Poetically Overcoming Adversity: Stoicism in Altered Carbon

Overcoming adversities has been the subject of religion, philosophy and literature since the first beginnings of mankind. Despite the modern focus on entertainment in literature and film, today there is still a wide variety of productions that beyond the entertaining factor dedicate themselves to provide role models, examples and inspiring lessons on how to overcome obstacles in life. The cyberpunk-series Altered Carbon, based on the novels of Richard K. Morgan, offers a spectacular cineastic adventure with its dense, poetic dialogue, thrilling and original action-sequences, as well as with a monumental cinematography that almost looks like IMAX. At the same time, Altered Carbon packs quite a punch of inspiring life lessons.

Altered Carbon is set about 300 years in the future. Mankind has reached for the stars and settled various systems. But the key feature that defines the world of Altered Carbon is an alien technology which allows to store human souls in so-called “stacks” – somewhat larger datachips that are implanted in the brain stem, right where the column meets the brain. Since these stacks store the “data” of a human soul, this technology allows for virtual immortality – not for everyone though, but only for those who can afford to pay for it. Stacks allow a person to live in many consecutive bodies, which in Altered Carbon’s jargon are called “sleeves”, since they can be changed like a shirt.

The technological possibility of becoming hundreds of years old allowed the uprise of so-called “Meths” (named after the biblical figure “Methuselah” who had the longest lifespan in the Bible). These Meths, by means of their virtual immortality, managed to gain even more power and wealth, and thus means to preserve their immortality further.

Hence, the overarching theme of Altered Carbon is immortality – or mortality, if you will, since our natural conditio humana becomes more transparent by contrast with its infinite counterpart. But in its concrete storyline the recurring topic of Altered Carbon is independent from questions of mortality or immortality. Instead, the adventures of the protagonist Takeshi Kovacs (in season 1 mainly played by Joel Kinnaman) evolve around questions about how to overcome adverse situations and find meaning in life. Yet these questions arise merely in single key-scenes, while the majority of the show is more of a violent feast of cruelty in a visually stupendous cyberpunk setting.

Our focus in this essay will be quality over quantity. We will direct our attention to these key-scenes of Altered Carbon, and to what they have to offer.

Scene 1: “I don’t know how to be in this world without you.”

In the first episode of Altered Carbon’s Season 1, Tak has been re-sleeved by the Meth Laurence Bancroft to solve a murder – the murder of Laurence Bancroft himself. As a reward, he promises Tak to purge all his crime records and provide him with a financial fortune that will essentially make Tak a Meth and thus immortal.

But Tak is not happy about being alive. He’s suffering from flashbacks of losing his great love, which is also the woman who taught him to become an “Envoy”. In the tv-show, Envoys are an underground guerrilla organisation led by the enigmatic Quellcrist Falconer, who is the scientist who created the stack-technology and now is fighting to destroy her own invention – just like Robert Oppenheimer.

Tak decides to numb himself with drugs and wants to blow out his stack. But Quell appears in his imagination, probably activated by the cognitive state-enhancing drugs. She encourages him to move beyond his pain and to overcome it. He wants to “make it all go away” by committing suicide, but she interjects that if he does that, “it won’t all go away. Just you.” Committing suicide does not mean to “overcome” the pain. Instead she urges him to “do what you were born to do. (…) Make things change.” He doesn’t see how helping a Meth can potentially bring a change forward against the destruction of stack-technology. Quell enigmaticly replies that “there’s more here than you’re willing to see. It’s not the threat. It’s the unanswered question. The mystery that needs to be solved. The box that needs to be unlocked.” It is her final words that make him change his mind and accept Bancroft’s case: “Finish the mission.”

As I hopefully have conveyed, this poetic scene is a reflection on despair and its antidote, hope. Quell tells Tak that escape, be it through death, sedation or other ways of denial, is not the right way to live, because it doesn’t stop bad things from being bad. “It won’t all go away. Just you.” Life is instead about being present in the world and actively participating in it, in that individual role each one of us has to play in this life. As long as we are alive and do that, we have a chance to “finish the mission.”

Scene 2: “The next screen.”

In the second scene I want to present you to show the beauty of Altered Carbon, Tak has been kidnapped and sedated. He is now being tortured in a virtual reality, to get some information out of him related to the intricacies of the plot.

While being strapped on the bed in the virtual construct, he has flashbacks of when Quell taught him how to survive virtual torture. The caveat with this kind of torture is that while it is virtual, its pain feels real and is endlessly repeatable. So while a person in real life might die from torture-induced stress, in this variant they return alive and will be tortured again to the degree of multiple deaths. It’s the ultimate form of torture. Pretty sadistic fantasy the author has.

Anyway, in this flashback we hear Quell teach him. She teaches him to accept the pain to “be without limit, the interrogator without mercy. It is a universe of suffering. There will seem to be no end. Accept that it will never stop. (…) Let them think they have begun to break you.” Then, she proceeds with the famous words of the Reverend Mother in Dune’s Gom Jabbar-Scene, which we have written an extensive essay about: “An animal in the forest is caught in a trap. It will (…) gnaw its own leg off”.

And now comes the twist.

Quell teaches him to reverse the roles. He’s not trapped. He’s waiting. Because the real enemy is not the interrogator, but despair. His victory is achieved through enduring and waiting until he finds a weakness in his enemy, and then he gets “to the next screen”. “The next screen” is the next higher level of consciousness above the virtual construct, which allows him to escape and awake in his real body.

Her teachings essentially involve a shift of mindset. It means to shift from a victim mentality into a victor mentality. One might even want to call it a predator mindset. It is the belief in one’s own strength, trust in one’s own resourcefulness and ability to endure. It means to have faith in one’s own strength and to hold on to the unshakeable belief that we can endure more than our enemies. That’s what Quell means when she says that the enemy is not the real enemy, but despair. Fighting adversity is less about the other person than about the ability to find the faith in our own ability to leverage the better outcome. This is a fundamentally stoic lesson. Epictetus said: “The key to control is not in controlling external events, but in controlling your own mind.” In the end, it all depends on us and how we are able to manage our own despair. The weakness of weapons means that ultimately everything is on you. The outer circumstance is only that which reveals who you really are inside. This is what Quell means when she says: “You are the weapon.”

This is something we cannot fake. Our true strength of character is revealed in how we confront adversity. We can either withdraw into sedation, short-time gratification and distractions to avoid having to face our weakness, or we can stand against the tide and face the pain of whatever comes at us. As the saying paraphrasing Nietzsche goes: “The true strength of a person is revealed in how much truth he can face without running away.” This is the strength that we need to develop to be able to face real adversity. If you are a person who takes shortcuts, one day you’ll be confronted with a situation in which there is no easy out – and then you will find out that you have weakened yourself by taking the easy path.

That’s why Quell says: “We find the weakness, and then we strike. Even if it is only to destroy the weakness in ourselves.” The “Stoic” (in its broader sense) counterpart to his is Victor Frankl’s saying: “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” Facing a situation forthrightly instead of evading it is always a chance to a better outcome. You either win or you improve. As long as you aren’t willing to correct your own faults, nobody can save you. As long as you are willing to honestly correct your faults, nobody can stop you.

Scene 3: “A man who never loves gives no hostage to fortune.”

This is the most poetic scene of Altered Carbon, and its lyrical complexity is probably beyond what I can express in a short chapter of this essay.

The scene takes place after Kristin Ortega (Martha Higareda) has been critically injured and Tak is standing outside of the hospital, ruminating. Again he has an appearance of Quell, who speaks to him.

I want you to pay particular attention to Quell’s position relative to Tak throughout the scene.

In the beginning, she’s standing far away on his left hand side. They talk about Kristin and her role within Tak’s mission as an Envoy. He’s evaluating whether he’s been treating Kristin as an “expendable local”, just as Quell has taught the Envoys to operate. But Tak has developed feelings for her and doesn’t want to “expend” her. That’s why he says: “She’s not gonna die” in that moment when Quell is suddenly standing closer, right next to him. He is remorseful and doesn’t want to let a loved one die for him again. But Quell tells him that this is what he had been doing for the last centuries.

When Tak sarcastically replies that her expression was “poetic”, Quell now suddenly stands on his right hand side, saying: “I am a figment of your tortured psyche, I say what you’re thinking.” Hence, although this scene is visually a dialogue, we need to perceive it as an inner monologue.

And to follow up her words, he says: “A man who never loves gives no hostage to fortune, to paraphrase a great scientist.” The “great scientist” Tak paraphrases is Francis Bacon, and his original words were:

He that hath wife and children hath given hostages to fortune; for they are impediments to great enterprises, either of virtue or mischief.

Tak wishes he could just act on behalf of his mission without having emotional entanglements adding further complexity to his life. He wishes for a world in which he could separate his strife for achievement from his personal attachments. But that is not how the world works, and Quell reminds him that he knows this.

The conversation now returns back to Kristin. He defensively points out to her that Kristin isn’t the same thing to him as Quell was. When she reminds him that true “love isn’t finite”, he becomes remorseful about the Envoy’s mission:

“Maybe life shouldn’t be either. Maybe we should keep living, forever. Maybe we fought for nothing, maybe you died for nothing,” expressing the wish that they could have loved each other forever if they hadn’t engaged in this war against immortality.

Overcoming Adversity

The philosophy of overcoming adversity is widely known as Stoicism. To be more accurate, Stoicism defines a very specific school of Hellenistic and Roman philosophers – but its focus on overcoming adversities through calmness of mind, the practice of virtue and becoming a better human being have caused every thought of such tendencies to become labeled as Stoicism. Today, it is in particular Ryan Holiday’s books on Stoic philosophy that have initiated a huge renaissance movement of Stoic thinking and acting.

Just like Altered Carbon fascinates through its strong contrast between cruel violence and poetic thought, so Stoicism compels with its ability to combine a positive outlook on life with the willingness to look at the bad in it. It goes even further: A truly good life can only be lived by overcoming and mastering the bad, ugly and difficult things in life. As the ancient Stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius put it: The obstacle is the way.

Conflict is a part of life. And for Takeshi Kovacs this is because “the instinct of violence curls inside us like a parasite, waiting for a chance to feed on our rage and multiply until it bursts out of us.” Hence, the source for our conflicts is always within us. This corresponds with the Stoics’ view that our base human nature needs to be governed by virtue, to prevent us from being slaves to our lower instincts.

It is of the utmost importance to understand that the Stoic perspective on mankind is not pessimistic. They are not saying: “Humans are bad”. Instead, what they say is: “Humans can be bad when they do not keep their bad parts in check through virtue.” Hence, while they acknowledge that all of us have the capability for evil (which only immature or delusional people will disagree with), yet they insist that we can strengthen ourselves and master our lower emotions, so we can avoid inflicting damage upon ourselves and others, and can avoid to lead miserable lives.

This premise has been shared by ancient cultures and religions around the globe independently – apparently only until recently. For the modern spiritual movement has strayed so much from this perspective that it tends to look only for the light, and ignore the fact that the light can only be reached by confronting the darkness within ourselves. It fundamentally acts on surface level by preaching quick fixes like visualizations, yoga, meditation – which essentially can all be good practices. But without doing the actual work of dealing with the own demons within, all of these practices are nothing but narcissistic fantasy and emotional masturbation. And why? Because they are mechanisms of avoidance, instead of a search for truth.

The escape we humans seek is the escape from our own monstrosity. Trying to escape it will not defeat our demons, but make them stronger and lead to multiple layers of neuroses. Nowadays it has become socially acceptable to practice emotional avoidance and deceive ourselves by calling it positivity. Instead of solving our issues we go for the quick fix, the cheap dopamine spike: playing video games to avoid feeling your lack of fulfillment, jumping from one relationship into the next to avoid feeling the pain of being alone and learning to deal with our own issues.

Nothing and nobody can help someone who isn’t trying to see their own participation in the situation they are in, and only see themselves as pure-hearted victims. The only way to defeat our own monstrosity is to face it with eyes wide open. We can only be good human beings if we tame and control the capacity for evil within us, and turn it into a force to actually fight evil in the world.


3 thoughts on “Poetically Overcoming Adversity: Stoicism in Altered Carbon

  1. This was a great essay my friend, a reminder to look our evil eye to eye and have the courage to do our duty to maintain the frame of this frail soul. If left unchecked, out lives can become a chaotic force that infects others or harms those closest to us so we must never falter. Thanks for sharing. 😊

    1. Thank you Levi, I think you perfectly expressed the essence of the thought I tried to develop. Are there any things you noticed in Altered Carbon that I missed?

      Thank you for reading the article, I am very happy you liked it. I appreciate your comment and I would be happy for you to reach out whenever you like!

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