Escape from Flatland

Escape from Flatland

For the longest time, I have known people who picture life in two dimensions, as if life were reduced to a single sheet of paper. I even imagine these people living in a strange private mindscape I call “Flatland.”

What I say may remind you of Edwin Abbott’s novel Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions, published in 1884. Abbott reveals a fanciful world, where geometric figures skate along the surface, like shadows, but never rise above or sink below the surface.

But no, this is not what I mean. Ever since reading Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, then Gordon Allport’s The Nature of Prejudice and Michio Kaku’s Hyperspace, I have noticed that some people – I call them “Flatlanders” – have a habit of reducing the people around them to two dimensions, like flat, paper-thin simulacra projected onto an inner psychological screen.

I imagine Flatlanders feel like empty shells, and have a weak sense of self: their main concern may be to prevent themselves from imploding. They need constantly to reinforce their self-esteem, because of the harsh, corrosive effects of external reality. They may do this at a cerebral level (with arguments, rationalizations and justifications) or at an emotional level (with outbursts, sarcasm and rage).

Flatlanders live thwarted lives – in order to explain why they feel thwarted, defeated, blocked, held in check or prevented from fulfilling themselves, they attribute “flat” characteristics to other people, in two dimensions. Flatlanders are thus out of sync with their own lives. They are alienated from themselves. Naturally, they are also alienated from others.

When Flatlanders picture other people with “flat” characteristics, like face cards floating in space, they represent them as 2D archetypes. This involves over-simplifying the world of experience. 2D archetypes are projections that typify or symbolize whatever is projected from the Flatlander’s own mind. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, an archetype is “the most typical or perfect example of a particular kind of person or thing”. But wait – archetypes can be perfectly negative examples of a kind of person. 2D archetypes do not exist as real people, but for Flatlanders they are a psychological necessity and I suspect they are part of an unconscious survival strategy.

These paper-thin 2D archetypes projected onto other people can be compared to prejudices. As Gordon Allport writes, “A prejudice, unlike a simple misconception, is actively resistant to all evidence that would unseat it.”

In what I would call “balanced” people, self-esteem is directly proportional to well-being, a sense of accomplishment, and intimacy with others. As one value increases, the other value increases at the same rate. There is a kind of symmetry in these relations. However, the perspective of Flatlanders is asymmetric: it is characterized by inverse proportionality. Flatlanders compensate for their lack of self-worth, by assigning negative roles to other people, representing them as 2D archetypes.

I imagine Flatlanders fear judgment in a kind of Supreme Court of the Psyche, where a cruel all-seeing eye observes and judges their every move from on high. They are therefore prone to self-justification, enumerating their purported achievements and qualities. Flatlanders are also prone to come down heavily on others, like an Inquisitor, enumerating their purported failures and faults. Perhaps Flatlanders feel, at a deep level, that they should rush to judge others before others rush to judge them.

Flatlanders can be destructive, yet I have noticed them sidestepping the consequences of their own actions. As part of this denial of personal responsibility, Flatlanders lock onto the reactions of other people – as if Flatlanders were outraged by the skewed malevolent way other people perceive their actions. But this means driving a wedge between Flatlanders’ actions and the consequences of these actions. And it means assuming that other people, being 2D archetypes, have no right to be shocked – in fact they have no right to any independent existence at all. In Flatland, people are sometimes punished for contradicting the flat mental image projected onto them.

I like to picture Flatlanders breaking free from their mental prison, and escaping to a fuller, more authentic existence, in three (or more) dimensions. But in my mind’s eye, I see Flatlanders themselves collapsing inwards and becoming “flattened” into two dimensions, like a faded flower pressed inside a forgotten book, or an unlucky butterfly cast onto the undulating surface of a lake. In any case, Flatlanders must find Flatland a comforting and predictable place of the imagination, so why escape at all?

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