Ennui on the Screen and the Fight against Fate

Much of entertainment is about fate; largely because of stories being bound to predetermined and sometimes predictable narratives of change. It is a notion that perhaps doesn’t seem particularly fitting with the realities of the modern age, an era where individual responsibility is being particularly scrutinised, and the idea of fate seems a mystical notion bound largely to the realm of fantasy. But the ongoing appeal of stories about fate and free will have an ongoing relevance because our lives are filled with questions about our own volition and have, in a variety of forms, been questions for philosophers across the ages. Can television and cinema, with all their storytelling conventions, help us to accept, understand, and perhaps even see a way to change our role in the world?

Acceptance is often seen as the key to dealing with the turmoil of the world, and perhaps that’s why Marcel Proust’s twelve volume magnum opus À la recherche du temps perdu, otherwise commonly known as In Search of Lost Time, has become such a revered work of literary philosophy. It’s a work so large and epic that it’s commonly seen as a bucket list book, but its success is known to stem from the simplicity of its appeal to our desire for nostalgia – with the image of the protagonist finding his memories stirred by eating a madeline regarded as the most iconic scene. The evidence seems to be that we don’t want to challenge our pasts but, simply, that we want to make peace with them no matter – as Proust’s tale tells in reality – how challenging they might have been.

This image is from the TV Show Charmed. Leo, Piper, Paige, and Phoebe are in the Halliwell Manor attic worriedly looking across the room.
Image courtesy of The WB

Slotting into the circumstances you’re presented with is essential to the Chosen One narrative that dominates popular culture, and sees characters rise from a sense of irrelevance to eventually recognising their own strength and societal importance. Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Charmed, both television shows about young women with supernatural powers, explores that this isn’t necessarily about empowerment – even if the characters do have impressive skills – but about using their abilities for the wellbeing of others. The selflessness requires naturally creates a tension between their desires and the duties forced upon them, granted by silent, imperceptible powers, but this tension always sees resolution. The realisation is that they’re without purpose when neglecting their unique obligations, the implication being that the only resolution can be acceptance.

Philosophy at large recognises the value of developing your own innate strengths, but philosopher Ayn Rand would be appalled by the idea of being a sacrificial lamb for society in the style of a Chosen One narrative. Her idea of our responsibility to each other is simply that we shouldn’t impinge on our respective freedoms, and that co-operation should be for mutual benefit. The Star Wars saga shows extreme examples of the toxic effects of trying to push people towards a particular role, the burden of society-saving expectation driving both Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) and his grandson, Ben Solo (Adam Driver), towards evil. Society destroys itself by compromising its principles of democracy and freedom in order to secure. 

What’s clear is that fate, from a secular perspective, is a term that’s really metaphor; it acts as a synonym for determinism. Determinism focuses on the idea that there are outside forces shaping our lives beyond our control, and this is surely unquestionable beyond fiction and in our own realities: our daily lives are shaped by responsibilities that are partly biological imperatives and partly societally given. If we’re to take fate as metaphor and our lives a balance between what’s real and what’s just a tacitly agreed, or even simply oppressive, obligation, one central question is asked of us: what we are willing to accept?

This image is from The Star Wars Saga. Anakin Skywalker throws an angry stare outside the Chancellor's office.
Image courtesy of Lucasfilm

Pure individualism could be seen as a natural response to a society that seems arbitrarily constructed, but time loop stories act as a testament to the likely failure of wild, selfish abandonment. Groundhog Day is a classic example, Phil (Bill Murray) a misanthrope who finds himself stuck in a time loop; no amount of hedonism is able to give him a sense of purpose but genuinely connecting with other people ultimately does. Russian Doll is a contemporary example where party animal Nadia (Natasha Lyonne) only becomes free and happy when she accepts her past or, more precisely, questions the very foundations she has built her life upon. Selfishness can only rob the possibility of living a life with purpose, and in order to construct one there have to principles – core tenets guiding the way we live – that drive our direction.

Blind Chance, however, explores the equal folly of trying to be moral within the limits of society, suggesting how deterministic it is even when we feel we’re pushing against society’s boundaries. The story looks at a man trying to catch a train and the three different eventualities that ensue from whether he catches or misses it, and superficially they’re drastically different: working as a communist, a revolutionary, or simply being apolitical. However, all routes meet with the same end of death at the hands of a terrorist. This isn’t necessarily suggesting that we are powerless to resist the larger forces acting in our lives, but perhaps simply that we need to imagine a bigger scope; that to resist fate we need to totally alter the frameworks that we act within.

Such an outlook fits with Immanuel Kant, a philosopher who argued that there is no objective truth that can be understood. He perceived that what we imagine is separate from reality, and that, because of this gap, we can’t ever perceive reality for what it actually is. This reaffirms the idea that what society believes to be true is simply something that’s accepted as “the truth” rather than reflecting something that has a basis in reality. But if we can’t perceive reality in what’s around us, if we can’t derive purpose from simple observation, then perhaps the key to a society that works is exploring our emotional responses to the outside world? Our collective and individual purpose might be to embrace a subjective understanding of reality that allows everyone a sense of fulfilment.

The protagonist of Blind Chance runs desperately towards a departing train
Image courtesy of PP Film Polski

Cloud Atlas looks at the complexity of our lives in relation to our circumstances, but boldly cuts through the complexity to reach simple, freshly-presented emotional truth. Its narrative takes us across the centuries to show the reverberations of actions across time, but these actions are invariably ones of love and kindness in the face of tyranny and often-overwhelming odds. Taking us across time and such different circumstances is a reminder of how little the specifics of any given society matter, and that the instigator of change is doing what’s emotionally right for mutual fulfilment, rather than conforming to the temporary mores of the time.

Of course, our circumstances mean that these great, dramatic moments of change aren’t always available. There are always those who will find themselves more under the thumb of society than others, with opportunities for life-altering change of the constructive sort rarely presenting themselves. However, resisting fate and determinism, in the style of Kant, is to see them a starting point for philosophy itself: they are prompts to imagine what a world of emotional purpose might look like. Perhaps the most important lesson that these stories of those trapped by or resisting fate tell us is that most of the battle is simply one of reframing it, and that our real ties are not to temporary ideas but the emotional truths that always bind us.