The quest for self-actualization
by Jessica Lee McMillan
“…All the stories in the world consist essentially of twenty-six letters. The letters are always the same, only the arrangement varies. From letters words are formed, from words sentences, from sentences chapters, and from chapters stories.” ― Michael Ende, Author of The Neverending Story
It’s fitting that a treasured childhood movie that broke the fourth wall would be partly filmed at a bookstore where I would later buy philosophy books several years later.
The NeverEnding Story takes us on a quest akin to the existential path to self-actualization. The unconventional fantasy is successful in communicating to children the underlying message about the power of belief and its role in creation.
As a child, many of the film’s concepts and twists were difficult to understand for me on an intellectual level, but the magic of the story and film endowed my childhood with rich layers, planting the seeds for personal growth.
The appeal of the story is the coming-of-age quest against growing cynicism with "visually striking reworking of traditional fairy tale tropes that articulates the need for stories and storytelling in a world fast becoming indifferent to their existence”(Mark Anthony Ayling, VHS Revival)
There are plenty of explorations of book and film (including criticism of the latter) but I focus here on the film with its wider scope of cultural influence to millions of kids who are now hitting midlife. For us, the power of belief now entails working backward to child-like belief, engaging in true self-reflection, and having existential courage to move forward knowing who we are.
As with our struggles to protect our inner worlds and survive in the outer, our real-world protagonist Bastion, immediately faces the obstacles in life that tempt to regulate his imagination. The opening scene makes it clear Bastion is desperate for validation but his father bullies him to get his “head out of the clouds” when he says he dreamt about his deceased mother again. He tells Bastion to cope with her death by facing his problems while he offers no guidance or emotion upon exiting in his suit. While Bastion must deal with street bullies in the movie, his father is the largest obstacle, bullying him out of his imagination and his self-becoming.
Bastion’s story is the ultimate, existential story of having the courage to become.
Chased by the bullies, Bastion takes refuge in the fateful bookstore, an archetypal house of knowledge. When the cranky shop owner explains The NeverEnding Story is not safe, we can understand that our linear sensibilities will be disturbed with a meta-narrative framework. It is here we also know everything is about choice when Bastion does not heed the shop owner’s warning and takes the book to an attic to shut out the world and eventually create his own. Once we are read into Fantasia through the hero Atreyu, who has been chosen to stop the largest obstacle to the beings in their universe, we learn The Nothing is sweeping Fantasia. Rock Biter stoically explains The Nothing leaves nothing behind, not even a hole. This absence of anything and presences of nothing suggests the existential plight to navigate the meaningless of existence.
Like Dorothy and her compatriots to the Emerald City, Rock Biter and his friends travel to the Ivory tower where the Childlike Empress may offer guidance but is said to be dying of an affliction linked to the sweeping engulfment of The Nothing.
The entire plot is rigged with trials to test the will of the hero, including the ancient turtle, Morla, who offers dangerous apathy to Atreyu in the Swamps of Sadness that already claimed his horse.
Beyond the looming threat of the wolf-creature stalking him in secret and the spreading Nothing, Atreyu must eventually face the Magic Mirror Gate that shows his true self and an Oracle which can “see straight into your heart.”
The self-reckoning of honestly looking at oneself in a mirror is something many of us avoid, even if unconsciously, because we may see where we have been dishonest with ourselves. Our younger selves would have not made as many compromises as these young heroes and one of the story’s most potent symbols for an adult is facing the Mirror Gate to account for lifelong habits that have shut out our true inner selves.
We become more conscious of a fourth wall, or fictive metaphysics when Atreyu sees Bastion in the Magic Mirror Gate. In effect, Atreyu is Bastion on the same heroic Quest to save a world being shut out by the loss of hope. The book is indeed dangerous as it is a portal of possibility because existential choice is overwhelming. While Bastion’s first temptation is to throw the book away and leave, he relents and begins to participate in the story more deeply.
Arguably the biggest obstacle to the livelihood of the characters is the Grmork, the wolf villain who identifies himself as the servant of The Nothing. He explains people have lost hope and have forgotten their dreams and defines The Nothing as a “despair.” In his haunting observation that those who have given up hope are easy to control, the Gmork joins The Nothing to destroy the world, as do the hegemonic pressures of conformity in our world.
Just before Arteyu defeats the Gmork, it explains the solution is “beyond the boundaries of Fantasia”. Not even the audience realizes at this point that the solution is verbal trickery; that the solution is through the non-existence of boundaries in the first place.
When Atreyu learns that Fantasia has no boundaries, it is though the Wizard has told Dorothy and her friends that the possessions they sought were there all along. The journey is not linear and the possibilities are boundless despite the lurking wolf-creatures, horse-robbing swamps, and laser-shooting Sphinxes. In our personal lives, those boundaries are the finite thinking of schedules, failures, responsibilities, and expectations.
After the landscape is swept away, the Empress explains to Atreyu he did not fail his quest has also brought Bastion, “the Earthchild” from beyond Fantasia with him. When Bastion finally gives the Empress a new name, he creates the universe again through language and transports to a Fantasia bringing with him the audience, for a thorough demolition of the forth wall. In effect, Bastion grants ontological existence through naming.
The disintegration of the fourth wall, audiences are invited to consider that there are no such boundaries, just as hopes and dreams should be. The boundaries are the external forces — the doubt and cynicism — we allow to disrupt our belief in the existential “possibility of possibilities” (Kierkegaard).
The only way to avoid meaninglessness is through belief, or what Kierkegaard would term “faith” because it helps us navigate the uncertainty that supports our existential choices. But our beliefs must come from inner truths and lessons, rather than lies fed to manipulate and put our “feet on the ground”. The Nothing, then becomes the unexamined life and living in oppression.
The unexamined life convinces us things are fixed, versus infinite — never-ending. The metaphysical structure of the narrative in The NeverEnding Story highlights the author Micheal Ende’s insight on the endless play of stories with just 26 letters.
Jaques Derrida’s deconstructionist approach to language calls the endless play of language différance, a subversion of references disrupting our idea of meaning where a word can never have an essential or fixed meaning. When we call up a word, its synonyms deferthe meaning and its antonyms differ, but we have not arrived at an essential meaning, only referents. It is only through The Nothing that we can understand and value Something but there is no “essential” meaning of either term. The never-ending story is the coming in and out of being as we write our lives daily.
And so the possibilities of storytelling are endless from a fixed amount of letters in the alphabet, the transient skeletons of verbal language. And so it is with our subjectivity, our quirks and personal différance that lets us navigate the world authentically, with a sense of limitless to the meaning we can foster.
It is fitting I bought Derrida’s Margins of Philosophy at MacLeod’s Books where the bookstore scenes were filmed. I was compelled to write the story, out of cultural synchronicity to have chosen a book about endless referents in a cultural site/cite used to tell a “never-ending” story. The meta-narrative of The NeverEnding Story invites us as adults to live alongside the slippery nature of our daily narratives, as no amount of power or money secures us permanence. Rock Biter laments that he could not protect his friends from The Nothing despite his “big, strong hands” and repeats himself in bafflement that a creature of his power and stature could not stop The Nothing.
When Bastion realizes he is “part of the never-ending story”, which is a self-authored, non-linear journey of life, we are invited to understand that we are also authors of our dreams. He interrupts his trajectory with the bullies, with his father, with is lack of confidence to rewrite his desire for fantastical possibility. The word “bastion” itself denotes upholding or defending a belief and he manifests reality by naming the Empress and overcoming his insecurity in believing.
The existential courage for us comes walking away with this knowledge and living it despite our peers and the external pressures that keep us grounded.