The Dude Abides—But Should He?
On The Big Lebowski and Nihilism
By: Jeremy Sheeler
The Big Lebowski is one of the greatest films ever written.
This is a fact about the world in which we live. It is not merely my subjective opinion. But why is it so beloved? If you think about it, nothing really even happens. I mean, of course, lots of things “happen”—it’s very complicated: a lot of ins, a lot of outs, a lot of what-have-yous—but in the end, nothing of any meaning or consequence has occurred: nothing’s changed. Sure, Donny died, but—Fuck it—that wasn’t even enough to stop the Dude and Walter from competing in the semis. What makes The Big Lebowski so great, though —apart from being the most quotable movie of all time—is that it is essentially a statement about the souls of us Americans at the end of the 20th century.
Fifteen years ago, The Big Lebowski was released in theaters and was roundly rejected by the American court of public opinion. But as Oliver Benjamin, founder of the Church of the Latter-Day Dude, notes, it was a different world back then: America was still in “full-achievement mode,” riding high on government surpluses and the techno-optimism of Silicon Valley. Or maybe we were just too busy playing with our Furbies and getting jiggy with it to have much time for any introspection. Since then, however, a “Great Lebowski Re-evaluation,” as Benjamin calls it, “gradually took root among the youth counterculture after the goddamn plane crashed into the building," and the movie is now considered to be one of the most revered cult classics of all time.
I guess a stolen presidential election, the deadliest attack on US soil ever, two endless wars, a failing economy, soaring personal and national debt, and the resulting loss of faith in leaders at all levels of public and private life will tend to change one’s perspective a bit. It seems the Coen Brothers were just a bit ahead of their time, though, and at the end of the “Go-Go 90s,” we were not quite ready for what is essentially a story about a bunch of Nihilists. And that’s really what this film is all about. There are, of course, “The Nihilists”—fucking amateurs—but in truth, every major character in the film is a Nihilist: The Dude with his passivity/laziness; The Big Lebowski with his capitalist/aristocratic posturing; Walter with his confused obsession with militarism and rules; and Maud with her lame provocativeness and abstract post modern art; (I’ll excuse Donny because, other than his love of bowling—and apparently surfing—we don’t really know a whole lot about him).
Nihilism, as Flea and the rest of his German cohorts so succinctly state—We believe in nothing, Lebowski—comes from the Latin word nihil, meaning “nothing.” It is the belief that “life is without objective meaning, purpose or intrinsic value” and that morality does not inherently exist. Basically, everything is just like your opinion, man: there is no “Truth,” only individual perspectives—No it did not look like Larry was about to crack. That's your perception; and, as Julianne Moore observes about the characters, “Everybody’s in their own universe and the worlds kind of collide.” The problem of Nihilism, however, has been around a little longer than 9/11, and it is certainly no cosmic accident that the Coens wrote “The Nihilists” as German immigrants.
The first use of the word Nihilism is credited to the 18th century German philosopher, Friedrich Jacobi. But the most well-known and fully elaborated exploration of the problem was by another German, Friedrich Nietzsche in the mid-late 19th century. He famously posited the problem as, “God is dead. And we have killed him. Yet his shadow still looms.” Enlightenment rationalism and science, Nietzsche thought, had made belief in Christianity untenable, and as an avowed atheist and “Antichrist,” he more or less welcomed its demise. However, he also realized that the shadow of God which continued to loom had caused a darkness to wash over the future: even though we now believe we no longer need God, we still retain the existential need for ideals and beliefs to give our world meaning, structure and value.
Karen Carr, in her book The Banalization of Nihilism: 20th Century Responses to Meaninglessness, describes Nietzsche's characterization of Nihilism "as a disproportion between what we want to value (or need) and how the world appears to operate." Essentially, we all still want to believe that there is cosmic support for what we value, but the strict materialism of modern science is unable to give us any equivalent to what the concept of God (Christian or otherwise) provided. Modern science describes human beings, and everything else in the world, as nothing more than matter in motion, as “Selfish Genes” striving to perpetuate themselves, as temporary cogs in an ever-evolving flux. And the characters in The Big Lebowski represent the banal responses that we have come up with so far as solutions to this problem.
Nietzsche described this type of reaction as “Passive Nihilism,” or “Western Buddhism”—and it is not surprising that, according to Jeff Bridges, “among a lot of Buddhists the Dude is considered a Zen master.” Nietzsche called this ascetic attitude a “will to nothingness”—a turning away from a world in which there is nothing of value to be found. Many who have watched this film, though, have found value in this lifestyle, and in 2005, the Church of the Latter-Day Dude was born. In our American culture of superficiality and materialism, founded on stimulating and inflaming desire, this does seem like a pretty reasonable response. But, as Walter reminds us: if you will it, it is no dream—if you consciously choose to will nothingness, then nothing will be exactly what you get.
The Big Lebowski
In opposition to the Dude, he represents “Active Nihilism,” or what Nietzsche called the Ubermensch, or “Superman”—except that he is a complete fraud: my father’s weakness is vanity, hence the slut. Nietzsche thought that a possible solution to Nihilism might be a strong willed individual who posits his own values to create new meaning for the world. However, when this idea came to America, it was easily adapted to our concept of “Rugged Individualism” and co-opted by Ayn Rand for her philosophy of capitalist producers vs. parasites—Your revolution is over Mr. Lebowski. Condolences, the bums lost. But the irony is that the Big Lebowski’s life is, in reality, nothing but an exaggerated shadow projected onto a wall; a willing of a lifestyle that is entirely empty—hence meaningless and valueless.
Another response to Nihilism is to simply close one’s eyes, pretend God is not dead and believe in anything you can find that will give your life meaning and purpose. Walter is obsessed with rules that give structure and direction to life: This is not Nam, Smokey. This is bowling. There are rules; Has the whole world gone crazy? Doesn’t anyone give a shit about the rules anymore?! There is also his surprising admiration for the “ethos” of National Socialism—say what you want about its tenets, though—which becomes even more confusing when coupled with his commitment to his ex-wife’s Judaism and its three thousand years of beautiful tradition from Moses to Sandy Koufax. He is an exaggerated satirization of the Conservative response and the seeming arbitrariness with which they cherry pick traditions in an attempt to find meaning.
And then there is the hipster. Maud is pure show and empty provocation—from the affectation of her voice and her collection of obscure LPs to her abstracted art (which has been commended as being highly vaginal) and her desire to have a child with someone who she won’t have to see socially. She is everything that is wrong with the art world today in the wake of the dissolution caused by Nihilism and the death of God. Instead of creating beautiful ideals for one’s culture to imbue life with meaning, art has become the preserve of a snobbish, cynical elite, which looks down with disdain upon the ignorant (religious) masses. And the artwork itself is completely nonrepresentational—a mirror of the apparent chaos and meaninglessness of the universe.
In a section on the 10th anniversary DVD called The Dude Abides, John Turtorro—who plays the Jesus, the Dude’s nemesis—jokingly complains that “college kids are not going to classes because of The Big Lebowski and that’s why our society is in crisis.” He then asks, “The Dude, what kind of example is he?” And perhaps that’s not a bad question to ask. To abide means, “to accept or submit to.” While there is unquestionably something admirable in the Dude’s Stoicism and anti-materialism in the midst of the pleasure-dome of Los Angeles, he is certainly no hero, either. While the Dude tattoos “fuck it” on his forehead, the Big Lebowskis and the Mauds and the Walters and the fucking Fascists will continue to destroy everything of value and meaning, until one day this whole darn human comedy will stop perpetuating itself down through the generations. At some point, we must stop takin’er easy because we cannot abide another toe. We must draw a line in the sand, and say: This aggression will not stand!