I’m not entirely sure if I’m supposed to relate the film to the particular philosopher it’s attached to or all the philosophers in the larger groupings. It reads, “Connect the movie to the philosophers…” but then it seems like we’re supposed to attach it simply to the philosopher in the same line as the film and to the larger heading. I did say in a past edition of this essay that I would focus on the philosopher listed, but things didn’t exactly turn out that way.
What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (?) is a film that clearly reflects the notion that the world and the people in it are fundamentally absurd. Gilbert Grape lives in a family where the youngest son, Arnie, is mentally challenged and was expected to die years before the story takes place. Why is Arnie mentally challenged? And why hasn’t he died or was fated to likely die? Obviously there is a scientific answer but often when people ask these questions they are not looking for a scientific answer (although science and implementation of said knowledge is how we actually solve the problems of the world conjoined with ethics, which is implied in implementation) but merely asking, “Why do bad things happen?” Neither Arnie, nor anyone else did anything to warrant being born handicapped and dense, or mentally nimble and overall virtuous (in the Aristotelian sense of the word) either. We simply are born who we are, with what we have genetically, with the family we have, in the country we have, in the short time we endure a self (or the illusion of a self if you ask some) to perceive the world as humans do. This film expresses this notion quite well. It’s simply a few days in the life of someone who doesn’t seem to have anything substantial in common with his family save a moral obligation and arguably a general sense of belonging or community – which I’ll get to later.
One easy to notice trait in Gilbert Grape is he isn’t much of anything. Like Ferris Bueller (Bueller? Bueller?), he doesn’t seem to be interested in or passionate about much save perhaps his youngest brother. But this would be better described as affection and a sense of obligation and sympathy rather than an interest in particular subject matter. This is made clear when Becky asks Gilbert Grape what he really wants. Many viewers of the film I would assume presume that Gilbert has sex on his mind but as to not offend Becky mentions something about Arnie and his family to sound noble. But perhaps he really is so detached and uninterested in anything relating to his own happiness that sex with Becky really didn’t cross his mind. This could be seen as Gilbert’s unique form of absurdity, self-denial, or it could be argued that he is unique in being free from the absurdity of pursuing one meaningless pleasure after another that others are prone to.
The broad meaning of Existentialism is commonly perceived as a search for meaning in a seemingly meaningless Universe, but Gilbert never once seems to reflect on any type of greater meaning in his life. One then might question even if he really reflects Camus or his thought, but Camus’ writings focused more on the human animal’s conscious but subconscious aspects as well – largely in-regard to our innate search for meaning and the absurdity of it in a absurd universe. As Camus himself states, “You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of. You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life.” As arguably a representation of this Gilbert instead defines himself by his relations to others (which is in a way very Existential) and instead of being self-absorbed in quandaries of existence he focuses on others while very few are concerned for or care for him in the same way. This is seen in Gilbert being definitively non-intellectual rather than stupid or anti-intellectual which is a stereotype of culture in the south. He possesses reason, but uses it only to the extent that is useful to his family, sacrificing his potential to maintain his relationship with them. His eldest sister clearly helps to keep the family together, his youngest sister is a cliché disgruntled teen and his mother has completely shut down (save from when he needs to get Arnie out of jail) and seems to only be emotionally attached in any meaningful or noticeable sense to Arnie and her husband who hung himself years ago.
This brings the mind to allusions of both Kafka and Dostoevsky. In Metamorphosis, Gregor is wholly responsible for the financial well-being of his family, and though they may seem to be thankful, there is a noticeable lack of warmth in the family that is often attributed to their financial dependence on Gregor, and therefore seeing him more as a tool (or buffoon) for their survival than a family member who they have strong feelings of affection for. This raises the notion (or at-least the question) if one can love someone purely and without attachments if one exists in a material world full of attachments both economically, socially and egotistically (psychologically). Or rather, Kant points out (as the Anarchists do) that is immoral to see and use a human being solely as a means and not as an end in his or her-self. But does using an individual (with their consent) for one’s own benefit invariably alter the relationship or even prevent the individual from seeing those around them as ends-in-themselves that are loved as humans rather than appreciated as tools? I’m not entirely certain. I personally find that it is not immoral to recognize that we always see those in our lives as both Means and Ends, but this does not change the fact that the relationship will inevitably be decided partially on the degree and form of how this dichotomy takes place. Once could view this as a form of absurdity, that not only our actions but our very feelings towards others is merely a social obligation done out of expectation and a certain compensation for what others do for us. In this view, no one is truly and utterly a friend to anyone in the Aristotelian view, for Aristotle defined friendship as a bond we have for those who we care for their welfare and happiness for their own sake, and not how it influences or lives and wishes.
Dostoevsky comes to mind because he claims (or his narrator does, to the extent his character reflects his views is debatable – though the novel’s beginning is full of such dry and repetitive ramblings divorced from any telling of any actual story that I’m led to believe that such yammering could ever be conceived from a mind that is genuinely spouting the product of one’s thoughts rather than creating a character that is doing so divorced from one’s actual views) that only the fool becomes anything and the man of intelligence suffers from what he calls intellectual inertia. That is he will collapse upon himself and be totally unconvinced of any path he should take. In a way this describes Gilbert’s inability to find any real passion or attachment towards anything save Arnie and Becky. His attachment to Arnie could be seen as the intellectual component of the human brain finding meaningful attachment to a fluid and impermanent world to the extent that it attaches itself to non-intellectual components. Whether this be emotional, fondness for nostalgia, sensual enjoyment the intellect of the human brain finds purpose in day-to-day activities to the extent that it is connect to something non-intellectual – to reiterate. His fondness towards Becky (which rarely manifests in the most obvious forms portrayed in Hollywood which I may get to later) could be seen as the intellect being overwhelmed by beauty or a sense of romanticism. Once again, Becky and Gilbert seem to have very-little if anything in common in-terms of interests or desires, yet they develop a friendship and romantic coupling based arguably almost solely on lust being portrayed as affection of the more “noble” romantic sort – similar to how many songs sing about “love” in a way that is essentially nothing more than a masquerade done out of the inability to speak of fucking; or a by-product (if such sentiments are sincere as they often are) of such desire to copulate at the very-most.
The film could also be argued as an argument for Kierkegaard’s perspective (or an element of his perspective) in some ways. For Kierkegaard argues that meaning cannot be found in reason and in a nuanced way I both agree and disagree. What we intrinsically find meaning in is fundamentally non-rational (that is though it is not always irrational, it is not dictated by reason) but using reason, we can cultivate individuals to find meaning in more rational endeavors and pursue those endeavors in a meaningful and productive way. This can be seen in Gilbert Grape’s failure to run off with Becky (or at-least it’s never mentioned though I questioned why he didn’t do so the first possible moment he potentially could) and instead finds meaning instead in his family though they give him more suffering and less joy – at-least on the surface. It could be that his family gives him a certain form of psychological and existential security (defining himself through his good relations with his family and their dependence on him) that it would be hard to indefinitely verify due-to the lack of Gilbert ever being meaningfully detached or separate from his family. The best example we have is after he hit Arnie and he clearly is distraught and feels ashamed. It therefore would seem rational to assume that he likely feels he has broken his good relations with Arnie (and therefore with his family which is largely defined by Arnie) and a significant factor in how he defines himself has been temporarily undone.
Defining himself through others has obvious Sartrean aspects. I’ve already mentioned them in-relation to Kafka, Camus and Existentialism in-general, so I’ll be brisk here; but ultimately it seems that his relationship to Arnie could be seen as a power-play in some regards that both Sartre and Nietzsche believe is at the heart of (or at-least a defining and inevitable aspect of) every relationship. The Master and the Slave. The Submissive and the Dominant. This can be seen clearly in Arnie jumping on Gilbert’s back and riding him though he is days away from being the legal age of an adult, and clearly doesn’t require Gilbert for transportation. And yet both of them seem in their own ways to enjoy this activity. Gilbert could be argued performs this act somewhat begrudgingly and out of social expectation and desire for ease (Arnie will be upset and his family will likely scold him for not allowing Arnie piggy-back rides) but also largely out of a desire to be submissive to Arnie’s desires because Arnie’s happiness brings Gilbert joy and a sense of purpose he seems to be unable to find in other relations. This can also be seen in Becky kissing Gilbert only when she states she wishes to see his mother and he refuses. The obviousness of the power-play is slightly humorous and it’s a brief moment of manipulation that seems uncharacteristic of a person who otherwise seems ethical in the most basic and conventional sense of the word.
Some argue that marriage is a wholly “patriarchal” or “misogynistic” institution (and would be if it was done largely as an exchange of property as it was predominantly done for in centuries past and in parts of the world today) but clearly this is deemed absurd if even we accept the Sartrean and Nietzschean point that relationships have “Masters” and “Slaves” that some people have a yearning to be in varying degrees submissive and play a certain role out of a sense of purpose and joy it gives them. This is largely why women choose to be mothers. It certainly isn’t a picnic. So unless one is to accept that it is entirely (or largely) done out of a need to conform to social dictates, it seems rational to assume that a large aspect in desired parenthood (ignoring unwanted pregnancies) is the biological desire to procreate (not only to have sex though that is a major factor in many if not most of the population of humanity) which is experienced as a desire to create life that one cultivates, is responsible for, and spends a sizable amount of efforts and passions tending to the nurturing of. Submissive aspects in our society are only a problem only if they are unwelcomed or based on illegitimate coercion (e.g. the Government violating the Non-Aggression Principle and forcing humans to live by a code that is exterior to their own. Capitalists creating unjust social relations of employer and employee. Religions indoctrinating people with the unhealthy view of complete abnegation of self to any God, though clearly this instinct of worship is latent in many – or at the very-least the material for it is latent in many and then takes the form it does given religious influence. Etc, etc, etc) or if they are welcome but take an unhealthy role or degree that is of great detriment to the individual. The son who is so submissive to the father that he never truly knows who he is or learns to act on his own authority for example.
Another quick example of absurdity is the relationship ‘tween Gilbert and Becky. Though they clearly have romantic inclinations towards each other, we see them kiss only when Becky wants to meet Gilbert’s mother and we assume copulate only the night before Becky is about to leave. This can be seen as a type of absurdity, or the counter-example of the conventional story in Hollywood could be seen as absurd. –
How the movie could be seen as analogous to a form of epistemology we discussed in class is harder to discern. I suppose argued that the reality of Gilbert Grape’s is not one of facts detached from himself but facts that have significance only in their relation to him and how his relation to his family his affected. The knowledge itself is arbitrary, save its relation to Gilbert despite him seeing dispassionate. This could then be seen as the basis for incorporation of knowledge into the psyche and the attention it is paid by the conscious mind rather than a theory of how knowledge is attained or verified. Unless one would like to make an argument for a type of “moral sentimentalism.” Namely that (though we didn’t discuss this in class) an action is correct to the extent that it conforms to the largest degree of proper (though defining proper moral sentiment and discriminating the vast varieties of sentiment to various situations becomes a problem) moral feeling or sentiment. Therefore, though Gilbert likely reflected that he would be happier with Becky, he knows that it is morally right to stay with his family because despite what reason my tell him the mere feeling of moral obligation means that to stay with his family is the morally correct thing. This could be related to art due-to many artists feeling strongly compelled to create art, and feel justified in putting their efforts towards art, despite potential reasoning that feeding the homeless or protesting corruption would be a more just and rational use of one’s time and energies. In this and other regards previously mentioned, I suppose it could be argued that this movie then is a (roughly) Humean take on Existentialism.