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Vitruvian Man in Westworld

HBO’s Westworld is a Gnostic Parable

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.

– Zhuangzi

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.

  1. The music
    I don’t know if anyone else noticed. But two famous rock songs had been woven into the episode in instrumental form. First in the saloon when the piano starts to play Soundgardens Black Hole Sun. later in the episode we could hear Rolling Stones classic Paint It Black. It was very beautifully done.

    This was the first of two new shows I started to follow this week. The other was Van Helsing, a horror dystopian fantasy taking place in 2019 after The Rising in which vampires has taken over the world. This show wasn’t as starstudded as Westworld but at least it is from SyFy so I have some hopes for it yet.

    1. Soundgarden
      I started singing along when I heard it .__.
      I hope they release it somehow, I’d like a copy of that version.
      The second episode has Radiohead’s “No Surprises”

  2. Gnostic and re-incarnation themes
    I completely agree with the Gnostic themes for the android “hosts”. I also realized that the hosts had different incarnations/roles that they weren’t supposed to remember. Shades of reincarnation to me. The “reveries” give them partial access to these memories. I love this show already!

    1. Yes!
      [quote=doc_fg] I also realized that the hosts had different incarnations/roles that they weren’t supposed to remember. Shades of reincarnation to me. [/quote]

      Yes! I had exactly the same thought…was wondering whether to mention it in this piece but thought it was a little beyond the original scope.

      But now with episode 2, I’m wanting to do a bit about the parallels with the shamanic journey/alien abduction…maybe I need to do a whole new article on the Fortean aspects of this show. 😉

      1. Thanks
        This is some insightful commentary you’ve posted, Greg. Thank you for the contribution. I can scarcely communicate how much I as a reader appreciate thought-provoking pieces like this one.

        I’ve read lately quite a number of raves about HBO’s new show Westworld, so I decided a few nights ago to check it out. I wasn’t disappointed. Its phildickian themes—what is real? and what does it mean to be human?—is the stuff from which great drama is made. I have no doubt the remainder of season 1 has in store a great many revelations for us.

        Thanks again.

  3. Well…
    …so far I like it. A lot to unpack in the first episode. A fascinating look into the human mind.

    Second episode (spoilers): The maze featured in this episode reminds me of the mazes featured in Carl Jung’s “Man and His Symbols.” Jung was heavily into Gnostic symbolism and Sophia. This could be a subtle sign as to where the show us heading.


  4. Cool article. I immediately
    Cool article. I immediately recognised the Reincarnation /gnostic themes. In fiction the truth hidden is revealed. How the hosts tap into this memory system will be interesting!

  5. This show is Patrick Harpur’s interpretation of Gnostism & Jung
    I am glad others have caught these themes and threads … This show is very much the product of Gnostism and Carl Jung’s notions combined, (among other traditions and philosophies). As a matter of fact, I bet ANYTHING that the writer’s read Patrick Harpur’s magnificent book, “Daimonic Reality” where he delves intimately into the combined notions of these two exact subjects and so so so much more. I mean just take this quick excerpt from Harpur:

    “… The archetypal figure behind technology proper, and its correct use, is Daedalus, who invented the potter’s wheel, the compass, and the saw. He also built a machine resembling a cow in which Pasiphae could be hidden and so receive the sexual favors of Poseidon in the form of a bull. Thus technology, too, can mediate between humans and the gods! The offspring of this union was the Minataur, half man and half bull(-god) — a daimonic creature, in other words. Daedalus built an intricate maze, the famous labyrinth, to house the Minotaur. The labyrinth is an image of the soul. It is both an imaginative and a technical structure, built like a shrine to accommodate a daimon. In addition, Pasiphae’s husband, King Minos, was also said to have hidden there. Since Minos was appointed by Hades to judge the dead, we also see in the labyrinth a recognition of the soul’s connection with death. Thus technology can embody the soul and not necessarily oppose it.
    We should not be surprised therefore if Daedalus expresses the right attitude to technology, as evidenced by his famous escape from Crete. He invented flight, fabricating the first pair of wings — and so becoming the first person to literalize the shaman’s celestial journey. However, it was his son, Icarus, who abused the technology by flying too high on his wings towards the Apollonic sun. This is the hubris of technology which transcends its own limits — with the result we are all familiar with: the wax which held Icarus’ wings together melted and he plunged to his death in the sea. Daedalus, on the other hand, using his new technology moderately, flew safely to Cumae, near Naples, where he dedicated his wings to Apollo and built him a temple there, as if recognizing that the god was the scientific inspiration behind his technological innovations.”
    – Patrick Harpur

    … I mean come on, is it just more or does this passage have Westworld all – all – allllll over it. And that is just the tip of it. Read the book and see, it’s by far one of the best things I have ever read and you will not be able to see the world without a “Daimonic” lens after ….

  6. Suffering
    I didn’t realize what I was watching until the last episode of WestWorld. What first jumped out to me was the obvious Eye of Horus/all-seeing eye in the middle of the maze and how the maze almost mirrors the look of a brain. Ford even references consciousness as resulting from the brain as shown in the Creation of Adam painting. The center of the maze is determined to be the end goal, i.e., the opening of the all-seeing eye and the expansion of consciousness is the end goal. The references are numerous and pretty obvious in the last episode.

    But what really jumped out to me was Ford’s mentioning of suffering. He directly says that suffering is the path to consciousness.

    I started thinking about secret societies and their potential effects on the world. Is Ford effectively a mouthpiece for those groups and is he directly telling us what they are doing? Could it be that such groups believe they are advancing consciousness by intentionally creating suffering in the world? Could there be some deeper morality, as opposed to pure self interest and, whether justified or not, that is driving the elites of the world to take actions that appear to directly harm everyone else when perhaps their efforts are to wake us up through suffering?

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