practical. It is my clear conviction that Buddhism at its core teaches this same concept: immoral behavior is not practical. Most or all of our troubles and pain arise from impractical decisions, even though such decision are defined as being "immoral" or unethical.
Still, the world insists that the physical world is separate from and inferior in both power and importance to the spiritual world. We take the temporary quality of our physical existence very seriously, but still refuse to accept the idea that it ends. So, we have two lives, and even though we are not fully committed or "passed on" to the next life until we are fully deceased, we do make claims that our actions while still fully present in the physical world are intended to comply with the requirements of the other world -- are moral actions that are somehow "impractical." This is not rational, and it is often vigorously defended with the very argument that in being irrational and religion it is inherently superior to anything that is rational. This is the human condition that is observed by many "people watchers." Religion is passionately defended by many people on the grounds that it is mysterious and unknown and God wants us to do things that are contrary to our physical welfare. Go to war, kill someone, hate our neighbor, despise a person who has a different viewpoint, punish people for offenses against the law of God, even though God is supposed to have infinite power over the universe. It is all just so mysterious. And while this goes on there are "scientists" who continue to claim that human beings are "intelligent."
Against this background, the "stage" for our inquiry, let's return to the question: 'Is drama the most unique of human behaviors?" I first must confess that I have very strong feelings about another pattern of human behavior that is obviously unique and which I believe is the primary explanation for the evolution of human technology. That unique behavior is that humans do not fear fire. We use fire. We do have the concept of "friendly fire," as opposed to other fires which are apparently "unfriendly" or hostile, and capable of causing astounding destruction and suffering. There are moths and other insects and fish that are attracted to lights at night, and light can be caused by a flame. Thus we have the "moral lesson" of the moth who is attracted to a flame and killed by it. This of course is not similar to the human use of fire. The discipline of "evolution" which one supposes is a branch of "biology" but is often discussed as though it is a kind of religion, tells us that our ancient ancestors were once "less than human" for some reason, but experienced an evolutionary change that made them human. We often like to say that we have not found that "missing link" that reveals the moment when we were transformed physically from ape or monkey or some other ancestral primate into the human beings that we are. We apparently deem this separating line between human and other primate mammals, and all the other animals, to be a necessary and extremely important element of our identity. It is a line of separation, kind of like washing one's hands in order to not carry the "germs" of a dog -- or distasteful human -- you just shook hands with. I am not an animal, we think, and therefore I must devote tremendous human resources to the task of telling the detailed story of how and why I am separate from and better than "animals." This has gone on for a long time, even though there are many humans who would and do make the remark that this is an egotistical and frivolous waste of time and money, because we are animals. We just don't like the association. We are determined to prove to ourselves that we are better than animals, but we have not felt the conviction of success. The more we study animals, the more we find good qualities in them. And we often find wonderful qualities in animals that we are not sure we see in ourselves. No human is as loyal as dog, as beautiful as horse, as noble as a hawk, as wise and free as a whale or a dolphin. It is as though we are tainted with a cosmic inferiority complex; we search so diligently for the evidence that there is some distinct and definitive, real entity that confirms our perception, or desire, that "we are not animals." Why is this so important? I suppose that may be the essential source of our religions. One could argue that our religions, all of them, are driven by our need to be better than other animals. It all looks like we are looking for self-justification. We are looking for some way to justify the fact that we control the lives of animals and we have destroyed them in numbers beyond our capacity to count. Not only have we destroyed individual animals, but we now can proudly, and shamefully, accept full responsibility for pushing them out of existence. This human extinguishing of animals is not new. Some suspect we did this to the mastodon and possibly the saber-toothed tiger. We over-hunt what we like, and sometimes we hunt it out of existence. If we continue, we may soon find cookbooks available with recipes for starfish, earthworms, and tree bark. Will this be the evidence we are looking for, that we are superior to the "animals?"
I digressed, but not really. Have you, or has anyone, ever witnessed a group of animals sitting (or standing, lying, whatever) watching another group of the same type of animals perform a play? I cannot imagine a question with a more obviously negative reply. Drama, performance, is strictly human. Of course the lion stalks the gazelle, the coyote stalks the rabbit, the hawk and owl watch for a squirrel, mouse or snake. But none of this is for "entertainment." This is hunting, surviving, life. Humans watching a play is for entertainment but so much more. Although I eventually focused on social science and government, I started out with an interest in writing and literature, including drama. My most supportive English teacher took me to Shakespearean plays. I could never forget some of the basic lessons and premises about what a play is and what it is for, as well as what a short story is, or a novel, and what it is for. We "identify with" the hero, or heroine or protagonist. We are interested in them and what happens to them. Some meaningful conflict arises naturally in their lives, either because of the circumstances of life or also because of the behavior of another person, an "antagonist" or one who is an obstacle to the success or happiness or achievement of the protagonist. There is so much more. Literature, stories, plays, film, introduce us to characters who may be unlike any we have met in "real life," but who possess qualities we admire. We may wish that we were like them. We may wish that we had their heroic lives. We may imagine ourselves being them, or being in situations similar to their fictional situations. Their story supplements our dreams or fantasies. We see them make decisions and experience the consequences of their decisions. We long for the good to be rewarded and the bad to be punished. In our culture it was often deemed to be bad literature, or offensive drama, if the ending was not happy, if the hero was not rewarded and confirmed by God and Nature. Of the numerous plots used to drive a drama or story, none is more common than the good person overcoming evil and obstacles, including the obstacles of human foibles and intrigue, and succeeding or "winning" in the end. I recall as a young child discovering one of the most important differences between stories and reality: reality does not have an end. Reality always continues, and the sequence or series of "dramas" that occur in reality overlap and intertwine and challenge us and surprise us in ways that could not be encompassed in a story that necessarily possesses a "beginning, a middle, and an end." The tales that ended with the suggestion that the hero and heroine, lovers who overcame forces opposed to love, lived "happily ever after" could not be taken seriously as a depiction of reality. Because the "ever after" came after the ending, and there is no such division between the "end" of a story and "ever after" in real life. This is not a trivial matter, because we have identified drama and literature and film as a means for public education. A good story does not only entail imagined interactions or identification with fictional characters, but also stimulates perennial philosophical and ethical questions, questions about what is right and wrong and questions as to whether real life does reward people for being good or does not. Also, does real life cause bad people who do bad things to be punished? Or, do they "get away with it?" What does each of the observers, or readers, or viewers, think? How do you respond to the story? What did you like and not like about it? Did it cause you to see a human problem or human condition in a new way? Were you "changed" by the experience of seeing the play, or the film? Clearly, we have attributed tremendous power to this thing that we call drama and literature, the power to teach us, even the power to change us. That is no small power. While we experience this power of drama, of people pretending and "playing" a part or "acting" for our entertainment, and benefit, we all could hardly agree more with the proposal that the task of changing another human being, especially causing another human being to change for the better, is a formidable task. Some people say it can't be done. Others say that people change only when they experience harsh events, pain and suffering, or directly witness the pain and suffering of others. It is said that we learn from our mistakes, and it is sometimes said that we learn only from mistakes, and that if we made a mistake a long time ago the lesson gets lost. All of these ideas, all of these perceptions about what drama is are profoundly related to my chosen goal to understand "how people learn." We do claim that people learn from reading stories, hearing stories, viewing stage plays or films on a screen. We are constantly striving to enhance the relationship between a "play" or a film and reality.
We were fascinated with ourselves when the three-dimensional stereoscope and "moving picture" were invented in the nineteenth century. We quickly progressed, while fighting enormously destructive wars and developing a wide variety of new technologies, pictures with sound, with color, wider screens, greater realism, finer definition, three dimensions, viewing film and stories and plays or "programs" on a television screen. We still enjoy just listening to a story on a radio whereby we use our own imaginations to add any "pictures" or images that are evoked by the narrative and dialog. We never cease to be driven by a desire to make illusion more real. On television, we have even been told that there is a format or style of programming that is closer to "reality" than "traditional" television programming. This is called "reality" television. This is like saying that you can have dinner by watching a picture of a dinner on television. What does this mean that the people being filmed, or digitized, on your screen are "reality" as opposed to "not reality." We have been satisfied with illusion and image for centuries. Why should we be striving to experience an illusion that is equal to reality? Is this really possible? Our journey through this process has invented a new meaning for the word "virtual." We have "virtual" memory and our technological entertainment devices have come to the point where we are said to experience "virtual" reality when we participate. Our devices can supposedly "simulate" the movements of a race car or airplane. We have a device that enables a tool or sports equipment interact with the image on a television screen. In this way one can golf or play ping pong with an electronic club or paddle and a television screen, instead of playing with another person in a setting outside one's home. All of this technology suggests to me that something is driving us toward a new world in which human beings could be confined to a small space like a chicken or gerbil in a cage. We could have access to our physical needs the way that the "animals" have access to a water tube and food in a trough. The new concept is that our emotional and mental -- and spiritual? -- needs can be met by virtual experience. There is no need for us to have "really real" interactions with other human beings. Texting frantically with dancing thumbs and communicating with the world through a computer screen could be appropriate preparation for a world where people don't have to bother to have the messiness of "traditional" experience. Most people can just stay in their cages and be entertained, inspired, educated, socialized, without ever doing anything except "virtual" reality.
I seem to have gone astray. But, not necessarily. Virtual reality can be described as a higher level of "watching." We experience the play or drama not only as an audience, but we are placed in the drama. We are actor and audience together, performer and observer simultaneously. But if we step back just a moment, we can reconsider the massive material that says "drama" is good for us. Drama, watching other persons play a role, teaches us and stimulates us to think about important things. It is in fact a way of having experience without having to pay the price of having experience really, where one could get killed, or devastated emotionally, or seriously set back, or maimed or injured. We can enjoy the dramatic story about a person who rides a horse and gets shot without having ever ridden a horse or being shot. One can imagine coping with such experiences, smell the horse and feel it under your seat and between your legs, and feel the bullet penetrate and cause searing pain, by watching a movie. In ancient times, this was done only by watching a play, and it is a cornerstone of literary science that both plays and poetry were originally intended to be performed. This means, that to a "strict literati" or drama scholar, one does not really experience a play or a poem by silently reading it. Both are spoken language. The art is auditory. The characters of the play and the essence of the poem must be heard from a performer. The poem may be just thought, or feeling, or both, or also a story, while the play is always a story and thought, experience. All this is discussable truth and yet we still have not gotten over the simple fact that what is happening is that a group of humans is watching another group of humans "act." And, we expect to be entertained, moved, informed, stimulated, educated, possibly even "changed." No other animal could possibly do this. No dolphin or zebra or ostrich or hippopotamus could possibly stop their "normal" activity in order to watch another of their own "have an experience" that is a "play" or an "act" or an "illusion." As far as we know, no other animal can pretend to be doing something that is in some meaningful way separate from the usual and necessary functions of maintaining one's physical life. This means that the phenomenon of some human beings ceasing their necessary routines in order to watch other human beings "perform" is an amazingly unique behavior. Totally unknown in the world of "mere animals." Why do we do this? What does it mean? What does this behavior called "drama" say about us? Is it the evidence that we are not merely "animals?" Clearly, it implies something about the awareness of self that we humans call "consciousness" or "self consciousness."
Let's take another close look at humans watching a play (or listening to a story and imagining the action, or watching a film). This is humans watching humans. But the watchers are not watching humans doing "ordinary" functional things. This is not an employer watching an employee who is being trained. This is not people sitting in a park watching a couple holding hands, or a family having a picnic, or a volleyball game. This is something distinct. The people being watched are "acting." They are acting out a story and a drama. They are each pretending to be someone other than who they "really" are. They temporarily take the names of the characters they are "playing." They train themselves to act as though they have the thoughts and feelings and motivations of the personalities or roles they are playing. Often, the story and action taking place is presented as historical, meaning that it is not a fictional event or series of events created in the mind of an author, but is intended to be a reasonably accurate portrayal of real events that occurred in the past. The historical novel or play can be extremely powerful because of the impact on the educational and introductory function of literature and drama: the characters are more real. They really existed. And the history associated with the story includes explanations, sometimes detailed and convincing explanations of the characters' motivations and personal qualities, including personal strengths and weaknesses. The historical play or film draws us into history, draws us into events that really occurred. They present us with the true nature of human beings, human beings who cope with experiences that we do not ordinarily have, such as the experiences of persons who exercise great political and economic power, or who make key decisions that determine the outcome of a military battle. Or, the historical drama or film may reveal the emotionally torturous behaviors of people who are driven by love, lust or greed, or by a determination to do the right thing in a challenging and dangerous situation.
But nothing really real is occurring. It is a play, a film, a story. No one is really in danger, but when we are watching we experience the emotions and tensions that the events and situations would create if they were real, at least to some extent. People sometimes cry when watching a tragic love story or the portrayal of a heroic person being hurt or killed, especially if they are injured by an evil character. People sometimes experience such emotional tension they leave a play or film before it is over, for relief. This is humans watching humans. This is human beings watching themselves, experiencing themselves, examining themselves, admiring themselves, amazing themselves. Human beings find other human beings very interesting. There is something to be learned, something thrilling or satisfying in watching human beings pretending to be engaged in the reality of a human course of action. No other animal does anything that even suggests this process. We find only stalking and hunting behaviors that only very loosely approximate the human act of "watching" other humans. And this difference is profound because the behavior of human story-telling and watching is us watching us, while stalking and hunting is always a predatory animal watching another species, not one of their own. So the difference is profound and definitive. There is no such thing as any other species of animal watching themselves in the way that humans watch themselves. Why? What does this mean? Is this the dividing line, or the sign of the dividing line, that we examine ourselves, study ourselves, possess a consciousness of "self" that no other animal possesses? This is a fairly convincing proposition. But there are some problems with this proposition, though perhaps subtle problems. For example, is this pattern of watching ourselves also a sign of egotism and arrogance. Do we watch ourselves to assure ourselves that we are special and distinctly separate from animals? It is more or less commonly known that when humans hear a story or view a drama or film that depicts humans behaving in primitive or immoral or "tasteless" ways, we often say that they are "animals," as a means to designate such behaviors as normally outside the boundaries of human behavior, and therefore placed in the category of animal behavior, or animalistic behavior. Such "animal" behaviors might be out-of-control lust, extreme violence, violence that appears to have no useful purpose other than some disturbed enjoyment of blood and guts, some horrifying enjoyment of mistreatment and total humiliation of one human being by another, including the association of sexuality with violence, or cannibalism. These behaviors are wrong. However, the reality that we humans kill and slaughter and dismember and eat hundreds of millions of cattle, pigs, sheep and chickens month after month and year after year, is not "animal" behavior. What is it? It is human behavior. Here we arrive at one of the major problems with the more positive interpretation of what it means for humans to watch other humans in a play, we seem to see our killing and eating of other animals as different from a wolf killing and eating a rabbit. Why? Why do we insist that we are not animals, when we kill and eat other animals, including fish, shellfish, crabs, birds, molds, fungi, and things one does not even imagine with far greater efficiency than any other animal could possibly approach. Why do we watch ourselves so often and so earnestly and come up with the conclusion that we are not animals?
Remember, another absolutely unique quality of humans is that we do not fear fire. We respect fire, and we know that it warrants great respect, but we do not fear it. We use it. We use it for manufacturing and industry. Remember that the word "manufacturing" means "making something with one's hands." We do not need a factory to manufacture something. If you use a stick to carve a bar of soap, you are "manufacturing." The story of Prometheus stealing fire from Zeus and giving it to humans is the most scientifically accurate description of how pre-historic, primate brutes learned to be human. Once this talented primate with creative hands learned how to use fire, all of the potential of human industry was born: home heating, pottery, processing of wood and stone, processing of animal skins, cooking, making better tools for agriculture and clothing and transportation. It all started with fire, and it continues with fire. Fire is the first, best, and last, the ultimate weapon of war. The first weapon, used to capture animals and keep them away, and the ultimate weapon of war is fire. Every weapon that projects a bullet or a missile is powered by fire. The most terrifying and destructive and cosmically significant weapon of war, the nuclear bomb, is a very large and very hot and sudden fire.
So here we have us. Watch. We are the masters of fire, and we use all of the technology that arises out of our control of fire to exercise control over all things. And we watch ourselves. What are we looking for? What is it that we do not understand and hope to see in a play or hear in a story or see in a film? Do we come to new conclusions about who and what we are? It seems to me that we are not receptive to new viewpoints in this infinitely repetitive exercise of watching ourselves. No matter what nuance of human behavior might be opened to us, we still insist that we are not animals. We cannot fathom the idea, not fully appreciate, the concept that we are animals, technological animals. We are known to say, even argue, that we (us and the animals) are all connected. We tell children to be kind to one another and to animals. We claim that we understand that we depend on the natural environment to sustain us. But we continue to occupy all of the habitat, claim all of the living space, even under the surface of waters, and we take wildlife until it is gone, extinct. We made great strides in our control over the world and our security through the domestication of animals, but today we are experiencing another rejection of the wild world with our new technologies for fish farming and shrimp farming. We are acting today as though we can produce all the food we need on our own farms. There is no longer any need for any "wild" animals that live outside of our pens and fences. We are extending our territory into what we call wilderness, even while we seem to be setting aside some territory to be protected as "wilderness," even wilderness under the sea. But are we being sincere? Is this just a temporary salve to satisfy the children among us? How can we claim to be protecting the uncontrolled or "wild" habitats on our planet while we continue to drive forward with our high technologies that continually imply greater and greater control over everything? What are we doing as we rush toward better ways to create an illusion and tell a story and be inside the drama by means of "virtual reality?" What are we doing now, now that we are trying to take the behavior of humans watching humans and attempt to have the phenomenon of "drama" be not a human watching a human but a human being both the audience and the actor?
I have come to the point in my "psychoanalysis" where the narrative becomes "surreal" which I suppose means "super real." And I suppose that "super real" means that a human being, such a fantastically superior creation of either God or Nature, sees himself as being able to create something that is greater or better than the real. This human creation, this story told or acted out by means of "high technology" is now no longer a play in the traditional sense. The human actors are either not needed or they are needed only for background preparation. The illusion that is viewed by the individual or group audience is or will be "virtual reality" and will come so close to the real experience that it will be difficult if not impossible to distinguish the real from the drama. I am reminded of the unique and driving premise of the science fiction film Blade Runner. In that story, the conflict, tension and action is driven by the proposition that robots have been created that are so similar to old-fashioned flesh and blood humans that only a specially-skilled technician -- or is he an artist? -- can distinguish a robot from a "real human" by a careful examination of the iris of the eye. What a brilliant concept, that the "virtually real" might be such a complete and effective illusion that only one tiny detail could be the "give away" that separates the biological human from the virtually real machine. Thus, having watched ourselves for millennia, it appears that we have been led to the project of seeing if we can create ourselves as well as we were previously created by someone, or some Thing, else. It is said that we are the product of star dust. Thus, we have conceived of the possibility that we, made from star dust, can make a replica of ourselves, and possibly this would be the ultimate proof that we are not animals.
Again, I have come to the point in my "psychoanalysis" where the narrative becomes "surreal" which I suppose means "super real." And this time I have noticed a peculiar new possibility in the future of virtual and surreal reality as the form of "entertainment" that might displace the traditional drama and film. If I am "in the story," if the devices that bring me to the place where I experience the virtual reality where I am both the observer and an actor in the drama, it is acceptably true that I am still an audience. I am still watching other human beings. But if my experience of the "drama" has become so real that the screen or stage or environment interacts with me, and I interact with it, does it follow, logically, that the other characters in this virtual reality could be watching me? Has the phenomenon of drama progressed to the stage where I am no longer only a human going to a theatre to watch other human beings, but I am going to a virtual reality theatre where I will be watching other human beings but they will also be watching me? If I lose a battle, will I really die? If I fall in love, will I marry the character? How will I know, for sure, whether they love me? Will the story end, as traditional stories end, or will I become locked in the story, like real life, until I die? Will I finally discover what it is that makes me human and different from the animals? Or, will I continue to nurture an illusion, the illusion that there is a precious secret to be found that tells me who and what I am, and I can find it if I get into another life, into a story or a drama that is not my real life but is another reality? What if the other characters in the virtual reality have greater access to facts and "knowledge" than I do, such as computers? Will they learn all about me by watching me? Will the characters in the virtual drama in the virtual reality theatre come to understand me better than I understand them? What will follow after that? Maybe, just maybe, I need to know myself better before I go to the theatre, so that I will not become the actor in the pretended action, and lose touch with my own reality. All I ever wanted to know is how and why I am. And I thought that I could learn that by watching myself. But now I am not so sure. I have lost perspective. I am watching myself, looking, straining to see, but is that me watching, or is that me being watched? Although we have been watching so diligently and earnestly, we keep seeing the same thing. Why are you saying that we are technological animals? Don't you see how we are different, how we control and ingest everything? Watch, and see.
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