The human mind is an interesting place. It's where the physical world and the imagination meet, recreating images, stories, memories, and emotions that compile into our perspective on life. It's the thing that helps us debate the big questions like the existence of god and other metaphysical questions.
But what is the meaning of the word "metaphysical"? And how is it used in the arts like poetry, literature, and filmmaking?
Today we're going to explore the natural world and dig into the supernatural. We'll look into logical positivists and metaphysical questions and get to the history and root of the word.
We're also going to see how our greatest artists throughout history have used this word to build some of the best pieces of literature and films of all time.
Sound like fun? Let's go.
'The Matrix: Revolutions'Credit: Warner Bros.
The Metaphysical Meaning in Poetry, Literature, and Filmmaking
Philosophy and art go hand in hand. Humans contemplate big ideas, like their place in the world, then put them onto paper or onto the screen for others to revel in their experiences. We call this an interaction or interrogation with the metaphysical. And it's pretty crucial to all writing and storytelling, especially worldbuilding.
But to understand what that really means, we should get to the root of the word.
What Is Metaphysics?
Metaphysics is a branch of philosophy. Its followers study reality and human nature. The idea is that change, identity, space, and time are all wrapped up together in the human experience. Metaphysics asks questions about our consciousness and how we relate to the world.
This philosophy is determined to determine the relationship between mind and matter.
'Silence'Credit: Paramount Pictures
The word "metaphysical" means something having to do with the study of metaphysics. When we talk about the metaphysical, we're talking about mind and matter in relation to the subject of poetry, literature, and/or film.
Metaphysics is considered one of the four main branches of philosophy, including epistemology, logic, and ethics.
Where Did Metaphysics Come From?
It comes from Greek words that mean "after or behind or among [the study of] the natural." We think of Aristotle as the founder of this philosophical movement, because his early writings were known as "Metaphysics." Aristotle actually called this the "first philosophy."
What Are the Metaphysical Foundations?
What are people discussing when it comes to the foundations of this study? Well, the big ideas are existence, space and time, cause and effect, and the possibility of certain events happening.
The metaphysical studies are looking for answers to two significant life questions:
- What there is out there
- What it's like out there
These fundamental questions take us to a much larger discussion.
The Metaphysical Questions
When it comes to philosophy, there are a lot of questions in play. You can see how any or all of these questions could inspire a great movie, TV show, or any form of literature. Often, when we hear an interview with an author or filmmaker, they reference these questions below.
Ontology is the philosophical study of things that have to do with our very being. Things like existence and reality.
Identity and Change
Identity is the philosophical study of oneself. They look into what it means to be something in this reality. How the passing of time and changes in culture affect who we are and what we believe.
Space and Time
We exist in space and time. But both change constantly. So how do we ground ourselves in the space and time we exist? And do space and time exist when we pass through them? How exactly can they be defined? And how do they drive change?
Causality is where quantum mechanics and the metaphysical come into play. It is the inherent cause behind what happens in this world. It's the combination of space, time, identity, and change. Why do we perceive things flowing one direction? Do our actions cause life to be that way? Does time flow this way for everyone?
'Dr. Strange and the Multiverse of Madness'Credit: Disney
Examples of the Metaphysical Meaning in Poetry
These metaphysical questions have inspired a lot of writing and storytelling. I think we should look at some examples in poetry. First, I'd like to look at John Donne, whose works almost all have metaphysical themes. in them.
His poem, "The Flea," is one that stands out to me as a real contemplation of existence.
Mark but this flea, and mark in this,
How little that which thou deniest me is;
It sucked me first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea our two bloods mingled be;
Thou know’st that this cannot be said
A sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead,
Yet this enjoys before it woo,
And pampered swells with one blood made of two,
And this, alas, is more than we would do …
This poem is about two people who will never be together, but their blood is mixed inside a bug that lives off of them to survive. It takes into account a lot of the above questions, including ones on our existence relative to the lifeforms around us. And the space and time we occupy.
Another great example is George Herbert's "The Collar."
I struck the board, and cried, "No more;
I will abroad!
What? shall I ever sigh and pine?
My lines and life are free, free as the road,
Loose as the wind, as large as store.
Shall I be still in suit?
Have I no harvest but a thorn
To let me blood, and not restore
What I have lost with cordial fruit?
Sure there was wine
Before my sighs did dry it; there was corn
Before my tears did drown it.
Is the year only lost to me?
Have I no bays to crown it,
No flowers, no garlands gay? All blasted?
Not so, my heart; but there is fruit,
And thou hast hands.
Recover all thy sigh-blown age
On double pleasures: leave thy cold dispute
Of what is fit and not. Forsake thy cage,
Thy rope of sands,
Which petty thoughts have made, and made to thee
Good cable, to enforce and draw,
And be thy law,
While thou didst wink and wouldst not see.
Away! take heed;
I will abroad.
Call in thy death's-head there; tie up thy fears;
He that forbears
To suit and serve his need
Deserves his load."
But as I raved and grew more fierce and wild
At every word,
Methought I heard one calling, Child!
And I replied My Lord.
This is a poem about a man losing faith in a higher power, as the world doesn't go his way. Not only does it question the existence of god, but also challenges his place in the world, and the function of his identity.
Examples of the Metaphysical Meaning in Literature
When it comes to novels and fiction, there are lots of books dealing with these sorts of philosophical questions. One that I feel we were all assigned in high school or after was Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse. It's the story of a wealthy Indian Brahmin who seeks spiritual fulfillment by leaving his money behind, looking for meaning in the world.
One quote that I think sums the book up is below.
“When someone seeks," said Siddhartha, "then it easily happens that his eyes see only the thing that he seeks, and he is able to find nothing, to take in nothing because he always thinks only about the thing he is seeking, because he has one goal, because he is obsessed with his goal. Seeking means: having a goal. But finding means: being free, being open, having no goal.”
Another great example of metaphysical literature is a book I bet your mom has read. I feel like it's the ultimate "mom's read it" book, but that could just be because I know my mom lived it. It's Mitch Albom's The Five People You Meet in Heaven.
It's the story of a war veteran who dies saving a girl, and appears in the afterlife, meeting people related to him and people who are strangers, telling him about his life. The central question of the book is "Why was I here?" and that's maybe the most directly metaphysical question of all.
One of my favorite passages from the book (Yes, I read it too. No, I'm not a mom) is below.
"There are no random acts... We are all connected... You can no more separate one life from another than you can separate a breeze from the wind..."
Examples of the Metaphysical Meaning in Filmmaking
Yes, this is still No Film School, and we should talk about how this all relates to filmmakers and things that are interesting to us. As I mentioned earlier, these questions and big thoughts have inspired countless movies and TV shows.
Think about something like The Good Place, which tackles huge philosophical concepts like metaphysical questions with aplomb.
Or what about Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, which tells us that space and time can be manipulated and that the outcome of changes in our life is not set in stone if we can bend reality?
Or how about the absolute classic Back to the Future, where Marty McFly actually changes the world of his future by traveling to his past and changing the space and causality that brought his parents together?
These concepts can inspire your storytelling and take you through any genre you want, as long as you're willing to ask the big questions and search for life's answers.
'Back to the Future'Credit: Universal Pictures
Summing Up Metaphysical Meaning in Poetry, Literature, and Filmmaking
Now that you know all about the metaphysical in this world, it's time to put your deeper studies into action. Use them to jot down notes or form treatments, beat sheets, and outlines before you open screenwriting software and get to typing.
Ask yourself about identity and your place in the universe. Contemplate what comes next and challenge yourself to think deeper.
Now go back to work!