December 10, 2019

Finding God in ‘Westworld’: The power of pain

What if a simple device could undo all your heartbreak, tragedy, trauma and loss? If a technology existed that could erase your pain, would you use it? 

This question arose in the new HBO show “Westworld,” about an Old West-style theme park populated by human cyborgs and patronized by uber-wealthy adventure-seekers. The premise of the show is that Westworld is an elaborate game: For tens of thousands of dollars, individuals can vacation in the genre-driven setting and indulge their every fantasy. Some discover their inner hero; others express their inner madness. In this park, where all is play and anything is possible, you can maim, kill and rape freely — and without consequences. The victims are only cyborgs, after all. They don’t feel a thing.

Except, as it turns out, they do. 

Whenever one of the myriad storylines in the park simulation ends with a cyborg being harmed or killed, these mechanical “hosts,” as they are called, are retrieved by management, rehabilitated and reprogrammed. Even though they are designed to look and act like humans, they are essentially hard drives whose memories are deleted each night. But because their programming is so sophisticated, they begin to develop self-awareness, and the pain of previous traumas permeates their mechanical minds.

In her recent review of the show, New Yorker television critic Emily Nussbaum compared the cyborgs to a group of marginalized, helpless citizens at the mercy of a tyrannical state. “At its richest moments,” she writes, “ ‘Westworld’ glimmers with political resonances, as the best speculative fiction can; in its way, it’s about vulnerable citizens forced to repress atrocities so that their nation can drape a patriotic story over its ugly history.”

To view the show through the prism of political allegory is compelling, but it’s also limiting. There is a deeper, spiritual message at work about the ways through which we develop self-understanding. And “Westworld” (wittingly or not) trumpets a religious point of view when it suggests that one of the ways self-knowledge expands is through trauma.

In a poignant scene, one of the lead designers questions Dolores, a blond, blue-eyed ingénue about her memories. Dolores is the oldest “host” in the park, which means she has seen her loved ones get slaughtered over and over again. “Everyone I care about is gone,” she says, “and it hurts; so badly.” 

“I can make that feeling go away if you’d like,” the designer tells her.

Her response stuns even her creator:

“Why would I want that?” she asks. “Pain … their loss … is all I have left of them. You think the grief will make you smaller inside, like your heart will collapse in on itself. But it doesn’t. I feel spaces opening up inside of me; like a building with rooms I’ve never explored.” 

It sounds so poetic, it makes suffering seem not only purposeful, but even beneficial. Imagine if — more than love or goodness — it was trauma that made you deeper, wiser and more human. 

But try telling a human being in the depths of despair that suffering is good for them — tell it to the prisoner at Auschwitz; to the mother in our community who lost her 4-year-old son in a boating accident over Labor Day. 

You’ll discover that you can’t.

Theirs are the kind of wounds that may never heal, that permanently alter the possibilities for joy in this world. Perhaps only a machine would want to hold on to the intense grief Dolores is talking about, while a real human being might choose to erase it, to forget.

In the Book of Job, that ancient work of literature that ponders the cosmic flaw of a sometimes unjust and indifferent universe, we witness a righteous man suffer a series of tremendous misfortunes. Pummeled by everything from bad weather to bitter neighbors, Job’s faith in a benevolent, all-powerful God is rightly shaken: Why would God inflict such terrible atrocities upon one person? Why go on after that? 

Why go on when you’ve already suffered so much, and you may get hurt again? Under these circumstances, it seems perfectly reasonable to buckle under the weight of the world’s brutal randomness. 

Some interpretations of Job would have us believe that we are inadequate to comprehend the ways of God. If only we could see the complete arc of the universe as God does, we’d endure our sufferings with greater understanding and less complaint. For some of us, that is hardly a comfort.

“I don’t want comfort,” Aldous Huxley wrote in his prescient novel “Brave New World.” “I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.”

If Job offers any consolation, it’s that after he goes through the trauma of his losses, he finally comes to see God. “I heard you with my ears,” he says, “but now I see you with my eyes.” 

What is left is their relationship, a moment of pure connection. 

This is what Dolores, the cyborg, longs for. It is a condition of being human. It is what makes grace and goodness possible. Even a machine knows that pain is a consequence of having loved.

Danielle Berrin is a senior writer and columnist at the Jewish Journal.