The Imaginary World of Nebraska: Coniunctionis.19

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I used to live in Nebraska, Omaha, from 1997-1999.

Last night, instead of watching the Oscars, I went with my friend, Don, to go see the movie, “Nebraska,” featuring Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb and Bob Odenkirk. It is directed by Alexander Payne and written by Bob Nelson. While it was nominated for 6 academy awards, it appears not to have won any, which is actually fitting as it is a subtle film about very small, but very important accomplishments. (Quotations used in this blog are paraphrases from my memory of watching the movie).

This morning, I started reading a book on Yoga Nidra by Richard Miller. The movie had been percolating away in the back of my mind. I have been working on a blog on listening to music and inner transformation, and I have been thinking about some writing that I was doing shortly after leaving Omaha, when I had returned back to Champaign-Urbana, Illinois and was writing the “Coniunctionis” column. An idea for a blog came to me as I read Miller’s words.

“During waking consciousness, we perceive the world to be made up of solid and separate objects. We believe that our waking thoughts and the objects around us are real. But, could it be that waking-state thoughts and objects are also fabrications and projections of the mind, as empty of substance as our dream-self and dream-world?” (Richard Miller, Yoga Nidra, 18).

This reminded me of a topic that I wrote on years past in “Coniunctionis,” entitled, “Is Reality Real?” That was a focus on the movie, “The Matrix,” as well as Eastern philosophy. Now all these things come together in my mind this morning, thinking about Nebraska, a state often referred to as “The Heartland,” being in the center of the country and an agricultural state.

The movie is in black and white, which is very fitting for the bleakness of the soul and loss of hope that it portrays in small town America. The plot hinges around Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), a mean, demented alcoholic who mostly lives in his own world and his fixation on having won a million dollars in a magazine mail scam. He insists on going in-person to Lincoln, Nebraska, and he continues to set off walking there, appearing as a demented old man. His wife Kate (June Squibb) is another heartless and unappealing character. Crass and unsympathetic to Woody, she talks about how worthless he is and that if she had a million dollars she “would put him in a home.” The “hero” of the movie is David Grant (Will Forte). He stands in two worlds, the hopeless and loveless world of his parents and the “real” world of trying to adapt to his life in Billings Montana after his girlfriend left him and his job selling home audio and video equipment. His life seems bleak and purposeless as well, even though he is socially adapted in having a job and being able to see the narrow-mindedness of his parents. David is the predominantly likeable character in the movie, who keeps trying to tell his dad he didn’t win anything and that this is all a fantasy, but at the same time he searches for a deeper truth in Woody’s quest, realizing that the old man is just searching for something to live for.

David gradually comes to believe that the only way to get his father to see the truth of his fiction is to actually drive him to Lincoln, Nebraska, slowly and carefully, it turns out, because David is a cautious character who tries to play by the rules. In a way, his life is a fiction too, passionless, disconnected and empty. They slowly make some good time across the empty vistas between Billings and South Dakota. He convinces his dad to stop and see Mt. Rushmore, which his father dismisses as being badly done, as if the creator got bored and stopped part way through (a fitting comment about the lives of so many in the film, bored and not committed to a greater creation of a life).  They move along until Woody sneaks out of the motel at night, gets drunk and falls and opens up his head with a laceration. This “fall” is important, as is the opening up of the head because it is the point where David’s somewhat naive attempt to humor the old man and get out of Billings for a few days becomes quite serious, the quest to prove the truth of the false belief seems on the verge of failure. David proclaims the quest to be over, instead the family will meet up in Woody and Kate’s home town of Hawthorne, Nebraska.

What follows is a depressing look at the roots of where Woody and Kate grew up. Illusion after illusion is shattered for David as he hears his mother’s reminiscences of all the men who wanted to get into her “bloomers,” how Woody’s sister who died at 19 years old was a “slut,” all the while, she ignores the presence of Woody, who in truth is not fully there as he is single-mindedly focused on claiming his false million dollars. I won’t go into a lot of detail, but all the friends and family are presented as small-minded, ignorant, isolated, cut off from the world. In a sense their “reality” is a fantasy as well, yet it is a fantasy of “old wood and weeds” as Woody proclaims about the old family homestead that his father built, but is now abandoned and in disrepair. There are small moments of dark humor, as when David asks his dad how the old place looks, as they push aside abandoned items and dust and Woody says, “pretty much the same.” Kate then agrees, but takes the passive, disconnected comment and turns it into another putdown of others, when she says something like, “I’ll say, this is pretty much how his mom used to keep the house!”

At first the town welcomes Woody, particularly when he lets slip that he is going to Nebraska for the million dollars he won. He is hailed as the town hero, one of us who got out and made good, he thus brings “fortune” upon the town. But then people slowly start to turn mean and petty, threatening and intimidating David, wanting him to “share the wealth” with them for “helping” Woody in the past.  Even though Kate and Woody’s lives in Billings seem bleak and insular, it becomes clear why they left Hawthorne and they seem like successes in comparison to the world they left behind. They belong to a bigger world, but they still carry the smallness, meanness and despair of Hawthorne within them.

David begins to drink with his dad, hanging out in the generic, small town bars of middle America. He tries to have a heart to heart conversation with his dad about how to know when you are ready to get married. Woody just says, “Well, your mom wanted to get married.” David replies, “Well, were you in love.” Woody considers a moment and says, “I don’t believe that ever came up.” David asks further, “Well, did you talk about if you wanted to have kids and how many kids you wanted to have?” Woody again replies in a dismissive negative way, it never really came up, he “liked to screw, and your mom was Catholic, I figured we’d have a couple kids sooner or later.” David asks if Woody ever loved someone else or thought about being with someone else. Woody replies, “I just would have ended up with someone else who would have made my life miserable, so what’s the difference?”

The one bright spot in Hawthorne is Pegy Nagy (Angela McEwan) who runs the newspaper and turns out to be Woody’s former girlfriend. She appears as a compassionate angel in the film, comparatively to the others. She tells David about how kind and compassionate Woody was, sure he drank even before Korea, but people always took advantage of his kindness, he couldn’t say “no.” David always thought that his dad was “just” a mechanic in the war, but Pegy shows him an old newspaper photo of the brothers in uniform and tells him that Woody was shot down when his plane he was being transferred. She says that Woody never said much, but after the war the drinking got worse and he hardly talked. When David tells her there is no million dollars, Pegy says she can’t print that he won, but she kindly won’t “print that he didn’t win.” Her love for the kind Woody of old leads her to be the only other person besides David (and the doctors who stitch him up and the police who pick him up off the streets) who extends compassion to Woody and sees something in him other than the surface “truth” of a mean old drunk. Pegy’s compassion opens further compassion in David for his father.

While David always has a degree of compassion for his father, this increases as the movie goes on. He helps his father find all the things he is losing, his false teeth near the railroad tracks when he fell down drunk, and later even the “million dollar letter,” the only thing Woody cares about or for. Woody tells others that the first thing he is going to do is to buy a new truck and an air compressor. Eventually David asks his dad what the reality is behind these apparently capricious choices, particularly as he lost his driver’s license and can’t drive. Woody says, “Well, I always wanted to own a new truck.” It doesn’t seem like this is just a status symbol, but rather a dream of Woody’s as to what being successful means, maybe even what being a Person means, a dream of the heart that reveals the inner person (this is of course my extrapolation, the surface of the film is not as sentimental as I am, but I think there is a truth at a deeper level here). The reason Woody wants a new air compressor is that it is an old loss, his old partner at the mechanic shop “borrowed it” forty years ago and never returned it. Again, David seems to sense that there is something about Woody’s humanity behind this obsession with an old air compressor. When David asks, “Well that is just a little bit of the money, what would you do with the rest?” Woody replies, “the rest of it is for you boys, I always wanted to leave you something.”

I will reveal a plot spoiler as it is important to this essay as to a possible meaning of the movie. The quest seems to end in just another sad, small disappointment. Woody and David arrive in Lincoln and go to the office. Woody is summarily told by the employee that his is not one of the winning numbers, as an afterthought she says he can have a free gift. He chooses a baseball cap that says “prize winner” on it. He slumps into the car, David looks at the tired, old man, and says that they need to make a few stops on the way back home. First David trades in his Subaru for an “almost new” 5 year old pick-up truck, and he puts his dad on the title as well. Woody can’t believe that David could get this truck for his trade in and asks if the prize people had something to do with it, David passively agrees. Next they stop and buy a new compressor and it is loaded into the back of the truck. Then, the last thing is that David offers that Woody can drive the truck down the main street in Hawthorne. He does this, seen by all the important people, his old partner Ed (whom David, connecting to his own passion and sense of righteousness punched out after he was publicly humiliating his dad), and perhaps most importantly, by his former girlfriend, Pegy, who tears up (I imagine with a sense of pride and maybe even a validation that no matter how deeply buried the goodness and kindness is, it will persist and be rewarded in some way). Thus it appears that Woody did win the million dollars after all…

However, if that was the story, the creation of an illusion over another illusion, it would be a meaningless and hopeless tale. The true winning of the million dollars, from my perspective, is not the image of winning that the other people see. It is a small and subtle moment. David is driving his and his dad’s new truck, and for the first time, Woody sneaks a glance over at David, and he sees his son, David glances over and sees his father seeing him and Woody quickly looks away. I imagine that Woody sees the compassion in David for him, despite all the surface mistakes he has made in his life. There is a sense of continuity of the compassion that the young Woody had, always giving to others. His success is that he “got out” of “Hawthorne” and even though his life does not appear to be a success, his son has heart, compassion and right action…there is hope for his son in his life, a better life than the people of Hawthorne or of Woody and Kate, or of David’s previous life before the quest. A brief mention, David’s brother, Ross (Bob Odenkirk) is the one who seemed the even bigger success, appearing in a fill-in TV anchor role. There is probably something significant in the appearance of success of Ross, based on his appearance and presentation, he is a success in a profession that is often thought of as being based on falseness, rather than an emergence of the true self.

I see David as the “hero” of the story. While Woody goes through a transformation and redemption, he is still mostly in a fog. It is David who has his whole second half of his life ahead of him and he has the opportunity to choose between the passive isolation and hopelessness of the men in his family, or to actually live passionately (one could almost imagine a Wizard of Oz like transformation from black and white into color, however this is not that kind of movie). One could apply Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” from The Hero With A Thousand Faces to this movie. David and Pegy are the helpers on Woody’s quest, which involves a fall into a “special” world, in this case the past, he is seeking the boon, the million dollars, but he receives a different boon, the love and compassion, being seen, by David and Pegy. Woody, like a true mythological hero, drives in his resplendent chariot (a 5 year old Ford pick-up) as a King of Hawthorne, with his magical machine that can inflate what has become deflated. However, looking at David as the hero, he is the one who stands in the liminal space, half-way between worlds. In a sense, even though he has a moment of redemption, Woody is living mostly in that liminal state, a failed hero who never fully returned to the “real” world. Yet for David, his compassion for his father also transforms him. He is the only person who treats the old demented drunk as a human being. When the employee at the prize office asks David if his father has Alzheimer’s, he simply says, “No, he just believes what people tell him.” In a sense this is a commentary that he accepts the world that is given to him by society rather than creating his own reality, his own life.

As a hero, David has a kind of divine birth. His mother tells him, as a child, “you were so beautiful that people didn’t know if you were a boy or a girl.” And a former neighbor says to David, “You were like a little porcelain prince.” Hero myths often have an unusual birth and in this case, David stands between masculine and feminine. People notice his beauty, but he has not done anything with his beauty, now people don’t recognize him. As Sathya Sai Baba said, “If there is righteousness in the heart, there will be beauty in the character.” Or, a similar common quote on the internet is, “If there is light in the soul, there will be beauty in the person.” This is not just the superficial beauty of physical appearance, but something deeper, and it is this essence that David reveals that had been hidden and forgotten within him.

One of the disillusionments that David has of his parents is when his dad’s old business partner, Ed tells him how Woody had an affair with a “half-breed” down at the reservation. Ed brags how Woody “thought he loved her,” but Ed convinced him to stay with Kate. Ed continues that if he hadn’t intervened, David wouldn’t have even been born, because that was before he was born. For David, he is disillusioned with his father, but it also reveals that the old Woody was capable of love and that he could look beyond the small-minded racial prejudices of his society.

David’s transformation is the rekindling of his heart of righteousness that leads to a revelation of beauty in his character. He sticks up for his father, he protects him, he loves him enough to create a momentary false reality, an illusion that at the same time means something quite profound to Woody, to Pegy, to Ed, and to Woody’s family, as for a brief moment they see the Kingly beauty and righteousness of a man who always was giving to others and yet lost himself in a fog of alcohol, disappointment and regret. The appearance is of course an illusion, but as the visionary scholar, Henry Corbin has written, we can only experience that which we have already within us in some germinal form.

So, why do I call this the “Imaginary World of Nebraska?” I would again like to appeal to Henry Corbin in his discussion of the imaginal, he argues for a state of being that is not a false illusion, but rather a true imaginal realm, that is perceived through “active imagination.” While this is a complicated topic, as reality always is, the gist of it is that Corbin writes about the Sufi and esoteric Islamic view that there is a true and existing imaginal realm, a visionary realm that the mystics visit, that stands between surface reality and spiritual reality, and which acts or determines what happens here (it is difficult to know where to recommend starting to understand Corbin, one place is Tom Cheetham’s book All the World an Icon, his paper, “The Prophetic Tradition and the Battle for the Soul of the World: An Introduction to the Spiritual Vision of Henry Corbin,” as well as his blog on Corbin,  As Amit Goswami, the self-described “quantum activist” and physicist, writes that consciousness is the ground of being, rather than consciousness arising from matter, matter arises from consciousness. By consciousness he does not mean the ego, but rather the Self, (see Goswami, The Quantum Doctor). Similarly, Corbin is not speaking of the fantasies of the ego, but of a higher order of consciousness in which what is imagined corresponds to what appears in reality.

I think this movie, with its work on themes of what is real and what is false is a rich ground to explore using some of these concepts about reality and imagination from Islamic and Hindu perspectives. Buddhist perspectives, too, speak of the world as illusion. The dilemma that I have always found is that if the world is illusion, what is real and why are we here. The author Philip K. Dick, in his explorations of “what is real?” and “what is the truly human?” came to the conclusion that compassion is the hallmark of a human being. We could then say that compassion is real, regardless of the degree of “reality” within which someone is living (and it could be argued that we all live in our own experiences or creations of the world). It is possible to see the bleak realities of many of the characters in the movie as manifestations of a lack of imagination, a lack of vision and ultimately a lack of compassion. Compassion cuts across false realities and compassion creates reality and it gives others the space for their true selves or true essences to unfold. In the movie, “Nebraska,” it is compassion that changes David, his relationship with Woody, creates a momentary reality that redeems Woody in the eyes of his past, creates a connection of love between David and Woody, and, ultimately holds the potential for David to be transformed and changed when he returns to his old life. One imagines that he has the possibility of creating a new reality for himself.

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