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Longing for the multiverse

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One of the punchlines in the film Everything Everywhere All at Once is that Michelle Yeoh’s character, Evelyn Wang is the worst version of all possible Evelyns who exist in the multiverse. She is an ageing Chinese immigrant who runs a laundromat and is about to be audited by the IRS. In other universes, she’s an actress, a singer, a martial arts pro, hibachi chef, even a roadside sign-twirler.  

The multiverse is having a revival in film and literature. Marvel plunged headfirst into an exploration of the multiverse in their Avengers and Spiderman franchises. Dr Strange and the Multiverse of Madness was released last month in Australia and WandaVision on Disney both toying with the multiverse idea.

When I was in the throes of new-born delirium, I listened to The Midnight Library by Matt Haig on audiobook. The story follows Nora Seed, who’s on the verge of ending her life. She lands in a liminal space, the ‘Midnight Library’ where every book is a different life, the result of each decision she’s ever made. On opening a book, she dives into that life, for a time and experiences alternate versions of herself. It turns out there are other ‘sliders’ caught between life and death. Nora meets one of these people, Hugo who’s lived over 300 lives. ‘There will never be a life I truly want to live forever. I get too curious,’ he says.

At a time when a second baby meant my own choices were fading into the background, I thought a lot about Nora and her life-jumping. What if I’d had kids later? What if I’d finished that degree? What if I’d taken that job? What if, what if, what if… The multiverse casts a web of different lives, all endlessly diverging like branches from a tree. 

Just how fractured is our present reality that this dream-making of alternate worlds is so appealing, so now? A clue might lie in the 2011 arthouse film Another Earth, which manages to pull off one of the most soulful executions of the multiverse idea. Brit Marling plays Rhoda Williams, a woman consumed by regret after killing a pregnant woman and her son while drink-driving. Reports unfold about the discovery of ‘another earth’, Earth 2, where your ‘replicate’ lives. Rhoda’s anxiety causes her to dream of her alternate self, where she’d made different choices.  

 

'We’re told we’re the centre of the universe, we can do whatever we want crippling us with the paradox of choice. If there is nothing beyond this world to believe in, it is a heavy burden indeed. Every decision carries with it the power to make or break us.'

 

What if anxiety around choosing the best possible life is a by-product of living in a consumerist society? C. Thi Nguyen tweeted in response to a recent question from Ezra Klein about the multiverse: ‘If Greek tragedy is the expression of the worldview that things are fated and fixed, multiverse/alt-self stories are an expression of a worldview of deep contingency in the shape of your life.’  

The Ancient Greeks saw themselves as entities within a community, with no strong distinction between ‘I’ and ‘other’ and some higher hand guided the universe and everything in it. This is exemplified in the ‘Moirae’, the goddesses Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos who spun the thread of each person’s life, wove it together and decided when it should be cut.

Like this Ancient Greek notion, not being wholly responsible for one’s own successes or failures is an idea gaining modern currency. In a 2009 TED talk, Elizabeth Gilbert resurrected the ancient Roman idea of a guiding spirit, a ‘genius’, which would visit the painter or poet or musician. You are not a genius, she stressed, you were visited by one which tempers the ego. ‘If your work bombed, [it was] not entirely your fault… everyone knew your genius was kind of lame’.  

The multiverse appeals to young people who carry the weight of the world: we bear witness to every breaking news moment as it pings our screens, we watch nature buckle from mankind’s negligence, we’re told we’re the centre of the universe, we can do whatever we want crippling us with the paradox of choice. If there is nothing beyond this world to believe in, it is a heavy burden indeed. Every decision carries with it the power to make or break us. No wonder we’re chronically burnt out.

Everything Everywhere All at Once fuses absurdity with the deeply profound. Evelyn's universe jumping takes her to some strange places, but the heart of the story is her relationship with her daughter Joy, who’s dissolving into a state of nihilism. Evelyn embraces silliness and kindness as an antidote for the unbearable weight of existence.  

The world is imperfect, but we make the best of it that we can. There is no Earth 2. As Nora writes in The Midnight Library, ‘We only need to be one person. We only need to feel one existence. We don’t have to do everything in order to be everything, because we are already infinite. While we are alive we always contain a future of multifarious possibility.’

 

 

 


Cherie Gilmour is a writer from Torquay whose work has appeared in Voiceworks, The Australian and her blog.


Main image: Michelle Yeoh (Courtesy of A24)

Topic tags: Cherie Gilmour, Multiverse, Everything Everywhere All at Once, Michelle Yeoh

 

 

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Existing comments

If I had any advice to those who either read multiverse fiction or watch movies of that genre, I would say to them: 'Leave it as fiction'. The great, authentic Christian mystics and the greatest Christian poet, Dante, had what I would term real visions, based on reality as it exists. We have to work through reality, which, if we were really able to see, has boundless prospects for our good, but we need to connect.
Our society has lost its bearings and does need to come down to earth.


Edward Fido | 03 June 2022  

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