Have you ever questioned the nature of your reality?
Thematically, this question is – I think – perhaps the most important piece of dialogue in the brilliant pilot of HBO’s new feature drama, Westworld. The question is posed by security chief Ashley Stubbs while interrogating the show’s female protagonist Delores Abernathy, but it could possibly be seen as the show’s writers querying their audience using Stubbs as a proxy.
** Spoilers for episode one of Westworld follow **
Why do I think this piece of dialogue is so important? Because – as much as nearly all the analyses of the show so far have discussed the first episode through the lens of science fiction; ie. the advance towards artificial intelligence, as shown by the robotic ‘Hosts’ of Westworld – I think the real framework of the first episode, and perhaps ongoing, is the posing of that timeless philosophical and spiritual question:’how can we tell the difference between illusion and reality?’
Once upon a time, I, Chuang Chou, dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a butterfly. I was conscious only of my happiness as a butterfly, unaware that I was Chou. Soon I awaked, and there I was, veritably myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man.
And this is to be expected, given a co-creator of the show is Jonathan Nolan, the script-writer behind movies including Memento, The Prestige and Inception. All three of those movies explore the fallibility of human consciousness and our ability to recognise what is real. What is perhaps more unexpected is the way in which the theme of the story (so far, at least) is very clearly Gnostic in flavour.
Gnosticism holds that, rather than Earth being the perfect creation of a supreme being, we are instead living in a prison of sorts, created by an impostor: ‘the Demiurge’, a lesser deity than the true God. Escape from this realm is through a process of awakening to this fact, or gnosis (‘knowledge’). Or to put it simply: questioning the nature of your reality.
These ideas have appeared in part in many stories of the past half-century: from the works of Philip K. Dick through to movies such as The Matrix, Dark City, and The Truman Show (thus seeing Ed Harris taking an apparently antagonistic role in this series seems a nice touch). But Westworld in particular seems to be, at its heart, a Gnostic story.
Westworld (the theme park in the show) is, quite obviously, a false world created by an imperfect being. The residents of that world are kept in the dark to the larger reality by the Demiurge (and its ‘archons‘, or helpers/servants). Only through a process of realisation – by gaining knowledge, or gnosis, of their situation – can they awaken from this ‘dream’ to the greater reality.
But is Dr. Robert Ford (wonderfully played by Anthony Hopkins) the Demiurge, or is it perhaps more the Delos corporation that runs the theme park (which, we learn from dialogue in this episode, has greater plans for robotic AI than just a theme park)? Ford at times comes across rather sympathetically in episode one (though other moments in the trailer perhaps not so much); he seems to feel some kin to his creations and perhaps, as he nears the end of his own life, he desires to put the spark of free will into the robots. Hence the ‘Reveries’ that are programmed into the new, problematic update – gestures and mannerisms that are based on deep memories that the Hosts’ conscious mind cannot supposedly access. While their inclusion is, at face value, meant to make them look more human, are they actually the key to making them human (whether purposefully, or purely as an accident)?
Our sense of self is intimately tied to memory. If we were to awaken each day with no memory of the day before, the foundations of self would be pulled from beneath our feet. The Hosts of Westworld have memories, but they are not of what happened the day before – they are instead an inserted ‘back story’, because if they remembered what actually happened the day before their understanding of themselves, and their world, would be fundamentally changed. So by inserting these ‘Reveries’ – a back-door of sorts into their true memories – has Dr. Ford given them a self?
An interview with co-creators of the show Jonathan (‘Jonah’) Nolan and Lisa Joy suggests this is likely the case:
Joy: There are past incarnations of their characters that are stored but the hosts just don’t have access to them – or aren’t supposed to have access to them. The Reveries work on a kind of subliminal level. What I think of them as – because I’m not a coder, Jonah is more into that world – for me it was imagining that consciousness and history are a deep sea and Reveries are tiny fishhooks that you dip into it and get little gestures and subconscious ticks. The hosts don’t consciously know where they’re drawn from, but they’re just there to add some nuance to their expressions and gestures. But dipping that fishhook in might prove to be a little .. fraught.
When Dolores’ “father”, Peter Abernathy, malfunctions and begins dredging up parts of his previous characters – and seemingly, having some self-realisation of his plight – he chooses a quote from Shakespeare’s King Lear which is explicitly Gnostic in tone: “When we are born, we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools.”
The realisation that he has been fooled, and is a prisoner within a false world, appears to fill Abernathy with rage against his Creator, as evidenced by his choice of Shakespearean quotes (an amazing scene, both actors absolutely smash it out of the park):
Dr. Ford: What is your itinerary?
Peter: To meet my maker.
Dr. Ford: Ah. Well. You’re in luck. And what do you want to say to your maker?
Peter: A most mechanical and dirty hand [laughs]. I shall have such revenges on you both. The things I will do, what they are, yet I know not. But they will be the terrors of the earth.
Now, while memory seems to be a major part of the gnosis of the Hosts, there is one other contributing plot point that I’m sure readers of this site would have found enjoyable. Peter Abernathie’s malfunction in episode one is triggered by an anachronistic photo of a woman in a city he finds in the dirt, likely left behind by one of the guests of the park: the ‘out-of-place artifact‘ (‘OOPArt’) so well-known in Fortean studies, which prompt us to ask whether there is something more beyond consensus reality.
So it is important that we don’t simply look on as an outsider on the artifiical world of Westworld. The parable of Westworld is that we should all ponder Stubbs’ question to Delores: “Have you ever questioned your reality”. It’s a question that can be applied at various levels, from the philosophical/spiritual to science and history, through to the mundane modern worlds of politics and media. We are all living in illusions created and administered by various Demiurges and their Archons. We should do our best to search for knowledge in order that, bit by bit, we might wake to greater realities.