Friday, November 16, 2012

Sunshine Limited

I don't place much value in philosophy. It has never solved any problems, only created them. It has never served to concentrate understanding, only to dilute it. And in philosophical arguments no side is ever deemed to be wrong, just varying degrees of correct. But I still enjoy a good debate as long as both sides belly up to the bar with the agreed upon understanding that no progress will be made on either front.

This subject piqued my interest when I watched the HBO adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's play "Sunshine Limited". It features a professor (played by Tommy Lee Jones) discussing whether life is worth living with a makeshift preacher and savior (played by Samuel L Jackson) in the preacher's home shortly after interrupting his new friend's suicide attempt. At one point the preacher accuses the professor of seeing only the shadows, and not realizing he is the one casting them. Whoa. Deep shit.

It got me thinking. The preacher claims he can see the darkness that his friend is dwelling in. He does not deny the professor his world view, just the cynical blinders he sees it with. The preacher is not a saintly figure. He is, in fact, a convicted murderer and former drunkard, and believes he has lived farther in the darkness than the professor ever will. But he thinks there is more to the world than just the shadows, and the professor just needs to turn around to see the light that is shining behind him. The almighty is offering a gift of everlasting life, and all that needs to be done is to accept it and believe that his soul is worth embracing, not because he is deserving of that embrace, but because the cost of the gift has already been paid by his savior. But the light at the professor's back is giving him no warmth, so it apparently goes unnoticed, and the professor must be so content in his world view that he will keep walking forward, staring into his own shadow until he meets his dismal end.

The story does a great job of convincing the viewer that the preacher is making headway in the argument. He walked through the shadows himself just to find that it is possible to simply turn around and bask in the warm light. And he tries desperately, but not forcefully, to appeal to the professor's will to live. But the debate is not so simple.

The professor listens carefully, and plays the role of the student for a long while. But when he speaks he makes his own perspective seem equally real. He is an educated man, and he carries the burden of high intellect. He wishes for the darkness. He is not walking with his view buried deep in his own shadow, but rather he is marching into the light with his eyes open to the brightness of knowledge, and the sadness, contempt, and hate that makes up the matrix of our reality. He explains that he is beyond saving by the very terms of the preacher's misguided faith, and even if he could believe, he has, as did Adam and Eve, committed the original sin of eating from the tree of knowledge. The flaw in the argument for the professor is in it's very premise. Far from secretly desiring the gift of eternal life that is being offered by the unapparent creator, he desires only nothingness. And in his death he hopes with every fiber of his being that nothingness will be his destination, because anything more would be too big of a disappointment for him to bear.

Ultimately neither man is able to persuade the other, as is the hallmark of any philosophical discussion, and the viewer is left to determine whether the depressing ending is more of a failure for the preacher or a validation for the professor. I certainly have my own personal leanings, which I would share with you if it would do either of us any good. But it wouldn't.



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