Sartre and Hotel California

I have to write about an existentialist philosophy/argument that is in the song Hotel California (the Eagles). The song is my stimuli for my paper, in which I have to oppose two philosophical arguments. Do you know how this song relates to existentialism? – MC

Sartre wrote a famous existentialist play called No Exit. The theme is that three people die, and their afterlife is spent in a room of a generic hotel. What makes the play existentialist is that Sartre guides us to see that each person is avoiding making real choices for his or her own personal reasons. They avoided responsibility for their own choices in life, and now seemed poised to do the same throughout all eternity. They have created their own hell through refusing to acknowledge their existential freedom to shape their own destinies.

Hotel California can be seen as another version of the hotel in No Exit. The hotel is a metaphor for Los Angeles, and the aimless, undirected drifting that people do there. They are distracted by materialism, but fail to make existential choices.

Beauty in Art

If you’ve been following our series, we’re looking at whether War can be eliminated and the economy revived through the creation of a system that combines the competitive aspects of Sport, the objectivity of Science, and the non-materialist orientation of Art.  Back before the holidays we made a start on a synthesis by examining aesthetics (a topic closely associated with art) that are native to Sport and Science.

Our prior discussion gave us two possible aesthetics to base our new system upon. (It also raised a question: Why, if there are aesthetics native to both Sport and Science, do we need a new system at all? The answer is that aesthetics are not primary in either Sport or Science. In Sport, winning is more important than Beauty; No coach was ever fired for ugly wins, or retained for beautiful losses. In Science, results are more important that Beauty. Given the choice, a beautiful theory is always preferred, but in many cases the ugly theory is all that is available.) For full effectiveness, we would like our new aesthetic to have a large area of overlap with one is traditionally considered of high value in the world of Art. In other words, we want to create an aesthetic that is as clearly defined as those of Sport and Science, but that also covers the commonly acclaimed great works of Art.

As different as are Sport and Science, their associated aesthetics actually have a certain level of similarity. Both start with a high level of challenge, in Sport, the challenging opponent or athletic task, in Science, the challenging dataset. Both require success to be distinguished, in Sport by athletic grace, in Science by insight-granting simplicity. Both rely on an element of integrity. In Sport, an accusation of cheating, steroid use, or game-throwing will tarnish an otherwise beautiful moment. In Science, the use of faked or manipulated data and egregious “fudge factors” destroys a beautiful theory. Given these parallels, the obvious next step is to see if any analogs to these factors –“Challenge,” “Grace” and “Integrity” –exist in the world of Art.

Beauty in Sport

To recapitulate our project, the goal is to combine Art, Science and Sport to create a hybrid capable of replacing War.  But is there a way to do this without just creating some Frankenstein-like assemblage with none of the strengths of any of its parents?

Instead of cobbling this institutions together, maybe a better approach is to look at ways they already reflect each other at a deeper level.  For that reason, this week’s post has the unusual title of “Beauty in Sport”.

The aesthetic of Sport is found in its purest form not in any hybrid “pretty” sport, but rather in the most “ugly” and bare-knuckled of gladitorial athletic contests –sports such as American football. Beauty in football, for example, is an underrated player on an outmatched team scoring the winning touchdown in the game’s final seconds seemingly without effort, despite the full overwhelming force of the opposing team. That is the moment that football fans live for –at least when it ends in their team’s favor. It is an easy scenario to grasp, and can be generalized as follows: Beauty in Sport is a clean, graceful victory over visibly overwhelming odds.

Given that the goal in every sporting event is a clean victory (meaning one where no one cheats, and everyone plays their best) , the real variable factor here is the level of difficulty, as intensified by things such as being outmatched, losing a key player, or being in the final seconds of the game, and as existing in dynamic tension with the grace of the triumph. A good real-life example is provided by Kerri Strug’s memorable last performance in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. As an Olympic competition, the level of challenge was already at a peak, but it increased by several orders of magnitude when Strug injured her leg shortly before her final vault. Normally she would have dropped out of contention in favor of letting her leg heal, but her teammates were relying on her final vault to secure their shot at winning the gold medals. When she soldiered through to complete a nearly flawless vault, and then subsequently collapsed in pain, the contrast between the grace of her performance and the obvious difficulty of having achieved it on a bad leg combined to create a moment of memorable athletic Beauty.

Next Week: Beauty in Science

Art + Sport = ?

Sport, Science and Art each have strengths, but none of them has proven capable of replacing War in its natural form. It seems plausible, however, that one could create a true War-class ECS by synthesizing the three together. In other words, we might be able to reverse-engineer the system we need from the parts that we already have.

A good place to start is with some combination of Art and Sport. In imitation of Sport, we need a hierarchical competition format that will provide a consistently high level of challenge to a wide range of participants. In imitation of Art, we need an aesthetics-based approach that will remove our system from the realm of physical dominance and prevent it from being weaponized. As it happens, there are several notable hybrids that already match this recipe. One of the most prominent is the Olympic-class sport of figure skating, which is judged equally on athletic talent and aesthetics. Other Olympic sports where aesthetics play at least some role in the judging include gynmastics, skateboarding and diving.

There are also a number of hybrids on the other side of the Art/Sport line. One of the most influential is “slam poetry,” a dynamic spoken-word art form centered around competitions judged with Olympic-style scores by an ad hoc panel drawn from the audience. Another is the California-based phenomenon of “clown” or “crump dancing” (as chronicled in the documentary Rize) which similarly takes on aspects of Sport while retaining a focus on aesthetics. In addition, talent competitions ranging from the elite Van Cliburn piano competition to televised reality competitions such as American Idol also meld together these basic ingredients of competition and aesthetics.

When, however, it comes time to mix in our third ingredient, the objective legitimacy of Science, none of these hybrids proves suitable. The problem is that aesthetic judgments are generally considered irreduceably subjective, matters of individual taste that can neither be quantified nor made universal. The problem is made especially acute by the fact that no widely endorsed definition of aesthetic value in Art exists. If a thing cannot be defined, it cannot be measured, and if it cannot be consistently measured it might as well, from a scientific point of view, not even exist.

NEXT WEEK: Quantifying the unquantifiable.

Art

Fourth in a series on ending war.

Art may seem like a odd substitute for War, but there’s reason to not dismiss the idea out of hand.  We already know that Art can be a powerful economic engine, legions of starving artists and musicians notwithstanding.  For proof just look at the movie and music industries.  What may be more of surprise is that Art has played a role on the battlefield as well.  In the days of the Roman Empire –which lasted for well over a thousand years –conquered cultures were kept in thrall to the Empire as much by the superiority of Roman art and culture as by the threat of force.  As much as having Roman overlords may have rankled, few barbarians truly wished to trade in their refined Roman existence for a return to crude tribal living.  Similarly, on the other side of the world, the Chinese Empire survived being repeatedly invaded and conquered by barbarian hordes because Chinese art and culture were so advanced that the invaders inevitably assimilated into the host culture instead of the other way around, as the physical conquerors became the culturally conquered.

But how does Art do versus our criteria?

  1. It makes jobs that challenge individuals and nations to their limits:  The answer here is both yes and no.  No, certainly, with regards to nations –no country faces its greatest challenge in maintaining itself at the cutting edge of artistic advance.   Yes, on occasion, with regards to individuals.  True, a hobbyist painter or casual guitar player isn’t experiencing much of a challenge, but dance and acrobatics challenge the physical limits of the human body, special-effects laden movies challenge the limits of technology, conceptual art challenges the intellect, “diva” songs challenge the human vocal range, and so forth and so on.  Any artist at the top of their field is probably at or near the limits of what is humanly possible in one way or another.
  2. It distributes jobs:  Here we find a deficiency.  There’s no real structure to distribute Art jobs in the way we found in other ECS candidates.  Furthermore, as with Sport, we’ve become segregated into producers and consumers with regards to Art.  Legions of musicians and artists starve while a small handful of celebrity entertainers serve as the primary artists in the lives of millions.  This is a trend that would need to be reversed before Art could actually serve as a legitimate Employment-Creation System (ECS).
  3. It makes jobs meaningful by:
    1. serving as a test of ideologies:  Here art does surprisingly well.  Didactic art, which explicitly promotes a given ideology, is rarely a success, but every piece of art, no matter how innocuous it may seem, presupposes some philosophy, some viewpoint about the world.  The way an artist solves artistic problems actually says a great deal about his or her views on how to solve general problems of life.  In addition, art cannot be as easily alienated as technology.  You can imitate a foreign art form, but you cannot create valid original work in the same vein until you internalize the ideology that gave birth to the artwork in the first place
    2. being definitive:  The killer subclause strikes again.  An artistic triumph cannot be definitive in the same way as a physical triumph, because Art is too subjective.  There is no common standard for Art, and no two observers can be relied upon to agree at all times on the merits of any piece of art.  Each region prefers its own art, yet even two siblings who grew up in the same household can have opposite artistic tastes.

Things seem bleak.  With Art, Science and Sport all striking out as potential substitutes, we are left stuck with War and Consumerism as the dysfunctional institutions that are destroying us, but that we cannot do without.

And so this is the end.  Or is it?  If a natural substitute for War and/or Consumerism existed, it would likely already be in use.  But what about a synthetic substitute?  Each of our candidates was strong in some areas, and weak in others.  Could we add together the best of each, and create a new system capable of getting the job done?

We’ll take a moment next week to explore the nature of identity, and then return in two weeks to see whether or not we can go ahead and construct a synthetic Employment-Creation System capable both of rescuing Capitalism and putting an end to War.

NEXT WEEK:  Identity

Reconstructivist Art: American Born Chinese

Gene Luen Yang’s graphic novel American Born Chinese as an example of Reconstructivist Art.

American Born Chinese centers around what at first seem like three very different narratives.  The first is a superhero-themed retelling of a beloved classic tale from Chinese mythology, the story of the kung-fu practicing Monkey King.  The second is a realistic, contemporary story about a young Asian American boy, and his struggles to fit in at an almost wholly white school.  The third and final narrative is a sitcom about a white boy named Danny, and the mischief caused in his life by the yearly visits of his cousin “Chin-Kee”, a walking conglomeration of every possible offensive stereotype about Asians.  What makes the work a tour de force, however, is the way Yang swiftly, unexpectedly and yet credibly brings together the three narratives at the end, revealing them to be linked not merely thematically but also as facets of a single unifed storyline.

  1. Nod to Artifice:  Although the cartoon format is highly contrived to begin with, Yang further heightens the sense of artifice with the framing device for his third narrative, which is presented as an American sitcom, complete with an intrusive laugh track.
  2. Iconic and Transcontexual Elements:  The most notable examples of this are the Monkey King, an icon of traditional Chinese myth transposed to a number of alien settings throughout the book, and his counterpart Chin-Kee, a montrous being uniting a host of iconically offensive elements.  Other, less prominent icons include the herbalist’s wife, who represents the archetypal figure of the wise but sinister old woman, and a wide variety of pop culture references and icons, including Transformer toys, a high school named after a racially insensitive cartoonist, a reference to American Idol non-singer William Hung, and a cartoon representation of a popular You Tube video featuring two young Asian lip-synchers.
  3. Classic Structure:  Although Yang’s triple narrative structure is nothing if not innovative and unique, the three narratives considered separately all have familiar structures –the first story is patterned after the classic myth it borrows from, the second has elements of a teenage romantic comedy, and the last is a parody of a typical sitcom episode.  In addition, the larger story arc can be considered as having a traditional three act structure, with the caveat that all three acts are presented simultaneously.
  4. Moments of Genuine Emotion and Significance:  Stripped of its trappings, the heart of “ABC” is a starkly honest story that will be both familiar and relatable to anyone who has ever sacrificed some portion of his or her identity in order to fit in –which is to say, everyone.

Reconstructivist Art: Kehinde Wiley

Artist Kehinde Wiley as an example of Reconstructivist Art.

Adries Stilte II
From Wiley’s commissioned show at the Columbus Museum of Art, which featured Columbus area subjects in the style of portraits from the museum’s permanent collection

Wiley is an African American visual artist, known primarily for his lush, full-scale portraits of young urban African-American men in poses inspired by well-known paintings from the classical Western canon.  Here’s how his work matches against the four key elements of Reconstructivist Art.

  1. The Nod to Artifice: Although Wiley’s portraits include highly realistic figures, he is known for his highly stylized backgrounds which resemble ornamental wall coverings, and which sometimes interact with the figure in ways that emphasize the artificiality of the portrayal.
  2. A Classic Structure: As noted above, Wiley’s portraits are nearly always based directly on some established work of art from the Western canon.
  3. Transcontextual and/or Iconic Elements: Both the subjects of the portraits (young urban black men in contemporary dress), and the poses taken in the portraits (based on classic portraits from bygone centuries) are iconic elements transcontextualized to the timeless, placeless ornamental space in which Wiley works.
  4. Moments of Genuine Emotion or Significance: In making his juxtapositions, Wiley compels the viewer to look beyond ingrained conceptualizations of race and class.  In doing so, he shows us the common humanity linking his contemporary subjects with their medieval counterparts, and the universality of all human experience.

Hi. If something is objectively true, does it have to fall within the realm of science, and does the fact that something does not fall within the realm of science prove its relativism? (Examples – art and ethics)

This is a great question. Unfortunately, the answer is surprisingly controversial and complex:

The first challenge is figuring out what “objectively true” means. Most –but not all!– people believe there is a universe “out there” that has characteristics which are independent of any particular person’s observations or perceptions. This is a position generally known in philosophy as “Realism.”

To find out if you are a “Realist”, try this thought experiment: Imagine you personally do not exist, and furthermore that other people don’t exist, and in fact, that there is no intelligent life in the universe. Do things such as stars and planets still exist? Does a proton still have the same mass? Does water on earth still freeze at zero degrees Celsius? If you think so, you are a Realist.

The majority of people, even if they aren’t sure that the things that exist actually have the forms and the nature that we think they do, believe that something exists objectively –which is to say, independent of any given subject. Unfortunately, this is impossible to “prove”, given that each of us is imprisoned, so to speak, inside our own experience. There is no way for me to show incontrovertibly that there is anything independent of my own personal experience.

In addition, Realism by itself doesn’t actually tell us as much as you might think –it says something exists beyond our perceptions, but not what that something is. If, however, you believe that the world is more-or-less the way it appears to be, then you are not just a Realist, you are a “Naturalist”, or a “Realist about Perceptions”. In other words, you think the familiar world of trees, sky, earth, stars, moon, sun, etcetera, exists generally the way it seems to.

This seems like a natural (no pun intended) step, but it runs into some problems. One is that it is vulnerable to the possibility explored in the “Matrix” movies that your perception of the world and all its objects are generated by causes quite different than the seeming ones –in the case of the Matrix, a computer, in the case of Descartes’ similar hypothesis, an malicious demon. It may seem far-fetched, but it gains plausibility when we think of how easily our perceptions can be shifted –a set of rose-colored glasses makes everything look pink, just as being told that a student is smart can change our perceptions of his or her classwork.

This leads us at long last to the starting point of your question. In general, scientists replace “Naive Naturalism”, the thought that the world is just as we perceive it, with “Scientific Naturalism”. In scientific naturalism, it is accepted that objects may have a “real existence” very different from our perceptions –for instance, who would guess that fire and water are both made of the exact same building blocks of electrons, protons and neutrons? The claim is made, however, that objective reality relates to our perceptions of it in orderly, rule-governed and consistent ways, and that those relationships can be discovered through the use of the scientific method.

The scientific method is not the only way of discovering truths or “Truths” about the world, but it does have many practical advantages, including the fact that the things it discovers are, by definition, reliable (they will work the same way each time) and fit into a general schema that fits together with all the other scientific truths.

If we take your question at face value, “If something is objectively true, does it have to fall within the realm of science?” the answer is no. Assuming we take a Realist stance, and agree that there ARE things that are objectively true out there, it is clear that some of those true things will be outside the realm of what science can tell us now –whether or not there is intelligent life on other planets, for example –and even that some of it might forever be outside the realm of what science can demonstrate.

I think what you really mean, however, is “does a proposition have to be tested by the scientific method in order to be a valid and reliable piece of knowledge?” That’s not a question that itself has an objective or uncontroversial answer. For example, we might say that there could be other methods –substantially different from our current science –that would give reliable answers. Would we consider those methods “scientific” because they were reliable? In that case, all we mean by “scientific” is “reliable”. But we can’t disprove that other such methods might exist –after all, much of what we consider as good science today would have been alien to scientists of the past.

Another counterclaim is that there are other non-methodical sources of truth. A religious person (such as myself) might be comfortable with the claim that religious revelation provides a source of truths that are equally or exceedingly “objective” as the truths verified by science, while a non-religious person would reject that claim.

As far as the second part of your question, what about things such as art and ethics? Are they intrinsically relativist, which is to say, are they irreducibly dependent on subjective and personal beliefs or characteristics that do not generalize?

On the one hand, we should keep in mind the fact that it might be possible that a “science” of art or ethics could be someday created, which is to say, that we could figure out ways to make statements about those fields that are as testable and reliable as those about fields such as physics and chemistry. In my opinion, however, that would first require not just a different understanding of art and ethics, but also a different understanding of science. Previous attempts to make a science out of such things have generally focused on reducing them to purely material terms, and have not resulted in any notable successes.

This brings up a final issue raised by your question. Do we live in a universe where everything is best explained in purely material terms –i.e. as the extended ramifications of the trajectories of protons, electrons, neutrons and other particles, or even in a universe where everything is capable of being explained in such terms? There are quite a large number of people who would endorse not merely the second statement but also to the first (please notice the differences!). But it should be made clear, such a statement is essentially a declaration of faith. It is not an independently provable proposition, and it is capable of being wrong.

Let me thus rephrase your questions: “Given the current state of human knowledge, is the scientific method the only widely accepted, internally consistent, controllable and reliable way of constructing new knowledge; and do fields such as art and ethics currently fall outside the realm of what science has thus far proven itself to be capable of considering successfully?” The answer to that question is a highly qualified “yes”.

Jedi Philosophy

For many people, the main appeal of George Lucas’ “Star Wars” movies is the “Jedi Way,” the philosophy/religion that guides the mystical Jedi knights. But where does this philosophy come from, and does it hold up under scrutiny?

At root, the Jedi Way is a synthesis of three Eastern religions or philosophies, with an overlay of courtly behavior drawn from the medieval knights of Europe.

The most important source for the Jedi Way is Taoism, an ancient Chinese philosophy whose name is generally translated as “the Way” or as “the Way of Nature.” The two main goals of Taoism are to achieve balance and to exist in harmony with nature (and with all living beings). There is no deity as such in Taoism, which conceptualizes ultimate reality as a primal energy. This energy is expressed in the world in the form of two equal and opposing forces, the “yin” or passive female force, and the “yang” or active male force. These forces are neither good nor evil, and what is desirable is that they be in balance at all times.

The tension between yin and yang creates “qi” (pronounced “chee” and sometimes transliterated as “chi”) or life energy. Qi is found in all things, but particularly living creatures. The manipulation of qi is at the root of many traditional Chinese practices including acupuncture, feng shui and tai chi. According to legend, command of qi flow (as practiced by “qigong” masters) brings many mystical powers similar to those of the Jedi, such as the ability to move objects with the mind. In the movies, the name of Jedi Master “Qui-Gon Jin” is probably a deliberate reference to “qi gong.”

(Since Taoism is more of a philosophy than a religion, it is often combined together with religious beliefs from other traditions, such as Buddhism or Christianity.)

The second major source of the Jedi Way is Buddhism, specifically Zen, a variant found largely in Japan. As with most forms of Buddhism, Zen preaches “non-attachment,” the letting go of emotional bonds to people, places and things. The ultimate goal is to reach a selfless state of dispassionate compassion for all living things. Like the Jedi knights, Buddhist monks are ascetic and celibate. Zen monks are known, at least in the popular imagination, for developing a particular ability or craft to the point where it can be practiced with no conscious effort and nearly superhuman skill.

The third major source for the Jedi worldview is Zoroastrianism, an ancient Persian religion which viewed the world as an eternal battlefield between the forces of good and evil. Although Zoroastrianism has only small pockets of practitioners left in the modern world, it was a major influence on many other philosophies and religions. Echoes of it are present in many places, including the way many modern Christians conceptualize the devil as a force opposite and nearly equal to God.

Finally, the Jedi philosophy is overlaid with a code of chivalry based on that practiced by the medieval knights of Europe, who operated by a code of ethics including strict rules for combat, high standards of courtesy, warrior virtues such as honor, loyalty and bravery and a veneration of courtly love. The knightly facet of the Jedi is exemplified in the movies by their preference for the “elegant” light sabers as opposed to the “barbaric” blasters.

The remarkable synthesis Lucas achieved in placing together these disparate elements has proved compelling for more than one generation of viewers. However, as a workable philosophy it has major flaws.

The first and most subtle of these is the conflict between Taoism and Buddhism. Although often linked in real life, Taoism and Buddhism do not always line up. In the first chapter of the “Tao Te Ching” (the chief text of Taoism) it says “let go of desires in order to observe the source, but allow yourself desires in order to observe the manifestations.” This indicates that both “attachment” and “nonattachment” are seen as having value in Taoism, as opposed to Buddhism. In addition, the Buddhist seeks to transcend the world and earthly existence, whereas the Taoist seeks to be fully integrated into the world as a part of nature and natural existence. In the movies, this becomes an issue in the way that the Jedi Council is aloof and independent from politics, yet simultaneously also deeply involved in the galactic political landscape.

The second conflict is between Taoism and Zoroastrianism. There is no “good” and “evil” in Taoism, only balance and imbalance. Neither Yin nor Yang is preferable, and both are necessary, as apposed to Zoroastrianism, where the ultimate goal is the triumph of good and the eradication of evil. This disconnect shows up as a major plot point in the second series of movies (I, II & III), where the prophecy of “balance in the Force” may possibly mean the rise of evil.

The third conflict is between Buddhism and Zoroastrianism. Again, the concept of a fight between good and evil is somewhat alien to Buddhism. A fallen Buddhist would not be an equal and opposite force to a good Buddhist, but simply someone who had become too caught up in the illusions and the material temptations of the ordinary world. A person of this sort might be cruel, venal and selfish, but would not be expected to have any particular spiritual power. This creates a paradox in the movies, in that the Jedi draw power from controlling their emotions, but the Sith draw power from their inability to control their emotions. In addition it creates another instance of cognitive dissonance as the wise and dispassionate Jedi choose over and over again to resolve their problems through violence.

The final conflict is between Buddhism and chivalry. Buddhism preaches non-attachment, but one of the key characteristics of the medieval knights was passionate attachment. Loyalty to one’s lord and to one’s comrades-in-arms was among the highest virtues, and a courtly, romantic (and theoretically chaste) love between a knight and his lady was celebrated as an ideal. Also, in as much as chivalry stems from Christianity, it carries the idea of love as a powerful redemptive force.

This disconnect creates some of the most powerful paradoxes in the movies. In the first series (IV, V & VI) Yoda and Obi-Wan counsel control of emotions, and warn Luke against the dangers of his affection for his friends, and his unreasonable love for his father. Yet it is Luke’s decision to ignore this seemingly wise advice that provides most of the high points of the first series. In the end, Luke is proven right when his ill-advised love for his father finally uncovers the good left in Darth Vader, and brings about the final end to the Sith. Therefore, love is ultimately shown to be even more powerful than the light side of the Force (which failed to conquer its counterpart in all five chronologically previous movies).

Conversely, the second series suffers from taking its doctrine of non-attachment too seriously. The Jedi Council consequently comes across as cold and uncaring –a fact which drives Anakin into the more hot-blooded arms of the Dark Side. In addition, this set of movies is in the strange position of positing love as the enemy. Although Anakin clearly has psychotic tendencies, the movie insists on blaming his moments of indiscriminate slaughter on his “love” for his mother and his wife. Even Obi-Wan’s platonic love for his padawan does nothing except cloud his judgment.

It is this too-fully-realized disdain for emotion that, more than anything else, makes the second series inferior to the first.

Kierkegaard’s Narrative

“Kierkegaard’s Narrative” is an existential humanist plot outline named after the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. In general, it runs as follows: An aimless young man drifts through life, obsessed with aesthetics, and seeking sexual fulfillment with a series of women, yet never making substantive choices or real commitments. The climax of the story is the protagonist’s decision to commit to a single woman, and to enter into marriage.

The raw source material for this plotline is found in Kierkegaard’s books “Either/Or,” “Fear and Trembling,” and “Repetition,” in which he takes on the persona of various first-person narrators, and describes their experiences. Among the characters described are:

  1. “the Aesthete” who is obsessed with art and aesthetic experience
  2. “the Seducer” who falls deeply in love with a woman and pursues her heatedly until he gets her, and then discards her for a new conquest
  3. “the Repeater,” who is caught up in past experiences, and the doomed hope of recreating them

These characters are contrasted to a fourth, the “Married Man” who lives an existence that seems ordinary and mundane from the outside, but that is rich and fully lived on the inside.

Walker Percy was probably the first to weave these distinct personas together into a single coherent plotline. In his book “The Moviegoer,” he traces the evolution of a protagonist who spends most of the book as an aesthete, a seducer and a “repeater,” and who finishes it on the verge of becoming Kierkegaard’s “Knight of Faith” –the married man. (Percy also introduces an additional element, possibly also inspired by Kierkegaard, the death of a person close to the protagonist as a counterpoint to the protagonist’s desire to fully embrace life.) This book was widely admired, and the plotline passed into popular culture, where it has been the foundation of a number of well-regarded books and movies.

  1. Adaptation (Charlie Kaufman, directed by Spike Jonze)

    The clever joke of this movie is the way it combines experimentalism and conventionality, a union that also happens to fit neatly into the Kierkegaardian model.

    Protagonist: Charlie Kaufman

    Aesthetic Preoccupation: Screenwriting

    Affairs: Susan’s affair with John

    Repetition: Charlie tries to recreate the experience of Susan Orlean’s original book

    Death: Charlie’s twin brother

    Existential Humanist Act: Charlie throws himself into the screenplay –literally –and confesses his love for a female friend.

  2. American Beauty (Alan Ball, directed by Sam Mendes)

    The significance of the protagonist’s last choice in this movie is it represents his one selfless act of maturity and existential responsibility.

    Protagonist: Lester Burnham

    Aesthetic Preoccupation: Marijuana

    Affairs: Fantasizes about seducing his daughter’s nubile friend.

    Repetition: Tries to recapture his lost youth.

    Death: Lester (the protagonist)

    Existential Humanist Act: Chooses to not seduce the young girl

  3. Garden State (Zach Braff)

    Clearly in the same mold, although there’s a sense that the protagonist’s aimlessness comes less from his own choices, and more from his over-controlling father’s drug prescriptions.

    Protagonist: Andrew Largeman

    Aesthetic Preoccupation: Acting, psychotropic drugs

    Affairs: Makes out with some girls at a party

    Repetition: Returns to his old town

    Death: Protagonist’s mother

    Existential Humanist Act: Abandons his L.A. life for a girl he’s fallen in love with.

  4. Graduate, The (Charles Webb)

    This work makes the subversive suggestion that Benjamin’s proposal to Elaine is just another aimless, meaningless choice.

    Protagonist: Benjamin Braddock

    Aesthetic Preoccupation: Art was Mrs. Robinson’s major in college

    Affairs: With Mrs. Robinson

    Repetition: Returns home after school, tries to revisit his relationship with Elaine

    Death: N/A

    Existential Humanist Act: Elaine’s choice to follow Ben despite having just married another man.

  5. Harold and Maude (Colin Higgins, directed by Hal Ashby)

    This is an surprisingly sentimental movie for a comedy about suicide –a fact explained by the movie’s existential humanist heart.

    Protagonist: Harold

    Aesthetic Preoccupation: Suicide

    Affairs: Harold goes on a series of blind dates arranged by his mother.

    Repetition: Harold’s phony suicides are an attempt to recreate a single experience of emotional response from his mother.

    Death: Maude

    Existential Humanist Act: Harold’s proposal to Maude

  6. High Fidelity (Nick Hornby)

    A popular book and movie of modern times which fits the model almost exactly.

    Protagonist: Rob Gordon

    Aesthetic Preoccupation: Old records

    Affairs: A series of failed relationships

    Repetition: Looking up his old girlfriends

    Death: His girlfriend’s father

    Existential Humanist Act: Proposes to his longtime girlfriend

  7. Moviegoer, The (Walker Percy)

    The model for the genre, it features long passages directly inspired by Kierkegaard

    Protagonist: Binx Bolling

    Aesthetic Preoccupation: Movies

    Affairs: With a string of secretaries

    Repetition: Returning to an old moviehouse

    Death: Protagonist’s half-brother

    Existential Humanist Act: Marries his step-cousin.

  8. Sideways (Jim Taylor and Alexander Payne (director))

    Like American Beauty, this movie shifts the narrative into midlife.

    Protagonist: Miles Raymond

    Aesthetic Preoccupation: Wine and writing

    Affairs: Jack’s affairs with various women.

    Repetition: Miles tries to regain the affection of his ex-wife.

    Death: Miles’ book “dies” (is rejected by the publisher) and he “kills” his treasured bottle of vintage wine.

    Existential Humanist Act: Miles pursues a relationship with a pretty waitress named Maya, even at the price of distancing himself from the hedonism represented by Jack.

  9. Truman Show, The (Andrew Niccol, directed by Peter Weir)

    This movie externalizes the existentialism by creating a world whose purpose is to trap and immobilize the protagonist. Significantly, his existential act is to leave a loveless sham of a marriage, and not to commit to it.

    Protagonist: Truman Burbank

    Aesthetic Preoccupation: Truman’s entire life is an aesthetic/entertainment experience, although he doesn’t know it.

    Affairs: Married to a paid actress

    Repetition: Lives a repetitious life, and constantly returns to memories of a past relationship.

    Death: The faked death of Truman’s “father” –another symbol of the inauthenticity of Truman’s life.

    Existential Humanist Act: Goes in search of his “true love.”