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Monday, July 16, 2007

The Mystic Seer

"Nick of Time," Episode #43 of The Twilight Zone, features a captivating performance by a young William Shatner exploring the psychology of superstition. At the local diner of a strange, small town in the state of Ohio they find a Mystic Seer who will answer any "yes" or "no" question put to it for the small cost of one penny.

Rod Serling sets the scene with a sophisticated yet eerie serenade:
"The hand belongs to Mr. Don S. Carter, male member of a honeymoon team on route across the Ohio countryside to New York City. In one moment, they will be subjected to a gift most humans never receive in a lifetime. For one penny, they will be able to look into the future. The time is now, the place is a little diner in Ridgeview, Ohio, and what this young couple doesn't realize is that this town happens to lie on the outskirts of the Twilight Zone."

Don asks the mystic seer if he is going to get a promotion at work. The card says that it has been decided in his favor. When Don calls the office, he discovers that the mystic seer was right. Because of this initial success, Don asks the mystic seer even more questions.

Pat realizes that Don is taking the mystic seer too seriously as Don keeps asking it questions. Due to the seer's answers, Don doesn't feel it is safe to leave the diner until after 3:00 p.m. Pat gets him to leave before then, but just after 3:00 p.m. they are almost struck by a car while crossing the street. After they both calm down, Don leads Pat back to the cafe. However, another couple is sitting at their booth, so Don and Pat must wait at the front counter.

Pat wants proof that the mystic seer is legitimate, because she points out that it was Don who had brought up the time of 3:00 p.m. After reclaiming their booth, Don immediately asks the mystic seer more questions. One of the things he wants to know is whether their car will be fixed by the end of the day. The mystic seer says the car has been repaired, and a few moments later the mechanic arrives with that very news.

Pat is disgusted to see Don rely upon the mystic seer so heavily. The breaking point happens when Don asks the mystic seer where they're going to live in the future.

Pat tries to break the spell the mystic seer has over Don by pointing out that he's letting the seer run his life. After a persuasive speech from Pat, Don realizes how foolish he has been acting. He apologized to Pat and then announces directly to the mystic seer that they're leaving to go do what they please.

They are free of the spell! But the twist in this intriguing little plot comes after Don and Pat leave the cafe and another couple immediately enters. Tense and anxious, they deposit their coins and tentatively ask the Mystic Seer if it is ok to ask questions today. They receive a card that gives them an affirmative answer, to which they breathe a sigh of relief. They then proceed to ask questions related to when they can leave the town, etc. as the camera pans out and we all leave The Twilight Zone.

Serling's epilogue reads as follows:
"Counterbalance in the little town of Ridgeview, Ohio. Two people permanently enslaved by the tyranny of fear and superstition, facing the future with a kind of helpless dread. Two others facing the future with confidence, having escaped one of the darker places of the Twilight Zone"

The parallels as well as ramifications for religious belief are plentiful. Is belief in "God" really no more than a grand Mystic Seer? The power of the symbolism in this Twilight Zone episode resides in the trivial and trite trinket that is being revered as a source of wisdom and guidance - a prophetic voice. It is little more than a cheap napkin holder that dispenses cards with random answers to "yes/no" questions.

The power of the Mystic Seer is not in its nature or composition, but it in the psychological investment that gives it currency. Those who believe are held captive by their own belief. This is superstition.

Over and above the Mystic Seer stands the rational soul - reason piercing the darkness of silly, unfounded fear. Reason does not allow its mind to be held hostage by superstition and lives its life on its own steam: Fearlessly determining its own destiny based solely upon its own volition.

Don and Pat found themselves somewhere in the middle. They were taken in by superstition, but they broke the spell before they allowed their destinies to be governed by The Mystic Seer.

Of course, the assumption in all this is that The Mystic Seer is nothing but a napkin holder. That there really is no connection between the cards it dispenses and the future destiny of life. And this is the crux of the issue. It is also the recurring theme in religion: Is there a reality behind "God"?

Paul makes an interesting statement in one of his early letters:
If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men. [N]

What did we feel for the couple who entered the cafe after Don and Pat? Who were held hostage by The Mystic Seer?


The last couple was engaged by The Mystic Seer. Their lives revolved around the Seer. The Seer captivated their every move. And we pitied them because it was only a napkin holder.

I wonder if the vast majority of American Christians can echo Paul's words: If only for this life I have hope in Christ, I am to be pitied more than all men.

In other words, if there is no reality that is giving currency to the Christian belief then how pitied are we? Or do most of us live lives that are virtually indistinguishable from the other American Dreamers?

Ah, the questions raised by The Mystic Seer! Drop a penny and ask him....if you dare!


Melody said...

You can't just enjoy the tv show can you?

chris van allsburg said...

Excellent observation. I personally like to "just enjoy" movies and tv shows, but then I guess that makes me a knuckle-dragging, dilettant.

Jon and the rest:

I confess that I submit to supersitious stuff sometimes--like yesterday at work. But I wouldn't have thought about it if it hadn't been for Jon's blog. Thank-you Jon thank-you!

And I call myself a Calvinist. Bad Calvinist!

samlcarr said...

Some folks are just predestined to be superstitious

Melody said...

Chris, me too - usually.

I hated tearing stories apart in Lit. class. I didn't want there to be symbolism or themes or hidden meanings. It was always so depressing.

My parents are horrible about watching tv whos and movies. There was a time when Star Wars always caused a discussion on Taoism and when Star Trek invariable led to Humanism and/or Political correctness.

Nothing gets to just be what it is.

samlcarr said...

But that's the whole point isn't it? One doesn't really know what a thing is until one starts to think about it a bit.

Thinking, and that too critically, is important, very important, even though in the effort we sometimes do go round in circles.

chris van allsburg said...

friend and compatriot! Sometimes at work we will say, "Oh don't use that file, it's unlucky," i.e. the previous applicant turned us down, or the underwriter turned us down, und so weiter (and so on). I usually don't submit to that kind of thinking, but the other day I caught myself.

Sam and Melody--
I love to think about themes, plots, literary devices --I majored in english--but I also like to "just enjoy" a show too.
I'm a mixed bag, I guess.
Sam is right, thinking isn't the great past time of americans lately-especially in the household of God.

And Mel--I think it's really cool you have those memories from parents who cared so deeply about instilling a right worldview for you. Not many kids can say that! I see that it could've gotten old sometimes though.

peace and love and go tigers.

Melody said...

Sam, thinking about something a bit to know what it is, is one thing. I just like for something to BE what it is, instead of secretly something else.
I'd like for geraniums to stay geraniums and for a sinking boat to be a sinking boat (though I am secretly amused that Mark Twain looted and sank romanticism, I can't help myself).

But, well, I'm reading LOTR right now so it's a pretty good example, Tolkien uses his story to talk about power and struggle and all sorts of great stuff, but things always are what they are. The ring of power is the ring of power, and not anything else.

Chris, I like to love a story for the story as a whole, but if I knew more about it I probably wouldn't hate all the themes and such as much.

As a child I was very mad at Claude Monet because he painted objects, not for the object, but because of how the light played off the object. Somehow it seemed wrong for him to love the light more than what he was really painting, but after years of drawing and painting things myself, I've come to realize what an essential role light plays in making an object what it is.

I rather think it's the same with the literary what-not.

As for the parents, yes it is cool, though I didn't really relize it till I was in highschool and college.

samlcarr said...

Chris, I tried to follow you to your blog but got only an empty page. If you have your blog up elsewhere how about a link.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Melody: Sam, thinking about something a bit to know what it is, is one thing. I just like for something to BE what it is, instead of secretly something else.

Right. I'm with you on that. Artistic media should just "hit" you. By and large I live my life allowing things to just BE...however, if something really hits me I usually end up thinking through why it hit me and what it is about that particular movie/tv show/song/novel/etc. that moved me in a particular way.

There is such a thing as bad analysis, and this is the kind that reads Humanism into Star Trek or looks for the backmasking messages in an album. A person can become almost, what shall we say, superstitious about the "hidden meanings" of things to the point where they get paranoid....of course, that person would probably also say I'm just letting myself become too "worldly"....so, to each his own??!?!?

I usually just try to learn stuff from what I read/watch/hear....

Melody said...

There is such a thing as bad analysis, and this is the kind that reads Humanism into Star Trek or looks for the backmasking messages in an album.

My youngest sister frequently complains to me of a friend who, no matter their assigned reading, pronounces it secular humanism.
"They can't ALL be secular humanists!" she rants.
I love it, it cracks me up.

samlcarr said...

Melody, I had to think about that a bit! You're right about LOTR an that is the ery character of the writing there. It's less true of C.S. Lewis's fantasies, where there is a bit of 'hidden meaning'. PoMo thinking would have us mostly discount the author or authorial intention in favor of the text an what the reader would make of it. This is one of those areas where I guess a blanket rule is not always the best thing...

Melody said...

Yes, Lewis, loves allegory and hidden meanings...but they're kinda obvious hidden meanings.

Anonymous said...

"You ain't gonna like this as much as you would that chicken fried steak..."

Jonathan Erdman said...

Excellent line....one for the ages...