The Zen of Watchmen

There is an old Zen story of an elderly farmer who had worked his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. “Such bad luck,” they said sympathetically. “May be,” the farmer replied. The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. “How wonderful,” the neighbors exclaimed. “May be,” replied the old man. The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune. “May be,” answered the farmer. The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out. “May be,” said the farmer.

The story is usually used to caution readers from rushing to judgment. One of its points is that it is not always immediately evident whether a particular event will have positive or negative consequences, even if it seems obvious (as it does in the examples above) that the consequences are clearly either good or bad. Indeed, because the story ends with yet another “may be”, even a longer perspective is inadequate to judge any particular event because something could happen the very next day that would turn everything on its head. Rather than judge, the story would have us accept things as they come, without judgment, and act accordingly.

It seems like good advice. And I have to admit that it’s liberating to step into that non-judgmental space. Criminal activity by members of the Bush administration? Maybe it spurred distrust and dissatisfaction with the GOP and paved the way for an Obama Presidency. The present economic crisis? Maybe it will ultimately lead to both economic and social reforms that ensure healthy and honest banking practices and noticeably raise the standard of living of people around the globe. On the other hand, the Obama Presidency could wind up splintering the American people and ushering in decades of backlash against all things progressive. That’s the point: We just don’t know. And we can’t know. All we can do is just do what seems right and then not worry about the outcomes, which we neither control nor predict. This way of thinking, of “being”, is appealing. I can feel my burdens floating away as I write.

But then I start to wonder: Doesn’t judgment have its benefits? Doesn’t it motivate us to take action? If abolitionists did not condemn slavery, would it not have lasted longer? If Civil Rights activists did not rise up against Jim Crow might “separate but equal” still be the law of this land? Isn’t acceptance without judgment just a way of maintaining the status quo? Maybe it’s better to have principles and live by them. Maybe accepting that which violates those principles is the last thing we ought to do — which finally brings me to the Watchmen.

The Rorschach character has principles. They’re good ones: Justice, fairness, honesty for sure, possibly even decency and dignity. And he walks the walk. By the time the film reaches its climax, viewers have little doubt that Rorschach is driven to do what is good and just and that he will stick by those principles to the end. Indeed, he is willing to kill for them.

But this isn’t a typical superhero story. Rorschach’s foil (whose name I am deliberately withholding for those who still haven’t seen the film) also has principles. And they’re also ones I can stand behind: Peace certainly, possibly even decency and dignity. They’re genuine, not faked. And he, too, is willing to stick to those principles to the end. And he too is willing to kill for them.

Part of Watchmen’s magic is that it makes you think you know whose principles you support and whose perspective you want to triumph, and then, like the Zen story, presents additional information that puts everything in a different perspective. At the end, you may still know whose principles you support and they may still be Rorschach’s, but you’re probably a little less sure. At the end of the film, Rorschach may be right. He may have been right all along. But there is reason to doubt it, and there is no way to know for sure.

There are other characters in the film, including one who mostly approaches life through the Zen perspective advocated by the story. They are interesting as well. And the film also makes some interesting observations of American society and international politics that seem remarkably relevant considering that the original graphic novel was written in 1986-7 and the film is set in an alternative reality in mid-1980s America. And, of course, Watchmen works perfectly well simply as a superhero action movie.

But several days later what I find myself thinking about is this tension between acceptance and judgment. The best I seem able to do is conclude that either extreme is flawed. It feels inhumane to accept without judgment that which is unjust. That’s not the type of person I want to be. But neither do I want to delude myself into thinking that I have some special superpower to know how something will turn out…or even how something has turned out.

At the end of the film, despite the new information, Rorschach remains convinced that he knows what is best for the world. And though, as I said, he may well be right, it is disturbing to me that he does not seem to even consider the possibility that he might not be. He can’t. That type of cognitive process is decidedly gray, and as comics historian Bradford W. Wright described, Rorschach’s world view is “a set of black-and-white values that take many shapes but never mix into shades of gray, similar to the ink blot tests of his namesake”. I admire Rorschach’s life journey. It took a lot of courage and integrity to survive his childhood and channel his experiences into something positive. I’m glad he made it. But I can’t accept his worldview. Our reality is too complex to be easily dichotomized into good and evil, or even just and unjust. I think these are choices we do have to make, but I don’t feel like I can truly trust someone who makes them without at least a little humility. I just feel like there might be grey areas that person either doesn’t want to or is incapable of seeing.

Watchmen inspires social activism. It is filled with characters who want to change the world for the better. But, more than anything else, it inspires humility. If neither the smartest man in the world nor one with God-like powers to perceive time non-linearly are in a position to confidently judge the film’s deciding event, how can us ordinary humans portend to know anything with absolute certainty?

Will Watchmen change the way you look at the world? It says something about both the film and our reality that the answer is: May be.

BOLA TANGKAS