Some people are obsessed with the red pill as if this makes them "woke," but in a simulated reality, taking a simulated red pill is no different than taking the blue one.
By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here
I was one of those kids forever traumatized by Harold and the Purple Crayon. Not in a bad way, but in a very profound way. I was around seven or eight when I first saw the seven-minute 1959 short film; then I later discovered the original book. Both were artistic and fluid, which was disconcerting — for reality itself was then artistic and fluid, not as interpretation but as the new rule.
Losing My Innocence to Harold and the Purple Crayon
Harold and the Purple Crayon was entirely different from every other children's programming on offer at that time, if not still. Which is why I love it and think it's so brilliant and subversive — as good art should be. In other programs, it was understood that the protagonist was using his or her imagination and was just pretending. This is a cognitive process known as "conceptual blending," where we blend two different concepts of reality into one — imaginary and objective into one. We know the reality we are in, and even though we act like another reality is also real, we understand it is not. That's pretend. But unlike conceptual blending where we can hang out with imaginary friends and have grand adventures, the awareness that we are pretending does not come as readily. We sometimes have to be taught that we are pretending and must develop it like any other learned skill. (When you're bad at it, you won't understand satire, and you'll believe fake news.) Some real life example of conceptual blending gone wrong: the War of the Worlds radio broadcast where people believed we were being invaded, the actor who played Joffrey in Game of Thrones quit acting because fans couldn't separate him from his character, This Is Spinal Tap where a mockumentary was taken as a documentary, and so on and unfortunately so on.
As an adult, when you can no longer distinguish these realities or only have a limited ability to distinguish them, then everything becomes literal truth. The line that separates us from knowing what is real and not real is a fine one. Imagine tomorrow, you wake up and everything was the same, your IQ to your physical health. And all that had changed was the disappearance of that fine line.
That permeable, fragile, and fluid line is all that separates us from naiveté to madness. No different from the fine line that separates us from following and not following laws — an intangible, soft, and immeasurable thing known as choice. And currency, what is to stop us from no longer giving it any value when it's nothing more than a social construct? That thin line is belief.
Though we take it for granted, really think about this: To have imagination, where we can create our own reality, but also understand it is not real — it's actually quite a feat. Other animals can't do this, they only live in the objective world. There's the sun. We live in both the objective and subjective. There's the sun, but it's also a sun god. (Okay, historically we aren't always great at discerning objective reality from the subjective. So maybe society won't always deem you mentally ill but rather average. In fact, they may even think you are the bearer of truth.)
We are no longer shocked by this ability to use our imagination and distinguish it as such because we've been doing it since preschool. (Just like lying and making stuff up no longer shocks us. But remember the first time: I can make something up, and people will believe me? What a super power!)
Most children's programming show both realities (pretend and real) and differentiate the two. This was done to avoid confusing the young viewers (and prevent headaches for the parents). And though conceptual blending is natural, no natural cognitive process does the opposite: question reality. (Consider that: There was a time where if you accepted a tree was a troll, and the sun was a god, you would be judged sane because you were able to accept non-realities as reality. When you question everything and purge more and more items long-held to be real, you may be judged insane and even killed. Poor Socrates.) That is why Harold is such a mindfuck. They never tell you what is real and what is merely Harold's imagination.
At the end of the story, rather than waking up, he goes back to sleep. So is real life Harold's dream, and is dream life reality? Or, much like Inception, we are left to guess if Harold ever woke up from the dream. What if stopping pretending is just another form of pretend, I was pretending to be a jerk but I'm really a nice guy, but are you? You could be a jerk now pretending to be a nice guy? Would you even know?
Chinese philosopher Chuang Tzu asked this very question of reality: If he had a dream he was a butterfly, how does he know he's not really a butterfly dreaming he's a man? One might say, well, butterflies can't dream. But that's only a rule in this reality, but what if in another reality, butterflies dream and it is humans that do not? So who's to say we always know when we are pretending? (We've been wrong before.) Just as internet trolls do not always know they are trolls and how villains always think they're the heroes. So here's a thought experiment: If you are born gay but don't know you are gay until you are in college, what were you before you knew? When a person comes out, it is usual for the person to say he was pretending to be someone he was not. But did he always know he was pretending? And how much of who we are is authentic and how much of it is performative? What is authenticity? Is it fixed or fluid?
Whenever we use "if," we are are asking others to use their imagination. "If" in grammar is known as an unreal clause. To say: "If I were you" literally means "I am not you." Whenever we use "if" we are talking about the unreal as if it were real. And it's so natural, we never notice. But if we were to...
A Way Too Early Intro Into Hyperreality
Harold presented everything as reality and never let up. Even at the end when I hoped a parent would walk into Harold's bedroom to let us know this was all a dream, the story just ended. No pat on the back — there-there, it was all a crazy dream. Where was my reassurance that I myself wasn't just imagination existing in someone else's dream?
Welcome to the world of the hyperreal (the desert of the mind), where there are no guides, anchors, or shores. Where the conscience cannot discern the difference between reality and simulation. (Jiminy Cricket's advice to follow your conscience might be wrong, but in the hyperreal, we listen to the opinions of cartoon characters and Kardashians.)
It's jarring, disjointing, and you can never prepare for it. Just like a horror film where everything at the end seems like a dream, then you find out it wasn't. That everything you know may very well be a lie. The horror is psychological. It shakes you to the core. What if you walk out of the theaters and think you are going about your day, but in reality, you're stuck in Freddy's nightmare. Most adults dislike ambiguous endings, where the audience is unsure of what is real.
People, in general, don't like to be confused. (We like security and certainty.) It's uncomfortable until there is an answer. Do push ups. You'll ask how many. Run. You'll want to know to where. Never having a definite answer, that's the nightmare. (And if you think about it, it's rather silly to be so disturbed by ambiguity. This sparked for me an emotional growth — inner tranquility in the face of uncertainty.)
The only other "human" in the story is a police officer, who Harold drew. But he's presented as this distorted scarecrow. Even the direction he's pointing was drawn by Harold. Was Harold mad?
As a boy, it made me question the very existence of reality, which is to say, the state of things as they actually exist. The creator of Harold, Crockett Johnson, the pen name of cartoonist David Johnson Leisk, was a fascinating character himself. He was famous not only for Harold and the Purple Crayon but also the cartoon strip Barnaby, as well as a series of mathematic paintings. He began his cartooning career working for a communist publication, and he never stopped trying to open people's minds and disrupting their thoughts. In another of Johnson's stories, Who's Upside Down?, a kangaroo sees a map of the world, and living in Australia, believes she is upside down. Once again questioning reality as mere perception. And these books are recommended for 4 and up? Crockett must have had a good laugh trolling parents across the world.
Simulated World Theory Makes Your Brain Pop
The ideas of Harold and the Purple Crayon are not too different from The Matrix. If it's a simulated reality but by default our only reality, does that still make it simulated? And if this simulation also has unintended consequences and elements of danger, how is it not real? Harold found himself in grave danger several times and saved himself by creating a new reality. But with each move he made, there was a ripple effect. His only solution was to double down. Swallowed up more and more into the hyperreal.
Reminiscent of a line from Jean Baudrillard's Simulacra and Simulation:
Which is a way of saying, you'll never know. Then all you can count on is experience. If it seems real to you, then it is. Learn to enjoy it.
My Drug of Choice Became Inquiry
Harold and the Purple Crayon set me off on a journey of inquiry. To understand for the sake of understanding, and to read, think, and know. Initially, it was a tough go, and I annoyed lots of people, especially adults, but along the way I gained satisfaction and engagement, and a quiet acceptance of what is. Life.
A strange indirect effect of this book and other similar life experiences were, as other peers were experimenting with recreational drugs, I abstained. Drug abuse and addiction were not uncommon in the suburbs of Portland, Oregon — at the time one of the heroin capitals. If all I could know and trust was my experience, I did not want anything to alter it. Making my only anchor to actuality unreliable would mean I could no longer know. I wanted to learn to enjoy and know life in its pure unadulterated form.
I cannot think about reality without thinking about (recreational) drugs, as the promise and popularity of drugs is one connected to unreality. It is a temporary escape from the state of things as they actually exist; some go as far as to say it is a permanent alteration. However, some need their reality altered to survive and/ or function, and I support that. I am not the keeper of anyone's reality but my own.
Resisting Portland Drug Culture
As a teen, I thought if the selling point of drugs were to alter me, and if all one can know were one's senses, then becoming altered seemed like the last thing I wanted to do. (New long-term studies show addiction may have more to do with disconnection than chemical addiction. And that's what I feared, disconnection.) I suppose it gives you bliss, but over time it never seems to improve your life; it tends to make it worse. (Do this and you'll be happy. But "happiness" in this context is not the "happiness" in the classical sense of human flourishing.) But it's often presented as a life alteration for the better. Perhaps in the user's altered reality it is. To each their own.
My abstinence had nothing to do with religious or moral convictions, in fact, it was the opposite. Though drug use is the rival of being "born again," to me, they exist on opposite ends of the same continuum, sold as vehicles for alteration. Perhaps this is why they are mortal enemies; twins fighting for your consciousness — familiarity breeds contempt. You will never be same again once you've found (fill in the blank). They share a prescriptive tone as if they know what's best for you; they are the authorities on truth, and you are not. You can't do it alone, it can't happen naturally. It must be induced by an outside intervention. And you need it because who you are now and the reality you are living in now, are insufficient. That appeals to some but not to me.
Kids were used to other kids saying no on moral or religious grounds — or that they had strict parents. They had never met a kid who said no due to an existential crisis, they actually had no idea what I was talking about and thought I was already high. They peer pressured me all the same, but philosophy gave me conviction. (Though the times I was told not to mess with my reality and that I was already fine — already good enough — were by older drug users. "You're good, bro. You get good grades, you're a good kid. Keep doing you." That was the irony, nonjudgment from the morally judged, and judgment from the moral. But that's what we've come to expect.)
I wanted to actively work on engaging and accepting the reality that I was given and train myself in long-term coping skills. Self-reliant and at the same time connected. Not to escape reality but to broaden my ability to perceive reality. Present and mindful. Be-ing.
I Am Not Saying I Was Infallibly Right
I am not sure of how concrete any of this is, so let's say it's all simulated. If I am already once removed from reality, then why would I want to take something that would remove me again? That's like a dream about a dream. Then I am twice removed from reality. And after that, how will I find my way back? I may forever lose my senses.
With an addict, the family often speak of forever losing the person they once knew, even though the person is still alive. They are not speaking of the physical being, but the consciousness they once knew. Now their familial reality is forever altered. The addicts themselves often state how they don't know who they, neither able to predict nor trust their own behavior. The term to describe coming off of any altered state is known as withdrawal: the shock of coming back to reality and the longing for unreality. When we sober up, we "come to our senses," yet can we ever return to our senses once we leave them? (Is sobriety and reality the same?)
Another way to say "high" is to call it an "altered state." I find that more accurate because that implies an awareness of the ideological/ symbolic decision they are making. At least I hope it does, that they are knowingly doing it, not unknowingly doing it for some vague notion of feeling good without unintended consequences. (See Harold draw the dragon and the flood.) But can one ever be reliably aware while one's awareness is disrupted?
Some people quit drugs cold turkey after a "bad trip." But for me the quality of the trip wasn't the issue, it was the trip itself. The falseness of it. Even if one enjoys trips, when the trip is involuntary, perhaps through Alzheimer's or dementia, every one of us is terrified. No one says, "Well, that doesn't sound too bad." We like it if it is artificial, but terrified when it's natural. Normally it's the other way around — that's the paradox. But with the natural "trips," we fear we can never come back. With the artificial, we believe we can. I didn't think I could. (I'd sober up but who came back I did not know.) What if I thought I came back but I didn't, I was just pretending to be me, I just didn't know I was pretending. Just like an AI in a sci-fi movie (or TV show) pretending to be human, programmed not to know she is pretending.
In the end, they were just kids trying stuff, I just didn't know how to be one of those kids. Especially after watching that damn cartoon! With all these thoughts, who needs drugs? An artificially induced reality is a warped version of Harold and the Purple Crayon, and for Harold, the crayon is the fix. Forever alone as long as you use the "purple crayon," then the only thing that exists is you and the crayon and whatever you decide to draw on your "magic carpet ride." But then everyone you know is a facsimile you draw in your head, you perceive them the way you want to perceive them, not as they truly are. And as Harold and the Purple Crayon suggests, you would never know. The whole experience is the experience of discontinuity, interruption, and disconnection. You may feel connected for the time being, but it may just be to the voices in your own head, as opposed to an empathetic connection to those outside of yourself. These are self-centered experiences rather than other-centered ones. And if it's always about you, it's always about you.
The Blue Pill/ Purple Crayon Analogy
This is not to say I would become an addict after one try, but even after one attempt, I would feel like an unreliable narrator of my own experience. As Morpheus said, "After this, there is no turning back." So how do I know what I remembered before the event is a real memory? It was the premise in The Matrix, if you take the blue pill (or for Harold the purple crayon) even once, you substitute experience for altered experience, and you will never know anything has changed. These thoughts occurred to me after reading Simulacra and Simulation, the book Neo holds at the beginning of the film.
Some people are obsessed with the red pill as if this makes them "woke," but in a simulated reality, taking a simulated red pill is no different than taking the blue (or purple) one. It's an illusion of choice (or that you can escape the illusion). Either way, you still wake up in the hyperreal (waking up in your bed and believing whatever you want to believe): an ordinary existence or a barren wasteland where robots have taken over, both simulated and equally unreal. Why does it matter if you woke up from a dream within a dream? Ultimately you're still dreaming, trapped in an infinite loop of unreality. Which is to say, some freak out about the red pill (because they still believe there is some absolute truth) when really we should all be freaking out about the blue one (and the possibility that there is no truth).
Like opening and closing your eyes in total darkness. Which is which? How can you tell if your eyes are open or not? And what do you have that's neutral enough to measure the change? If you're always stuck in the hyperreal, there is never a way to measure if you're out of it because everything you would use to measure is also hyperreal. It's like a cartoon trying to measure itself using a cartoon ruler. (Measuring a system within the same system.)
If my perceptions had been altered, I wouldn't know. That was the rub. The same could be said of going to sleep every night, but I didn't want to add any more complexity. If anything, I wanted to be minimal and as simple as I could be with my life. I wanted to cut away, not add more.
Some might argue we are prisoners to this reality, slaves to it. Bound by its laws and rules. It must be overcome. I would argue, what must be overcome is ourselves. The want to shape and control the universe. Can't we just chill instead?
[*As a side note – If you look at his body of work, Keanu Reeves has made a career out of movies about the hyperreal. Three of the books I am recommending inspired three of his films, The Matrix — Simulacra and Simulation, A Scanner Darkly, and Johnny Mnemonic — Neuromancer.]
Creating a Coherent Philosophy
The symbolic gesture of voting yes to an altered state didn't sit well with me. Many things were out of my control, but this decision would be willful. Most of the time, hyperreality is not something you choose to do, it's something done to you, to manipulate you, to keep you docile and distracted — to keep you from revolting — or to keep you a voracious and captive consumer. (In Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, the drug used was soma.) Drugs do this, but so does something like Disney, where the hyperreal keeps you wanting more, staying at the theme park one more day, buying more merchandise, and getting a complete set of princesses. Drugs aren't free, and neither is Disney.
Opiates are also the opiates for the masses. But so is video game addiction, porn addiction, joining a cult, living in a bubble, or any other form of eyes in into the hyperreal.
With hyperreality, there is nothing to blend, conceptual blending is eliminated. Conceptual blending is about two concepts of reality where we can fluidly transition because we can tell the pretend from the real. There is choice — free will. With hyperreality, we lose the ability to discern the real from the pretend. Then we lose the capacity to choose authenticity. Am I still the genuine me? I don't know. Because I won't know how I used to feel, my previous experiences may be a copy of a copy. I will lose a part of me or all of me. I could be an entirely different person who woke up one day in this body. Imitating who I think the previous host used to be.
It's like waking up as a clone — genetically you are the same, you have the same memories, but you are not the original. Then are you authentic? No. You are a facsimile. Altering myself meant I would become a slightly altered version of the original, and the original would forever be lost. Is that bad? Depends on who you ask but that's not my preference. I can modify my body — grow, learn, or develop but none of it feels like being altered. (Perhaps because they are natural, and unlike others, I feared the artificial and liked the natural.)
Drugs alter you like nothing else... other than spiritual conversion, that's their appeal. Which is why they are often blended together, drugs and new spirituality, to give yourself to a higher authority. Yeah... neither are my thing.
My concern was, I would lose me, replaced by a facsimile. It doesn't end there, I would be a facsimile living in a simulation, not even reality, like a video game character (as opposed to a CGI character in a live-action movie). A video game character doesn't know it's in a game nor that it's not real. Neither would I. So if I don't know, then why should I care? Because I know right now, or I'm aware of the idea of it, and I would feel so so terrible for the former self of mine that I would lose. Poor real Sam who lived in the real world, he was a nice guy. (Cypher in The Matrix didn't care as long as he didn't know. But if he didn't know, it's not really him that would be enjoying himself back in the matrix, it would be a copy of him. When computers download, it doesn't move the original file to a new place, it just makes a copy of it in the new place)
A video game character doesn't exist in real life. It never existed in real life. Did you ever exist? How would you know if you're stuck in a simulation?
It's the same fear we have of being replaced by "pod people." A common literary theme where we are replaced by otherworldly beings who look and act just like us. If our body is still there, what happened to our inner-selves? It would be worse than death, we would be erased. Death would be the existence of a no longer alive you. Not existing isn't even that.
Becoming a zombie is the new universally relatable nightmare that fascinates us. Once converted (remember spiritual conversion?) into a zombie, you won't know you used to be something else; it will be the only reality you know. But even though you won't know, it still matters to you, right? Not becoming a zombie or this "other"? If you were a zombie, you might not even know you were a zombie, just biology without spark. But it would bother you now just the same. Though, when you are a zombie, there would be no "you" to be bothered. Just like the world ending wouldn't be sad because there would be no "us" to feel sad. And if that were the case, most of us would rather feel sad or bothered than not to exist at all. (But destroy the world out of stubbornness and spite? Well, some of us might do that.)
The fear is about losing yourself and living in false unconsciousness. (When asked to pick living as a vegetable or death, most choose death.) And the scary part is not knowing. Sends a shiver up your spine, doesn't it? Knowing your original self would no longer exist and not knowing it ever existed. And if everyone else became a zombie, who would be there to say you ever existed? No gender, no identity, no past, no family. Your body might exist but you your consciousness would not even be matter or a star particle. You would be nothing. Not even a zero. So deep down, we all share the same fears, which is why these themes are universal — whether it's aliens, vampires, zombies, robots, or spirits that take over our bodies — it's always relevant. What's scarier than death? Being erased. Deleted.
This was my thought process as a teen. As an adult, I no longer face the same pressures. I don't drink nor smoke, nor party. Drugs are no longer a thing I have to consider much — unless I am thinking about how I will vote on an issue, then I am mostly for legalization. If you haven't already gathered, being controlled or giving up control or controlling others is not my thing. You should be just as free to make your own choices as I. As for myself I try to live simply, be healthy, and train lots of martial arts.
Learning to Appreciate It All
In a roundabout way, by avoiding the thing that promised me a unique adolescent experience, my real adolescence became that much more unusual. "Sam is weird" is something I have often heard, even to this day — which is in keeping with my long running contrarian approach to life. I am a square.
Plato used the Allegory of the Cave to describe the pain of seeing reality. Reality is tough and it's easy to understand why we would want and need to escape. But by me staying here, I've grown stronger and less reliant on anything other than myself. I'm good.
Harold gave me an early introduction to existentialism. The beauty of life is, it is itself life-altering: it gives me highs and fosters gratitude with the lows. I value the whole of it — with no need for exchange and no want of regret.
If you want me to summarize this essay, I can't. I am just as confused in writing it as you are in reading, but that's okay. I no longer need certainty and security to live a happy life. I gave up on those ideals long ago and learned to live a life of ease no matter the situation. Due in no small part to Harold and the Purple Crayon.
Harold and the Purple Crayon is a mindfuck — a beautiful, dreamlike mindfuck.
Useful Companions (Improve Your Education and This Site by Buying a Book):
- Simulacra and Simulation - Jean Baudrillard
- In The Republic, Plato uses the Allegory of the Cave, imitation vs the real and the pain of seeing the real
- Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind – Yuval Noah Harari
- Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs - Johann Hari
- Harold and the Purple Crayon - Crockett Johnson
- Brave New World - Aldous Huxley
- Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder - Lawrence Weschler
- Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy - René Descartes
- The Way of Chuang Tzu - Fr. Thomas Merton
- A Scanner Darkly - Philip K. Dick
- Neuromancer - William Gibson
- Slaughterhouse-Five - Kurt Vonnegut
- Life the Dream: What Chuang Tzu Taught Me
- Are You An Optimist or Pessimist? Confucius Says, Be Both
- Machines Dream of Philosophy and Electric Sheep: How Machines Can Remind Us to Keep Growing
- On the Ghosts of Reality: G.H. Hardy and Robert M. Pirsig
- The Journey Back to Martial Arts
- Subtract to Add: On Weeding Your Mind Garden
- I Am My Own First Critic