12/09/2014 05:38 pm ET Updated Feb 08, 2015

Sentient Meat: Nihilism Is a Scream

If you are fan of HBO's ended series True Detective, then you are familiar with nihilist detective, Russ Cohle (Matthew McConaughey). If not, picture X-Files' Fox Mulder on mescaline. Early in the series, he shares his bleak philosophy with his new partner, Martin Hart (Woody Harrelson), an average Joe type of guy, who cringes at Russ's pronouncement:

"I think human consciousness, is a tragic misstep in evolution. We became too self-aware, nature created an aspect of nature separate from itself, we are creatures that should not exist by natural law. We are things that labor under the illusion of having a self; an accretion of sensory, experience and feeling, programmed with total assurance that we are each somebody, when in fact everybody is nobody. Maybe the honorable thing for our species to do is deny our programming, stop reproducing, walk hand in hand into extinction, one last midnight - brothers and sisters opting out of a raw deal."

What are we to make of this? Shock? Outrage? Disgust? Or maybe a knowing smirk that Russ could be onto something? Either way, it's arresting. If Russ is right, life would then be reduced to a grim, pointless struggle for survival, driven on only by instinct to avoid death. I for one had to listen a second time. And then I was...laughing, knee-slapping and foot-stomping. Why? I'm not sure. Russ must seem quaint and tortured to believers who never considered that the abyss might be real. To skeptics and agnostics, it might be grist for the mill.

Russ also speaks of a flat circle: "Someone once told me, 'Time is a flat circle.' Everything we've ever done or will do, we're gonna do over and over and over again. And that little boy and that little girl [both tortured sexually, one dead] they're gonna be in that room again and again and again forever." We die and the same growth and evolution of our lives repeats itself. As a theory there is nothing to embrace here. It's the eternal sentence of Sisyphus to push that boulder up the hill. If this were true, really what is the point? The characters in Beckett's play, Waiting for Godot, wait for the invisible and uncomfirmed Godot who never shows. Meaning is ripped from a process that repeats itself, can lead nowhere, and destroys hope and possibility.

Is the show's writer (Nic Pizzolatto) having fun with the character, Russ, making him sound ridiculous? This should be the character speaking and it should ring true to his makeup and the arc of the story. Or, is he having fun with audience? At the conclusion, Russ is able to see some light at the end of his, dark, purposeless tunnel and there is some redemption from the suffering.

As for fun, there are other examples of this done in the context of humor. In Woody Allen's film, Play it Again, Sam (originally a stage play). Allen's character is a schlemiel who cannot connect with women. His friends try to help. One takes him to a museum and urges him to speak to a lovely young woman who is staring intently at a painting. He walks up to her and the following exchange takes place:

Allen: It's a lovely Jackson Pollock.

Woman: Yes, it is.

Allen: What does it say to you?

Woman: It restates the negativeness of the universe. The hideous, lonely emptiness of existence. Nothingness. The predicament of man forced to live in a barren, godless eternity like a tiny flame flickering in an immense void with nothing but waste, horror and degradation forming a useless straightjacket in a black absurd cosmos.

Allen: What are you doing Saturday night?

Woman: Committing suicide.

Allen: What about Friday night?

Russ Cohle should marry this woman, right? In this context, it's supposed to be funny and reflect on Allen's desperation. Elsewhere in the film, he says something about finding "disturbed women interesting."

Periodically we encounter a point of view that renders life, even existence, futile and meaningless. Marty, after listening to Russ, suggests in so many words why not end it all? Russ responds that he is not predisposed to suicide. So, it's bad, but not bad enough.

The concept of nihilism is not new--Nietschze declared "God is dead" in 1882. As observation through a famous fictional character, even Shakespeare understood the sensibility before the word was invented. Macbeth says:

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.
(Act V, scene IV)

(Imagine this with Marty's southern twang). Shakespeare is not being humorous here and no added commentary is necessary. Macbeth's story occupies a bleak universe and while he may have had the motivation of "vaulting ambition," ultimately he realizes it was all for nothing.

So, how does one laugh at this? I don't know anyone else who finds this funny. I'm reminded of another literary character who served as second mate on the Pequod, the ship driven to madness and despair by its Captain, Ahab, who seeks meaning by pursuing a dangerous whale who maimed him. Ahab tells his first mate, Starbuck, "All visible objects are but as pasteboard masks. Some inscrutable yet reasoning thing puts forth the molding of their features. The white whale tasks me; he heaps me. Yet he is but a mask. 'Tis the thing behind the mask I chiefly hate; the malignant thing that has plagued mankind since time began; the thing that maws and mutilates our race, not killing us outright but letting us live on, with half a heart and half a lung."

The second mate, Stubb, having overheard some of this, says ''a laugh's the wisest, easiest answer to all that's queer; and come what will, one comfort's always left--that unfailing comfort is, it's all
predestinated [Russ's "flat circle"?]. He adds "I know not all that may be coming, but be it what it will, I'll go to it laughing."