Not long ago, Stanley Fish (professor of Humanities at Florida International University and public intellectual) took an opportunity to respond to critics who thought that a recent Coen brothers’ film, “True Grit,” “was dull and uninspiring.” In a reflection titled, “Narrative and the Grace of God” he defends the more muted narrative in this film, which lacks some of the flash or melodrama that moviegoers might wish for. Fish comments:
That’s right; there is an evenness to the new movie’s treatment of its events that frustrates Gagliasso’s desire for something climactic and defining. In the movie Gagliasso wanted to see — in fact the original “True Grit” — we are told something about the nature of heroism and virtue and the relationship between the two. In the movie we have just been gifted with, there is no relationship between the two; heroism, of a physical kind, is displayed by almost everyone, “good” and “bad” alike, and the universe seems at best indifferent, and at worst hostile, to its exercise.
Turning to the book which inspired both the original film (starring John Wayne), and its recent remake, Fish sketches a discussion of grace and meaning, and he notes,
There are no easy homiletics here, no direct line drawing from the way things seem to have turned out to the way they ultimately are. While worldly outcomes and the universe’s moral structure no doubt come together in the perspective of eternity, in the eyes of mortals they are entirely disjunct… In the novel and in the Coens’ film it is always like that: things happen, usually bad things (people are hanged, robbed, cheated, shot, knifed, bashed over the head and bitten by snakes), but they don’t have any meaning, except the meaning that you had better not expect much in this life because the brute irrationality of it all is always waiting to smack you in the face.
Fish’s comments on heroism, grasped from the teeth of the absurdity, are certainly not new. If anything, he represents one of the best versions of a long conversation in modern nihilism which includes Heidegger, Nietzsche, and Camus. The thinking goes: In this world, filled with strife, heroism is not to be pursued in the context of one’s contingency as a creature made by God, but rather in a radical rejection of theological structures of meaning. One should accept instead that this world is filled with absurdity. The true hero accepts this, forges his or her own way, and creates meaning in the midst of the chaos which threatens to overwhelm human society.
While one can appreciate threads that run through this way of thinking – the honesty to not accept the naïve optimism of a secular humanism that grasps at a religious faith emptied of meaning, the affirmation of the wholeness and physical integrity of persons in the midst of adversity, and a recognition that the sublime lies just under the surface of our ordinary experience – one must also note that these are intricately tied to nihilistic understandings of the world and the heroic paradigm that accompanies it (other contemporary examples might be, Fight Club, The Quiet Man, and American Beauty, perhaps). In a world without meaning, we must accept what we find, and make the most of it.
But this is not the only, or even the most obvious, way to read the world. If we sense that there is meaning to be found in human relationships, then it may be more sensible to affirm that this is because we are created, and that this world, though occasionally baffling, is not absurd, but beautiful, and filled with life and intentionality. Situations of violence, cruelty, and strife do not stand out as the norm, but rather stand out in such sharp relied because they contrast what we expect of the ordered regularity of creation. Human violence and injustice appal us not because we are naïve, but because it goes against the grain of the created universe. The world seems absurd if we try to narrate its movements without God, or worse still with a distorted image of who God is.