The University of Chicago Divinity School
Not long ago a former classmate from seminary days sent me an email. The lede was “Hey, you’re not dead after all!” The rest of the message was the long sad tale of a man convinced he was meant to be a major figure of civilization if he could just stay out of trouble, which he cannot. I’m unclear what he thought I had to do with it, but I tried to be consoling until I decided to go for honesty. I was remembering the times I asked him what he was working on and was told I wasn’t smart enough to understand it. What’s the name of that woman-hating organization? (Incel)
Anyway, I remarked mildly that he seemed to have really bought into the conviction that old white men with academic credentials and booming voices are better than everyone else and ought to be recognized as such. It was either what I said or the fact that about then one of his multiple former wives called him to say that he had just been sent tens of thousands of dollars from some forgotten investment or arrangement. Anyway, that’s the last I’ve heard from him.
This conviction that any historical, sociological, high status realm is in fact “real” and therefore permanent is being demolished today, though a few remnants of yesterday are trying desperately to hold onto their idea of what Washington DC is like. Corrupt, power-mongering, male, white and ignorant is what these people see and feel they are entitled to run because that’s what they’re like.
Thinking about this “meta” idea of realms and worlds constructed from TV programs and a partial knowledge of the world, I happened on “Westworld,” the TV series. As I say often, with God dead we must reconsider what humans are. What is a person? What is a reality? Does any of it matter anyway?
After watching three episodes of “Westworld” on DVD, I discovered that the original movie was on YouTube for free. I had never known that the main character was played by Richard Benjamin who was a classmate of mine during a far earlier incarnation in "TheatreWorld" at NU at the beginning of the Sixties. (The movie is 1973.) I was scared of him because he was so formidably intelligent, smarter than my seminary friend, and a master of comedy. The movie is quite different from the vid series. There are multiple “worlds” and the scientific paradigm is NASA rather than a neurology research lab with enough money for a lot of glass walls. When the old "Westword" fails, the pattern is a space ship crash.
This projectory counts more than the performer v. participant paradigm. The movie — until the end — plays the mundane (putting on socks) and funny (a battery operated snake) against some scarier. The sound track is jokey banjos, there is smoking but no nudity, the Benjamin character has performance anxiety about fucking a robot, and the control machinery looks more like a sound board than computer controls. Brolin’s comedy is more subtle: he sounds like John Wayne. Then there’s Yul Brynner, straight out of “The Magnificent Seven” with his inimitable hint of Mongolian steppes.
There’s a sequence towards the end in a Roman garden that makes a statue cry at the loss of Roman civilization, that decline and fall. The vid series has moved to something else. Far more philosophical and far from jokey, the story begins "Star Trek" and ends as Cormac McCarthy. It is meant to shock. (If that's possible these days.) And to be endless — it’s a series.
These visual concepts illustrate how I see my seminary friend’s dilemma (shared with legislators) of desperation to preserve status and wealth in a world that forces them to look at creature horror — blood and guts and starvation — that is their assigned task. They are able to do it because to them “all these others” are no more real than robots. The Others deserve no sympathy, protection, or support. Even the ones who are American. Then the House fires their exemplary Jesuit chaplain. Who's safe? No one.
An all-time human puzzle is the relationship between the “Others” and those we consider part of our world. And “our world” is always partial, whether it is the fantasy of the “old West,” the Broadway theatre, the high seas, the military, gays, or academia. Meanwhile, the gritty reality of most worlds is coming apart, largely because of the empowerment of the “Others” who were engaged while those who took their world for granted were bored enough to get lost in anodynes. This is as true of the ministry as of the Mafia.
True enough, there are many outdated false flags and sentimental greeting card slogans. (They count more than payoffs if you’re stingy with money.) “The most beautiful chocolate cake you ever saw!” The family, mom, birthdays, red hats with embroidery. Most of them are as left-over and irrelevant as the fake frontier towns the movies have used for a century — all front. It’s interesting that the two “poles” of wisdom are played by old men: Ed Harris (Death) and Anthony Hopkins (Philosophy). Jeffrey Wright, who is black, plays the rational one who looks at practicality. He IS an “Other” even when he’s not playing Basquiat, who is about as other as it gets. (The women are gorgeous and pretty irrelevant.)
“Realms” and “worlds” are the environmental aspect of identity — who you are is largely dependent on where you are and what you’re doing. My seminary friend was sometimes where he was considered a minister, but he didn’t always act like a minister. The second series of Westworld is called “Chaos Takes Control.” That’s where we Americans are — without government leaders, in disrepute among nations, closing down most institutions on grounds that they aren’t making money. I’d watch it except that it means offering my name and so on for the endless data lists that form the algorithms of mercantile life.
The ultimate meta for the Westworld series is the writer’s room, which may not have been part of public consciousness in 1973, certainly not as in this constantly morphing interaction that began in 1973 when computers could adapt the story as necessary. In today’s writers' room, as I insist, the people at the table argue over what should happen, and what they decide can control the behavior of many.
In 1973 I was just leaving a particular “westworld” which was also “rezworld” focused on a whole population of Others. The infrastructure and personalities of the previous decades still lingered, but we knew they were ending. It’s terrifying. I thought then that the escape was “intellectual world” as created on the U of Chicago campus with its stone quadrangles and reading lists. I was right in the sense that it introduced many “meta” concepts, so that whatever temporary realm is created by economics, populations, and climate can be seen as temporary but responding to eternal principles. Well — until the destruction of the human species.