being a somewhat rambling essay on the implications and ramifications of the final episodes.
As the series wraps up, things come to a head with Edward facing down Truth:
Truth: The gate of Truth lies within every human being. Thus, it is also the potential of those human beings to use alchemy. ...Will you sacrifice the power to use alchemy and simply become an ordinary human being?
Edward: I've always been an ordinary human. A little man who couldn't even save a girl they turned into a chimera. Someone who caught a glimpse of the "truth", and started over-relying on its gift only to fail again and again. ...It's all been one long dance.
Truth: Are you sure you're alright with losing this?
Edward: I don't need alchemy as long as I've got my friends.
What goes by pretty fast is that where Truth seems to mean "ordinary human being" as "one who cannot do alchemy," Edward purposefully misinterprets the phrase to mean "someone who is limited by human failings".
But here's the thing that's been bothering me. If you deconstruct Truth's explanation, it seems to operate like this: that the gate of Truth represents a potential for alchemy that exists in every human.
Therefore, the definition of "ordinary human being" includes "potential for alchemy".
And that, in turn, means that losing the power/potential is to become less than an ordinary human being. It'd be like losing the power of speech, or some basic brain function, or maybe the ability to feel compassion or pain or heat. Something we consider integral to the state of 'being' human. Sacrificing that is not becoming 'ordinary' but extraordinary by dint of lacking something that all humans possess (even if they don't use it or aren't aware of it).
I've been racking my brains for where/when I read this in the manga, but I could've sworn it's in there, and that I used it as the basis (as probably did plenty others) in fic dialogue. Someone asks Edward, "how do you do this?" or "is alchemy hard?" or "can anyone do this?" I honestly can't recall where it's discussed in the story, but I'm positive there's a canonical (manga-based) discussion in which Edward comments that the key to successful alchemy is a lot of studying and a lot of hard work. I believe he (or Alphonse) also warns that doing it wrong will cause a rebound/backlash. (I think it might be when the brothers are discussing alchemy with the folks in Liore.)
The story has consistently emphasized that alchemists are scholars as well as scientists; we see the brothers buried in books almost as much as we see them talking to people. I never got the impression that Edward and/or Alphonse are necessarily phenomenal alchemists above all else, though they are clearly prodigies for beginning their studies at a precociously young age. Not only does the story mention several times that Roy is considerably more powerful, not just in terms of his specialization but also in terms of the skill and accuracy with which he wields it—the flashback shows Roy himself expecting to find a "talented" alchemist in his early thirties. That is, Roy does not appear to see this age as "too old to be considered talented" but actually a very realistic age for someone to reach a skill level high enough to get noticed. (I guess that would mean Roy himself is a bit of a prodigy, seeing how he was what, maybe in his early 20s when he headed off to Ishval?)
All that is why I've understood Arakawa to be saying that her version of alchemy is as much a potential for any human as, say, understanding advanced biophysics or aeronautical engineering or deep-sea mechanical systems. It's a potential, sure, but one that requires nearly a lifetime's dedication to mastering the complex and delicate near-encyclopedic knowledge one would need to really capitalize on that potential. If that analogy is too intimidating, maybe we could consider it akin to being multilingual: having language in the first place means one has the potential for learning a second, but that doesn't mean everyone is willing to put in the effort to do so, let alone to become as fluent as the top alchemists.
But then we're back to the problem that classifying any "ordinary human being" as "one who does not (or cannot) do alchemy" contradicts the story's apparent assumptions about alchemy. Either we go with the previous 107 chapters... or we accept Truth's ninth-inning proclamation that "ordinary" humans can't do alchemy.
Consider: Scar's capable of using at least partial alchemy simply because of a freaking tattoo. If that doesn't qualify as "anyone can do it, given the time and chance," I don't know what does.
Truth's position only works if we take Edward's response as fully flippant, that he's aware he was never a truly "ordinary" human, and his redirection of the term is meant to draw attention to the fact that his super-human element was still bounded by human flaws. Still, the notion that alchemists are somehow 'more special' to be able to wield alchemical powers seems to also contradict Arakawa's perspective throughout the story.
For instance, the way she treats the alchemists when it comes to warfare: that the populace sees them as monsters (for apparently so easily massacring, etc)... but I can't recall any point where a civilian or non-war-going alchemist is treated/called a monster solely for being an alchemist. Only the 'dogs of the military' (as Edward points out in manga and both anime series, I'm pretty sure) are considered monsters, because they distort the belief that alchemy (read: science) is for the good of the people; they alone turn it on the people as a destructive art. Those who perpetrate such use are bad, but the art of alchemy in and of itself is neutral.
If the populace opinion/perspective were that alchemy/science taints all who use it, then we should've seen at least some instance of popular prejudice or dislike. If the average (ordinary?) person considered alchemy evil, the practice would likely be taboo or near-taboo, but I can't recall a single incident or even throwaway crowd-line that implies such. The only overt anti-alchemy position is the Ishval position that condemns alchemy—noticeably on the grounds that it violates Ishval religion. That still doesn't define alchemy's inherent value; it's used more as contrast that Ishval has an anti-scientific streak in its belief system (compared to Amestris, that is).
So we're back to the original point: can "ordinary" human beings do alchemy? And if so, what does it really mean to "lose" the gate? Is the gate a connection to alchemy itself—the practice or knowledge of the science/art—or something broader?
The interpretation through the series (by Edward, Alphonse, and Izumi) is that one sees the "truth" and this opens one's eyes to the greater possibilities within oneself. Most pointedly, crossing the gate means one no longer needs to 'rely' on an array; the array appears to be a stand-in for one's conception of the (encompassing-circle) of the universe. Once the alchemist has internalised this conception, the array can be created or exists within the alchemist. I don't think it's purely for artistic reasons that this arrayless style is enacted by clapping the hands together and creating a circle of the arms and the torso. One could say the alchemist becomes the array.
If the array represents one's connection to the universe, then becoming the array fits what we'd expect from someone who's internalized the "truth"—when it's defined as Truth does when he rattles off all the things he could be called.
I am what you call "the World". I am "space". I am "god". I am the "truth" . I am the "all". I am the "one". And I am "You".
(Another discrepancy between the manga and the anime: in the manga, he says as above; in the anime, Truth says "Perhaps I am" or "You may call me" as though implying that the prefacing definitions are illusory or not the entire, err, truth, compared to the final declaration.)
I don't know what the original Japanese version is, but there must be an emphatic verb-use in there somewhere, because the scanlation group very specifically bolded the "am" in the first declaration. It's shades of the Judeo-christian self-definition of god: "I am the great I AM", which is echoed in the Cartesian "...therefore I am" thesis. I don't think that's accidental or artistic on Arakawa's part, seeing how even pre-gate she has the brothers (as well as Izumi) recognizing that "one is all, and all is one".
For that matter, if we reach back to the chapters where the brothers first glimpse alchemy's underlying meanings—and keep in mind, they were already practicing alchemy on a basic level prior to meeting Izumi—then Truth's later declaration takes on greater power as a literary echo.
Izumi: Tell me, what does "One is All, All is One" mean?
Alphonse: "All" is the world.
Edward: "One" is me.
As above, so below, the macrocosm reflects the microcosm, and so on. Big but fundamental concepts of historical alchemy as much as Arakawa's fictional version.
So a few chapters later (ch23, actually) when Edward goes through the gate, we get the same fundamental conversation that we later see between Truth and the Dwarf-in-the-flask:
Edward: Who are you?
Truth: Ah! Thanks for asking! I'm what you humans refer to as the world. Also known as the "Universe" or "true knowledge" or "all" or "one". And.. I'm you!
Like Truth's retaliation upon the homunculus, Truth then opens the gate (or stands by as it opens) to swallow Edward up with the force of all the knowledge the gate either holds, or holds back. But I think the sequence is important here: Ed meets Truth, is told of this equivalence (world = individual), and there doesn't appear to be a passage fee for that much knowledge, which is really nothing more than confirmation of what Edward's already learned as an alchemist. But this prefaces the gate opening, and it's that knowledge, being transferred, that then must be paid for. (Or so it seems to me, based on the order of things.)
What's worse is that if we presume that "gate" and its attendant awareness-of-Truth is a link to the godhead/all, wouldn't destruction of the gate not render one an "ordinary human being" but in fact someone cut off, quite literally, from the universe? All these things Truth claims to be—god, one, all, world, universe/space, truth, even the alchemist's own person—means that disconnection would be a kind of suicide? If not on an immediate physical level, certainly on an emotional, psychological, maybe psychic level?
Take all that, and therein lies the reset: if Edward's destruction of his personal gate is not, in fact, a sudden and abrupt dislocation from the universal energies that compose some part of being human, but in fact reduces him to being "ordinary"—and that he did not become an alchemist because of some inborn trait or brainwave pattern or special snowflakeyness—and that alchemy, as a science, is knowledge-based and learnable—then there is nothing that says he cannot eventually do alchemy again.
This theory isn't tested, either, in the manga, at least—we see him clapping his hands and trying a bit of alchemy on the house roof... and then laughing when it doesn't work. "Nothing," he says. "If I could still use alchemy, this whole thing would've been fixed in a second."
Except that all other alchemists—with the exception of Izumi, Alphonse (and now Roy)—have always been shown with some kind of array. On gloves, on wristlets, tattoo'd on their palms, drawn in chalk or etched in stone—hell, even Mei used a basic array of some sort in her eastern-version of alchemy. The fact that Edward can no longer use the seen-the-truth version of arrayless alchemy does not answer whether he can use alchemy at all.
For that matter, there's nothing that indicates definitively whether this alchemy-full-stop is applicable to everyone, and I admit when I first read the manga's final chapter, I was left with that impression: that Edward's destruction of the gate was in fact a removal for all humans. The anime's version (or just the translation) makes this a little clearer, that it's only Edward. Yet it's noticeable to me that she didn't answer this by having Alphonse get up on the roof and have him do the seen-the-gate arrayless version of alchemy... instead, she implies but doesn't actually show, definitively, the state of things post-finale.
If, perhaps, Arakawa had had Edward chalk out a simple array and attempt that, then these questions would've been answered... but I suspect she avoided that because she'd put herself in a bind. If Edward can't do any alchemy at all, then it contradicts the apparent gist of the story's existing implications, that anyone could do it but only a few (or if you're military, a lot more than just a few) are willing to take the time to learn. If, however, Edward can do alchemy (even the basic arrayed version), then it contradicts Truth's argument—and it reduces Edward's destruction of his personal gate/connection to a meaningless sacrifice.
That, I think, is why she doesn't answer it. Providing any definitive answer would make really obvious this gaping jump in the logic, created when Edward (and Arakawa) slammed up against the story's repeated insistence that the final resolution could come without additional sacrifice of life. There had to be a 'third option' that could resolve without compromising on that one crucial point. Arakawa does get points for not making that option a technicality, like if the brothers had used Hohenheim's long-held philosophers' stone/souls—even if those stone/souls had been quite willing to make the (admittedly empty, seeing how it's been several hundred or more years since their bodies rotted away) sacrifice. But I can see how that could be considered evading on a technicality; it's observing the spirit but not the letter, and Edward is nothing if not letter as much as spirit, in a number of ways.
Someone mentioned in side-comment the other day that FMA isn't nearly as broken as some other stories, and the result is that there aren't as many places for fanfic writers and readers to slide in enough to force wider gaps for additional fan-created stories. For the most part, I'd say that's been true... but the finale threw in a full stop on that.
When you consider the finale's consequences, the cost of the sacrifice, and the pivotal assumptions in that showdown, many of the questions raised get to what may be the heart of the series. Who can do alchemy? If alchemy is a route to understanding/embracing one's own godhood, do all humans have such godhead potential as a state of being human? Is alchemy an innate art—only some could be god—or a state any/all humans could reach with time and exposure—all could be god?
Also: is a connection to the universe superfluous or crucial for human existence as part of the whole? If all humans have a gate, however unaware, what does this mean to be the one person who does not? Wouldn't that, by definition, be anything but 'ordinary'? What impact would it have on life, mortality, aging, or even ability to fall in love, be compassionate, feel oneself to be part of a larger scope or world or universe or truth or existence?
If all is One and One is all, what does it mean that Edward may now be the only person who is not part of that All? Or was his sacrifice ultimately no sacrifice at all? Was the price he paid only what he'd paid in the past, and the final installment paid nothing more than fancy footwork and some dramatic CGI? What, exactly, did he lose in the long run, compared to what Alphonse regained?
Anyway, all that boils down to a set of contradictions that I can't resolve. It just muddies it all further if you look at the sequence Arakawa uses when it comes to the gate: human uses alchemy in human/taboo transmutation, has basic alchemical stats validated (the "I am YOU" section), and then is swallowed by the gate and spit back out after having "massive amounts of information crammed into the head". So that gate-crossing level is an advancement from 'ordinary alchemy' (the basic knowledge)... but what does it mean to lose that advanced knowledge? If crossing the gate means a recognition of one's place in and of the world, what does it mean to have that and lose it?
That's what I mean by reset button: if sacrificing one's connection/gate does nothing more than set one back to zero, just what did Edward sacrifice after all, given how much he gained in comparison? It's like having someone hand you a vicious weapon, say, and you use it X number of times and then hand it back, no harm, no foul. It's even presented that Edward chooses to retain his automail leg as a reminder, as though this particular sacrifice was not in fact a sacrifice but a willful atonement. And at the end, he even speaks of reconstructing and revising alchemical laws into something new—so it doesn't seem reasonable to think he's "lost" his awareness of, or basic understanding of, alchemy, not if he plans to continue stuyding it. So what, exactly, did he sacrifice, and what (if any) are the long-term consequences?
Maybe there weren't a lot of gaps in the course of the overall FMA storyline... but there are certainly a number of possibilities for fanfic when it comes to grappling with questions Arakawa choose to leave unanswered.