The Whale


I have regarded Darren Aronofsky as my favorite director for 20 years. He competes in a space that he shares with provocateur directors such as Lars Von Trier and David Lynch but I have an affinity with his films, unlike the others. The first of his films I saw was Pi when I was about 17 years old. It was unlike anything I had seen before. Subliminal glory between the lines of brutalizing flesh. And every film of his after wrestles with threadbare flesh trying to make contact with glory.

His most recent incarnation The Whale grapples with this same universal and persistent question that is the substance of all his films; what is the meaning of all this?

It’s no coincidence that I have such an affinity with an Atheist Jew who can’t resist existential questions that have spiritual overtones. He and I, or at least his art and I, have the same curiosities, wrestle with the same nagging life pangs, both wish for truth to break through the veneer. The caged bird does indeed sing. We’re all caged inside our flesh, our vices, our peccadilloes. The spirit is caged inside the body.

There is a scene when the missionary, Thomas, discovers Charlie’s lover’s Bible and the passage under Roman’s 8:13 is highlighted.

For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.”

The Whale is the most acute examination of the body as a cage that Aronofsky has explored to this point. The film is a slow burn. It is quite a passive film compared to Aronofsky’s last film mother! that was frantic chaos. The passivity is purposeful. Charlie puts up no resistance to the fate of each day. He is Superman at weathering blows. The few loved ones in his life, at first sight, are uncomfortably abusive. We, the audience, can’t believe the cruelty.

There is a scene where his estranged daughter manipulates morbidly obese Charlie into getting to his feet and walking to her that reminded me of a perversion of Christ’s walking on water. He ends up crushing the end table under his weight and flopping down into a devastating heap that is utterly heartbreaking. His daughter storms out the door in disgust.

There is another scene where we can infer that his daughter smashed a plate that had food remnants on it that Charlie was using to feed a bird on his window sill, the one creature who gave him comfort. Again, how evil of her. But there is more than first sight with Aronofsky films. We learn through its slow crescendo that the finale to this story is about freeing the caged bird. When that bird feeds at Charlie’s plate each day it grows dependent, it has no desire to explore, it becomes imprisoned in its domestication. The missionary, too, is caged in his assumption that his past is irredeemable. His daughter is caged inside her abandonment. Charlie’s lover is caged inside his religious hypocrisy. Charlie is caged inside his grief.

It was quite a poetic, quite biblical, ending. During the entirety of the story it is downpouring outside. The following is borrowed from Alissa Wilkinson writing for Vox:

“The real apocalypse is happening at Charlie’s house, at least if we take “apocalypse” to mean a moment of revelation. [The GOP primaries of 2016 are playing on tv in which Ted Cruz beats Donald Trump in Idaho where the film is set]. We know — everyone knows — that these are the last days of Charlie’s life. It’s raining continually outside, like a flood is coming. Charlie is obsessed with an essay he keeps reading about Moby-Dick, an apocalyptic book if there ever was one, about a man with an obsession and a death wish. There’s an atmosphere of dread, both of what’s about to happen in Charlie’s house and what’s going on beyond its walls.”

But in the final scenes the clouds break to sunlight. Weight becomes weightless, flesh walks on water and the spirit is freed from the body.

Charlie exclaims near the end that he thinks it’s impossible for people to be completely careless. Implying that our inherent nature, our instincts, care. In a world that so obviously perpetuates bad, is this sentiment true? I’m perplexed by this existential supposition. There is also Charlie’s obsession with honesty. He implores his students and his daughter to write honestly. Despite his own refusal to confront his flesh. It’s another perplexing theme.

But Aronofsky once again succeeds in creating a picture like that of Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam” in which man is reaching out for the spark of life from God.

The Whale

Suicide: Existentialism and the Absurd


Rust: “I think human consciousness is a tragic misstep in evolution. We became too self-aware. Nature created an aspect of nature separate from itself. We are creatures that should not exist by natural law. We are things that labor under the illusion of having a self. A secretion of sensory experience and feeling, programmed with total assurance that we are each somebody. When in fact, everybody’s nobody. I think the honorable thing for our species to do is deny our programming, stop reproducing, walk hand-in-hand into extinction, one last midnight, brothers and sisters opting out of a raw deal.”

Cohl: “So why wake up in the morning?”

Rust: “I tell myself that I bear witness, but the obvious reason is my programming. I lack the constitution for suicide.”

-True Detectives

“There is only one really serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.”

-Albert Camus

Like Sisyphus pushing a rock up a hill just to watch it fall down the other side and then begin pushing again what is the point of life and human consciousness if we never find our ultimate purpose? Is life meaningless? If life is meaningless does that imply that life isn’t worth living? Why is our instinct for living stronger than our reason for suicide? Does scientific contingency explain the purpose of life? If God (the programmer) is the purpose of life then why subject us to the program?

The organized yet absurd universe; Is God a tease

By scientific contingency things can be explained according to the agency they’re contingent on.   For example an apple falling from a tree is contingent on gravity, planets are contingent on the propulsion and collection of gases and matter, etc. Everything within time can be explained this way since we know time is forward moving and everything progresses from a previous state all the way back to the beginning. Even if there were one equation that explained the theory of everything we would still be left with the question of why this theory? Because we live ‘in the program’ (Matrix style) we can never know truths outside the program so what is the point of our knowing anything? Why is nature organized in such a harmonious way as to provide us with the intellectual capacity to understand the laws of nature with laws that are intelligently and rationally organized? The laws of nature could be unintelligible, they could be randomly unordered. The human mind could be primitively conscious, like dogs. That could be a more reasonable existence; pushing the rock up the hill, never asking why, valuing nothing outside of time, hoping for nothing outside of time, just mortally being. As Stephen Hawking asked: “Why does the universe go to all the bother of existing? What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe?”

We search for meaning but we live in chaos. There are hurricanes, that humans take no part in creating, have no control in stemming, that annihilate entire regions. There is cancer that decimates entire families. Murder can be blamed on human behavior but what about natural disaster? What about all the biological effort that goes into creating a beautiful, complex, and absolutely unique baby only to see them die from SIDS or some other infant mortality condition. How is it even reasonable for people to live until 80 and then die? Why, if you think about it, is that comforting? Death at any age makes the self conscious life absurd if there is no transcendent purpose.  How many quantitative seconds must a life acquire to make it ‘long’ and ‘lived’ and ready for its inevitable death?

Ironically in Genesis we are told by God not to eat of the tree of knowledge yet we are created with the agency of knowing. Is this to teach us a lesson? Of what mortal purpose? Of an immortal purpose, that of the afterlife? Why bother with the physical world, why not place us directly in the afterlife? If God created people not out of necessity but out of an abundance of love, in order to share that love, why bother with the theatrics of this intelligible yet unintelligible cosmos?   Perhaps the only real practice of human free will and self consciousness is suicide, right away. The philosopher Pliny the Elder said “God cannot commit suicide even if he wished to but man can do so anytime he chooses.” God cannot commit suicide because it’s against his nature. God is and can never not be. What if humanity as a collective committed suicide, wielded death as the only force it has control of and thus humanity snuffed out it’s own existence which it is endowed with the power to do?  Not only refusing to digest the knowledge of the cosmos as it is provided impotently but freely removing the human mind from creation especially in the Christian model of the ultimate purpose to be with God.  Would there have been a purpose for our wondering mind on this mortal universe? This would be the only revolt the program could take against and for the programmer. But the programmer traps us yet by denying us ‘the constitution for suicide’, instilling the instinct for living and a natural fear of death. Interestingly, even Jesus Christ with his divine purpose known to him feared his own death and cried out “My God, why have you forsaken me?”

Perhaps we’re the carnival set in motion for entertainment. But God is benevolent, right? We are made in the image of God with faculties that search for the transcendent. In the bible we are told we see through a glass darkly in this universe hinting at a higher purpose for our race. Can the program transcend the hardware? Is the code (the laws of nature) the window into this transcendence? Why, then, are we told not to pursue transcendent knowledge, knowledge that only God knows (and thus becoming Gods ourselves)? Is it to see if we really love him? He himself allowed the premise in which we naturally don’t and only by his grace can we love him. If our ultimate purpose is to one day live with God in the Christian model where his kingdom would be on earth as it is in heaven, death conquered and with it time, what does that mean? C.S. Lewis describes this ultimate destination as rather than being with the effects of what ‘goodness’ is or what ‘justice’ is or what ‘beauty’ is we will be with Goodness itself, with Justice itself, with Beauty itself.  As creatures in creation we cannot understand the fullness of being in Goodness.  We only know what goodness is like. If the Christian goal is to be with God how does our mortal universe merge with God’s immortality and how is suicide not the best solution to break free of the likeness and be one with the reality?

Of course, biblically, suicide is wrong because life is sacred and one’s life is the property of God’s and thus to commit suicide is to deride God’s prerogatives but the counterargument as the philosopher David Hume said is that, if such is the case, then to save someone’s life is also to deride God’s prerogatives. Furthermore, prayer derides God’s prerogatives.

So we have God insisting on the laws of physics the way they are and engendering us with free will to ask why. Perhaps the definition of insanity is instead of asking the same question and expecting a different answer asking the same question and expecting any answer.

If life is meaningless then suicide makes sense but I refuse to accept that the universe would be arranged so methodically with meaningful patterns and the human race designed with such mental capacity to decode the program and wonder about the programmer if it’s all for naught. I refuse to accept that life is absurd. I believe in a reason and I believe the reason is benevolent. I think I’ll keep living and anyone that marvels at the patterns of the universe should too. Though, in the program, we’ll never know why; siri has no knowledge, either, of this magnificent universe that exists outside her program or the reason for her existence so too we have no idea what magnificence exists outside our program and the reason for our existence but just because we don’t know doesn’t mean it’s not there and if our program is so beautifully designed to allow for extrospection (that no other creature, even poor siri, has) then what is outside our program must be divine.

Suicide: Existentialism and the Absurd