Welcome back to Existentialism in Pop Culture, where I explore various television shows, movies, and comic books that have existential themes. Here is part one.
Existentialism is a complex philosophy focusing on the idea that people must make their own meaning in a meaningless or absurd world. So let's take a look at some meanings, shall we?
(Warning: This article contains spoilers for Puella Magi Madoka Magica, Howard the Duck, and La Jetée / Twelve Monkeys.)
Puella Magi Madoka Magica (or simply "Madoka Magica") is twelve-episode anime that aired during 2011. It became quite infamous on the internet for just how dark and disturbing it was in its deconstruction of the "magical girl" genre.
Spoilers: The magical girls become magical girls by making a deal with Kyubey, a strange alien creature who transfers their souls into a "Soul Gem." Once a Soul Gem becomes too tarnished, however, it's turned into a "Grief Seed" and the magical girl turns into a horrific witch. Why does Kyubey do this? Well, because the energy this cycle generates staves off the heat death of the universe...
Most people live dejectedly in worldly sorrow and joy; they are the ones who sit along the wall and do not join in the dance. The knights of infinity are dancers and possess elevation. They make the movements upward, and fall down again; and this too is no mean pastime, nor ungraceful to behold.
The show presents two characters as representing two ideals from Søren Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling: the Knight of Faith and the Knight of Infinite Resignation. In the show, the Knight of Faith is Madoka, who embraces kindness and self-sacrifice, believing that things will turn out alright, while the Knight of Infinite Resignation is Homura, who has seen just how bad things can get and so tries again and again, always by herself, failing over and over.
For Kierkegaard, a true Knight of Faith is one who believes so much that they are willing to do whatever their God commands them, even if it goes against common sense: Abraham is his prime example, completely willing to kill his son because God told him. This is true faith, Kierkegaard says. And yet, he knows that even he cannot become like Abraham.
Infinite resignation is the prelude to faith, however, the step right before it. You cannot reach faith without resignation. You can try again and again, but you have resigned yourself to knowing that you cannot win.
The knight of faith is the only happy man, the heir to the finite while the knight of resignation is a stranger and an alien.
Homura is the Knight of Infinite Resignation, quite literally: she has the power to turn back time. When things go bad and Madoka dies, she turns the clock back and tries again and again and again. It's only through Madoka's sacrifice, the Knight of Faith, that the world is saved and Madoka was only able to sacrifice herself due to her belief in something higher (in this case, hope, which she became).
"With kindness comes naivete. Courage becomes foolhardiness. And dedication has no reward. If you can't accept any of that, you are not fit to be a Magical Girl."
- Homura Akema
(Disclosure: I have not yet seen the movie Puella Magi Madoka Magica: Rebellion, although from what I've read, there is nothing in it that contradicts this. In fact, it seems to further place Homura as a Knight of Infinite Resignation.)
So: a duck walks into a swamp. Well, I say "swamp," but it was actually the Nexus of All Realities. And he didn't so much walk, as waddle. Yes, it's Howard the Duck, one of the best and most enduring creations of Steve Gerber, the Grant Morrison of the '70s and '80s. He was a talking duck, "trapped in a world he never made," a world of hairless apes.
Once he got his own comic, he immediately began commenting on society and the human condition: the mere fact that these "hairless apes" worry endlessly over everything, even as life passes them by. Howard can see the lightness of the world, but even he cannot escape the human condition: the search of meaning and gratification, the sense of curiosity, the want to escape from alienation.
"These hairless apes manufacture neuroses for themselves us ducks never dreamed of! I don't blame same for nodding out. If I hadda play by this world's nutty rules, where they penalized ya for being clever an' reward mediocrity and then glamorize the outlaw, 'coz he makes it on his own terms, even if they're stupid and destructive..."
It's meaningful that Howard's biggest foes aren't after world domination, but are themselves subject to the lightness of being human: there was Doctor Bong, who only wanted to be loved, and Howard's most persistent nemesis, the Kidney Lady, who believed in a conspiracy to corrupt our kidneys and was simply trying to defend them (in her own crazy way). And all the while fighting/running from them, Howard comments on the absurdity of not only their actions, but the actions of all hairless apes.
Beverly: I hope you've learned something from all this, Arthur
Arthur: Yes. There can be profound meaning in life without heroics. The universe isn't a melodrama, but a vast panorama of banal humanity. Man's soul may leap to the heights of fantasy but its true value is down here in the mud, where the real trouble is
Howard: How about — You're just not qualified to give advice on the subject, huh?
The "unbearable lightness of being" is our freedom from the burden of significance: the universe is utterly indifferent to us and so we should therefore feel free and unburdened. But even Howard cannot reach this freedom. He's still trapped in a world he never made, just like the rest of us.
It's just like what's happening with us, like the past. The movie never changes. It can't change; but every time you see it, it seems different because you're different. You see different things.
12 Monkeys and the short film that it is based on, La Jetée, are all about futility: futility in the face of the future, futility to change the past, futility in the face of devastation. And yet, even when faced with this futility, the main character, Coles, still tries to change things, the make things right.
In this respect, it is much like Albert Camus's The Plague, where a devastating plague wipes out most of a city, yet Dr. Rieux still continues to fight against it.
"What on earth prompted you to take a hand in this?"
"I don't know. My...my code of morals, perhaps."
"Your code of morals. What code, if I may ask?"
Each character, Coles and Rieux, is presented with a plague. Coles is given a chance to find a cure, but is told outright that he cannot change what already happened. He is motivated not just by the need for a cure, but by an incident in his childhood, a man who died in front of him.
Rieux is a doctor surrounded by the dead and the dying. His wife is one of those who is dying and he can do nothing to stop it. And yet, he continues to soldier on and on, treating those he can treat. The book contrasts him with several other characters who try to escape the city or who profit off of the misery of others; Rieux acts as selflessly as possible, yet almost all of his patients die and he can do nothing to stop it. (The book is often claimed to be an allegory of the spread of fascism, as well as an existential look at the absurdity of life.)
"All I see are dead people."
Meanwhile, Coles is contrasted with Jeffrey Goines, whose mental illness manifests itself in paranoid rants about society. The audience is led to belief that it is Goines that will unleash the plague upon mankind, that his insanity will lead to the end of civilization. But that's not the point of 12 Monkeys: Goines being the bad guy would be easy, but he's not. He is simply someone who is paranoid, his worldview skewed from the norm. The actual person who releases the plague is someone much quieter, whose motivations much more sinister and unknowable.
The evil that is in the world always comes of ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence, if they lack understanding. On the whole men are more good than bad; that, however, isn't the real point. But they are more or less ignorant, and it is this that we call vice or virtue; the most incorrigible vice being that of an ignorance which fancies it knows everything and therefore claims for itself the right to kill.
In end, Rieux survives, although his wife does not. Even faced with this tragedy, with the absurdity of life and death, Rieux does not give in to despair; other characters, however, are shown trying to escape their own actions or going insane.
Coles, on the other hand, has a chance at freedom, but gives it up in order to try and save the world from the plague, something he knows isn't possible. And because of that, he dies in front of himself as a boy, creating a loop of endless futility. But like a movie, we can see things the main character cannot: that even though the past cannot be changed, the future can be saved...
"Time builds itself painlessly around them. Their only landmarks are the flavor of the moment they are living and the markings on the walls."
— La Jetée
Next: Well, I didn't do Watchmen yet. That may take some time.