"The Lady of Shallott  by William Holman Hunt, painted from 1888 to 1902." Tennyson's 1842 poem was a speculation on entrapment inside one's own subjectivity. Image Source: Wiki.
Who would you be, had you taken a different path? The road not taken. The road less traveled. The one that got away. The grass is always greener. The missed opportunity. Cheat fate. Dodge a bullet.
The world's moral and philosophical systems sit at the crossroads of destiny and contingency. Moral values grow from the question: do we have any control over the passage of time? Perhaps the idea of fate stems from a subliminal awareness that time is self-enclosed, finite, already a done deal, or otherwise complete or looped back upon itself. In other words, perhaps 'god' or 'destiny' relates to our sense that the past and the future are the same, cyclical or related, as if time were a Möbius strip. A recent speculation on how ancient times, myths and sensibilities relate to those of the future - a favourite trope of the new Millennium - can be found here.
A belief in fate, destiny and higher powers can provide some comfort. If your life is predestined and is simply part of the universe's great unknowable, inevitable equation, then the weight of your responsibility to yourself is lifted. In Old English, this idea was called the Wyrd, a force that could not be changed or challenged. This is the story of the person who vows never to make the mistakes his parents made, and then, despite everything he does differently, find he follows in their footsteps. That is the Wyrd.
In the early modern period, John Calvin developed the notion that followers of his Christian interpretation were members of God's 'Elect' - predestined from creation to be saved at the end of time. To prevent this idea from cultivating arrogance, Calvinists developed a corollary that the Elect could not rest on their laurels. You could never be sure you were one of the Elect. And if you were really one of the Elect, your predestined status would shine forth through your daily words and deeds.
Conversely, if the universe is random, and you are at the mercy of blind luck, you are off the hook for your own actions. In chaos, you live in the moment and take life as it comes. Actions carry no inherent meaning, other than to deliver pain or pleasure. If that is the case, you are no longer responsible in any grand way for what happens to you. However, the quality or depth of your perception at least affords you a degree of awareness or wisdom about what is going on. That said, perception is infinite, meaning there is no objective truth or larger consensus to which we can refer to find the difference between right or wrong. This is the standpoint taken by countless Millennial individualist, solipsistic, videotastic libertines, whose sole source of moral restraint is their own subjectivity - boundless, intersecting egos.
This is the endgame of the "I'm OK, You're OK" 1969 motto. This was the win-win psychological message of mutual self-interest that dovetailed neatly with the Boomers' sexual revolution: anything goes between consenting adults. There was no worry that "I'm OK, You're OK" could end with: "We are all not OK." In other words, the limitless indulgence of personal freedoms led to mirrored personal enslavements, masquerading as liberations, which had a detrimental effect on the common good. This moral confusion emerges when the sensibility which time grants to a stream of events (an approach toward an objective perspective) is denied in favour of the eternal now of personal choice.
Publicity photo for Irréversible. Image Source: DemmeN Celuloide. For my later post on this film, go here.
Unfettered subjectivity is mentioned in the disturbing French film, Irréversible (2002). A minor character (who appears in the director's other films) reflects on incest he committed and says that there are only actions, devoid of meaning. Good or evil, things just happen. Somehow, time gives those actions meaning: "Le temps détruit tout" ("Time destroys everything").
This film demonstrates that our perception of time is connected to morality. The film is divided into thirteen parts and plays backwards, conveying a sense of how chaos can converge into moments of extreme violence. The narrative pulls back to the beginning, after the horror of the film's outcome, with the main female character reading An Experiment with Time (1927) by John William Dunne in a park.
Dunne's work postulates that dreams often provide glimpses of the future. This happens because - he believed - all moments of time are taking place at the same time, and only our consciousness reads time in more-or-less sequential fashion. Wiki:
You can read The Serial Universe (1934) by Dunne for free online here.According to Dunne, whilst human consciousness prevents us from seeing outside of the part of time we are "meant" to look at, whilst we are dreaming we have the ability to traverse all of time without the restriction of consciousness, leading to pre-cognitive dreams, resulting in the phenomena known as Déjà vu. Henceforth, Dunne believes that we are existing in two parallel states, which requires a complete rethink of the way that we understand time.
Image Source: First Covers.
On the other hand, some take their own agency to extremes and declare themselves to be responsible for everything that happens in their lives. No matter what happens, they always have a choice to change the present and future, thereby even altering the meaning of the past. The Terminator films concern human resistance to fatalism, inevitability, and meaninglessness. The fictional sci-fi character Sarah Conner in the Terminator franchise exemplifies this stance. She faces an apocalyptic predetermined future.
The Conner character defies that future: "No fate but what we make." In other words, even if evidence of a murderous future comes back in time to kill you, the future is never set. Everything depends on what we do. This can lead to the delusion that we know what is the best course for ourselves and others. A person with this perspective would associate his or her subjective value of 'good' with objective good and seek to impose it universally. But maybe, flawed as this course is, fighting back makes all the difference, even if failure is assured, because fighting back changes the meaning of action.
Yet others sense that some, but not all, things in life are 'fated.' They believe we have a choice over our fates most of the time, but there are also events or moments that were destined or 'meant to be.' If we wanted to, if we really tried, there are things we could have changed, and still could change. But the overall path is as it must be.
As our choices settle into inevitability, we can almost touch what could have been. It is near, yet already so far away. It is the stuff of science fiction - infinite other yous in multiversal realities followed other paths. Do you stand back from these alternatives and say, "I could have, would have, should have done things differently"? Or, if you have made a series of good choices and are happy, successful and contented, do you thank your lucky stars? What if the bad choices lead to something far better in the future? What if the good choices lead to something much worse later on, which cannot be seen now?
Can anyone ever say with total conviction: "Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien"? Brad Pitt gave an interview in which he mused about the two credits he is missing to get his college degree:
Regrets recognize one's agency in the world, where you made choices about your path in life, and became an architect (or willing pawn) of fate. Perhaps, like Edith Piaf, if you play the cards you were dealt and don't regret a thing, maybe you are even more responsible, and are shouldering the ultimate burden of choice, no matter how things turn out. Piaf dedicated her recording to the French Foreign Legion, and it is their informal anthem. Their creed is to do the best you can with what limited vision and resources you have, and keep going without self-doubt."I'd get so far," he says, "and then want to do something else. I mean, I'm two credits short of graduating college. Two credits. All I had to do was write a paper. What kind of guy is that? That guy scares me – the guy who always leaves a little on his plate."
Edith Piaf, Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien (No, I don't regret anything; written in 1956 during the he Algerian War (1954–1962), and recorded by Piaf in 1960). Video Source: Youtube.