Pirates of the Carribbean, Freud, and Chocolate Cake
Philosophy on the High Seas: Do These Pirates Really Know How To Live...?
In a world that is confusing, uncertain, ambiguous, constantly changing, and often simply chaotic, we can ask a simple question:
How should a person act?
After all, real "morality" or "how to act" in life is yet another one of those issues that everybody faces, everybody must answer, almost everybody disagrees on...yet few people talk about directly.
That means it's another issue that your loveable, huggable, swash-buckling, plank-walking LiveReal Agents are on a mission to discover.
And how are we going about discovering it?
Well, we figured that logically . . . if we were going to dig deep into the juicy mission of uncovering what "true morality" is...
- then there is no better place to look than a Jerry Bruckheimer blockbuster. It just seemed obvious to us.
So if you want to sail this trip with us...batton down your hatches. Let's set sail.
The Cast of Characters and Their Moral Stations
Governor Swann: the center of all that seems righteous, proper, distinguished, civilized, and boring - the stiff side of what seems "moral".
Commodore Norrington: the Governor's right-hand man, dutiful enforcer of all that seems proper, distinguished, civilized, and etc. He loves Elizabeth and wants to marry her, but still, the job comes first...
Elizabeth: the strong-willed young daughter of the governor and heroine of the story. She lives in a safe prison of luxury and is courted by the gallant, studly, and stiff Commodore Norrington . . . and yet she has a deep, dark secret: ever since she was a young girl, she has always harbored a hidden, unspoken fascination with pirates...
Will Turner: the blacksmith and secondary hero of the story - "hero" in the more traditional sense (the main story is actually Elizabeth's), who was lost at sea as a boy but now lives in civilization and follows the rules... yet has some pirate's blood in him...
Captain Jack Sparrow: the ultracool Nietzschian rogue pirate who has a taste for whiskey and loses every swordfight he's in...
The Pirates: a bunch of plundering and pillaging, robbing and raping (or maybe not - this is Disney, after all), selfish and smelly barbarians, led by the fearsome Barbossa. They take what they want, when they want it, and have no qualms about it. The center of all that is improper, undistinguished, uncivilized, and all that seems "immoral." And it wouldn't be much of a movie without them. Aarrg.
The Chocolate Cake: we'll come to this a little later.
The background of the story essentially consists of a fight between two teams:
In One Corner: the "citizens" of proper society, led by Norrington (on behalf of the cowardly Governor) and the British fleet.
And also representing this team - though a little less extreme than Norrington - is Good Will Turner.
In the Other Corner: the "pirates," led by the fearsome Barbossa.
And also representing this team - though a little less extreme than Barbossa - is Captain Jack Sparrow.
And Caught In-Between:
is our heroine, Elizabeth. (According to the screenwriters, she is actually the protagonist of the story.)
When we first think of "pirate stories," the classic, old-fashioned, generic pirate tales come to mind, which generally go something like this:
- The "pirates" are the bad ("immoral") guys,
- The "citizens" or civilized folks are the good ("moral") guys, and
- The good guys eventually chase down the bad guys, and ultimately win.
Luckily, Bruckheimer and his merry band were smart enough to hire some of the best writers in Hollywood - Terry Rossio and Ted Elliot. And in their skilled hands, the tale becomes something entirely different and much more philosophically complex...
The First Horn of the Heroine's Dilemma
"Life is a constant oscillation
between the sharp horns
of a dilemma."
- H. L. Mencken
First of all, to start a story off . . . the hero or heroine needs a problem.
The heroine and center of this story, Elizabeth, lives a safe life, protected from danger by her respectable (and "moral") father, deep within the walls of everything that seems civilized, proper, and right.
And that's a problem.
By the word "moral" here, we don't mean that her father is saintly; rather, we we are speaking about a more conventional, social morality - something closer to Mill's Utilitarianism: he is basically respected in his community, he generally tries to do the right thing, he can argue a strong case that he is doing as much of "the greatest good for the greatest number" that he can . . . he keeps his daughter well-fed, well-clothed, he pays attention to her, lavishes her with gifts, and keeps her safe from all the robbing, raping, pillaging and plundering of the pirate lifestyle . . .
- so at least, compared to the "morality" of the pirates, he is the extreme opposite end of the scale.
And that's a good thing . . . right?
Well . . . some of Elizabeth's first words in the story:
"I think it’d be rather exciting to meet a pirate!"
So . . . a girl who has wealth, security, respect, attention, a loving father, her own servants, and an oceanside view from the bedroom . . . and of course, she's dreaming about meeting a bad-boy pirate. Deep within the white curl of the Taoist Yin-Yang, she is the tiny little black dot - the exact opposite, it seems, of everything around her.
What is the problem? Why is a young princess living in the center of luxery and righteousness dreaming and reading about a barbaric gang of robbers?
It's pretty simple, actually: she wants a life with passion.
The way we see it, in spite of (and even because of) all her luxery, she sees her life as boring, stifling, conventional, lifeless . . . all in all, rather unexciting. (Editor's note: For another incarnation of this same problem-of-the heroine, see Rose in Titanic).
Her corset, the underwear (and well-worn literary tool) that literally squeezes the breath and life right out of her, symbolizes her problem: for all her wealth, security, and extravagance . . . she - or her soul - can't breathe. At one point - not seconds after Norrington asks her to marry him, potentially sealing her doom - her corset literally threatens to kill her.
And so, it seems that this particular and popular definition of "morality" - meaning safety, respectability in the eyes of others, social status, utilitarian righteousness and so on - is incomplete . . . and in fact, has some serious problems.
So, early in the story, Elizabeth's problem is set: her life depends on finding what she is missing (she must find "IT") - she must find a way to live with the passion, danger, and adventure she longs for.
And soon enough, she gets her wish.
The Second Horn of the Heroine's Dilemma
Mere moments into the story Elizabeth's dreams come true. (In self-help jargon, she actually gets to "Live Her Dreams!")
She longed for passion, and danger, and adventure . . . and soon, she is captured and kidnapped by Barbossa and his seedy gang of pirate ghouls.
And of course, having not visited and fully appreciated LiveReal's War Against Psychobabble, she learns - the way most folks do - the hard way about the wisdom of the cliche - that sometimes getting what you want and "living your dreams" isn't what you thought it would be. In fact, it can be pretty downright nasty.
Having been captured by the pirates, her naive idealism is shattered as she discovers the brutal reality of her dreams: along with passion, and danger, and adventure . . . comes real danger, real fear, and real discomfort - and hey, it's not really all that fun. While the story is rated PG-13, and so it can't be that bad, the real potential for being murdered, raped, starved, beaten, and so on seemed to linger uncomfortably close by.
And so, naturally, she starts dreaming - and working towards - returning back home safely.
But remember, "returning back home to safety," going back to the Eden she came from, while it seems more attractive than staying with the seedy pirates, is not "IT" either.
In other words, she is trapped in a real dilemma . . .
The Heroine's Dilemma
To pause here and really analyze Elizabeth's situation, this is the paradox she is living:
When Elizabeth is safe at home, she longs for adventure and passion.
And when she's in the midst of adventure and passion (being captured by pirates), she longs for the safety of home.
Neither situation is very satisfactory.
In fact, both situations threaten to kill her.
"That human life must be some kind of mistake
is sufficiently proved by the simple observation
that man is a compound of needs which are hard to satisfy;
- that their satisfaction achieves nothing
but a painless condition
in which he is only given over to boredom . . ."
- Arthur Schopenhauer
It seems probable that, if she were to return immediately home, she would soon be bored once again, longing for adventure, passion, and an escape from the boredom. But at the same time, being held prisoner by beastly pirates is a bit shy from the ideal as well.
It's a no-win situation. It's a paradox. It's a koan.
And it's something that, actually,
we're all pretty familiar with . . .
Getting In Touch With Your Inner Pirate
The way we see it, everybody is a little bit of a pirate, and a little bit of a Norrington.
Freud nailed it pretty well when he was creating his model of human nature. In one version of his work, he theorized that every human (or more accurately, every person's identity or ego) is essentially caught between a ravenous, lusty, animal-like "id" (like the pirates) that oozes sex and aggression - and a rule-following "superego" (like Norrington) that works to police the appetites, tame the passions, consider the consequences of actions, keep things proper, respectable, and in check . . .
- and we - the poor little egos - are caught in the middle.
So using this model from Freud, Elizabeth's plight could actually be seen as a metaphor for all of us. We are all torn between the pirates and Norrington/Governor; we are all caught in a crossfire between the earthy, irrational demands of the "id" and the rule-following, consequence-considering demands of the "superego."
( - and we all can probably relate to Elizabeth's plight: when we're in the middle of conflict and drama, we long for peace; when we're in the middle of peace, we long for drama and conflict. When we're at war, we often want to just go home and rest; when we're at home resting, we read watch Schwarzennegar movies, or read about pirates . . . )
- and the two forces - the id and the superego - are born enemies, like lions and gazelles - incompatible, and in conflict-to-the-death. So we must choose between them; yet neither side is fully satisfactory.
It's a no-win situation. It's a real dilemma.
Or perhaps a more concrete illustration:
We're on a diet. We want to lose weight. This diet is really important.
No sugar, no sweets, and definitely no cake.
One day we're casually walking though a cafeteria.
And nearby, sitting on the counter, we spot a rich, sumptuous, moist, delicious slice of chocolate cake that is staring at us, begging us to take a rich, juicy bite of pure sweetness.
We face a choice: What do we do?
"Superego" commands: "WALK AWAY!"
"Id" commands:"EAT IT!"
"Superego" commands: "NO, WALK AWAY! YOU'RE ON A DIET!"
"Id" commands:"NO, EAT IT! IT'S YUUUUMMY!"
And so on. The angel's on one shoulder, the devil's-food-cake on the other.
It seems like a no-win situation - whatever happens, we lose:
If we choose to eat the cake (victory for the id) - the diet loses (at least for now). The dreams of thinness, health, the lean Victoria's Secret/Schwarzennegar physique at the beach . . . won't ever happen, or so it seems. And it also comes with a side-dish - a big helping of guilt.
Yet if we choose not to eat the cake (victory for the superego) - there can still be a downside of regret, of dissatisfaction, of unfulfilled yearning, of "what's the point of being thin if I'm unhappy?" "Is being thin worth this much of a struggle?" And etc, etc.
The problem is set. It's a dilemma.
It's a koan.
The Human Dilemma and the Reconciliation of Opposites
"Life is a constant oscillation
between the sharp horns of a dilemma."
- H. L. Mencken
Of course, the problem of the cake is just one example. But actually, this same dilemma often repeats itself over, and over, and over again in the course of our lives in various forms.
Should I eat the cake (id), or not (superego)?
Should I go work out (superego) even though I don't want to (id)?
Should I stay home and study (superego) or should I go out and party (id)?
Should I drink four gallons of tequila tonight (id)
or should I have a little less(superego)?
Should I sleep with my hot secretary (id)
or should I be faithful to my wife (superego)?
Should I date the motorcycle-riding, tattooed rock star,
or should I date the safe guy next door (superego)?
- and on, and on, and on.
In other words, while we're using the battle between the id and the superego and the language of Freud as an example here, the actual core dilemma itself can actually appear in many different forms, like an actor appearing in different roles - for example, the dilemmas of "heart verses mind," "duty verses passion," "indulgence verses denial" and so on.
The essential condition is this: whatever form it takes, we - like Elizabeth - are caught between opposing, irreconcilable forces, and experience this as paradox and dilemma where we are forced to choose (yet often don't know the correct choice to make) - and the situation is, of course, pretty uncomfortable.
In other words, we are trapped in duality.
This duality, this paradox, dilemma, koan, and no-win situation we're trapped in obviously, is a difficult one with no easy answer, and the cause of a lot of - of even all - suffering. (Some folks even - understandably - give up, insist there is no answer, or even if there is an answer, we'll never know it - in other words, they become nihilists.)
And one reason why we like movies, and stories, and drama - are because we get to watch other characters struggle with duality instead of having to do it ourselves.
So then, back to our story and Elizabeth's particular dilemma . . .
How does she handle it?
Well, she does get a little help...
Enter the Heroes
Again, Elizabeth's situation - like our own - is that she is trapped between two extreme and opposite irreconcilable forces: the pirates on the one hand, and Norrington on the other hand. It's the zen koan, the problem that can't be solved by rationality alone, that she's living.
And whichever of the two teams wins . . . it seems that, either way, she will lose.
But there is hope:
The dashing Will Turner, and the ultracool Captain Jack Sparrow, come to her rescue.
At the beginning of the story, Will, on the surface, is on the team of the "citizens" (or the civilized superego): he hates pirates, follows the rules, lives deep in the womb of civilization . . . and while he is not as extreme as Norrington , he still totally respects the rules of society
- In fact, he respects the "rules of society" to a fault. In their first scene together as adults, Will declines to call Elizabeth by her first name - which she wants - and instead gives her a more "socially proper" (moral?) greeting, addresses her formally.
As we find out later in the story, this wasn't was Will (or Will's "id," to be precise) really wanted to do. Will submits his felt desire (id) to social expectations (superego). And Will pays the price, embodying the parallel weakness of his "team": he loves Elizabeth, yet refuses to tell her - or, as Captain Jack describes him, Will is ". . . incapable of wooing her. . ." because he is "moral," he "knows his place" as a lowly blacksmith who is unworthy to make advances to the high-class daughter of the governor. In this sense, unwilling or unable to act on his passions because of his "morality," Will is, in a sense, impotent. Jack, after all, repeatedly calls him a "Eunuch" and even tells him,
"You need to find yourself a girl, mate!"
Will Turner, then, has a similar dilemma to Elizabeth: he is living a "moral" life, as defined by the "citizens"/superego, and is fully in control of himself...yet he lacks passion.
Captain Jack Sparrow, on the other hand, is on the opposite side of the spectrum.
He begins the story as a full-fledged pirate, in total rebellion against the social respectability of the "citizens" - ready to steal a ship, board a crew, begin plundering and pillaging, and living the pirate life.
Yet his choices also have drawbacks, and he also has experienced the limitations of his chosen moral strategy. Having been with thieves and robbers, he was recently robbed of his ship and left for dead. A pirate without a ship or crew, he - like Will - is also, in a way, impotent. Further, as we discover later in the story, he embodies another key weaknesses of his "team": he is a criminal, an outsider, a wanderer, a loner, not respected in proper society, and has no ship, no home, and no friends. He wants respect. When his name is read - "Jack Sparrow" - he reacts with irritation: It's "Captain, Captain Jack Sparrow!).
So both of these characters embody their respective (and opposing) stations in life (Will the civilized/superego, Jack the pirate/id) - and begin the story as mortal enemies and opposites.
And both, in their own ways, face the same dilemma.
Yet both characters, throughout the course of the story, confront this dilemma and even experience a psychological transformation . . .
The Transformation of the Heroes
Just a few minutes into the story, the honorable Will begins his transformation away from the pure "citizen" (superego) towards the side of the pirates (id). As Jack tells Will:
for having such a bleak outlook on pirates
you're well on your way to becoming one:
commandeered a ship of the Fleet,
sailed with a buccaneer crew out of Tortuga...
and you're completely obsessed with treasure!"
And Jack, the swashbuckling pirate, also takes some steps towards transformation, away from pure piracy (id) towards the side of becoming a "citizen": he saves Elizabeth from drowning, offers to shake the hand of Norrington, and promises to keep his word of honor to Will:
"If you spring me from this cell,
I swear on pain of death,
I shall take you to the Black Pearl and your bonny lass.
Do we have an accord?"
In other words, each character takes some steps towards becoming his opposite:
Will, throughout the course of the story, becomes a little less stiff, a little more loose, a little less self-righteous, a little more passionate. From a meek, lowly, and dutiful laborer who knows his place and does not step beyond it, he becomes an instrument of civil disobedience who would make Socrates, Thoreau, and Gandhi proud: a man who is a good citizen, but who stands up against the state when it's truly the right - moral - thing to do.
Nietzsche described Socrates as a man who embodied his ideal as the "best state of the soul of man": the passionate man who is in control of his passions.
- Not a man who is merely passionate, but lacks in control of them (the pirates); not a man who is in control but lacks passion (the citizens/Norrington) - but a man who finds a way to keep these seemingly irreconcilable opposites together, and embodies both. This, in this perspective, is a higher, better, more evolved level or morality.
Will, the dutiful citizen, finds his passion. He finally allows himself to feel and express it, drops some of his stuffy self-righteousness and humble rags in favor of a more dashing musketeer hat, cape, and sword . . . and even finds the moxie to express his love for Elizabeth. He is newly transformed, a unity of opposites (at least in this respect), a citizen who is in society but not of it, who does what is truly right, but isn't moralistic, isn't righteous, and is spicy and saucy enough to break the rules when necessary.
Captain Jack does the same, but from the opposite side. He finds his place - his boat, his crew, his place in the world - and becomes a little more respectable, a little less of a homeless wanderer, a little more of a man of his word, a little less of the respect-less criminal, a little more accepted by civilized society, even to the point where Norrington gives him a day's head start before he starts chasing him.
So, in the battle between the "citizens" and the "pirates," a citizen becomes a little bit more of a pirate, and a pirate becomes a little more of a citizen.
This is starting to look something like "individuation" in Jungian terms.
Or in other words: inner growth.
Back to our story:
These two heroes, working with Elizabeth, team up to confront and defeat first the real pirates (one extreme/Barbossa) and later the the stuffy citizens (the other extreme/Norrington).
The "Answer" to the Human Dilemma
Elizabeth, with the help of Will and Jack, ultimately resolves her own dilemma. (This is a Hollywood blockbuster, after all - how could it not have a happy ending?)
Elizabeth's dilemma of pirates-verses-citizens, id-verses-superego, danger-verses-boredom that seemed utterly unsolvable in the beginning . . . is eventually solved. She gets to truly live her fantasy, and embody the best of both extremes (the passion of the pirates and the respectability of the citizens) while having the faults of neither. In a way, she has found a higher level of morality.
In her final scene in the movie, she embraces the newly transformed Will:
"So, this is the path you’ve chosen, is it?
After all…he is a blacksmith."
"No . . . He’s a pirate!"
Although she began the story facing a no-win situation, trapped in duality with no escape . . . through fully taking on the ambiguity and paradox of her situation, and through a great deal of mettle-testing, gut-churning, mind-wracking struggle, she "cracked the koan" of her current situation, solved her dilemma, experiencing a reconciliation of opposites and ultimately a total transcendence of them.
In other words, Elizabeth got a small taste of "enlightenment."
When the Movie's Over
So, has this answered this question of morality for us, thoroughly and completely, forever?
Just kidding. Of course, we all have to confront our own dilemmas, embrace our own ambiguities, crack our own koans, and hopefully, ultimately, transcend some of our own dualities.
But maybe we can now do this armed with a few tools from Pirates. Like, for example, perhaps real morality lies somewhere between two extremes; it's neither a matter of being stuffy, self-righteous, and self-denying . . . nor is it a matter of being reckless, uncaring, and self-indulgent . . . but the answer embodies the best of both extremes, and transcends the seeming contradiction between them . . . so it has something to do with the ability to hold both contradictory sides in your head at the same time, holding the tension between them . . .
- so the only "rule" would be something like "betweenness."
Because in the real choices we confront in life, the "right" answers can often be a little more complex than the just following a few rules - as Governor Swann himself said:
"Perhaps on the rare occasion
pursuing the right course
demands an act of piracy?
Piracy itself can be the right course?"
or like Thoreau said:
"Do not be too moral.
You may cheat yourself out of much life.
Aim above morality.
Be not simply good; be good for something."
Our quest for that horizon will continue.