Several years ago, I reviewed the pilot script for this series and found it to be mediocre. [Unfortunately that review has been lost.] Several weeks ago, I watched the pilot for this series and found that, also, to be mediocre. I wasn’t more impressed a couple days later when I struggled through the second episode. And then [because of a circumstance which strikes me as wildly implausible given my knowledge of myself—I couldn’t find ANYTHING worth reading] I queued up and began to watch the third episode… I became hooked.
Because of the vagaries surrounding my afflicted schedule, it took me almost two months to watch the whole thing. [This wasn’t because I didn’t want to engage with my culture and realize the experience of “binge” viewing, I just don’t have that much free time.] Somewhere around episode six or seven I developed the idea that the show was going to be worth reviewing… in detail. It occurred to me that the creative team behind the show had cast their fictional shadow into The Land of Art.
As is usual for me, I refused to read anyone else’s ideas about the merits or deficiencies of the show. I wanted neither confirmation nor refutation. I had to get to the end of the show first. I had to see if they fulfilled the early promise, or if they settled for [what Graham Greene would call] a mere “entertainment”. To their credit, they did not settle. Which means, I get to do my reviews.
I have since read a sampling of the critical responses to the show, and I see that I am in the overwhelming majority. [This is not surprising. One of the first rules of my blue collar aesthetics is: If a work of art is good, it will be recognized.] I will briefly summarize [and then dispatch] these responses so that when I talk about what I find interesting about this show, it won’t seem as though I was unaware of the rest.
- The acting [especially Bryan Cranston’s] is outstanding… I am not sure that I wholly agree. Mr. Cranston did an admirable job, but I did not continue to watch this show BECAUSE of his acting.
- The cinematography was delicious… Again, I don’t wholly agree. Good but not great, and definitely not an inspiration to keep hitting play on Netflix.
- The secondary characters are cardboard… This ranks as the biggest complaint against the show. I find it to be true… and trivial. If trivial is not a clear enough adjective, then try… stupid.
- The female characters are worse than cardboard… This ranks as the second biggest complaint, and it is also true. It is also trivial. [Don’t interpret that to mean that it is unimportant to write fully functioning female characters if you are a guy. It just means perfection is impossible. I will not say [and neither should you] that Othello is an inferior piece of drama simply because Desdemona is an inferior female characterization. Othello is a beautiful representation of ALL the imperfections of humanity. We are our warts.]
- The show is about actions… In other words there are no inherently good or bad people [in spite of Jesse’s claim] there are ethical choices—and nothing else. I believe this is what Mr. Gilligan says his show is about. As is my custom, I disagree. I hope to use my techniques of refabrication to convince you that I am right.
Here is my list of things that elevate Breaking Bad to the status of Art:
- The plot… And let’s be EXTREMELY clear about this. NO ONE watches Breaking Bad for the acting/directing/cinematography/writing. This show does adequately well in all these areas, but the TRUE GENIUS of this show lies in its story. Over the course of these reviews, I imagine I will spend a bunch of time dissecting exactly why the story is so good.
- Although all the things people say this show is about do contain [at least surface] truth, I believe there is a Cultural Meaning buried in its structure which even its creators missed. [If they didn’t miss it, they are being very jealous of sharing their intent with their audience]. Breaking Bad is a Myth… about… The Artist.
In perfect serialized form, I shall now leave this multi-part review…
I will resist the urge to summarize part one of this review. If you missed it, and you’d like to read it, click the link titled “Breaking Bad” on the left side of this page.
My analysis of this series as a Myth for The Artist involves two theses.
1. Breaking Bad is an example of the classic “Faustian Bargain”, updated to fit our current 21st century culture.
2. Hmm… I think I will hold off on two for a while. Preserve the serialized aspect.
I can’t tell you when, in the History of Academia, some aspiring Student realized that the Myths we tell our children are symptomatic of our metaphysical worldview, but I know the method behind this madness goes back at least as far as Aristotle. He was forever starting with conventional ideas and polishing them for the truth [as he saw it].
The classic modern example is illustrated by [almost] everything Freud wrote. I have no doubt that the enduring hold “The Oedipal Complex” has on our culture is owed far more to the method by which it was “proved” than the idea which undergirds it. If I am being obtuse, let me be acute.
When Freud made his claim that human males desire their mothers and want to kill their fathers, I’m not sure anyone would have taken this claim seriously if he hadn’t worked back through his knowledge of Greek Mythology and remembered Oedipus, Jocasta, and Laius. Their story is Freud’s idea. Oedipus Rex by Sophocles had been [even before Freud immortalized it as a complex] one of the foundational pieces of Western Drama.
Because of the strength THE STORY of Oedipus has on our Western Mind, Freud had to do very little proving of his idea. I confess that even though I’ve read most of what Freud wrote, I remember nothing [it’s been over 20 years] about how he “proved” it. In my mind the proof runs like this:
- If a Story survives the death of the culture which birthed it, then that story is a Myth.
- Every Myth represents metaphysical beliefs humans have about other humans.
- These beliefs are TRUE because they are BELIEVED.
- Oedipus Rex is a story that survived the death of its culture.
- Oedipus Rex is a Myth.
- Therefore: The Oedipal Complex is true.
This is not [strictly speaking] a valid or sound argument. Premise Three does all the work, and is wildly unsupported. However, the form of this argument is now part of the History of Academia. It is used over and over again to make claims about the human psyche.
I have not been interested in psychology for some time, so the last book I read that used the form of this argument was Iron John by Robert Bly. Even that tells you that AT LEAST as late as 1995 [that’s when I read the Bly book] the argument form listed above was still being used to formulate psychological hypotheses. (1)
I am now in a position to claim that Breaking Bad is, as mentioned above, a 21st century version of the Christian Myth known as the Faustian Bargain. In all the versions of this Myth, the hero of the story trades his soul for worldly gain. In almost all versions of that story, the bargain comes with a time limit. In other words, the “Faust” character will get her worldly gain for a predetermined number of years, after which she will go straight to hell.
It did not satisfy me, that I could only trace this back as far as the Medieval period, so I thought about it for five more seconds, and remembered Demeter. It’s possible that everyone recognizes the seeds of The Bargain in Demeter’s deal with Hades about her daughter Persephone, but thinking about Walter White’s story was the FIRST time I ever made that connection.
At any rate, I was highly satisfied with my developing hypothesis. I could trace it back as far as the Greeks, and really, for Academic Purposes, that is always far enough. I thought for some time I would name my about to be revealed complex, The Ceresian Complex. Ceres, you will remember, is the Roman name for Demeter.
Eventually, I decided: Eff it. I am no academic. My complex will be called:
The Walter White Complex
It will be about an artist’s relationship with A Devil that is no longer physical. The demons are, and always were, inside. Who better to realize this than The Artist?
- I believe the form of the argument listed above is valid and sound. Someday I hope to write the book that proves statement three is true.
Before we unpack what it means for a person to have a “Walter White Complex”, I’d like to be specific about my claim that Breaking Bad is an example of the Story Set known as the Faustian Bargain. In the last article in this series, I spent all of my time talking about the general cases of Myths and Bargains. It would be journalistic malpractice to assume everyone agrees Breaking Bad is what I say it is because I say it is.
In order to be an example of the type, an aspiring story must have three characteristics:
- The Devil [or a representative] offers a contract.
- In exchange for the Faust character’s soul, the Devil grants worldly success.
- The deal has a time limit.
It’s easy to see that Breaking Bad satisfies 2. During the course of his show, Walter makes in excess of 100 million dollars running his various meth enterprises. It’s equally easy to see that Breaking Bad satisfies 3. In the very first episode Walter is diagnosed with incurable lung cancer. The time before his death is never stated by his doctors, but we are led to believe it will be no more than a few years. [Interestingly, a case could be made that Walter lives EXACTLY two years from his decision to cook meth in the first episode until his “accidental” death in the final episode.] (1)
It is going to be much harder to prove that 1 is also true of Breaking Bad, since [in literal terms] no Devil, or representative of a Devil ever visits Walter and offers him a deal. Walter seems to get into the Meth business by a collaboration between his inability to deal with his cancer diagnosis, and the fact that his DEA brother-in-law [Hank] casually invites him on a meth bust during the one period in Walter’s life where he is susceptible to saying yes.
I will posit that the first [of many more] brilliant plot choices the show’s writers made is in NEVER telling us [exactly] WHY Walter agrees to go on the ride-a-long with Hank. When I watched the episode, I shrugged the choice off as Walter facing up to his Death realizing that he never did anything out of the ordinary and him not wanting to die with that fact still being true. He wasn’t content dying as a perfect human facsimile of Thoreau’s maxim about quiet desperation.
Having now seen the entire show, I almost willing to commit to the idea that the Walter White of seasons 1 and 2 has all the psychopathic traits of the Walter White of seasons 3-5. If this is true, then there is no arc for Walter. I am almost convinced because: you don’t learn to lie as well as Walter lies unless you always had that talent, you never become as comfortable with manipulation [and murder], as he becomes, unless you always had that talent too. If Walter was always a psychopath then the critic is forced to claim that the “Walter” in the backstory, and the “Walter” who moves recklessly through his first two seasons… that guy was the facsimile. He was a man unwilling to let go of the Story of Walter White—The Decent Man.
If Walter was always a psychopath, then accepting Hank’s invitation to attend the meth bust, implies he was already doing the ethical calculus which will eventually make him wealthy and famous [or notorious]. In this scenario, Walter agrees to go so he can see his cooking competition, and so that he can see the danger his new career choice will bring to him. In other words, at the time of Hank’s offer, Walter would already have decided he was going to cook meth. The ride-a-long is a mere fact finding mission.
Never having Walter articulate to the audience exactly why he went with Hank is brilliant because it allows Walter to hide behind his Good Guy façade for enough episodes that the audience forms an attachment to him. We want him to win; we want him to get away with his crimes—even after they approach the point that they are unforgivable. We wouldn’t have rooted for Walter if we had known all along that he was just a psychopath.
For our purposes, it also represents the elements of a metaphorical Faustian Bargain. The traits that make a person psychopathic are the very same traits that most religions AND DEFINITIELY Christianity consider sins.
Here are some of the highlights from a Psychopathic Checklist:
- Grandiose sense of self-worth
- Pathological lying
- Lack of remorse or guilt
- Lack of empathy
- Failure to accept responsibility for own actions
…and so on. Walter scores an A+ in all of these categories and also does quite well in most all the other items on the [only] checklist I bothered to read before writing this review. (2)
If Walter was always a psychopath then the deal he makes is with himself. He is going to allow himself to be “the one who knocks”. (3) It is beyond obvious then, that the most pressing question this review needs to answer before it continues is:
Was Walter always a psychopath? (3)
- In traditional medieval Faustian tales, the period of time is also exact—usually 10 or 20 years.]
- Just because I don’t cite all the behaviors on the list, doesn’t mean they are counter examples. Whether his creators meant him to be or not, Walter White turns out to be a certifiable psychopath.
- I’m pretty sure a lot of people will not entertain this conjecture. They will say that Walter BECAME a bad guy. [I believe this group of people includes the show’s writers.] Since I have never been one to be bashful with my opinion, I will say, unequivocably… In fact, I will refrain. I will, however, note that the answer lies in Walter’s first two murders.
As the footnote which concluded the last article hinted, we are going to have to spend a little time looking at Walter’s first two murders. The only way we can maintain a tiny patch of decency for Walter to stand on is if we can say… he stumbled into becoming a murderer. If the first two were an accident, Walter is [if not vindicated then at least] not eternally damned.
Setting the Stage:
In the pilot episode, Emilio and Krazy 8 threaten to kill Walter because they believe he is an informant for the DEA [Emilio saw Walter with Hank on the ride-a-long.]. Walter believes they will kill him, so he agrees to show them his process for cooking meth (1) to buy himself more time before they off him. Instead of showing them the process, he poisons them with phosphine gas. Emilio is immediately killed, but Krazy 8 survives.
Murder One: Emilio
Does Walter have a choice? Is this really a kill or be killed situation? I ask this because I assume that any ethics [not bound by an absolute commitment to pacifism] will grant that it is ethically permissible to act in order to prevent your own death. If we believe Walter is right [that no matter what he does, there is no possibility of his leaving the RV alive] then we can construct an arc for Walter. He will have been a decent man overwhelmed by the uncompromising logic of a single poor choice.
I don’t believe Walter is right. In fact, I don’t even believe Walter believes he is right.
Rather than tricking Emilio and Krazy 8 with the phosphine gas, Walter could… tell the truth. He has cancer. He will die, soon. He is poor and can’t afford treatment. He is a singularly great chemist who also happens to have a DEA agent for a brother-in-law. At some point this version of things begins to look more believable than the idea Walter is actually an Informant. It will take a while, but you have to believe [since they didn’t just kill him the moment they saw him] Emilio and Krazy 8 are capable of being reasoned with. It might take some serious talking, but, eventually, people usually end up accepting the truth.
In line with presuming Walter’s Ultimate Innocence, let us continue to suppose that Walter confesses and, somehow, it does no good. He would have to resort to the phosphine gas then, right?
Again, I will disagree. After telling the truth, Walter’s next best option is to show the bad guys EXACTLY how to cook the meth. Walter has something that, in his StoryWorld is of absolute importance. It trumps all other things that might be brought to bear against it. Walter is capable of making the perfect batch of meth. You should be inclined to think of his knowledge as identical with The Alchemist’s Dream. Walter White is the metaphorical inheritor of all those centuries spent trying to turn lead into gold. His knowledge isn’t ordinary. His is a knowledge that grants him protection from all the dangerous elements that would otherwise kill him. You don’t kill the goose that laid the golden egg, and you don’t kill the only chemist in the entire world capable of making a literally pure product worth billions.
At first glance, Option Two is the path Walter appears to choose. It looks as though he is going to show the bad guys his process as a tool to save his life. It is interesting [and damning] that Walter does not complete the modus ponens he has presented to the low level gangsters.
If I show you my process then you let me live.
Instead, he IMMEDIATELY tricks them with the phosphine gas. This is not the action of someone with a normally functioning amygdala. Ninety-eight percent of the population, when confronted with an intermediate threat to life, would pursue all other options fully before resorting to the “kill” in the kill or be killed premise. Walter does not. Walter immediately resorts to poisonous gas as The Only Resolution.
This is Step One in the Walter is a Psychopath Argument. We will examine Step Two in the next installment– the murder of Krazy 8.
1 This half of this sentence will recur endlessly in this show. It will eventually do the work that gets us to our Artist tie in.
Fate will not let Walter off his murderous hook lightly. Krazy 8 survives the phosphine gas attack and must be chained up in Jesse’s basement while Walter musters the “courage” to finally kill him for real.
Again the logic the scriptwriters construct for Walter’s dilemma is convincing… at least on the surface. They have put Walter in a seeming box. Either he kills Krazy 8 or, he lets Krazy 8 go… and Krazy 8 kills Walter, Jesse, and all of Walter’s family. The writers even include a scene in which Walter writes the pros and cons of killing Krazy 8 on a piece of notebook paper. A closeup at the end of this scene reveals to us that Walter is convinced he must kill Krazy 8 in order to “save” his family. The writers are wanting us to believe that Walter will kill Krazy 8 in order to continue to be a good father in his own mind.
Walter descends into the basement with Krazy 8’s Last Sandwich on an ordinary dinner plate [crusts removed, just the way Krazy 8 likes his Last Sandwiches]. While walking down the stairs, Walter is overcome by a cancerous coughing fit which causes him to pass out. The plate breaks into shards as Walter bounces off the floor.
Sometime later Walter recovers. His murderous mood dampened by the depths of his infirmity, Walter passes the time asking Krazy 8 questions about himself. This is the classic humanization of the enemy scene which [in any story about death and violence] is evidence of a character infected by an insufferable weakness. Walter, sympathetically effected by Krazy 8’s humanity, sweeps up the broken shards of plate and takes them upstairs to throw away.
We can tell as the shards enter the trash can, Walter’s next step is to get the keys that will release Krazy 8. Except… something about the way the shards fall into the trash ignites Walter’s suspicion. He takes the shards out of the trash can and puts the plate back together on the kitchen counter. A long knife-like shard is missing from the center. Walter realizes, if he lets Krazy 8 go, Krazy 8 will [with certainty] kill him.
Surely, this qualifies as a kill or be killed situation, right. The writers have written an airtight algorithm for the necessity of Krazy 8’s death, right?
Obviously they haven’t or we wouldn’t be on article 5 in this series.
Any normal person who realizes that she is going to have to kill her second person IN LESS THAN A WEEK in order to save herself and her family from certain death, also realizes that she has waded into waters which exceed her capacity for navigation. Any normal person quits. They call the cops. They plead temporary insanity and justifiable homicide and wind up with five years of probation. A normal person does not kill a man whose neck is chained to a pipe and presents no threat to anyone outside of his reach.
In Walter’s mind the Krazy 8 disjunctive reads as:
Kill him or let him go.
In reality the disjunctive is far more complicated and reads as “kill Krazy 8 and continue to have the freedom to be a “good” dad and an exceptional meth cook, or turn Krazy 8 in and lose those SPECIFIC two freedoms.
It is fascinating to me that the writers had the forethought [this early in the series] to design Walter with this kind of precise processing error. Walter never sees the true disjunctive about Krazy 8, or any of the people he ends up murdering. His preoccupation with false disjunctives is endemic.
The show wants us to believe that cancer is killing Walter White. That is a metaphorical front. In reality, a false disjunctive is killing Walter. He believes, in extreme error, that it would be true to say:
Either I do what I want or I don’t do what I want.
If you rewrite the last half of that disjunctive as “I do what you want” you will see that I am hinting at the idea that Walter’s mind has lost the ability to recognize compromise as a viable intellectual proposition. The world has been reduced to: his way or not his way.
A psychopathic manner of thinking if ever I heard one.
I believe that I have sufficiently proved that Walter was always a psychopath. Someone may disagree, and write up an antithesis paper in which she shows the myriad ways in which Walter arced toward psychopathy. That paper, brilliant as it would no doubt be, would be wrong.
Walter was always a psychopath.
Having established that, we can now reengage with the original idea which ignited this series of articles. You will remember that we began by identifying a new complex, The Walter White Complex, which we described as being a state of mind peculiar to the artistic temperament. From there we hypothesized that the show, Breaking Bad, is a myth describing this state of mind. [A myth derived from the more primal myth known as The Faustian Bargain]. The next step was to draw a parallel between this state of mind and the mental condition regarded by Academics as psychopathy. Our initial sketches defined this complex as informing:
…an artist’s relationship with A Devil that is no longer physical. The demons are, and always were, inside. Who better to realize this than The Artist?
The serialized aspect of this essay has been preserved with great effort by me, I am now, however, in a position to be clear… Yet, I can’t resist the urge to be muddy one last time. I want to tell a small story about an encounter I once had with an Academic.
Summarized, he was of the opinion that
To be a genius, one must [by necessity] be isolated within one’s self.
The pressures of relating to others were too much for the expression of genius. An Artist [and in this discussion we were counting people like Einstein as Artists] will find a way to live alone.
As someone who holds, as his very first psychological metaphysical principle, the idea that Human Relationships are [not only] necessary to the expression of an Ideal Life, [but also] the ONLY thing that makes life worth living… at the same time that I hold the idea that creativity is equivalent to divinity… you can understand why this principle of my Academic friend was not at all pleasant to me. I opposed it with terrific force.
However, my academic friend’s idea is widely accepted. In fact it is much easier to think of Artist’s who fit this lifestyle choice than it is to think of Artist’s who don’t…
Batting for the other team we have… I draw a blank.
In spite of this I maintain my position. It is not necessary to isolate yourself from human relationships in order to be an effective Artist. It may be easier, but it does not mean you are better. I believe this idea gains so much legitimacy from an inappropriate use of Leibnizian inductive reasoning. Something like:
All Great Artists have isolated themselves from Society.
Therefore in order to be a Great Artist One must isolate oneself from Society.
Obviously this is just restating the premise as the conclusion and leaving out the principle of sufficient reason in between. As Hume reminds us, the fact that something happens 999 times in a row is not a sufficient reason for concluding it will happen 1000 times in a row. In the case of Human Geniuses, I doubt I’d even go as far as saying it has happened 200 times in a row.
There is no denying isolation is fertile ground for creativity. If a human life is boiled down to a single resource which we could effectively call, time, it’s no stretch to realize that isolating yourself allows you to spend that resource in a restricted way—on solving creative problems. If one does not have to wake up at night with the child with the fever, then, for sure, one is more refreshed and energized to hypothesize about why gravitational and inertial mass might be equivalently related. The problem is, no one has ever proved this idea, they’ve simply justified it be way of the principle of sufficient reason.
Breaking Bad is different. I highly doubt that the show’s creators knew what they were doing when they did it, but [quite by accident] they have offered a proof of The Isolation Principle. We will spend the next several articles outlining the steps in that proof.
After that last episode in this series of articles, I believe I have announced [while still managing not to say it] why this popular television show has driven me straight into my second critical rut. [The Coens were my first.] I saw within the Breaking Bad Universe, a lynchpin for all my Refabracative ideas.
No one has ever denied that my story analysis techniques are among the best they’ve ever read. [Even with my exceedingly low profile, I still average one email a month in which someone discovers [and then praises] my analytical approach to story. Until Breaking Bad, I had a method [Bowdlerizing Kant or Refabrication] and a metaphysical principle [Art begets Life], but I was without a unifying thesis which could act as the web to link all my ideas. By accident, Breaking Bad gave me that web.
Every story is a metaphor for the artist’s journey toward resonance.
THIS is the idea with which I will begin all future analysis. Every story [and in the wider, as yet unproved web, EVERY creative endeavor] is an attempt by the Artist to reconcile the pressure to achieve resonance within the demands of belonging to a wildly social species. The Artist is not an acceptable occupation for humans, and yet this article and everything we hold as unique about ourselves would be missing without her. There is a fundamental antimony of human psychology present in the drive to be creative. If I am creative then I am not human… Or in the already sketched terms of this series of articles:
I am a psychopath.
The moment in which I realized all these ideas in the show is when Walter walks in on Jesse and Jane after they have put themselves into a heroin induced stupor. As he watches them, Jane begins to choke to death on her vomit. Walter moves to save her… and then decides against it. He lets Jane die. He even stands there and waits to make sure she is dead before leaving the apartment. Walter the psychopath has just reasoned, correctly, that with Jane out of the picture, he can resume control of Jesse and continue down the road that will lead him to his wealth and notoriety. Jane’s death helps to solve Walter’s resonance problem. Breaking Bad The Television Show has just stated the first premise in the argument for Artistic solitude.
The radius of an Artist’s resonance is inversely proportional to the number of people the Artist is willing to care for MORE THAN herself.
This is not yet new ground. Western Civilization has been advancing some form of this argument since the Renaissance. And, if Breaking Bad had stopped at this restatement of old ideas, I’m quite sure that I wouldn’t have finished watching it, and it wouldn’t be the cultural phenomenon that it is. What is new are the following additional premises [in no particular order]:
The Artist prefers solitude.
People are Artists, but Artists aren’t people.
Resonance ONLY blooms for universes of One.
Ideas are more important than people.
I will save the individual discussion of each of these premises for ensuing articles. I will also tie their appearance in the show to specific episodes. Penultimately, I will shape them into a workable argument that has “Artists forsake the world” as its conclusion. Lastly, I will excoriate this argument with all my intellectual might. A world in which Art blooms in dead soil is no world I want to live in.
Standing at the end of History’s longest preamble, and just stepping onto the road that leads to our actual destination, I can’t help but stand back in appreciation of what this MERE television show accomplished. An ancillary realization that I have had is that Artistic Intentions do not always correlate with Artistic Results. I know those responsible for Breaking Bad did not intend to make the aesthetic statement they ended up making. By accident, they forged a new myth. Although everything I have written in these first six articles is worth pursuing to completion, I’m not sure that the ancillary realization I have had is not more important. In obfuscated terminology:
No one becomes Shakespeare by trying to be Shakespeare.
Unfortunately [at least as far as my own intentions toward resonance are concerned] I’m afraid we will have to do a bit more intellectual carpentry before we advance any further. If we don’t establish a proper frame, our House for Artists will fall down at the first sign of wind. In other words I will name [for the sake of a future argument] the ONLY three ethical koans I believe survive scrutiny. They are:
- The Golden Rule.
- The Categorical Imperative.
- The Doctrine of Eternal Recurrence.
[It goes without saying (and yet I am compelled to say it anyway) that I am not familiar enough with non-Western Ethical koans to make any knowledgeable assessment of their worth.]
My undergraduate philosophy professors would SCREAM at me for what I am now about to write, but their concerns were Academic and mine are Practical so I will disregard their obvious objections and say… those three ethical maxims are one and the same. Yes, philosophical sacrilege, but the truth nonetheless. Jesus/Kant/Nietzsche were all saying the same thing.
- Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
- Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.
- My formula for human greatness is amor fati: that one wants to have nothing different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely to bear the necessary, still less to conceal it—all idealism is mendaciousness before the necessary—but to love it.
If you take the skin off any ethical maxim, what you find beneath is a teleological position about the relative worth of a way of being. (1) Of the three listed above, I always appreciate Nietzsche’s for being the most intellectually honest. In his statement it is clear that the obligation owed to Ethics is dependent on not DISAPPOINTING oneself. The Golden Rule and The Categorical Imperative rest on a principle of self-shaming as well, they just don’t make that expressly clear in their formulation. Only Eternal Recurrence, tells us what is at stake IF WE DON’T adhere to our Maxim—we cannot “love” what we have done. [We only “conceal” actions which make us ashamed.]
What I always find to be glaring from Kant’s Groundwork is how hard he has to fight the argument because he knows humans are NOT actually rational creatures. It beams through [like great subtext] every line on every page. If we were ONLY rational creatures, the book would be one page long and the discussion would be extremely boring. The fact that we are not, and yet the Categorical Imperative is written as though we are, is why the ideas that make up the bulk of The Groundwork are drawn out, and hard to read and understand.
And yet, the Categorical Imperative is the clearest formulation of ethics ever stated [whether you prefer it as written by Jesus, Kant, or Nietzsche]. It tells us how to live and why. And I agree with it in all three forms in which it has been stated.
I sometimes think it is easiest to think of your life as a movie [imagine that]. How would you feel if you had to WATCH yourself make the same poor choice over and over again for eternity? Wouldn’t you change the script? Make a director’s cut? Do whatever you had to do to ensure that you were a hero worthy of your own film? Of course you would, and so would I. We would all write ourselves as our Best Possible Versions…
…As easily destroyed as the above Ethical Framework is, it does provide what we needed to advance. We now know what philosophy and religion have been saying about Ethics [in the Western World] since we first invented thinking. Namely, we ought to act so as not to embarrass our best version of ourselves.
Breaking Bad says this is not true for all Humans. There has been an evolution which has not been scientifically recognized. At some point in our past a branch of We humans diverged from the Sapiens tree. Colloquially, we refer to these “people” as Artists [and when we’re feeling less charitable we refer to them as… psychopaths]. In more scientific terms, we should be calling them:
Breaking Bad is trying to tell us the ONLY thing we know for sure about this species is that the categorical imperative—no matter how you write it—does not apply.
- I am well aware that all Ethical Philosophers everywhere and for all time… would deny the truth of that sentence. They are… everywhere and for all time… kidding themselves.
I’ll be your harvester of light
And send it out tonight
So we can start again…
On my way home from work the other day, I played this Winter Song from Sara Bareilles.
I’ve always liked the song even though its simplicity borders on the redundant. With a literality that borders on inanity, I find myself listening to this song… mostly in December.
As I sat in my car retracing the miles that would bring me to my home, half listening, half thinking about these new ideas about Artists that have preoccupied me since the late summer, the verse cited above punctured my attention.
It is strange the way the human mind operates. I’m not sure what characteristic of our psychology it is which brings fertility to otherwise ordinary ideas, but so often it feels like luck. Had I not been listening to this song while thinking about my essay on Breaking Bad, I may never have found what I think is the perfect metaphor for the occupation of Artist. Miss Bareilles gets the credit, but I get the final expression of ALL that I have been trying so long to say. Artists are:
The Harvesters of Light
If you continue to listen to the song [and you apply the ideas we’ve developed within this essay] you realize it is written as the artist’s lovesong to her audience.
This is my winter song to you
The storm is coming soon
It rolls in from the sea.
My voice; a beacon in the night
My words will be your light
To carry you to me.
In this incarnation, the artist uses her voice to orient the audience to her harbor. Her voice may be the instrument, but even she can’t resist turning the actual words [the meaning] into the electricity which operates that instrument. The Artist, in this song, is removed from the audience and laboring to protect that audience from a furious world. One which means to harm the audience.
The refrain of this song is no less important to its overall intent. It is three words recited over and over:
Is love alive?
Is love alive?
There is no doubting that this question is directed at the audience. The Artist wishes, profoundly, to be loved for her beacon-making efforts, but this is not guaranteed. In the song the question remains unanswered. The Artist creates, but it is not necessary that anyone sees.
Now, I know that Miss Bareilles means her winter song as some sort of tribute to an actual person. Having written 8 previous installments in this series of articles, I’m equally convinced that it [like all art] is also a commentary on the artist’s relationship with creativity AND the audience’s reception of that creativity.
What Miss Bareilles intuited about creativity is what I have always stated out loud [even if it wasn’t said as prettily as she said it]. The job of an Artist is to provide harbor from the storm. Her Art is the beacon and her meaning is the light. Her FUNCTION is to harvest. She is successful when as many people as possible are within her harbor.
If we be more calculating and less emotional, what we are saying is that an Artist uses her talent to increase the knowledge of her species.
There is a teleological problem hiding in that last sentence which I NEVER noticed before this summer. I took it as true that increasing the knowledge of the species was ALWAYS a moral good. What if it isn’t? I’ve spent my entire critical career assuming that resonance was a proper good. In other words, I didn’t think it was possible for an inferior [in the moral sense] Artist to achieve lasting resonance.
What if, god forbid, a harvester of darkness arises as a beacon in the day… and the audience responds. What will all my refabricative analysis make of her?
Am I forced by my own inductions to call her good?
Or Why Donald Trump is The Real Slim Shady
To answer the cliffhanger which ended our last installment without my usual penchant for preamble:
I am forced by my own inductions to call A Beacon of Darkness in the Day, good, if the audience responds. Having answered, I can now indulge that penchant for preamble…
Almost 20 years ago, my Modern Irish Drama professor stopped the literary discussion in our class with a [seemingly] sociological question:
Should we [she meant all of us… or posterity] discount the entire corpus of Yeats because, in his later years, he became obsessed with the Nazis and used his Art to propagandize them.
The ensuing discussion was immediate, and one person short of unanimous. Of the twenty or so young men and women in that class, every single one of them though Yeats’ WORK was inferior because of his politics.
And suffered much mockery for it. A mockery that eventually turned viscious. When their mockery failed, they resorted to insults. My intelligence was questioned. My humanism was questioned. I know my professor agreed with the class because of how long she let them corrode the academic environment.
I remember arguing that a person’s ability in one domain is independent of their ability in another. Just because Michael Jordan was a genius basketball player does not mean we should expect he also be a genius playwright. I asserted that one’s genius should be judged within domains and only within domains. One can be a vile person AND a brilliant composer. There is, in other words, nothing in the domain “brilliant composer” that ensures you will also be a morally superior person.
I hardly ever make pronouncements like this, but I was EMPHATICALLY right about Yeats. Compared to his poetry, Yeats’ Nazism is but a paltry thing. Which is not to say that it’s OKAY he was a Nazi sympathizer. It EMPHATICALLY isn’t okay. That part of Yeats sucks. It sucks even worse that there was never any apology from him for his having been so misguided.
There is no error in making a mistake, there is only error in not admitting it.
I feel like this current situation with Trump as our president is also a good example of A Beacon of Darkness who achieves resonance. Only once before have I forsaken aesthetics [in this blog] to make a point about ideology, but I thought the context was right then, and I think the Walter White context is as close as I will get to an essay that is more about psychology than writing. In other words, I feel like a discussion of mud is an acceptable platform from which to discuss our next political leader.
I thought for some time about an analogy which might introduce my ideas and eventually arrived at the Eminem song which acts as title for this installment.
Donald J Trump is The Real Slim Shady.
Marshall Mathers anthem to White Male Anger captures the same emotions as Trump’s candidacy. The song has a catchy beat which drills into your head and motivates you to keep listening. His visceral delivery ALSO keeps you listening. It is only after you finish listening that you wonder about the message you just received.
Interestingly, Eminem is artist ENOUGH to [on some small level] understand what he is doing. He rejects the accolades his profession might bestow on him BEFORE he is eligible to receive them.
I don’t give a f*** about a grammy
Half you critics can’t even stomach me
Let alone stand me
By disavowing the laurel, you necessarily make it more likely to be received. Trump used the same methodology. How often did we have to endure repetitions of the narrative that he did not actually WANT to win the office for which he was running?
The similarity between Eminem and Trump is stark. Eminem said he didn’t want our attention, and if you google Rolling Stone’s list of the 50 best hip hop songs of all time, you will see that he made the list THREE times. That is a fascinating disparity between expressed intentions and actual results. Trump [or some proxy for him] said he didn’t want to be the most powerful leader in the world, so, of course, now he is.
I won’t [even though I want to] take it for granted that the Art of Eminem and Trump is as worthless as it is similar. Instead I will quote the beacon… and let that stand for itself:
And every single person is a Slim Shady lurking
He could be working at Burger King, spitting on your onion rings
[*HACH*] Or in the parking lot, circling
Screaming “I don’t give a fuck!”
With his windows down and his system up
So, will the real Shady please stand up?
And put one of those fingers on each hand up?
And be proud to be outta your mind and outta control
And one more time, loud as you can, how does it go?
Everything which proceeds that “go” was written to prove that Beacons of Darkness in the Day exist. If they have the right mix of qualities, they can find resonance. But… now we have a tool for their detection. [We will add more as the “seasons” of this essay grow.]
Beware the Artist who claims she doesn’t want the natural fruit of her labor.
In her, there “is a Slim Shady lurking”. (1)
1 If it seems that we’ve gotten somewhat far from our intentions with this essay, remember that it has been written IN IMITATION OF THE FORM of a serialized television show. One of the most interesting things I’ve done as a critic is to imitate the medium I am critiquing in my critiques. I would almost go as far as saying that it is Original to me. In order to understand this essay to this point, you should think of the first ten installments as Season One. Article 9 was our cliffhanger. It was resolved in Article 10, and the groundwork for the other four seasons has been laid.
If I manage to achieve what I have planned, I will be able to remove the “almost” from that sentence about originality.