Who Is Number One? by R.M. Price

A writer I often enjoy is Robert M. Price.  I discovered him by way of studying Christianity as he is a biblical scholar, but his interests are greater than just Christianity.  I also learned he is a major fan of Lovecraft and the horror genre.  He is a very learned guy with a fairly wide grasp of many subjects from comic book superheroes to philosophy. 

I can’t say I agree with all of his political positions, but I always pay attention to what he has to say.  For this reason, I have his monthly essay column on e-mail notification: Zarathustra Speaks.

This month’s article is “Who Is Number One?”  He eventually posts his articles to his website, but since it’s not posted yet I’ll share it here because it is a truly great piece.

Let me just point out some quick commentary.  Price mentions Ligotti who is a fiction writer, but I’m not sure if Price is aware of Ligotti’s own non-fiction writing that touches upon the same issues in this article. 

Ligotti points out how some Existentialists try to make the seeming pointlessness of life in to a heroic endeavor such as with the story of Sisyphus.  I don’t remember Ligotti’s full argument offhand, but he basically sees this ploy of heroism as a way of not facing up to one’s true situation.  Blaming the gods can simply distract us from the rock that is before us.  However, it seems that Price is aware of this in his using The Prisoner as the larger context of his argument.  Number 6 discovers he is number 1.

Ligotti would take it a step further.  We can’t blame anyone else, but if we turn to ourselves we only discover there is nothing substantial there.  I suspect Price might have a similar view or at least would understand such a view.  The main difference between these two thinkers is that Price is more focused on the social and political.

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Who Is Number One?

Robert M. Price

I’ve just finished watching the new version of The Prisoner. I loved the original masterpiece of Patrick McGoohan, which aired first in 1966, with a mere 17 episodes. Co-creator McGoohan had wanted the series to last only seven weeks, but he knew he could not sell a package with so few episodes. The new Prisoner, by contrast, did have just six episodes, but for some reason they decided to broadcast two at a time, back to back, and on three nights straight. The individual episodes seemed to me to suffer slightly by being cobbled into what the viewer expected to be coherent two-hour episodes. In other words, there appeared to be drastic theme-shifts right in the middle of each two-hour program. But this did not prevent the new Prisoner from being complex and properly mysterious, albeit a bit tedious at times.

The original Prisoner was a major influence on me when I saw it back in 1967 (the first showing in America), and again the very next year, and then several times after that. There were Prisoner fan associations, but I could not join them because The Prisoner itself had taught me to make a fetish of individualism. Thus I would not, could not, join a group that would want someone like me as a member! Remember, too, what Kierkegaard imagined: the paradox, the absurdity, of a preacher against discipleship—who attracted disciples every time he spoke! But really there was no contradiction. I learned from The Prisoner that I had to march to the beat of my own drum, however amateurishly played, rather than memorizing the lines that were fed me by the catechists of church, society, peer group, or state.

The Prisoner originated as an allegory of reading: McGoohan was sick of playing British secret agent John Drake on Danger Man (Secret Agent in US circulation) and so he resigned, refused to do any more seasons, much to the dismay of his producers. But one of them, George Markstein, approached him with the plot for a new series, The Prisoner, which was so intriguing to him that it lured him back to television. In fact, in the opening sequence, when the hero arrives in his bald, bespectacled superior’s office and slams his fist down on a note with “I resign” scribbled across the envelope, the man was none other than George Markstein. Art imitated life. McGoohan had resigned abruptly from Markstein’s TV show but got “hijacked” into “The Village” (=t he new TV show). John Drake had stormed out of British Intelligence, so they spirited him away to a resort hotel of a maximum security prison. Patrick McGoohan had angrily quit his TV series, so the producers transferred him to another one!

Creator McGoohan’s own experience of free choice made less than free by both temptations and preferences reminds me of the myth of Sisyphus, condemned by the gods in Hades to shoulder a huge boulder up to a mountain peak, from whence it must always fall right back down. Then he had to descend the mountain carefully to retrieve the great rock and begin again. It was a doomed effort, but Albert Camus saw in it the invulnerable stolidity and even the triumph of Sisyphus who performed his hard labor (impossible to shirk) with the transcendence of inner distance and triumph. He refused to make it easier for himself by imagining there was after all some hidden purpose, that the gods must know best. He did not succumb to what we call the Stockholm Syndrome, coming to side with one’s oppressor rather than oneself: “I must have deserved it, I guess!” Sisyphus was a true man, a free man, because he did not kid himself that he deserved it, that a guy could get used to such stony crucifixion. He would betray himself if he became inured to the pain, if he accepted the justice of it. Think also of Ivan Karamazov who could never rejoin the Christian church as long as doing so would require him to acquiesce in the unexplained, unjustified culpability of a God who could and had allowed the suffering of innocent children. If I join up with him, I have to become a spin-doctor for a deity whose misdeeds I dare not recognize as such anymore.

McGoohan’s parable faithfully reflects the doomed irony of the human lot in that it realizes that, as in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (how I hate that title!), or the guests of the Hotel California, “we are all just prisoners here of our own device.” That is, we devised our own captivity (I think some listeners never understand the idiom). What we have here is an existential dilemma well posed in the implicit debate between two postmodern voices. Neo-Freudian Jacques Lacan wrote of the Law of the Father, by which every person becomes an individual subject (i.e., with thoughts, subjectivity, a viewpoint of his own), paradoxically, by being subjected to society’s norms and beliefs and values. You’re your own distinctive mix of the elements, but you do not start out like God, the Autogenes, self-begotten without origins or influences. Did you choose your genes? Did you choose your family environment? The period of history in which you live? The customs you must observe else be branded with the label “deviant”? One first becomes an individual, Lacan says, in the Mirror Stage in which one recognizes his or her own image among the legion of other humans surrounding oneself: “Oh! I get it! I am one of them! What they do, I can/will do!”   

What an odd and striking thing! Being a “prisoner” of defining rules is the precondition for becoming an individual insofar as one transcends them. And this is where the opposing voice of a pair of neo-Nietzcheans, Giles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, comes in. They are keenly aware of the danger of inauthenticity, allowing (as Heidegger would say) das Mann (John Q. Public) to define one’s existence, prescribing one’s attitudes and behaviors as if one were a robot to be programmed. One must take responsibility for one’s own destiny, one’s own beliefs. And this means repudiating the stable and safe self society has provided in what Rush calls “the mass production zone” where “opinions are provided, the future predecided.” Rush again: “Everybody gotta elevate from the norm.” Amen, say Deleuze and Guattari, urging a Dionysian policy of ecstasy, of insanity as measured against the hobgoblin consistency of the Borg hive-mind.  

The schizo “produces himself as a free man, irresponsible, solitary, and joyous, finally able to do and say something simple in his own name, without asking permission; a desire lacking nothing, a flux that overcomes barriers and codes, a name that no longer designates any ego whatever. He has simply ceased being afraid of becoming mad” (Deleuze and Guattari quoted by Madan Sarup, An Introductory Guide to Post-Structuralism and Postmodernism, pp. 96-97)

Think of the policy of the old USSR, sending political dissidents to insane asylums since they must be crazy if they denied “reality” as defined by the State. (“That’s All-State’s stand, tovarish!”) Massimo Pigliucci publicly once called me insane because of my political preferences. It seemed transparently clear to him that our country must obey the dictates of the United Nations because it’s the closest thing we have to a Star Trek style world government. Maybe the patients are running the asylum. But Deleuze and Guatarri contend that all psychoanalysis is coercive insofar as it seeks to reimpose the Law of the Father upon an inchoate psyche where it did not at first “take.” Psychoanalysis wants to write a script for the self and see to it that the patient sticks to it.

The major book of Deleuze and Guattari is Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. In it they argue for a new persona, that of the “schizo,” defined (or rather undefined) as we have just seen. Schizoid man will dare, as Paul Feyerabend (Farewell to Reason and Against Method) said, to pursue all manner of trajectories whether their mutual consistency yet appears on the horizon or not. He will rejoice and desire at a pre-symbolic level, like children and primitives, heedless of the narratives others would use to define him, the rules they would use to confine him. Real selfhood can and must reject the imposition of the coin-value-stamp as assigned by society: those who behave and obey are good, those eccentrics are bad (and here we mean heretics, not criminals, only thought criminals, not those who harm and despoil others). If I read my friend and colleague Tom Flynn right, he would side with Deleuze and Guattari here, which is why he rejects all catechism, all elevations of anything as “sacred,” and all rites of passage where society, again, stamps its likeness on the new-minted coin.

Don Cupitt sums up the dilemma:  

the conservative will say with Freud and Lacan: ‘There has to be culture, and it has to be the one we’ve got; for without culture desire is formless and chaotic.’ At the far opposite extreme, thoroughgoing utopians like Deleuze and Guattari will say: ‘There does not have to be a culture at all. Culture is fascistic! Flee from it, be a nomad and let your body be de-territorialized, a body without organs; for the differentiation, scaling and hierarchizing of the body is always carried out for the purpose of binding it.’ [See 1 Corinthians 12:14-26] (Don Cupitt, The Long-Legged Fly: A Theology of Language and Desire, p. 115)

It ought to be clear that, no matter how long and deeply entrenched, our socio-moral order is a construction of the imagination maintained by universal acquiescence, sharing of the beliefs upon which it is based. Here I must recommend, for the millionth time, The Social Construction of Reality by Peter L. Berger and Thomas V. Luckmann, as well as a subsequent salute/sequel to that book by John R. Searle, The Construction of Social Reality. Also Thomas Ligotti’s great story “The Mystics of Muhlenberg,” which I had the honor to be the first to publish, in Crypt of Cthulhu, # 51). The new Prisoner brings this theme into prominence by introducing the element that the seeming reality of the Village is “only” a shared dream (much as in The Matrix), generated and sustained by “dreamers,” foremost among them the comatose wife of the reigning Number Two. When and if she awakens, the fabric of reality in the Village begins to unravel, sink holes opening in the ground and opening only on an Abyss. She is like Lord Dunsany’s sleeping god Mana Yood Sushai. As long as he remains asnooze, the dream of our world continues on. God forbid he should one day awake! But really we are the dreamers, the hypnotized and self-hypnotized, since it is our tacit consent that keeps the “lusion” going. That’s why the Soviet Union fell: one day everyone, both citizens and soldiers, simply stopped taking it seriously. That, I think is what John and Yoko had in mind when their billboards proclaimed: “War is over if you want it.” And yet it is not quite so simple. Those who believe in war will savage those who do not (a fact the present US administration seems unable to grasp). So, instead of discarding it, we must learn to see what Reinhold Niebuhr called “the relevance of an impossible ideal.” Again, listen to Cupitt: 

Deleuzian nomadism is in danger of being a flight into daydreams. Against it, we have decided that culture is necessary to bring the self into being, and to give desire form. There has to be culture to give us embodiment, but the precise terms of the concordant between desire and culture are not immutable. They can be changed, and culture could be made much less oppressive than it is. [Cupitt, p. 126] 

Gay marriage would be one obvious way of loosening things up: still a species of social order, not license, but more open. The principle requires much more thought and application, the balance ever liable to shift (as Aristotle already saw).

We catch an important echo (whether studied or spontaneous) with Deleuze and Guattari; their “schizo” ideal echoes in two Prisoner episode titles: “The Schizoid Man” in the original series, “Schizoid” in the new one. But Patrick McGoohan was nowhere near as optimistic as Don Cupitt. And the new Prisoner follows McGoohan here. We can never escape or authentically accept the restriction of our freedom at the hands of—ourselves! Remember: when the prisoner unmasks Number One in the final episode, he stares into his own cynically cackling visage! He flees the Village, believing he has set in motion its destruction, only to arrive back home where it instantly becomes clear that he has always lived in the Village. The Village is as wide as the world, the social world as defined by human beings. It is impossible to be a self apart from that programming–and that is the tragedy! A bad thing, not a good one. Our inborn thirst for freedom can never be satisfied, and thus it should be no surprise that the “angry young man” eventually accepts the position as Grand Inquisitor when the old one retires. As in the new version of The Prisoner, Six must eventually become Two. But as the original version tells us, this is only because he has always been One. 

So says Zarathustra.