“To the poet and sage, all things are friendly and sacred, all experiences profitable, all days holy, all men divine.”
What are we supposed to do with our lives? This is the question that runs through Pixar’s new movie Soul. It’s a question that goes unanswered, and for good reason.
Pixar films’ commercial strength is producing animated movies that parents are happy to sit through. Soul is the most adult-friendly Pixar film I’ve seen. While other Pixar movies keep the parents happy with wry jokes and observations, Soul’s core story speaks directly to the hopes and fears of most of the adults watching. It’s almost uncomfortable to watch for that reason.
Soul follows Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx), a middle school music teacher, as he tries to find his life’s purpose. Joe is a gifted piano player but feels stuck in a rut. He dreams of being a jazz legend, playing prestigious clubs and concert halls. But his mother has different ideas, she thinks he ought to get a steady job with a pension and health insurance.
Like Joe, many of us are haunted by the feeling that we need to find a purpose in life. We feel envious of the famous, because they have found their purpose by being good at something. Many of us long only for riches or fame, even if those things are achieved in a meaningless way, since fame and money can be a proxy to purpose.
We obsess over our careers, or our hobbies, or being the perfect parent, thinking that a wrong choice will take us off track of our goal to fit a perfect mould that’s waiting for us in the future: the us with a purpose in life. Where does this come from?
The Death — and Afterlife — of Purpose
In pre-modern rigidly hierarchical societies everybody sort of had a purpose. Societies were structured like a pyramid. At the top of the pyramid was the king or the emperor. The monarch was ordained by God, and everybody thought they had their “place in life” thanks to God’s will.
The monarch ruled through nobles and spiritual leaders, who ruled above lords, who, in turn, ruled above artisans, merchants, peasants and serfs. All the way down people would have felt they had a place in life. There were few revolutions in the pre-modern world.
But by the nineteenth century this all began to break down. The Enlightenment and advancements of science meant that people began to question the commonly held narrative that human beings were at the centre of the universe, that everything had a meaning and purpose by the will of a patriarchal God.
Charles Darwin had published The Origin of the Species and breakthroughs were being made in fields like psychology and physics. After the Enlightenment-inspired American and French revolutions, the given order of society itself was in trouble. Revolutions swept across Europe in the middle of the century, breaking apart the previously rigid hierarchical structures, which were already an anachronism.
These societies became secular. Church and state were separated. Even seated monarchs were no longer supposed to be approved of by God. Politics became more rationalised and the middle classes (previously the merchant and artisan classes) started to wield more power for no reason other than economic clout.
The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche saw a spiritual crisis coming. In his book The Joyful Science (1882), he wrote,
“God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?”
Nietzsche doesn’t literally mean God is dead, even though he was an atheist. God can exist and this statement will stand. The passage is an allegory for the way that western civilisation no longer has a centre of gravity called “God” holding it together. The centrality of the concept of God was displaced by a confidence in reason and science.
But God bestowed meaning and purpose, and without God, western civilisation has been haunted with an anxiousness about purpose. Questions like “why are we here?” and “how should we live our lives?” are more easily answered in well-structured religious societies.
This could lead to a collective and individual crisis of purpose and meaning. As Nietzsche wrote, on the “death of God”:
“Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What did we do when we unchained the earth from the sun? […] Are we not perpetually falling? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Are we not straying as if through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space?”
In our secular, democratic and (somewhat) meritocratic societies, a rigid structure in which people have “their place” no longer exists.
But purpose is hard to shake off, especially in a void. We still think that there’s a meaning for our life to be found and that we have a purpose.
People still believe deep down that there must be a purpose for them alone — it is their purpose that gives their life meaning. We tend to obsess over finding our purpose. We invest huge amounts of time and money finding out what our purpose could be. What is the meaning of life is a persistent question people still ask.
This is what Nietzsche means using such grand language about “sacred games” and “festivals of atonement”. He’s saying: how the hell will people cope without meaning? If God is gone, people are untethered from having any purpose, they will be lost and left wandering for their whole lives.
People need meaning, and if they are not given it, they may take extreme action trying to find it. Nietzsche quipped that man would rather have the void for purpose than be void of purpose. The evils of fascism and communism in the twentieth century showed that people would go to extreme lengths to find meaning in a world they otherwise believe to be meaningless.
In Soul the characters refer to “spark” frequently. For a long time Joe confuses “spark” with “purpose”. He thinks that our spark is the meaning we have for our life, it’s the thing that we’re destined to do.
But the spark is really the “spark of life” — the enthusiasm to live for the sake of living. There are many beautiful moments in the film, where Joe’s unlikely companion, “22” (Tina Fey), experiences everyday moments — tasting a pizza, feeling the rush of air through a subway vent, seeing a maple seed fall from a canopy — as transcendent. The “spark” is being able to live in the moment and appreciate it with all your soul.
Joe took for granted all those commonplace, quietly beautiful moments because he was obsessed with realising his purpose. He was so focused and anxious about becoming a jazz star that he wasn’t appreciating the joy of just living.
As an epigraph of The Joyous Science, Nietzsche quoted the American philosopher and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “History”: “To the poet and sage, all things are friendly and sacred, all experiences profitable, all days holy, all men divine.”
Life is like dancing, there’s no goal but neither is any step lacking in importance. Above all, it should feel good, all the way through. You can live with purpose without a purpose.
It’s interesting that music plays such an important part of Soul, because music itself, no matter how much we love it, lacks purpose. On purpose and goals, Nietzsche wrote,
“The end of a melody is not its goal; but nonetheless, if the melody had not reached its end it would not have reached its goal either.”
For Nietzsche, this is a parable for life. There’s no “destination” or “completion” in a melody. The melody itself, fully expressed, is the goal.
Thank you for reading. I hope you learned something new.
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