I watched The Sunset Limited a few nights ago. It’s a tv drama starring Tommy Lee Jones and Samuel L. Jackson and based on the play of the same name by Cormac MacCarthy. It features only two characters: Black and White (no prizes for guessing who plays who). The plot is simple: Black and White debate the meaning of life in Black’s room after the latter has prevented White from throwing himself in front of a train (the Sunset Limited of the title). Black turns out to be an ex-con Christian convert who dedicates his life to helping drug addicts and other down-and-outs; White is a disillusioned college professor suffering from complete ennui, fatigue and world-hatred.
This two-hour drama plays out with Black dominating proceedings for 95% of the time. He is a clever, witty, likeable guy who wholeheartedly believes in the message of Christian redemption and loving one’s fellows. He teases and cajoles White, but in a gentle and caring way, attempting to give him a reason to carry on living. MacCarthy works it so that we grow to like Black; he isn’t an annoying preachy evangelical and no matter how many times White attempts to leave the room Black persuades him to stay. As the tension builds we wonder whether White will have a conversion.
With about ten minutes to go, however, White rises to deliver his philosophy of life. No matter how persuasive or well-meaning Black may be, White cannot escape his vision of the world as a torture ground where day by day countless numbers are killed and slaughtered for no apparent reason. As an intelligent and sensitive man he is incapable of shutting his eyes to this reality, nor can he find any consolation in the Christianity of Black. He delivers his worldview in an eloquent and devastating speech that leaves Black flabbergasted and distraught by the depths of its pessimism and unflinching conviction. Black is incredulous that someone can view the world in the way White does: previously he had supposed that White was suffering from some personal trauma and had attempted to discover the details; now he realises that he is dealing with a different phenomenon altogether and he has no answer. White leaves the room (to commit suicide or not is left unspoken), and Black is left alone, devastated that the God he believes in was unable to inspire him to match the dark vision of White. The play ends.
One detail in White’s speech really struck me. He mentions briefly the difference between cumulative and reiterative suffering and how those who view life as a gift are wedded to the latter mode of thinking without being aware of it. In many ways, this difference strikes me as resting at the heart of the antinatalist vision and explains why that vision meets with such incredulity and hostility from its opponents. The latter attempt to digest antinatalism but are incapable of escaping their personal perspective and fundamental egotism. A common spiel is “Well sure, I’ve had some dark times and bad experiences, but on the whole I love my life and I want to keep on living for as long as I can. Why can’t you guys just chill out?” The pronatalist cannot or will not read the whole script; he only highlights his little role in it, assuming all the while that there exists a meaningful plot and satisfying denouement. Fundamentally he lacks empathy, or is afraid to attempt empathy for fear of what he may find.
By contrast, the antinatalist draws the camera back and adopts a god’s eye view. He or she surveys the entire scene in so far as is possible and sees nothing but a history of horror, woe and pointless suffering ever since the day the first biped got on its feet and smashed in the head of the first animal it encountered. Theirs is the cumulative perspective. They see that taken as a whole human life is going nowhere; only the illusion of the steadily progressive calendar and the number-worship of modern society creates that chimera. It is all for naught; worse than that, there is suffering and a pointless suffering at that. Why play the game? Why continue this sick joke designed by no one for no reason? Unfortunately the pronatalist can only see his or her own existence and regards life as fundamentally an ego-trip and private joyride with suffering as an inconvenience and the suffering of humanity as a whole as an irrelevance. Thus the wretched game plays on with only the Reaper to bring it to an end.