The Unmeaning of Life
There’s a telling moment in Dashiell Hammett’s novel The Maltese Falcon where Sam Spade learns of his partner’s death and proceeds to very calmly roll a cigarette. It is clear that there is no love lost between the two—hell, Spade was sleeping with his partner’s wife—and yet Spade feels compelled to avenge his death. As Spade says, “When a man’s partner is killed he’s supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you’re supposed to do something about it.” There’s no compelling reason for Spade to redress his partner’s death other than his own seemingly arbitrary moral code.
Or take Flannery O’Connor’s southern gothic novel Wise Blood. Hazel Motes, angered by the hypocrisies and failings of Christianity, begins preaching a new nihilistic gospel, calling it The Church Without Christ. But no matter how hard he tries to separate himself from Christianity and those who preach it, he is unable to fully escape (even the suit he purchases causes people to mistake him for a Christian preacher). He finds himself falling further and further into despair, and by the time the novel ends, perhaps in a desperate attempt at redemption, he has blinded himself with lime, placed broken glass in his shoes, and wrapped barbed wire around his chest. Hazel essentially martyrs himself for his intense faith in nothing.
Or how about the townsfolk in Shirley Jackson’s chilling short story, “The Lottery.” They listen to poor Mrs. Hutchinson screaming, “It isn’t fair, it isn’t right,” but they surround her anyway, stones in hand, ready to complete the yearly ritual. A ritual that nobody knows the purpose of, but everybody agrees is necessary.
I thought about these characters a lot when I wrote my latest grotesquery, The Incurables. Essentially, there are three characters who have developed a belief system that most objective readers would see as outrageous: Dr. Freeman is convinced that he can save the world with the lobotomy; Stanton believes his own son to be the messiah; and Scent, a sociopathic prostitute, is convinced that her deranged and impoverished mother is hiding a fortune. It doesn’t matter how much evidence to the contrary is presented, or how much damage these principles create, each of these characters is committed to his/her belief.
But it’s not only fictional characters. It is with us, too, I think. We all create meaning, however optimistic or nihilistic, and commit to that meaning for the long haul. Whether through religion or atheism or love or hatred, we know that without some type of faith, however misguided that faith is, we would be forced to face an empty and hellish existence. I write novels, choosing to believe that this is my calling, my meaning, even though, deep inside, I know it is very likely complete idiocy. But like Spade and Motes, and even Dr. Freeman with his ice pick and hammer, I choose idiocy over the alternative.