Tuesday, January 6, 2015

True Detective & Philosophy

I think one of the reasons why True Detective was so surprisingly good was because the show's writer did not go to Harvard. In Hollywood these days it seems that most of the people in the writers rooms are Ivy League educated men (its almost always men) who grew up in very comfortable upper middle class homes. They've read a lot of books, interned at all the right places, made all the right connections and look presentable but they know absolutely nothing about life. Nic Pizzolatto who wrote and was the showrunner on True Detective does not come from that world. As Wikipedia explains he "grew up poor in a working-class Catholic family in New Orleans and at age 5 he and his family moved to the rural area outside of Lake Charles, Louisiana." In interviews Pizzolatto has talked about growing up in a house without books and how he became increasingly estranged from his surroundings. Wikipedia again: "Lots of poor people there, lots of drinking and fighting and cheating. Also lots of fanatical religion and illiteracy. It’s a rough place." When he finally did get out of Lake Charles Pizzolatto became an autodidact who devoured books and became interested in metaphysics. Perhaps because of his background and probably because he didn't study philosophy at university he was able to pursue his interests in a very unfashionable school of moral philosophy and ethics: the philosophy of pessimism.
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Although it had ancient antecedents pessimism's philosophical foundations were laid down for the most part by Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860). Schopenhauer influenced in no small part by Buddhism believed that life was largely one of suffering and pain. We are, Schopenhauer says, driven remorselessly by time's whips and even when our wants are satisfied there is no feeling of achievement or satisfaction, but merely a new want that begins bugging us. (I was sufficiently interested in Schopenhauer to write a novel about a group of Schopenhauer inspired cultists who moved to a South Pacific Island to escape the world.) Although some professional philosophers believe that Schopenhauer has been superseded by Nietzsche and his philosophical descendants he really hasn't. Schopenhauer's skepticism about the inherent utility of life itself is still a potent lance with which to poke utilitarians and Kantian deontologists. 
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Nic Pizzolatto's main philosophical influences are the modern viverian skeptics David Benatar, Thomas Ligotti and Eugene Thacker. I've read Benatar and Ligotti and was quite impressed by the singularity of their vision and the purity of their argument if not quite completely won over by the bleakness of their world-view. Benatar is a proper peer reviewed philosopher at the University of Cape Town. His book Better To Have Never Been: The Harm Of Coming Into Existence is a thorough, contemporary account of pessimism. Benatar argues that life is suffering and pain and (like his namesake Pat) that even love is a, er, battlefield. His conclusion is that non existence is the only sensible course for a sentient being and that more sentient beings should not be brought into the world. If he had killed himself shortly after finishing the book I would find Benatar's argument a bit more convincing but he seems to live a pretty good life in Cape Town and this good life that he lives is a kind of refutation of everything he says in the book, don't you think?
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Thomas Ligotti is a different kettle of fish. Like his namesake Gyorgy Ligeti Ligotti is obsessed by the austere beauty of the dark. Ligotti is a horror writer very much influenced by the pessimistic gothic fiction of HP Lovecraft and the ghost stories of MR James. True Detective in fact often feels like it is taking place in Lovecraft's universe and Cthulu himself is perhaps the mysterious terrifying presence lurking in the bayou in the guise of the Yellow King. (If you ever played Call of Cthulu in the 1980s you'll remember that Cthulu inspired insanity was an important part of the game.) Ligotti's non fiction work The Conspiracy Against The Human Race  is a brilliant literary and philosophical analysis of the pessimistic strain in contemporary culture. Not exactly a nihilist Ligotti is an anti-natalist who believes that the human race cannot be redeemed and that consciousness was an "evolutionary mistake."
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I don't know much about Eugene Thacker but he sounds really interesting too. He's a philosopher at the New School in New York. In an interview with Scapegoat magazine he talked about what attracts him to pessimism: 

That is a good definition of “pessimism” to me—the philosophy of the futility of philosophy.[This thread is taken up from] Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Lichtenberg, Leopardi, Pascal, the French moralists. . .writing against the presuppositions of grand, systematic philosophy, composed as it is of fragments, aphorisms, stray thoughts. There is a subtractive rigour to this kind of pessimism, what Nietzsche called the rigour of the “unfinished thought.”  

There's a good wikipedia page about Thacker, here. Since I have your attention I'd also like to mention my old philosophy tutor John Gray who is a well known anti-utopianist and a skeptic about progress in culture and morals. His most recent book is The Silence of Animals
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If you're interested in this topic there's a very nice dialogue on The Vulture between Matt Patches and Paul J Ennis where they talk about Detective Rust's nihilistic world view and the - slight - plagiarism controversy over whether Rust's ideas were 'lifted' from or inspired by Ligotti. In the very last act of True Detective, Pizzolatto has Rust change his mind about nihilism and I think this was a bit of a cop out, probably inspired by nervous producers who wanted a little light at the end of the tunnel. Apart from that minor failure of nerve True Detective is as good an exploration of pessimism as you'll see in contemporary culture. My original post looking at some of these aspects and exploring the feminist critique of the show is here.