Ironic Nihilism in The Big Lebowski

Nihilism? What is that? For those who have never had the displeasure of a run-in with Friedrich Nietzsche, I will give a quick rundown of nihilism: There is nothing; nothing . . . nothing . . . nothing; no purpose; no reason . . . nothing—at least there is nothing beyond the perspective of the individual. In the mind of the nihilist (a bleak place indeed), we can know nothing for sure because everything we can possibly know derives from within our own mind which, in the nihilist framework, is a mere happenstance of time, space, and fornication.

There is a great irony at display in the traditional nihilist, however. Though everything came from nothing, nothing matters, and there is no purpose in all the universe, the traditional nihilist (Nietzsche) believe that nothingness is the perfect platform for human progression. They believe that, because nothing is certain, we can create our own certainty. They believe that, since there is no inherent purpose in the life of a man, man should create his own purpose—“Throw off the old encumbrances of traditional morality! Cast aside the small-minded laws of religion! If it suits you, it is right! There is no truth, but what YOU make!” . . . . . . . . sounds great.

But this begs the question, if there is no purpose, how can purpose be created?

I must digress. What I want to briefly address here is a little more specific than just the shortsightedness of nihilistic philosophy. I want to address how nihilism has ingrained itself into our culture without much notice. Whether you realize it or not, bits and pieces of nihilism have crept into and infected your brain. I am not saying you really believe in nothing and have not noticed. I am merely saying that, in our current culture, it is very popular to cast off serious discussions by chalking everything up to perspective. (This is quite dangerous.) Because so many in the film world have accepted the nihilistic worldview, this worldview has begun to subtly sow itself into the fabric of our minds. I think it is a serious issue; most serious because, for the most part, it is going unnoticed. However, for the sake of time, I only want to exemplify the presence of nihilism in Hollywood via a single film, The Big Lebowski.

Let us start with a fancy, academic quote, shall we?

“Nothing illustrates better the Pyrrhic victory of radical individualism”[1] than The Big Lebowski. (Pyrrhic victory is a sophisticated way of saying, even the winner of the battle has lost due to the cost of the fight.) In this film, the Coen brothers “have successfully thrown off the encumbrances of authority and tradition.”[2] And in this ‘throwing off’ we see, through The Dude, a “more intractable form of tyranny:”[3] a faux nihilism of simplicity—or, an ironic attempt to live a life of non-conforming, non-complexity, whatever the cost, all the while being consumed by the loss of certain rug’s feng shui.

Maybe I am calling it wrong, but I think The Dude is the Coen Brother’s American-Ubermensch—The Dude is beyond the constraints of any standards (mostly because they’re just not his bag). The Dude perfectly exemplifies what really lies beyond the scope of moral standards and purposeful pursuit, a mindless simplicity that is best viewed through the sunglasses of an aged hippy. Nevertheless, he is not really purposeless; his purpose is just ridiculous.

Actually, the greatest irony in the film is that he and his friends seem to have a disdain for the ‘real’ nihilists (those of the Nietzsche variety). I think this might be because The Dude is beyond the foolish, even strangely hopeful, nihilism of Nietzsche. The Dude is, I think, the Coen Brother’s way of embodying and, in this embodiment, satirizing the real “tragic hero”[4] that will inevitably result from Nietzsche’s annoyingly shortsighted, aristocratic nihilism. By his comically-heroic pursuit of a rug that really pulls a room together, The Dude trivializes “all aspiration,”[5] even the aspiration of having no aspirations. If not for the farcical pursuit of a rug, The Dude would truly be pointless. Without that stupid rug, The Big Lebowski would utterly lack any impetus, as would its protagonist. (Well, I guess there would still be pot, White-Russians, CCR, and bowling.)

Though this is a comedy that seems to laugh at nihilism, The Big Lebowski is a great example of the nihilism that is rampant in Hollywood and in our culture. NOTHING is the only thing that is certain; so, why not make a movie about a hero who goes to great lengths for a rug? Though it is a joke, the pursuit of a rug by an aged stoner is a far more attractive plot in our current culture than, let us say, a plot which attempts to uncover the meaning and complexities of life and love via a multi-reincarnated tragic-love story that spans centuries (The Fountain, 2006). Maybe the popularity of fantasy and adventure in the superhero proves me wrong, but I think that even the love of these films, to a point, comes from an attempt to create our own purpose by escaping this world for a while. When thoughtfully considered, Hollywood’s nihilism—the missing moral bounds, outright rejection of traditional standards, and questioning of all reality—cause the visually complex pursuits of post-modern film to become trivial. The Avengers make for great visual films, but are they really stirring up any revolution of thought among the younger generations watching? Even with all the big questions that are present in the popular Superhero series (Thanos’ utilitarianism), Nietzschean perspectivism continues to grow in our culture. Maybe I am right. Maybe I am wrong. If nihilism is right, it does not matter.

Do not get me wrong. I think The Dude is hilarious. His persistence might even be admirable. I get the laidback nature, choice of clothing, and preference of music. And I certainly fall in-line with the movie’s overall jocund ridicule of Nietzschean-style nihilism.  I was even The Dude for Halloween this year. Still, even this playful version of a nihilistic worldview is dangerous because the joke is not meant to ridicule all nihilism, only the nihilism that attempts to have a purpose (hypocrisy at its best). It is this playful presentation that actually leads viewers to softheartedly agree with The Dude’s take on life.

I do not want to take the fun out of laughter. I do not mean to over analyze a flick that should be taken with a grain of salt. I merely want us, as viewers and thinking individuals, to realize the subliminal effect of passively accepting the worldviews that are presented to us through a screen. By all means, enjoy the journey of The Dude. But, remember that life is about more than rugs, pot, White Russian, bathrobes, and just going along with the impersonal, non-purposeful flow of a meaningless world.

[1] Thomas S. Hibbs, Shows About Nothing: Nihilism in Popular Culture (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2012), 118.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 13.

[5] Ibid.

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