Could My Life Be a Game or a Dream?

A study of free will in Abre los ojos, Niebla, and La vida es sueño

My recent study of chess led me to the book The Immortal Game, by David Shenk. As I read, one aspect of the history of chess that caught my interest was how people in the Islamic community (many hundreds of years ago) came to understand the concept of free will through their study of the game. Chess was different from dice games because your success depends on your reading of the game and the moves you make in response to your rival. (Most dice games, by comparison, involve no real skill at all but rather luck, thereby leading the participants to a belief in fatalism, which posits that all events are predetermined and inevitable.) The acceptance of free will, according to Shenk, would “lay the foundation of all modern science, philosophy, economic development, and democratic culture. Chess may have helped fertilize the concept [of free will], and certainly helped some people comprehend it” (34).

The use of chess to illustrate the concept of free will was interesting to me, in no small part because it reminded me of a similar analogy with a different conclusion from one of my favorite books, Niebla (Mist) (1914), by Miguel de Unamuno, a Spanish writer, professor, and philosopher associated with the so-called Generación de ’98. This short novel, which Unamuno classified as a nivola, tells the story of Augusto Pérez, a single man with a lot of time on his hands who falls in love with a woman named Eugenia. Augusto doesn’t demonstrate much agency throughout the story, as he seemingly reacts to his circumstances instead of making his own decisions. The story arrives at its climax when he consults a fictional version of Unamuno himself, who reveals that he is Augusto’s creator; Augusto, then, is merely the protagonist of a book that Unamuno is writing. And Unamuno has decided to kill off his character. In response, Augusto tries to rebel against his creator, determined to commit suicide. At the end of the story, the reader is left with the question of whether Augusto’s demise was the result of his own free will, or if the author killed him.

As an aside, if you haven’t read Niebla but its plot sounds familiar, it could be that you’ve seen the film Stranger Than Fiction (2006), directed by Marc Forster and starring Will Ferrell, Dustin Hoffman, and Emma Thompson, in which the protagonist, an IRS agent named Harold Crick, discovers that he is a fictional character in a novel. The famous author, Karen Eiffel, plans to kill her main character, not unlike the fictionalized version of Unamuno. I am unaware of any admission of Unamuno’s influence made by anyone associated with the film, but its similarity to Niebla is undeniable. The ending of both works is the most notable difference, as Harold is ultimately allowed to live after risking his own life to save that of a child and being granted free will by his creator, while Augusto dies after gorging on an insane amount of food.

Back to Niebla, one of my favorite scenes occurs when Augusto is in the local casino (which is more like a social club for men than a place to gamble), playing chess with his friend Víctor, who laments that the pieces have to move in a predetermined way, thereby planting the idea that humans, too, are like pieces being moved by a supreme being, whom some would call God. And in so doing, Víctor is arguing against free will, as does the fictionalized Unamuno. Spanish Radio and Television created an entertaining, although somewhat disappointing (for those of us who love so much the novel) cinematic version of Niebla. In the film, there is a chess scene with Víctor in the casino that occurs at about the 16 minute, 44 second (16:44) mark; however, Víctor’s reflections on chess expressed in the novel are omitted from the film. I’m embedding the film (uploaded on YouTube) below.

Niebla from Radio y Televisión Española

Chess, then, can be used as a device for presenting opposing viewpoints, such as free will and fatalism. Whereas Muslims saw themselves as the ones moving the pieces, Víctor sees himself as one of the pieces being moved. And the fictionalized Unamuno sees himself as the one moving the pieces (or characters) in his novel. By most accounts, Unamuno was ambivalent about chess. (Spanish chess journalist for El país, Leontxo García, summarizes the evidence for Unamuno’s love-hate relationship with the game in this fascinating article.) Unamuno was ambivalent about other things, as well, such as religion. In fact, one recurring conflict in his writing is that of faith versus reason. And it’s not just Unamuno. Many people can surely identify with the desire to believe in God and the teaching of their religious leaders and traditions, although their reason or logic prevents them from being full believers. Although Spain is predominantly a Catholic country, there are many other examples of Spanish cultural artifacts that question the existence of free will.

One of my favorite Spanish movies that ultimately deals with the topic of free will is Abre los ojos (1997), a film written and directed by Alejandro Amenábar. In this film, César (played by Eduardo Noriega) is a young man who apparently has everything he could ever want, including money and good looks. Shortly after meeting the woman of his dreams, however, he gets in a car driven by an obsessed woman with whom he had been having a casual physical relationship. This crazed woman attempts to commit a vehicular murder-suicide, the result of which leaves César with a disfigured face, irreparably changing his life for the worst. Unable to cope with his new reality, César’s life becomes unbearable, and the audience, like the protagonist, is left to wonder if what we are observing is really happening. Multiple references to dreams and déjà vu make us dizzy right up until the very end, when the truth – that he is living a lucid dream while being cryogenically frozen – is revealed. While he had the agency to control his dream, his subconscious turned it into a nightmare.

Final scene from Abre los ojos

The somewhat absurdity of cryogenics notwithstanding, César’s inability to control his circumstances leads the viewer also to question the extent to which he or she can trust sensorial stimuli as “real.” How can we know that what we’re experiencing is real (and not a dream), if we can’t know that we’re dreaming until after we wake up? As another aside, Tom Cruise made an Americanized version of Abre los ojos called Vanilla Sky (2001), which is pretty good, although different in some key aspects from the original, which I won’t get into here.

The idea that life as we know it could be a dream and that “death” is an awakening is certainly not a new one. One of the most famous plays from the Spanish Golden Age is Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s La vida es sueño (1636). This play is one of the most studied works in all of Spanish literature, so I won’t analyze it here, other than to summarize it as the story of a prince named Segismundo, who was jailed by his own father, King Basilio, who predicted that his son would be destructive and cruel; after being liberated briefly and causing harm, he is incarcerated once again and persuaded that what happened was just a dream. Segismundo convinces himself that all of life is a dream. His famous soliloquy, at the end of Act 2, goes like this (with a partial English translation to follow):

Sueña el rey que es rey, y vive 
con este engaño mandando, 
disponiendo y gobernando; 
y este aplauso que recibe 
prestado, en el viento escribe, 
y en cenizas le convierte 
la muerte (¡desdicha fuerte!); 
¡que hay quien intente reinar,
viendo que ha de despertar 
en el sueño de la muerte! 

Sueña el rico en su riqueza 
que más cuidados le ofrece; 
sueña el pobre que padece 
su miseria y su pobreza; 
sueña el que a medrar empieza, 
sueña el que afana y pretende,
sueña el que agravia y ofende; 
y en el mundo, en conclusión, 
todos sueñan lo que son,
aunque ninguno lo entiende. 

Yo sueño que estoy aquí 
destas prisiones cargado, 
y soñé que en otro estado 
más lisonjero me vi. 
¿Qué es la vida? Un frenesí. 
¿Qué es la vida? Una ilusión, 
una sombra, una ficción,
y el mayor bien es pequeño; 
que toda la vida es sueño, 
y los sueños, sueños son.

[partial English translation]
The king dreams he is a king,
And in this delusive way
Lives and rules with sovereign sway;
All the cheers that round him ring,
Born of air, on air take wing.
And in ashes (mournful fate!)
Death dissolves his pride and state:
Who would wish a crown to take,
Seeing that he must awake
In the dream beyond death's gate?


'Tis a dream that I in sadness
Here am bound, the scorn of fate;
'Twas a dream that once a state
I enjoyed of light and gladness.
What is life? 'Tis but a madness.
What is life? A thing that seems,
A mirage that falsely gleams,
Phantom joy, delusive rest,
Since is life a dream at best,
And even dreams themselves are dreams
Segismundo’s soliloquy from La vida es sueño, Act 2, Scene 19

Whether one sees life as a dream (as Segismundo and César do) or a game of chess (as Víctor does), both approaches suggest that free will and, indeed, all aspects of life are but an illusion. You will either be a victim of your own subconscious, which creates stimuli that deceive you by making you think that they’re real, or you will be God’s pawn, forced to move in predetermined ways. While all the works of art mentioned in this post are phenomenal and make us think about the nature of life and our very existence, none of them ultimately gives us hope or gives us a productive path forward as we move throughout life, trying to make sense of it all. Some might find the approaches to life as a game or a dream as liberating, since they allow us the permission not to take responsibility or feel shame for our actions. Nonetheless, neither of these approaches entertains the seemingly counterintuitive possibility that there might be a God who can be in control and at the same time allows us to use our free will to change our given circumstances for better or for worse, which is what I choose to believe, for what its worth. To return to the chess analogy, I might be given a particular board with certain pieces on it that can only move in specific ways, but I can move the pieces, for better or worse.

Have you ever felt that you don’t possess free will? Has art of any kind helped you to think through that feeling? Let us know in the comments below.

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