Thursday, February 12, 2015

Rust Cohle, Raoul Duke, and the Meaning of Life: True Detective & Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas as Companion Pieces

As usual, I'm behind the times. I finally watched Season 1 of True Detective, thoroughly enjoyed it, and then went to catch up on all of the critical analyses I'd been avoiding because I hadn't yet seen it. (And I'm about to spoil the hell out of it, so if you are also late to the game, go ahead and save this link for a later read.)

Most inspiring to me was seeing Rust Cohle's personal philosophy wax and wane throughout the show. While many have rightly praised the dynamic friendship of Rust and Marty, for me it was always Rust's story. He was the one whose obsession for solving the case never wavered. Marty was happy to go about his new life as a private investigator and try to put his past missteps on the job and in his personal life behind him. Marty's return to the quest was driven by Rust's insistence, and Rust's insistence was driven by his own personal relationship to the universe: a complicated minefield that he explored in snippets from the very first episode and that came to an understated but profound conclusion. (We'll come back to that).

As soon as I turned to the critical response to the show, though, I was met with a barrage of criticism damning the finale as "a letdown" and "simplistic." I read through those reviews and had an almost visceral reaction (and I'm no stranger to seeing things I love get taken to task. In fact, I take to task things I love all the time.) There was nothing factually inaccurate about the way these critics were tearing apart the show, but their premises seemed so off to me. It was like I asked someone what they thought of their car and they spent the whole time talking about the shape of the hood ornament instead of its performance.

Not all critics were so harsh, and Andrew Romano went so far as to call the finale "close to perfection." His analysis used criteria that were more meaningful to me, as he focused on the way profundity manifests itself in simplicity, how philosophy must be enacted in the daily and mundane:
 The true meaning of True Detective doesn't have all that much to do with Robert Chambers or the stories he wrote way back in 1895. Instead, the true meaning of True Detective is about the power of storytelling itself.
 Later, Romano explains that the power of storytelling shows itself in Rust's last line:
In the last seconds of the season, the nihilism and misanthropy that have characterized Rust's worldview soften, however briefly, as he realizes that maybe he is here for a reason.
Rust's Final Speech

You can read Rust's final speech in its entirety here, and it's worth it because the key to understanding the meaning of the show rests in this interaction.

Leading up to this, Rust has been hinting that he is suicidal. His life's work has just come to a dramatic end when he put a bullet through the brain of the ritualistic serial killer he'd been seeking for years. Rust knows that Errol Childress was just one link in a chain of violent rapes and murders, a chain that wound its way around the power of Louisiana's government and justice system. It quickly becomes clear that while Rust and Marty got their man, that was all they were going to get. They would not expose the real seat of evil, and they'd have to carry that knowledge with them for the rest of their lives.

That burden is so great that Rust seems on the verge of suicide. Having spent most of his adult life chasing down the root of this evil (and having sacrificed his safety, friends, morals, and body to do so), the acceptance of a consolation prize seems unfathomable.

Marty, always more pragmatic and grounded than Rust, accepts this reality more willingly, especially when his heroic act of catching Errol reunites him with his estranged family and helps him feel his own individual purpose once more.

This, though, is the real crux of the dilemma, as Rust is also given the opportunity to indulge in his individualism. His opportunity, in fact, is more complete than Marty's. Rust, suffering a near-fatal wound, recounts some of his moments of unconsciousness:
I could feel my definitions fading. And beneath that darkness there was another kind—it was deeper—warm, like a substance. I could feel man, I knew, I knew my daughter waited for me, there. So clear. I could feel her. I could feel … I could feel the peace of my Pop, too. It was like I was part of everything that I have ever loved, and we were all, the three of us, just fading out. And all I had to do was let go, man. And I did. I said, ‘Darkness, yeah.’ and I disappeared. But I could still feel her love there. Even more than before. Nothing. Nothing but that love. And then I woke up.
He had the opportunity to sink down into a nothingness that promised an eternal presence of the love he missed out on as a breathing, walking, acting being.

But that promise must be read in the context of the rest of his realization because that promise is one of "darkness."

As Rust breaks down while describing this love that he didn't take, Marty looks up at the night sky and asks Rust about the stars he used to see in Alaska. Rust explains the story he would tell and how it was ultimately the oldest story of all: good vs. evil, light vs. dark.

Marty looks up again and tells him, "it appears to me that the dark has a lot more territory." Rust agrees.

But then he recants. In a barely audible line as the two walk off the scene, Rust tells Marty that he's looking at it wrong:
Once there was only dark. You ask me, the light’s winning.
Fear, Loathing, and Hedonic Escape

After finishing True Detective, I woke up the next morning with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas on my mind. Something about Rust's final speech had me echoing back to Thompson's wave speech.

Parts of this speech parallel nicely with Cohle's, although the context surrounding it is radically different. Cohle was discussing his own decision to reject the comfort of the darkness and its promise of eternal love. He was justifying his continued presence in a world that had left him weary and abused.

Raoul Duke (Thompson's autobiographical narrator) is reflecting on his presence in life, too, but he's doing so in the midst of a drug-fueled haze of hedonism and destruction. Flitting between various hotels on the Vegas strip that he leaves in shambles, consuming everything from rum to ether to a human adrenal gland in pursuit of the next great high, and shirking even the most nominal enactment of the promised responsibilities to other people, it's hard to imagine a more individualistic pursuit of life than Duke's.

Yet in this moment, he's reflecting on the fact that it hasn't always been that way. He remembers being part of something bigger than himself:
History is hard to know, because of all the hired bullshit, but even without being sure of "history" it seems entirely reasonable to think that every now and then the energy of a whole generation comes to a head in a long fine flash, for reasons that nobody really understands at the time—and which never explain, in retrospect, what actually happened.
Not only was he a part of this greater whole, but that whole had a purpose, one that was deep and meaningful and necessary:
And that, I think, was the handle—that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting—on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave
 Ultimately, though, that promise was unfulfilled:
So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark —that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.
And that is why now he chases fleeting, selfish moments of pleasure. That is why he ignores the magazine's demands to write an actual story for the money he's taking from them and instead stuffs himself full of narcotics until he hallucinates reptiles and floors of blood. That is why he feels no sense of responsibility to the greater whole. He once had that promise, and it was bullshit.

The book's full title is Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream. While the subtitle didn't make it into the film's title, the theme certainly did: Duke wrapped in an American flag, high and on the beach; the red convertible signifying freedom; the lavish displays of wealth and excess all around. The American Dream is "savage" because, at its core, it is unsustainably individualistic. If everyone pursued his/her own "dream" with this enthusiasm, society would collapse.

But Duke's selfish betrayal of societal standards is excused (or at the very least explained) by this speech. He had come face-to-face with the power of the collective, and it had proved inadequate. He had felt himself pushing against the edges of evil, felt himself on the verge of a win, and watched the wave break. He had trusted in the power of the collective and been denied. He had believed and been duped:
We are all wired into a survival trip now. No more of the speed that fueled that 60's. . . What Leary took down with him was the central illusion of a whole life-style that he helped create... a generation of permanent cripples, failed seekers, who never understood the essential old-mystic fallacy of the Acid Culture: the desperate assumption that somebody... or at least some force - is tending the light at the end of the tunnel.
So who can blame him for getting high and enjoying what was left of life? It is, after all, just a ruse. There's no one controlling the light. The darkness will always win.

The Same Answer; Different Reactions

Rust Cohle and Raoul Duke ask the same question of life, one we all ask: "What is the purpose of it all?"

Both men find a purpose in their fight against the greater evil in the world. Both men find themselves tasked with pushing back the ancient forces of darkness. Both men find themselves driven so completely by this urge that it becomes their life purpose, their identity, their soul.

And both are deeply, profoundly dissatisfied.

Cohle realizes that all he's done is catch a single murderer out of a network of evil that was barely dented by his lifelong efforts. Duke realizes that the moment has passed and all that's left is a stain on history's wall to mark their presence. Both men were promised a future in which their contribution mattered to the collective whole, a chance to have light brazenly illuminate the dark, and both were denied it in the end.

How they respond to that realization, though, is the most important part of it all.

The Individual vs. the Communal

In Rust's final speech, he breaks down after explaining the comfort and love he felt in the darkness he rejected. He immediately went on to the metaphor of light vs. dark to talk about good and evil. For him, collapsing into that darkness--however full of love it felt--was ultimately succumbing to evil.

By letting go, he would have given up all of the pain and responsibilities of the greater world around him. It would no longer be his burden to chase murderous networks of power to a lackluster conclusion. It would no longer be his role to play pawn in the sexual exploits of his friends' spouses. It would not longer be his task to carry the weight of such philosophical quandaries of whether humanity is an evolutionary error or if we are doomed to repeat our actions in an endless loop. All of those are concerns of the collective experience of being human; all of those require the interaction with others and the world around him. Instead, he could selfishly let go and dive only into the pleasures of his own experience, a fully individual act. And who could blame him, this bloodied, weakened, lonely man who had been systematically and purposefully denied the only satisfaction he had dedicated himself to seeking? Who could blame him for letting go? Letting himself drift off into that darkness would have been the equivalent of Duke's drug-fueled haze of existence. It's an escape from a reality that is too much to bear. Considering just how much Rust had lost, it would be understandable.

Instead, though, Rust chose to see himself as a punch of starlight in an immense sea of black. His act, however tiny, was a necessary part of the whole. He did not take down the interconnected web of evil that would continue to rape and murder innocent people. And that was just the act of one family in one state. How many other such atrocities were being committed across the globe? What, in the grand scheme of things, did Rust Cohle accomplish by giving up his life to get his man?

He accomplished all any of us can hope to accomplish. He sent a pin prick of light out through the blanket of darkness. And if we all do the same, if we resist the urge to fall into the darkness of individual hedonism or giving up entirely, then the light will truly win. Ultimately, his act is one of profound faith in the community around him, a belief that everyone else will also punch through their own light. He played his tiny part, and he trusts others to do the same.

And so he cannot let go. He cannot succumb to the comfort of darkness and individual emotion. It is his job, just as it is all of our jobs, to continue along our path, however unsatisfying and painful it might be.

It reminds me of another great philosophical pop culture line you might recognize:
The hardest thing to do in this world is to live in it.

Photo: David DeHetre, florriebassingbourn,

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