“There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.” – J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King
“Who’s to blame for the lives that tragedies claim, No matter what you say it don’t take away the pain that I feel inside, I’m tired of all the lies, Don’t nobody know why, It’s the blind leading the blind.” -P.O.D.
I sometimes feel that I am in danger of becoming like Ignatius Reilly from the novel A Confederacy of Dunces, crying “Obscenity!” at the entertainment modern culture produces while devouring it myself. Against that possibility, I often try to understand why I find certain things fascinating which are broadly lampooned as “unChristian,” attempting to determine whether there is good in them. That is what I have broadly attempted to do here in relation to the Netflix original television show 13 Reasons Why. I watched this program very rapidly, finding it to be one of the most engrossing television shows that I have ever seen. The following is my attempt to delve into the ideas at play in the show, trying to understand its appeal and both the good and the bad within it.
A Note on the Nature of Art
There is a fear of the psychological or emotional impact that 13 Reasons Why will have. There are disturbing reports of 11 year old children watching the show and becoming withdrawn or depressed afterward, and mental health organizations have begun speaking out and saying that shows like this are likely to increase the chances of a suicidal person taking their own life upon watching it. Indeed, it has even been called the most dangerous program on television. All of this strikes me as both likely true, and wholly irrelevant. If a work of art has something of import to say, if it expresses genuine humanity, then I think practical considerations are largely beside the point. Art should be dangerous. The distinction is made by Heidegger between the truth revealed by a work of art, and the equipment value of it (at least that’s what I understand Heidegger to be saying, since in general I find him to be incomprehensible). To look at art in terms of its equipment and not its truth is a mistake. Certainly there are valid practical concerns for the audience. For instance I would no more recommend a suicidal person watch 13 Reasons Why than I would recommend a depressed and socially withdrawn person read Notes From Underground. I take it, however, that that says little about the worth or merit of Notes From Underground. It is, rather, a problem with the would be reader of Notes From Underground. Similarly, that young children have watched this program strikes me as an example of bad parenting, not an example of bad television. Simply that something may be harmful in certain contexts says little about whether or not it ought to exist. Indeed, some of the greatest artistic works are also highly dangerous. Moby Dick is an extremely dangerous work, and one which (unlike the work in question) has the potential not just to damage the readers emotions but their very soul. The same could be said of Nausea, basically anything by Dostoevsky, or indeed, the Biblical literature itself. The humanities cannot become enslaved to the fear that they will cause someone to stumble, producing only white washed unchallenging unartistic works. There is a place for watching out for a “weaker brother,” but this should not lead us to condemn all that is dangerous. As one of C.S. Lewis’s characters says in The Great Divorce, “watch that sophistry or ye’ll make a Dog in a Manger the tyrant of the universe.” At the risk of sounding insensitive, it is not the job of the artist to baby proof their work.
This, however, invites a more challenging question. Namely, what is the value of 13 Reasons Why? To me, a much stronger criticism is the charge of morbid sentimentality. The charge here is that this show exhibits an attempt to manipulate the emotions of the viewer for its own sake, without any higher meaning. Historically, this type of theater has always been seen as very dangerous. Plato believed this form of entertainment would demean rationality and instead promote loss of emotional control. As he said,
“If you consider…that when in misfortune we feel a natural hunger and desire to relieve our sorrow by weeping and lamentation, and that this feeling which is kept under control in our own calamities is satisfied and delighted by the poets;-the better nature in each of us, not having been sufficiently trained by reason or habit, allows the sympathetic element to break loose because the sorrow is another’s; and the spectator fancies that there can be no disgrace to himself in praising and pitying any one who comes telling him what a good man he is, and making a fuss about his troubles; he thinks that the pleasure is a gain, and why should he be supercilious and lose this and the poem too? Few persons ever reflect, as I should imagine, that from the evil of other men something of evil is communicated to themselves. And so the feeling of sorrow which has gathered strength at the sight of the misfortunes of others is with difficulty repressed in our own.”
Worse still if what is being communicated is not just useless emotionality, but actually false ideas. Hegel thought that the purpose of art was to create a sensuous arrangement which would take a person to the spiritual realm of ideas. However, the question must now be asked if a false idea can be communicated in that way. There does seem to be an element of this in 13 Reasons Why. However, I’m enough of a humanist to think that there is inherent value in works which teach us something about the human experience, regardless of anything false that may be in them. As such, the project which follows is an attempt to articulate what is true about this television program, and what I think is problematic.
Am I My Brother’s Keeper?
One of the most powerful things about the series is the moral challenge to individuals and communities to examine themselves and their attitudes and treatment of others. “It has to get better” Clays says to Mr. Porter “the way we treat each other and look out for each other…it has to get better… somehow.” Obviously I as an individual cannot take responsibility for your choices and actions as a being with free will. As such, I cannot be held culpable for the moral worth of your choices. However, what I can be held accountable for are my own actions toward you and the disposition of my own heart in them. That is to say, if I demean another person’s worth as a human being, and that person takes their own life, they retain full responsibility for their choice even as I receive my own share of condemnation for the action that I freely undertook. This is one thing that the show does very well, it invites the viewer into the events directly preceding the act of suicide and to examine the ways in which the community surrounding this person failed to express an adequate respect for the dignity and worth of her as a human being. By doing this through the narrative framework of the suicide victim herself, it makes it extremely difficult to remain an impartial observer sitting in indifferent observation of the moral choices of the show’s characters. Similarly, by giving us the ending we become privy to the gravity of the situation, but by also giving us a sympathetic and compassionate protagonist in Clay we see our own inadequacies in their true light. So as viewers we feel more invested in the failure of the community and individuals, while being forced to examine our own lives. This is a trait it shares in common with some of the best expressions of Christian doctrine. Martin Luther makes a similar challenge in his sermon on the birth of Jesus,
“There are many of you in this congregation who think to yourselves: “If only I had been there! How quick I would have been to help the Baby! I would have washed his linen. How happy I would have been to go with the shepherds to see the Lord lying in the manger!” Yes, you would! You say that because you know how great Christ is, but if you had been there at that time you would have done no better than the people of Bethlehem. Childish and silly thoughts are these! Why don’t you do it now? You have Christ in your neighbor. You ought to serve him, for what you do to your neighbor in need you do to the Lord Christ himself” (Italics Mine).
When we realize that we have Christ in our neighbor, it ought to cause as to react as Clay does, realizing the extent to which we have failed in our duty we should demand that we reassess how we do things as individuals and as communities. There are, however, other themes the nature of which is much less obviously positive.
Self-Harm as a Mark of Authentic Humanity
Throughout the series there is a disturbing theme of self-harm as a mark of authentic humanity. The idea of the romantic hero, whose sensitive and emotional nature makes them more susceptible to the brutalities of the world. As a result of exhibiting this more authentic humanity, they are inevitably destroyed, for they cannot live in such a world as this. Hannah Baker takes her own life after she finds she cannot live in this world of cruelty. Clay and Justin, both consumed with regret and sadness over the tragedies which surround them and their failure to save the ones they love contemplate suicide, Skye habitually harms herself to avoid taking her own life, and following scenes of him floating pensively in a pool, stopping bullies from harming others and saying he wants the truth to come out, Alex shoots himself in the head. Here we have a decidedly post-modern way of expressing what it means to be human in the face of the paradoxical and morose nature of reality. Self-harm is now an expression of our higher selves, it shows us a new breed of secular saints. The only heroism left in a world where God is dead is the heroism of despondency over the human condition. As human beings, we have lost our ability to look for robust realities beyond ourselves, so we have looked within and have found only emptiness. Living in a society which has no grasp of higher spiritual truth, we live without any telos for human nature. The character Tyler Durden from Fight Club put the post-modern experience of human beings well, “We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War’s a spiritual war, our Great Depression is our lives.” Without a higher reference point, we have only ourselves and our pain which can only be made sense of with reference to ourselves. When our own lives become the highest meaning we have access to, a life consumed by pain is a life whose highest idea is despair itself. Subjectivity is our reality, but what that entails is that we now have no narrative from which to make sense of suffering within the context of a larger spiritual reality. As such, when undergoing suffering our subjective experience of this becomes what is most basic to the world. When the human experiences is called upon to express basic reality, the experience of suffering becomes that reality for the person who undergoes it, for there is no greater reality towards which even the suffering of humanity is leading. No light at the end of the tunnel. As Reinhold Niebuhr once said, “Love may have to live in history as suffering love because the power of sin makes a simple triumph of love impossible. But if this were the ultimate situation it would be necessary…to worship the power of sin as the final power in the world.” Instead of this, the Christian doctrine of the Parousia gives meaning to history as a triumph in history and as a pointer to “a redeemed temporal-historical process.” This is important for, as Niebuhr also says, “These pointers must be taken seriously nevertheless because they express the self-transcendent character of historical experience and point to its eternal ground.” When this is denied the expression of ultimate reality shifts from the theological virtues of faith, hope and love and becomes instead loneliness and angst. In times past the evidence of a saint was holy martyrdom or perhaps the markings of the stigmatic, here they receive their twisted parallel in a despairing suicide and the disposition to cut oneself.
There are basically two thing which need to be said in relation to this. The first is the most obvious, being the factual criticism, i.e. it is simply not the case that self-harm is evidence of a person’s genuine or authentic humanity. Indeed, I would be so bold as to assert that the propensity for self-harm is evidence of a twisted and deformed humanity. At base here there are two competing visions of the world we live in. Do we live in a world which is so hostile to the existence of human nature, that of necessity those who are in a greater relation to what human nature is at essence and what it strives for become broken versions of themselves, or do we live in a world where human beings by becoming more of themselves, by tending more towards genuine human nature, find that there is good in this world which is basic to it? That what human nature longs for is actually essential to the universe. That even though, as the Prayer Book says, people are “divided and enslaved by sin” they may yet “be freed and brought together.” In other words, is it true that the universe is absurd or is it true that the universe is Christian? This criticism, then, proceeds from my basic conviction that the universe is Christian. The second thing which needs to be said is perhaps less obvious. That is, despite the factual inaccuracy of the theme of self-harm as a mark of genuine humanity, I would be remiss if I did not point out that there is actually a significant amount of truth revealed by this claim. There is something basically true about this idea of humanity in such a hostile universe. In a world of endless capitalist monetized monotony, where loneliness is the basic reality of the human experience, where depravity runs unchecked and the primary relation of one person to another is that of objectification and use, there is truly something authentic about self-harm. In this context is becomes an act of revolt against the systems of self serving egoism and an expression of longing for a world based around something more than one’s own interests and even existence, something more substantial than secular post-modernism. As such, there is a significant truth revealed by this theme. It is at based a despairing final act of criticism and a statement that the world ought to exist in a different form than the one it does. If there were no religion, this act would in fact be a marking of a more authentic humanity.
Who Killed Hannah Baker?
Throughout the show, the question as to culpability is brought up multiple times. Many times it is postulated that Hannah Baker bears the guilt, yet equally blame tends to be placed on those surrounding her. Clay asks “Did I kill Hannah Baker?” to which Tony responds “Yeah.” There is something of an expression of bad faith in Hannah Baker’s existence in this. The reason behind a decision to end one’s life is, and can, be located only in one place. In the agent responsible for decision making. The entire concept of constructing a list of reasons for one’s suicide shifts responsibility away from the free agent. None of the people she mentions, even the rapist, yes, even him, can be reasonably said to be the reason for her suicide. The cause of the suicide can be located one place and one place only, within Hannah Baker. Even the events leading to her death only contribute in so far as she allows them to. That is to say, the reasons are only reasons because she takes them as reasons. The process and the final action are all results of the exercise of her will. As such, the idea of pointing outside of herself and saying, “You are a reason I killed myself” is false. There is only one reason. It is Hannah Baker. Indeed, her project continues to portray a lack of responsibility throughout. Marcus Aurelius said that he had no moral issue with suicide, but that it should not be done in a spirit of theatricality. This goes in line with the general Stoic attitude on suicide, which I take to be the best secular expression of when suicide is permissible. Suicide was morally acceptable if the pain of life grew to great, but this was a choice made by the individual, realizing that their death was a clean break with the world they no longer wished to live in. As Epictetus said, “Remember that the door is open. Don’t be more cowardly than children, but just as they say, when the game is no longer fun for them, ‘I won’t play any more,’ you too, when things seem that way to you, say, ‘I won’t play any more,’ and leave, but if you remain, don’t complain.” Hannah Baker still wants to inhabit this world and vindicate herself against her enemies. She records her tapes to show others what they have done to her. Her reputation undergoes a renaissance as she continues to grasp for a place in this world even as she leaves it. Her mind, therefore, is divided between two realties. The cessation of this life, and the vindication of herself and the inflicting of a guilty conscience on her enemies. This, however, indicates not the rational Stoic choice, but delusion. Removing yourself from the world for the sake of your part in the world is akin to leaving a game to show others how upset you are about losing a point. Either leave for its own sake, or continue playing and do not complain. To do otherwise is petty. The person who still grasps for a place in this world as they kill themselves may carve out a shadow of a memory in the minds of their sympathizers after their death, but they retain nothing resembling full human agency. Vindication of a shadow means virtually nothing, even the meanest existence has more weight. However, that does not get at what may be the most important aspect of suicide. It is a grave sin.
The Contemptibility of Suicide
We must not, in our rush to demonstrate compassion for the person so firmly gripped by despair that they take their own life, or for their grieving loved ones, deny the most basic truth concerning suicide. That it is an inherently contemptible action. Like the foolish steward who buries what his master entrusts him, the suicide not only wastes what they have been given, they waste all potential they had for good. A further evil is also contained within suicide, however. Not only do they reject the divine good within them, they reject the divine good without as well. Within the act of self destruction is the implication that there is nothing in this world of sufficient worth to hold you. In order for suicide to be rational, it must be true that the universe is not created good, and that the force responsible for bringing you into existence was unjustified in doing so. Chesterton makes this point well, “Not only is suicide a sin, it is the sin. It is the ultimate and absolute evil, the refusal to take an interest in existence; the refusal to take the oath of loyalty to life. The man who kills a man, kills a man. The man who kills himself, kills all men; as far as he is concerned he wipes out the world.” This must be put in juxtaposition with the death of the martyr. The martyr also voluntarily destroys himself, but he does this for what exists outside of himself. The martyr values something in existence so highly he is willing to die for its sake. As such, his death is an act of love for existence. This distinction is again expressed well by Chesterton, “a suicide is the opposite of a martyr. A martyr is a man who cares so much for something outside him, that he forgets his own personal life. A suicide is a man who cares so little for anything outside him, that he wants to see the last of everything. One wants something to begin: the other wants everything to end.” Suicide, then, is of itself a contemptible act. That is not to say that there cannot be extenuating circumstances. Indeed, suicide becomes less contemptible the closer it comes to martyrdom. For instance, Cato killing himself for honor’s sake, while still disagreeable, is at least partially outwardly focused and therefore less contemptible. Hannah Baker, however, does not exhibit this. In sum, her suicide is not primarily a tragic example of the evils of bullying, it is an expression of personal sin. It is sloth, in that she refuses to accept the divine good within her. It is vainglory, in that it is based around the false consolation of vindication. Finally, it is contempt for both herself and the universe and, by extension, contempt for God.
What Ails Hannah Baker?
Those who know me personally or are familiar with this blog may be unsurprised to learn that what I think the primary issue which afflicts Hannah Baker is a intellectual and religious one. Now, I am fully aware that there are many people who commit suicide who are possessed of a religious sentiment and have a proper understanding of doctrine. Besides this, it could be objected that suicide is caused by factors which have primarily to do with human psychology, not religion. As such, my position that a lack of proper religion is to blame is naïve. Against this I would assert that the criticism does not adequately take into account the role that ideology plays in human life. Indeed, as somehow who thinks that human action and movements are primarily driven by ideas, not economic or biological determinism, it seems to me to be a fatal and inhuman mistake to attempt to explain human life and choices primarily in terms of any sort of mechanical or scientific way which strips the individual of the responsibility for their agency. Even if it were true (which it probably is) that brain chemistry or economic interest impacts the moral choices made by people, this strikes me as largely irrelevant to the more important factors. The important factor is the lens through which the person sees these influences. This lens of ideology determines what the person takes events as in relation to their motivation, and is the primary influence on their free choice, which is always the essential factor. However, it could still easily be pointed out that religious people often commit suicide as well, their ideology apparently not insulating them from such actions. Here it may be helpful to introduce the concept that philosopher Nelson Pike calls the “depth grasp.” Pike uses this to explain the relation of mystical experience and theological truth. A person may have intellectual knowledge of a concept, but the intimate experience of it effects a person on a deeper level and they come to know it on a more visceral and intuitive level. Pike illustrates this with the example of an adult whose mother died when he was very young. He knows his mother loved him, for he has been told so by reliable witnesses. However, when he has a vivid dream of his mother one night he awakens with a new realization that his mother did, indeed, love him very deeply. There is not a difference in information, but a difference in reception and internalization. What I am saying is that those who commit suicide, even if they have a religious background, lack the depth grasp of theological truth. They have not come to realize in the depths of their personhood that God loves them deeply. That is the fundamental ideological distinction between the Christian and the secular models. The Christian ideology is based on instilling this depth grasp, while the secular post-modern has no concept of it.
This takes us back to the earlier question regarding the theme of genuine humanity in a secularized Godless universe. The reason that despondency has come to be associated with depth of thought and a greater capacity to feel is because these feelings are what comes to fruition in the secular depth grasp. A person who experiences the ideas of meaninglessness and absurdity on a deep and personal level will unsurprisingly exhibit such characteristics. As such, there is something genuinely true concerning the insight that such persons experience something more deeply than do the more soulless analytic types, just as there is insight in the perception that there is a greater humanity in the exuberant internalization of holiness in the great saint than there is in the gloomy pessimism of the legalistic puritan. There is nothing wrong with the study of purity and the law, just as there is nothing wrong with analysis. However, both approaches in and of themselves are insufficient to truly grasp the idea they imply. Suicide, therefore, is the culmination of the secular depth grasp, while martyrdom that of Christianity.