We had a lovely Thanksgiving meal, yesterday. There were lots of leftovers so we all stayed home and watched “I Heart Huckabees”, tonight. (My daughter wanted to see it.) I don’t remember the last time I saw this movie, but it has been on my list of all-time favorites since it first came out. I am quite certain I understood it far better this viewing than I have previously, however.
Albert goes to the Existentialist detectives to make sense of a series of coincidences. It can’t just be a coincidence that he’s bumped into the same man three times in three different places, can it? The Existentialist detectives (played by Lily Tomlin and Dustin Hoffman) keep telling him that everything is connected. I took this too literally on my previous viewings. What I now think they mean by this is that Albert has made all of these connections in his mind. So what the detectives do is help him work through his constructed meanings. It is not as though coincidences are necessarily meaningful in themselves (as if God or the universe or whatever is trying to send him a special message). Their meaning is dependent upon the meaning that has been constructed by the person experiencing the coincidence.
You have to be honest about your thoughts and actions if you are going to deconstruct the meaning you have created. Albert continually lies to the detectives about various circumstances. He even lies to them about what he claims to be coincidence. They claim he is betraying himself. That’s pretty much how it goes, isn’t it? We deny certain aspects of our being because we are too ashamed to reveal them, and then that denial gets projected outward onto others. In Albert’s case, he projects it on to Brad.
The French nihilist claims nothing means anything. The world is chaotic, full of anger and suffering, and ultimately meaningless. The Jaffe’s are constantly countering this view, but in the end it is clear that they are actually in cahoots with the nihilist. And this makes sense! Yes, everything is meaningless. But that doesn’t mean everything is meaningless!!
For centuries, we’ve been under the assumption that meaning exists outside of ourselves. So when we discover that there is no meaning being imposed by God or the universe, the automatic assumption is that the world is meaningless. But the only reason this idea would make someone nihilistic is if they were still wishing that an external source provided meaning for them. They would rather have meaning imposed upon them than take responsibility for it. So when they discover it isn’t imposed upon them, they default to “nothing means anything, it’s all meaningless”.
I think you sort of have to go to that dark space of meaninglessness in order to discover that just because there is no externally imposed meaning, that doesn’t mean everything is meaningless. You have created that meaninglessness. It hasn’t been imposed upon you by some external source.
It made sense for Albert and Tommy to “defect” to the “other side” and work with the nihilist who says the world is nothing more than a chaotic mess of anger and suffering. I think in my own development, that’s kind of how it has worked for me. I started with a sort of superstitious belief in God that I finally had to let go. I turned to A Course in Miracles, but I didn’t really understand it because I had managed to take my belief in a personal God with me into my studies of ACIM. Lots of ACIM students do this. You see it all the time. It becomes nothing more than a shallow New Age religion that you use to keep suffering at bay. But despite my efforts, life happened and there were many difficult things that put me into a seriously dark place for a while. That’s when I started reading the existentialists (Nietzsche, Sartre, Camus, Dostoevsky, Kierkegaard, Kafka, Hesse, Conrad..)
The main thing I got out of reading the existentialists was the idea that we need to stop denying the darker sides of our natures – that it is the attempt to rid ourselves of what we see as our more animalistic side (the Karamazov side in The Brothers Karamazov, the wolf in Steppenwolfe, the “savages” in Heart of Darkness, etc.) that has created the horrors of the current age. For centuries we have been assigning “sinful” to our animal nature thanks to Augustine’s fallen man theory (or more likely, a misinterpretation of Augustine’s fallen man theory), but this assignment has not served us. It has hurt us. And now that the Enlightenment has killed off the traditional worldview of God, we are destined for nihilism if we don’t also finally let go of the idea that meaning is somehow externally begotten. The rationalists and empiricists may adamantly claim they don’t believe in God, but they still hold on to the idea that there is some sort of external meaning giver. There is an external absolute Truth just waiting to be discovered by science.
As Nietzsche said, faith is constantly placed in a future world, not in this world. This is why he said nihilism was unavoidable. The Christians put their faith in getting to a perfect future place called Heaven. In order to get there, they have to deny this world and their animalistic urges. Empiricists place their faith in a future world made perfect by science and technology. Perfect nature, perfect the human being, and the world will be better in the future. Either way, the faith is in something otherworldly and external and promises a world free of suffering. This world must be denied in order to “achieve” this otherworldly, pain-free futuristic place. The denial of this world is what concerned Nietzsche and why he said we were headed toward nihilism. These days, there are Christians who have reason to destroy the environment because they see it as bringing on Armageddon which will get them to Heaven faster. Others (like Brad) distract themselves with the material pleasures provided by science and technology and turn a blind eye to what is happening to themselves and their environment in the pursuit of this material success.
Buddhists talk about the middle way and I think that is what Tommy and Albert discover and what the Existential Detectives and the Nihilist want them to discover. The Existential detectives gloss over human suffering, but the Nihilist goes straight to the heart of it, even creates suffering in order to help Tommy and Albert understand. Yes, everything is ultimately meaningless and the world is full of senseless suffering, but that doesn’t mean life is not meaningful. Brad and Albert are very different people, but they are the same in their suffering. Albert and Tommy describe this interconnection as absolutely fantastic, but also nothing special because “it grows from the manure of human trouble… No manure, no magic.”
There is also the existential issue of authenticity. Brad’s dismantling finally starts to occur when the existential detectives point out repetitive behavior Brad uses as propaganda to promote himself. He repeatedly tells a story about Shania Twain and tricking her into eating a chicken salad sandwich with mayo. The story helps to project a certain image he likes to portray. But when he does this, is he being himself? The question is repeated over and over again – “How am I not myself?”
How can you be anything other than yourself? You are who you are, there is no one else you can be. And yet, we all engage in behavior attempting to be someone we are not.