Sunday, April 20, 2014
This is how True Detective ends: Detective Rust Cohle, our pessimist anti-hero, has come dangerously close to death at the hands of the child-torturing antagonist. From his temporary wheelchair, Cohle tearily tells his partner Martin Hart that he has had a spiritual experience and seen the error of his miscosmological ways. "Once there was only dark. If you ask me, the light’s winning," he says, staring up at the starry sky.
Writer/producer Nic Pizzolatto tells us that the series was about this moment. Fanboys dug into its ominous portents to link together the clues to what they suspected was some sort of supernatural or Shyamalan twist denouement and then yowled as their Lost-like predictions were disappointed by Pizzolatto's philosophical agenda. The murder, the manipulation, the sex, and the seamy dark of the series' Southern setting were all props on a gnostic stage, put in place to teach us an important lesson: despite the crushing weight of the twenty-first century, despite the tragedies that every living person has to endure, there's still good in the world. But only if we fight for it.
Hegel told us all something similar with his trademark dialectical twist a couple centuries ago. Cohle's bitterness has its mirror in Hegel's portrayal of the Enlightenment. In his story about the French Revolution in the Phenomenology, Hegel called the negating force of the Enlightenment "pure insight", which failed to recognize itself in its other, faith, which represented the naiveté of our shared life together. We can easily see the caricature of this perspective at work throughout the fabric of True Detective; from the beginning of the show until the very end, Cohle's histrionics are betrayed by his uncompromising morality. His final realization is that his scathing worldview is dependent on his continuing (largely unacknowledged) investment in the world. Even his most suicidal moments are unresolved expressions of his daughter's seemingly meaningless death and his unbearable continuing attachment to life. It isn't hard to imagine Hegel nodding knowingly from beyond the grave.
But we don't live in the 19th century, even if our narratives about human meaning and psychology can still be traced from that point. Historically unparalleled destructive power, accelerating world capital, genetic modification, and all the other old saws of globalization have changed the ground on which we have our conversation about what a proper humanism looks like. Pizzolatto recognizes that he has to up the ante in order to make such a humanism viable in the face of utter annihilation. He culls Cohle's rhetoric from the latest vanguard of ultranihilists: Ligotti, Brassier, and a gang of their anti-natalist cohort are attached to the wikipedia article citing his sources. The only way to make it in a dark world, Pizzolatto tells us, is becoming equal to that darkness, so Cohle fights, drinks, smokes, fucks, and manipulates his way through much of the story. This by itself doesn't distinguish Cohle as a character; much of his actions are familiar from the stoic and picaresque world of contemporary action movies, where you have to cheat the law and maybe torture the bad guys in order to wade through the bureaucratic sludge and make sure justice is served. In this sense, Cohle isn't too far away from an "adult" HBO update of the soap opera cynicism of Gregory House.
So in Pizzolatto's dialectical story, who's the antagonist? What's the enemy of our new humanism? Pizzolatto juxtaposes myth and Enlightenment; the antagonists are Illuminati-esque cultists that are attempting to tap into a dark cosmology. The primary antagonist, Childress, is a product of years of inbreeding and a small part of a larger shadow conspiracy. His seemingly sincere belief in supernatural power is contrasted with Cohle's militant atheism. But if this is right, what should we make of Cohle's about-face in the above-described final scene? It seems as though True Detective doesn't trust its own footing. Before Cohle's conversion, it's a progressive story; through hard struggle we emerge from our bloody, pagan, superstitious past and embrace a cool-headed and realistic human ethics that is based on our decisions, which don't rely on any outside force to substantiate them. Cohle's conversion, however, thrusts us back into the pagan cosmos. The world is a battle between good and evil ultimately beyond our ken, and we have to play our small part in this larger struggle. In this sense, Childress wins; for Cohle, the world is obscured and our only access to the larger forces that define us is through revelation.
When we look at the narrative from this perspective, the whole conflict starts to collapse. Cohle's transition from his first position to his second looks natural. In the first case, we are puppets of blind Nature and in the second, we are pawns in the struggle of good and evil. The rule in both cases is simple: our humanist hubris is misplaced. We're reminded here of some less optimistic Hegelians. In Dialectic of Enlightenment Adorno and Horkheimer wrote that myth and Enlightenment were both forms of domination. Childress and Cohle start to look the same in their deference to a higher authority. It doesn't matter if that authority is manifested in the scientific "view from nowhere" or the chthonic gods. The outcome is the same whether you think we have a Blind Brain or a vital essence. Cohle's personal journey into the light is made into an oblivious joke when you understand that he's telling the same story, just with different nouns switched in.
Rather than being about how we're in thrall to our genetic destinies or primeval spirits, True Detective ends up being about how we're slaves to the higher authority of stories. Cohle's earnest pontificating and attempts at explanation have the same tone no matter what they're about. In a way, Pizzolatto has given us the tools to see another sort of pessimism skulking around in the background of the louder scientism initially espoused by Cohle. It's the pessimism of being doomed to define ourselves by stories, a sort of tvtropes.org pessimism, that threatens the infinite boredom of repeating ourselves over and over in different voices. If "time is a flat circle" and we're doomed to the eternal return, the most horrifying part of this process will always be that the story never changes. Maybe, alongside Nick Land, we should say "It cannot be attachment to some alternative conviction that cuts here, but only relentless refusal of what has been told."