Monday, 4 July 2011

Cumulative vs. Reiterative Suffering (Reflections on the Sunset Limited)

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.


  1. Great summary and commentary, my friend. Here's to the brotherhood of suffering!


  2. I absolutely adored this film, and I love your commentary as well - especially 'The pronatalist cannot or will not read the whole script; he only highlights his little role in it,'. That's exactly how I see most people as being - they believe, perhaps modestly, that the world is too big for them to understand, so they must simply 'take what they get'. But what they don't realise is that (a the world isn't that hard to understand - it's horrible, nothing complex about that and (b you CAN judge the world due to the evolution of our imaginations.

  3. Amazing movie! Another great one is "Night Mother"(1986). Same thing but much more personal (mother and daughter).

  4. The optimist is an idiot. He cannot escape from his self absorbed world. Like when we say:

    Pessimist: "life is horrible".
    Optimist: "why? I see you are a healthy individual who can choose what movies to see on a local blockbuster store."


    Pessimist: "Life is horrible."
    Optimist: "Why? I sure am having a hell of a time, just got promoted last week and the baby´s on its way, even though its got a fair chance of borning with an congenial disease, we are very happy right now."

    See what I mean, right?

    Other than that, nice recomendation, Karl! =)

  5. he [...] is afraid to attempt empathy for fear of what he may find.

    ^This. Some people are so good at it that it happens automatically. Have you ever had a conversation in which you disclose a traumatic experience or talk about a horrible and unsettling thing that happened to someone else and your interlocutor appears to ignore your statement and either changes the subject or acts like you didn't say it? It happens to me a lot, but I don't usually confront people about it. The one time I did, the person I was talking to claimed that s/he never heard me talk about my traumatic experience, even though I was two feet away and s/he was looking me in the face while I was talking. I used to assume that ignoring/changing the subject was intentional, but now I really wonder how many people just block unpleasant content before it reaches their consciousness.

    1. The evidence is this happens, and is what the optimism bias is all about. Now that I know what to look for, I frequently see it happening in real time right in front of me.

      Watch this video on the neurological basis of the Optimism Bias

  6. *Recommendation


    I wonder that too.

  7. @Garrett: Thanks, man. Good to hear from you. The brotherhood indeed!

    @estnihil: Thanks also. Interesting that you ascribe people's reluctance to attempt understanding the big picture to modesty. I'd always put it down to complacency, smugness or an acceptance of religion (popular metaphysics as Schopenhauer calls it). And yes, the world strikes me as an incredibly easy place to understand, in spite of the attempts of the obfuscators to muddy the waters in the name of "the future" and "optimism".

    @anonymous: Thanks for the recommendation! I'll check it out.

    @Shadow: Good to see you, my friend. Yes, the optimist, what an annoying figure!

    @CM: I know exactly what you mean. I used to be friends with a guy who whenever the topic steered toward the unpleasant facts of the world just did not want to hear about it. "Eyes glazing over" comes to mind. A very strict internal filtering process was at work where only "upbeat" topics or matters relating to that person's ego were permitted in discussion. These people are best avoided, trust me.

  8. Wow to both Karl's film commentary and CM's personal anecdote. Enlightenment is devastating, and most people would just as soon shut it out.

    P.S. Hope this goes through; I've been dealing with bad internet connections for a week, though I've managed to post this and that during the peaks :)

  9. @Jim: Yeah, it's here, and thanks a lot.

    Yes, ironic that enlightenment should be so destructive. Socrates said that the unexamined life was not worth living, but once you reflect honestly on the human condition you arrive at the conclusion that the examined life isn't worth living either!

  10. Karl,

    Haha! What a great paradox!

  11. +1 to Karl, and to all.

    Not intending to be glib, but simply can't say anything without repeating what others said.

    Yet another winner, Karl!

  12. @filrabat Thanks, man. Good to see you here as always.

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  14. Out of the ballpark Karl! Now, if only we hadn't so many deluded moronic egotists in the ballpark:)

  15. Thanks, lifehater! Good to see you around here again. Your wise comments on the horror of everything are always appreciated:-)

  16. I watched this movie a couple months ago when dead tired and laying down and I slept through half of it, half-assed listening. So it probably seemed more boring to me than it was.

    But I got up, riveted, for the closing 10 minutes.

    Then I found it and downloaded it as a YouTube clip to my phone; listened to it several times. Even shared it with my counsellor by email. I don't think she appreciated it as much as I did.