Trust Nothing

by Cosmo Houck

In the second semester of my junior year of college I discovered the X-Files and became a paranoid lunatic.

I would sit, huddled in my darkened room, peering feverishly out of my window shades, fully expecting to see flying saucers–or at least men in suits.

I haven’t had a piece of pop culture ephemera affect me in such a powerful way before or since. What happened?

“I want to believe.”

More than “the truth is out there”, more than “trust no one”, the defining message of the X-Files lay in Mulder’s insatiable desire to believe. Without his frantic, frenzied, manic, pursuit of a the greater truth, there would be no series.

Many great shows have evolved powerful, iconographic ways of encapsulating their characters or messages; nothing approaches the grainy poster hanging above Mulder’s cluttered desk. Its many messages are multiflorous and contradictory.

It:

  • provides Mulder’s defining strength;
  • provides his defining weakness;
  • suggests the possibility of an impossible presence (it’s a UFO!);
  • snatches that possibility away (it’s an obviously fake photo);
  • taps into the fundamental allure of the show–an appeal to our desire to believe in something larger than ourselves.

The X-Files represented the marriage of two antithetical yet symbiotic ideas; a cynical, malevolent world full of omnipotent hostile forces, coupled with the promise of a transcendent future in which Mulder’s undying faith would ultimately be rewarded–if only he could find the truth.

The fact that there was no final Truth–that there were not, in the end, any answers–and that the show’s writers had simply been winging it the whole time doesn’t matter until you reach the end. In the experience itself the show’s style represents a peculiar blend of oppressive cynicism tempered by the hope that someday Mulder would uncover the truth–and his belief would be validated.

The show had an uneasy relationship with the answers Mulder sought, however. A stand out is Darrin Morgan’s “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose“, an episode in the third season in which the eponymous character is a pyschic so tortured by his visions of the deaths of others that the episode ends with him taking his own life. It highlights the ambivalence with which we should view Mulder’s belief in something greater, and pursuit thereof: Mulder even tells Bruckman, at one point, how he is envious of his “gift”. Mulder is blinded by his desire to believe in something greater, and never wonders if the answers he seeks might ultimately be destructive.

While revisiting this episode tonight it reminded me of Joan Didion’s Play it as it Lays, which I finished a few weeks ago. Go read it.

The novel ends with its main character, Maria Wyeth, explaining what the audience has been wondering the entire time: why hasn’t she committed suicide? Why does she “keep on playing”?

Her answer is “why not?”

Clyde Bruckman and Maria possess a grim view of the world. Bruckman sees the connections in everything, he sees how everyone dies, and is paralyzed by his knowledge; in changing things, he might make things worse. He sees all the death in the world and is unable to conceive of it as anything other than static. Maria, similarly, begins with what she calls “the facts”, unchanging elements of her stagnant condition. Things are the way they are, and the ability to change them is illusory–it does not exist. Both share a sense of inevitability. Maria chooses to “keep on playing”, but does so devoid of purpose. Clyde Bruckman kills himself. Mulder tells himself that there is something greater to find.

Why do I find Mulder to be such a persuasive character? Why did I go out and order the poster that hangs above Mulder’s desk? When I look to my wall, that is what draws my eye, richochets around my head: “I want to believe”. In what?

Brian Greene gave a TED talk in February dealing with the multiverse. The whole talk is worth listening to (I’ll embed it below), but I’d rather deal with a powerful point he makes about the unique circumstances in which we find ourselves.

We know that the universe is expanding rapidly. In the far–far–future, there will come a point at which it will have expanded so rapidly, and gotten so far apart, that (if there is anyone left to see anything) the light from distant stars will not be able to travel fast enough to bridge the great gulf that will separate their light from our planet. Astronomers will look up into the sky and see–nothing.

Perhaps at that distant point they would still have records of the quaint and primitive astronomers who had once looked up into the sky and thought they had seen light; doubtless they will laugh that anyone could be so silly.

Perhaps something like this has already happened.

And perhaps we engage in such self deception all the time, as routine. We take for granted so many things we think we know about our lives, assume so many of the things that condition our reality, that we can lose sight of the boundlessness of human ignorance. In the grand scope our reach is small; in the macro our ability to understand the bases of our world is limited. This is a hopeful position–it means there is room–tremendous amounts of room–for improvement.

Mulder believed that there was always something greater–that there must be more than we assume, that there is always some greater truth to pursue. On the show he would be dismissed as spooky, a crank. Yet history tells us that our understanding of the world must continually reinvent itself. If the lesson that I couldn’t trust anything I saw made me paranoid, it also gave me hope: that perhaps pop culture is right, and the Truth is still out there waiting to be discovered when we’re ready for it. That’s what I want to believe.