In this first of three posts, we'll begin assigning Simone De Beauvoir's typology, presented in Part II of The Ethics of Ambiguity called "Personal Freedom and Others," to the panoply of characters in Joel and Ethan Coen's The Big Lebowski. In what follows, Becky Vartabedian presents Brandt (played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman) as an example of the sub-man; Matt Bender discusses the serious man and John Goodman's Walter Sobchak; and Sami Brisson analyzes the nihilist type with, well, the Nihilists. Read on!
Brandt as Sub-Man
Before articulating each of the four key failures, DeBeauvoir discusses that type of person found “on the lowest rung of the ladder,” the sub-man (45). The sub-man expresses an “apathy” that “manifests a fundamental fear in the face of existence, in the face of the risks and tensions it implies” (45). Indeed, for DeBeauvoir (and other Existentialist writers like Sartre and Merleau-Ponty), existence is fundamentally a choice made in full view of its risks. By actively placing myself into the world as philosopher or teacher or student, I do so always in anticipation of the possible failures that may attend these choices and pursue my choice anyway - this is the basic expression of human being, which the sub-man refuses.
It’s possible to see in Brandt, the spokesperson and right-hand of The Big Lebowski and played by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, an expression of the sub-man. His persisting and sycophantic devotion to The Big Lebowski suggests a kind of disappearance of his existence. Brandt routinely repeats the words of The Big Lebowski; as Roger Ebert pointed out in his review of the film, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character bears some significant physical resemblance to the Big Lebowski, a similarity that further affects the disappearance of Brandt away from his own robust life and into that of his employer (http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-the-big-lebowski-1998).
De Beauvoir’s sub-man is paralyzed with fear of forces he sees himself subject to and unable to surmount. She says,
Weighted down by present events, he is bewildered before the darkness of the future which is haunted by frightful specters, war, sickness, revolution, fascism, Bolshevism. The more indistinct these dangers are, the more fearful they become. The sub-man is not very clear about what he has to lose since he has nothing, but this very uncertainty reinforces his terror. Indeed, what he fears is the that the shock of of the unforeseen may remind him of the agonizing consciousness of himself. (48)
The sub-man reinforces his failure in his own fear. Because the sub-man has not risked investment in the world, he doesn’t fear loss; rather, he fears being forced to reckon with his own failure or refusal to engage this first movement of being, to choose and to be responsible for one’s choice.
It is Brandt's getting carried along through the movie’s narrative arc, never staking a place for himself that suggest his status as an example of de Beauvoir’s sub-man. When, for example, the Dude suggests to Brandt that he can take any rug he likes as restitution for the rug damaged by the henchmen - the rug that “really ties the room together - Brandt does not question the order or its possibility, nor does he try to stop the Dude from taking the rug he chooses. After hearing the Dude’s explanation for Bunny’s disappearance that concludes with the question, “Didn’t that even occur to you ... man?” The Big Lebowski answers “No Mister Lebowski, that had not occurred to me.” Brandt follows it up immediately: “That did not occur to us.” This identification is Brandt’s alone - his employer manages an assertion of individuality that Brandt can only parrot.
This said, it may be viable to argue Brandt is a version of the passionate human, that person that has subsumed their individuality in devotion to another individual. We invite our reader(s) to consider this possibility in connection with the presentation of the passionate human in a subsequent post.
Walter Sobchack: a Serious Man
Simone de Beauvoir’s serious man is manifested through characters that regularly lose themselves in pride, moral righteousness, and the perceived ability to be objectively correct in many circumstances. Thus, the serious man frequently finds himself immersed in doing his duty often times leaving behind the other people around him or other possible ways of experiencing the world. There is only one way in which the serious man can experience the world, the way he sees fit.
Walter Sobchak is a Vietnam veteran and divorcee whose ex-wife’s influence continues to have bearing on his life. He takes everything very seriously and he claims to have learned everything he needs to know. Steadfast in his beliefs, Walter refuses to believe that his perceptions might be wrong, often asking The Dude or Donny, “Am I wrong?” Instead, he takes himself and everyone around him strictly by the books, but he takes nothing more serious than league play in the game of bowling or shabbos. His observation of shabbos, The Dude points out, is merely the lasting effects of Walter’s ex wife Cynthia’s beliefs, but as the serious man he is unable to shake what he has valued for so long.
“The serious man gets rid of his freedom by claiming to subordinate it to values which would be unconditioned. He imagines that the accession to these values likewise permanently confers value upon himself. Shielded with “rights,” he fulfills himself as a being who is escaping from the stress of existence” (49).
It is during league play, while executing the delivery of a ringer, and in the intimidation tactics used to scare a high school boy that Walter Sobchak truly loses himself to his seriousness. In these moments, he loses sight of what is more important in the long run (completing league play, getting Bunny back, and finding the stolen money) to what he perceives to be the most important job at the moment.
“The thing that matters to the serious man is not so much the nature of the object which he prefers to himself, but rather the fact of being able to lose himself in it. So much so, that the movement toward the object is, in fact, through his arbitrary act the most radical assertion of subjectivity “ (50-51).
With the lasting effects of Vietnam clearly having an impact on Walter’s mental health, the lasting effects of military training also seems to have an effect on how he perceives simple or rather arbitrary things as astoundingly important. As de Beauvoir explicitly states, “the serious man puts nothing into question. For the military man, the army is useful … Therefore, the serious man is dangerous” (52-53). Walter clearly has anger management issues and perhaps this is in part due to his background as it seems to have to do with his overly serious military attitude towards the most mundane circumstances. Due to the level of seriousness that he takes himself, it is required that others take him and the actions they take around him as equally as serious. This makes Walter and the result of his actions dangerous, especially to those around him. It is without a doubt that Walter and his seriousness ultimately results in the not-so-coincidental death of Donny. If Walter hadn’t f*cked with the Nihilists so much and if Walter hadn’t pulled a gun out in the bowling alley then the timing of the Nihilists burning the Dude’s car would not have resulted in a brawl that caused Donny to go into cardiac arrest and eventually die. Thus is the danger of the serious man, not only to himself but to those around him, and, in this case, the death of the most innocent of those around him.
"We Believe in Nossing" - Nihilists and Nihilism
Another mistake that Simone de Beauvoir articulates is that of the Nihilist. In her own words, “The nihilist attitude manifests a certain truth. In the attitude one experiences the ambiguity of the human condition” (61). As it happens, there is a set of characters in The Big Lebowski who self-identify as nihilists. According to Uli Kunkel who leads the ragtag gang of nihilists, “Ve believes in nossing, Lebowski, nossing.” This is in line with de Beauvoir’s explanation of the nihilist as someone who “experiences the ambiguity of the human condition.” However, the nihilist’s commitment to their own doctrine, if it can be called that, is called into question. De Beauvoir explains that “the ambiguity of existence is felt not as a lack but in its positive aspect” (62-63). However, this is not true for the film nihilists. They may believe in nothing, but they still want something: that is, one million dollars. And, when things don’t go their way, they exclaim that this is unfair, which no true nihilist would be likely to do. Upon hearing the nihilists complaint of unfairness, Walter responds: “Fair? Who’s the fucking nihilists here?!” which is a fair point. So, although the Nihilists enjoy thinking of themselves as such, they aren’t as committed to this label as their name might have us think. Therefore, it appears as though, despite their snappy leather outfits and disdainful demeanor, the nihilists are more serious men than true nihilists, given their conception of “fairness” and the meaning they ascribe to money.