AT THE END of the movie American Beauty, a post-murdered Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) tells us, the audience, that he is, despite all appearances, grateful for “every single moment of my stupid, little life”. Now, there’s a philosophical pinata in this movie, and it’s been written about and commented on by professional and layman philosophers aplenty.
A common theme that emerges among those who look at American Beauty philosophically (and I assume even those who don’t), is the question of the meaning of life. At first glance, Lester’s life seems pretty pathetic — loveless marriage, crap-ass cubicle job (from which he is fired), a daughter who propositions the neighbor kid to off her dad, not to mention Lester’s growing obsession with the best friend of his teenage daughter.
We look at Lester and see someone worthless, someone who has let life pass him by, someone who, if he disappeared tomorrow, no one would notice. Lester’s life stank of the quiet desperation that Thoreau wrote of in Walden.
However, even though we know that Lester’s life has come to nothing, at the end, he’s still grateful for every single moment of his life. So, there are no wasted moments after all. At the end, Lester found meaning in something that seemed so meaningless. But for the rest of us, in the real world, how can we tell that, in the end, we’d be so grateful like Lester?
So, how do we determine that our lives are worth living?
The 18th century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche was nice enough to give us a method for solving one of life’s most vexing questions: Is my life worth living? Nietzsche’s solution? Eternal return.
Nietzsche’s “eternal return” goes a little something like this: a demon come to you and says
“this life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it… every pain and every joy… everything immeasurably small or great in your life must return to you…” .
Nietzsche says if our response is that we “throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus”, that our lives are not meaningful. that is, if, at the prospect of having to live your life over again for an eternity, you greet the news as someone would greet a death sentence, you had better rethink how you’re living your life, and fast.
Because your life sucks.
Most of us would say yes to the demon if we had the possibility to change things we had done in our past — to improve on ourselves, to change things for the better. Most of us wouldn’t have a problem if the demon presented us with the situation that weatherman Phil Connors experienced in the movie Groundhog Day.
Phil was stuck living the same day repeatedly, but each time he began a new day, he was able to change his actions. Eventually, Phil discovered that the point of repeating the same day over and over was so that he would change something about himself.
At the outset, Phil wasn’t a very nice guy. Repeating Groundhog Day allowed Phil to see where he was going wrong. The day became a kind of cosmic mulligan. He did it ’til he got it right.
It’s only when Phil improved himself was he allowed to move on to February 3.
But with Nietzsche’ eternal return, there is no release. There is no moving on to the next day.
And absolutely no changing things, either.
What would we do if we realized that, unlike Phil, we couldn’t change what happened — that we would have to live every excruciating detail of our lives forever?
I suspect that only after a few times, we would end up a lot like Michael Palin in the Monty Python’s Flying Circus sketch “Deja Vu”.
It doesn’t take long before Palin’s nerves are frazzled, knowing that the same thing will happen over and over and over again.
(if you haven’t seen this sketch, watch it)
For some of us, there aren’t enough good times to make the truly awful times bearable for an eternity. For every fantastic, Mas Tequila-soaked birthday trip to Cancun, there’s that time that you were attacked by the neighbor’s dog, or the time you spent a week in jail for unpaid traffic tickets.
Those times sucked.
Luckily, Nietzsche’s eternal return, the demon gives us a choice. We can decide whether we want to take the demon up on his offer or not.
But what if the afterlife (or whatever lies beyond this plane of existence) is more like what happened to Phil Conners?
What if we don’t have a choice? What if when our lives end, nature or God (or the Q collective) automatically pushes the “repeat” button? What if repeating our lives is something that isn’t meant to teach us a lesson about life as much as it becomes a punishment?
There’s this movie that came out in the mid-80s called High Spirits. It’s really a forgettable movie, but there’s a character, Mary Plunkett, who is doomed to live the night of her murder for an eternity. Every night, she and her husband Martin reenact their wedding night.
That’s the night Martin murders Mary, by the way.
Martin accuses Mary of cheating (which she wasn’t), chases her down and, fuelled by his rage at her denial, stabs and murders her. The next night it’s back to the same thing — chase and stab all over again.
By the time the film’s protagonist (played by Steve Guttenberg) witnesses the unfortunate ghost bride and her husband replay her murder, they’ve been at it for over a hundred years.
Don’t feel too bad for Mary Plunkett, tho. She is eventually released from her eternal curse by love. Love with Steve Guttenberg.
Win some, lose some, eh?
But this poses a very interesting question.
Ok, Nietzsche wants us to find meaning in our lives, but what if the real meaning is in our death?
Or somebody’s death.
This relates to that punishment thing I brought up a bit ago, I swear.
There’s this idea that one’s life’s meaning has to be cultivated over a lifetime. That, taken as a whole, life either has or hasn’t meaning. But why is this so? There are plenty of people who say that their entire point of view about life changed in a single moment. All the meaning of one’s life can be crammed into one, singular moment. If so, why not live that moment for an eternity?
That’s ok, if the moment we are living is A) worth living for an eternity, and 2) if it’s not one of those punishment moments.
What if… what if we are doomed to an eternal punishment; we have to live the single worst moment of our lives for an eternity?
In the movie Salvage, a young woman named Claire Parker is forced (again, for seemingly inexplicable reasons… well at first anyway) to live the day of her murder over and over. As Claire begins to realize that she’s repeating the same day over and over, she attempts to find ways to stop her murder from taking place.
Yep. If you’re thinking you just saw this plot in a movie released this year, you’re absolutely correct.
But, it seems that no matter what she does, Claire always ends up at home, where the murderer brutalizes her before murdering her and burying her body in a field.
We (the audience) think, like Claire does, if she can just figure out what’s going on, much like Phil in Groundhog Day, she can break the cycle.
But here’s the thing. She’s not repeating her murder to figure out any meaning about her life at all. In the grand scheme of things Claire really doesn’t matter.
It’s because it’s not about her life, it’s about her death.
Claire is an unwitting participant in someone else’s punishment.
She’s not stuck in her own eternal return, she’s struck in her murderer’s eternal return.
The murderer is being punished for murdering Claire, her boyfriend, and a bunch of other people.
The murderer is condemned to feel her pain, but the only way he can feel Claire’s pain is if she feels the pain of being murdered.
Watching Salvage made me think… if a person chooses to take the demon up on his offer, exactly whose lives are involved?
Is everyone you know also doomed to be a part of your eternal repetition?
Is eternal return a group effort or is each person’s recurrence solipsistic?
…and if that is, how can I be sure I’m not in someone’s eternal return right now?
If I’m in something like Salvage or Groundhog Day, and if everyone else isn’t repeating as I am, who are these people that I am dealing with? Are they convincingly realistic- looking holograms like on the holodeck of Star Trek:The Next Generation? If they’re not, are they just facsimiles of the people you know?
If I get to know those hologram people, do I really know the people that I thought that I knew once time returned to normal? If someone opts out of eternal return do they disappear from mine???
You know, this may have all been an exercise in overthinking.
I should try to just sit back and enjoy what I’m watching instead of analyzing everything for it’s “philosophical significance”.
But not High Spirits, though. It’s really not a good movie.