The Sunset Limited.
This is an interesting movie, I just happened to come across it, randomly, through the interwebs. Based on a Cormac MaCarthy book, it opens with Tommy Lee Jones (simply known as “White”), sitting at a table with Samuel L. Jackson (known only as “Black”) discussing the nature of life, religion, passions, meaning, the world, society, culture, violence, consequence, God, Jesus, atheism, nihilism, jail, literature etc. The full gamut of experience is viewed and explored by these characters. The basic premise being – Black saved White’s life from a suicide attempt, having done this they retire to Black’s house, so that the poorly educated, yet religious Black, may attempt to assuage the intelligent, educated professor (White) into seeing something in the world, to hold on to.
The obvious and basic premise labelled, it’s important to note, that the underlying meaning, at least to me, is not that Black is a theist because he is classically “uneducated”, nor, similarly, is White an atheist because he is “smart” (indeed one may wonder what is smart about suicide). I also didn’t feel like any particular view-point was especially strawmanned, nor did I feel a preference in the director’s (also Tommy Lee Jones) preconceptions or presuppositions – the audience is left with 2 convincing characters that portray their view points fairly, and with passion.
Being that this entire 90 min movie is set on one location, with 2 actors going at each other, with no theatrical “tricks” (cuts, edits, flashbacks etc) employed, the weight of this piece is firmly set on these 2 characters interactions – and it works, powerfully.
I felt a collection of things during this movie, and many of the utterances given by both characters struck me – obviously because I align with the atheists position, and have, like so many apologists claim, dealt with nihilism (though have moved on from it), I was affected by White’s dialogue. Many things he said, resonated with me. And that’s part of what I wanted to say here.
White’s character is dark, at his wit’s end, but most importantly, this is a rational person, a seeming contradiction, after all – how can you be suicidal, yet rational? White articulates his case over the course of the movie, his sense of … disillusion with the world, that “happiness is contrary to the human condition”, and that “we were born into such a fix as this, suffering and human destiny are the same thing, each one is a description of the other”.
As an uneducated, and moody teenager I dabbled in this same idea of the futility of existence, in the Nietzschean “death of God” sense, or to quote Tool: “it doesn’t matter what’s right, it’s only wrong if you get caught”. It’s easy to see why people are like White, that given a particular view of the world, even he states: “I don’t regard my state of mind as some pessimistic view of the world, I regard it as the world itself”, and that this world he refers to is “a horrible place, full of horrible people”. We see this given commonly among apologetics as the default atheist position, but it is rather, the lazy, or reactionary position, for depressed people, not necessarily atheists. Moreover the reason theists might say this is due to the fact that they have their meaning gift wrapped for their pleasure, a stalwart tradition from which to draw, socially accepted (majority) communities – seems easy. Even if in practice, it really isn’t. Atheists on the other hand, have no such gift wrapped world view, or community from which to draw strength, generally, they have to find what philosophies they will adopt, what meaning the see value in (which does not mean subjective relativism). And nihilism, and depression can be a result of facing reality, on its terms.
The problem for me of course, the reason I don’t subscribe to nihilism, to the death of value, where I part from White – is because I subscribe to a worldview, not only that, not as lofty as that, I look at the world around me, I look at the results of World War 2, I look at people who fight religious intolerance, inequality, the point my reason leads me to?
There are good people in this world – who fight intolerance.
There are people who fight everyday for the good, Black may be considered one of those people. There are people fighting the world over for a cause that is just – look at our society, there are ways of looking at it, that it seems dark – poverty, molestation, rape, jealousy, greed, these are all part of the condition of being alive. I think White would argue, that the fact that good people have to fight, against that dark backdrop, only speaks to the futility of the enterprise, or as he says “you can’t be happy if you’re in pain”. White’s at a point, where he has no fight in him anymore, he doesn’t see the world anymore, the forms he sees are ‘colours” and “shapes”, but with none of the value we attribute to these things, and moreover he sees this as supported, biblically: as he says, “even God gives up at some point, I’ve never heard of a ministry in Hell.”
White is, perhaps not eminently likeable – he is evasive to the most simple questions, which makes him sound like a petulant child, not wanting to cater to someone he considers (intellectually) beneath him. This also makes him passively condescending, we see how he views Black, I guess, like so many atheists might do.
Here we see Black’s increasing despair and desperation as the power of the relationship switches, through most of the movie Black is the one asking the questions, throwing his theology around, sharing his life experience. White is uncomfortable, constantly feeling the need to leave. But it’s when White opens up on Black that we feel, if not see, White’s conclusion as seemingly undeniable, moreover, we see that Black feels it, not completely mind you.
Black goes from the boisterous, happy guy with all the answers to a man shaking with his head between his legs, as White spews all his bile at him, articulating so well, just what he sees is so hopeless, not just wrong, but hopeless about the world. It’s here we see a complete character come to life, and we empathise with what White feels like he needs to do, moreover, we might even feel, in our darker moments of despair, like the only thing that makes us disagree with him, is that we fear pain not death, or that we just want to stay – essentially, that our reasons for living are trivial.
I found myself thinking about death, about my own, about obliteration, nothingness, and part of me almost felt, as White did, and perhaps feeding off him, an excitement, a kind of peace about death. That this life is full of hustle and bustle, and that in death we find absolution, quiet, solace. Of course it won’t be that way, as even White knows, there can be no community of the dead because there are no entities to form such.
- John Haught On The New Atheists. (zaknafein81.wordpress.com)
- Nice Nihilism (3quarksdaily.com)
- Motes and beams (barefootbum.blogspot.com)
- Make up your minds, atheists! (dalehusband.wordpress.com)
- Letters (nytimes.com)
- God, atheism, and what it is to be human (bluejaysway.wordpress.com)
- Nice Nihilism and The Atheist’s Guide To Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions (wanderlustmind.com)
- Atheism in South Africa (dead-logic.blogspot.com)
- The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, By Alex Rosenberg (independent.co.uk)
- An Inoffensive Atheist Ad Could Appear on Pennsylvania Buses (patheos.com)