Sunday, January 31, 2010

Eritis Sicut Deus: What is the Monkey?


At one point in my life I was obsessed by ontology. Obsessed in the in the same manner as the young man with Yorick's skull. I needed to move on to epistemology. From questions of Being, my own most especially, to knowledge. I mean, if I hadn't done it yet, then I might as well figure out what I could figure while I was here. Funny story:

Gutei raised his finger whenever he was asked a question about Zen. A boy attendant began to imitate him in this way. When anyone asked the boy what his master had preached about, the boy would raise his finger.

Gutei heard about the boy's mischief. He seized him and cut off his finger. The boy cried and ran away. Gutei called and stopped him. When the boy turned his head to Gutei, Gutei raised up his own finger. In that instant the boy was enlightened.
- The Gateless Gate

After meditating upon the un-meaning of Gutei's finger in the Gateless Gate, I came to the realization that, with regard to my issues of ontology and epistemology, it was the problem of the McGuffin.

From Hitchcock:
It might be a Scottish name, taken from a story about two men in a train. One man says, 'What's that package up there in the baggage rack?' And the other answers, 'Oh that's a McGuffin.' The first one asks, 'What's a McGuffin?' 'Well,' the other man says, 'It's an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands.' The first man says, 'But there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands,' and the other one answers 'Well, then that's no McGuffin!' So you see, a McGuffin is nothing at all.

It functions as a device to initiate the action, to keep it going: letters of transit in Casablanca, the statue in the Maltese Falcon, a briefcase in Pulp Fiction. In itself, it means nothing and, as Hitchcock indicates, if you inquire into it, you are missing the point entirely. The film Detour is a beautiful allegory for what occurs if you do ask. What is important to keep in mind is that if there hadn't been a McGuffin, there would never have been a story.

What is the monkey?

The monkey is a negative McGuffin. It is whatever keeps you from realizing the truth of your nature. A negative McGuffin is something that turns the story away from it's true direction. Think of a rabid shaggy dog. Things just start going around in circles, never getting to the point. Think of a monkey. The Liar's Paradox. Godel's Theorem.

We all have our own particular names for the monkey. When I was a teenager and taking those first steps into the Wilderness of other religions, I had a hard time penetrating into what the Buddha meant when he spoke of attachment and suffering. What immediately came to mind was Peter Lorre in Twenty-thousand Leagues Under the Sea, refusing to release the gold and jewels and sinking with them to the bottom of the ocean. At the time, love and attachment were almost synonymous. A few years later, under the spell of Walden and Thoreau's "possessions possessing us," I began to believe that it would be enough to merely maintain an awareness of attachment / possession - attempting the thread the eye of the needle by splitting the Buddha's hairs. It was around this time that the Monkey began to climb up my spine. I believed that as long as I was aware of the "Monkey on my back" that I would be immune to the various daemonic possessions and the sufferings of attachment. Soon enough, the Monkey was a member of the house. Not long after, I experienced my first "destruction of the room."

Inscribed on one of the books the Rheinhold Monkey is sitting upon:  Eritis sicut deus.

From: Eritis sicut deus scientes bonum et malum. Genesis 3:5 and a student's inscription, via Mephisopheles,  in Faust's yearbook. Translation: You will be like God, conscious of Good and Evil

Of course, that apple is a McGuffin.