Tuesday, July 06, 2004

The greatest existentialist hero:

In modern storytelling, the greatest existentialist hero isn’t Travis Bickle or Holden Caulfield, but Walter Kovacs, aka the crime-fighting superhero Rorschach from Alan Moore’s Magnum Opus comic book, Watchmen.

I first read Watchmen when it came out in 1986, when I was 13. Don’t be fooled, this book is an “adult comic book” with very sophisticated themes of science, philosophy, and politics as well as graphic sex and violence. I understood much of the book when I first read it, and enjoyed it a great deal. But I clearly didn’t get all of it. Over the years I’ve re-read it a few times, picking it up every few years. And each time I do so, I understand more and more of the things that previously went over my head. Last time I read it, I was in my early 20s, and now at the age of 31, I’m reading it again. I’ve learned a great deal about political science and philosophy since then and I suppose I’m presently reading it—and subsequently discussing it in this post—through the lens of my own particular interests and understanding of such.

Watchmen was written by eccentric and brilliant comic book author Alan Moore. The theme of the book is “what if superheroes really existed” in a real world with real people? Under “real world logic,” things wouldn’t go down as read in the comics. Eventually, the government outlawed being a costumed hero, unless of course, they worked exclusively for the government. We won the Vietnam War with the help of a man with Superman level powers. And Nixon used another “hero” to murder Woodward & Bernstein…then 22nd Amendment was repealed—and Nixon is still President in 1986.

Moore’s politics—anarchist left—show throughout the book. Yet Moore (like Frank Miller, the other “bigwig” of adult comic books, whose political themes are very similar to Moore’s) also seems to sympathize with the “anarchist-right.” And this is clearly the politics of Rorschach: somewhere between Ayn Rand and the John Birch Society. As Julian Sanchez correctly notes, Rorschach “ultimately comes off as the hero possessed of the greatest moral strength and integrity.” And the villain “is full of Good Intentions, and ever so sorry that he has to kill a few (million) people in pursuit of the Common Good.”

When costumed crime fighting became illegal in the 1970s, all of the superheroes caved in and quit save Rorschach who responded by dropping off the corpse of a multiple rapist at police headquarters with a note that read, “NEVER!”

So how did Rorschach come to be? Let me summarize Chapter VI, entitled “The Abyss Gazes Also.” He was the abused bastard child of a prostitute (so you know he has “issues” from the start) and was incited to become a crime fighter after reading about Kitty Genovese’s murder in front of a crowd of on-lookers who refused to lift a finger. He took a special fabric that contained “viscous fluids between two layers of latex, heat and pressure sensitive” that resulted in black and white moving and changing shapes and fashioned it into a mask (so the mask would appear like an ever moving Rorschach blot test). He donned that mask in 1964, but didn’t truly “become” Rorschach until 1975 while investing the kidnapping of a 6-year-old girl. He arrives at the suspect’s residence to find two German Shepherds fighting over the girl's bones. In that moment he snaps and brutally butchers the two dogs while lying in wait for the return of the suspect. He ambushes the murderer with the dog’s bloody corpses and then handcuffs the man to a stove in his basement. Rorschach then pours kerosene around the room, lights it and walks away.

He then describes what he felt as he watched the burn. And here is where Moore perfectly encapsulates the Nietzschean heart of this hero:

Stood in firelight, sweltering. Bloodstain on chest like map of violent new continent. Felt cleansed. Felt dark planet turn under my feet and knew what cats know that makes them scream like babies in night. Looked at sky through smoke heavy with human fat and God was not there. The cold, suffocating dark goes on forever and we are alone. Live our lives, lacking anything better to do. Devise reason later. Born from oblivion; bear children, hell-bound as ourselves, go into oblivion. There is nothing else. Existence is random. Has no pattern save what we imagine after staring at it for too long. No meaning save what we choose to impose. This rudderless world is not shaped by vague metaphysical forces. It is not God who kills the children. Not fate that butchers them or destiny that feeds them to the dogs. It’s us. Only us. Streets stank of fire. The void breathed hard on my heart, turning its illusions to ice, shattering them. Was reborn then, free to scrawl own design on this morally blank world. Was Rorschach.

Now Rorschach tells this story to a prison psychiatrist while being psychoanalyzed—in fact while being given a Rorschach blot test. At the heart of this hero is “the abyss.” The psychiatrist is staring into a living version of the abyss and feels great discomfort because “he stares back,” never seeming to blink.

That this Nietzschean hero chooses the theme of “Rorschach”—the famous test used during psychoanalysis—had profound meaning for me, after learning from Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, that psychiatry and psychoanalysis are rooted in Nietzschean philosophy. The intellectual lineage of modern psychiatry, psychology (and philosophy) from Woody Allen to David Riesman to Hanna Arendt to Eric Fromm to Freud…all trace back to Heidegger and to Nietzsche. Bloom despised these professions because they were pivotal in Nietzschean philosophy's ultimate “conquest of America.” But this was not because Bloom despised Nietzsche. In fact, Bloom, like his mentor Leo Strauss, was at heart, a Nietzschean nihilist. He despised how contemporary leftist philosophers had remade Nietzsche—the most anti-egalitarian philosopher—into a left-wing egalitarian and spoon fed nihilistic teachings, clearly not fit for mass consumption, to the public.

But to make nihilism consumable by the masses, it had to be distorted, or else the public wouldn’t swallow it. So Nietzschean philosophy had been turned into a tool to make people feel good about themselves! And it was psychiatrists and psychologists who were the main culprits in turning Nietzschean philosophy into such “therapy”; Bloom called it Nihilism American Style (the original title of his book)—which is “Nihilism with a happy ending,” or “Nihilism without the Abyss.” But the central insight of nihilism is the abyss—which does the very opposite of making us feel good about ourselves! How absurd that this is what nihilism has come to be!

In Watchmen, the prison psychiatrist, who has a “cheerful disposition,” who is “good with people” tries to use psychoanalysis and “therapy” to “treat” Rorschach, because, “no problem is beyond the grasp of a good psychoanalyst.” But after his sessions with Rorschach are over, it’s the psychiatrist who becomes depressed. Here is the doctor’s reaction to Rorschach’s above excerpted speech after coming home and reflecting on it:

I sat on the bed. I looked at the Rorschach blot. I tried to pretend it looked like a spreading tree, shadows pooled beneath it, but it didn’t. It looked more like a dead cat I once found, the fat, glistening grubs writhing blinding, squirming over each other, frantically tunneling away from the light. But even that is avoiding the real horror. The horror is this: in the end it is simply a picture of empty meaningless blackness. We are alone. There is nothing else.

Then the book ends with a quote by Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche—the only time Nietzsche’s name is formally cited: “Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster, and if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.”

I’m sure Bloom never read Watchmen—he was such a cultural snob, he would never have taken comic books as serious literature. But if he did, he certainly would have smiled after finishing this chapter. The doctor’s and patient’s roles were reversed. The patient made the doctor truly appreciate what was at the heart of the nihilistic philosophy that undergirds psychoanalysis and its tools like the Rorschach blot test. The doctor, for the first time in his life, had truly stared into the abyss—and flinched.


Gary Furash said...

What I love about R. is that he starts from a nihilst place: everything from an objective, outside, absolute standpoint is meaningless, there's nothing that makes anything happen, no special purpose, nothing "matters" from that sense. Then, he goes to a Nietzchian place: I'm going to impose my own morality on the world. However he chooses a very interesting morality: it's certainly "right wing," but R.'s morality cares about real, individual people: it's not okay for even 1 person to die to achieve some wacky ideal.

Anonymous said...

I came here of VC, that was an awesome write up. I study Nietzsche and I have read Watchmen, I've long awaited a philosopher's thoughts on the comic. Thank you.