Becky Vartabedian, Ph.D.
While Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) is busy reading the book of his life, Karen Eiffel’s Death and Taxes, the author’s assistant returns Karen’s apartment. There, Penny Escher (Queen Latifah) discovers chaos: the typewriter has been violently pushed off its table; a broken lamp has its pieces scattered on the floor; books and papers are open and strewn across the apartment. Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson) lays motionless atop a table, her eyes red and puffy from crying. She asks Penny “How many people have I killed?”
The question is jarring in its significance; Karen is an author of fiction, but she has just learned that the subject of her newest book is an actual, living, breathing human being. She is confronted with the reality that her callous and ironic disposition toward the characters in her previous books – the teacher she killed off just before spring break, the civil engineer who dies in the traffic he worked to manage – could have somehow left the page and found its person. She wonders how much blood she has on her hands.
For me, this is the crucial moment of a film shot through with existential themes. It is the moment in which the gravity of human being is shown to us, and of course it is never a moment of private self-reflection. Our human being is revealed by and through others.
Late in Existentialism is a Humanism, Sartre responds to the objection that the existentialist position offers no grounds on which one might judge the actions of another human. Sartre says that for the existentialist, judgment is appropriate precisely because I find myself participating in community: “we choose in the presence of others,” he says, “and we choose ourselves in the presence of others” (47). This is an ideal expression – in other words, this is the person functioning at full existentialist ‘whack,’ with the requisite awareness of her own participation in community and the reflection of that community on her own self-definition. A balance, as Simone de Beauvoir will put it The Ethics of Ambiguity, between the recognition of our power to choose (subjectivity) and our responsibility to constrain those choices according to the subjectivity of others (responsibility). To arrive at this ideal condition, an awakening is required. Sartre says,
Consequently, when, operating on the level of complete authenticity, I have acknowledged that existence precedes essence, and that man is a free being who, under any circumstances, can only ever will his freedom, I have at the same time acknowledged that I must will the freedom of others. (48)
Up to Harold Crick’s arrival at her apartment, Karen Eiffel proceeds through her present with full attention given to her own needs, to complete the book, to “find a way to kill Harold Crick.” She is shaken out of this solipsism by her recognition that not only is Harold a real person, but that he is swept up in her story – and all this being ‘swept up’ entails. Furthermore, she finds herself now responsible to her character in a way she hadn’t previously; her responsibility for the way Harold moves through the world is revealed in its full weight. Karen understands her choices are inextricably bound to Harold’s life; this “acknowledgment” is precisely the awakening Sartre demands.
The significance of meeting Harold Crick further transforms Karen Eiffel’s own human project, her work as author. Jules Hilbert, he of the wise literary diagnostics and amazing office, confirms to Harold Crick that Karen Eiffel “only writes tragedies.” On his read of the novel and its original ending, Hilbert confirms that Harold Crick must die. It is Eiffel’s masterpiece, the expression of her creativity that makes her the kind of author she is known to be. Hilbert’s disposition cools when he reads the second ending, the one in which Harold is saved. Karen Eiffel can offer justification for her choices – she claims that precisely because Harold Crick is who he is he is a man worth saving – but her own authorial trajectory, that mechanism she uses to define herself, is adjusted because of Harold.
It’s in this context that we see ‘authenticity’ expressed fully in Karen Eiffel’s character. In Sartre’s phrase, she “(operates) on the level of complete authenticity” when she changes tack because she sees her actions are not hers alone. They land in a way that influences – profoundly – the movement of others through the world. Like Professor Hilbert, we may be distressed at the fairly toothless ending to Death and Taxes, but we understand its value is more than mere plot.