Pulp Fiction

Pulp Fiction

Existentialist Counterpoint

Michael Gose takes exception to Mark Conard’s conclusions about Pulp Fiction, suggesting that just as there is no transcendence, there is no transformation—and that Tarantino distorts even the philosophies he espouses.

Michael D. Gose

Mark Conard was dead-on in his Metaphilm essay in identifying the scriptural, nihilistic, and existential implications of Pulp Fiction, and he has certainly raised the level of discussion about Tarantino and his film, but I must protest his conclusions.

Where do I think Conard’s interpretation went astray? Asking whether there can be “real and lasting meaning in our lives and in the world,” Conard answers his own question by saying that “Butch’s actions hint at an affirmative answer from Tarantino.” But this is a fatal misreading of the director, and Conard falls into this critical error when he concludes that there is some sort of transformation in both Butch and Jules.

It is widely appreciated that Tarantino rejects both the a priori truths associated with the classical Greeks and the revealed truths associated with the Bible. I think that it is also widely appreciated that Tarantino presents a clearly nihilistic and existentialist worldview. But in Pulp Fiction he is playing with a stacked deck. He has avoided the possibilities of “noble” virtues that might come with nihilism, and he has eschewed the overwhelming sense of responsibility that comes with existentialism. In fact, I would argue that Tarantino distorts nihilism and existentialism just as much as he distorts the book of Ezekiel.

Butch

Conard says that Butch “connected to his paternal line,” is now a “member of the warrior class,” and has “invested the heirloom watch with meaning once more.” Certainly Sartre recognized that “to choose to be this or that is to affirm at the same time the value of what we choose.” As viewers, we know how important the watch is to Butch because he risks his life to get it back. Existentially speaking, we only know for sure what Butch chooses—the watch. It is much more problematic to decide what that means for Butch. And regardless of what the watch meant to Butch, the emphasis of the existentialism of Sartre is on responsibility:

Man is responsible for what he is. Thus, existentialism’s first move is to make every man aware of what he is and to make the full responsibility of his existence rest on him. And when we say that a man is responsible for himself, we do not only mean that he is responsible for his own individuality, but that he is responsible for all men.

What is the significance of Butch going back for the watch? As Conard says, the watch was sent to Butch “by a long-absent father, whom he little remembers.” Perhaps—and I emphasize “perhaps”—Butch associates this watch with a connection to his paternal line, but such a feeling of connection has no inherent worth. Consequently, from an existentialist point of view, the emphasis should be on whether this was a choice in which Butch realized his responsibility not only for his own individuality, but his responsibility for all men. The answer has to be surely not. He was not even responsible to Fabienne in making this choice.

Becoming a “member of the warrior class” is also highly problematic from an existentialist point of view. The existential emphasis is on particular choices made in the moment. “Warrior class” as a class, has no inherent meaning. And even if Butch was attaching such a meaning to the sword, that does not, then, account for his haste to get out of town, not an action one would expect of a warrior.

That Butch would “invest the heirloom watch with meaning once more” (emphasis added) is also problematic existentially because it suggests a continuity or tradition, whereas, again, the existentialist emphasis is on each choice made authentically in the moment.

Neither is the interpretation helped by the seemingly nihilistic decision Butch makes to save the murderous, drug-dealing Marsellus from the sexual perverts. All we know for sure as viewers is that Butch places enough value on Marsellus to save him from them. This is not necessarily what Conard suggests is “friendship.” Conard also says that Butch “seems doomed to return, perhaps to repeat things, until he gets it right.” But as Conard himself points out, existentially and nihilistically there is no right and wrong, so there is no “right” to “get.”

Thus at the end of our cinematic time with Butch, he is anxious to get out of town fast. Telling Fabienne this, she cannot stay fixed on their danger, or what has happened to Butch—she needs to know where Butch got the motorcycle. I find this insufficient evidence to share Conard’s conclusion that Butch now values, “family, friendship, and love.” I see no transformation in Butch; he is still making irresponsible, if existential, decisions.

Jules

Neither am I any more convinced that there is any change in Jules despite Conard’s assertion that “Pulp Fiction is in part about Jules’ transformation.” Conard uses the scene in the coffee shop where Jules has three interpretations of the amalgamation of lines that is passed off as a scripture from Ezekiel to argue that the third interpretation offered by Jules is somehow the truthful one. But there is no real reason to think that any one of the three possible interpretations is more truthful than the others, not even the one that attributes anything to God. As Sartre says, “existentialism . . . declares that even if God did exist, that would change nothing.”

This point is made more clear in the conversation between Jules and Vincent about their having been unscratched by a hail of bullets. Vincent (unlike Jules) seems to understand the situation:

Jules: I just been sittin’ here thinkin’.

Vincent (mouthful of food): About what?

Jules: The miracle we witnessed.

Vincent: The miracle you witnessed. I witnessed a freak occurrence.

Jules: Do you know what a miracle is?

Vincent: An act of God.

Jules: What’s an act of God?

Vincent: I guess it’s when God makes the impossible possible. And I’m sorry Jules, but I don’t think what happened this morning qualifies.

Jules may think he experienced a miracle, but as Sartre says in The Humanism of Existentialism about a similar situation, “He saw the hand of God in all of this, and so he entered the order. Who can help seeing that he alone decided what the sign meant?” Oddly, Conard recognizes this in his subtitle: “The Sign of the Empty Symbol.” It is an empty symbol, and I am thus all the more puzzled by Conard’s argument for a transformation within Jules. The world is still absurd, Jules is still confused, and Tarantino has seriously—and I suspect deliberately—misled the viewers about scripture, about nihilism, and about existentialism.

The case of the distorted ideas

Tarantino’s obvious cynicism about scripture is revealed in the pretense that the gibberish that Jules thinks of as a biblical scripture could somehow reveal an insight that would lead to personal transformation. This same point could have been made, more neutrally, with an accurate rather than a distorted scriptural text. But Tarantino wants to make us understand that there is no possibility of a “real” scripture that could make demands on the reader: any one text can be as useful as another according to how it is interpreted.

Tarantino also misrepresents nihilism. From the nihilistic point of view there are no a priori values. Butch, then, presumably asserts a value by rescuing Marsellus from the perverts. But his action is not so much the assertion of a personal value as it is a decision that one thing is worse than another—perversion worse than drug trading and murder. And this is conspicuously not what Nietzsche has in mind when he argues that “all truly noble morality grows out of triumphant self-affirmation” (emphasis added). Nietzsche associates “the welfare of the human species with [the] absolute supremacy of aristocratic values” (emphasis added).

A cheap watch and the sparing of a murderer from a sexual pervert do not represent the noble and aristocratic direction that Nietzsche commends to us. Nietzsche, for example, saw Napoleon as “the embodiment of the noble ideal.” I certainly would not argue that Napoleon was the embodiment of any ideal, but I think it is a serious (and deliberate?) misrepresentation of nihilism to associate the kind of decisions made by Butch with the true ethic of nihilism.

Even existentialism comes off badly in Tarantino’s irresponsible hands. On one hand, Tarantino shows that he recognizes Sartre’s awareness that “to choose to be this or that is to affirm at the same time the value of what we choose.” Butch risks his life for an otherwise meaningless watch, demonstrating that the watch was worth at least as much as Butch’s life. Or, to extend Conard’s realization, Butch’s life is worth no more than a “piece of shit.” But Sartre’s conclusion about existentialism for the human person is, again, that “we do not only mean that he is responsible for his own individuality, but that he is responsible for all men.” While Tarantino obviously is aware of the existential, one can only conjecture at the degree of deliberation with which he skirts the issues of overwhelming responsibility that existentialism demands.

Tarantino is clearly a gifted artist. The dialogue, the technique, the artistry of Pulp Fiction are often brilliant. So what might account for his distortions of religion, nihilism, and existentialism? Distortion of the Bible is understandable (if artistically culpable) given his a priori rejection of transcendence. But why would Tarantino distort philosophies with which he is in obvious sympathy? I think the most plausible answer is in accepting his sense of the existential while speculating that Tarantino’s lack of apparent “consciousness” is due to the reality that he has never suffered. Dostoevsky says that all true consciousness comes through suffering. Camus confirms this conclusion, writing in The Plague:

“Who taught you all of this?”

“Suffering.”

Thus despite his artistry, I think Tarantino gives us in Pulp Fiction a false sense of consciousness. Conard’s reading, while a valuable contribution to our understanding of the film, ends up being too charitable about Tarantino’s intentions. Existentialists, with whom Tarantino seems to identify, would have “no truck” with such “injustice.” :::

Michael D. Gose is is Blanche E. Seaver Professor of Humanities and Teacher Education at Pepperdine University.
posted by editor ::: July 14, 2004 ::: philms ::: (2) Comments