Have you seen a film called LIMITLESS? It came out last year but you may have been put off because Robert de Niro is in it (that was supposed to make you want to watch it). Getting in such a big flabby star might be a sign that the film-makers thought they had something important to say and they wanted to get past the fact that hardly anyone has heard of them or the rest of their cast – but in a way, being a nobody, or at least starting as one, is the whole point of LIMITLESS.
At one level, the story is as old as the hills, or as old as the story of Faust. A guy does a deal with the Devil - in this case a struggling writer called Eddie is given a new drug by a dodgy dealer then goes on to write a masterpiece in a couple of days. His literary ambition turns out to be puny when he realises what possibilities have been opened up by the drug. Beautiful women, good taste in clothes, million dollars homes, powerful friends and - this being America - the White House itself are all suddenly in his grasp. 'A tab a day and I was limitless,' Eddie declares in the voice-over. The new medication, called NZT, allows us humans to use the 80% of our brains we can't access normally. It's the story of a drug that gives us the chance to become, as the LIMITLESS trailer puts it, 'the perfect version of ourselves.'
This film has no truck with the idea that being perfect is in some way unnatural. It's not interested in scaring you with side-effects, hideous come-downs, or the fear of using up all the good stuff inside you too quickly and winding up even more defective than you started out. In the pharmaceutical future there are no kinks that can't be tweaked out. NZT can solve any problem, including any problem with NZT. The Devil – of course its De Niro – turns out to be the guy who controls the supply.
The plot of LIMITLESS is mostly about the bad things Eddie has to go through to get hold of NZT rather than the great things he can do once he gets it. It's a flashy game-story of knocking out cardboard villains until the big scene at the end where the super-cunning De Niro, having taken control of the world-wide supply, gets to say 'there is no scenario where you don't work for me.' The paranoia this plays on goes back to Brave New World where Aldous Huxley imagined everyone would have access to a feelgood drug called Soma but only if they remained efficient cogs in the big sinister machine of the scientists.
It's a flashy game-story of knocking out cardboard villains until the big scene at the end where the super-cunning De Niro, having taken control of the world-wide supply, gets to say 'there is no scenario where you don't work for me.'
David Pearce, the Brighton-based philosopher, has dealt with the Brave New World question on the FAQ page of THE HEDONISTIC IMPERATIVE, his online manifesto for a future society in which everyone will be on happy pills all the time. 'Being trapped in a chemical paradise would leave one wholly at the mercy of the ruling elites' wouldn't it?
Well, no, because taking a drug that allows us to solve any problem will allow us to solve the problem of bad guys wanting to take over the supply. In an early version of LIMITLESS, this is the response Eddie gives to De Niro's demand for total submission. (It can be seen as the alternative ending in the DVD extras).
Spoiler alert: At the end of LIMITLESS, Eddie reveals that NZT has permanently rewired his brain to the point where he doesn't need to take it any more. This ending stuffs the evil pushers and gives the film-makers the punchy victory over De Niro that they, and we, crave. It is also fits into Pearce's vision, since the message of THE HEDONISTIC IMPERATIVE is that chemical enhancement is only a stop-gap measure till we work out the biological engineering that will free us from 'the holocaust' of natural selection and allow human beings to take control of their own evolution.
Cool huh? And if you think it's crazy, do you have a better plan?
Recently, on a long train journey, I tried a new drug that I won't name here because it's totally untested for use by humans and freely available at a shop near you if you live in the UK. I had been on it for a few days, in an unfamiliar city where I needed to find my way around, be nice to strangers, not let the side down, stay up smiling till all hours and generally give the impression of being a calm and brainy person. So far everything had gone well, but stepping onto that crowded Virgin train, facing hours of confinement in a narrow seat, made me think this chemical needs a few tweaks before its right for me.
Recently, on a long train journey, I tried a new drug that I won't name here because it's totally untested for use by humans and freely available at a shop near you if you live in the UK.
The train wasn't leaving right away so I headed back to the platform for some air but the aisle was blocked by a guy who couldn't figure out how to fit all his bundles in the luggage rack. I solved his very basic geometry problem and got to the door where a woman with a huge case mistook me for a train attendant and asked me to help her to her seat. Her seat was just in front of mine so when we got back to the luggage rack I rearranged it again to accommodate her case. By then there was nothing to do but take my seat but a retired couple who arrived at the last minute started fussing in the aisle beside me. The luggage rack was full and they didn't think their bag would fit in on the overhead shelf. I told them it would fit and they got it up there ok.
All this involved a fair amount of talking to console these frazzled travellers. I am normally taciturn and indifferent to the suffering of others, so I when the train pulled out I envied the young guy with long hair in the seat beside me, nose buried in book, closed off from the world, perfectly adjusted to the tedium of the journey. After a few minutes, on an impulse, I decided to ruin his peaceful detachment by turning to him and asking, without prior introduction, 'What are you reading?' His face, a few inches from mine, was a picture of amazement, fury, curiosity and just perceptibly, interest.
'I mean,' I said, 'Would you mind showing me the cover of your book?' which freed him from the necessity of speaking but somehow sounded even more like a violation. He turned up the cover like a terrified girl lifting her skirts. I saw the title, smiled, and we sat in silence for the rest of the journey. He must have been thinking he had known I was crazy from the way I talked to the other passengers. I could feel his fear of what I might do next so I made a point of never looking out the window, since that would have meant turning my head towards him. I missed all the landscapes of northern England.
But for as long as the mood lasted, I thought invading his privacy had been as good a thing to do, like helping people with their bags. It's hard now to remember why I thought that, but if it wasn't for the drug I might have sat next to the future citizen for hours without finding out what ideas he was putting into his head. Now I know that it's people like him who are reading THE HUNGER GAMES and learning about a future that is far from LIMITLESS.
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