Zelly Thomas

PHIL 333

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To start out with, let me just say that I don’t really know what I am doing. Writing
this has been difficult for me. Most times, getting thoughts down onto paper is an
agonizing process for me. If I talk face to face, at least I can use my hands or make sound
effects to convey what words can’t. On paper, that isn’t present and it becomes that
much more important for me to be as clear as possible. This is a struggle, and this paper
reflects that.

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PART I
When it comes down to it, I feel like most of my life has been a sort of quest for
truth. Ultimate truth, not just a mundane truth. I think a lot about stories, and that’s
what drew me to this class. I have a friend whose dad is pretty famous for his anecdotes.
He is a great storyteller, and he was a way of turning something that should by all rights
be boring into the most hilarious thing I’ve ever heard. My friend complains about how
his dad’s stories aren’t always factual, but his dad always replies “doesn’t mean they
aren’t true!”
This is something I think about a lot. I find that I become unfocused very easily.
I’ve always been a sort of “big picture” person, and getting bogged down with details
really drains me. This can lead to all sorts of real-world complications of course - missed
birthdays, forgetting names, not doing the dishes - but it leads me to wonder if there
isn’t some higher design that I still follow.
Sometimes a book will be adapted into a movie and it will be done all wrong. I
will never really enjoy the Harry Potter movies, simply because I believe they missed the
mark entirely. But then there are adaptations that just so completely ​get​ their source
material that even though changes may have been made - appearances altered, scenes
cut, entire characters let out of the story - the adaption is still, at its core, the same story.
The same could also be said for translations. Even though the words themselves are
changed and translations are rarely literal, the good translations are ones that still retain
that core of the original even when the details are different. Doesn’t that speak of some
higher truth? That behind all those details we can still sense that same illuminating core
that makes it what it is - ​das ding an sich​.
This all ties back into the concept of the archetype - even though we can’t define
something exactly, we can still know it exists. Noumenality -- which I’m not sure is a
word, but it sounds great -- is sort of the bread and butter of this class. The intangible,
abstract, but nonetheless very ​real​ is very interesting to me because of the fact that you
can sort of talk all around it but never really touch on the object itself.1
Like splitting the line in half for eternity - you’ll never know if it will be
unsplittable, but you know it should be. There’s still this concept in our minds that
exists around this. It’s a fact, but it’s not backed by observation or experimentation, and

1
This concept is also present in the scientific community - dark matter. Not much is known about
dark matter. We know that roughly 27% of our universe is made up of the stuff, but its exact properties are
illusory and still being discovered today. It cannot be observed directly, but it’s assumed to be there
because of its effect on the rest of the universe.
This brings to mind two things that are ‘fictional’ but carry the same sort of properties: the first is
the use of the Force in Star Wars - a power made by all living things that binds the universe together; the
second is Dust from Philip Pullman’s ​His Dark Materials​ trilogy - a conscious, cosmic particle attracted to
human beings that is thought to be a physical manifestation of Original Sin.
Are these things all one and the same? Are they all just stand-ins for a belief in a higher spiritual
power, in God?
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yet it’s known. But the more you sort of look into it, the more complex you make it, the
sort of… farther from the truth you really get. It’s almost like it’s so simple it’s hard to
dig deeper, it’s most apparent when you’re more zoomed out - out of focus, but aware of
the bigger picture, the idea.
I used to have a subscription to ​Wired Magazine​ ages twelve through sixteen. It’s
a magazine all about technology and its interactions with popular culture. I liked to read
about new movie technology, ideas about jetpacks, and comedians talking about
technology. I no longer have a subscription, but I do remember there was this one article
that really stuck with me. But it wasn’t the article itself that really got me. If I recall
correctly, it was an article about 3D computer modelling, in particular how to escape the
Uncanny Valley. The Uncanny Valley, if you don’t know, is the region where a human
likeness is realistic, but just ​off​ enough that it can really mess with you. A lot of video
games or 3d animated movies run into this problem. They try to make something as
realistic as possible, but unfortunately it’s just not there yet. We can recognize the face
as human, but it’s just the little differences from our own reality that can make the
models suddenly freakish instead of beautiful. A lot of rotoscoped animation falls into
this ‘valley’ - ​The Polar Bear Express​ or the new animated ​Tintin ​come to mind. This is
also the reason why humanoid robots can be so creepy. Even when they pass for human,
as soon as they are in motion they become startling, creepy, and can even register as
dangerous. This article was about how animators and modellers are working to try and
avoid falling into this valley, and in particular how this wasn’t simply a technological
problem, but sort of a metaphysical one as well. Because the fact is that the human face
is round - like a circle. And a circle only has two sides, inside and out. But the way 3d
modelling works is that it’s arranged in squares, not in circles. but they can make
smaller and smaller squares so that, at a distance, it looks circular. Like raster imaging
programs on the computer - the image may look smooth, but it’s actually comprised of
hundreds of smaller line fragments, and not the smooth line you know is the ‘reality’.
Well this is the problem with 3D modelling. Even though they can add more and more
side to this square to give it the appearance of roundness, what is really happening is
they are taking it farther and farther away from the actual roundness - the idea of
roundness. Instead of one, they have over a million. But still you can see what it’s trying
to be, what it’s representing.
This idea of representation really cool. I like the importance it places on stories,
because I love stories and I have all my life. I love the idea of the story as a lens through
which to see meanings not easily expressed. I’ve always felt, about most stories but
about books in particular, that the way that I think about them is never really about
specific parts - this sword fight or that love confession or when she totally kicked that
guy in the crotch - but rather, I think of it as a whole. I think about the emotional impact
of the thing, the mood, how it feels as a whole piece rather than hundreds of tiny pieces.
I have a hard time picking out specific scenes, dialogue, examples, but I like to think
about the sort of swooping images I feel after finishing a book.
I feel like this about music as well. I’m terrible at song lyrics, just really absolutely
terrible, but I love listening to music - and I love making playlists, mixes, arrangements
of songs that fit a particular mood or idea. Oftentimes the thing I am trying to express

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only really makes sense to me, and I suspect it’s because that same thing is at play here.
It’s more about the overall meaning of the song, not the details or the structure. They all
contribute but it’s definitely more than the sum of its parts, you know?
This idea is also addressed in an anime/manga I’m really fond of, ​Fullmetal
Alchemist​. An unusual manga (which came first, so I guess that’s what I’ll be referring to
it as, even though the anime was more popular and pretty much exactly the same) -
although made in Japan, by a Japanese woman, the story itself focuses on a lot of
western ideas, and takes place in a pseudo-western country called Amestris and the
series itself places a lot of emphasis on Greek, Persian, and German cultures. Its two
protagonists, Edward and Alphonse Elric, are alchemists. The story has a lot of typical
action manga tropes, and there is definitely an element of the fantastical in the use of
alchemy to fight giant monsters and ghosts. But the real crux of the series isn’t in the
outlandish monsters, but the more human ones. Some of the enemies the brothers face
are literal personification of the seven deadly sins. They fight them in hand-to-hand
combat, but much of the series is similarly focused in fighting these intangible ​traits​ not
only in others, but in themselves. Like Luke Skywalker before them, they find out that
the great evil they’ve been facing all along was closer to home than expected. But maybe
it was expected. The series, and the story of these two brothers, opens with the death of
their mother. They try to bring her back with alchemy - the forbidden art of human
transmutation. Instead, they bring back a monster - uncanny valley for sure, a guise of a
person who is lacking that one thing that makes their mom ​their mom​. The soul. Their
world is governed by the concept of equivalent exchange, but they hadn’t factored in the
soul in their transmutation, and so they brought this monster out instead. Not only that,
but they have to pay a price for their transgression - the elder brother, Edward, must
rescue Al from being taken in exchange. He gives up his arm and leg in order to bring
his brother back, and his brother loses his whole body. But in the exchange Ed catches a
glimpse of something - a door through to see The Truth. As viewers, we’re only given
flashes of what Ed sees through there, but it’s something big and something that
changes him fundamentally. After this he’s more skilled, more able to see the world for
what it really is. But it’s disturbing, and not really something he’s meant to see - it’s
implied that it’s almost a punishment. It could be interpreted that what Ed saw was the
higher reality, the archetype, the actual noumenal without the aid of symbols or
interpretation. The naked truth was not meant for him, not meant for us. We need to see
it wrapped up in story, and that’s why stories are important.
In high school, my senior quote came from Terry Pratchett’s children’s fantasy
novel ​The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents​. One character in the book is a
girl called Mafalda who is obsessed with stories, and fairy tales in particular. Others
question her about this, especially when she blurs the line between reality and story -
but her response is simple, and something that stuck with me and inspired me. She said:

“If you don’t turn your life into a story,
you just become a part of someone else’s story.”

5
This theme of stories, and the reality of them is continued throughout the novel. It
begins with the absurdity of stories, how story and reality are both very different and
one mustn’t be foolish to live in the Real World - but by its conclusion it is shown that
stories are truth, can become truth, have truth in them regardless of their foolishness.
The book is very good, and very scary and ultimately part of a larger universe2, but it
does stand alone well, and this part of the book in particular has always stuck out to me.

2
For the unfamiliar, Terry Pratchett has written a ton of books in his ​Discworld​ series, which ​The
Amazing Maurice​ is a part of. The series itself, however, is sort of split into mini-sections within the series
and focuses on different bands of characters; it doesn’t necessarily have to be read in order and each novel
could be stand-alone as well. Many of the books are satires of earthly events transported to a high fantasy
setting, but they also frequently tackle subjects such as storytelling, truth, and creation. Other notable
books in the series (which, if you couldn’t tell already, is a favorite of mine) include: ​The Truth, Moving
Pictures, Reaper Man, Hogfather, Night Watch, ​and more.
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PART II
But perhaps one of the most important things about stories is their ability to
affect us. A question asked, either consciously or unconsciously - and then suddenly
answered by this story. You didn’t know you were searching for it, or maybe you did, but
for some reason this came to you exactly when you needed it. Maybe you turned on the
tv and heard exactly what you needed to hear from a children’s puppet show; maybe a
song came on the radio you hadn’t heard in years but suddenly affected you like it never
has before; maybe you found a book in a second-hand store with a cool cover that ended
up changing your life.
In stories, things have a way of happening when they need to. While this may be
because stories are inevitably designed, I’d like to believe there’s more to it than that.
That stories are designed that way because they are a reflection of our own natures -
things happen to use when they need to. This isn’t necessarily a justification of
predetermination, or fate. Psychologists would say that humans find meaning in things
not because there ​is​ meaning, but because we make our own meaning. But isn’t the act
of making our own meaning some kind of meaning in itself? Just because I found
something that helped me just when I needed it - I created that meaning, but it still has
it. It doesn’t matter in the end.
In ​The Last Unicorn ​by Peter S. Beagle, there is a lot of talk about this sort of
thing - timing, and things happening when they need to, and the components of stories.
The story centers around the eponymous last Unicorn - seemingly alone in the world,
she is awakened to her quest by a minstrel butterfly and begins a journey to find the rest
of the unicorns. Along the way she meets a band of misfits like herself, people who are
out of place in the world. Among them is a bumbling magician named Schmendrick and
the wife of a bandit king named Molly Grue. Upon meeting the Unicorn, Molly despairs
- if only she had come when she was a young maiden! But all things in stories have their
place, their timing, even if Molly does not understand. Later in the novel it’s put
perfectly -

“The true secret in being a hero lies in knowing the order of things. The swineherd
cannot already be wed to the princess when he embarks on his adventures, nor can the
boy knock on the witch's door when she is already away on vacation. The wicked uncle
cannot be found out and foiled before he does something wicked. Things must happen
when it is time for them to happen. Quests may not simply be abandoned; prophecies
may not be left to rot like unpicked fruit; unicorns may go unrescued for a very long
time, but not forever. The happy ending cannot come in the middle of the story.”

The Unicorn’s ending can be said to be happy, although it comes with a price. Her story
is one shaded with Truth and Meaning - and in her own heroic journey she transforms

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with that truth and meaning, never to be the same again. It’s bittersweet, but it’s
appropriate, and it’s the happy ending we know will happen - albeit with consequences.
The Last Unicorn​ is a good example of a story coming into my own life when I
needed it. I grew up watching the 1982 animated film adaption. I was enchanted with its
music, its characters, and its allure. It’s a creepy movie, full of talking skeletons and red
bulls and it’s very sad, but I loved it. It was something that I kept dear to me because of
nostalgia reasons, and because I didn’t really know anyone else who loved it like I did.
Mid-2012, I attended a local picnic for an online comic I was a big fan of. I’d seen it
advertised on the internet, and it was very close to my house, so I decided to go and
meet a bunch of strangers on the grounds of common interest.
As it happens, I ended up meeting the majority of my current friend group at that
picnic. But at the time, I was nervous. I’d made a badge out of plastic beads and ended
up bringing it as a conversation starter - it was fashioned as the emblem of a character
from the comic. On a whim, I decided to give that badge to a girl who was dressed up
like that character. Later on in the day, after I’d warmed up to all the new people, I was
talking about whatever and I said - quite loudly - that I LOVED ​The Last Unicorn​. That
same girl I’d given the badge to came up to me.
“Excuse me,” she said. “Did you say you like ​The Last Unicorn?” ​I nodded. “The
author is a family friend of mine - I could get you a signed copy!” I agreed
enthusiastically, and we exchanged contact information. . . which I promptly lost the
next day.
A couple of months later, I went to a dance (also themed after this comic) with a
friend and we ended up chatting about - you know it - ​The Last Unicorn​. We were sat
outside, and a girl wearing a mask looked at us as we were talking.
“Excuse me,” she said. “Were you at the picnic in Sacramento in April?” I nodded.
“Who gave me the pin? I lost your contact information!”
I explained that the same thing had happened to me - but we hit it off that night,
and she is one of my dearest friends. I did get a signed copy of ​The Last Unicorn​, and we
both have talked about what it means to us. I’ve since gone to visit her numerous times,
and her and her family even drove down from the bay area to come see me in a
production of ​As You Like It​. I’m very grateful for this connection, all because of this
book. In my own story, it was important that I meet her - it happened at just the right
time, at a point where I was branching out into new areas, socially, and wasn’t quite sure
who my friends were. And evidently it was important enough that it happened not once,
but twice.
This convergence of story and life when I needed it is by no means a stand alone
example. Earlier this semester, around January in fact, another such example occurred3.

3
There are, of course, many more such examples, but I’m sticking with the ones that are A) most recent
and B) most relevant to my life as it stands ​right now​.
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This past winter was kind of rough for me. I was stressed out about school, about
friends, and about my future. I was agonizing over what path I wanted to take in school,
what career I wanted, where I wanted to transfer to. To top it off, I’d received news that
my cat of ten years was sick and would likely die soon.4 I was feeling like it was pointless
to do my best, that I wouldn’t really amount to anything. I had a hard time getting into
books or comics or television. Just about everything was hard.
Right after New Years I went to an anime convention. I had a table there where I
sold art prints and commissions to attendees. I was tabling with a friend, and it was fun
- always a highlight of my winter. The table next to ours was extremely talented, and
over the course of the three-day convention we ended up making friends. One of the
artists was really into this manga about ninjas. Me and my table partner had a mutual
friend who was also into this same manga, and she ended up commissioning both me
and this neighbor artist to draw characters from this manga.
I had read it when I was about twelve. In fact, I was ​really​ into it when I was
about twelve (the age the characters are in the manga itself). I had let it drop, having
gotten frustrated with it, but after drawing from it again I found myself intrigued. I
decided to try and pick it back up again.
This manga is called ​Naruto​. It’s been around in America since 2003, and is
immensely popular. It’s a ​shounen​ manga - a genre that focuses on “boy’s” stories, full of
action and hundred-page-long battle scenes. Its plot focuses on a young boy named
Naruto Uzumaki. He was born with the spirit of the ​kyuubi​, the evil nine-tailed fox
within him. Orphaned as a baby and reviled by his community, he turns to pranks as a
way of getting attention, and is a notorious troublemaker by the time the story begins.
Despite this, it is his biggest dream to become ​hokage​ - what is, essentially, ninja
president. Because the village he lives in is no ordinary village - it is one like many in its
country that produces ninja - ​shinobi. ​These shinobi are the military of the country, and
there are villages like Naruto’s all over.
There are ninja hijinks early on in the story primarily concerning Naruto and his
ninja training. In many ways, ​Naruto​ is a typical shounen manga in plot. Bigger and
more powerful bad guys appear, only to be defeated. Naruto gets stronger and stronger,
the stakes are raised. And in many ways, Naruto is a typical shounen protagonist. He is
bright and full of energy, a troublemaker - he doesn’t obey authority, but beats to his
own drum. He’s called a loser, a dummy, evil - but he doesn’t let that stop him. Naruto is
full of optimism, both for his own goodness and the goodness of the people around him.
He believes wholeheartedly in his village, despite their hatred of him.
In many ways the real power of Naruto is the power of belief. His strength doesn’t
come from the fox demon inside him, but in his own conviction. A big conflict that

4
His name was Gandalf. I had him on my mind a lot, when I was registering for classes for this semester
even - I’d say that was an influence in my choice to take this class, even.
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occurs over and over in ​Naruto​ is that the way of a shinobi and the way of Naruto aren’t
necessarily congruent. Naruto is told repeatedly that the way of a shinobi is brutal, it is
cold, you can’t get attached, you must be ruthless and efficient and silent and deadly - all
things that he is most definitely not. But instead of giving up, instead of conforming to
what society - his mentor figures, his enemies, it doesn’t matter, it’s everyone - tells him,
Naruto gives them the middle finger, again and again. When given a choice between X
and Y, Naruto will always, ​always​ choose Z. He makes his own Ninja Way, regardless of
what he is told he has to be, and regardless of the rules. His way is of compassion, of
doing the right thing, and of belief in both himself and other people to be and do those
things as well.
This type of story was very important for me to hear. I felt like I was being forced
to choose path X or Y - I hadn’t even considered Z, or any of the rest of the alphabet. For
these qualities to not only be apparent, but ​celebrated​ was something phenomenal. It
might be silly for someone to have their worldview changed by an optimistic twelve year
old fictional ninja boy, but it’s what happened to me.
Perhaps one of the reasons for this change, especially compared to how I felt
about it before, was that when I had read it previously I was ​also​ twelve. I liked the fight
scene, and I liked the jokes, but I didn’t really understand or like the main character or
the larger plot. I couldn’t really focus on this story about a twelve year old because I was
too busy being twelve years old.
Fast forward seven years, though, and boy howdy was this story sure for me. As I
re-read it, I eventually got to the point where I had stopped - a point about ⅓ of the way
through the entire story5. Naruto ages as the story ages. Right now, he’s currently
sixteen. But he’s matured beyond his years. Like other shinobi, he’s been in an active
military since he was twelve. It’s astounding to read this manga, remembering Naruto as
an annoying kid only to read on and find a real hero instead. Now, it’s evident he always
had those qualities - and I love kid Naruto as much as I love contemporary - but it’s
really one of those things where it felt like I grew up with him in some way.

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​So far​. The ​Naruto​ manga is still ongoing. As of today, there are 674 chapters out - with another one
coming out every Wednesday.
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PART III
But while Naruto the character has matured, so too has ​Naruto​ the story. As it
goes on, the manga turns from a light-hearted action comedy to a political drama.
Naruto faces worse and worse villains, but he also battles with other things - betrayal
within his village, his comrades, and from his best friend. As of now, it’s evident that
Naruto​ isn’t about ninja hijinks anymore. Rather, it’s about opposing forces, the eternal
struggle between good and evil, light and dark, yang and yin.
Naruto himself represents yang. In fact, it’s explicitly stated. When he was a baby,
only the nine-tailed demon fox’s ​yang​ chakra was sealed into him. Naruto, as a result, is
yang to the core. Loud, active, blond, tan, clad always in orange, and almost summer
personified. The hero of his story, now beloved by not only his village but almost
everyone in his world - Naruto is a force of good, of honor. That’s not to say he’s
infallible. He’s not prone to over-thinking, and prone to bluntness and impulsivity. But
his greatest weakness is another boy named Sasuke Uchiha.
Sasuke is Naruto’s rival, best friend, and the yin to his yang. Sasuke is fair with
black hair, he wears dark clothing. Like Naruto, he is an orphan - but he is an orphan of
noble birth, only surviving member of a prestigious clan. He is called a genius by the
village, all the girls love him. But whereas Naruto is motivated by love and his belief in
people, Sasuke is motivated by hatred and distrust. His only motivation to live is to kill
his brother, who murdered his family.
The two are drawn together from the beginning - arguing and fighting over every
possible thing. But as Sasuke’s darker side becomes more apparent, he starts to resent
his friendship with Naruto - and so he pulls away. This betrayal starts the darker tone of
Naruto​ to come, as Naruto must deal with not only his overwhelming desire for his
friend back, but his friend’s own refusal to be ‘rescued’.
When I say the two are soul-mates, I don’t necessarily mean it in a romantic way6
- instead, I mean it in the way that the two literally can’t live without the other. The
main struggle of ​Naruto​ is between these two and their opposing ideologies. But despite
this, they are never explicitly enemies, often compromising their strongly held beliefs
when it comes to each other. In the most recent chapters, their yin-yang connection was
revealed even more explicitly. It turns out the two are pseudo-reincarnations of two
brothers, one with only yin-chakra and one with only yang. Their chakras were so
powerful that their struggle for power has gone down throughout the ages, their spirits
inhabiting pairs who also represent this struggle. In true shounen manga fashion, this
reveal leads to more power-ups to fight the bad guy, but its explicit point still stands -
they are two sides to the same coin in a battle that has gone on since time began.

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There is remarkably little romance in the ​Naruto​ series, instead focusing on familial and comradely love.
Perhaps this is because the series was originally aimed at young boys. Either way, it works.
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This isn’t the only story I’ve been drawn to with this struggle represented. The
ABC television series ​Lost​ also dealt with an struggle light and dark. Although its actual
execution could be shoddy at best, ultimately its symbolism paid off (in my opinion). In
its very first episode, the character named John Locke (after the philosopher) explains
the rules of backgammon to his younger companion. “Two sides. One light, one dark.”
This is an apt introduction to the show - a parable about the eternal struggle between
these two, represented not only by backgammon but again, two brothers - the Man in
Black vs. Jacob. Cain vs. Abel.
Why am I so drawn to these types of stories? I’ve always rooted for the “good”
guys, but I enjoy a complex villain. I enjoy the struggle and the areas of grey between
these two sides. Some would say that this duality is a part of human nature itself -
Robert Louis Stevenson’s ​The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde​. Maybe it’s a
part of me. I often feel drawn between two extremes. I only ever do amazing or terrible,
no middle ground. Polarity, duality. Maybe because I like the idea of an eternal struggle,
repeating itself forever. There’s something comforting in that idea. The idea of Eternal
Recurrence, as put forth by Nietzsche:

“The greatest weight. -- What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you
into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: "This life as you now live it and have lived
it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be
nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and
everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the
same succession and sequence -- even this spider and this moonlight between the trees,
and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside
down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!" Would you not throw yourself
down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once
experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: "You are a
god and never have I heard anything more divine"? If this thought gained possession
of you, it would change you as you are, or perhaps crush you.”

Just as recently as a month ago, I watched a miniseries from HBO called ​True
Detective​. A murder mystery/cop show starring Woody Harrelson and Matthew
McConaughey, ​True Detective​ also tackled this idea of Eternal Recurrence. In one of his
many monologues, McConaughey’s character, detective Rust Cohle intones that “time is
a flat circle”. This cycle is represented in the story itself, as the two detectives of the title
relive the same struggles again and again. But there’s also something comforting in the
series’ final lines, a rumination on the struggle between light and dark. Looking up at
the night sky, Harrelson’s character supposes that the dark is just more powerful. But

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Cohle supposes otherwise. He says that it used to be all dark - now there are stars, so the
light must be winning.
This can be seen as sort of combination of the things I’ve been thinking about.
Cycles, recurrence, stories - a struggle between two forces, and the truth behind it all. I’d
like to believe that my Truth is an optimistic one. The light is winning, cycles are good,
this is important. Maybe because I believe that it makes it true. Maybe I’ll make it a
story, then it will be even more true.

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