When Rutger Hauer died last week social media lit up for one brief moment with a thousand iterations of his tears in the rain speech from Blade Runner. It’s the best bit of the film (a film to which I am not partial), and it’s great despite the clunky scifi nonsense weighing it down.
I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.
(It’s worth noting that Hauer himself wrote the “All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain,” which is what we’re going to be talking about here)
This monologue comes at the end of the movie, as Roy Batty has defeated Harrison Ford’s Deckard but has opted to save his life. Here, on a DTLA rooftop in the rain, Batty passes the Voight-Kampf Test, flipping this turtle rightside up. And as Deckard sits, astonished, Batty gives that speech… and then dies.
It’s become a monumental little monologue because the existential howl at the center of it is so familiar to us all (and because Hauer’s delivery of these few lines is coursing with intense power and pathos). We live in a modern world, and few of us believe in eternal souls. We have come to accept that when we die, that’s it – lights are out, the show is over and there is nothing else. Every unexpressed thought, every feeling, every experience we have ever had is snuffed out as the neurons go dark and cold.
For us humans maybe there’s the small hope that there is an afterlife, even if we don’t really believe in it (after all, why else do we still say stuff like “Rest in Peace” and get mad when folks shit talk the recently deceased?) but replicant Roy Batty has no such comfort. He has met God… and killed him. Roy has none of the illusions that even the most atheistic of us harbor, that maybe – just maybe! – there’s something next. He is counting down the seconds until he ceases to exist.
The tears in rain line echoed with me for years. The idea of the unique me, the person thinking these thoughts and typing these words, ending was too much to bear. That I should disappear, like a teardrop consumed by the rain, was a horror beyond imagining. It’s a fate worse than death itself, the idea of not being. The eradication of the self is even scarier than the Hell I was taught about growing up Catholic (and that had a hold on my imagination well into my 30s, well after the time I had decided I didn’t believe in God).
Roy’s desperate grasping for more time is one of the most human things about this more human than human character. But I think that his grasping is wrong, and that this is also so incredibly human for him. What’s funny is that the tears in rain speech can, in some ways, apply to why I think he’s wrong.
When you’re looking at the world from a self-centered perspective (and I just mean when you’re using the self as the starting point of all things, not that you’re a narcissist) the loss of the self is terrifying. You identify with this being that you call yourself, and the idea of it going away is beyond imagining.
What if you step away from the self? What if you begin to melt down the boundaries of self and see you not as a separate being but as a cell in a whole, a leaf in a tree… a drop of rain in the ocean? I have read a description of our existence that goes like this: we are water, in the clouds, and then we become individual drops. Each of us has our own experience and then when the drop falls into the ocean it reunites with the rest of the water.
We are made of the same fundamental materials as the rest of the universe, and then at some point those materials come together in a way that creates us, beings that have consciousness and self-awareness. Somehow the same atoms that make a star, when put together in a different arrangement, make a consciousness. For some time we experience reality as individuals, and then that time ends and we return to the materials that created us. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust as they say when they’re going for brevity.
The problem is that we get attached to this moment of individual existence and think that this is the whole thing, that any other state is terrible. But the other states are natural and they’re how it’s supposed to be. There’s nothing sad about a tear drop meeting other water in the rain and merging and then evaporating and then returning to the clouds, and then raining again and then… You get the picture.
“But wait,” you say. “This is great for water, which has no consciousness*. Water doesn’t know what’s happening to it. I do!”
Okay but… do you? Roy Batty’s speech, and our own attachment to our existence, comes from the belief that there’s a solid Roy Batty moving forward through time. That the Roy Batty on that roof with Deckard is the same Roy Batty who saw the C-Beams glittering. The thing is, he isn’t.
The Roy who was at Tannhäuser Gate is gone. He has ceased to exist because the circumstances that inform who he was have ceased.
Most of us don’t believe in souls anymore, at least not fully. Still, we have this sense that there’s a solid ‘me’ that is within ourselves, that the kid who went to preschool and the adult who goes to work are the same person, even though we know they’re not. Most of our cells are not the same cells, let alone whatever is going on inside of our heads at these different points of our lives.
In Buddhism the belief is that there is no central self, no soul. Instead there are five aggregates that come together to create the experience of a self that we all have. The best way I have heard this explained is that it’s like sailing – there’s no such thing as sailing, you can’t pick up sailing and put it in your pocket, but you can do it… when the circumstances come together. Sailing requires a boat, water, some wind, and without any one of those three things you’re doing something very different. So it is with our selves – we are the result of these five aggregates (form, feelings, perceptions, mental activity and consciousness) working together to make us feel like we have a self.
There’s no self, there are just instances of us experiencing ourselves, and when those instances end, so does that self. You know this deep within you – the self who was hangry this afternoon is fundamentally different from the self who is satisfied right now, to use the most banal example. And forget the self that existed two, three, four years ago. Every time you go to sleep and lose consciousness you’re dropping one of those aggregates out and you cease to exist as yourself. Your physical form exists, but it also exists after you’re medically dead. The existence of the self isn’t defined by the existence of the body (but without the body, aka form, you’re missing one of the aggregates).
Assuming the replicants don’t have photographic memories (and Blade Runner 2049 makes this pretty clear), the Roy Batty of today isn’t even remembering those experiences fully. He’s remembering his memories of them (there’s a lot of evidence that this is what all of our memories are – not of the events, but of us remembering the events. We’re our own most unreliable narrators). Roy Batty is as far removed from the experience of the C-Beams as would be someone who heard about them, or saw video of them. The unexpressed thoughts of that Batty are gone even before he’s dead, the thoughts that seemed so important three years ago were long since gone before he came to that roof, the experiences that are so vital to him are muddled memories.
That Roy Batty died already. We die all the time, and we start new all the time. Our ‘final’ death is just another new start, this one without our awareness. It’s kind of beautiful, thinking of the tears and the rain coming together to form something bigger than any of them individually. It’s not life after death, it’s death as a stage of life.
None of this is even metaphysical. None of this is even spiritual; I think that Buddhism’s five aggregates and lack of self are actually common sense and fit in with a modern agnostic/atheistic/scientific point of view. If you want to get metaphysical with it you would tackle the idea that our existence, which makes no sense, and our consciousness, which seems to serve no purpose, is actually all about the universe experiencing itself. Roy Batty’s experiences are not lost to time, they are data that is being processed by the universe itself. That’s a bigger leap, and that’s a bit more galaxy brain/stoned dude in the dorm… but that doesn’t make it untrue!
Perspective is everything. Roy Batty, at the end of his life cycle, only has the perspective of himself as a distinct being, and so the ending of that distinct being (or at least an aspect of it ending) is sad and frightening. But with a perspective shift, with the view of ourselves as raindrops falling from clouds to the ocean, the end of our individual journeys become less terrifying. There’s joy and positivity in the raindrop returning to the sea.
So all these moments will be merged again, back to the water from which they came, like tears in rain.
*Maybe! If you’re a Patreon subscriber at the $5 or above level you’ve been recommended Conscious: A Brief Guide to the Fundamental Mystery of the Mind, which includes a lengthy discussion of the concept of panpsychism, which states that consciousness (which we really do not even begin to understand) is a fundamental force of the universe, like gravity or the strong and weak nuclear forces, and that all that exists has consciousness.