Black Swan: Is This Real Life?

Have you ever considered if others see and experience the world differently from the way you do? Have you ever wondered how an autistic, blind, or deaf person may perceive reality? Have you ever thought to yourself “Is this real life. Is this just fantasy?” A great many thinkers spanning from Plato to Thomas Nagel have attempted to define the true nature of reality and how we perceive it. Today, we’ll take a look at subjective reality with the help of one of my favorite films, Black Swan.

Natalie Portman plays Nina, a ballerina who strives above all else for the perfection of her craft. Unfortunately for Nina, she realizes too late the all definitions of perfection are arbitrary because there is no objective standard to which she can be held. In her futile pursuit of perfection, our protagonist slowly looses her sanity, which manifests itself as hallucinations and false memories, among other terrifying symptoms. The question that we must ask ourselves is whether or not Nina’s experiences are any less real, simply because they may not be a shared experience or may not be relatable to a third party.

The term for the idea that the nature of reality is dependent upon the perception of the individual is ‘subjective reality.’ One of the oldest advocates of subjective reality is Plato, who gives us the “allegory of the cave” to illustrate his point.

Plato asks us to imagine a group of people who have been chained to the wall of a cave since birth and who have watched shadows flicker endlessly on the wall opposite them. To these people, the shadows on the wall represent everything that they know about reality. If a prisoner were to be set free and was finally able to look at the objects creating the shadows, Plato asserts that the prisoner would not recognize the objects and indeed would not be able to name them. We, as a third party (and not having been trapped in a cave), would be able to identify the objects creating the shadows at a glance. The prisoner, however, would believe that the shadows he had been seeing his whole life were more ‘real’ than the the actual objects were. In short, Plato’s allegory of the cave provides one of the oldest instances of support for the idea of subjective reality.

A much more modern philosopher, Thomas Nagel, put his thoughts on subjective reality into more simple terms. In his famous essay, What is it like to be a bat?, he argues that each and every individual organism had a unique point of view from which they see the world. Furthermore, no organism can gather experience from the point of view of another organism. The only reality that an individual can truly know is one based on his own experiences and perceptions. He asserts that human consciousnesses are closed-off from one another, and although there may be similarities, which practically speaking, allows society to function, it is impossible for two different individual’s perception of reality to be the same because they experience reality from different points of view.

In the case of Nina in Black Swan, the only thing that she can know for sure is that the living hell induced by her hallucinations are just as real to her as our own realities are to us. It may be slightly more accurate, however, to say that Nina experiences a kind of dual-subjective reality. That is to say, the individual is incapable of synthesizing information into one coherent reality, and instead makes several different interpretations of reality instead. It is important to note that even if she was the victim of terrifying hallucinations brought about by the pursuit of the unattainable, or if she experienced a form of dual-subjective reality, all of her experiences were real to her, and that really makes all the difference.

Reality is Perception

Perception is Subjective

Therefore, Reality is Subjective

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8 thoughts on “Black Swan: Is This Real Life?

  1. alleyandthemovies September 3, 2012 / 4:18 pm

    I appreciate the fact that you viewed the film from a psychological point of view. This was much more detailed and gave more insight into the movie than the typical “great plot, great performance” review. You’ve brought up many interesting points, especially how reality can be true for one person, but not for everyone else, something Black Swan really focuses on. I’ve haven’t seen this film before, but after reading your article, I think I’m going to be able to connect with it more than pure, popcorn fun. Excellent review.

  2. earthneedsusall September 4, 2012 / 1:34 am

    One of my favourite movie…

  3. drewpan September 4, 2012 / 7:16 am

    There’s a Cthulhu videogame a while back that was supposed to simulate something of the skewed perception / relative reality concept you described in a multiplayer game. As players get more and more “scared” in the game, they’ll start to see things differently. For example, you might be borderline insane, and you’ll see a town-person as a monster out to get you (and will likely shoot it), while another player will see that person for what he really is… and maybe see you as a monster later in the game.

    I don’t think they ever did incorporate this into the final game though.

  4. clubschadenfreude September 5, 2012 / 3:12 pm

    Reality is subjective? My response would be “So, you’d have no problem holding a white-hot bar of iron?”

  5. Albert Cantu September 5, 2012 / 5:19 pm

    I’m rather afraid you’ve missed the point. In the case of holding a white-hot bar of iron, I would argue that that perception would generally fall under the category of “shared experiences” as I mentioned in the analysis. Now, It is possible for an individual, say for example one who has suffered severe nerve damage, who when holding the bar does not feel pain. This experience, to him, is reality. This by no means exempts him from suffering long lasting damage to his hands, but the point is that to him, the bar is not hot. To give you another example, there is a well documented albeit mysterious medical condition called Synesthesia which simultaneously stimulates multiple cognitive pathways in an individual’s brain, leading to a variety of interesting and frankly shocking side effects. Among these are the perception of auditory stimulation simultaneously manifesting itself as visual stimulation in the form of colors, lines, and even spacial dimensions. For the individuals experiencing such a phenomenon, everything that they perceive is just as real as your own perceptions and experiences, although you have different (but no more or less real) sensory data to rely upon which you use to make sense of the world around you.

  6. Gregoryno6 September 8, 2012 / 10:07 pm

    Black Swan echoed the theme of Aronofsky’s Requiem For A Dream: these people are on their way to their own personal Hell. They built it for themselves, and this is how it looks.

  7. mistylayne September 12, 2012 / 1:46 am

    I adore this movie and I love what you wrote here. I’m working on a paper about Black Swan from a more psychological standpoint than a straightforward movie reviewer stand point and you brought up interesting points that I hadn’t even thought about.

  8. chestnutfilm September 13, 2012 / 7:34 am

    You picked a great film to demonstrate this point. Black Swan becomes much more interesting when we stop seeing Nina as insane, but rather as a being experiencing reality on another plane (or several).

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