Watching Mad Max: Fury Road (Miller 2015), which I very much enjoyed, I was struck by how existentialist the film was; indeed, it made me realize that all post-apocalyptic fiction has an existentialist seed. But then, there is also something post-apocalyptic about existentialism. God is dead, spake Friedrich Nietzsche in 1882. God remains dead. And we have killed him. If that doesn’t announce an apocalypse, I don’t know what does.
When Nietzsche declared God dead, he was not making a metaphysical claim but rather a moral and psychological claim: at one point, humanity relied on the authority of God to guarantee moral questions. In order to decide what to do, what kind of decision to make, they appealed to God; moreover, this appeal was beyond question. But as Nietzsche pointed out, by the end of the seventeenth century God no longer had ultimate moral authority. People might well still believe in God and derive their morality from that belief, but it was no longer the case that any moral code, any moral prescript, was unquestionable. God as a figure for absolute norms was dead. This was not a physical apocalypse but it was, at least, a social and ethical one. And as with so many apocalypses, some of us survived it (though, as Dallas Hunt might point out, the question is not so much “did we survive?” but “who is the ‘we’ that survived?”).
I cannot give a concise history of existentialism here, but there are some highlights worth remark. One of Soren Kierkegaard’s contributions was identifying existential angst: the anxiety felt upon recognizing at the same time the full scope of possibilities before you and the fact that you can only choose one of them, without any objective external means to choose between them. Jean-Paul Sartre, famously, declared absolute values null and void; instead, we must make our own values to live by. The maxim he gave for such creation was that you must be willing to universalize anything you do—unlike Kant, however, he did not think that this would lead to an objective rational moral law. In order for such a value to be authentic, for Sartre, you must both be aware that you created it yourself and you must take into account what is possible. Albert Camus disagreed that we must create our own meaning for the world, saying that the only authentic thing is to face the world’s absurdity directly (a piece of jargon: absurdity is the human desire for meaning in the world coupled with the absence of any such meaning in the world).
Less famous is Ernest Becker, an existential psychologist; I have discussed his work here already. Becker has argued that all worldviews—that is, assignments of value to certain things and not others—arise from the attempt to invest ourselves in something that will survive our death and therefore give us immortality. We fear death, so we make these investments—in children, in prayer, in philanthropy—but in order for the investments to work, the things in which we invest must matter. Therefore the mere acknowledgement that our worldviews might be incorrect is a threat against our (eternal) lives. This fear is the reason why so many people are defensive about their beliefs: on a psychological level, questioning your beliefs is like facing death itself. The great irony of human existence is the human capacity of symbolic thought; it gave rise to civilization and everything good about it, but it is also the reason we hate and kill one another over what seem like mere differences of opinion. However, those who can acknowledge that their worldviews might be false, who can grapple with this possibility, tend to be less hostile toward those with different worldviews.
In other words, if I were to summarize existentialism, it might be as this: we make myths, and it is better if we understand that they are made and not given.
Apocalypses in general tend to reduce all of the common life narratives (myths about how a person should live their life) available to the surviving population. There are various questions people must make in the world as it is, having to do with what sorts of activities or objects or relationships give a life meaning or value, and these questions can give a lot of people anxiety. Indeed, something that might plague people of my generation in particular (the so-called millennials) is that we feel as though we have no useful guidance in making these decisions. Oh, there may be many people with opinions, but it is clear that their advice works better for the kind of situation they found themselves in at our age and not for us in the current culture, not fur us with these particular concerns, not for us in those economic straits. The nice thing about an apocalypse is that it seems to obliterate all of those concerns and therefore obliterates those anxieties. The apocalypse frees us from aging structures which hamper our ability to make meaningful decisions.
Of course, as any existentialist can tell you, freedom already exists, and it is terrifying. The apocalypse would just make this fact undeniable. If there are no social structures left, what kind of opportunities do you have for a meaningful life? What kinds of narratives can you draw on? There are none left. If you thought there already wasn’t enough advice because the world has become somewhat different, how bad would that lack be if the world changed entirely?
Here is an abridged version of Mad Max: Fury Road’s opening monologue:
My name is Max. My world is fire. And blood. Once, I was a cop; a road warrior searching for a righteous cause. As the world fell, each of us in our own way was broken. It was hard to know who was more crazy. Me… or everyone else.
[…] So I exist in this wasteland. A man reduced to a single instinct: survive.
Once, Max lost “a righteous cause” and began looking for a new one, something to give his life meaning. It is implied he could not find one; in a world without meaning, he and all others were damaged. The world became “crazy”—but what could that mean? What is madness? In the context of the film and the trailers, madness seems to suggest that the populace of the wasteland make irrational decisions in order to survive it, but as the film goes on it becomes clear that this is not quite the case. At any rate, Max claims that he exists in this wasteland, and he is “reduced” to an “instinct” for survival.
As I just discussed, Max’s reduction to mere survival could appear freeing for many viewers. The anxieties regarding social significance and the symbolic world would be washed away with civilization; all that would matter is the contact between the person and the world as that person worked for sustenance. All well and good, explaining the genre’s appeal to those of us frustrated by the symbolic and significant social world, except for one thing: the film’s entirety suggests otherwise. Life in the wasteland is a constant struggle for something more than mere survival simply as the postponement of death.
Immortan Joe brags that he holds his power because he controls water. At first, I had diagnosed his political authority as the most literal possible version of biopower: the ability to let die or make live rather than the pre-modern king’s ability to let live or make die. Joe controls the populace because he can let them die if they do not live as he likes, not because he can make them die (though he can do this, too). He more directly controls the bodies of his more direct servants: his war boys spray their bodies with chrome and expose themselves to carcinogens; his women are hooked up to produce milk or penned up to produce babies; his prisoners are made to live so their blood can be distributed to his minions. Even if they wished to die, he can still make plenty of them live the lives he has chosen for them.
However, it cannot be that Immortan Joe’s power really resides in his control over bodies, their fluids, and the fluids necessary to maintain them. He cannot maintain this power through his control of water, since he first needs control over his minions to control the water. Rather, Immortan Joe makes his power by providing a myth. Joe offers his war boys—the military and automotive muscle enforcing his rule, literally controlling the floodgates—a chance to enter Valhalla, a warrior heaven. One can enter Valhalla in various levels of status; the highest status is for Immortan Joe to look directly at you and promise to take you there himself. Entrance into Valhalla occurs after death, so his war boys have a particular incentive not only to do Joe’s bidding, but to be willing to die on his orders. In Becker’s sense, the myth he provides gives life in the wasteland structure and meaning—overcoming absurdity—and softens the fear of death—producing courage and overcoming terror: “I am your redeemer!” he shouts as the camera shows not so much individuals but rather living bodies as a populace inside a fortress. “It is by my hand that you will rise from the ashes of this world,” he says, specifically prescribing himself as remedy to all that the wasteland means. But in order for his myth to work, it must be absolutely true. There is no room for doubt or misgiving or alternate paths to salvation; Immortan Joe must be the one and sure way to immortality.
The absolute nature of Joe’s myth allows him absolute rule. With absolute myth and absolute rule, the familiar destructive trappings of civilization arise again: fierce hierarchy, suspicion towards outsiders, territorial disputes, and strict oppressive social roles organized unsurprisingly around physical ability and biological sex. Even with a very flimsy myth Immortan Joe is able to recreate the very worst sort of civilization in the wasteland’s symbolic and mythical vacuum. This is the craziness of which the monologue speaks, but it is not a craziness motivated by mere bodily survival: it is a craziness motivated by the attempt to avoid absurdity and the fear of death. It is a craziness in which Max seems to take no part.
Enter Furiosa. Furiosa possesses a counter-myth, which she passes on to the Wives. Her myth is of her half-remembered motherland, the Green Place, where there is water and vegetation. More importantly, the water and vegetation are free to all; in the Green Place, no one controls access to the things your body needs, so no one controls your body. For at least half of the film Furiosa and the Wives are oriented in this myth’s direction, pursued by the war boys; it is only Furiosa’s repeated insistence on the Green Place’s existence that keeps them moving forward. “They’re looking for hope,” she explains to Max, who seems to doubt that the Green Place even exists. But in a pivotal point in the film, Furiosa and the Wives discover that their myth was false after all and the Green Place had been destroyed. All but a few seeds remained with the few aged survivors of the Vuvulini, Furiosa’s people.
A strange thing then happens: Furiosa, the Vuvulini, and the Wives decide to strike out across the salt flats in the hopes of finding a new Green Place. This course of action will almost certainly kill them all. There is no reason to suppose that there will be a Green Place out in that direction; all they have is the remote possibility of an oasis. Yet they refuse to give up on the myth. Even Nux, now a convert to Furiosa’s counter-myth, decides to go with them; he is still a very young man looking for his place in the world and he has long ago learned that such a place is bought with death. Only Max declines; he is skeptical that there is such a Green Place (“But I guarantee you that a hundred and sixty days’ ride that way… there’s nothing but salt.”) and it does not seem like it would matter much to him if there was. He tries to convince them to turn back with him against the Citadel. At first they set out across the flats, but as they depart they change their minds and resolve to take Max up on his offer.
At the end of the film, Nux has succeeded in dying for a cause (or, to “die historic on the fury road”), Immortan Joe lays killed in an automotive wreckage, and the Vuvulini are dead; after all this, Furiosa, Max, and the surviving Wives return to the Citadel. They take it over, release the waters, and rebuild the Green Place—and then Max leaves. Though Furiosa and Max worked together to kill Immortan Joe and end the absolutist myth that depended on him, Max’s way and Furiosa’s are nonetheless different—one commits, one wanders—and they represent the two existentialist options.
Furiosa’s way is the postmodern myth, of which someone like Becker would approve. Taking the materials of her past—the Citadel itself on the one hand, the Vuvulini’s seeds on the other—she and the liberated Wives create their own Green Place. They no longer rely on a myth that exists outside of themselves; instead, they build and continue to nurture their myth by their own efforts. The Green Place is still a myth. But they know they have built the myth; since they know they have built it, they do not require absolute, unchanging belief in it in order to sustain it. Therefore their myth is (relatively) free from the defensiveness that Immortan Joe’s myth relied upon. They will still defend it—Nux died to defend it—but with luck and self-awareness they will still manage to be hospitable; certainly the image of releasing the waters and allowing the war boys to make their own decisions suggests that.
(It is perhaps a stretch to say that Furiosa’s body reflects the way that, by the end, her myth is both real and constructed. Such a body works perfectly well; her body, like her vehicle and her rifle, works better than most. Perhaps it is a stretch, but I don’t think it is much of one.)
Max, on the other hand, has no desire to live in a myth. He helps Furiosa turn her received myth into a made myth and he helps her replace Immortan Joe. But he moves on, silently, exchanging looks with Furiosa as though to say he has no place but to wander. The explanation is that he flees from the ghosts of the people who died under his protection. There is the implication that his righteous cause is to protect people until they can protect themselves, but the final words of the film suggest something different. “Where must we go… / we who live in this Wasteland in search of our better selves?,” he says, the words appearing in black on the screen. Consider how this differs from the opening monologue: he is not “reduced” to the mere “instinct [to] survive.” For Max living in the wasteland now involves a search, though it is not a search for anything outside of himself, or even within himself: it is a search for a self he would want to become. Max resembles an existentialist more in the vein of Nietzsche, Sartre, or Camus, the one who tries to give up all myths in the active, continual movement from potential options to actual decisions; Nietzsche’s developmental vision (camel, then lion, then child) seems to fit, but Camus might be most appropriate. Camus wrote that after meaning there is only love, and when he is not merely surviving Max is motivated by the desire to help others survive. He is thus the wanderer, more appropriate to the wasteland than to the citadel, rejecting all symbol and significance.
But is such a thing sustainable for us? And does Max really give up all symbol? The film suggests otherwise. In Max’s narration the wasteland itself is a potent and recurring symbol for the lack of myth, meaning, and civilization. Max’s association with the wasteland may be an anti-myth, but it is a myth nonetheless, a set of values and beliefs that guide decisions and give those decisions significance. It is thus most fitting that of all of the film’s characters, Max seems least real, particularly toward the very beginning and the very end. He appears as though from nothing and his past only appears as a nameless haunting; his future is uncertain, unknown. Taken together, Fury Road and the franchise’s three previous films have a muddled timeline—Max, after all, was alive before the world fell apart, but the characters he encounters seem not to know or remember a world before the nuclear war which occurred between the second and third films. Max is either supernaturally ageless or, as director George Miller suggests, not a real person at all. Miller’s interpretation of the series is that Max is an urban legend, a folk hero; various helpful figures throughout the wasteland are all remembered as the same man until they accrue into Mad Max, the wanderer and road warrior, a man of no destiny, an existentialist hero. A helpful figure, perhaps an aspirational one, but not a real one.
If you will allow me, I would like to return to Dallas Hunt’s reading. What should I make of this existentialist interpretation alongside the totemic transfer myth? Consider: in the totemic transfer myth, a white individual fleeing from the city encounters indigenous figures, who give that white individual a symbol representing knowledge and ownership of the land; the indigenous figures then disappear or die, and the white individual returns to the city in possession of the knowledge and right to survive on this land. Dallas Hunt considers Mad Max: Fury Road such a film, and I agree. The film codes the Vuvulini as indigenous peoples who pass seeds onto the Wives, which is what they use to recreate the Green Space in the Citadel. Moreover, it is in pursuit of the Citadel—in the attempt to return that knowledge and way of life to a corrupted artificial civilization—that the Vuvulini die. If the Vuvulini can have no place in the Citadel because, according to the totemic transfer myth, they must give up their right to the Green Place so the Wives can have it, then it seems they also can have no place in a Green Place which is made, not received. While the Vuvulini may seem authentic in a surface way (they are without pretension or artifice) they do not seem authentic in the existential sense; they have no place in the wasteland because they have received their myth rather than made it for themselves out of the myths that preceded them. The Vuvulini are the ones, after all, who preceded the protagonists. They are the past that offers the materials for myth-making; they are the Mothers, the past generation, not the Wives, the current generation. What does this say of existentialist imaginings of indigenous peoples? Perhaps not much, since this is merely one film. However, it does point to a tension—if I do not imagine that non-Western cultures have similar existentialisms of their own, and if I do not wish to prescribe existentialism on people embedded in non-Western cultures (after all, I dislike paternalism), then whatever existentialist myths I make must relegate such people into the past. If I am to emphasize how the myth I have made is made, not merely received, I must either erase the people who gave me the materials or ask them to make myths rather than receive them, too. Thus the death of the Vuvulini.
I am not trying to say that an existentialist myth cannot contain indigenous voices—indeed, I am sure any existentialist myth would be improved by indigenous voices. But it is worth saying a word of caution: what is meant, at least in Becker’s case, as a move away from absolutist and therefore defensive, exclusivist worldviews might accidentally erase various other groups by relegating them to the past. At least there is this: if I know that even my existentialist myth is one that I made, then perhaps I can keep remaking it until it erases no one. I hope to give this fuller treatment when discussing subsequent fictions.