Three Tiny Essays: Last Men, Judge Doom, and the Ennui of Physics

I just came across a video clip “explaining” Nietzsche’s concept of the Last Man, which it depicts with the example of a fat man on a couch, looking fairly decrepit and watching television.

While certainly this scene is mindless and dispiriting enough, it is absolutely not what the concept of the Last Man is about, any more than cowboy hats and gumbo describe everything south of the Mason-Dixon line.

In actuality, the Last Man is every bit as likely to be outgoing, good-looking, clean-cut, keen on fitness and careful about his diet, dedicated to his job, a productive and enthusiastic worker, someone “going places”, a pillar of the community. For the problem of the Last Man is not that on the outside he is fat, but that on the inside he is frozen. He cannot imagine, challenge or risk anything outside of the lines (and values) he has been given, and so is given over to a secret inner passivity, which he scrupulously ignores but which creates in him a constant nagging discontent. Out of the instinct to relieve this discontent, he finds nothing worth seeking but comforts and numbing distractions; he bases his life on “metrics”; he blinks his way into success and love—or rather, into the shadow of these things, which he ever mistakes for them.

* * *

Not too long ago, I re-watched “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”. The splicing together of animation and live-action is well-done—especially for 30 years ago—but really all I could think was, Christopher Lloyd did one hell of a number as Judge Doom. It’s almost too good; it overpowers the rest of the movie. I remember as a kid it scared me so much I couldn’t watch the whole thing to the end—and apparently this kind of reaction was reasonably common.

Even now I regard the backstory of the Doom character as by far the biggest and most interesting unresolved question mark of the movie. No morally bearable explanation could be given, I suspect. A cartoon who learns to pass for human, then rises to become a worldly, evil mastermind—now here is a “self-made man”, someone who overcame their humble origins, with all that that really entails! He’s also the most prophetic if you think in terms of his cherished vision of a thruway-based suburban hell in southern California, which completely came to pass (anyone who has seen LA knows the last 10 minutes of the movie is sheer wistful revisionism; in our universe, Doom obviously won).

This led me to wonder: is it possible for a being to be so intensely mirthful, so completely unapologetic in their fun and so free of the camouflage of irony (which inevitably indicates a drearily respectable modicum of self-reproach), that no other ordinary being can grasp how momentously funny and original they really are? Their colorfulness is so intense, so to speak, as to be off the spectrum, invisible to normal eyes. One might see Judge Doom this way: his black outfit is not really black, but ultraviolet.

* * *

Many scientists and philosophers, like Eugene Wigner in his famous essay “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences”, say that the very fact that physics is possible—in the sense that observed events pantomime strict mathematical regularities, or vice versa—is a “wonderful gift”. But could we not just as well describe it as a curse? What, after all does it mean? Physics essentially presents us with a form of “eternal recurrence of the same”: it posits that the same kinds of events, and only those kinds, will keep happening for all time—without reinvention, without reprieve, only conceptual tinkering round the edges, and even that only when desperately necessary. (The great French mathematician Poincaré even proved a theorem reminiscent of this, though not quite the same.) Possibility, then, becomes miserably circumscribed, hyperconservative; everything soon becomes mundane, without depth. What is possible we quickly codify in theories and formulae, and once these reach a certain precision there is nothing more one need ever be sure of. From that point, reality itself seems to suffer from a kind of exhaustion.

What can the physicist’s fixation upon “reproducibility” be construed as if not a desire for repetition, for recurrence, a perpetual re-visiting of the same limited compass of well-behaved experiences? (An ascetic tendency, most likely.) And because existence, after physics, has been left with no depth, one can never even hope to grasp why this monotony, why this frozen sameness, nor see an end to it! The quantum level tells us the underlying reality is of the most peculiar, foggy, insubstantial, incomprehensible strangeness; this is not un-mysterious, but rather mysterious in a way that still offers no hope. This is what it means to feel that the universe has been rendered as something dead, as somehow a husk. One only hopes it is wrong, wrong, wrong—or else one waits longingly for the Nietzschean Overman, the one who overcomes his origins, who somehow will joyfully endure it all with a humor we cannot comprehend!

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