Theater of Dreams
October 23, 2006 12:55 PM   Subscribe

Is there a term for this particular philosophical phenomenon?

Virtually every single time I watch a movie or a play, something strange happens about halfway through after I've becomed fully absorbed in the plot. Suddenly my mind pulls free from what I am watching and I become hyperaware that what I've been watching and "experiencing" is just a story, as opposed to my life which is very real. And then I am immediately stricken with a reminder that my life is finite, and that the seconds that pass even as I think this are being subtracted from the total sum of my life's moments. I usually sit there for five minutes or so, totally overcome by this awareness, shocked at the reality of life and of my own story, of world history and the lives of my loved ones. Often this is followed by a meditative state filled with uncomfortable existential concerns, or feelings of closeness to whomever I am watching the movie with. And then ultimately it passes as I am drawn back into the world and story of the movie or play that I've been watching. When it's over I usually have forgotten that it happened at all.

This happens no matter where I am, whether I love the movie or hate it, whether I'm alone or with a whole group of friends. And it happens every time. It isn't bad, but it is intense and haunting, and it's gotten to the point that I have started limiting the amount of movies I watch, in favor of more interactive pasttimes. However, this never seems to happen to me when I am reading books, for some reason.

I rarely drink or ingest anything that is usually associated with these philosophical revelations. I first noticed this happening about five years ago. Does anyone else experience this, and is there a name for it?
posted by hermitosis to Religion & Philosophy (29 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
You may want to look at the writing of Viktor Frankl. He talks about a condition known as "Sunday Neurosis," which is a particular kind of depression and angst that comes only after the end of the busy week, when we have some empty time, and we realize that we have nothing meaningful with which to fill that time, and the cycle will only begin again tomorrow, and will likely continue for the rest of our lives.

OK, now I'm depressed.
posted by Rock Steady at 1:09 PM on October 23, 2006 [1 favorite]

It's close to epoche, the disconnect needed for phenomenology to work. You might want to read up on Edmund Husserl.
posted by klangklangston at 1:19 PM on October 23, 2006

A moment of existential angst?
posted by ontic at 1:25 PM on October 23, 2006

I rarely drink or ingest anything that is usually associated with these philosophical revelations.

See, now, that's your problem. Drinking doesn't cause "these philosophical revelations"; drinking helps you deal with them.

My advice to you is to start drinking heavily.

This sounds like a snarky answer, but really, if this bothers you, you need to lighten up. A good, stiff drink can help.
posted by Doohickie at 1:26 PM on October 23, 2006

posted by miniape at 1:39 PM on October 23, 2006

Pay no attention, man in front of the curtain, when the real world seeps into your fantasy state: it's Ozmosis.
posted by rob511 at 1:40 PM on October 23, 2006

Could be like, non drug-induced ego death. Some...something serving as a catalyst to your brain going hoo-wa.
posted by Lockeownzj00 at 1:41 PM on October 23, 2006

Doohickie, I am no stranger to "induced" revelations, but I didn't want people to automatically speculate whether my issue was drug- or drink-related.

And it's not so much that it bothers me, so much as I am just fascinated by the regularity and intensity of these little episodes.

There have been times when this has taken place while I was under the influence a good stiff drink (which is all but a requirement in order to enjoy some particular movies). The alcohol didn't seem to play much of a role in the experience
posted by hermitosis at 1:43 PM on October 23, 2006

Got no "name of the condition" for you, just a quote by Carlos Castaneda:

This question is one that only a very old man asks. Does this path have a heart? All paths are the same: they lead nowhere. They are paths going through the bush, or into the bush. In my own life I could say I have traversed long long paths, but I am not anywhere. Does this path have a heart? If it does, the path is good; if it doesn't, it is of no use. Both paths lead nowhere; but one has a heart, the other doesn't. One makes for a joyful journey... the other weakens you. Before you embark on any path ask the question: Does this path have a heart?

The closest I get to what you describe is watching a sunset. I become very aware of the uniqueness of each moment and of time passing by.
posted by salvia at 1:46 PM on October 23, 2006

Miniape, I'm glad you mentioned that post. I remember reading it after seeing the headline and getting excited, thinking that I had found some answers. However, as I read through the question, it became clearer that this poster probably wasn't talking about the same thing. Especially when I read:

"It will probably be clear from the above that I'm not satisfied with my normal experience of life and have had a nagging feeling that something is wrong for years now. My concentration is awful and life seems flat and colourless."

Which is totally not the case for me.

Though some of the comments dance around it. Especially this one.
posted by hermitosis at 1:56 PM on October 23, 2006

Nearly this exact experience happens to me. I pull out of the moment, and become intesnsly aware that I am watching a made up story, but then I try to pull out further. I start feeling disconnected from my body a bit and try to see outside of it, only I can't. It's intensely frustrating and has nothing to do with outside inducing. It's been happening to me since I was about 6 or so.
posted by piratebowling at 2:15 PM on October 23, 2006

Ooops, posted to soon...

I meant to mention that it is, like you say, a passing feeling. It's odd to me because it can be very intense and then just disappear.

When I've spoken to therapists about it, they weren't abel to offer me much perspective about it or clarity, I'm sorry to say. I will be watching this thread, regardless.
posted by piratebowling at 2:19 PM on October 23, 2006

Thanks for that quote, salvia. It puts something I've been thinking about for a while into concrete words.
posted by MrMoonPie at 2:24 PM on October 23, 2006

Actually, I think a name for this feeling might properly be "nostalgia".
posted by Doohickie at 3:30 PM on October 23, 2006

I don't think it sounds like nostalgia at all.
posted by ludwig_van at 3:40 PM on October 23, 2006

This sounds familiar, but I can't place what concept fits it the best. The first one that comes to mind is revelation. While you're experience is centered around mortality, I think the feeling is similar to the concept of revelation.

It also reminds me of Ash Wednesday, The feeling you describe is what they're trying to get at with the whole ashes to ashes dust to dust/ash-on-the-forehead thing.
posted by Packy_1962 at 4:07 PM on October 23, 2006

I almost feel this could be a whole new AskMe, but I've occasionally had a similar thing happen where I become intensely aware of myself, of what I am doing at the moment, and an almost 2nd-person perspective of my body (which isn't to say it's an out of body experience). It's uncomfortable, and I need to sit down to clear my head until it passes.
posted by ninjew at 4:25 PM on October 23, 2006

I don't know if there's a description of this specific phenomenon, but you may wish to read up on the Lacanian notion of suture as it applies to film theory. To quote from the linked text:

Suture is an appropriation in film theory from psychoanalysis, and in general refers to the use of cinematic technique - of mechanisms from the plane of film practice - which generates positions in the audience. It’s a sort of gap in the text of the film (or of language, or of a game) in which the subject/audience/player places him/herself: a you-shaped hole in the text which you stitch yourself in, and/or the position you create for yourself in the text (are you threatened by a character’s infidelity, or do you envy it? In a first person shooter, do you identify with the death of the avatar, or do you welcome it as a kind of punishment for his/your performance failure? Are you the coach, or a player, in Winning Eleven?)

Positions created by game play reveal ideological underpinnings: this is the way ideology functions, by defining subject positions and stakes, by legitimizing certain epistemic regimes. When we look for the meaning of a game that seems to lack one, that’s the first place to go: just where is this game putting me? What is the me-shaped hole that is indicated by the elements of the game?

I'm guessing this question lies at a philosophic intersection of your basic existentialism and some variation on suture. That is to say, at some moment in the film narrative when you feel most fully engaged, some reminder of reality occurs -- you need to go to the bathroom, someone in the audience speaks, or even something in the narrative fails to cohere and thus jars you -- and you feel existential despair. You're going to a movie to lose yourself, to remove yourself from the greater narrative of life and all its mortal weight. So when the suture falls apart, that awareness of life and mortality comes powerfully rushing back. You are then hyperaware of it for a short time until it fades again.

As for why this happens to you at films rather than when reading a narrative, I have to venture further into the land of supposition (eg, the land of quite probably bullshit), but: I think the more physically engaging the medium, the more likely it is to happen. One of the most powerful experiences of existential dread I've ever had was hiking the Grand Canyon. Essentially, we protect ourselves from our inevitiable deaths by immersing ourselves deeply in activity, which conveniently makes it possible for me to write this instead of rending my clothes and screaming as is only sensible when faced with the eternal void. Anyway, I do hope something here is helpful to you, or at least takes you in a likely direction.
posted by melissa may at 4:48 PM on October 23, 2006

Perhaps what you (and I, at times) experience is contained in Heidegger's concept of Dasein, or being-in-time ("a being that is constituted by its temporality"). Following from that, it seems, is being-towards-death: "Heidegger states that Authentic being-towards-death erupts Dasein out from its 'they-self', and frees it to re-evaluate life from the standpoint of finitude. In so doing, Dasein opens itself up for 'angst' which throws Dasein into shocking individuation..."

I can't speculate on why it happens every time you watch a film, but I see on preview that melissa may has addressed that quite well.
posted by Dean King at 5:03 PM on October 23, 2006

This has happened to me, but not predictably. I've always assumed it had to do with the experience of art waking me up from the usual normal fog and protective chatter in my head (the stuff that everyone maintains to get through life, or at least I think they do). Sometimes it's painful, to wake up, and sometimes I'll avoid music that I love just because it immediately elicits those feelings and those experiences. It's contact with something greater than yourself, a broadening of perspective.

That's it for me, personally. What was that quote about art being an icepick for the frozen lake inside us?
posted by jokeefe at 5:11 PM on October 23, 2006

existential angst seems to say it pretty well, to me.
posted by Mr. Gunn at 5:23 PM on October 23, 2006

Yeah, in rereading this, it's essentially Epoche.
"Existential angst" is the answer given by someone with very little existential reading, and while it's related to work that Heidegger did, it's not Dasein (which isn't really a verb the way that the above answerer or Wikipedia use it), because Dasein is engaged ("intended") and the poster is having a moment of disconnection following intense connection.
posted by klangklangston at 7:20 PM on October 23, 2006

I too vote for existential dread. This webpage, which I know nothing about and only found through googling has a pretty good definition:
existential dread is facing our ultimate annihilation without the comfort of social constructs whisking us away from pondering this inevitability

As to why you experience this feeling only while watching movies or plays...Well, that might be the fact that when we watch movies etc., in order to really get into the plot, at some point we suspend our disbelief, which on one level is a form surrender.

Perhaps you really hate the feeling of losing control, surrendering yourself, and at some point you remember this, and then your mind takes you to the place of ultimate surrender, almost as a punishment.

That would be my armchair analysis.

With Halloween coming up, I have one idea for a more frightening interpretation - When you become aware during the movie, you are actually lucid dreaming!
posted by extrabox at 7:46 PM on October 23, 2006

"existential dread is facing our ultimate annihilation without the comfort of social constructs whisking us away from pondering this inevitability"

No, actually, that's kinda a terrible definition of existential dread.

Dread is the recognition of the absence of being. You could always read Heidegger's Being and Time for that. Angst is German for Dread, and both Dread and angst (as Americans use it) are not at all what the poster is looking for.
posted by klangklangston at 8:07 PM on October 23, 2006

"Existential angst" is the answer given by someone with very little existential reading

klangklangston, it's true that it's been many years since I read from that literature, but I can remember this much: even among existentialists it's difficult to find consensus about what the term actually means. However, hyperawareness of mortality and each individual's need to come to honorable terms with that hyperawareness, is a hallmark of that line of thought. In other words, "We can only understand what and who we are if we accept our human condition, our temporality and mortality." It's clear the poster is trying to come to grips with these moments of hyperawareness, and I think it's justifiable to call that an existential struggle.
posted by melissa may at 8:36 PM on October 23, 2006

Klangklanston - dread in English dictionaries is never defined as the recognition of the absence of being.

As a noun it's defined as terror, or an object of awe or reverence.

Combined with "existential" and one describes a sense of terror, awe and/or reverence at the reality of existence, which is a credible attempt at naming what the original poster describes (even if an imperfect attempt).

This may not be accurate description according to the official philosopher's dictionary, but then, no good philosopher would ever trust a dictionary in the first place.
posted by extrabox at 9:10 PM on October 23, 2006

I had to leave this thread alone all afternoon, but coming back to it I am really impressed at the ground that has been covered here.

I have some reading to do before I can mark any best answers. Clearly some of you are trying to articulate similar things which are hard to agree upon nevertheless. "We're all of us children in a vast Kindergarten trying to spell God's name with the wrong alphabet blocks," as Tennessee Williams said.

I am going to try an experiment. The next time this happens, I am going to turn off the movie and see if I can perpetuate it for a longer duration through meditation, and see what comes of it. Perhaps I can understand it better if I see it as an end in itself, not just a byproduct of another experience.
posted by hermitosis at 9:41 PM on October 23, 2006

"klangklangston, it's true that it's been many years since I read from that literature, but I can remember this much: even among existentialists it's difficult to find consensus about what the term actually means."

I can't get to my copy of Being and Time right now, but among existentialists, Heidegger was the first to formulate the theories of Nothingness and Dread, and how that experience is the only way to triangulate what Being is. But the remark that it's difficult to find consensus on what Dread is, is much like saying that it's difficult to find a consensus on what global warming is among climatologists. While, as with any philosophical argument, there are infinite points from which a line is drawn, and any instance can be regressed to a sub-atomic level, this is not a lack of consensus. And seeing as there're very few philosophers doing new work with existentialism, it's pretty easy to cling to the Big Three— Husserl, Heidegger and Sartre, of whom the latter two are fairl congruent on the topic of Dread (though, ironically, Heidegger invests more words on Nothingness in Being and Time than Sartre does in Being and Nothingness).

"Klangklanston - dread in English dictionaries is never defined as the recognition of the absence of being.

As a noun it's defined as terror, or an object of awe or reverence.

Combined with "existential" and one describes a sense of terror, awe and/or reverence at the reality of existence, which is a credible attempt at naming what the original poster describes (even if an imperfect attempt).

This may not be accurate description according to the official philosopher's dictionary, but then, no good philosopher would ever trust a dictionary in the first place."

I'm sorry, that's an absolutely bullshit reply. We're talking about Angst (Dread) in a specific sense here, and trotting out irrelevant dictionary entries is retarded. Which is why all of the answers given as "angst" are wrong. If you don't like Heidegger contorting language to his own ends, take that up with the tree of metaphysics. But stop trying to perform some philosophical portmanteau.

Look, I'm not an authority here. I took a couple high level classes a couple of years ago, but I'm not going to be able to explicate how to form a cogent moral theory out of extreme subjectivity, or even give a compelling argument supporting epoche as a valid tool for exploring phenomena, but after reading a bunch of semi-considered opinions based on an understanding of philosophical glossaries no deeper than "Waking Life," I do have to ask that terms that have specific meanings not be bandied about as if Douglas Coupland's asides were the most authoritative references available.

Again, OP, the disconnect and awareness falls under "epoche," one of the most difficult to understand (and to explain) concepts of phenomonology. All of the talk of dread and angst is misdiagnosis by people who should have prefaced their comments (at least) with IANA Philosopher. I suggest you read Being and Time by Heidegger, and take a good course that involves reading Husserl (because I very much doubt that many people could make it through his texts raw and without someone who has already studied these issues to help them parse his incredibly dense German logic).
posted by klangklangston at 10:47 PM on October 23, 2006

Ninjew, what you are describing sounds like the "mindfulness" of many buddhist meditations, which is induced by concentrating on a mental narration of your movements, so that all other mental chatter falls away and you become inseparable from your will and actions.

I agree that Epoché seems to be the most specific term for what I described. Some of the other terms are general enough to include lots of other experiences I've had too, and what I really wanted was to pin down this exact experience before I forgot about it again.

Thanks to y'all I have some interesting reading to look forward to.

This morning I came across this Rumi poem while reading on the train, which seems appropriate to include:

A story is like water
that you heat for your bath.

It takes messages between the fire
and your skin. It lets them meet,
and it cleans you!

Very few can sit down
in the middle of the fire itself
like a salamander or Abraham.
We need intermediaries.

A feeling of fullness comes,
but usually it takes some bread
to bring it.

Beauty surrounds us,
but usually we need to be walking
in a garden to know it.

The body itself is a screen
to shield and partially reveal
the light that's blazing
inside your presence.

Water, stories, the body,
all the things we do, are mediums
that hide and show what's hidden.

Study them,
and enjoy this being washed
with a secret we sometimes know,
and then not.

posted by hermitosis at 7:01 AM on October 24, 2006

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