The Dwarf in “The Dwarf” as a Parody of Christ

The eponymous character in Pär Lagerkvist‘s novel The Dwarf sheds wonderful insights on the topics of being and cosmic harmony through his grotesque words and actions in the story. Chief among his points is the absurdity and meaninglessness of life. The dwarf has many convictions about himself, including that he is of an ancient race that predates “normal” humanity. This helps separate him from the people he hates so much. He insists that dwarves do not play and they only have one existence and do not pretend anything. The princess plays with her lovers and the astronomers play with the stars, despite having no effect on life at all. The dwarf is only himself and owns this existence. This is ironic because he is in reality owned by the Prince and is charged with putting on many performances for the normal people who laugh at his antics. All he does is play, and the games are mockeries of real-life events like communion and battle. By stating that he is never pretending, the dwarf is enforcing the idea that life itself is absurd, and he is revealing that truth by parodying real life.

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His philosophy is also colored with intense hatred for humanity because of how he is treated by it. The games people force him to play are an extension of the philosophy they have of dwarves: that they are parodies of humans. Their grotesque bodies are only capable of grotesque parodies of real life, but the dwarf understands that because he can’t hide who he is, he is the only person not pretending. The games he is forced to play are attempts to hide the truth that normal life is grotesque. He is revealing the truth of life’s absurdity when he creates absurd retellings of “normal” life. When the dwarf disrupts a fake communion, he is punished, but his action is a statement on the absurdity of “legitimate” communion. The people can’t handle being told their lives are meaningless, so they take it out on the dwarf who is enlightened. That is another grotesque irony: that the subject of their scorn is actually a being that brings them truth, much like a messiah.

The theme of religion is brought up so often in this work (and most of the Grotesque). The dwarf continues to ponder the subject of Christ and how he is hated and killed by humanity. The dwarf continues to imagine himself on that cross being humiliated like Christ, taking the punishment all of humanity deserves. This brings up the idea that the dwarf is ironically the embodiment of Christ in our world: truer than normal people and showing that truth to them through his suffering. Christ was called a blasphemer by the religious authority of his time, and so is the dwarf when he disrespects their communion. He is the messiah returned to show the people the truth. That life is shit, and so are we.

Bernardo the artist expounds the theme of finding truth in his art and science. The dwarf’s reaction to his ideas is a reflection of the novel’s take on existence. When Bernardo proclaims life to be a miracle and all of Creation to be in cosmic harmony, the dwarf is disgusted and hates him. But when Bernardo laments over the meaninglessness of life, the dwarf is amazed. The dwarf uses examples of humanity’s ugliness to express his existential disgust, but Bernardo actually states that all of humanity is an attempt at something they can never achieve. All of mankind is pretending and playing at life while the dwarf simply lives it. They see his antics as a ridiculous retelling of their lives, but it is the truest retelling of it: the fakeness is the truest part. The dwarf in The Dwarf makes for an odd savior, but the point of a messiah is to enlighten the people who don’t understand and reveal that they have been living meaninglessly. The truth is harsh, and so is the dwarf that tells it.

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Sources of Anxiety in David Foster Wallace Part 2: “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men”

Patricia Waugh describes metafiction as “fictional writing which self-consciously and systematically draws attention to its status as an artifact in order to pose questions about the relationship between fiction and reality” (Waugh 2). It is specifically fiction about fiction, forcing readers to be aware that they are reading a fictional work, with the author maintaining a very direct relationship with the reader. David Foster Wallace gained fame practicing such writing, using irony and self-reflexivity to challenge the boundaries of fiction. Writing in a postmodern world means knowing that your writing will be analyzed, and Wallace expresses his own anxiety over this phenomenon through metafiction that addresses the reader he knows is judging him. Wallace’s writing is aware that it will be criticized and deconstructs that very idea in his collection Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. “#20, 12-96, New Haven, CT, ” – an excerpt from this collection – is constructed with the narrator telling a story about an anecdote relayed by a different character in his story. That’s usually how complicated metafiction gets, and this is DFW on his easiest setting.

Although implicit in many other types of fictional works, self-reflexivity often becomes the dominant subject of postmodern fiction. “The narrator of a metafictional work will call attention to the writing process itself. The reader is never to forget that what she is reading is constructed–not natural, not ‘real’ (Waugh 16).” The narrator of “#20” is a fully-fledged character in his own story, while also narrating the anecdote within it, calling to attention the story as a story and making it a part of him rather than having himself (as a narrator) be a part of the story. He acknowledges that the interviewer will judge him for his brutally candid tone. Much like Wallace knows his stories can be harsh and critics will pan him for it. But beyond the metafiction, the interview is about the anxieties of sexuality, specifically in how it is an attempt at connecting with people.

The narrator is a cocky chauvinist whose pseudo-intellectual language belies a self-conscious need to be respected. He uses “irregardless” and “dash” as if he’s reciting a freshmen dissertation and inundates his overblown sentences with “quote… unquote” revealing a cynical approach to every concept he discusses. He reserves most of his contempt in this story for the woman he picks up and eventually falls in love with. He opens the story by saying he fell in love with her, and yet criticizes her use of the word the night he picks her up, stating the word, “has through over-deployment become trite and requires invisible quotes around it now at the very least.” But he shows a high degree of unawareness, which is ironic for a narrator that is not only aware that he is telling a story, but is aware that he will be judged harshly for it. He criticizes the Granola Cruncher girl and her ilk while he himself expresses many flawed opinions: “She had the unexpected ability to recount it in such a way as to deflect attention from herself and displace maximum attention onto the anecdote itself. I have to confess that it was the first time I did not find her one bit dull.” The narrator is unaware that his character could be drawing attention away from the story and onto himself, as he does many times to go on long tangents of vitriol. He goes on: “an unnatural calm the way some people affect an unnatural nonchalance about narrating an incident that is meant to heighten their story’s drama and/or make them appear nonchalant and sophisticated, one or the other of which is often the most annoying part of listening to certain types of beautiful women structure a story or anecdote.” He is trying to act sophisticated while relaying this story of mortal terror and life-changed encounters but shows his hypocrisy and sexism when criticizing women for doing the same thing. A narrator that is aware of himself and acknowledging that the reader will judge him, yet is unaware of the hypocrisy he shows in his description of the narrator of the inner story, is another staple of Wallace’s use of metafiction. It’s also a sign of the anxiety in such a person; constant fear of being judged and deflection of criticism are latent in his sophisticated and self-referential language.

Rather than have us empathize with the narrator, the story makes an effort to have the reader empathize with the wordless interviewer who clearly gets frustrated with the interviewee’s tangents and sexist pontificating. “I observe with interest that you are now interrupting me to ask the same questions I was interrupting her to ask, which is precisely the sort of convergence–” We know it is a woman because the interviewee outs her and insults her for being one. She continues to interrupt him and ply him for more of the story, making herself a surrogate for the reader eager to hear more about the psychopath story rather than listen to him rant. He is aware that the interviewer will judge his anecdote and manner of telling it – just as Wallace is aware that the audience will analyze his story – this establishes the metafictional relationship of Wallace as the hideous man and the reader as the voiceless interviewer trying to get a story from his blustery rants.

Fear of ridicule is a topic Wallace has talked extensively about, particularly in his essay, “E UNIBAS PLURAM: Television and U.S. Fiction.”

“And to the extent that it [TV] can train viewers to laugh at characters’ unending put-downs of one another, to view ridicule as both the mode of social intercourse and the ultimate art-form, television can reinforce its own queer ontology of appearance: the most frightening prospect, for the well-conditioned viewer, becomes leaving oneself open to others’ ridicule by betraying passé expressions of value, emotion, or vulnerability. Other people become judges; the crime is naiveté. The well-trained viewer becomes even more allergic to people. Lonelier” (Wallace 63).

Wallace sees this fear as a widespread social anxiety, and Subject #20 is exactly the type of person affected by it. He judges the Granola Cruncher girl as naïve and conquers her, even admitting guilt at seemingly taking advantage of her. He knows that the interviewer is judging him for this behavior and this fear cracks his façade of confidence. “I… had formed judgments based on that. Just as I am watching you forming judgments based solely on the opening of things I’m describing that then prevent you from hearing the rest of what I try to describe. It’s due to her influence that this makes me sad for you instead of pissed off.” He is both sad and pissed off, and the ending shows it. The girl’s intense focus on the psychopath draws an emotional reaction from him. The female renders the male at the end. But not in the way that she treats him; in the way that she doesn’t treat him. Not loving back or affecting him in the way she affected the psychopath (and herself). She saved herself and shared a human connection more real than anything in her or the psychopath’s life. The narrator realizes she achieved what every human wants, and he wishes to share in it.

It seems that the woman in the story, whose seeming naïveté made her a target of both predators, is the only person in the story capable of real human connection on a spiritual level that they can’t recreate. That’s why both sob after having sex with her; she exposes the inefficacy of their enterprise. How empty they will always feel, and how fulfilled she feels without them. The narrator brings up the term Male Gaze to describe how he looked at her, and uses the term Female Gaze to describe how she looked at the psychopath. A connection is made between the rapist’s and the narrator’s attempts to connect to women via predatory means. While the rapist is more barbaric, his emotional dependence on sexual relations with – and animosity toward – the women are qualities shared by the narrator. And the rapist’s reaction to the girl’s efforts at a “soul-connection” compare to the narrator’s after her story.

The narrator’s explosion at the end showcases his true nature of sexist vitriol fueled by insecurity: “I believed she could save me. I know how this sounds, trust me. I know your type and I know what you’re bound to ask. Ask it now. This is your chance. I felt she could save me I said. Ask me now. Say it. I stand here naked before me. Judge me, you chilly cunt. You dyke, you bitch, cooze, cunt, slut, gash. Happy now? All borne out? Be happy. I don’t care. I knew she could. I knew I loved. End of story.” “End of story” is the literal ending of the story, and is spat out in a rushed flurry where his language degenerates into an insulting tirade. His honesty has finally come out in the catharsis from his story. He judges love and anyone who expresses it so harshly that he fears the woman listening to him will judge him the same way, and it sparks his already-present anger toward her to come out and transform him into a raving lunatic. This all begins because he met a woman that he thinks he loves and is afraid that other people will hate him as much as he hates himself.

When comparing these two stories, it becomes understandable why the boy in “Forever Overhead” would be anxious about growing up. The man in “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men” is a sexist and a borderline sexual predator, who is terrified that people will judge him and falls apart when he falls in love. The boy’s sexual awakening heralds an adulthood that might make him like that man, who is only one emotional disorder away from becoming the rapist in the girl’s story. Time is the common force present in all life that draws us toward entropy and destruction. Knowledgeable of this, our culture responds with shallow sexuality meant only to distract us from these fears, but it mires us in even more emotional problems. With these two stories, Wallace constructs an image of modern society that he views as plagued with psychological fears of ridicule and death. The universal fear of growing up in “Forever Overhead” and the mentally crippling fear of judgment in “Brief Interviews” form the challenges we must face as intelligent adults in the postmodern world, but Wallace helps us by connecting us with his writing. He turns these problems into a common struggle and suggests we overcome our fears by acknowledging them. The hideous man believes showing his love is a weakness, but David Foster Wallace shows it to be a strength in the Granola Cruncher, who uses a soul connection to save her life and ascend the failings of human interaction. Wallace wants us to admit our weaknesses so we can reclaim our strengths. We don’t have to stand atop the board in fear; we can dive in together and make a good life.

Bibliography:
Boyle, T. Coraghessan, and K. Kvashay-Boyle. Doubletakes: Pairs of Contemporary
Short Stories. Boston: Thomson/Wadsworth, 2004. Print.

“David Foster Wallace Has Made My Students Yawn, and I Think It’s Making Me Mad.”
Web blog post. Draft the Blog of Process. N.p., 5 Feb. 2011. Web. 19 Nov. 2014.

“Time in ‘Forever Overhead.’” David Foster Wallace. University of Texas at Austin, 22
Oct. 2012. Web. 20 Nov. 2014. .

Wallace, David Foster. “E UNIBAS PLURAM: Television and U.S. Fiction.” A
Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments. Boston: Little, Brown, 1997. Print.

Wallace, David Foster. “This Is Water.” Kenyon College Commencement Address. Ohio,
Gambier. 19 Nov. 2014. Speech.

Waugh, Patricia. Metafiction: The Theory and Practice of Self-conscious Fiction.
London: Methuen, 1984. Print.

Sources of Anxiety in David Foster Wallace Part 1: “Forever Overhead”

In his writing, David Foster Wallace tackles topics like depression and anxiety, especially fear of ridicule, and how they affect members of modern generations. The two short stories “Forever Overhead” and “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, #20, 12-96, New Haven, CT, ” are great examples of his commentary on the anxieties of sexuality and trying to connect with other people. Fear of ridicule and judgment are mainstays of adult life as shown in “Brief Interviews,” and the worries of growing up form the basis for “Forever Overhead.” Wallace’s use of point of view in both stories reveal his agenda of trying to connect with the reader personally, thus making the works self-reflexive commentaries on life as a self-reflexive enterprise. These stories are Wallace’s devices in exploring neuroses in modern Americans by addressing them directly.

In contrast to his well-known postmodern style that challenges the structure of fiction, “Forever Overhead” is a more traditional short story told in second person about a thirteen-year-old boy on the cusp of puberty taking his first dive (literally and figuratively) into adulthood. Anxiety is inherent in any story about growing up, and Wallace carefully dissects the aspects of these fears finally finding a universal fear of time at the root of it all.

“Forever Overhead” is written in the second person imperative with the target being a young pubescent boy. The story speaks to the reader personally with every “you,” establishing a universal tale of growing up. It opens with “Happy Birthday. Your thirteenth is important.” It doesn’t read so much that the boy thinks this himself, as he has been told his thirteenth is important by society. The entire story reads like a mechanical process to echo the boy’s new life. Every verb is used either as a description of what is seen, heard, smelt, and felt, or as a command turning the boy (and reader) into a passive cog in the machine of life. The theme of machines is introduced to the story with the lines describing the wait for the diving board: “There is a rhythm to it. Like breathing. Like a machine,” and “She was part of a rhythm that excludes thinking. And now you have made yourself part of it, too. The rhythm seems blind. Like ants. Like a machine.” The repletion of the phrase, “Like a machine,” mirrors the repetitive nature of waiting for the diving board, which goes eternally forward, impossible to stop, like time itself. “It is a machine that moves only forward.”

Another source of anxiety for the boy is thinking. “You have decided being scared is caused mostly by thinking.” Anxiety is rooted in over-analyzing things; the “decided” implies that the boy sees every new aspect of life as a discovery: he analyzed the act of thinking and came to the conclusion that it’s too scary to take on too often. Certain scenarios require thinking: “You decide this needs to be thought about. It may, after all, be all right to do something scary without thinking, but not when the scariness is the not thinking itself. Not when not thinking turns out to be wrong. At some point the wrongnesses have piled up blind… When it all turns out to be different you should get to think. It should be required.” He’s an analytical child, as most are at that age, and is coming to mature conclusions very quickly when faced with new feelings like risk. The simple language used to convey complex ideas makes for beautiful writing. “Brown,” “blue,” and “white” are used to succinctly describe the pool and people’s skin. Because he has decided that thinking is scary, the boy perceives the world very basically with “hurt” and “sweet.” He is on the verge of growing up and will not be able to remain simple much longer. “Hurt” and “scared” crop up commonly to describe how the boy feels on his way to the diving board. The young boy’s perspective of the world is experienced so simply but interpreted so intimately, turning the voice from childish to realistic.

Every physical sense is accounted for in this story with smell being most important; the bee smells the sweetness it cannot reach, just as the growing boy’s new bodily functions are described with what smells emanate from the liquids made in his body. The pool too is introduced smelling exactly like the boy’s semen: “The smell is, more than anything, like this swimming pool.” This association of the pool with the boy’s bodily changes symbolically turn it into the new world he must jump into at the end of his adolescence (and the story). Something’s smell can be more important than the thing itself as in what the mother has in her can. The sweat bee that likes it perceives it as only something sweet, making its perspective comparative to the boy’s. The relation of the bee to the boy is one of the story’s most important aspects concerning the theme of anxiety. After the mother swats at the bee: “The bee is back right away, seeming to hang motionless over the can in a sweet blur.” It is drawn to something that it cannot have, but the anticipation makes it feel as if time has stopped and that the feeling will last. If the bee can stave off satisfaction forever, it can be satisfied. This mirrors the boy’s desire to stave off jumping from the high board and subsequently stave off growing up. The bee hovering over the can refers to the boy standing on the board: “If you wanted you could really stay here forever, vibrating inside so fast you float motionless in time, like a bee over something sweet.” This line is where the story gets its title; a perfect existence in the boy’s mind is remaining outside of time above everything forever. Never having to jump into the water and continue living into adulthood and death. “Bees have to move very fast to stay still.” Standing still in time means moving as fast as time moves to appear standing still, which is why the bee looks like a blur. The boy wants to catch up with time and become motionless in it. He feels that he has found that on the high board.

Nearing the end of the story, the boy is startled back to reality and is pressed to finally jump. “There’s been time this whole time. You can’t kill tine with your heart. Everything takes time.” Time is an important concept in this story, as it is made into the main source of anxiety for the thirteen-year-old boy. “Now that there is time you don’t have time.” This line comes when the man behind him on the diving board shouts for him to jump. When one comes to terms with the reality that time will never stop existing, one feels no ownership of time as a concept and only knows it as a force that pushes them onward eternally into inevitable oblivion. It represents one of the foundational sources of anxiety in the story and thus is all our lives. The boy comprehends this finally. The pool looks hard from the board and the boy knows it will be soft when he falls into it. This brings up the line, “So which is the lie? Hard or soft? Silence or time?” It refers to the confusion over existence; were his senses fooled by the appearance of hardness? Is silence the way things are with time being the aberration? Or is time the struggle against the silence? This confusion fuels the final psychological pain for the boy as he falls into the future. It’s interesting that DFW decides to use “time and silence” suggesting they are opposites like “hard and soft.” When the thirteen-year-old is on the high board, it is described as “still and quiet… No time and no real sound but your blood squeaking in your head.” We know that time is the source of anxiety in the piece, so we can assume that its counterpart would be motionlessness, time not moving and silence/peace taking its place.

Wallace answers his own question with, “The lie is that it’s one or the other. A still, floating bee is moving faster than it can think. From overhead the sweetness drives it crazy.” As we grow up we start to figure out what lies we were told in our childhood. We begin to think of life as divided into truths and lies, and this line succinctly describes the revelation that there is no clear distinction, and life is a swirling chaos. It’s an equally comforting and disquieting notion because we rely on that line to keep track of the world, and the aporia resulting from losing that distinction causes deep philosophical anxiety. Postmodernists generally believe that, when closely examined, all formalized claims describing phenomena, reality, or truth, rely on some form of circular reasoning and self-referential logic that is often paradoxical in nature. Thus, it’s important to uncover the hidden patterns of circularity, self-reference, and paradox within a given set of statements rather than feign objectivity. David Foster Wallace invokes this post-structurist critique in the line, “The lie is that it’s one or the other.” Our cultural childhood ended when postmodernism began criticizing some of our earliest lessons and taught us the malleability of “truth.” This whole story is about a child worrying what “truth” will mean as he grows up. He decides thinking is scary, but he discovers that his senses can lie to him. He undergoes rapid philosophical growth at this age that will lead him into the anxiety-laden battlefield of modern adulthood.

In his Kenyon College commencement address, David Foster Wallace described the human condition of daily crises and chronic disillusionment and warned against solipsism, invoking compassion, mindfulness, and existentialism: “The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re going to try to see it. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t…. The trick is keeping the truth up-front in daily consciousness.” The boy in “Forever Overhead” is just now confronting truth as an idea and deciding for himself how to see it, which is only the beginning of his problems, but Wallace shows optimism in revealing it as a universally shared problem.
(Continued in Part 2)

Spinoza and The Lego Movie

The 2014 kid-friendly film, The Lego Movie, purports important and sophisticated themes that can be linked to Baruch Spinoza’s philosophy of necessary existence and monistic ontology as stated in his book Ethics: Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect. Emmet, a Lego construction worker and main character, begins the film in the city of Brickburg where President Business lords over everything keeping the world in a state of strict perfection. Emmet happily joins in the dystopian anthem that every citizen sings in unison: “Everything is Awesome.” This establishes the populace’s active part in maintaining its own imprisonment. The song expresses a love of how the order of life is set and no desire to change it. This opening reflects Foucault’s concept of docile bodies, but as the film progresses and the citizens free themselves, the film’s message becomes more similar to Spinoza’s ethics.

President Business’ plan involves using Krazy Glue to stick together all the Lego bricks in the world to keep it in stasis and preserve the perfection he has crafted. The heroes thwart the villain by convincing him that the world is full of people who take the bricks and build something new and unique because each person has a different perspective and that makes them all uniquely special. There is no “chosen one” who is destined to save the world; we are all in charge of this world because of our power over it. At the same time the Lego characters come to this conclusion, the audience is shown that the entire movie is part of a ten-year-old boy’s game with his father’s Lego toys in the real life. His father confronts him, and it’s revealed that President Business is a dream version of the tyrannical father who demands stasis and perfection. The son convinces his dad the same way that Emmet convinces the villain that Legos are meant to exercise imagination, and the freedom to break and rebuild them is essential for that.

Putting this lesson next to Spinoza’s hierarchy of being, we could see the Lego bricks as substance and the constructions of bricks as modes. These modes are temporary and will inevitably break down due to eternal changeability of substance. Even the people are modes, as they are also built from the bricks that make up buildings and all other objects in their universe. Attributes would be the details that set certain modes apart such as what kind of building or person the Legos create and how long it will last before becoming part of another mode. The young boy is a godlike figure who builds modes from this substance and guides the events of the miniature universe. The Lego characters still have agency despite his presence and all act without being aware of his hand influencing the direction of existence. The father/President Business wants to stop that natural chaos and hold substance in place with Krazy Glue, which would curtail the agency of all those people who take part in the changing modes. Spinoza writes in Ethics that people must be active in their existence, as all actions occur out of necessity. The song “Everything is Awesome” returns at the end, when the characters rejoice in the infinite possibly of creation that the world of Legos permits. The lyrics do not change: there is still a love of how the order of life is set and no desire to change it. With the complete lesson of the movie in mind, the dystopian anthem that was originally sung to enforce static perfection becomes a celebration of the naturally perfect order of a dynamic existence. Everything happens out of necessity and therefore need not be changed. That’s why it’s already awesome, and we should revel in that.

Spinoza says that substance is eternal and cannot be destroyed; it is the modes that exist momentarily before being broken down, and their substance repurposed into future modes, continuing the cycle of existence. This is done, Spinoza believes, through the power of nature, which is equivalent to God. The boy can be said to be God in this comparison, as it is his will that drives the building of modes, and it provides a more tangible subject for the analogy, but a more appropriate way to fit The Lego Movie into Spinoza’s model would be to place Lego bricks themselves as God/Nature because they are the substance that makes up the universe, and it is the universe that makes up God. The collectivist message of the movie, advocates not only a social policy of freedom of imagination, but also an ontological one. The bricks make up the people, so it is the bricks (and therefore God) that are free to form whatever modes they want.

And they are free; the very ideology the boy was following was to allow the characters to do whatever they wanted as the game plays itself. The boy drives it on our side of the meta-narrative, but the characters make their own choices within the story, and the Legos literally build themselves, personifying Spinoza’s dynamic universe. Substance is an ontological theory, but it becomes an ethical issue when one tries to stunt its ability to create modes and fulfill its dynamic nature. The Lego Movie is the perfect story to advocate the flourishing of such ability, and in a kids’ movie, no less. Spinoza would have appreciated the monistic approach to existence and the collectivist framework of freedom, especially when it also teaches kids how to fun with imagination. Everything – by necessity – is awesome.

Foucault and the Artificial Telos

In his work, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, Michel Foucault aims to expose the social issues that arise from the paradigm shift in Western civilization that he was witnessing in modern France. He points out that society’s viewpoint on punishment has changed from a focus on corporeal pain to spiritual discipline. Advancements in technology and philosophy have inspired this change, and Foucault argues that it may not have been for the better. In fact, society may have gotten worse as it attempts to enforce strict discipline on its citizens.

To shed some light on the direction that Foucault believes society is heading, we turn to an even more ancient philosopher. Aristotle’s definition of Beauty and Goodness tap into the ontological roots of all Being, so I believe they are relevant to Foucault’s writings. In the Aristotelian view of the world, all things are created with a telos: a purpose to which it strives. An acorn is created with the potential to grow into an oak tree, and if the acorn that becomes a mighty tree it has fulfilled its telos and can be considered a Good acorn in the highest sense of the word. On human beings, Aristotle deemed the most likely option for our telos to be linked to our moral ability. Because we have the potential in us to grow into moral beings, our purpose in life must be to complete that growth and live a Good life. Those who do achieve eudemonia, the highest Good a human being is capable of.

Reading Discipline and Punish with this in mind, we can recognize how society uses social conditioning to construct an artificial telos for its citizens to strive toward. Foucault claims the imprisonment of the soul by society came around when the concept of the soul was invented. The governmental body has power over the definition of the soul, and uses that power to shape how the citizenry view it and themselves by proxy. The soul became an arbitrary thing every individual was responsible for keeping in check. Committing crimes (which are also defined by the state) could damage a person’s soul, and those who damaged their souls were pushed into a group of pariahs who needed separation until they were fixed. This was how the prison system developed; the people in prisons are morally sick and require state-implemented programs to heal them. The very same ideology underlines hospitals and schools: a person is sick in the body or mind, so a doctor who is educated on the wellbeing of bodies by the state prescribes the cure that will bring the person back to physical normalcy. Children are born without discipline, so they must enter into the school system where the government will orient them on the “correct” path, which will grow them most successfully. These are all examples of how those in power construct a mindset of incompletion. The path to becoming complete – achieving telos – is made clear, so that the people remain dutiful to the state that teaches them where to go and where to stop.

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This process divides the populace into two broad factions: normal and abnormal. Those who conform are considered complete in mind and soul; they are well on their way to the telos society has prescribed them. Those who defer from the expected path are abhorrent because we are taught to think of them that way. The uneducated, the sick, the immoral, the poor (in a capitalist society); we seek to separate all the people who differ from the quiet majority because they appear incomplete. The idea that rehabilitation is possible fuels the humanitarian reasoning behind these facilities, but in truth they are warping the humanity of the people within. It is true that a patient at a hospital must follow the doctor’s orders if he is to remain healthy and fulfill his body’s purpose of staying alive, but psychotherapy plays into a person’s health as well. The rise of the psychotherapy coincides with the oppression that Foucault is revealing in society. The powerful and educated upper class has always had the power to define mental diseases and design the drugs that treat them. A patient must follow these new rules at the doctor’s behest if he is to fit in.

A more obvious example is the prison system, which Foucault devotes much time. A prisoner cannot even choose to conform; he is forced by the strict regiments of the prison to obey the laws that society sets forth. If he does not follow the path, he is still punished. He has no power in this process. The philosophy behind this system is to teach him the error of his ways so he can return a changed man, but instead a sentence serves as a prolonged period of isolation in which a prisoner learns society has no place for him until he submits. In schools, a student who strays from the curriculum is a truant and must follow the teacher’s precise course if she is ever to become a fully functioning member of society. In more modern settings, we have private schooling and home schooling, but there remains a standard concept of public education that all people are expected to attain. It’s impossible to get a job and sustain a livelihood without some kind of state-recognized education. A livelihood has become essential in a capitalist society, almost to the point of it being our telos. We define ourselves by our job and depend on it for our future happiness (the modern eudemonia). Not all of these expectations are law-enforced, but they are all psychologically ingrained in us, so that we police ourselves from stepping outside these limits. We fear the isolation of prisons, the diagnosis of insanity, and the powerlessness of unemployment. We make sure to remain Good people on our way to our telos like everybody else, all the time using the definitions that the state mandates.

Foucault calls this harmful to humanity, and Aristotle would agree. If we look back on his use of telos and eudemonia, we see that these concepts are inherent in the beings. One does not create its telos, it either fails or succeeds at achieving it. An acorn does not search for its meaning in life, it simply absorbs sunlight and water as it grows. A human being has the capacity for a moral life, and she either lives one or she doesn’t. The state in the modern world has designated a telos for human beings, hoping it helps them fit better into the paradigm they’ve created. Foucault calls for us to wrest these social chains and reclaim our independence. Aristotle would also agree with this response, claiming that the individual can only be a moral being when making her own decisions, and by boxing her in, society has taken that control away. This removes her ability to choose ethically and therefore cripples her true telos.

The Joker: Weaponized Nihilism

Friedrich Nietzsche left an indelible mark on modern philosophy by challenging the ideologies built on a morality that he felt were antiquated. He saw history as a cycle of dynasties dominated by ethics that existed merely to justify the authority of those in power. He sought to expose this reality through his writings on nihilism, specifically in his essay “On the Genealogy of Morals.” This philosophy has shaped much of the 20th century, even invading popular culture with characters espousing Nietzsche’s calls to defy the ascetic priest and fight the restraining power of civilization.

One particularly famous disciple of this perspective is The Joker, maniacal nemesis to the comic book superhero Batman. The character was created in 1939 as the hero’s primary antagonist but has been utilized for philosophical discourse in more recent iterations. The most prominent of these are the 1988 graphic novel Batman: The Killing Joke and the 2008 film The Dark Knight; both of these works use the conflict between Batman and the Joker to embody the philosophical clash between the ideologies of a strict justice system and extreme nihilism. We know that the man himself would not approve of the actions of this character. Friedrich’s beliefs were life affirming, but the Joker isn’t the first psychopath to be inspired by his writings and won’t be the last. By studying how the Joker has been used as a cipher for nihilism in modern culture, we can learn more about the negative practical applications of Nietzsche’s philosophy.

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In Batman: The Killing Joke, writer Alan Moore portrays the characteras a dark and twisted psychopath with a message to convey. The graphic novel tells the Joker’s origin as a man physically and psychologically scarred to point of complete insanity. He plans to prove that anyone can easily lose his or her grip on sanity just by being exposed to life’s simple and harsh realities. Moore’s Joker monologues about the random injustices of everyday life with examples like World War II being started over telegraph pole disputes. He disparages morality as a cheap excuse to construct a society on. These beliefs echo Nietzsche’s words about noble morality defining “good” simply as things the noble class embodied. He accuses Batman of holding a slave morality that views criminality as evil just on the condition that it exists.

The Joker represents the complete liberation of animalistic urges in protest against civilization. His insanity is meant to be a symptom of society having strained his mental state by imposing ethics that stress and harry him to the point of breaking. Once his sanity does break, he resembles the ruin of modern civilization’s attempts to tame humanity’s true nature, which is purely immoral by society’s standards. He must conform or be considered insane, which he’ll truly be in he is forced to conform. The fire in his words about this maddening catch-22 reflects the passion in Nietzsche’s writings about morality and its failings.

The nihilism in the character’s (figurative) makeup more clearly shows in the political agenda of the Joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. This version of the character, portrayed by actor Heath Ledger, paints on his clownish grin as a parody of the smiles we are all expected to paste on for society. When the Joker revels in chaos, he mocks the happiness that order is supposed to bring us. The grayness of morality is a major theme in the film, especially concerning Batman’s vigilantism, and the Joker takes the role of foil to Batman’s moral authority. Nietzsche hoped to wake people up with his ambitious words, and the Joker tries even harder through ambitious and deadly actions targeting society itself. Rather than simply killing a target, the Joker threatens to blow up a hospital unless someone else kills the target. People come in droves to assassinate the man, and they feel justified in their bloodlust without realizing they are playing into the Joker’s sick social commentary on the inherent goodness of people. To save the hospital, they rush to end another man’s life, proving the Joker’s point that morality is pointless. He wants everyone to take up social and ethical anarchy: humanity’s natural state.

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In one moment of pontification, the Joker reveals that everything he does is intended to show futility in attempting to control life. We are born inherently corrupt and build systems of order and ethics to bury that corruption under the worlds we create for ourselves; the Joker wants to prove that we will abandon those systems and burn those worlds in times of crisis. He goes about proving this by bringing about the crisis. In the film, Batman represents the reverse of that, and sets out to prove people can be inspired to fight for good in the face of chaos. Batman views his code of ethics as noble morality because criminality is a weakness in society and must be corrected. Despite the violence, his justice is life affirming and transcends the orthodox laws of Gotham City. Joker sees him as a hypocrite for breaking the law while punishing lawbreakers. He aspires to show the hypocrisy of all the goodness that Batman claims to protect.

These stories are full of action and menace but also an equal amount of philosophical commentary. Moore and Nolan recognize that this character poses a physical and metaphorical threat to society. A threat that Nietzsche dreamed of being; he called himself the Anti-Christ and wanted to upset the systems that he railed against in his works. The Joker takes a similar stance, but with more murder and explosions. He claims to be a product of the paradox of morality and aims to expose the reality that everyone is being driven insane by it too. Taming our animal selves has actually stunted our human growth, just as Nietzsche preached. Our morality developed into our own prison, and it took a murdering psychopath to show us the truth. The Joker is Friedrich Nietzsche’s ghost come back to haunt society for not heeding his words.

“Consider the subtleness of the sea”

Consider the subtleness of the sea; how its most dreaded creatures glide under water, unapparent for the most part, and treacherously hidden beneath the loveliest tints of azure. Consider also the devilish brilliance and beauty of many of its most remorseless tribes, as the dainty embellished shape of many species of sharks. Consider, once more, the universal cannibalism of the sea; all whose creatures prey upon each other, carrying on eternal war since the world began.

Consider all this; and then turn to the green, gentle, and most docile earth; consider them both, the sea and the land; and do you not find a strange analogy to something in yourself? For as this appalling ocean surrounds the verdant land, so in the soul of man there lies one insular Tahiti, full of peace and joy, but encompassed by all the horrors of the half-known life. God keep thee! Push not off from that isle, thou canst never return!

~Moby-Dick; or the Whale, Herman Melville.

The fiery poetry of Melville’s epic. Moby-Dick; or the Whale is a titanic overview of man’s place within nature and the power that nature has over man. A teacher once described Melville as an anti-transcendentalist, meaning he devalued nature in contrast to Thoreau or Emerson. I disagree; I think Melville places tantamount value on the power of nature, and that’s why it’s so destructive to man. Because of the scientific approach to whaling in the novel’s many whaling scenes, some people believe Melville took a purely materialist viewpoint of nature. It can be quantified and dissected and used by man for our purposes. But the language in the passage above doesn’t suggest that. I believe Melville’s philosophy of nature has roots in scientific fact, but evolves from it to spiritual adoration. Ishmael’s musings are too ethereal for a simple pragmatist; they stretch deep into the ontology and ethics and give biblical depth to the novel.

I don’t use that word lightly: the many names taken from the Bible, the entire Jonah parallel, the lightning strike on the ship that ignites its mast creating burning cross/holy trinity imagery. The novel is as spiritual as it is scientific, striking a firm balance between the two when observing man and the universe. Consider the pulpit the priest speaks from in one of the opening scenes: it’s made out of a decommissioned whaling ship. Nantucket is a whaling town, so it makes sense that its church and priest would be leftovers of the industry. The priest makes allusions to the story of Jonah in his sermon and connects the whaling trade to life. The scene a microcosm of the novel, which is a microcosm of life. There are volumes to be said about how the Pequod represents the world of man floating through the universe, and how the white whale represents swirling chaos dragging us into oblivion.

But I’ll stick with this for now: Melville did have spiritual commentary on nature that drew from man’s spiritual foundation and linked it to the scientific dissection of nature’s elements. He shows how each are dogmatic and potentially self-destructive, as is the nature of man. Both halves dichotomy are essential to mention because both are the response of man to nature, and that is what Moby-Dick is about at its core. Ahab is maddened by the whale, while Ishmael is fascinated. Ahab is killed by this madness, while Ishmael is saved by his resourcefulness. It’s clear that Melville believes certain responses are destructive, but that doesn’t mean he lends no spiritual value to nature. On the contrary, he lends it all spiritual import. There is a maddening surplus of imagery and allegory in this work of art, and for good reason. It’s about everything.

Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee. Sink all coffins and all hearses to one common pool, and since neither can be mine, let me tow to pieces, while still chasing thee, though tied to tee, thou damned whale! Thus, I give up the spear!

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