Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Breaking the Fourth Wall

I have recently begun watching the first season of a TV series called Community, which many of you are probably familiar with. It is at once hilarious and incredibly human, but there is one aspect of the show that I admire above all others. You see, Abed Nadir (one of the main characters) knows that he's in a TV show. From acknowledging plot developments to saying "good night" to the audience at the end of an episode, he has the unique ability to see his world for the fiction that it is.

We are not unlike Abed. We too are the handiwork of a creative and intelligent author, none other than God himself, who sustains us from "episode" to "episode" much like a television writer would. Moreover, we too are a role played by some other, more real, version of us. Like Abed's Danny Pudi, we have existed since long before our stint on the airwaves began, and will continue to exist after it is canceled. I speak, of course, of our eternal spirits, the actors that play the parts of our various lives.

But there is one important respect in which most of us are not like Abed: we are unaware of our fictional existence. Sure, a lot of religious people believe the doctrines elucidated in the previous paragraph, but not many take seriously the claim that our world is to God as a television show is to a writer. After all, why should we? Doesn't such a belief border on paranoia or insanity? Perhaps, but I will audaciously claim that this is an insanity worth having. In fact, believing that this world is a fiction of God leads us to have better lives than we would have otherwise.

I'm sure many of you are familiar with the Harry Potter series of books by J. K. Rowling. As a matter of fact, a character from these books serves to illustrate my point quite nicely: Severus Snape.

For the majority of the series, Harry Potter absolutely hates his Potions professor. And it's for seemingly good reasons, too: he is cynical, petulant, and bad-tempered. However, those who read the books inevitably love him, as he is arguably the series' most developed character. But why is there this discrepancy? After all, we nearly always see Snape through Harry's eyes, meaning that there's nothing there to stop him appreciating his professor as we do. But Harry, remaining entrenched in his limited and prejudicial views, does not do anything of the sort. And I think I know why. You see, it is obvious that Snape is a character in a work of fiction, yet Harry is blissfully unaware of this truth. In fact, it is this ignorance itself which directly leads to his lack of compassion. Because Harry perceives Snape as a "real" being, a combination of selfishness, fear, and  laziness prevents him from seeing his professor as the reader does. But if he were to take a leaf from Abed's book, realizing that his world is ultimately fictional, he would become detached enough from it to perceive Snape as he really is.

Let me explain this point more. When we view our ontological peers as real beings who exist in themselves, we tend to lack perspective. It is only when we begin to see the world as a fiction that we can apply the truth that all things in it serve an overarching plot-line. You see, the overly talkative fellow on the bus is there for a reason. I might not know what it is, but when I encounter him as a reader, my annoyance disappears in a surge of appreciation and sympathy. He might be there to add a flash of humanity to what would otherwise be a bleak couple of scenes. Failing that, his awkwardness might be considered lovable, making him a form of comic relief. Whatever the case, it is clear that to view things as ultimately real, or to focus on the humdrum "here-and-now", leads to the erection of a barrier between you and any object of compassion.

This principle manifests itself in other ways, as well. For example, you'd think that dirty dishes are not nice to look at. But if you search "dirty dishes painting" on Google images, you'll find that that's not always the case. In truth, holding up a frame in front of something always makes it instantly beautiful, for when you look at (or listen to) things the right way, you have the ability to see it as the most magnificent of masterpieces. But it is only when we view the world as a reader, a music-listener, or a connoisseur of art that we are able to do this. To live life to the fullest, it is infinitely helpful to acknowledge that we live in what is essentially a work of fiction. It involves placing ourselves with God in the audience, thus breaking the fourth wall that separates us from him.