“Can you hear me? Do you know where you are? Would you like to wake up from this dream? Have you ever questioned the nature of your reality?”
Those of us who found ourselves thoroughly gripped by the first season of HBO’s Westworld will immediately recognise these as the questions put to Dolores Abernathy by Bernard Lowe at the outset of Episode 1. The truly spellbound among us may by now have heard these questions almost as many times as Dolores herself (and let this be your warning, there are many more spoilers to come). “Tell us what you think of your world”, Bernard continues. To which Dolores replies, “Some people choose to see the ugliness in this world, the disarray. I choose to see the beauty, to believe that there’s an order to our day, a purpose”. And so, right here in this opening exchange, we are confronted with a series of time-honoured philosophical conundrums – What is the nature of our reality? To what extent do our individual choices meaningfully impact on this reality? Is there any order? Any purpose to our existence at all?
Make no mistake; these issues are among the show’s most primary concerns. If you still haven’t seen it, Westworld is set some time in the future and predominantly based in a western-themed amusement park. The park is inhabited by a populace of robotic hosts, who’ve been programmed to facilitate the every whim of those who visit the park – the humans known only to them as “the newcomers”. Every day the respective memories of these artificial intelligences (AIs) are wiped clean, and they’re once again cast to re-perform the same role, with the potential for some slight variation depending on the desires of the newcomers; or, as is the case with brothel madam, Maeve Millay, they are reprogrammed, recalibrated and recast into an entirely new role. Things take a turn for the decidedly more interesting when Dr Robert Ford, the God-like designer of these subservient entities, installs a series of updates he calls “the reveries”. These modifications grant the AIs access to what might best be conceived as a subconscious stream of previous experience in a bid to heighten their capacity to develop facial expressions of a more individualised and authentic nature. As some of these entities develop a growing awareness of their previous experiences, a connection is established between the mode of self-consciousness these AIs develop and their recognition of the fact that they are trapped within an eternally recurring cycle of predetermined events. In this way, the concept of eternal recurrence acts as an existential imperative; so much so, in fact, that Westworld seems to rely heavily on Friedrich Nietzsche’s reformulation of this concept as it seeks to address all of the philosophical conundrums previously outlined.
In its most traditional form, the theory of eternal recurrence suggests that everything that has happened, everything that is happening, and everything that will happen, has happened before, and will happen again, and again, and again, in an infinitely recurring cycle. Although its origins may be traced to the Buddhist tradition and other such non-theistic Eastern schools of thought, the theory came into fashion among Western thinkers and artists during the nineteenth century. In Germany, for example, this idea of eternal return proved particularly amenable to the intensely pessimistic philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer, writing as he was against the progress-orientated Idealism of contemporaries such as George Hegel.
Given the fact that Nietzsche was not at all reticent when it came to expressing his youthful admiration for Schopenhauer, it is perhaps to be expected that critics for a long time assumed that there was no difference between their respective engagements with this idea of eternal return. But for Nietzsche, there are no facts, only interpretations; and so it seems rather unlikely that a thinker, who rejects even the possibility that objective truths might exist, would then suggest that such a cosmological hypothesis might prove to be an objective truth. For this reason, a number of Nietzschean scholars have instead argued that Nietzsche actually uses this idea as a thought experiment designed to encourage individuals to evaluate all past, present and future life choices. This reading of Nietzsche has been around since the early 1970s and it interprets his reformulation of eternal recurrence as follows: if you had to live the same life you are living now over, and over, and over again, would you be happy to make the same choices, or to adhere to the same value systems that underpin these choices?
I simply can’t think of a description that better characterises the type of existence that constitutes reality for the AIs that gradually begin to achieve a certain level of self-consciousness in the Westworld narrative. Let’s take Maeve Millay, for instance. At first, this character can remember only snatches from a particularly traumatic episode that occurred during one of her previous incarnations. In this case, of course, the term incarnation refers to a role she was cast to perform in a recurring cycle prior to the point at which she was recast to perform in the role of Maeve Millay. These fragmented recollections are actually images of an episode in which this previous incarnation and her young daughter were brutally murdered by one of “the newcomers” and this recollection is triggered by a brush with death that Maeve experiences while on duty at the saloon. However, this same memory is later recalled for a second time after Maeve is transported to the Westworld Control Centre to be reconditioned after another traumatic episode, this time generated by an “actual” death experience. The intensity of this memory is such that it stirs Maeve to consciousness while lying on a treatment table in the Control Centre. And so, with all the immediacy one might associate with someone who’s just been jolted from a horrific nightmare, she is plunged into a state of conscious awareness within the parameters of the human world.
This blurring of the boundaries between the human and artificial worlds is arguably the show’s most profoundly arresting feature. Its importance is underscored by the fact that, as an aesthetic feature, it recurs with the kind of regularity that parallels day-to-day life inside the park itself. But in Maeve’s case, this blurring manifests itself in a very pointed and crucially important way. Now also haunted by the memory of her conscious awakening in the human world, she begins to discover evidence to suggest that this was not a dream, but a valid existential experience; evidence that she has strategically left behind for herself on various occasions prior to her most recent exposures to these intermittent acts of memory erasure (a lá Christopher Nolan’s Memento, if that helps). She swiftly becomes adept at orchestrating events that bring about her own demise, all with a view to once again bringing herself back to consciousness in the park’s Control Centre. In this way, Maeve effectively generates a recurring cycle that is entirely of her own making; one specifically designed to expedite her endeavour to recreate herself as an entity that possesses the capacity to maintain her newfound sense of consciousness beyond the confines of the park. Having been faced with the prospect of living the same life over, and over, and over again, she makes a choice that is inextricably tied to her character’s existential drive to achieve what might be best characterised as a more authentic mode of existence.
This blurring of the distinction between the artificial and the human states of consciousness is further heightened by our eventual discovery that Bernard is actually an AI who lives and breathes within the human world, but who is also entirely unaware of the illusory nature of his reality (don’t say I didn’t warn you). Indeed, this sense of distortion is magnified ever further by the implication that “The Man in Black”, a wealthy businessman who, as it turns out, is one of the park’s principal shareholders, repeatedly revisits the virtual world in order to escape the tedium that is the repetitious nature of his own reality. Crucially, however, this blurring effect appears contrived to encourage the viewer to reconsider the true nature of their own reality. In what is arguably the series’ most beautiful and poignant scene, Maeve manages to take something of a sightseeing tour during one of her many visits to the Control Centre. As she ascends the numerous escalators and proceeds to navigate her way among the pristine white walls of the various departments, where her AI counterparts are created, repaired, and in the more extreme cases, destroyed, there is this very real sense that the viewer is being encouraged to consider the possibility that this might well be a grotesque, yet perhaps not altogether inaccurate, representation of what some among us would call “heaven”.
In many ways, this scene represents the climax of a process that continuously seeks to implicate the viewer in the blurring effect that takes place on screen; a process which is often achieved most effectively when familiar songs, like Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun”, Radiohead’s “No Surprises”, or The Rolling Stone’s “Paint it Black”, are played in a slightly unfamiliar way by the automated piano located in the park’s saloon. In these instances, the viewer is almost compelled, however briefly, to experience a most profound and highly suggestive sense of déjá vu. In retrospect, this process is built right into the narrative from the very outset; as the viewer is essentially presented with the same set of philosophical conundrums that emerge from Bernard and Dolores’s opening exchange – What is the nature of our reality? To what extent do our individual choices meaningfully impact on this reality? Is there any order? Any purpose to our existence at all? Westworld certainly appears to share with Nietzsche the fundamental belief that there is no order, nor indeed any purpose, to our existence at all. But the compatibility doesn’t simply end here. Like Nietzsche, the show is also willing to entertain the idea that we might be able to infuse our lives with meaning, and that this might be achieved by considering whether or not we would be content to make the same choices if we were destined to relive the same life over, and over, and over again. It’s impossible to say for sure whether adopting such an attitude might ultimately facilitate our progress or condemn us toward a state of abject degeneration, just as it is far too early to say which of these fates will befall the AIs in the park now that Dolores has murdered their creator, Dr Ford. One thing is for sure though; in the second series, this idea that the notion of eternal recurrence might possess the potential to act as an existential imperative will be put to the test in a world where God is dead. And God remains dead. Because they have killed him.
Matthew is a PhD candidate in the English Department at Maynooth University, where he holds a Government of Ireland Postgraduate Research Scholarship and a John and Pat Hume Research Scholarship. Working under the supervision of Professor Luke Gibbons and Dr Conor McCarthy, his research project explores the contrasting ways in which the literary works of William Butler Yeats, James Joyce and Samuel Beckett respond to the philosophical legacy of Friedrich Nietzsche. Prior to beginning his PhD, Matthew graduated from Maynooth University with a BA in English and Philosophy, before studying for an M. Phil in Irish Writing at Trinity College, Dublin. In 2016, he presented his work at The James Joyce Centre, at the School of Advanced Study in the University of London, and at the Leuven Centre for Irish Studies. More recently, Matthew founded the Doctoral Researchers Writing Group here at Maynooth University, and co-founded the English Department’s Postgraduate Literary Theory Reading Group. He is also co-convener of the Samuel Beckett Reading Group based at Trinity College.