Of Fear, or why Rickon Stark didn’t Zigzag

Thomas Hobbes defined fear as aversion coupled with the belief that the object of our fear will hurt us. Evolution instilled fear in our species, and in other species with a highly developed nervous system, to enable us to survive. Fear is the apprehension of danger followed by an impulse toward fight or flight. A vestige of a more brutal and also a simpler past, fear gives us a burst of strength and speed but at a cost. We are spurred to tremendous exertion but rendered incapable of deliberation. Mr. Spock was right; the adrenal gland can be most inconvenient in our modern world.

Horses will often run into a burning barn, and it isn’t only animals that become misdirected when frightened. Montaigne recounts:

When Monsieur de Bourbon took Rome, an ensign who was on guard at Borgo San Pietro was seized with such a fright upon the first alarm, that he threw himself out at a breach with his colors on his shoulder, and ran directly upon the enemy, thinking he had retreated toward the inward defenses of the city, and with much ado, seeing Monsieur de Bourbon’s people, who thought it had been a sally upon them, drew up to receive him, at last came to himself, and saw his error; and then facing about, he retreated full speed through the same breach by which he had gone out, but not till he had first blindly advanced above three hundred paces into the open field.

The discombobulated ensign is not alone. Panic flings us into furious action, but into courses which will often kill us rather than save us. Nearly every swimmer has been told what to do when caught in a rip tide but when they’re being swept out to sea, so many of them try to make directly for shore, vainly thrashing and struggling as they’re borne away. Moving bodies that follow a set track independent of impinging forces aren’t found in nature, which is why animals never understand that to avoid a car they must stay off the road, and why so many creatures will run right under the wheels of an oncoming car. The flight responses that evolution has instilled in our brains will put speed ahead of everything else and set us to running in a straight line.

Most of us are acquainted with life or death situations by watching them in movies or on television. We become very impatient with characters when we see them fall into panic. We had wanted them to survive but in our disgust, we conclude such stupidity merits death. At the end of Prometheus, Charlize Theron is running away from a huge rolling disc, and she runs straight, falls, and is crushed. The viewers become very angry with her. From their couches, they work out the geometry of the situation and they calculate the angle optimal for escape. The answer lies somewhere between ninety and forty-five degrees, and perhaps only a physicist can know for certain.

Our viewing culture has become reflexive, and it can be more instructive and entertaining to watch people watching a show, than watching the show itself. Everyone who’s watched The Battle of the Bastards, episode 06×09 of Game of Thrones, reacts in the same manner. We see Rickon Stark led to the front of the Bolton forces, we see the knife drawn and held up, but then used to free and not to kill the prisoner. The more observant have noted the finger tabs Ramsey’s wearing. We call out to Rickon as he starts running, we implore him to zigzag. He doesn’t hear. He runs straight. Ramsey misses on purpose until Jon has nearly reached him, and then he sends the last arrow through Rickon’s back. We see him fall with a cry of anguish.

Another Stark is lost. They’re so noble and so utterly hopeless. Why do David Benioff and D.B. Weiss make them so incredibly stupid? Why does Arya allow the waif to come up behind her and stab her? Nobody can be constantly keyed up and vigilant. The human nervous system can’t be put on high alert indefinitely. Why does Rickon run straight? Because the shortest distance between two points is a straight line and panicked human being in flight wants to put as much distance between himself and danger as possible. Perhaps it would be instructive to watch a character who did everything right, who stayed calm and thought matters through, who followed the steps most likely to result in survival and didn’t make any mistakes, and who died anyway. Such an exploration might be intriguing; it would certainly be sobering. Perhaps after watching this exercise in futility, we’ll conclude that we prefer that our protagonists blunder into their untimely end. A sorrowful death we can bear, but an inescapable one may be too bitter.

Westworld, Julian Jaynes, and the Origin of Consciousness

The television series Westworld is the story of a theme park where guests are immersed in a recreation of the Old West. The setting is meticulously recreated: the buildings, sidewalks, furniture, utensils and everything else in the surroundings, but the real draw is the denizens. Unlike a place like Disneyworld, the hosts are not other humans, employed, paid, trained, and instructed never to break character. In Disneyworld, the pretty girl will pretend to be Snow White, and will submit to whatever indignities follow, all the while keeping to the illusion. It goes so far and no farther. In Westworld, the hosts are androids constructed of real flesh and bone, and they’re not pretending to be miners, sheriffs, gunslingers, barkeeps, and prostitutes; they are these characters. In Disneyland, the tourists may mock and pester the fairy tale princess, but because the hosts in Westworld are artificial, not human, and have neither rights nor recourse, the guests can brutalize, maim, and murder them at their pleasure.

The hosts are very strong, and potentially very dangerous, but because their every action is programmed, and because they retain no memory of the quotidian brutalities visited upon them, they are perfectly complaisant, innocuous, and defenseless. The guests came into the world by a viviparous birth and the hosts are the product of a 3-D printer. The guests have a birth certificate, a driver’s license and a social security number and the hosts have none of the documentation or protections of a citizen. Yet this is not the real, the crucial difference between them. The guests are conscious, and the hosts are not. It is this consciousness that matters. This is why, notwithstanding their nearly identical anatomies and physiologies, it is nothing more than a lark to butcher the host Dolores, but it would be a felony and an abomination to do the same to the human woman Elsie.

Without consciousness, Dolores is nothing more than an attractively packaged lump of meat, and with it, Elsie is the acme of the natural world, the vessel and apotheosis of spirit, the image of God. Yet what is this thing consciousness? That is one of the principal themes of the series, and to answer that question, the writers call upon ideas found in a book called The Origin of Consciousness and the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. The television series is a remake of a movie that was released in 1973, and Julian Jaynes’ book on consciousness was published in 1976, but the chronology is irrelevant. The movie was little more than a story of robots run amok, while the television series delves deeply into the problems of identity and humanity.

Julian Jaynes, a psychologist and guest lecturer at Princeton University, made the startling claim that ancient man had no self-consciousness, and that the subconscious made itself heard and seen through auditory and sometimes visual hallucinations. By ancient man, he’s referring to our own ancestors within the last four thousand years, and by his account, the builders of the ziggurats of Mesopotamia, and the pyramids of Egypt and Mesoamerica, were completely unlike us, as were the heroes of the Iliad. Achilles, Helen, Diomedes, and Hector were incapable of planning, deliberating, or anticipating as we can. Their brains were just as powerful, and could perform great feats of calculation, but the results couldn’t be accessed by a self, and could only be manifested in the form of a voice heard within the brain itself. Homeric man heard voices that censured, advised, mocked, and commanded, and he took these to be the voices of the gods. Like the voices heard by some schizophrenics, these were expressions of the subconscious but they were taken as the utterances of another.

An example found in the book is the incident when king Agamemnon robs Achilles of his prize, the maiden Briseis. This is a great insult and Achilles is filled with rage, but to resist will likely end in his death. Achilles most make a momentous decision and he’s under great stress, and this strain is what calls forth the hallucinations the subconscious use to make itself heard. Achilles is about to draw his sword and cut the great king down, whatever the consequences, when Athena appears and stops him. Only he can see and hear her as she seizes him, promises him great rewards to come, and commands him to back down. He cannot resist such overwhelming and smothering guidance, and he admits this as he sheaths his sword and gives in. Jaynes denies Achilles will, mind, and every other aspect of self-consciousness. According to him, terms that seem to denote these faculties, refer instead to bodily states but modern translators often project their own self-consciousness into their retelling and ascribe to the heroes of the Iliad, mental states and powers of which they were incapable.

The Greek of Homer is quite different from the classical Greek of Periclean Athens, and farther still from the koine of the New Testament, and we must leave it for those few among us who are versed in Homeric Greek to decide the truth of this. Jaynes finds the origin of all religion in the operations of this bicameral mind, and he finds evidence for this in the construction of temples, the representations of the gods in glyphs and statuary, religious texts of many widely separated and very different religions, and burial practices of ancient civilizations all over the globe. The validity of all this proof must again be left to be sifted and debated by experts in anthropology, neuropsychology, psychiatry, linguistics, ethnography, archaeology, history, and the other sciences of mankind.

For Jaynes, and for the television series, what trigger the voice of the gods are situations of terrible and nearly unendurable stress. When Dolores is fighting for her life, prohibited from any act of violence even in defending herself, she hears the voice of Arnold commanding her to kill, and released from the prohibition, she strikes down her attacker.

For Westworld, it was trauma, memory, and hard choices that led to consciousness. The deepest misery and agony the hosts suffered led to them later remembering what was supposedly erased. The death of her child woke Maeve from her nightmare, and the memory kept coming back despite all attempts to wipe it away. It was through suffering that they went within themselves, and it here that they found themselves and their salvation. It is within the maze that consciousness is found, and unlike a pyramid, it isn’t a climb but a journey within.

For Jaynes, while suffering might occasion the hallucinations, it is through the use and development of language that self-consciousness arises. Language comes before consciousness, but it is the growth and deepening of language that creates the conscious self. He finds the origins of language in the warning cries of primate bands on the savanna. These cries are later modified to fit different predators and situations, and these modifications become nouns. The noun becomes the name and the name becomes the self. The use of names allows interactions and relationships between much larger numbers, and the small bands of hunters and gatherers grow into the great cities of antiquity, Nineveh, Babylon, Memphis, and Jericho. Bicameral humans cannot escape the voice of the gods, or their presence, and so have little choice but to heed and obey. Their societies are peaceful and orderly.

The great volcanic eruption on the island of Thera destroys this tidy world. The disaster brings war, plague, famine, and depopulation. Different peoples hearing and worshiping different gods are brought into collision and strife. These strangers and enemies don’t hear the same gods or hold the same beliefs. The clear, the unquestionable, the unshakable is now rocked to its foundations. The voices of the gods are no longer heard. The gods abandon their worshippers and like lost children, sick, hungry, and afraid, they seek out omens, auguries, and priestly intermediaries. The religion of the eye and the ear, becomes the revealed and organized religion of the priest, and the text.

Consciousness isn’t needed for learning, memory, reasoning, or solving problems. Indeed, it is more a hindrance than a help in all these operations, and the subconscious does a far better job at this sort of task. We then must ask, is consciousness useful? We can only answer that it really isn’t. Consciousness doesn’t bring dexterity or adaptability or any of the other skills needed for survival. We aren’t conscious so that we may survive, we survive so that we may be conscious. The unconscious may be perfect for absorbing large streams of data, for picking up new skills, for performing intricate calculations but it is to consciousness that these results are presented, whether as a tribunal or an audience.

But can we have language without consciousness? Jaynes believes that we can, and to agree or to rebut will likewise lead us into the old argument between nominalism and realism. Do our nouns and categories apply to something that is already real, or are all these properties merely what happens to be gathered under one heading? In either case, for Jaynes, it is language that consciousness begins. The human who has a name begins to have an identity. He can picture a self, an I, and he can shuttle this I backward and forward in time like a game piece. He can travel north, south, east, and west without stirring. He can picture himself in different scenarios and foresee different outcomes, whether they are pleasant or unpleasant, whether they lead to life or to death. An animal remembers, and prior experience will mold behavior, but with language comes a mental imagery that allows for pictures of the past within the mind. The conscious mind can more than remember, it can reminisce.

We are unconscious of most of what we see, hear, smell, taste, and touch, and when we do pay attention to these sensations it brings no utility. Yet when we pay attention, it is a miraculous dispensation, a light shone into the darkness. If we ask which comes first, the word or the concept, we may as well ask if the chicken or the egg come first. They are coeval and interdependent. There is something real about universals. They aren’t an accident in the history of one language or all languages, but without a name to which it is tethered, the concept can’t be grasped. It remains ineffable, not fully real, potential rather than actual. There can be no concepts without marks traced on paper or words uttered in breath, but the concept somehow uplifts its physical manifestation; it makes the word more than the scribble or the exhalation. Consciousness isn’t necessary for reasoning, memories, or skills but it is necessary for their appreciation.

Joss Whedon’s Serenity, a Worthy Companion to Firefly

This is not so much a review as a eulogy. It is often lamented that Firefly was canceled after one incomplete season and it’s a great loss that the project wasn’t seen through to its fruition. In writing this, I’ve come to bury Firefly/Serenity not to praise it but I will lavish some condign praise as I go. It’s sad but the series is dead and gone. In explaining his reasons for deciding not to try a reunion or a remake, Joss Whedon alludes to the ‘The Monkey’s Paw’, a short story in which a man wishes his son back to life only have him come back a shuffling corpse, a grotesque simulacrum of his boy. In attempting any movie, any television series, any story of any kind, there is a risk that it will turn out not to be good. These risks must be dared, and sometimes disappointing outcomes must be borne. Joss Whedon knows this as well as anyone but in this case, something great might be marred, something already accomplished might be undone. In spite of all his anguish and regret, he’s not willing to take that chance.

When Firefly was canceled, there was no ending of any kind, the show simply cut off after a particularly strong episode. All attempts to continue the program on another network failed, leaving only the option to make it into a movie. This movie could provide at least some form of conclusion, but as a movie it stood alone. It couldn’t be merely a conclusion, nor a sequel, but needed to be a complement. New viewers were to see it without any prior acquaintance, and the characters all needed to be reintroduced, the situation set, the story unfolded and resolved within a very short span. This was a tale that was originally to be spun out in fifty to seventy hours, and now it was to be compacted into two. It’s inevitable from this sort of compression that the story might seem patchy, fragmented, and rushed.

The show married science fiction and westerns, not such an outlandish fusion as might be thought. The wild west was only what it was because it was the advance from what was densely populated, ordered, sophisticated, established, into what was empty, new, and improvised. It was the flowing of the old world into the new. The navigation of space is exciting and perilous, much sailing of the oceans centuries ago. Some striking out into the beyond find riches and glory, some meet with calamity and death. Whether it’s voyaging from the east to the west, from Manhattan to Dodge City or California, or from the central planets to the outer rim, the impulse is to flee from the inequities, the unjust laws, the undue influence of wealth and power, to what is unspoiled, free, and open to all regardless of origin or background.

There are dangerous corollaries and consequences to this attractive picture. Every man, no matter how rugged, austere, and unaffected will impart some measure of civilization to the frontier. Unwilling to eat grass like Nebudchadnezzar in his madness, he will herd livestock and plant fields. He may camp under the stars occasionally but he will want some abode, a roof over his head to keep off the rain, walls around him to keep out the wind. There will be other men around, dangerous as he his, and this will lead to fighting. Everybody must sleep, and not even the hardest man wants to live in a Hobbesian state of nature, and so the wildest and most unmanageable will be killed by their fellows. The outlaw and the renegade may be admired, and looked upon, after they’re safely dead, with some touch of unreasonable nostalgia, but their absence is hardly deplored when the pioneer or rancher is exhausted, or sick, or about to start a family. In this process, the frontier is tamed to some degree, and this safety will bring the men the pioneer and frontiersman most detests, the men he’s fled. Bankers, lawyers, and politicians will now flow inexorably from the crowded, orderly, tame megalopolises, and with them come all the trappings of that world. Just like in the west of Larry McMurtry, Gus and Call end up killing all the interesting men for whom they bear a sneaking admiration, and clearing the way for men and institutions they despise. The west is won and afterwards becomes more and more like the east; San Francisco becomes a Pacific coast New York.

Not all the men who flee civilization for a new life will be simply trying to liberate themselves from the nepotism, jobbery, and hypocrisy of civilization. Some will be hardened sociopaths, seeking to evade the most basic constraints of decency and humanity. In a world where everybody is armed and everybody must find his own justice, the meek and the helpless will not flourish. Not all the institutions of civilization are cloying and corrupt, and it is usually the poor and the weak who most need the succor and intercession of the state. To cite another great, and very dark, depiction of the wild west, Deadwood, the frontier was often not romantic or colorful, but horrific and brutal. Here the rich and powerful didn’t need to observe even a semblance of restraint, and they were free to prey on the defenseless, reducing them to little more than slaves.

Not everyone who worked for the Alliance was an assassin or a soldier, and the outer worlds held their dark side. Firefly aired on network television and this alone would have held it back from the barbarisms of Deadwood but Joss Whedon always explored every aspect of a situation, and if given opportunity some of these themes were certain to have emerged. The story simply came to an end before the some of the virtues and benefits of the Alliance were shown, or more men like George Hearst and Al Swearengen came onto the scene.

Despite the inevitable flaws, the movie is much like a longer installment of the television show. One metric of a story’s quality, whether in visual or written form, is the number of absolutely brilliant lines per unit of length. Serenity contains one inspired, hilarious line after another. Other writers can come up with funny, memorable sayings but Joss Whedon’s gems are more frequent and more dazzling. His gift for characterization is frequently and deservedly lauded, and Mal, Inara, Jayne, Zoe, and the rest are so quickly and deftly sketched that it’s sometimes overlooked that their creator was called upon to do so twice.

One gift that Joss Whedon alone seems to possess is to write a group conversation between nearly a half dozen characters speaking nearly at once. Nearly every writer, myself included, can only handle conversations between two characters, much like Newtonian dynamics can only describe and predict the interaction of two bodies. While these other writers might have a large cast of characters, they almost invariably come together in a series of dialogues and if they attempt a group dynamic, it breaks down into binary subsets. Some of the debates and planning sessions that whirled around the library in Buffy can find their counterpart only in the debates and planning sessions that raged around the mess table of the Serenity or on the scene of the massacre at Haven. I concede that this is an extravagant and not inarguable claim, but if anyone can give me a counterexample, I’d be happy to review it.

Keeping Hostages can be Dangerous in Game of Thrones and in the Real World


Theon Greyjoy captured Winterfell, the greatest castle of the North, with only twenty men. How did Theon, a man not otherwise notable for his exploits, perform such an amazing feat of arms? Theon was able to decoy the Starks and then seize their seat because, as their former hostage, he knew them so well. He was sure that if he besieged Torren’s Square, the Starks would feel bound to defend their vassals and the bulk of their forces would be dispatched to raise the siege. After scaling the walls of the now nearly undefended Winterfell with grappling hooks, Theon and three others moved to the postern gate turret and killed the oscitant guard Alebelly. Inside the walls and as yet undetected, they opened the main gate for the remainder of their force. Because he was raised in Winterfell and grew up among the Starks, Theon knew exactly how Bran and Rodrik Cassel would react and with this knowledge he could decoy them with the feint on Torren’s Square and penetrate the weakest points in the defenses of the fortress itself.

There have been occasions throughout history when a former hostage who spent his childhood among a fighting force, previously deemed invincible, was able to overcome them because of this experience. Philip, one of the princes of Macedon, was sent to live as a hostage in Thebes as a guarantee of his father’s good behavior. While there, he was instructed in the use of the phalanx by the greatest military leaders in Greece, Epaminondas, Pelopidas, and Pammenes. No other military formation could stand up against the mass of overlapping shields and the bristle of spears that was the phalanx. The Greeks had used it to throw Darius’ army of invasion back into the sea. Another phalanx held the pass at Thermopylae against nearly a hundred times their number of Persians. The Persian army, unable to dislodge the Greeks within the narrow confines of the pass, could only overwhelm the puny force opposing them after circling around and surrounding them. An army of hoplites later destroyed these same invaders at Plataea. A contingent of Greek mercenaries stranded in the heart of the Persian Empire marched through hundreds of miles to reach the sea and freedom, cutting through Persians, Medes, Armenians, Chalybians and innumerable tribesmen as they went.

Philip learned the uses of the phalanx, and upon returning home and ascending the throne, he improved upon them. He lengthened the spear into the sarissa, over twenty feet long and carried by several men so that the points were staggered into rank upon rank. His phalangites were conscripted to serve full-time rather than just part of the year, and they were drilled ceaselessly. Leading this new army he’d created, Philip conquered the Greeks and at Chaeronea he crushed the same Theban’s who’d been his captors and his tutors.

Successful warriors may be figures of dread to strangers or enemies, but a prolonged familiarity will dispel this fear and sense of awe. The often overlooked but observant gaze of the child hostage will take in these warriors as they get drunk, fart, trip, scratch themselves, vomit, squabble, and fall into the countless errors and foibles common to all humans. The hostage will learn to skirt their strengths and attack their weaknesses.

Flavius Aetius, a noble Roman given over as a hostage to the Huns, rode with them, learned to fire the composite bow, became familiar with their method of fighting, and met the nephew of their leader, Attila. Aetius later became general of the Western Roman armies and Attila succeeded to the leadership of the Huns. Attila led his horde against the Eastern Roman Empire again and again, until, their livestock seized, their treasures looted, and their population dwindling, these eastern lands were still incapable of repelling an invader but they were now bereft of anything that could entice one. Turning to the Western Roman Empire, the Huns crossed the Rhine and entered Gaul, sacking Trier, Metz, Cambrai, and Rheims, but bypassing Paris as too small and poor to be bothered with.

It was Aetius who lead the Roman army sent to meet him. The Roman general made an alliance with Theodoric king of the Visigoths and their combined army fought Attila and his Germanic allies at Chalons. The battlefield was flat and empty, perfect for light cavalry but one hill on the left of the Hunnish position was quickly occupied by Visigoth heavy cavalry, and it was a charge from this height that won the battle. Using their speed and mobility, the Huns extricated themselves and retreated into their camp. The encampment was fortified by a ring of wagons but there was no hope of victory or even escape. Faced with defeat but unwilling to be taken alive, Attila ordered a great funeral pyre to be collected, determined to burn himself alive before being captured.


Preferring two barbarian nations that were sure to tear at one another, rather than one barbaric power supreme on the European continent and soon to overwhelm the tottering Roman Empire, Aetius now strove to save the Huns from annihilation. Theodoric having been killed during the battle, his son Thorismund was now king and Aetius advised him to rush back to his own capital, representing that his brothers were plotting to seize the crown for themselves. This disingenuous counsel was heeded and Attila was permitted to retreat across the Rhine. For the next two years, he continued to maraud and pillage before dying of an aneurism on his wedding night, much to the alarm of his fearful young bride.