Mulling over Nothing


Professor of philosophy, Thomas Hibbs brings his expertise in Medieval thought and contemporary ethics to bear on questions of popular culture.

Douglas Minson and others from The Wilberforce Forum chatted with Thomas S. Hibbs in January 2001 about his thoughts on nihilism in contemporary entertainment and his book, Shows About Nothing.

WF:Dr. Hibbs, your writing has generally been devoted to formal academic matters, specifically dealing with philosophers like Aquinas and Augustine. What moved you to do the kind of work on pop culture, particularly media and film, that we see in Shows About Nothing?

TH:Well, there were two things. The first thing was really observations of popular culture. The book is sort of written backwards — in the sense that what drew me into it initially was watching Seinfeld, and noticing certain things that seemed to support the notion or give evidence to the idea that the show had implicit nihilistic premises.

So I worked up an essay on comic nihilism in Seinfeld, using a lot of examples from episodes that I had seen. I started reading that at colleges and circulating it amongst grad students and some undergraduates that I know, and got a good response to it. So the larger project developed out of that, hooking up Seinfeld with films that are more naturally at home in the horror genre, or on the fringes of that (especially with the treatment of evil). Once I made that connection in my mind and hooked it up with certain theories about nihilism from Nietzsche, Toqueville, Hannah Arendt, then it was just a matter of spelling out this stuff.

The second reason why I thought it would be worthwhile to sit down and do the book was that, given the response I was getting from college kids to the short essay on Seinfeld that I'd been reading, I thought this might be an interesting and effective way of introducing bright undergraduate students to some very important issues in philosophy and in theology, and getting them to see the ramifications for the culture that they inhabit.

WF:Well, that's your job as a philosopher and a teacher, right? And we at The Wilberforce Forum are certainly sympathetic. But while people are generally willing to accept the thesis that "ideas have consequences," there seems to be a prevailing disposition to look at things philosophical as (by and large) esoteric exercises.

So what's the bridge between, say, Nietzsche — an angry, German, syphilitic philologist with a chip on his shoulder toward Wagner — and Quentin Tarantino? How do we get from Thus Spake Zarthustra to Pulp Fiction, or Seinfeld for that matter?

TH:That's sort of the way I laid out the book. The bridge is what Nietzsche described as the nihilistic era: an era of de-valuing the highest values, where the quest for truth, beauty, goodness, God, virtue, love, friendship, all the great quests, the idea of the nation (whether it's Rome or America), no longer move the human soul in the way they once did. I think what he means is that human beings (or large numbers of them), no longer experience these things as making an absolute claim upon their lives. Now, they might believe in them, they might check them off on surveys of 'do you believe in x, y, z.' But they no longer captivate the human soul. And for Nietzsche that's the beginning of the nihilistic era.

Now, as Nietzsche sees it, this provides an opportunity for the few, great-souled individuals to seize this moment and confront nihilism heroically, artistically — perhaps tragically — and possibly overcome nihilism.

So, the opening section of the book, after describing nihilism, once I get into the films, is called "The Quest for Evil." "The Quest for Evil," I want to say, makes a kind of sense in a world where everything is a matter of bureaucratic conformity and where what used to be understood as evil is now explained away in terms of behaviorist psychology. I think you see this in lots of films where the evildoer really comes to the fore and becomes a kind of an anti-hero. It's in a context where the police, the court system, the medical system all operate under a behaviorist mentality. And in that context, the pursuit of evil becomes a perverse affirmation of freedom. So in that respect, to be "beyond good and evil," is at least to be still alive.

I see the roots of this in something like The Exorcist, and certainly in Silence of the Lambs — and the new film in that guise, Hannibal (which will be out in the spring) is going to emphasize that even more. So I see that this quest for evil becomes, as, the main character in Walker Percy's Lancelot said, the only quest left for us — it's the unholy grail of the modern age. But the problem is that, as Lancelot discovers at the end of that book, (and he doesn't know what to make of it), we discover nothing at the heart of evil. Once you see that evil in itself takes you nowhere, you see that it's empty; it's banal, as Hannah Arendt says. If you don't discover the complexity and attractiveness of goodness, then you're left with the banality of evil. So that's the subject of the next chapter, where you no longer have these heroic, scary figures who are intimidating us and before whom we cower in awe. Instead you get evil as entertainment, which is at least the opening part of Pulp Fiction, Trainspotting, all the Scream movies, and a number of others, where the nothingness of evil itself becomes a form of entertainment.

WF:Now, your observations in the book range well beyond the "horror" genre. In fact, you even take up the television cartoon, The Simpsons — a show, if you'll allow me to say so, on which you were a bit hard in the book. Some of the staff here are, at a minimum, sympathetic to the claim that it's "the most Christian show on television." How would you respond to this suggestion?

TH:You know, I think I was wrong about The Simpsons in the book. I am not sure how important or good a show it is in the end, but I think I made a mistake trying to illustrate my thesis with it. I watch The Simpsons occasionally, but never seriously. But the book editors wanted to include an account of it in the book. So I sat down for two weeks and watched it. This is one of those cases where you are kind of caught in the grips of a theory, which is very dangerous when you are doing this kind of stuff. I didn't attend as carefully as I could have. I don't think in the end, that it fits into the "nihilistic" Seinfeld model, precisely because, typically in the end, the family members on the show do what they ought to do.

WF:I think the benevolent view of The Simpsons is rooted in notion that it is the closest thing we have to unadulterated satire on television today. And in that sense, it serves as a poignant commentary on American life. It seems to work because both Left and Right are deservedly mocked and skewered.

TH:I think you're right. And Seinfeld did that, too, the mocking of Right and Left. It was refreshing because liberals are so inconsistent when it comes to this stuff. They even admit it, if you catch them at a weak moment. They think it is just fine to skewer the Right, however irrationally, because they are wrong — but they won't have their own side made sport of.

WF:. . . And so you see George and Jerry making fun of the ever-so-tolerant social establishment by pronouncing liberal platitudes that cannot provide sufficient foundations for ironing out social complexities — "not that there's anything wrong with that!"

TH:It strikes me that that is a tendency of liberalism, though, this nihilistic tendency. I think it is there in The Cider House Rules, which is a really insidious film.

WF:I haven't seen it, but I've been told that it refutes its own thesis about abortion — that the effect of the film is not to recommend the disposition toward life it is shilling for.

TH:That is what is insidious about it. It is the sappiest, schmaltziest film in ten years, but it pulls you in by your attraction to these, you know, funny little snot-nosed kids in the orphanage. The unconscious inference that we all must make, and that they are trying to get us to make, is that anybody who is taking care of his kids couldn't do anything wrong. So when there is an abortion in the back room, you have to say that it has to be OK. So, yes, it is incoherent at that level, but very few people who liked that film really asked that question.

WF:It sounds not unlike Machiavelli's introduction to his play The Mandragola. He suggests that he's going to make an argument and he hopes you find it persuasive and amusing. But if not, there will be plenty of ushers and attendants distributing copious amounts of wine, and you should drink deeply. Irving's screenplay seems to say: "Hey, even if you don't find merit in the argument for abortion rights, go ahead and buy into it because we take care of the kids in the orphanage."

But how does the film link liberalism and nihilism?

TH:The nihilism of The Cider House Rules itself comes out in the way it describes the rules of the title. The Cider House rules are the rules on the walls where, for the most part, they are applied to a couple of black families who come in to pick apples, etc. But they are illiterate. They can't even read the rules. What's more, the rules are about absurd things like "No smoking," "Don't stand on the roof," and just sort of dumb stuff. The idea is that the rules are made by "somebody out there who doesn't understand," and we can never understand the rules anyway. That is supposed to be the parallel with the abortion law. And when we come to see what the rules really mean, we see that these are trivial things.

So, just before the abortion is performed at the Cider House, the film shows the white kid — the aspiring doctor — reading the rules to the blacks, who laugh at them. After he performs the abortion, the very next scene is all the blacks standing on the roof protesting the rules. There is a complete trivialization of the abortion that happens between the reading of the rules and everybody laughing at them, and then them standing on the roof in protest. Automatically from the audience, there is a chuckle when you see them on the roof. So what I mean by the liberalism generating nihilism is that it generates the trivialization of the most important questions. And that is how it wins. It wins by utterly trivializing.

WF:When reading Shows About Nothing, it occurred to me that it might be worthwhile to consider the early Church's suspicious posture toward drama in general. Do you have any thoughts on how that suspicion might relate to the way the visual media are being used to tell stories? I realize this doesn't relate specifically to your thesis, but filmmaking seems to compound the Church's concern for drama.

TH:The suspicion of drama was very present, very pronounced. When it comes to these films, you have to take up the question of what the roles do to the actors, and what they do to the audience. On both levels there are objections or concerns.

There is a kind of moral critique, but I think the objection to drama is actually a metaphysical criticism. In the first few chapters of Augustine's Confessions there is a heavy critique of the theatre, of drama itself, of Virgil and Homer, etc. It's the problem of culture itself — the idea of being seduced, into confusing a construct for what is real, and hence in living in an illusion rather than the real — the way in which narratives can lead you to suppress the question of truth as Augustine described it. That is part of getting free of the drama, coming to a conception of human life as a quest for truth. That requires putting the drama into question so that the drama has to take on a very subordinate sort of role. It can't provide the overarching framework, but the quest for truth, the questioning and pursuit of truth has to be first. That is a real problem. It seems to me it is a huge problem.

We can talk about a poverty of stories, or the kinds of stories, but it seems to me that the notion of story itself, absent the concern for truth, is part of the Survivor craze. When you don't have the stories themselves aspiring to truth, or allowing themselves to be subjected to inquiry, which aims at truth, then stories become less and less noble and dramatic. That is one of the things that happens to stories. It seems to me that rich stories somehow have to be either attempting to awaken in us this quest for truth, or allowing themselves to be put to the question in this way. I actually think that, for all its other problems, this is one of the positive things about Pulp Fiction — it allows for this questioning. [But it does require an attentive reader able to look carefully at the structure of the story.]

It seems to me that we are not going to get people to stop thinking in terms of stories, to stop being attracted to stories. We are almost in a sort of pre-Homeric culture in that respect, where it is a very limited set of narratives and images that seem to attract us. Survivor and "Reality TV" are like this. They're gossip — just think about the absurdity of the contexts. At least in the National Football League — and I happen to be a football fan — you have some sort of context where excellence can be exhibited.

WF:That seems to be the crucial element, doesn't it? The concern for "excellence." Isn't that what really distinguishes, say the WWF from pagan gladiatorial games? A fortiori these "reality TV" contrivances. . .

TH:The trivial character of the contests, it seems to me, says bad things about the level of narrative, whether it is moral or not — just the level alone.

WF:Is what you hope to accomplish with the book a purely negative exercise, waking people up to the emptiness of this nihilistic narrative?

TH:I don't have big aspirations for the book, but using it to awaken students to beauty is part of what I hope to do a little of with it.

I want to ruin their visual experiences! I don't necessarily want them to give up watching this stuff, but I want the experience to be ruined. There are kids that don't come to class or my lectures when I talk, for instance, about Dawson's Creek. They will show up and meet their friends afterward. A young woman told me after one of these talks I gave in Boston, "You know, I would just like to keep watching Dawson's Creek. I was sure you were going to ruin it for me."

WF:One of my colleagues said the same thing after he read your section on Seinfeld. He said, "You know, I just can't watch Seinfeld the same way any more."

TH:But unlike Seinfeld, many movies nowadays have such weak plots that they are held together by nothing more than the sound track.

WF:Yes, we hear all about these prospective filmmakers who are saying, "I have this perfect sound track, and I am determined to write a screen play for it."

TH:By contrast, [Christians] have significant concerns about narrative. I happen to think that narrative can be a tool for teaching the truth.

It does seem that some of the healthy things that have come out of some recent movies, like The Matrix and The Truman Show, is the sense that there is a real world that hasn't been artificially constructed. So then there is the possibility — The Truman Show doesn't do much with it, though — of escaping from what is constructed. It invites asking questions about the real as opposed to what is constructed. It seems to me that is a healthy sign, that is the other way we can go. When I get some time, I want to write an essay that raises the possibility of putting into question these constructs. As I argued in the book, the real alternative, I think, is to recover the pre-modern conception of human life as a quest. I think you see that in some recent films. You can even argue that American Beauty has something of that character to it.

WF:It certainly drives Pulp Fiction . . .

TH:I think that is absolutely clear in Pulp Fiction. The weird narrative structure is pointing out to you, just as classical authors wanted to make you aware, the fact that this is a construct, and you have to do something with it, discover some truth on your own by means of it. Pulp Fiction does that in the shifting of the narrative structure, etc. All that stuff about contingency and chance and miracles opens up the possibility of finding something that is more than mere construct.

The question is, if you put it in the context of America, whether you could find something that would express current America's sentiments, aspirations, hopes, vision of what we are, and what we hope to be in the way that some of Capra's films did? I think that is unlikely. I will hold off here. I think many people think I want something like that, but it just doesn't seem to me to be culturally, artistically possible that one could do that honestly at this point. Maybe someone will. Somebody might be able to pull it off. In a sense, I rather hope not. I think what we would be likely to get is David Brook's Bobos in Paradise. Brooks is right, in a way, about the new unintentional elite (who doesn't want to be called elite, etc.) and their value system, and where it is politically. I was very impressed with the book, but very depressed at the end. I would almost rather see nihilism come out more explicitly. I think making that nihilistic subtext explicit is much better for evangelism.

It doesn't seem to me that the old civil religion can be easily propped back up again. If you attempt to do it, it seems to me it always ends up looking like self-parody or ends up being so thin that it really couldn't unite a whole nation. Maybe we are going through a period where eventually we will be able to appeal to some sort of civil religion, but I am not sure that in the short term that is possible or desirable. So that means that I don't have an answer in the end. I am really trying to present more problems.

WF:So this cultural critique is a kind of pre-evangelism?

TH:In my own view, this is one step away from a Christian apologetic. I think that when people see this stuff, if they recognize these nihilistic trends, what most people will largely be drawing upon is some sort of Judeo-Christian world view. So then the question is the way that world view is received in our popular culture when it shows up — it is either treated as absurd or it is so thin and attenuated that it can't really inform people's lives. It can help them in a policy decision, maybe, but it is not rich enough to inform people's lives. My own view is that you have to recover the whole darn thing. I mean you have to take seriously the stuff about God as active in history and God as an authority over your life as Creator and Redeemer. It seems to me that you have to go all the way back to that. But I am not sure that is a cure that I would present for our culture at large. It is [just such a cure], but I don't think we are going to get an overlapping cultural consensus about the crucifixion and redemption through Christ.

WF:Some of the more interesting conversations I've had with folks about your book have focused on your treatment of democracy. I think there was a review of Shows About Nothing that took up your characterization of democracy. Would you elaborate a little bit, or clarify your thinking on the relationship between democracy and this popular nihilism?

TH:Sure. I'm not saying, as one review said I did, that liberal democracy, as such, is nihilistic. What I argued was that certain corrupt forms of democracy itself tend toward nihilism. Although I didn't make this argument in the book, I think it's an argument that could be made. I just took certain corrupt forms of democracy — those that assert or celebrate choice as an end in itself — and argued that they're inherently nihilistic. It seems to me that the view that value resides merely in choice is very much open to the Nietzschean, nihilistic view that the only value that there is the value that an individual or a community bestows upon something. A quick moment's reflection leads you to see that that means nothing has inherent goodness. That's pretty easily open to a nihilistic tendency.

I think you could make the stronger argument, which I've sometimes been accused of making. I think you could argue on the basis of Toqueville, that democracy, left to its natural instincts, does tend toward that new physiognomy of servitude that he describes in Democracy in America. How is that corrected? It's corrected by a variety of arts — the art of association, the art of self-interest rightly understood — and in a number of other practices, which (in their most successful form) are borrowed, not from democracy itself, but are residual elements from aristocracies. I think that Toqueville really thinks that if democracy is left to its natural instincts, it heads toward this new physiognomy of servitude. I quote some passages on that in the first chapter of the book, stating that basically what he describes there is where humanity is. It would be hard to find any difference between this view and Nietzsche's view of the last man.

WF:I think you develop that a little in your discussion of the concern for equality eventually producing a widespread homogeneity.

TH:That's right. Also, that individualism and centralization are two things that feed off one another to make human beings more and more uniform, destroying those local communities, those local institutions that provide a buffer between a massive bureaucratic, centralized government (that takes care of our living from moment to moment) and the isolated individual. We're not exactly where Toqueville said we might be, thank God. But one can see in the fight between a kind of radical libertarianism and centralized government the desire to bureaucratize, take over education and child care, etc. Individualism and centralization are not so much opponents in the respect that together they will eventually cripple humanity.

WF:Tell us a little bit about the course you're teaching on the thesis of the book. I suspect the book outlines what your students will be watching — what are you having them read? How have they responded to the course?

TH:I am having the students read three books for the course — I am trying to go light on the books. We are starting with Walker Percy's Lancelot. Then we are going to read selections from my book, and John Paul II's Gospel of Life, talking about the analysis of the culture of death. We usually end up with something like Nietzsche or Freud. I did Freud and then I did the Gospel of Life, and it was perfect because, in Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud can't get heroes away from the death instinct.

It seems to me that is what our culture can't do either. That love is immediately reduced to Eros in that modern, very limited, genital sense (not in Plato's sense of a longing for beauty and wholeness), and then is immediately connected with who dominates whom, means that any classical conception of friendship or of love is impossible. That is another thing from the horror genre. Michael Jones emphasizes that in the horror genre everybody who has sex gets killed. That does seem to me to be significant. But it is also there in Seinfeld. These relationships are ultimately relationships where you are either dominated or you dominate.

I am going to have them watch mainly stuff I talked about in the book. So we are going to start with The Exorcist. And then we are going to do the two Cape Fear movies — the older, early 60's film with Robert Mitchum and Gregory Peck, which was one of the last classic firms, and the newer version with Robert DeNiro. I think that gives them a very nice contrast. In the older film, evil is taken very seriously, as is the possibility of good people becoming evil by working outside the law. The newer film is much more nihilistic.

One thing I really liked in comparing those films was the Cape Fear location itself. . . you leave the city, and, in a sense, return to nature (that is part of the Survivor craze too). We are all sort of weird romantics nowadays. In the original Cape Fear, nature is orderly. In the new one, there is this huge storm going on, there is sort of a vortex. I don't know that this was done consciously, but it seems that the Nietzschean conception of nature, this will to power that drives the conflict is pretty heavy in that latter film. So you see the characters going outside the city and civilized life — and the law — to return to nature. But nature is somehow something in the earlier film that can allow us to reaffirm the order of law in American life, whereas in the new one it is really the truth about American life, this vortex — this amoral vortex. So those films are very nice to juxtapose.

And then I am going to do Forrest Gump, which I don't really enjoy, in order to show that the real problem isn't about evil — it is about goodness. In discussing Forrest Gump I talk about the banality of goodness argument. The only virtuous people in these Hollywood films like Forrest Gump are people who are perpetual children. It actually shows up in Natural Born Killers, too, where the only good person is the Indian out on the reservation. So this is a very strong strain in Hollywood, it seems it me. I am actually working on this on an essay on Rock music and the romantic, Rousseauian roots that I think lead naturally to Nietzsche and nihilism.

After that, we do Pulp Fiction, and then two films I didn't talk about in the book — American Beauty and The Big Lebowski.

WF:The Big Lebowski? Is that really a movie worth talking about?

TH:It is. And I will hook it up with that whole genre. It seems to me it is sort of interesting in its own way. The films aren't all that interesting, but the genre is. It is one of the few films that have a comic take on nihilism. So I will have them read stuff about Seinfeld while we watch The Big Lebowski.

WF:You have a fair amount to say in Shows About Nothing about a film genre that receives relatively little explicit attention. Will you talk a little about film noir and how it serves as something of a foil to these nihilistic films you describe?

TH:One of film noir's essential features is that the characters are complex — but complexity isn't enough. The good characters are complex. In the end — not always, but often — the heroes are aspiring to some level to goodness. And often they might not discover that they really wanted to be good until three-quarters or nine-tenths of the way through the film. It's what we see in a standard Humphrey Bogart character. He is this tough guy who in the end does the right thing.

WF:I thought your discussion of Seven was your best example of this.

TH:Seven echoes the film noir genre. In contrast to Forrest Gump and its simplistic model of goodness, you have people who are really struggling and who feel in themselves the temptation to evil and what it would cost them. They are aware of what the consequences are, and those consequences are taken very seriously. That would seem to me something obviously lacking in most contemporary films. The consequences of doing evil are not taken very seriously at all. You can get away with all sorts of stuff. You might get killed in the end — there are consequences as far as the body count goes — but there aren't significant moral consequences, consequences for our humanity..

WF:There's no concern for losing your soul . . .

TH:That's right. I think that is one thing you can find in film noir. The other thing that you find in there is an attempt to take seriously the darker side of America, which has always been there, and always will be. Film noir was an attempt to take head-on that darker side of the American experiment. And yet even when there isn't a clear affirmation of America in film noir, there is a sort of noble affirmation that the struggle to find our way through as Americans — and to find some way of affirming our goodness — is worthy of praise.

One of the things people get confused with, is that they think the only alternative to nihilism is some clear-cut explicit statement of what is good. I don't think you have to have that to avoid nihilism. Sure, one way you could fall into nihilism is by never giving in to anything clear-cut in your life. But you don't need that in every film. Film noir can take seriously and engage the latent nihilistic possibilities in the American experiment, as in any human community, and yet still end up stating that the aspiration for friendship, communication, love, truth is noble and ought not to be mocked — even if we can't say at the end of one of these films exactly what the answers are on all these things.

Another thing about film noir, one that also fits with the sitcom genre, is that you have very specific, concrete settings. It is always particular people with particular histories living in particular towns or in particular cities. You get a real feel for time, place, for the sort of mores and fashions that constitute particular times and places. It does strike me that one of the things we need to do is to recover some sense of ordinary human life — that leading an ordinary decent human life requires heroism of you.

Compare Friends and Seinfeld. With Seinfeld you are in New York and you know you are in New York. In Friends you could be anywhere — you could be in any Starbucks in any city in the country. Ally MacBeal suffers from the same problem with Boston. You get the great opening shots, the panoramic shots of the city, but that's it — just contrast Ally MacBeal with Cheers where you really had a sense you are in Boston.

The other thing you get in film noir is that even the bad guys are not superhuman. Everybody gets humbled in film noir. The bad guys are not more adroit, more powerful, more crafty than everybody else. Those would be some of the things I think you would find in that genre. When it is revived seriously as it has been in some other recent films, then interesting artistic and ethical possibilities emerge.

WF:Often we, and by this I mean Christians in particular, tend to think of sentimentality as the alternative to film noir. You talk about films by Capra in the book — and those who don't know Capra tend to think of his films in sentimental terms. But the films — even It's a Wonderful Life — are not necessarily sentimental at all. In fact, they can be surprisingly dark. I think with Christians, the tendency is to say that nihilism is a big problem, . . . so we need to overcompensate with happy shiny movies.

TH:Americans are always tempted toward sentimentality, but dramatically it does not ring true. The answer to depictions of good as empty, something banal, is not to make good something shallow and perfect, shiny, happy, and all that nonsense. It surprises me, although not entirely, that so many conservatives liked Forrest Gump so much. But there is one good reason for it, which is that it does make fun of all the liberal movements of the past decades.

WF:Now we've all heard that evil characters are as a rule more interesting than good characters. Wasn't it William Blake who wrote that Milton was unwittingly "of the Devil's party" because he made Lucifer so much more interesting than God? Isn't evil just more complex and multi-layered than goodness? And whatever we think about evil, we all know we're incomplete. Isn't this the key to the appeal of evil?

TH:That's why, as opposed to trying to depict the purely good character, the key is to present someone who is sort of mixed up, tempted by evil, and maybe even succumbs to it over and over again. We are not in Paradise any more. It is much more realistic to present fallen characters who are then striving for goodness than it is to try and depict the person who has already fully achieved it.

But you might be right, it is hard to portray a fulsome goodness because, just as evil tends toward the simplicity of nothingness, although goodness doesn't tend towards nothingness it does tend toward a kind of simplicity. It's a sort of divine simplicity, which is richer than everything, but it is also where it is all contained in one. In God there is no division between good and evil; there is no evil. So as you approach that sort of simplicity, it is harder for us to conceive that.

WF:Where do you think the sacred is well portrayed? How viable is the idea of having Hollywood do a good portrayal of the sacred?

TH:You know, I am not sure where. It strikes me that even in most of the angel movies we have been flooded with, and even in movies like Dogma, (which as a Catholic I expected to find much more offensive) there is something approaching the supernatural — a kind of a demonic supernaturalism.

I would say that there is something in a film like The Ice Storm (which is not religious, really), in its use of symbolism that really works. In that film it was the ice, which is slowly spreading. Dramatically it is a slow film, but in a sense it brings you to see what none of the characters can see, which is that nature has something to teach us about our bodies and about human relationships.

That one comes close, with the symbolism of the ice, but I am not sure film can do all that well presenting the sacred directly. Again, of the films I talk about, it seems to me that Pulp Fiction comes the closest to presenting the religious quest as a viable, intelligent possibility — at least in an intellectually serious way that has artistic integrity in terms of the film, and fits into the culture and yet is an abrupt violation of the culture. So it seems to me that it is almost better when it tries to do it in that artistically indirect way, where it just points in that direction. But I just don't know where this is done especially well.

WF:I can't help but think that we could use a little bit of Nietzsche in our pop culture. Don't we need to have films that philosophize with a hammer. Obviously I'm reminded of the Plato's Allegory of the Cave. Thinking about Hollywood casting its images on the wall leads me to wonder, is it possible? What can we do to appeal to the rest of the people living in dim firelight without the benefit of the sun — those who disdain transcendence? What appealing images can we cast on the wall to pitch our story? After all, it really is a good story.

After all, we're hearing more and more about Christians getting into film making. Do you think that's a viable enterprise?

TH:I think it hasn't often been done that well. It used to be done, I think, better. But there are larger cultural reasons why, in Hollywood, there's not much attempt at all to depict ordinary people who end up doing extraordinary things just by living their ordinary lives in moderately virtuous ways. I think that's one thing that would have to be done. It does seem to me that Christians can appropriate the weirder and more surrealistic aspects of Hollywood culture as well. But it's always a little more dangerous there, because you can fall prey to the mechanisms that you're trying to use. It seems to me that at times, it could be working against the ultimate, sort of, images that you want to depict. But it seems to me that there are a lot of opportunities out there. I'm not in the film industry, so how one would go about trying to make these films and get them out to a kind of mass audience I'm not sure. I don't really trust Hollywood to do it. I don't really want Hollywood trying to give me religious values, because when they do that with these movies about angels or dogma or whatever it just seems to me that this stuff ends up being really kind of hokey New Age sorts of things. I'd rather have them keep away from that stuff almost entirely.

WF:A friend of ours cited On the Waterfront as the best portrayal of Christianity in film. You may remember, Karl Malden as the priest made a powerful presentation of God's role in human lives in a way that transformed the Brando character and led him on to do good things in the end.

TH:I am with Walker Percy on this stuff. I think artistically what has to be done is what he tried to do in many of his novels. What you said made me think of this. I think the best character I've seen is the black, lapsed Catholic detective played by Andre Braugher in Homicide, the now-canceled TV drama. "Frank Pembleton," I think. Homicide got all the old-school Catholic stuff (Latin terms, etc.) right. Pembleton was sort of caught between the world where evil inevitably seemed to win out, and yet there was this tug toward justice and truth, and perhaps mercy, if you could ever get to justice. Mercy was clearly what was needed, but you couldn't quite get there because you couldn't get to justice either. I think the suggestion was that they are connected. Dramatically, it opened up what religion, (if it were full blown and serious), might add, precisely because Pembleton is torn by a Christian vision of things but is not quite able to believe it. It was quite clear.

At one point, the character says exactly what James Joyce said about the Church: There are only two kinds of Catholics — believers and lapsed Catholics. And you can say that about all Christians, right? They are either believers, lapsed believers, or they are just unbelievers. So many films are attempts not to have the "either/or" of Christianity that the Jewish and Christian scriptures put before us, but to have a "both/and." Sometimes we do have both/and in the end, but the existential situation is clearly either/or. I think someone like Pembleton presents that dramatic either/or — either you fully believe this stuff and your life is committed to it, or, as he said at one point, "if I really believed I wouldn't be wearing a vest." Maybe he still would, but he saw something in needing worldly protection that emphasized that his heart was in this world rather than in the next world.

WF:What might we do with film in lieu of explicitly depicting the sacred?

TH:That's the question we are left with in this culture, I think, if we don't allow the narrative to dominate us but we use the narratives to seek after the truth of where we are as human beings, as Americans. We are left with the question of ultimate truth, and even of a quest for truth. It doesn't have to be religious, I guess, at the start, but it almost inevitably is in both the East and the West. It strikes me as just ignorant of us to raise these questions and come to these conclusions if we don't start to open up the doors to transcendence and the supernatural. You can't force people in that direction, but I am sort of driven inevitably that way by this stuff.

WF:Well, Walker Percy certainly fits the bill with these sorts of characters — to say nothing of the disposition toward community and the need for cultural renewal. Maybe someone could take Lancelot and make a Fight Club type of film.

TH:Lancelot is pointing toward, (in a perverse, sort of apocalyptic way), the new life — the life of a man and a woman raising a family beyond postmodern nihilism. I think you are right. Percy saw the importance of habit formation and character development and the need for community — and especially the need to recover. His romantic stuff, I think, kind of falls flat in the books, but clearly he is pointed back towards some sort of sacramental conception of marriage. Everything has to come from that. He is showing, with respect to the child-abuse, the child pornography, etc., the ultimate consequences of losing the sacramental sense of marriage and the sense of parental responsibility to raise children who have been given to you as gifts by God. Child pornography doesn't seem like the obvious immediate step, but he is saying that it is. And look at the way our culture is indulging in it rampantly.

WF:Do you think The Thanatos Syndrome would make for a good film?

TH:It would be a very effective film. Thanatos is in a way Percy's most explicit argument about culture because it shows us pictures of where he sees culture heading. The book itself is like that: He feels that things have gotten so bad, as is the case with partial-birth abortion or something like that, that it doesn't even work to show people the pictures. I think Percy saw the need to make the consequences of this sort of post-modern project for American culture more and more explicit.

WF:As it is, the best I've seen come out of Hollywood is a purely negative critique, a film like Fight Club — a film that engages in a little iconoclasm at the idols of this age in an effort to awaken people to their emptiness.

TH:I think you're right. What I'm trying to do in teaching this stuff (and in the way I've written the book, going back between literary text and films and TV, which I do throughout with Macbeth, Paradise Lost, etc.) is to get people to see what the dead ends are in the culture. And then, in a film like Fight Club, or what I find as possibilities at the end of Pulp Fiction, or Seven, or something like that, to get them to see that there's an inkling of some alternative here.

But if you want to see that really developed, you're going to have to go to books. It seems to me, for my students at least, that mixture, because these are kids who read — they don't read a lot in their free time, but they are kids who read with some ease in the classroom — might be a way of opening up the students to things in the great books (especially in the classical and then Christian texts) that otherwise might not come alive for them.

WF:Thank you Dr. Hibbs. It was delightful to talk with you.

TH:My pleasure — it was nothing.


Thomas S. Hibbs. "Mulling over Nothing." Wilberforce Forum (November 5, 2001).

Reprinted with permission of the Wilberforce Forum.


A professor of philosophy at Boston College and author of such books as Dialectic and Narrative in Aquinas: An Interpretation of the Summa Contra Gentiles and the introduction to St. Augustine's The Enchiridion on Faith, Hope and Love, Thomas Hibbs adroitly brings his expertise in Medieval philosophy and contemporary ethics to bear upon popular culture.

Copyright © 2001 The Wilberforce Forum

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