– Lewis Carroll, “The Hunting of the Snark” (1876)
Many have referenced Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” as the original source of the word ‘bandersnatch’, but while this is technically correct, it also appears in “The Hunting of the Snark,” which was published several years later. This strikes me as more thematically resonant with Black Mirror: Bandersnatch for a couple of reasons.
First of all, the term ‘snark hunt’ has come to mean a search for something that does not exist, and while one can spend hours with Bandersnatch and reach multiple endings, what one cannot seem to find is closure, or even a proper view of the whole. There are purportedly a trillion possibilities in a technical sense, though practically speaking there are far less (that is, the only way we might approach a trillion is by counting the possibilities of persisting in choosing the wrong path over and over and over again, and even then the number still seems too high to me—a trillion is a lot!). And there is the further question of what constitutes an ending: is it only when the credits trigger automatically, or do we count the “endings” where the option to exit to the credits is presented? It seems that most are doing the latter, while I am tempted to call the “endings” in Dr. Haynes’ office, e.g., dead-ends rather than endings proper. And then there is the further secret easter egg ending wherein Stefan plays the tape of Bandersnatch and the audio translates to a QR code, etc. Does that make six? Or is there even more that we have yet to discover?
The point is, the narrative of Bandersnatch is fundamentally open. It is a series of bifurcations that loops back on itself, sometimes with a difference in each repetition of a scene (has Colin read the Jerome F.Davies book, or not, for example). This means that even after spending hours with it one cannot be sure to have exhausted all interesting possibilities. Brave souls have made flowcharts, but each seems at some level doomed to be incomplete. The quest to map it all out is a snark hunt.
Furthermore, “The Hunting of the Snark” plays with questions of madness, or at least ambiguity. Did the baker find a Snark, or not? Apparently, he disappeared because the Snark was a Boojum, and that’s all the explanation we get. And Bandersnatch similarly denies us anything that would elucidate the reality of certain events, such as the demon Pax appearing to Stefan, or the files on the P.A.C.S. program he finds in his dad’s safe in one permutation. Are these things real, or manifestations of our friend Stefan’s madness?
It is worth noting that Lewis Carroll was the nom de plume of Charles L. Dodgson, a noted logician and mathematician. Seen in this light, the games he plays with language in his fictional work could be taken in relation to questions about the emergence of meaning, or how sense arises from nonsense. ‘Bandersnatch’ is a nonsense word, as is ‘frumious’ etc., yet it takes on a sense within the context of a poem. Gilles Deleuze explores this at length in his The Logic of Sense, linking Carroll’s work to that of Antonin Artaud, delving into the question of schizophrenic word salad, and elaborating the idea that meaning finds its genesis from nonsense.
Of course, Bandersnatch is not nonsensical; it is easy enough to follow the events that occur. But once one takes them all together, one hits upon the absurd. Stefan goes to prison for killing his father and he killed Colin and he killed Mohan and he didn’t kill Colin and the game was never released and it was released but got panned and it was released and praised but then pulled because of the murder and none of it ever happened because he got on the train and died with his mom as a child he and died in Dr. Haynes’ office as a result and he didn’t but fought her ninja-style, which led to him getting dragged out of the office by his dad and to him discovering that he was actually an actor named Mike, et cetera, et cetera.
Of course, one might be tempted to use the word ‘or’ instead of ‘and’ in thinking through that run-on sentence I just wrote, but the fact is that Bandersnatch presents us with all of those possibilities and more. And, as Colin tells Stefan during their acid trip, what matters is how decisions affect the whole. Yet it seems impossible to bring the whole of Bandersnatch into view.
Nonetheless, there are a few questions that are central to what is going on here, and they intersect with one another.
Are we complicit in Stefan’s crimes? Worse, are we culpable, since we as viewers make him kill his father, and so on? The straightforward answer is no, of course, because he is a fictional character, after all. But if we put that to the side, things become more interesting. Did you choose to have Stefan kill his dad the very first time it was an available option, as I did, or did you resist? Did you kill Colin, or let him go?
The traditional choose your own adventure book was written in the second person. Bandersnatch differs in this regard: it is not a question of what you will do, but what Stefan will. And this enters the story, as Stefan begins to feel that he is being controlled and so on. Someone has decided whether he will have the Sugar Puffs or the Frosties, what music he will listen to, etc. When he asks who is doing it and we choose an option other than Netflix, are we lying? But, then, also, if we choose Netflix are we telling the truth?
Regardless, Bandersnatch sucks the viewer into the story. “Black Museum” may have called our motivations as viewers into question, but here we are implicated in the action. After he kills his dad, Stefan asks what to do, and responds with a “really?” when you tell him to chop up the body. But then he does.
What’s interesting is that before that, in Dr. Haynes’ office, he effectively resists the command to either pull his earlobe or bite his nails. This implies that he is not powerless in light of our choices, and yet, once he is fully convinced that he is being controlled, he takes himself to be, going along without resistance even as one tells him to murder his father and dismember the body.
This gets to the heart of the thing, and the question about freedom Bandersnatch raises. What we find here is an interesting inversion of the problem as it arises in the philosophy of Gottfried Leibniz, who posited that before the creation of the world, God was presented with infinite possibilities. There is an infinity of possible worlds, in other words. Take any given moment of your life and imagine yourself making another decision: the world where I didn’t go to the store earlier or didn’t make the move that led to that romantic relationship I had for years…the possibilities are endless. If the only rule is the law of non-contradiction, there would further certainly be a world wherein my mother did not die, or where Al Gore won the Presidential election in 2000. Every moment represents a possible bifurcation.
What’s noteworthy about Leibniz here, though, is that he recognized that thinking merely in terms of logical possibility was to miss something: the various bits of the world have to fit together. It might be logically possible, for example, for a human being to fly like Superman, but that would not be compatible with how gravity works. Thus, he created the notion of compossibility.
With this move the inventor of the calculus was already on the path of thinking about orders of infinity in a way that mathematics would not incorporate for several more centuries, because the number of possible worlds in which everything was compossible with everything else would be infinite, though smaller than the number of possible worlds defined strictly in terms of the law of non-contradiction. Because, again, each choice of each person would create a new possible world.
But, as much as he is a touchstone thinker when it comes to pondering other possible worlds, Leibniz was insistent that only one exists. God chose, you see, and since God is God, well, of course he chose the best one. (This is what led Voltaire to mock Leibniz brutally in Candide).
But, then, whither freedom? If God chose to create the best of all possible worlds, and this is it, the implication is that I will do what I do within it, and God knows that. If I did otherwise, it wouldn’t be the best of all possible worlds, I guess. Leibniz recognizes the problem, but just insists on human freedom in the face of it. God didn’t make Adam sin; Adam sinned freely. Did God know Adam would sin? Yes, but he didn’t make Adam do it. And so on. It’s really not a satisfying answer to the worry at all.
What’s interesting is that Bandersnatch goes in the opposite direction from the same starting point. Here the suggestion is not that there exists a God who has chosen the one best possible world, but that the infinity of possible worlds actually exist, and thus that every permutation of events plays out in one of them or another.
This raises the question about freedom in an entirely different way: if every choice I make plays out in its own distinct reality, doesn’t that mean that everything that could be done has been done? The versions of me proliferate, with every choice at every moment splitting off in every direction, from the big ones (what if I didn’t move to New York?) to the small (what if I didn’t do laundry yesterday?) If all of those possibilities play out in different dimensions—if every possibility plays out somewhere—am I free in any meaningful sense? If every choice has been made in some version of my story, perhaps I am just riding a certain wave?
Yet, Bandersnatch is not so fatalistic as that, and it all comes back to Colin’s acid-induced monologue. What matters is how decisions affect the whole. Perhaps each choice creates a new path. Perhaps there are some choices that we are just going to make regardless of what led to them. But also maybe each moment is an act of freedom, and we truly decide which course to take.
Even if there are infinite possible worlds, there are also those orders of infinity, and that means all of the paths aren’t necessarily exhausted, much as we can’t be sure we’ve exhausted the possibilities of Bandersnatch.
Our lives might play out with infinite permutations, while still leaving the door open for novelty. Perhaps each moment is a chance to do something different, or something new, and that would open up previously unexplored pathways. And that would affect the whole.