I’ve said in a previous installment that Breaking Bad provides an argument for why solitude is not only conducive [which is easy for anyone to see] to creativity, but also NECESSARY. The idea that being alone is required for the full expression of one’s ability is latent in our culture in spite of the fact that no critic, philosopher, or psychologist, has ever taken the time to prove it.
Before we go through the steps in the argument Breaking Bad provides, it will first be prudent to remove a mild objection before it occurs to someone in the audience to make it. Namely, it is pretty clear that no matter how lonely Walter White is, he is not, strictly speaking, alone… at any time during the show. People constantly fill up his daily life. He has a wife, a son, a daughter, a brother and sister in law, and a multitude of bosses from the legitimate to the criminal.
What we will mean then, when we say Breaking Bad argues for Art being dependent on solitude, is that the show asserts that the mental life of the Artist is devoid of meaningful human contact. The artist in the Breaking Bad Universe is jealous of her ability. This jealousy is dominant in her personality. And most importantly, the show asserts, a person cannot be creative if she lacks this trait.
You can see now why I had such a visceral reaction to this show. Like Cormac McCarthy, Breaking Bad attempts to dismantle everything I think I know about my world. For me, creativity is divinity. As I said when I disagreed with Alvin Plantinga about his definition of God as a maximally consistent proposition:
God, by whatever name you give her, is a maximally consistent creative proposition.
The fact that Mr. Plantinga dismissed me as the undergraduate I was, is immaterial. The belief about the importance of creativity which I inserted into his life’s work DEFINES me. If It turns out that I am wrong about that, then I am just wrong. In a universal sense. (1)
I don’t think anyone who has seen the show will argue with the statement that Walter White lives [mentally] alone. The degree of superficiality in his relationships forms the bedrock of most of the complaints levied against the show. [There is a summary of those critiques listed in the first installment in this essay.] Because I assume universal agreement, I will not systematically establish his solitude by analyzing his interactions with the people that he meets in every season. Instead we will look at the spectrum of his personality by segregating his personal life, from his professional life, from his mental life.
Walter’s personal life is defined by his desire to be a great father and husband. Initially, it seems that he feels this in the traditional way. In other words, he wants to be an acceptable livelihood provider and a dependable support on which his family can flourish.
By his own reckoning, he is failing in the financial part of this wish as the show begins. A failure made more immediate by his cancer diagnosis in the first episode. The household is poor. They are in danger of losing their house. Walter’s primary job as a high school Chemistry teacher can’t pay the bills for him, his wife, and his teenaged-son. He already works a demeaning second job at a car wash, and there STILL isn’t enough money to meet his ends. What will happen to the family when they eventually run up against the expenses of his baby on the way? Financial ruin is as certain as Walter’s inadequacy at providing.
Walter is a failure at being a father by traditional monetary standards.
The back half of our initial statement could still be true if Walter’s family manages to flourish in spite of their poverty. It is clear that Skylar is not flourishing when the show begins as her legitimate book-keeping skill, and her never much discussed literary skill (?) are given no outlets. She doesn’t even have a job. This is in spite of the fact that Walter works two jobs. Their special needs son goes to school and does an adequate job of looking after himself so the immediate question that begs to be answered is:
Who decided that Skylar would not work?
The show never explicitly answers, but, if we are to decide what kind of support Walter is toward his family’s flourishing, we must decide. My best guess is that Walter is the source of Skylar’s unemployment. Walter cannot be the patriarchal paragon he ends up killing people in order to be if his wife HAS to work. It is more than conceivable that he uses her desire to be a writer as a means toward keeping her unemployed. A sort of… don’t work and do your quirky writing so I can make myself feel better about paying [or not paying] all the bills… kind of thing.
Their son, Walter Jr., does seem to flourish. I have to put the “seem” in there as qualifier because, as mentioned in the very first installment of this series, the secondary characters are all recycled cardboard characters. The degree to which Walter’s relationship with Walter Jr. disintegrates over the show’s full length makes one wonder how much actual flourishing is occurring when the show begins. Either way, Walter can’t be given any higher score than a 50%, which is a failing grade by all but the most lenient of standards.
Walter is a failure at being a father by traditional flourishing standards.
The professional life Walter leads has long since passed crisis when we meet him. Not much arguing needs to be done to show that he is not only a professional failure, but also that this failure has lead him to isolate himself professionally. He co-founded a company, Grey Matter, which became the Apple of the chemical world and then sold his creator’s stake for $5,000. When we meet him, he teaches chemistry to high school students.
As the show progresses, it becomes obvious that his gift for chemistry is unique. He has more than one Grey Matter idea in him, so why does he teach high school chemistry even though this does not fulfill him?
Jealousy. Plain and simple. Walter has never forgiven Gretchen and Elliot, his Grey Matter co-founders, for abandoning him. In Gretchen’s case, this abandonment has an additional romantic component that Walter refuses to move past. In Walter’s mind, He is the reason They have so much money. The fact that they admit as much to him several times, never atones [in his mind] for their original abandonment.
So, Walter refuses to trust anyone else the rest of his life, unless he is sure that person is helpless without him. Walter Jr., Skylar, and Jesse, the three people Walter associates with most, are also the most helpless when we meet them. Walter Jr. has cerebral palsy, Skylar is several months pregnant, and Jesse is a meth addict.
Walter’s professional life is devoid of peers.
By necessity, if you have no peers, and your family is not better because of your presence in their lives, then you live mentally alone. For sure, we knew this about Walter before we even began this first episode of our second season. It was worth showing it nonetheless. If only because now we know something important about the argument for isolation. The Artist who isolates herself for her Art, does so by choice.
Walter may not have any meaningful human contact, but, it’s all his fault.
1 This conversation with Plantinga was one on one and was arranged by my metaphysics professor after I wrote an argument “proving” the existence of synthetic a priori propositions. My professor [Mr. Trenton Merricks] dismissed my a priori argument as relying on an undergraduate level understanding of the terms true and false. Nonetheless, the week after I gave it to him, I was in my professor’s office speaking with Mr. Plantinga.
There are two things I think are revealing about this meeting. The first is that Academics FOREVER rely on jargon when they are faced with something they can’t explain. Mr. Merricks’ truth and falsity objection to my argument was silly. If truth and falsity are entities that undergraduate philosophy majors can’t understand implicitly WITH NO advanced training, then philosophy is not a legitimate field of study. [Interestingly, Mr. Merricks made a similar jargon objection when I questioned him on his metaphysical view of “Objects and Persons”. He cavalierly stated during class one day that one of his primary theses in his book, of the same name, was that particles of a single object need not be spatially related. I asked if there were a limit to this property. He said no. I asked if this meant they could be infinitely far apart. He said yes. I said how is it possible for more than two things to be infinitely far apart. He dismissed this by saying that I did not have a technical understanding of the word infinite. Naturally, I did not press this because my understanding of infinity is decidedly NOT technical. He was correct in stating that. Had I insisted that he explain his theory, he would have started writing on the board in advanced symbolic logic that I would have had no hope of understanding… until all the Will to Learn had been crushed out of me.] Therefore, the first revealing thing I learned from making my synthetic a priori argument is that:
Academics is designed by its practitioners to cement old knowledge at the expense of new.
This insight didn’t sink in until I was out of school and read Wittgenstein on my own. His preoccupation with ordinary language is the same thing as my injunction to avoid jargon.
Jargon is the best and fiercest enemy of good thoughts.
The second revealing thing I learned from making my a priori argument to Mr. Plantinga is that I was never going to have a career in Academics [although this was my aim in beginning school]. As I sat with Mr. Plantinga, listening to him discuss his views on Necessity [which are interesting and worth reading], I [uncharacteristically] quit paying attention. I had already read his most famous book… which is why I jumped at the invitation to sit with him [the only person to write about Necessity that I would have jumped higher to sit with is Kripke] in spite of the fact that I viewed Plantinga’s entire work as a Theodicy. I jumped BECAUSE of the quality of the mind which put that theodicy onto those pages.
Yet, as I listened to him talk about his own thoughts, I realized that he had stagnated. He had done some good work 30 years before I met him, and then he had spent the ensuing 30 years trying to isolate that work from criticism. The thirst for original thoughts, which is my primary motivation, and which is also present in The Nature of Necessity, is absent from Organized Academics. Practitioners of this craft only want a protected fiefdom of intellectual property which they can call their own. The idea of inspiring knowledge with the courage TO BE WRONG is anathema to an Academic. In the end, they’d all rather be hobgoblins to their own foolish consistency.
It must by now be obvious that I have lost the fear that used to keep me from writing exactly what I thought. In my previous writings, there was always a part of me that had one eye on the value to me of my potential resonance. This eye kept me from being blunt because I never wanted to seem to be accusing myself of being something other than what I am—an ordinary language experiment replete with tortured syntax. Interestingly, I have written myself like that passage in All the Pretty Horses when John Grady says he didn’t want the judge to think he was something special.
What sort of silliness is it that causes a writer to make a thirty year long argument in which the conclusion is:
There is no need to pay attention… to me.
I won’t do it anymore.
By the way, I realized, several years after I graduated, what the real problem was with my synthetic a priori argument. It was self-referential. The first premise of that argument is [depending on how formal you want to be]:
- All rules have an exception.
If you then say that every well-formed proposition must be true or false, you can see how you fairly quickly reach a contradiction. If (1) is true then it must be false. Unfortunately for me, this does not prove there are synthetic a priori propositions, it proves that (1) is itself a rule. The classic example of this type of self-referential problem is:
- Everything I say is false.
Again, if (2) is true, then it must be false.
Philosophers qualify these sorts of arguments as semantic truth arguments. This may be what Mr. Merrick’s meant when he made that comment about the meaning of truth and falsity… or maybe not. I will never know because he didn’t bother to share what he meant when he said what he said.
I learned this stuff about semantic truth a full ten years after I graduated. I learned it on my own. It frustrates me to this day that I wasn’t told at the time [assuming, of course, this is what Mr. Merricks meant]. Academics is SUPPOSED to be Civilization’s route to the formation of knowledge. How much farther along would we be if the Ministers of Academia were willing, even occasionally, to do their job properly.