Thursday, January 19, 2006

Seinfeld, Fight Club, Walker Percy, and Modern Nihilism

Whenever I've watched Seinfeld, I've always been struck by how deftly it exposes the shallowness of the way so many of us live in the modern world (intentionally or not). I can't help but notice how so many of the ridiculously hilarious plot situations the characters find themselves in seem to arise directly from their own self-centeredness and bad character. For a long time, I failed to make the connection between this fact and the claim that Seinfeld was "a show about nothing." Now, though, I think I get the connection.

The characters on Seinfeld are people whose lives literally are about nothing. At least nothing that matters. Most of the world's population throughout human history has spent its days engaged in activity which was necessary for survival. Huge portions of the world's population still live wondering where their next meal will come from. Meanwhile, blessed with material abundance and life opportunity beyond the wildest dreams of most people who have ever lived, the characters on Seinfeld continually pursue the most superficial and petty of goals.

This raises a question. Is this as good as it gets? Have we finally achieved a state of existence free from the worries of daily survival only to find that there is nothing serious left to live for? Is this what the vast majority of humanity is still looking forward to? To reach a state of wealth, comfort, and security only to find that the only thing left to be concerned about is our own petty schemes and desires? This is the nihilism at the heart of Seinfeld, and by extension, at the heart of modern life.

In the movie "Fight Club," the character of Tyler Durden (played by Brad Pitt) expresses exactly this view. As he sees it, once humanity got beyond the struggle for daily survival, started building a civilization, and asking questions about the meaning of life, everything went bad. The solution? Destroy civilization and return humanity to a primitive state. So Durden starts an underground army with the goal of overthrowing the "developed" world and taking humanity back to the hunter-gatherer state, where we can escape the emptiness and pettiness of modern life.

The 20th century novelist Walker Percy also saw this as the plight of modern people. Percy spent a lifetime chronicling, in both fiction and non-fiction writings, how technologically sophisticated, well-off, comfortable moderns could be among the most unhappy, displaced, poorly adjusted people in history. For Percy, however, the solution to the problem was found in the cosmic scope of the Christian vision of life. In the Christian vision of life we are invited to be a part of something bigger than ourselves and our own small and superficial obsessions. Percy identified this something bigger with the phrase God Jews Jesus Church. This phrase offers a neat summation of the ongoing, continually unfolding narrative of God's work in history that we are invited to become a part of.

So, what is it we're living for? Do our lives testify to something bigger than our own superficial schemes and desires, or are we acting in a show about nothing?


David Fitch said...

Can you reference for me where Percy said God, Jews, Jesus Church? I nned the reference ... DF

Gordon Hackman said...

Dave, I got it from David Dark's "The Gospel According to America." He seems to have gotten it from an essay by Gregory Wolfe in the journal Image. The essay is avilable online at I have Percy's three non-fiction books but don't remember reading it in any of them. Hope that's helpful though. Peace.

Anonymous said...

Great post. I recently fell in love with the writings of Walker Percy.

Gordon Hackman said...

Wayne, Thanks so much for taking a look and for dropping a comment. I appreciate the encouragement. Walker Percy is some great stuff. I actually own all his novels and haven't read any of them all the way through yet, but I also have his three non-fiction books and have read a lot of the stuff from them. Signposts In a Strange Land is one I highly recommend. A great collection of essays and short writings on various topics.

Jason Hesiak said...

Amen. You mean Fight Club isn't worth nothing but a big heresy (to what, one might ask)? Kidding...