Monday, October 5, 2009

Rearranging deck chairs

We watched a bit of "Titanic" last night. While the movie is quite simplistic (the vast majority of characters are either "good" or "bad"), we nevertheless found several scenes interesting with regard to the absurd. Further, the movie as a whole provides a fascinating commentary on the way most people perceive life and death.

But first things first. Most people recall the scene, during the frantic rush to get into lifeboats, when an officer accidentally shoots a passenger, then very deliberately takes a step back (onto the ship's railing), salutes, and shoots himself in the head. We found this compelling, but not because of the act itself (like much of the movie, it is fairly predictable) - rather, it is the reactions to the act we found interesting.

Prior to the officer shooting himself, there is a mad scramble to get into lifeboats--in other words, people are desperately seeking to save their lives. Right after he shoots himself, however, there is a (very) brief moment of silence, during which you can almost sense people thinking about the implications of his act. (I.e., now he doesn't need to worry about the ship sinking.) The clamor pick up almost immediately, of course, as any thoughts about this are swept away in the renewed rush to exit the ship.

Now, we don't want to make too much of this - we don't mean to imply every passenger who witnesses the shooting experiences an existential crisis - but we do think this scene is something of a corollary for the movie as a whole...which is itself a corollary for common perceptions of life. Said a different way, everything we do is in some way related to our overwhelming desire to evade death, even as we know (at some level) the futility of our quest. Thus, the passengers who witness the suicide are no different from those who don't - except that the death they see is more immediate (and thus more "real").

This desperate quest to cheat death is a consistent theme in the movie; indeed, as we see it the entire movie is something of an unwitting advocate for the (as we call it) non-absurd approach to life. In short, the length and substance of one's life is viewed as extremely substantive. This is brought home most powerfully in the final scene, when the "heroine" throws the diamond off the ship, then dies peacefully in her sleep. The clear implication is that she has lived a "good life" (and died a "good death"), and that this is preferable to (for example) the officer who shot himself in the head.

It should go without saying that we view such attitudes as the height of folly - nevertheless, we think "Titanic" is actually a good tool for deconstructing this view of life. For example, when the woman drifts off to "eternal sleep" we see her being welcomed into what we assume is the afterlife by her friends from the boat (specifically Leonardo DiCaprio's character). The question is - was her life really preferable to his? If so, why? How does one define this?

To be clear - we are not saying we expected such issues to be explored in the movie, only that those (i.e., most people) who hold these views should stop and consider why. The vast majority of people strongly believe certain lives are "better" than others, yet few stop to question why this should be so.

Finally, the movie is a wonderful messenger for the absurd for another reason - it has given us one of the great lines with which to describe the absurd. Namely, everything we do - all the striving, caring, achieving, hoping, praying, loving, crying, celebrating, and, yes, dying - amounts to nothing more than rearranging deck chairs on our own personal Titanic.


  1. The vast majority of people strongly believe certain lives are "better" than others, yet few stop to question why this should be so.

    I've often wondered why, exactly, some people insist on being called by their title: Doctor, Governor, His Holiness, et cetera. Even not at insistence, there is a wince of expectation.

    Is it, perhaps, a feeling of practical superiority? The feeling that they offer a more substantive service to society than those without such a title? Easily forgetting the value of toiling minions who equally(?) make the wheels of society spin. Though, the same people reward the minions with diminutive titles (Garbage Man, Farmer, et cetera).

    Or maybe it's just a feeling of wanting to get what they paid for; the theatre of academia, politics, and religion has to sustain itself somehow — illustrious titles being one such motivator.

  2. Lukas-

    Thanks for the note - well said. Inigo raised the same point in his "Governors and Beggars" post in June - the concept that in the absurd reckoning, governors are no more (or less) important than garbagemen.

    We personally have found those most interested in promoting their "qualifications" are generally those the least secure in their own self-image. Of course, the absurd man has no such qualms, given his belief that the sense of self is nothing more than a grand illusion...