The Big Lebowski: A Foray into the Absurd

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!

A Quest for Answers: Fight Club

*SPOILERS AHEAD*

There are few questions more debated than the meaning of life. Ever since the inception of man people has been asking that simple and inexplicable question, and man has even come up with a number of answers. There is God, children, the afterlife, or any number of other answers to this ultimately unanswerable question. This movie, like those people before it, seeks to answer this same question. It attempts this by letting the audience enter the eyes of a man struggling with the very same problem they are. The narrator, Edward Norton’s character, proceeds through the film in multiple different iterations. There is the start of the movie where he is completely materialistic, there is the middle of the movie where he is enraptured by Tyler’s words, and then there is the end where he rejects Tyler’s philosophy and finally realizes there is no true meaning to life. These different stages of the narrator’s life represent the many answers to the meaning of life. The film uses these versions of his character to show and then reject these views of life.

The movie begins with the narrator debating on where to start the story. After much deliberation he decides the story must begin during his insomnia. He hasn’t been able to sleep for six months, and reality has been reduced to something akin to a dream. Work is like sleepwalking, and people have become nothing more than temporary inconveniences. There is no point to his life of sleepwalking, no point that is but his hoard of material possession. He has a coffee table in the shape of the yin yang symbol, a versatile dinning set, and even glass dishes with tiny bubbles and imperfections. These objects define him; they are the only things that make life worth living. This is the first meaning to life that Fight Club explores. The narrator believes that he can only become complete through the objects he owns. The people around him are worthless, as is every struggle in his life, so the only things that is of any real value are the material objects he owns. These things define him, they determine if he is successful or a failure. Everything else is useless and meaningless, so these objects end up controlling who he is. He has come to the point where the only thing that can get him off anymore is the Horchow Collection or any other catalog of commodity fetishism. He no longer has the ability to feel happy when he’s not buying another table or kitchen accessory. His values continue in this fashion until one day a gas leak causes his apartment to explode. Once he has lost all of his material possessions, he is left with a void inside of himself. There is nothing in his life to find meaning in. The things that had held all of his value and were his single reason for living are now gone. At this rock bottom state he was lead to Tyler Durden.

Tyler Durden is the driving force of the second philosophy of this film. After the destruction of the narrator’s apartment he calls Tyler and has a drink with him. At the bar the narrator tries to gain Tyler’s sympathy by describing all of the important things he has lost. Tyler responds to this with condescension and humor instead of the sympathy he was expecting. Instead of a tragedy he sees this as a chance to break free from consumerism’s grasp over the narrator. Tyler explains to the narrator that the objects he has invested in are meaningless and of little true consequence. This exchange marks the beginning of the narrator’s dalliance with Tyler’s philosophy. He has been swayed by Tyler’s words and they influence the narrator profoundly. His old consumerist ways have failed him and he has been left with nothing to believe in. To fill this gap he accepts Tyler’s ideas and throws away his old materialistic philosophy. He even goes as far as to move in with Tyler and start Fight Club. These new ideas take complete control of his life in the very much the same way materialism did. Where he was once working to make money and buy new things he is now involved in Fight Club and project mayhem. He has in many ways changed his entire view on life.

Tyler’s philosophy can be described a form of existentialism. He believes that life lacks any real meaning, and because of this people should live based on their own desires and try to improve their own world. In his mind it is very possible that “God hates you”, and it is man’s responsibility to rebel and fight the absurdity of life. Tyler thinks that by accepting the possibility that none of this matters and that life is absurd mankind can hit bottom and start anew. Project Mayhem is a great example of this. He wants to destroy the status quo of modern society by bombing all of the major financial buildings. By destroying the status quo Tyler is setting the world free from its corrupt and consumerist ways. Tyler believes that this will drive the world to restart and force people to take a look at society and reform. In one scene Tyler states that “self-improvement is masturbation.” By this he means that improving on a rotten core is futile and that the core should be scraped all together and replaced. This more than anything else is the defining idea in Tyler’s actions during the events of this film.

As the movie progresses the flaws of these ideas become more and more apparent. They are particularly noticeable during Bob’s death. In this scene the members of project mayhem are huddled around Bob’s corpse bickering over different methods of disposing of his corpse. The narrator tries to make them understand the tragedy of Bob’s death, but they can no longer understand. Through out the movie they transformed into nothing more than terrorists who bomb buildings, vandalizing other people’s property, and imposing their values on others. But, during this scene it is apparent that they have lost all individuality and have simply become tools for project mayhem. They have ironically lost their personal desires and have become nothing more than pawns. This kind of radical behavior starts to repel the narrator and makes him lash out at Tyler. The narrator’s discontent eventually manifests itself into a full on rejection of Tyler’s philosophies.

Over the course of this film the narrator has had his views on life continually crushed. First his materialism is quashed by the destruction of his apartment then Tyler goes out of control and alienates the narrator. These continues rejections lead to his third and final view on life, the idea that there is no meaning to life at all. The narrator finally realizes that prescribing any meaning to life is foolish and embraces nihilism. This idea is exemplified by his attempt at self-murder during the final scenes of the film. After Tyler becomes a malicious force, the narrator realizes that there is no reason to continue living any longer. He puts a gun in his mouth and pulls the trigger. By doing this he finally gives up on trying to find any meaning in life.

Fight Club at its core is a film about meaning. Through its narrator, who experiences three popular views on life, it explores its meaning. The narrator represents the everyman. He moves through life looking for some point. He asks the questions that every human asks and goes through a journey to find the answers he desires. There are multiple stages to his journey but ultimately he finds that there is no answer and learns to just give up.