I Heart Huckabees

I Heart Huckabees

Premodern Help for Postmodern Times

Is Mark Wahlberg the real existential detective?

Matt Kirby

“It’s all about love. It’s all about Jesus.” —Mark Wahlberg

Daniel Duane of the New York Times Magazine paraphrases America’s most commercially successful philosophical counselor, Lou Marinoff, thus:

“Americans are tired of psychologists dwelling on our every painful feeling, we’re sick of psychiatrists prescribing a new drug every time we feel confused, and many of our most pressing problems aren’t even emotional or chemical to begin with—they’re philosophical.”

Marinoff, whose slogan and book is Plato, not Prozac!, is suing his employer, the City University of New York, over lost revenue resulting from a since-lifted ban on his campus practice. He complains, “These people just can’t tell the difference between psychology and philosophy.”

Unfortunately, the manner in which philosophical counseling generally proceeds—a series of one-on-one conversations between philosopher and “philosophand”—does nothing to dissuade such a comparison. The format of psychoanalysis—paid consultation with a professionally distanced expert wherein the subject’s life is recounted in isolation from the world—has come to dominate our understanding of how a person “gets help.”

A notable element of David Russell’s I ♥ Huckabees is that it takes philosophical counseling and replaces the psychoanalytical method with the tactics of the investigator to yield a new trope: the “existential detective.”

Unlike the analyst, who uses the narratives of psychoanalysis to explain the phenomenal world, the traditional gumshoe detective interprets the phenomenal world, employing mundane objects and occurrences as clues in the construction of a narrative of heightened meaning—how a crime was committed. This requires him to reconstruct events by walking the same route, handling the same objects, and confronting the same enemies as the subject. In part, he shares the fate of the person he helps. Likewise in Huckabees, ordinary details in the life of the person being investigated—tensions in the workplace, the loss of a family cat, a (planted) Kafka title in the trash—are transformed into crucial signifiers in a larger story.

By combining the trope of the risk-taking investigator with that of the philosopher—someone willing to peer into grand, abstract questions of meaning and existence, I ♥ Huckabees has recreated, in modern language, a pre-modern problem solving form. Russell’s existential detective is a distinctly Western figure employing the methods of a shaman.

A shamanistic process

One problem with the word “shaman,” which traces its origins to the Siberian steppe, is that it is popularly employed by people more interested in fantasizing about some alternate reality than squaring their shoulders to bear the mundane burdens of this one. However, in cultures where such an office exists, the job of the shaman is primarily to foster the interrelation of two groups or positions that have hardened into such stubborn opposition that the survival of the society is at risk. For life to go on, the two camps must overcome their polemic, and the shaman acts by throwing himself into the fray—mentally, bodily, and emotionally, sometimes at personal risk. The result of his labors typically constitutes a paradigm shift rather than a compromise: the rules, though not necessarily undone, are re-contextualized and the system changes, including the position of the shaman himself.

The Existential Detectives in Huckabees, including their dissenting French faction, are essentially concerned with one thing—conflict—and not, as protagonist Albert Markovski initially supposes, with understanding coincidence in itself. Ideas, for the detectives, are clues that reveal human soul-sickness or tools that can correct it. Their explanations of how the universe works—a unified “blanket” on one hand and a meaningless void on the other—tend to be goofy or oversimplified. But this is somewhat beside the point, for their aim is action rather than analysis. They are working toward the creation and resolution of conflict—achieving a moment of crisis in order to shift an entire system.

On the surface, the schism at hand is the irreconcilability of the worldviews of bleeding-heart poet Markovski and junior executive Brad Stand. The solution of Markovski’s case requires the simultaneous solution of Stand’s. Isolated growth is not an option. The solution of both cases further depends on the solution of Tommy Corn’s and Dawn Campbell’s cases—and ultimately on the reorganization of the detectives themselves into winking compatriots rather than rivals in a zero-sum philosophical game.

This is the most startling characteristic of what, for lack of a better word, we can call the shamanistic process: to resolve one problem the entire system must be reordered. The universe is momentarily flattened so that Saint Anthony really is concerned with where you left your car keys and talk of deep things versus mundane matters is irrelevant because everything is both. The film expresses this by linking several of America’s currently raging polemics with the lives of individual agents: religion, oil, sprawl, the African crisis, and that incident in September all have something do with why Albert Markovski simply cannot stand Brad Stand and vice versa.

Metaphor as symbol, or, the circle of meaning

Shamans traditionally employ material goods, often items associated with particular people or groups, in the resolution of conflicts. Likewise, in a tradition perhaps more familiar in the West, Hebrew prophets used yokes, belts, pots, and sometimes—through fasting, silence, exile, or even marriage—their own lives as tangible metaphors in the telling of their cautionary tales. Furthermore, in European paintings, saints are identified by arrows, keys, feathers, books, and wounds. In the gospels, God himself enters bodily and at personal risk into the midst of the material world to bring about salvation. Jesus worked with spit, wine, mud, bread, fish, perfume, cloth, and other mundane elements. His “cases” were intensely personal, involving such details of the subject’s life as past marriages, birthplace, ethnicity, occupation, friendships, and mannerisms—as well as concrete instructions like “go home” or “go to the temple and say such and such.” Even the story of his death revolves around material particulars: the torn robe, the damp sponge, and the hill outside the city wall.

In these examples, the stories, prophecies, and claims to spiritual authority are linked via metaphor and touch with the world of the hearers. Daily life becomes the sign system through which these important messages are conveyed—and through such use daily life is given reciprocal value.

In the modern world, the physical connection of narratives tends to be established by experts in advance and out of sight of the subject: “We know what is ailing you because we have seen these symptoms before in a random sampling of other patients not known to you.” People become the objects of theoretical narratives that exist independently of them. While meaning focuses on the human subject, value is siphoned away.

This kind of remote empiricism has obvious benefits in medicine and science, but the colossal side effect is that our quotidian lives are no longer imbued with value and meaning by larger historical or spiritual narratives. Our culture fosters a disconnect between the small and the colossal that renders all narratives remote and self-referential, even religious narratives that had endured for millennia. God is a good shepherd, but what is a shepherd other than a trope from the Bible? Little wonder the Bible is increasingly seen as a closed circuit: it may assure me that I have salvation in an abstract sense, but read through this lens it cannot fill the vacuum of meaning in my commonplace experience of working, eating, sleeping, waiting, and the like.

Through disuse, we have forgotten a crucial attribute of metaphor: value runs through it in two directions, not only towards what is signified, but from that greater reality back towards its objective correlative. When the poet says “my love is like a rose,” he is increasing, not merely drawing upon, the cultural currency of roses. To ignore or deny that referring to God as a good shepherd confers honor on earthly shepherds is to misunderstand something basic about what it is to be human: the need for meaning.

Building a bridge to the first century

When we ask, “do our lives have meaning?” we presuppose that our lives are signifiers. Our lives are words or phrases, but in what language? As part of what song, story, or poem (or, God forbid, meta-doctoral dissertation)? If the poem is forgotten, we are mere nonsensical utterances in a dead language. If the poem exists only in ink or stone, in zeros and ones, we again find ourselves worthless, not living words but dead repositories of information. Even if a religious or philosophical narrative is assented to in the abstract, a metaphorical bridge must connect it to the quotidian lives of its hearer/participants if it is to be lived out.

This is why the Catholic Mark Wahlberg can emphatically proclaim that I ♥ Huckabees “all comes down to Jesus. It is all about love and how we all are connected,” as many Evangelicals and atheists scratch their heads. Through the liturgy and sacraments of orthodox religion, the quotidian life becomes a metaphor for an ancient story. When Mark Wahlberg wakes up in the morning, he doesn’t just wake up in the morning. He wakes up in Lent or Advent or Ordinary Time, as a participant in a yearly cycle bigger than himself that follows the life of Christ and the history of the early Church. When he eats his cereal, he symbolizes the bounty of God. When he asks Saint Anthony to help him find his car keys, he demonstrates the mystery of the Incarnation: that the most high God should concern himself with the lowly affairs of this world. Like Christians of all denominations, when he takes communion, his own body bears and communicates the idea that “God saves.”

It is no coincidence that it is through Wahlberg’s character, Tommy Corn, that Russell isolates the error in the notion—scarily ascendant in America after the presidential election—that Christianity is a monolithic return to certainty at the expense of any appreciation for the nuances of real life. Corn, according to Russell, is the film’s “radical Christian.” When the little girl at the dinner table snaps, “Jesus is never mad at us if we live with him in our hearts!” Corn solemnly replies, “I hate to break it to you, but he is—he most definitely is.”

In the philosophy represented by the girl, Jesus’ main concern is the heart. But modernity has displaced the metaphorical heart, with its previous connotations of agency and will, consciousness, bodily fragility, blood lineage, and death. All that remains in its place is the medical heart, an efficient biological pump. We are left with metaphorical material as sentimental and hopelessly abstract as a Hallmark card.

“Jesus is never mad at us if we live with him in our hearts,” is another way of saying “Jesus has been banished to the realm of abstraction: Don’t bring up his name in the context of real life.” Corn’s invocation of the anger of God over social injustice and material excess is actually a return to the old notion of the heart as the core of our lives, the awkward intersection of immortal spirit and mortal flesh. If this idea is radical, it is radically ancient, and in expressing it Corn has company in Chrysostom and other thinkers of the early church.

Forms and function

The strength of existential detective work, its shamanistic element, illuminates the problem with Professor Marinoff’s “Plato, not Prozac” slogan: neither will help connect your sublunary struggles to the fixed, majestic turning of infinity. Plato’s pure forms aren’t going to help find those car keys, and neither will Eli Lilly’s Prozac make you more inclined to care whether or not the universe has a design.

I ♥ Huckabees has invented—or perhaps rediscovered—a literary character type that will be of no small usefulness in understanding the subtext of many twenty-first century projects: reconnecting the details of personal, daily life, not only to grand questions of existence and spirituality, but to the public sphere in general. The motifs of environmentalism, urban planning, and branding that recur in Huckabees are areas in which the possibility of such a reconnection is currently, often bitterly, debated.

Perhaps the rambling, earthy logic of the existential detective, for whom abstract theorizing takes a back seat to the specifics of particular human “cases,” is what we need to get beyond some of our current divisions. Even those who will dislike the idea that our personal choices affect the big picture still want and need to know that our lives, as we live them, are important. The existential detective is a trope that reendows human life, in all its minute detail, with value, rather than portraying it as determined by processes beyond our control—thereby rendering it even more boring.

It is interesting to note that this position is diametrically opposed to the neo-Gnosticism of such films as The Matrix, in which a master narrative is set against the details of workaday life, details that it renders “virtual.” If we take the red pill, we see that our lives are meaningless in the face of an indifferent, absolute Truth. If we take the white blanket, we understand our lives as fundamentally connected to Truth and potentially expressive of it. Human variation and even human weakness become the seeds of a multitude of meditations on a common theme.

The rest of the story

As the film ends, the daily struggles of the characters continue. Huckabees still expands despite the best efforts of the Open Spaces coalition, Tommy Corn’s wife and child are unaccounted for, and Brad Stand’s life is in a deconstructed state. The main resolution is that the characters now accept the interconnectedness of all things, and this, the film implies, allows them to live real lives rather than the shadows of lives.

For some viewers, this is a disappointing dénouement to a film that raised expectations of a grand spiritual revelation or resolution. A connection has been established, but where is the store of value and goodness that is to flow through it? Is spirituality, like oil, a nonrenewable resource that we have depleted through careless overuse?

Put another way, if our lives are to have value in their capacity as signifiers, they must be arranged in a story that generates its own truth, a kind of bedrock reality that is supremely true in itself and has no need to go begging for validation in the courts of humanity. Without this, nothing can disguise or reverse the fact that we have been scattered, fragmented into millions of smaller narratives, and interconnectedness is little more than a nice idea.

Wahlberg’s optimism in the face of such odds is likely the result of his belief in a self-creating story—a story in the sense that it is active, that we can interpret it, retell it, and participate in it; self-creating in that it can exist if need be without context, without hearers, and independently of external language. In other words, Wahlberg’s entire life is suffused with meaning through his belief in one true thing—one thing that can communicate itself without recourse to anything external, without metaphor, without saying, “I am like this,” but instead, “everything you know is only like me.”

This one thing, then, is the only genuine instance of reality preceding language. It is the keystone of any reality underpinning the phenomenal world. Two such things cannot coexist, for the one thing makes all else a metaphor for itself. Meaning flows toward it and value out from it. With it, the world becomes a place of real people and meaningful events, where sadness and joy and humor have substance and life and death are not mere stories; without it, all existence is a tale told by an idiot.

Since it has no correlative, there is no word for it, nor can anyone name it. It just is what it is. :::

Matthew Kirby lives in Brooklyn. His favorite movies are Baxter (1989), Hana-bi (1997) and Jesus’ Son (1999).
posted by editor ::: November 12, 2004 ::: philms ::: (2) Comments