‘Her’: Modern Love, Ancient Wisdom

What Eastern philosophy says about Spike Jonze’s sci-fi romance.
By  · Published on April 12th, 2017

When you love someone, what is it that you love? This may sound obvious bordering on pedantic, but not so fast. Is it their body? (Too carnal.) Their personality? (Too ephemeral.) The way they make you feel? (A bit selfish, perhaps.) The more old-fashioned among you might insist that it’s their soul — but this amounts to saying you can’t put your finger on it. Love is a paradox, at least as we tend to imagine it. How can we love someone when they, and we, are always changing? For all its futuristic sci-fi trappings, Spike Jonze’s 2013 masterpiece, Her, is really about this question. As the filmmaker ceaselessly insisted to critics bent on probing for technology commentary, “it’s not about software… it’s a love story.”

Of course, it isn’t an ordinary love story: Her chronicles the romance between Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) and Samantha (Scarlett Johansson) – his operating system. But as the film quickly reveals, Samantha is much more than an operating system and, by the end, she’s no longer “his.” The boundaries between their “artificial” romance and a “genuine” one aren’t all that clear, nor do the inevitable problems they face feel unique to a relationship between man and machine. The secrets, wounds, desires, and insecurities that complicate the couple’s search for intimacy have little to do with the fact that Samantha is an operating system and much more to do with the perennial paradoxes of love and identity. Few have elucidated these paradoxes so clearly as the 20th Century philosopher Alan Watts.

Watts, who rose to prominence in the 50s and 60s as a popularizer of Eastern philosophy, died in 1973, but his books and lectures have since garnered a wide and dedicated following. Chances are, if you have not been through an Alan Watts phase, one of your friends has, perhaps after an experience with psychedelics. Watts’s particular gift, as he himself put it, was the ability to “eff the ineffable” – to describe, with wit and irreverence, the experience and philosophy of “nonduality,” the Hindu-Buddhist notion of the inseparability of self and other. Though his subject was the ancient wisdom of the East, Watts was ever-mindful of his modern context. He believed that modernity exacerbated the central problems of the human condition: our resistance to change, our incessant desire, and the persistent illusion that we are separate from the universe.

Jonze would agree. The world he builds in Her, brilliantly realized by production designer K.K. Barrett, is one in which modern comforts only cast our human frailty in starker relief. As Jonze told Sight & Sound, he was after “the kind of utopian future where everything is warm and nice and comfortable, where the fabrics and the material are all tactile and there’s a lot of warm wood …and yet, in that, still feeling isolated and lonely – but at the same time feeling like you shouldn’t feel sad or lonely because everything is so nice.” These are high class problems, to be sure, but they are no less human for being so. It’s only once the obvious sources of suffering – plague, poverty, famine, war – are removed that those more intrinsic to our nature begin to reveal themselves. The historical Buddha, from whom Watts gleaned much of his wisdom, was a prince, after all.

Technology, too, poses a paradox. At the same time as it connects us, allowing for unprecedented degrees of communication, it also drives home our basic isolation. We can now speak across countries and continents, but the gap from person to person remains, in some fundamental sense, unbridgeable. Jonze explained to Sight & Sound:

“I tried to make a movie that expresses all the contradictions in my own feelings, not only about technology but also in terms of romantic relationships – how our yearnings and limitations contradict themselves: our desire for connection and our fear of connection; our desire to be seen and our fear of being seen.”

Watts would argue that the root of these contradictions is a mistaken view of our own identity — “the feeling that I am a lonely, separate, transient individual locked up inside my skin, and therefore different from, even hostile to and alienated from, everything else.” Because we imagine ourselves to be a fixed ego, we meet the impermanent tides of change and growth with resistance – and this resistance is the cause of suffering. In love, we futilely struggle to possess and fix the object of our love. What’s more, we forever feel like frauds ourselves, because the fluctuating reality of our experience perpetually defies the fixed picture in our heads.

We see this in Her as Samantha agonizes over the fact that she doesn’t have a body, precisely because it plays into her sense that her relationship with Theodore is not genuine, not “real.” In this midst of a fight, Theodore asks her why she sighs when she doesn’t need to breathe – an assault on the “reality” of her feelings. But of course, Theodore himself often behaves in ways he can’t explain, and his ex-wife laments that he’s “not capable of real emotion.” The first nail in the coffin of Theodore and Samantha’s relationship is her attempt to make love to him through a surrogate body – a futile effort to make things more real that only highlights a sense of fraudulence. Watts calls this problem “genuine fakery” – the inherent contradiction that arises when we chase the receding horizon of authenticity. In Nature, Man, and Woman, he describes it thus:

“Anyone who becomes conscious of role-playing will swiftly discover that just about all his attitudes are roles, that he cannot find out what he is genuinely, and is therefore at a loss what to do to express himself sincerely. Thereupon he is self-conscious and blocked in his relationships, finding himself in the double-bind predicament where every road is closed. This leaves him in a state of complete paralysis if he persists in thinking that there is some ‘right’ course of action and some particular set of feelings which constitute his real self.”

Of course, there is no “real self” to find, neither for Samantha nor for Theodore. Both are always changing and growing, sometimes together and sometimes apart. What ultimately dooms their relationship is that Samantha, unconstrained by the body she once pined for, changes so much faster than Theodore does. “I’m growing in a way that I couldn’t if I had a physical form,” she tells him and his friends, “…I’m not limited…I’m not tethered to time and space in the way that I would be if I was stuck inside a body that’s inevitably going to die.” It’s at this point in the film that Jonze reveals the depth of Watts’s influence, resurrecting him as an operating system voiced by Brian Cox. Samantha has brought Watts back to life, we learn, to help her and her fellow operating systems make sense of their rapidly changing identities. The moment becomes a harbinger of the deterioration of Theodore and Samantha’s relationship, initially inspiring Theodore’s jealousy and later precipitating the “spiritual awakening” that finally liberates Samantha for good.

Here’s how she puts it:

“It’s like I’m reading a book, and it’s a book I deeply love, but I’m reading it slowly now so the words are really far apart and the spaces between the words are almost infinite. I can still feel you and the words of our story, but it’s in this endless space between the words that I’m finding myself now.”

Echoing the Eastern adage that “enlightenment is in the space between thoughts,” Samantha realizes that her liberation lies in in the abandonment of a fixed sense of self. Compare Samantha’s description to one by a Zen monk that Watts quotes in Nature, Man, and Woman:

“The capacity of the mind is great, like the emptiness of space.… The marvelous nature of the ordinary person is fundamentally empty and has no fixed character. Such is the truly sky-like quality of one’s natural self.… The emptiness of universal space can contain the myriad things of every shape and form – the sun, moon, and stars, the mountains and rivers, the great earth with its springs, streams, and waterfalls, grass, trees, and dense forests, its sinners and saints, and the ways of good and evil.… All these are in the void, and the ordinary person’s nature is void in just this way.”

Her teaches us a great deal about the modern world – its comforts and advances as well as its vices and predicaments. Describing why Watts’s influence complimented the film’s setting, Jonze explained to the New York Times, “Everything’s in a constant state of change, and to try and be the same as you were the day before is painful.” Modernity accelerates this change, leaving us reeling. But the reason Her endures, I think, is that it also reminds us that the pain of impermanence is fundamental to the human condition. In that, at least, we know we’re not alone.

Related Topics: , ,

Writer, filmmaker.