The fact that life has no meaning is a reason to live—moreover, the only one.
—E. M. Cioran
When God made man the devil was at his elbow. A creature that can do anything. Make a machine. And a machine to make the machine. And evil that can run itself a thousand years, no need to tend it.
—Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian
“It’s just one story. The oldest. . . . Light versus dark.” Spanning 8 episodes between January and March of 2014, HBO’s runaway hit True Detective challenged the status quo of contemporary crime drama. The show has been widely celebrated for its philosophy, complexity, and visual aesthetic. Co-starring actors Matthew McConaughey as Rustin “Rust” Cohle, and Woody Harrelson as Martin “Marty” Hart, the show stands among The Wire and The Sopranos as one of HBO’s most powerful realist dramas. True Detective’s writer and producer Nick Pizzolatto is a Louisiana-born novelist, author of Galveston, many short stories, and has screenwriter credits that include episodes of the American adaptation of The Killing.
What sets the show apart from its contemporaries is Pizzolatto’s use of deeply philosophical and literary references, often obscure, to drive and complicate the otherwise simple plot of two detectives pursuing a child abuse ring.
Framing True Detective in the context of cinematic and literary genres is beneficial in illustrating how preceding films and texts helped form the show’s unique but intentionally referential style and aesthetic, especially with regards to the strong philosophical tone. The show has been described variously as a neo-noir, Southern gothic, and supernatural detective thriller, all of which are simultaneously accurate and insufficient analogies.
Robert Porfirio describes film noir as encapsulating the “dark strain of American culture,” with Mark T. Conard defining noir’s characteristic “general mood of dislocation and bleakness,” and “inversion of traditional values and the loss of the meaning of things . . . at the heart of the noir mood or tone of alienation, pessimism, and cynicism.” The classic noir period is identified as 1941 to 1958, during which time perspectives of the world were changed irrevocably, existential dread and nihilism creeping into everyday thought.
True Detective is situated in a very different historical period; the show moves between three temporal locations: 1995, 2002, and almost present-day. However, there is a sense of timelessness. For example, unlike many cop shows, technology does not play a big part, as most of the detective work is done on outdated computers or by going through paperwork; smartphones are markedly absent, and there is no spying technology or advanced weaponry. The only events that date these narratives are Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, highly significant to the geographic location. The overall effect is that of detachment from contemporary anxieties exacerbated by fears of foreign and homeland terrorism, drone surveillance, computer hacking, and the horrors of the deep Web. The focus instead is on more age-old horrors, such as child abuse, abduction, and murder.
Hart and Rust are old-fashioned detectives, more like the protagonists of noir films than the slick cops of modern television and film. The crimes they are concerned with are also timeless. The fears that engulf both men are primal, and the alienation and disorientation they feel echo that of classic noir films such as The Lady from Shanghai, with Welles’ socially dislocated Michael O’Hara, or any number of those starring lonely private eyes, morally corrupt and romantically crippled. The setting, Louisiana, is starkly different to Los Angeles—the classic location for noir cinema—but its bleakness, poverty, lawlessness and desolation mimic the stereotype of California’s largest city. Louisiana, with its state abbreviation of “LA,” stands in for the city of LA in the ’40’s and ’50’s, rather than the advanced metropolis we know today, infamous for violence, plastic surgery, and celebrity drama. In the first episode, Cohle describes a town they visit as “like somebody’s memory of a town, and the memory’s fading,” a statement that could easily be applied to every place they go. For Cohle, the darkness that pervades their environment transcends Louisiana and engulfs the earth, or, as he describes our world in the first episode, a “giant gutter in outer space.”
In Episode 3, “The Locked Room,” Hart asks Rust “Do you ever wonder if you’re a bad man?” to which Cohle replies “The world needs bad men. We keep the other bad men from the door.” When the two reunite after their fight with Errol Childress, Cohle comments “We didn’t get ‘em all,” with Hart pointing out what they both know: “We ain’t gonna get ‘em all. That ain’t what kind of world it is” (Episode 8, “Form and Void”). Jerold Abrams states that “beyond the mere simplicity of whodunit, what is really uncovered in all great film noir is a world in which far more questions about the darkness of human nature remain fundamentally unanswered.” This could not be more applicable to True Detective; even when they catch their killer, both know full well that they’ve only stopped one bad man in a world of bad men. Although Cohle concludes the series with his changed perspective that “the light’s winning,” the more general message is that the world remains unknowable, shadowed in horror. While many noir and neo-noir films end in death, for others a “happy ending” is not riding off into the sunset, but living to see another sunset—seen in Welles’ Touch of Evil, Hitchcock’s Notorious, Polanski’s Chinatown and Altman’s The Long Goodbye. For these protagonists, survival trumps happiness.
Cohle and Hart are exemplars of film noir’s most ubiquitous leading man—the detective—each inhabiting different sides of that character. Hart is the weaker of the two: emotionally fragile, driven by fear of emasculation and sexual desire. Cohle is the hardboiled detective: wallowing in deep existential crisis, pessimistic, nihilistic, and emotionally detached. Importantly, both are everyman characters—although often behaving abhorrently, ultimately likeable and relatable. Abrams describes the typical noir hero as “a man of few words—although, when he does speak, he’s witty and waxes deadpan innuendo about the evils of the human soul, as if it’s everyday”—describing Cohle to a T—and for this man, “women are trouble in his world, sleek and dangerous, beautiful and deadly”—Hart’s biggest weakness being his libido. Both are trapped inside their personal crises, possessed by fear and anxiety, while inhabiting a world that does nothing but exacerbate this.
With regards to the show’s elements of cinematic Southern gothic, the landscape and bleakness are evocative of Terrence Malick’s Badlands, which critic Dave Kehre described as “breathtaking both in its sweep and in its banality.” The occult theme is reminiscent of Alan Parker’s voodoo detective thriller Angel Heart, and its depictions of back-woods violence of John Boorman’s Deliverance. The Southern gothic tradition uses macabre events to evaluate the often problematic values and cultural character of the South; gothic elements are employed to explore social issues, rather than as fantastical shock and suspense. A recurring element of the genre is the rural community; often “backward,” old-fashioned and “hillbilly” in nature, used to denote something sinister and threatening. Pizzolatto uses this to great effect in the scenes at Reggie Ledoux’s meth lab, and later at Childress’s ramshackle plantation house. These characters’ redneck nature is emphasized as a source of their “evil,” nurtured by generations of abusive figures just like them or worse.
True Detective owes much to Cormac McCarthy, a writer associated with the genre of Southern gothic whose literary philosophy can be seen as a stripped down version of Cohle’s; pessimistic and fatalistic, but often finding some kind of solace in an acceptance of life’s absurdity. In The Road, McCarthy’s depiction of a post-apocalyptic world, the protagonist—known only as “the father” or “the man”—”walked out in the gray light and stood and he saw for a brief moment the absolute truth of the world. The cold relentless circling of the intestate earth. Darkness implacable. . . . The crushing black vacuum of the universe. And somewhere two hunted animals trembling like ground-foxes in their cover. Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it.” This passage is evocative of Cohle’s sense of the universe, simultaneously crushing and ambivalent, source of both his primal fear and intellectual reaction.
Steven Sanders observes “In situating film noir in a context of anxiety about life’s meaning, we should keep in mind that many of film noir’s most memorable protagonists are in extremis“; the world of True Detective is one of extremes—violence, degradation, pessimism, self-loathing, and cruelty. However, with this comes hope in the extreme—the unexpected conclusion of the series is Cohle’s vision of light dominating the darkness, and a focus on the future, as opposed to his previously self-destructive, almost suicidal, behavior. It is important to note that Pizzolatto does not present us with a suddenly positive character; in an interview he commented, “Where we leave Cohle, this man hasn’t made a 180 change or anything like that. He’s moved maybe 5 degrees on the meter, but the optimistic metaphor he makes at the end, it’s not sentimental; it’s purely based on physics.” Cohle has accepted the option of choosing to live—choice is significant here, rather than the sense that life suddenly has meaning, it is more the suggestion that one instigates one’s own meaning—a decidedly existentialist perspective. In Jean Paul Sartre’s The Flies, Orestes proclaims, “On the far side of despair, life begins.” Perhaps it is this far side that the first chapter of True Detective closes.
In his book Irrational Man: A Study in Existentialist Philosophy, William Barrett defines existentialism as “alienation and estrangement; a sense of the basic fragility and contingency of human life; the impotence of reason confronted with the depths of existence; the threat of Nothingness, and the solitary and unsheltered condition of the individual before this threat.” Put like this, we can see how relevant existential philosophy is to noir cinema. Richard Gilmore comments that “Neo-noir . . . functions as a kind of philosophy of noir. It is a reflection on, as well as a re-creation of, the genre of noir. . . . It is more general, more detached, more ironic, more philosophical. . . . It involves a level of self-reflexivity that classic noir lacked.” Considering Hart and Cohle as noir “heroes,” and True Detective as containing the conventions of both classic and neo-noir, the show depicts a unique microcosm of existential drama.
Concerning the show’s depiction of existential crises, consider Andrew Spicer’s comment that “American neo-noir directors deliberately showed standard narrative conventions—such as the quest, investigation or journey–collapsing, thereby questioning narrative itself as a meaningful activity”; True Detective’s multiple narratives, which undermine and conflict with each other as Cohle and Hart misrepresent events in their interviews, subvert traditional noir storytelling, adding to the sense of human action as absurd and meaningless. The plots circle back on themselves in a triple timeline; flashbacks destabilize narrative credibility and create uncertainty in both characters and viewers, who question the reliability of the two leads and perhaps in a wider sense, the reliability of all knowledge and memory.
The repetition of events in this triple-timeline highlights the show’s fatalistic aspect: the “flat circle” theory evocative of Nietzsche’s eternal return, which implies an inevitable fate regardless of the course of action. Repeated throughout, the symbol of the spiral is a pictogram of this inexorable force of fate, that “Everything we’ve ever done or will do, we’re gonna do over and over and over again.” (Cohle, Episode 5 “The Secret Fate of All Life”) In his interview, Cohle echoes the final words of child-abducting murderer Reggie Ladoux: “time is a flat circle”—at the time, he doesn’t understand this but in the following years, Ladoux’s words have come to represent the circularity of life, in “a world where nothing is solved.”
However, the show’s representation of eternal return does much more than merely reinforce Cohle’s pessimism. In The Gay Science, Nietzsche expresses his take on the ancient concept of eternal recurrence—that, with infinite time and a finite number of events, those events will recur over and over again infinitely—something he understood as “horrifying”: “What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more.’ . . . Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus?” In order to come to peace with such a thing requires “love of fate”; in Nietzsche’s words, “that one wants to have nothing different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely to bear the necessary, still less to conceal it–all idealism is mendaciousness before the necessary–but to love it.” The infinite cycle of time—or its “flat circle”—can be terrifying or beautiful, depending on the perspective.
For Cohle, it is merely depressing. He regards himself and those around him as doomed to repeat their miserable lives, making the same mistakes and committing the same personal atrocities. Despite this, what is most significant about Cohle’s nihilism is that he does not give up, but rather dedicates his “meaningless” life to solving the murders of innocent people. How easy it is to take a back seat when you believe your life is predestined, regardless of your actions. How easy to roll over and take the suffering that life throws at you. Cohle instead looks for the “tremendous moment”—that is, loving his fate rather than fearing it.
This is what we are led to believe happens in the season finale, when Cohle has a hallucination, or vision, of the cosmos as he bleeds to death in “Carcosa.” In the final scene of Episode 8, “Form and Void,” he and Hart look up to the stars, and he comments in an almost throwaway manner that “once there was always dark. If you ask me, the light’s winning.” For Pizzolatto, the importance of this is that “both these men are left in a place of deliverance, a place where even Cohle might be able to acknowledge the possibility of grace in the world” (“Hitflix”). We are given the impression that, although Cohle has not renounced his pessimistic and nihilistic proclivities, he has achieved the “love of fate” required to live more peacefully. It recalls The Stranger’s Mersault, who in the face of his imminent death becomes opened up to the benign indifference of the universe, and through this his sense of identity solidified rather than overcome. For me, there is also a hint of Beckett’s The Unnamable:a sense of staring into the void and feeling at once “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”
In his writings on nihilism, Nietzsche describes the concept as “not only the belief that everything deserves to perish; but one actually puts one’s shoulder to the plough; one destroys.” One who subscribes to this philosophy is “a man who judges of the world as it is that it ought not to be, and of the world as it ought to be that it does not exist.” According to this view, our existence (action, suffering, willing, feeling) has no meaning: the pathos of “in vain” is the nihilists’ pathos. He regarded nihilism as having the potential to define the approaching twentieth century, a time in which humanity’s highest values would “devalue themselves,” and the question of Why? “finds no answer.” This collapse of meaning would be the most destructive in human history. Clearly, Cohle’s is heavily influenced by Nietzsche’s philosophy, but perhaps even more so by more contemporary nihilist writers, in particular Thomas Ligotti. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Pizzolatto directly refers to Ligotti as an influence.
It would be remiss to not acknowledge the recent accusations of plagiarism aimed at Pizzolatto by core followers of Ligotti’s work. Mike Davis, editor of Lovecraft EZine and Jon Padgett, founder of Thomas Ligotti Online, believe the show’s writer heavily and intentionally paraphrased Ligotti in the creation of Cohle’s character. While I will admit that while reading Ligotti’s The Conspiracy Against the Human Race I found many instances of almost identical dialogue, an accusation of this kind is not to be taken lightly. Pizzolatto released a statement flatly denying these claims, responding that “The philosophical thoughts expressed by Rust Cohle do not represent any thought or idea unique to any one author; rather these are the philosophical tenets of a pessimistic, anti-natalist philosophy with an historic tradition including Arthur Schopenauer, Friedrich Nietzsche, E.M. Cioran, and various other philosophers, all of whom express these ideas. As an autodidact pessimist, Cohle speaks toward that philosophy with erudition and in his own words.” Of course, Ligotti himself owes most of his thought to these seminal nihilist thinkers, and to literary interpreters of their philosophies such as H.P. Lovecraft (himself influenced by Robert Chambers, author of The King in Yellow, which is referenced directly in the show’s “Yellow King” and “Carcosa”).
Pizzolatto’s strong references to those named philosophers helped create a complex and distinctive character whose personality relies mostly on pre-existing tenets rather than the creation of a “new” or developed philosophy by his writer. While it is true that Cohle uses “his own words,” those words are inherently tied in to pre-existing thought. The accusation leveled against Pizzolatto is not entirely without substance.
Ligotti focuses much of his attention on what he sees as a direct relationship between human self-consciousness and suffering: “‘Man is a self-conscious Nothing.’ Taken at face value, this statement is a paradox and a horror. Being self-conscious and being nothing should rule out each other. What almost no one will tell you is that they ‘know’ they are nothing—living puppets helpless to act except as bidden by powers unseen—but, being self-conscious, suffer the illusion that they are something.” This is nothing new, and communicated more poetically by Sartre in “Nausea”: “My thought is me: that’s why I can’t stop. I exist because I think . . . and I can’t stop myself from thinking. At this very moment—it’s frightful—if I exist, it is because I am horrified at existing. I am the one who pulls myself from the nothingness to which I aspire.” In Episode 1, Cohle comments “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; an accretion of sensory, experience and feeling, programmed with total assurance that we are each somebody, when in fact everybody is nobody.” Cohle is the show’s mouthpiece for such perspectives, even stating “I’d consider myself a realist, alright? But in philosophical terms I’m what’s called a pessimist.” And, in Cioran’s words, “The pessimist has to invent new reasons to exist every day: he is a victim of the ‘meaning’ of life.” Perhaps this is why Cohle continues with his detective work rather than giving in to suicide.
Cohle’s negative outlook casts him against his partner, who responds that he, like many others, chooses to live without such negativity; “People around here don’t think that way. I don’t think that way.” Hart embodies Cohle’s opposite, at least to begin with. He is a man content to live from birth to death without considering too much what it would mean if this life were inherently meaningless. He reacts with fear to Cohle, because Cohle vocalizes the underlying anxiety we all have: that we mean nothing, and the universe does not care about us. Ligotti calls avoidance of this the “prophylactic of self-illusion,” which is what Hart wants to maintain when he asks Cohle to “make the car a place of silent reflection.”
Ligotti is an infamous, controversial proponent of anti-natalism—the opinion of human birth as holding negative value, promoted by thinkers such as Arthur Schopenhauer, David Benetar, and Emil Cioran. He comments that “To end all this paradox and horror . . . we must cease reproducing. Nothing less will do.” In Additional Remarks on the Doctrine of the Suffering of the World, Schopenhauer asked “Let us for a moment imagine that the act of procreation were not a necessity or accompanied by intense pleasure, but a matter of pure rational deliberation; could then the human race really continue to exist?” while in his 1973 book The Trouble With Being Born, Cioran suggests “Not to be born is undoubtedly the best plan of all,” and calls consciousness “the dagger in the flesh.” Cohle, channelling such anti-natalism, suggests to Hart that “maybe 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.” This slow-burning suicide is unsavory to most people, including Hart, who prefer to go through life in polite ignorance of their own mortality, let alone consider the extreme option of human extinction.
True Detective reminds us that the life we seek to apply meaning and value to, and whatever concept of an afterlife many strain to believe in, applies to all human life, including that of murderers, abusers, and tyrants. If, like Cohle, one rejects the opinion that all life has value, then subsequently one’s opinion of suicide is affected. In a stunning scene in Episode 6, “A Man’s Price,” Cohle suggests to “Marshland Medea,” a woman who has murdered her young children, that, “The newspapers are gonna be tough on you. And prison is very, very hard on people who hurt kids. If you get the opportunity, you should kill yourself.” This is Cohle’s idea of compassion, and this attitude toward suicide, coming from his belief that life has no inherent meaning, allows him to see the act as a choice, a taking hold of one’s life and ending suffering.
On the subject of horror, Ligotti states “Whether we believe or suspend belief in supernatural manifestations, they terrorize us because by habit we think of ourselves as natural beings living in a natural world, which is why we tend to equate the supernatural with horror.” That being said, “we augment every horror that crosses our path. Human beings seem all too ready to cover up a lesser horror by contriving a greater one.” This outlook is explicit in True Detective. As the show progresses, the mystery of “The Yellow King” and “Carcosa” deepen, and a supernatural undercurrent is heavily implied. However, what becomes painfully clear at the end is that the monster(s) of the tale are not from our nightmares but from waking life. The horror of reality is regarded as lesser because it is harder to comprehend that people are capable of such things than believe a supernatural, unknowable force is responsible. In this way, the horror of the show is increased rather than reduced through Pizzolatto’s misleading of us. Ligotti believes “There will always be horror pumped up to us from its limitless source—conscious and self-conscious life, the Big Mistake”—we are the source of all horror. In creating monsters and demons, humanity attempts to displace responsibility for atrocities, which helps to uphold the attitude that all life is valuable and meaningful, and anything “unnatural” is the source of horror, not ourselves. Ligotti recalls Conrad’s Under Western Eyes, in which the narrator writes “the belief in a supernatural source of evil is not necessary; men alone are quite capable of every wickedness.”
Ligotti suggests that H.P. Lovecraft, perhaps the godfather of twentieth-century horror fiction, “existed in no man’s land of nihilism and disillusionment” and “will always be a contemporary of whatever generation comes along.” Lovecraft himself believed that “All real art must somehow be connected with truth, and in the case of weird art the emphasis must fall upon the one factor representing truth—certainly not the events but the mood of intense and fruitless human aspiration typified by the pretended overturning of cosmic laws and the pretend transcending of possible human experience.”
While Lovecraft’s nightmarish creations, such as the plethora of unpronounceable “Great Old Ones” like Cthulhu, Shub-Niggurath, and Yog-Sothoth, exist outside of normal space-time, usually unable to interact directly with humanity except via human worshipers, the horror he depicted most effectively is ageless and indeterminable, a source of oppression and subjugation, interpretable through humanity’s experience with dictators and tyrants. Characters uncover such horror through doomed curiosity and investigation: in The Call of Cthulhu, Lovecraft intones “We live in a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far.” This “island of ignorance” is the land Ligotti, as one of a rich history of nihilists, seeks to destroy. True Detective’s Cohle inhabits the island alone, until Hart joins him in the last few episodes. At this time, Hart has lost his job and family, and is finally desperate enough to believe the horrific reality Cohle offers him. The turning point for his character, and the show, is this willingness—which comes from having nothing left to lose—combined with the acceptance that horror is founded in human action. The supernatural red herrings are cast aside, and the true horror of the show is revealed.
In thinking about representations of fatalism, suffering, and the meaninglessness of human life in literature, I am reminded of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, in which Pozzo comments “They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more,” to which Vladimir replies “We have time to grow old. The air is full of our cries.” Although Beckett was far from a nihilist or even a pessimist, much of his work dealt with the intense and unavoidable horror of human life, and what happens to a person when they do not turn away from this. Rust Cohle is a man who could not turn away, and as a result is changed irrevocably.
In Episode 2, “Seeing Things,” when speaking of his daughter’s death he says “somewhere in that blackness she skipped off into another, deeper kind. Isn’t that a beautiful way to go out? . . . The trouble about dying later is that you’ve already grown up.” We are given the sense that Cohle does not fear death, and his nihilism is well informed through experience, both as a grieving father and a cop. However, Pizzolatto commented that “Cohle may claim to be a nihilist, but an observation of him reveals otherwise. Far from “nothing meaning anything” to him, it’s almost as though everything means too much to him. He’s too passionate, too acutely sensitive, and he cares too much to be labelled a successful nihilist.” In the show’s conclusion, Cohle the pessimist is modified rather than converted, and survives to see another sunrise, with light overtaking dark. Pizzolatto’s choice to end with this vision of light challenges Cohle’s suicidal behavior—removing the knife Childress stabs him with in order to bleed out—and offers him time to grow old by not denying the fact of death, but offering peace in the face of that fact.
Rosie Clarke is a London-based writer and editor. She currently works for Asymptote and the Ministry of Nomads, and is a commissioning editor for E.R.O.S. Journal.
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