Sifting the Stream
This is the first post in a new series by Fr Jonathan Mitchican. Expect to see further pieces in the next several weeks on comics, television, and other bits of pop culture.
“Welcome to Arby’s. Can I help you? JK. No one can. Which dead animal would you like to waste a few minutes of your useless life eating today?”
That was a tweet from the parody Twitter account “Nihilist Arby’s” on June 30, 2015. It is a very dark joke. Most of the tweets are far more disturbing and even disgusting, but the account has become incredibly popular with over one hundred million people following it. It plays brilliantly off two of the great themes in contemporary popular culture: existential nihilism and comic absurdity. In the absence of God, life is essentially meaningless. Yet we keep on taking things seriously, even though nothing is actually important, which makes all of life a kind of cosmic joke.
Scott McCloud’s new graphic novel, The Sculptor, is not as transparently nihilistic as Nihilist Arby’s, but its operative philosophy is ultimately the same. It tells the story of a young sculptor named David Smith (no, not that David Smith), who is desperate to create art that people will see, appreciate, and remember him for. He makes a deal with Death — in the form of his great uncle Harry — that gives him the power to sculpt any material easily with his bare hands, but in exchange he will have to die after two hundred days. Over the course of the book, David falls in love with a young woman named Meg and makes a variety of attempts at creating the kind of art that he wants to leave to the world, although he is not entirely sure just what it is he wants his art to say.
The book has major strengths and flaws. It is beautifully drawn, and, as a great admirer of comics as a medium, I am encouraged to see such an ambitious and literary project gaining critical acclaim. Many critics have, however, noted the problematic nature of the character of Meg who fits so perfectly into the manic pixie dream girl trope that there ought to be a picture of her above it in textbooks for gender studies classes.
Yet none of the reviews I have read have had much to say about the existentialism that is central to the novel’s plot. Essentially, this is a retelling of the legend of Faust, except in this case the deal that is struck is not with a morally suspect devil but with a morally ambivalent personification of Death. When David asks Harry why he does not just bend the rules every once in awhile and allow someone to live, Harry tells him to hold a penny in his hand heads up, then to flip it so it is tails up, and then to do both at the same time.
“I can’t,” says David.
“And I ‘can’t’ just break the rules” replies Harry.
In the end, everyone and everything, including Death itself, is subject to the cold and unbreakable logic of time.
Throughout the novel, David tries to find something that will make his life matter. His initial goal of becoming a sensation in the art world eventually morphs into a desire for the general public to see and recognize his work, but in the end even that seems pointless. Eventually, his love for Meg becomes his only ideal and purpose, but this too is ultimately unable to bear the weight that David attempts to put on it.
“Everybody gets forgotten, David,” says Meg when David laments that nothing he has made will be remembered. “It’s like dying, it just takes longer.”
Her solution is to embrace the sad truth and to try to drink in as much of every moment as possible. Meg even prays each night before bed, though she is unconcerned about whether or not anyone can hear her. She simply wants to say thank you for all the things she has been given, even if there is no one actually to thank.
What separates McCloud’s worldview in The Sculptor from that of Nihilist Arby’s is only the measure of his response. While Nihilist Arby’s plays off of the anger and anguish that we feel from living in a meaningless world, The Sculptor encourages us to seize the day and live without regrets. Both, however, are founded upon the same existentialist scaffolding. The world is devoid of intrinsic meaning and so, sooner or later, we all end up not only dead but irrelevant.
The famous quote attributed to Dostoyevsky, “If there is no God then everything is permitted,” is often misunderstood to be simply about moral breakdown in society. If people do not believe in God, eventually they stop caring about how they treat one another. But really, the problem that Dostoevsky was pointing out is far greater. If there is no God, then nothing we do means anything. None of it matters. We could devote our lives to curing cancer, but even if we succeed, everyone we save will simply die from some other cause. The great pyramids, the ancient cathedrals, the history of great nations, the art, the music, the plays — all of it will eventually be lost.
“As a family, we don’t have much interest in gods and commandments,” says McCloud in a brief afterword at the end of the book, yet the preceding pages clearly indicate how untrue this is. McCloud may not believe in God, but he is obsessed with finding a way of coping with God’s absence.
Saint Peter says, “Always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15). We modern Western Christians spend a lot of time trying to convince the culture around us of the rationality of the Gospel, but I wonder if we sometimes miss the more poignant and subtle question that the culture is actually putting to us.
So many of the great artists of our generation are consumed by the task of trying to find a way of coping with a meaningless world. What puzzles them about believers is not our certainty but our hope. God’s love, poured out in the blood of the cross, not only secures a future hope for life beyond death but gives real meaning and purpose to our lives now, including our suffering and desolation. The nihilist may reject this as facile, magical thinking, but he has nothing to replace it with and so he sinks into an impossible despair. Yet the hope of the cross endures. Jesus, in his humanity and divinity, is both sides of the penny face up at the same time. In him, the impossible becomes possible and the world becomes not only meaningful but miraculous.
Fr Jonathan’s other posts can be found here.