Daffy Duck vs. Nirvana
We’re all Daffy Duck — on acid.
Nothing holds still. Nothing is solid. Our world and our egos keep melting away. Who’s doing all this?
Welcome to life.
Welcome also to Duck Amuck, the brilliant 1953 Daffy Duck short enshrined by the Library of Congress and chosen by animators as the number-two greatest cartoon of all time. In seven minutes, it explains everything that’s been happening to you for all these years.
Let me back up a bit. A few years ago, I combined my lifetime of spiritual exploration with my lifetime of crazed movie fandom and wrote a book called Cinema Nirvana: Enlightenment Lessons from the Movies. My premise was that classic films like The Godfather, Casablanca, Memento, and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs unintentionally convey all the highest spiritual truths — all the teachings of the Christs and Buddhas. (More recently, I’ve issued an audiobook version). Then a friend suggested I take a look at Duck Amuck, and darned if the Truth isn’t there too.
Let’s break it down.
At the outset, Daffy is confident. Decked out as a swashbuckling swordsman, his purple plume billowing in the breeze, backed up by heroic music, he leads the charge, calling out, “Stand back, musketeers! They shall sample my blade! Touché!” He’s on a mission, he’s a leader of men (or ducks, maybe), he’s storming the castle. That is, he’s us, in the full bloom of our optimism and vigor, storming the ramparts of life.
But uh-oh: he’s crossing the screen from right to left. As all film and theater directors know, that signifies an uphill struggle. (Left-to-right motion, the direction in which we read, is perceived as natural and easy.) And now Daffy notices that the castle background of his happy musketeer drama has mysteriously disappeared. He’s suddenly a figure in empty, beige space, his heroics now meaningless, devoid of context. He’s all charged up with nowhere to go.
He’s a lot like, say, a freshly minted MBA, diploma in hand, storming the ramparts of Wall Street in 1987, just in time for the Black Monday crash; or a hot young bebop or punk or grunge musician storming onto the scene just as changing tastes make his style passé; or, really, any of us sooner or later, as we find that the world we were all set to conquer has evaporated beneath our feet.
Daffy meekly tiptoes out of the frame, then sticks his head back in, now minus the dashing plume, looks plaintively in our direction — into the third dimension — and politely requests “whoever’s in charge here” to provide some scenery. Then things get truly weird, as a paintbrush from that third dimension — the cartoonist’s brush — reaches in and paints a new background. OK then. Daffy leads the charge once more, then irritably notices that his new environment the brush has painted is a farm scene and he’s no longer dressed for the occasion. But he gamely adapts, going out-of-frame again, this time to return in overalls, merrily singing “Old Macdonald.” The scene, however, keeps changing (Arctic snowscape, tropical island), and, with mounting frustration, he keeps finding himself one costume behind.
Again, he’s us. We try, damn it, but the scene keeps changing on us. We spend our high school years getting our hair and our clothes just right, only so that one day our kids can laugh at our goofy yearbook photos. Then we work to figure out our career, but the mutating economy and technology keep conspiring to make our skills obsolete. Finally, we retire to Florida or California — just in time for global warming and biblical droughts.
Back in Duck Amuck, things get weirder still, as the unseen cartoonist reaches in with his pencil and erases Daffy entirely, then redraws him as a guitar-strumming cowboy whose instrument produces the sounds of a machine gun, a car horn, a braying donkey, anything but a guitar. From there, the assaults on Daffy’s sense of reality continue to mount, finally attacking his very notion of identity — of self. After he’s erased, his disembodied voice asks, “All right, wise guy, where am I?” (That voice is supplied, as in all the classic Looney Tunes, by the great Mel Blanc, whose name has never been more appropriate.)
“Where am I?” is a question that many people back in the 60s (and since) found themselves asking about 45 minutes into the acid trip, as the chemical pressed the “Pause” button on whatever neurological patterns generate our sense of being a separate, distinct, continuous, permanent, definable person. The word “person” is derived from the Greek “persona,” meaning “mask,” and what the psychedelic explorers so abruptly saw is that personhood is indeed a mask. It’s something made up, imagined. We’re not that. We’re the one imagining it, dreaming it — till we wake up out of it. We conceive of this supposedly permanent self as an irreducible something called Dean (or Bob, or Babs, or Daffy), an ego zipped up inside a bag of skin. Or we conceive of it as a body, even though all its cells get changed out every seven years. Or we conceive of it as a bunch of opinions and personal history trailing through time like a bunch of tin cans tied to the rear bumper of, um … of what?
But no. There’s nothing solid, no there there. As Macbeth says, “What seemed corporal melted, as breath into the wind.”
For many people whose ego meltdowns were triggered by psychedelic substances, the suddenness of the awakening made it a rude and scary one, and they freaked out. That’s what happens to Daffy. In one of the film’s most audacious moments, as the unseen cartoonist messes more and profoundly with Daffy’s mind, the black frame of the cartoon itself collapses, crushing our hero under its weight, till he rebounds into a full-on conniption fit. Some acid voyagers who weren’t prepared to see their old frame of reference come crashing down threw fits of their own. Some wound up in psych wards. Others shrugged, dismissed the whole thing, and moved on to drugs that would help maintain their complacency instead of challenging it, like beer and television. But a few said, “Hmmm, something’s going on here,” and kept exploring.
That exploration brought some of them — as well as many who skipped the psychedelic phase altogether — to TM or Zen or Dzogchen, Kabbalah or Christian mysticism, ecstatic kirtan singing or Sufi dancing. It brought some to stories of people like Ramana Maharishi, who, while sitting home alone one day in southern India at the age of 16, suddenly experienced a spontaneous frame-of-reference collapse so intense that he thought he was dying on the spot. But instead of freaking out like Daffy, he let it happen. He calmly observed the falling away of body, mind, senses, ego — all the apparatus of individual personhood that Daffy, like most of us, clings to so tightly and so futilely. And he saw that after everything falls away, a No-Thing remains: changeless, formless, personless, thingless awareness. This awareness has been observing not only the process of falling away but everything leading up to it — the whole life, with all its myriad changes. And this awareness is not anything mysterious but the simple, fundamental “I,” the I that we are before we identify with a name, a body, an opinion, a web of plans and memories, or anything limited by any qualities whatsoever.
Having no limits or qualities, it is, by definition, infinite. Clearly realizing oneself to be this infinite I is nirvana, liberation — the taking-off of the tight shoe of the finite.
Ahhhhhhhhhhh … ! (That is, ah times infinity.) Ramana’s realization took place in 1896, and for the rest of his life he advised people, when asked, to simply inquire “Who am I?” — not merely to think those words, but to turn the attention to the never-changing I-awareness that witnesses the ever-changing parade of experiences. Then you discover that, be it musketeer or farmer, igloo or island or collapsing frame … gimme your best shot, I’m that which is beyond all roles and scenes, outside all frames. If I just keep abiding in that I, getting clearer and clearer that everything else is not-I, in its own good time the I reveals its timeless, qualityless, nirvanic nature.
Then it’s not crushing when my old frames, expectations, and self-image all collapse. I’m not that which can be crushed. And by the way, “self-image”? Really? Was I worried about that? Good news: we’re not any image, we’re Self. Perhaps my favorite moment in Duck Amuck takes place when the film jams between two frames, like an elevator stuck between floors, and the Daffy in the upper frame and the one in the lower frame trade insults and finally get into a fistfight. That could be any one of us, any time we find ourselves slugging it out with the image that we or someone else has projected for us. Or it could be that annoying bickering that goes on so incessantly inside our heads. Are you the voice that yammers on and on? Or the one who has to listen? More good news: you’re neither! What does that leave? Blissful emptiness. And tag — you’re It!
Daffy never gets that far. But he does get far enough to sense that there must be something bigger than his little ego and its misadventures, some Higher Power, if you will, from whose third-dimensional point of view it’s all just a cartoon, and therefore it’s all fine no matter what happens, even when Daffy is blown up by a bomb or, after bailing out of a plane, finds that his parachute has been replaced by an anvil. (Hey, we’ve all been there.) In Duck Amuck, the mischievous Great Artist turns out to be Bugs Bunny, whose final, sadistic prank is to shut the door on Daffy — the door that Bugs has just drawn — as the exasperated Daffy shouts “Who’s responsible for this? I demand that you show yourself!”
But because we’ve seen that door being drawn, we know it’s just one more cartoon prop. The important point, the real enlightenment lesson from this movie, and the best news of all, is that you’re responsible for this. You’ve been dreaming up the whole cartoon, believing you’re just a character in it, and then having to dodge all that junk you keep throwing at yourself. All you have to do is see through that tragicomedy and “show yourself” — your true, transcendent Self. Then you’re no longer daffy, and you don’t have to duck.