There’s this speech that always chokes me up, given to a graduating class at Kenyon College in America, by the writer David Foster Wallace. It’s a beautiful speech, infused with a kind of honest optimism that is less hope for the world to be a certain way, and more determination to see the world as it truly is, to see the terror and splendour that shines forth from every small moment of existence — every lonely evening at the supermarket, every petty encounter with motorists on the drive home from work.
That Wallace, three years after the speech was given, succumbed to the demons of depression he had battled his whole adult life, killing himself in 2008, in no way invalidates his message. Rather, it charges it with even more urgency, even more pathos. There are dark times ahead for all of us, he seems to say — work hard to love and to feel, while you still can.
Anyway, Wallace opened his speech with a joke about fish, and it’s this joke I’d like pilfer now, respectfully, as an opening for this essay.
There are these two young fish, so the joke goes, just swimming along, slacking off. They see an older fish in the distance, swimming towards them from the opposite direction. As the older fish passes, he waves his fin at the youngsters and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” The two young fish swim on a way, in silence, then finally one turns to the other and says, “What the hell is ‘water’?”
Now, that is a philosophical joke, which means partly that it’s not funny, but also that its profundity is revealed gradually, the deeper you consider it. The point is that, while it is easy for us to see water for what it is — as outsiders looking in — for the fish it is always there, and thus very hard to be aware of.
This is a message worth keeping in mind when thinking about Journey, the latest release from Thatgamecompany, developers of the zen-like Cloud, Flow and Flower. Journey is a remarkable videogame, a work of art that commentators across the spectrum of gaming have found much to ponder within.
For me, Journey is about the only thing that art worth any goddamn can ever be about, which is what it is we’re all doing here. Journey is about truth, about base reality, about this experience of being itself we so often ignore. It is a call to look around us and remember that, as David Foster Wallace puts it: “This is water. This is water.”
We humans like to think we’re pretty hot shit. We stand, like the figure in that screenshot up there, overlooking our kingdoms, lords of all we survey. We are intellectual beings, gods on Earth; we have split the atom, put man on the moon, invented squeezable jam. We have mastered chaos.
And yet we trudge onwards under a shadow. There is a great shape towering over us, and it is brought closer with every step. We are on a fixed path, ushered forwards, and there can be no escape. We stand upon a precipice, waiting for the moment we will be tipped off. And then … Who knows? For all our nuclear reactors and space shuttles and tubed-jams, we have no clue what will happen when we take the final fall. Our arrogance is really a mask for fear, for the truth of our situation, which is that we are but insignificant flames, blazing once in an endless void, soon to be extinguished forever.
There is, certainly, a sense of this evident within Journey. Its tale of an enigmatic robed figure travelling through a vast desert towards a distant mountain can be read as a treatise on death, a declaration of the inconsequentiality of man’s power and knowledge when measured against the vastness of the cosmos. We are tiny specks scuttling across a universe that feels nothing but cold indifference to our plight. We are alone, and we will all die.
The thing is, while Journey might present us with these facts, the conclusions it arrives at are far from nihilistic. In the vigour and exuberance engendered through traversing its undulating sands, you feel not despair at your insignificance, but liberation. The treatise on death is transformed into a treatise on life. And not life as opposed to death, but life including death.
Because the real truth of our situation is not that we are standing on a precipice, waiting to fall, but that we are falling already, and haven’t yet hit the ground. Rather than peering down into a dark unknown, we are actually in this dark unknown right now. The dark unknown is, at our most fundamental level, us.
It hardly matters that we don’t know what will happen when we die, because we don’t even know what will happen when we live. We don’t even know what we mean when we say “know”.
“The Tao that can be spoken of is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.”
These wry, wise old words come from the first lines of the Tao Te Ching, a screed regarding the Tao, or hidden flow, of the universe. It’s telling that the lines, among the most penetrating — and most quoted — in philosophical discourse, comprise a negative statement — telling us what is not, rather than what is. In much of Taoist (and subsequent Zen) thought, the assumption is that awareness of base reality — and thus liberation, enlightenment — is not something that can be intellectually arrived at, but a fundamental truth of existence that we simply have to stop trying to attain, and remember is here, right now, for us all to experience.
We don’t often think like this in the West. Our busy, fearful, left-hemisphere dominated minds have a hard time relinquishing control and placing faith in a more natural, less forced intelligence. A Zen master would remind us that a finger pointing to the moon is not the moon, while our great thinkers tie themselves in knots wanting written instructions how to look from the finger to the moon, how eyes switch targets, how light is converted into electro-chemical impulses, and how that happens, and how that happens.
We believe it is possible to “know” everything, and we do so erroneously. For what we mean by “knowing” is really just grouping, ordering, filing away. To know a thing is to delineate it, to demarcate its boundaries, its opposites, to cut it away from the rest of the world so it may be observed. In doing so we build complex maps of the relationships between things, yet we say nothing of the things themselves. You cannot demarcate that which has no opposite. To try is to confuse the map with the territory.
I still remember this faux intellectual punk I used to know, who once sneered, “Everyone gets so soppy about love, without realising it’s just a chemical reaction in the brain that means nothing.” The kid thought that because he could classify love, he could explain it away! He didn’t recognise that the whole universe is a chemical reaction — if viewed through the framework of chemistry. Love, or fear, anxiety, joy, are what chemistry feels like from the inside. We are a chemical reaction experiencing itself! To borrow again from the Tao Te Ching, “Mystery of mysteries, the door to all wonders.”
This isn’t, however, to say that the Western mind is worse at perceiving truth than the Eastern mind. For where our intellectual discourse fails, our art provides answers. Art is a way of presenting truth as honestly as possible, a kind of meditation — both in the creation and the contemplation — that allows us to see deeply into things as they really are. Whether staring at a lapis lazuli pendant from ancient Mesopotamia, vibrant with preternatural colour, or feeling a creeping dread at the hellish rabbit visions conjured onto film by David Lynch, or exploring the simulated realms of a modern videogame, art lets us step back and refocus on what is, reminds us of the incomprehensibility of this teeming mass of reality blossoming each moment around us, and within us.
And when we do so we are transformed. We no longer bustle along the forest path, eyes down, heads busy with What Jason Said Yesterday, or Why Sarah is Such a Cow — but instead look up, and remember that we are, at this very moment, in paradise, and we better appreciate it now, before it is gone for good.
This is what Journey does for me. It is, I think, an antidote to the suffering we feel when we misjudge our place on Earth. Sometimes we trudge up dunes, and the going is tough. Sometimes we surf and sail downhill, and we feel borne on the wind. Such is life.
There is a mountain towering over us, the engulfing light at its peak drawing closer with each step. But this mountain need not be a spectre. It can instead be a warden — a lighthouse guiding us home, waiting patiently for our return. We soar up its slopes, our hearts glad. We are tiny, we are empty, we know nothing — and how very beautiful that ultimate truth is. For when we are empty of ourselves we can let everything else in, and it is then when we find our real selves, not apart from the universe, but a part of it, growing out of it, growing back into it.
And we are far from alone. Look at all these other travellers around us, pilgrims on the same journey. When we meet others in Journey, we no longer care about measuring them, comparing them, judging them. We don’t wish to manipulate them, nor do we fear being manipulated by them. We see them for who they truly are, empty as well, and we can enjoy simply existing with them, being with them, as we once did as children in that half-forgotten world of dreams we used to inhabit.
There we stand, together, on the precipice of all things — two tiny hearts beating in unison against the drone of an endless cosmos. What is there to do but sing? So we sing.
And, somewhere down there, over the precipice of all things, the endless cosmos sings back.