What the fuck are we doing here, man? What a delightful little question! Ask any number of people and you’ll likely get as many different responses. We’ve debated it for as long as we’ve been keeping records, and indeed, probably before that. The Big Lebowski, cult classic of the 1990’s responds, White Russian in hand, with “Fucked if I know, dude.” Within the context of modern existentialist thought, this answer is surprisingly valid.
The film is not only a hilarious and iconic comedy; it is also a relevant commentary on the absurdity of society and life as a whole. If you have not seen the film yet, you owe it to yourself to check it out immediately if not sooner. I find it important to note, however, that no special attention should be given to the intricacies of the plot as it was designed to be more twisted than the logic behind Operation Fast and Furious. For those of you who feel nonetheless compelled to refresh your memory as far as the story is concerned, I’ve included a link to a synopsis here.
Much more important than the intentionally nonsensical plot line is the way in which the main character, Jeffrey “The Dude’ Lebowski, interacts with other characters and reacts to various situations throughout the film. Integral in all of The Dude’s actions are elements of philosophical Absurdism and, to a somewhat lesser extent, basic principles of Taoism. Allow me now to qualify my rambling…
Stripped of the minutia, philosophical Absurdism, like its close cousin Nihilism, states that life has no inherent meaning. The concept of the Absurd rises then from the conflict between the apparent meaninglessness of the universe and the insatiable human desire to find meaning in life. In the face of this conflict, there are three possible courses of action: suicide, belief in a higher power, and the acceptance of the absurd.
The acceptance of the absurd means that one accepts the hopeless condition of existence; that is to say, the impossibility of any certainty or objectivity as it pertains to the meaning of life. But wait! All is not lost! Absurdism also holds that once one has accepted the absurd, he or she is free to choose their own meaning in life. In short, freedom from living under false pretenses, in this case the notion that existence has some overarching, objective meaning leaves one free to think, and indeed to live, for one’s self!
Now that we’ve covered the basics, let’s apply what we’ve learned!
In The Big Lebowski, Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski, the living embodiment of an individual who has accepted the absurd, seems to realize that life has no objective meaning, and instead chooses to find meaning and fulfillment through spending time with his best friends, Walter and Donnie, bowling, and not taking the often oppressive nature of reality too seriously. The Dude knows that society has a way of drawing us in and forcing false meaning on us. He therefore knows to keep his distance and focus on the meaning the he has chosen for his life. On his journey, The Dude encounters characters who have either intentionally or unintentionally chosen to view the world in an objective sense of success or failure, victory or defeat, wealth or poverty, and comfort or distress.
Early in the film, we see The Dude’s famous interaction with Jeffrey “Big” Lebowski, a (seemingly) shrewd and coldhearted businessman with no other motivation than the unfeeling pursuit of profit, encapsulates the differing views between an Absurd view of existence versus an Objective view of existence. Driven solely by profit, “Big” Lebowski believes that being successful, however arbitrarily that may be defined, is the only way in which meaning can be obtained. Also, he feels as though he must compensate for the loss of his legs in the Korean War. He therefore places even more emphasis on the fact that he has achieved more than most other men even without the use of his legs. His myopic worldview has made him ironically unreasonable, incoherent, and completely intolerant to differing opinions and views. When The Dude encounters “Big” Lebowski in all of his staunch and unyielding stupidity, he knows that arguing with someone as block-headed is futile and famously remarks “eh…fuck it.”
Immediately afterwards, The Dude meets “Big” Lebowski’s wife, Bunny. Bunny Lebowski is an interesting character in that she practices a kind of popular hedonism. That is to say, she finds meaning in the pursuit of physical pleasure but does not follow that train of logic to its inevitable conclusion; early death from excessive decadence or overindulgence. However, this does not change the fact that Bunny’s relationships with others tend to be parasitic and based solely on physicality. Because meaning, for her, is found through sexual conquest, she tends to be lustful and shallow. To facilitate her sexual appetite Bunny is cunning and knows that she is young and attractive, making her believe that she can hold any man she may encounter spellbound by her beauty. Indeed, The Dude almost succumbs to her charm, but soon realizes that the price of her company is much to dear (literally).
Soon after, The Dude meets Jesus Quintana, a flamboyant and arrogant rival bowler. A convicted sex offender, Quintana was charged with exposing himself to eight year old children and in a delicious bit of irony refers to himself as ‘The Jesus.’ Because of his questionable history, Quintana has lost everything that could have given his life meaning including his self-respect. As a result, he is utterly and completely obsessed with finding meaning in his life through victory in competition. For Quintana, the thrill of competing has been lost long ago and has been replaced by a compulsive desire to win at any cost. When The Dude encounters Quintana, he knows that bowling is just a game and quickly recognizes his arrogance and obsessive behavior for the coping mechanism that it is.
About halfway through the film, The Dude encounters a group of men who identify themselves only as Nihilists. These strange, pale men with German accents accost The Dude in an attempt to collect a fictitious sum of ransom money that they believe is in his possession. Supposedly, these men are existential (referring to the meaninglessness of life) as well as ethical (referring to the subjective nature of morals and ethics) Nihilists as evidenced by their reiteration of the line “we believe in nothing, Lebowski!” as well as their numerous threats of bodily violence against The Dude and his friends. However, it seems as though the Nihilists have only a vague understanding of their professed worldview. For instance, when the Nihilists learn that the ransom money never existed, they still demand to be compensated for their ‘trouble’ in a fair manner, prompting Walter to exclaim “Fair?! Who’re the fucking Nihilists around here, you bunch of fucking crybabies!” In addition, the Nihilists also fall victim to the Paradox of Nihilism, which according to author and philosopher Paul Hegarty holds (paraphrasing) “that the absence of meaning seems to be some kind of meaning in and of itself.” The Dude seems relatively unconcerned with these men and their apparently inconsistent views. Rather, he is more concerned with the violence that the Nihilists threaten, and undoubtedly would have brought to fruition had they been any less clueless.
If the plot line of The Big Lebowski was a person it would be stuffed into the tightest straight jacket within reach and thrown into a padded cell. Clinical insanity aside, it masks dozens of viable philosophical comparisons and compelling philosophical commentary, interesting and dynamic characters, and some the the wittiest and most genuinely entertaining dialogue that you will see, period. Indeed, many more philosophical examples exist within the context of the film, but for the sake of conciseness, I’ve only included a fraction of them here. Please, check out this film. If not for the philosophical elements, then for the pure fun that you’ll have watching it.
If you’re not into the whole brevity thing, I’ve included some links to sites that you might find interesting:
To learn more about Absurdism, click here (use the Table of Contents and click ‘The Absurd’)
To learn more about Objectivism, click here
To learn more about Nihilism, click here
To learn more about Taoism, click here (a user friendly and intuitive site; explore at your leisure!)
Take it easy, dudes!