Introduction: I found this essay, written ten years ago, in a neglected corner of my computer today. I found it interesting and did not want it to get lost in the shuffle. So here it is.
Is life a play or a movie? In other words, is it live or is it Memorex? This is a profound question, a choice we must all make, perhaps more important than whether there is a God . But one thing is for sure: it is definitely one of those. It is not just itself. We are always talking about the meaning of life. It is intuitively obvious to everyone save the most hooded academics that life has a significance beyond itself. If you put up a poster to advertise life, to publicize that significance, it would either be a movie poster or a play poster. It would either show life as live or as a recording.
In either case, life is a representation. I take for granted that all this is illusion, maya. That doesn’t mean unreal. Reality is a state of mind. a given. The question is, not if, but what kind? What kind of maya?
The reason that this is a matter of moment is that the acting style for movies is different than for plays. In the theatre, one must project to the back row, one must extravert one’s behavior, one must express the hyper-real to achieve the effect of reality. In the movies, less is often more. An impassive face with a mere nuance of facial twitch may garner an award nomination for its subtle telling of deep emotions.
If life is a play, then the audience (assuming there is one) is seeing this all happen now. And of course if it is a movie, they will be seeing it sometime in the future. Thus the test of time should tell us how our reality is structured.
But relativity and quantum physics have proven that commonsense time is an illusion. That is, serial time, with its past, present, and future, is a complete mental and social construction that has no objective significance. If we accept that, and we’d better, then the whole time test as to the nature of our maya is revealed as bogus.
So we can’t know whether the audience is watching us now or is going to watch us later. We have to resort to philosophical notions of the nature of reality in order to answer this question.
If life is a movie, then all reality is virtual. It only exists when the film is run and its primary reality is a construction. The act of perception provides the continuity whereby still images are strung together in a continuous flow. This cumular image is a modular reality, a digital reality. It is a succession of discrete moments whose juxtaposition make up what we call time.
If life is a play, then reality is immediate. Its momentousness is one eternal moment, the suspension one feels when one is in the theatre. The suspension is more conscious than that of the movie house. The movie tends to make us forget we are in a theatre, whereas in the playhouse we may become absorbed in what is going on on stage, but we do not become as self-abnegating, so totally identified with the characters, as in the movie.
It appears that we can only define the difference between film and movie in terms of the audience’s experience. And that is all right. We do not need a non-subjective frame of reference to answer the question of the nature of the medium in which we are presented. For we are always witnesses to our own drama. We are out of it as well as of it.
Insofar as we witness life from an alien perspective, life is a movie. The whole construction of human perception has to take place through these mechanics. Nothing is given. Reality has to be built frame by frame.
Insofar as we witness life from a human perspective, life is a play. We see a more convincing illusion of life on the stage, and often more believable emotions and immediate characters. The process of identification, so focused in the movies on one or two main characters, tends to be more diffuse on stage, giving a warmer, more humane sympathy with the strengths and weaknesses of all people.
The choice is ours. And as we witness ourselves, so will we change our acting style, and so will we participate in the metaphor of our own existence.