Life as Fact vs. Life as Act: Daniel Quinn and Smoke Bellew
The Bleach matrix of psychological types and modes of being is useful for the understanding of more complex characters in the wider fictional universe. The practical reason we want to understand prototypes and fictional characters is that they map psychological possibilities for ourselves. Reflection on these possibilities sometimes also brings surprising philosophical gifts.
It is for practical and philosophical reasons rather than literary, that I am confronting two opposites, Daniel Quinn, Paul Auster’s protagonist in City of Glass, and Jack London’s Smoke Bellew*. One can hardly think of a more striking contrast between two modes of being. Daniel Quinn is a psychological south pole. His self pulverizes while his psychic support fragments in its subroutines, only some of which remain active, and pathetically so. Smoke Bellew is his opposite: a benchmark of vital force and psychic integration. Their modes of being force a distinction between two concepts of life: ‘life as fact’, and ‘life as act’.
Quinn’s Bleach prototype
Within the matrix of the Bleach psychological typology, Ulquiorra Cifer, Espada no. 4 may stand as a prototype for Daniel Quinn.
Ulquiora’s aspect of death is Emptiness. This is peculiar, as the definition of Hollows already empties them of their hearts (i.e. of their personal past, hope, emotions). He must be lacking something more than normal hollows do. As Hollows usually retain the force of instinct, and manifest some simple purpose, Ulquiorra, this melancholic and dispirited hollow, this beautiful and sterile carcass, is empty of them too. He stabilized at a layer of identity where he lacks inner drive, emotions, even sensations. His eyes (the mirror of one’s soul) are mere passive devices for the recording of outward images; he casually takes out and crushes his eyes to let Aizen watch the recorded images. Although respectably analytical, he is not a good psychologist. Devoid of the corresponding transcendental category, he lacks the capacity to understand emotions. He does not even recognize their existence. For Ulquiorra the soul is a fiction, both others’ and his. His habit of stabbing people in their chest (the spot of his own hole) barehanded is a symbolic gesture for his denial of the heart, his embrace of materialistic monism. Ulquiorra manifests no fear of death. He is too aloof for that. Aloofness must be his way of having come to terms with life, presumably after too long a period of crying: he has teal trails engraved below his eyes. But it’s alright, as a Hollow, he must be now oblivious as to their reason. Ulquirra lacks the vital impulse; when critically wounded by Hollow-Ichigo, he does not bleed, rather atrophies and fades away. He had been ‘burnt-out’ already. He miserably dies without understanding anything.
Daniel Quinn is all of the above, and devolving – a contemptible pulverization of a Hollow who lost the vital impulse. Smoke Bellew is the complete opposite, a Shinigami engaged in the discovery of his own Zanpakuto (heart) who manifests outstanding vitality.
How to build and how not to build personality
Smoke is awakening and conquering the spring within as he is seeking challenges. Quinn imitates an external ready-made personality. He tries to impersonate a functioning soul, “Paul Auster”, who is at the same time the author of the book itself – for our purposes, a primary active element, and a successful character in the book.
The original personality ‘Daniel Quinn’ is fading in self-oblivion, due to a personal catastrophe. Normally, Quinn would lose the center of his consciousness to one of his evil twins, but there is none to want the position. There is one fabrication though, Max Work, prepared by Quinn as his legitimate successor. Max Work is an artificially worked out personality, but in contrast to ‘Paul Auster’, he is at least created in the ‘inner workrooms’. Being Max Work is at least being an original, while being Paul Auster is being a copy. Living as a copy is psychologically more dangerous, as it makes one’s life less adaptable and more dependent on a precariously understood external support. Unreflectively, Quinn gives precedence to Paul Auster. It only takes this half-serious denial of Max Work’s succession to sink the self completely. After “outliving himself” for a while, the hesitating Quinn manages to completely fall through his layers of identity.
Smoke Bellew successfully conquers the inward and outward wilderness. What explains his success? Psychology shows that vitality has to do with the organization between the modules of the mind, the inner mechanisms and subroutines. Evolutionary psychology shows why internal organization may fail: these mechanisms evolved independently to answer different problems. There is something else, like consciousness, that keeps them united but may fail to do so. (For plasticity, think of the psyche as a team of characters, as in Jung’s dreams, or in Where the Wild Things Are, the Spike Jonze motion picture after Maurice Sendak’s book). Smoke’s evolution is due to better integration, unity, and autonomy. Smoke Bellew’s merit in all of this is that he is achieving cohesion of all subroutines by consciously gathering them all for the achievement of concrete projects, one at a time. While conquering the environment, his actions add more substance to a set of personal traits that get to make him be himself. In the end these traits make him be himself without his directly trying to build a certain personality.
Quinn on the other hand, aims at directly achieving a personality, so then he can automatically perform orderly, patterned, as if out of habit. “What would Max Work do?” “What would Paul Auster do?” The trick does not work for too long. The problem with choosing among personalities directly is that the protagonist loses contact with one’s own desires. Quinn loses the best trigger for successful action, as wants, concrete projects are the best drives who force subroutines to organized collective action. There are two possibilities left in the absence of a conscious uniting purpose. One is an evil twin might take over. This is not the case here, as Quinn’s evil twins are too self-effacing and they too lack purpose. What happens is that most subroutines atrophy independently. Quinn’s devolution is by disintegration and fragmentation.
The lesson here is that for the purpose of building personality, questions about what we want are more fundamental than questions about who we are, who we want to be, who we should be. One can only build a stable personality if one is not directly trying. For Smoke Bellew the more fundamental question is not who he is but what he wants. Joy Gastell tells him he is a pathetic amateur, a ‘chechaquo’, but this only amuses him. His grip and love of himself are too organic to depend on labels, descriptions, even on a description that he can give to himself. Descriptions are construction processes secondary to life itself. They cannot furnish the basis of, blueprint of, or life’s principle of organization.
Smoke Bellew is also one who masters his own life, he does not place himself under someone else’s authority or something else’s dominion. After quitting a few sorry jobs, he goes self-employed, and this is how he discovers himself. By contrast, Quinn, repudiates himself to such a degree, that he is passively placing himself under the dominion of whomever or whatever might happen around. He jumps into Paul Auster’s identity after one dubious phone call, knowing neither who Auster is, nor the person calling. When just anything can become a center to gravitate around, there actually is no center capable to concentrate and channel organized subroutine collective action. But even placing oneself under a certain and precise dominion turns the subject into a self-effacing and fragile form of life, because increasingly many unused subroutines atrophy and weaken the mind as a whole. A nobler failure of one such subjection is Michel Folain in Romain Gary’s Clair de femme, who lives only for the worship and enjoyment of femininity. He does not manage to keep Lydia, because few women settle to be the mere contingent occasion of a man’s love: even though your man will be wholly devoted, he will be so only because at some point you happened to be the closest temple of his confession. Lydia is of course replaceable, but this attitude denies Michel all sources of enjoyment other than the caches of his memories.
The practical use of the parallel between Smoke and Quinn is that it provides one with two extreme personal scenarios and thus with a criterion for checking one’s actions: Will this take me further to the south psychological pole? The philosophical bonus is that the two characters also illustrate two ways of conceiving of ‘life’ itself.
Life as fact vs. life as act
Quinn’s attitude toward his own life stands for the perspective to life-as-fact, while Smoke’s attitude toward his own life represents the perspective of life-as-act. Quinn “was alive, and the stubbornness of this fact had little by little begun to fascinate him”. Smoke (a writer at first, like Quinn), after getting a tight grip on his life, would not step out of his experience even to tell his story: “A few months ago I’d have patted myself on the back to write such words, but I couldn’t have written them. I had to live them first, and now that I’m living them there’s no need to write them.”
Life-as-fact covers all conditions given to the subject. Life is that which we passively ‘inhabit’, ‘suffer’ or ‘enjoy’. The question “is life worth living?” presupposes the view of life as fact. The subject steps away from his own life to ask and judge this. Life is what happens to you as a ‘matter of fact’.
Life-as-act is the fully responsible performance from the first person perspective, the projection stemming from the subject. Life is that which we actively author whatever we do, including the thinking about conditions. The question whether life is worth living does not make much sense here, as it triggers a trivial answer. Once we consciously act it, we must have chosen it, and therefore we preferred it. An attitude to life as act is carrying a sense of urgency in it: life is one’s unfinished work. It is also putting stress on identity building: life is one’s flow. Life is your act of making something happen.
The distinction is helpful in clarifying other philosophical problems too. One such problem is whether abortion is immoral. When inclined to look at life as fact, we may accept Richard Hare’s argument. His Golden Rule applied to the abortion problem says that if you judge the conditions of the newborn good enough to please yourself, if, in other words, you would rather have that life yourself than not have it, then it is wrong to block that particular life. It might then be morally wrong for a well-off potential mother to abort, but acceptable for a poor mother. If inclined to look at life as act, that argument misses the point, because external conditions are irrelevant. The new life will wholly depend on what the unborn is going to do, on what he or she would create out of nothing else but his or her own pure capacity to create or bring to reality. The second perspective is more religious, more motivational, and probably more comfortable to parents.
Another philosophical problem is whether Afterlife brings Salvation. How we conceive of Afterlife is dependent upon our conception of this life. I showed some time ago why I think that if one conceives of oneself as a passive subject of experience, waiting to embrace a Salvation brought by the future, then Afterlife does not bring the Salvation we want. The argument is that the subject of experience is in a position vulnerable to the future. Open-ended experience possibly falsifies beliefs and psychological certainties, and since we would be aware of that, we would never be certain that we would not fall or die. If, however, we see Afterlife as a dimension of experience flowing from one’s own continuous act of faith, which we deliberately keep independent of outward conditions, then we are also keeping it immune from what the future brings. Our afterlife so to say, depends wholly on ourselves, it is an act, and there is no reason why we cannot start living it during this one.
*Many thanks to Tudor Glodeanu for much of my understanding of these characters.