The Rashomon Brain

February 26, 2018


The idea of duality is ubiquitous. Concepts and phenomena around us manifest in terms of two opposed yet complementary sides. Serene and inevitable, the silent juggernaut of duality rescues the mind from falling off a cliff. It is a tyrant but also a liberator. The universe is vast and full of stimuli ––too much for any mind to gobble it all up, raw as it is.


In Kurosawa's Rashomon, a rape and a murder are seen through the accounts of several witnesses, all of them contradictory. While there is an abundance of writing done on what is now known as the "Rashomon effect" (referring to differences in perspective when there's absence of evidence of truth) I prefer to see Rashomon as an allegory of Being. When thinking about Being there are three elements at play, i.e. the objective world to be experienced, the subject who experiences it, and the experience itself. Of course, one could see each character in Rashomon as the subject, the events as the object, and their narratives of the events as the experience itself --and it wouldn't be far off the mark! After all, the characters are narrating their experiences (perceptions, thoughts, desires, memory, etc.) and, by doing so, structure the images, concepts, and ideas in the direction of meaning. Let me go off the beaten path, though, and ask: What if the film itself, in the abstract, is a metaphor for the elements of Being?


While the woodcutter who witnessed the whole drama unfold would represent the objective world, the samurai and the wife would represent the subject, and the bandit who perpetrated the crimes, then, would be the experience itself. The woodcutter is, perhaps, the more reliable narrator of the story, the only one who can be spared from the harshest judgment. He observes the situation and decides not to intervene, as he has six sons to feed and (we later learn) wants to rescue a baby who was part of the whole drama. Therefore, he symbolizes the objective world, a source of tragedy but not evil who comes into play merely by being "there" and, thus, is a witness of Being. Have you ever heard the riddle about the tree falling in the woods while no one's around? It's even in The Simpsons, damn it. Well, if the events in Rashomon would not have been witnessed by the woodcutter, would it have happened at all? That is the life-giving role of the objective world, a canvas of sorts. Then we have experiencing part of Being, the act of bridging the subject with the object. This bridging can be a painful thing, because it is, basically, a clash between the subject and the object. The bandit, in this case, represents that bridge. He is the active element of readiness-to-hand, i.e. he is there "for" something, not for and by himself. A mover of the story, he either murders the samurai as part of a duel incited by the wife or out of cold blood, converting him in the action that unveils Being and is reflected upon by the entire story. And, finally, there is the subject. In our metaphor, the subject is represented both by the samurai and his wife. They are thrown into the story as Being-in-the-world, against the backdrop of the object arising from the woodcutter-as-a-witness, and linked to them via the bandit's existence for something.


At this stage, what I care about the most is the fact that we're thinking of the subject as two characters, not one. The reason for this is, precisely, because of the duality in each individual --as well as across the collection of all individuals. Assuming a unitary experiencer of Being makes the model simpler, though, also, makes it reductionist to the point of unreality. And this is where it gets very, very interesting. In The "Master and His Emissary", McGilchrist's puts forward the idea that the two hemispheres of the brain exist as two contrasting personalities in a state of creative friction. The common knowledge is that the brain's right hemisphere controls the left side of the body and is the more artistic and creative side, while the left hemisphere controls the other side and leads the logical, academic functions. This duality, as presented, suggests an instrumental view of the brain where two pilots take care of different and complementary functions within the same vehicle. McGilchrist, instead, suggests that both sides have differing perceptions, with the left hemisphere looking at details while the right one's appetite is geared towards wholeness. For him, the brain hemispheres are asymmetrical, with different personalities, and while they have functions that are crucial to the whole, quite often they overlap. Wrongly attributed to Einstein, this quote used by him has no waste: "The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant." So, there are two minds and, via nature and nurture, humans favor one over the other.


When Isaiah Berlin cheekily wrote about writers being either foxes or hedgehogs --the former focused on several different facts while the latter aim at whole concepts-- he may have been unconsciously referring to what McGilchrist tells us. More interestingly, Berlin's thesis was that Tolstoy suffered because he was a talented fox while believing that one should be a hedgehog. And there's definitely something to this. Suffice to read Tolstoy's magnificent War and Peace, particularly the epilogues, where he expounds his theory of history. He goes great lengths, both in his novel and his theories, to distill a landscape of infinite tiny details, or ordinary lives and actions, where the master strokes are nothing but illusions fertilized by vanity.


Another duality in a similar tone comes from Mircea Eliade who in The Sacred and The Profane elegantly develops the idea that the profane --what is objective-- provides individuals with knowledge about what is "out there", tangible and concrete, but lacks qualitative differentiation and orientation, i.e. the pattern that norms behavior. This, instead, is what religious man finds in the sacred space, which is where the mythical breakthrough of the revelation of an absolute reality takes place. We could infer from this that Eliade was referring to the thirst of the right hemisphere that only abstracts can quench, and the profane being the territory of particulars, logic, and rationality, i.e. the left hemisphere. For example, the dynamic of worshipping as discussed by Eliade is quite revealing. The profane man venerates objects just as the religious man does, yet the representation each one of them sees in their respective targets of worship connect with different meanings, i.e. one to specific sentiments, memories or practical value while the other aims at the revelation of the absolute made particular in the object.


Leszek Kolakowski is another wonderful perspective on this same approach to duality. In The Presence of Myth, an undeniably delightful read, Kolakowski talks about our era as one of growing infatuation with the power and elegance of rational thought (the technological core). Parallel to it, though, people continue to flirt with myths that lend meaning to existence and consciousness (the mythical core). For Kolakowski, in the realm of culture we can find the analytical effort proper of science, yet the instinct concerned with absolute primal conditions in the realm of experience, of Being as a whole, persists. One last example, not the least important, is William James, who in "Pragmatism: A New Name for an Old Way of Thinking", says that the very history of philosophy is erected on the friction between two human temperaments: the 'tough minded', an empiricist commitment to deal in facts, which is materialist, pessimistic and irreligious, and the 'tender minded', which thirsts for a priori principles, is idealistic and religious. The entire pragmatist project of James, as a matter of fact, was built on his desire to reconcile the scientific zeal for factual investigation with the spontaneity and romanticism of a values-centered worldview. Even in its instrumentalist commitment, the pragmatists tried to walk the razor thin edge between the immeasurable and the bounded, the two appetites of the soul in constant quarrel.


By reflecting on these matters and reading these thoughts, it is almost inevitable to feel pity, if not scorn, towards the facile verbal tricks of the peddlers of radical deconstructionism, militantly focused on seeing everything through the lens of interlocked systems of oppressive binaries. What zealotry can be so hellbent in finding evil where there is balance? What resentment is so powerful to make one throw the baby out with the bathwater? The components of the world of values exist in relative terms, i.e. they are vis-à-vis their opposites. Without their twin, they're nothing. The very same thing that asphyxiates allows breathing. The taker of life is its giver. In each individual, nested in their very skulls, just as in society, the tension between the hedgehog and the fox, the sacred and the profane, the technological and the mythical, the tough and the tender minded, is the spark that makes life blossom. We cannot comprehend what could have taken place at Rashomon if the dual subjects of experience would not have been pushed by the bandit against the altarpiece of the woodcutter's eyes.

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