Out of the Blue, Into the Black

They shoot the terrible master, don’t they?

Fifteen years ago, the late writer David Foster Wallace gave a commencement speech at Kenyon College, which has since become a sort of viral text of existentialism, which is to say a form of morbid self-help. Wallace reminded the graduating seniors of the trap of our “natural default setting,” in which we are “uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out.” We are not only the protagonists of our own stories, but also the lonely black hole at the center of our mundane universes. It’s inescapable — we are always smack in the dead center of our own daily dramas — a condition as inexorably true as the gravity that sucks light into supermassive density. “The plain fact is that you graduating seniors do not yet have any clue what ‘day in day out’ really means,” Wallace told his audience, but he assured them: “The parents and older folks here will know all too well what I’m talking about.”

The NBC sitcom The Good Place ended this week, wrapping up an audacious experiment in 22-minute, episodic television that attempted to wed classic questions of philosophy to a comic narrative about people coping with a bewildering and complicated afterlife. Without spoiling too much, it is fair to say that the central characters — Eleanor, Chidi, Jason, Tahani, Michael, and Janet — had to come to terms not only with the world as it is, but the world as it could be. The terms of service for the Afterlife were absurd and surreal, as the show gradually revealed; and the characters spent most of their time caught up in tangles of love and conflict as they tried to avoid eternal damnation or eternal extinction, one way or the other.

As the final episode made clear, Hell itself was always a giant MacGuffin. As long as Eleanor and company were focused on saving their hides from the machinations of the celestial justice system, their lives made sense. Once they had the chance to rewrite the rules of the system and face forever on new, more reasonable terms, all the enforced scarcity of their dramatic storyline melted away. They were left to consider not just the ethical or moral choices in any given difficult situation — which the series had ably explored up to this point — but the existential choice of what a life of infinite possibility would mean.

In other words, eternal life in Paradise is obviously, inevitably boring. As the poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti said, in Pictures of the Gone World (1955):

The world is a beautiful place
                                                    to be born into
if you don’t mind happiness
                                            not always being
                                                                       so very much fun
       if you don’t mind a touch of hell
                                                       now and then
                 just when everything is fine
 because even in heaven
                                  they don’t sing
                                                        all the time

Without the threat of death imposing a limit on life, we are left to consider what to do with all the time — what makes life meaningful and interesting, and when it might rightly be over, if we truly had a say in the matter. What if our loved ones never left, as we so wish they would not? What if there were no outer bound? What if we could have everything we wanted, forever? Somehow, the moral dilemmas are even greater and more intractable in this perfect situation than one would expect. C.S. Lewis’s earnest work of Christian apologetics, The Problem of Pain (1940), which tried to provide a theological justification for why bad things happen, comes to mind.

In the end, our friends Eleanor and Chidi had to reckon with death and loneliness all over again — because in the end, they were always “uniquely, completely, imperially alone.” In the end, there was no Afterlife. Just more life. Until there wasn’t.

Here is our round-up of the best reads of the week: