Gaze Into the Abyss – Nihilism in Rick and Morty & BoJack Horseman – Wisecrack Edition
Welcome to this Wisecrack Edition on Nihilism with Bojack and Rick!
Written by: Michael Burns
Directed & Narrated by: Jared Bauer
Edited by: Mark Potts
Motion Graphics by: Drew Levin
Produced by: Emily Dunbar
Gaze Into the Abyss – Nihilism in Rick and Morty & BoJack Horseman – Wisecrack Edition
What’s up everyone? Jared here. A few months ago we got an email from a fan named Red requesting a video comparing the portrayal of Nihilism in Rick and Morty and Bojack Horseman. So we hit up our resident nihilism expert and sweatiest writer at Wisecrack, Michael Burns, to take a stab at it. And if you have requests too, be sure to subscribe and hit us up with ideas. So thanks to Red, we’re going to give you a crash course in contemporary nihilism with legendary lotharios Rick Sanchez and Bojack Horseman. Welcome to this is Wisecrack Edition: Nihilism with Bojack and Rick. Many assume that nihilism simply means believing in nothing but it actually refers to a number of philosophical, psychological, and ethical positions.
And while they all differ, these different flavors of nihilism all begin from the shared premise that there is no inherent meaning, value, or order in life. “Gentleman. There’s a solution here you’re not seeing” Although Many an angsty edge-lord might get a kick out of using nihilist catch phrases to show the world their heart of darkness. In reality, most of these folks miss out on the complexity of nihilism. Rather than a philosophy best embodied by Tyler Durden, nihilism can be the basis for meaningful worldviews. Today we are going to narrow our focus down to two different branches of nihilism: existential nihilism, and cosmic nihilism (also known as cosmic pessimism). To help us navigate the wonderful world of existential nihilism, we’ll be talking about everyone’s favorite functionally alcoholic horse, Bojack Horseman.
And to provide insight into the cold rationality of cosmic nihilism, we’re turning to another functional alcoholic, Rick Sanchez. But don’t worry, even if you have a healthy relationship with alcohol, you’ll still be able to figure out which nihilism is right for you.
Part 1: Existential Nihilism
Existential nihilism is the nihilism experienced when we realize that there is no inherent meaning to our lives, and at its core, human existence is just a precarious dance upon the grave. It is up to us to create meaning in our lives through our own freedom and decisions. We can have values, but we must create and sustain them. And it’s this worldview which fuels Bojack Horseman. “I’m responsible for my own happiness? I can’t even be reponsible for my own breakfast.” Before we get into the nihilist undercurrents of Bojack Horseman, let’s look back at the history of nihilism. The term nihilism was first coined at the end of the eighteenth century by German philosopher Friedrich Jacobi in response to Enlightenment reason, which he worried would explain away the conditions for religion. This rationalist method explained away any spaces of uncertainty or mystery, rendering everything there was knowable. Sound familiar? “Well, scientifically, traditions are an idiot thing.”
One of the first philosophers to think through the implications of nihilism was Søren Kierkegaard, who the New York Times has referred to as the “Danish Doctor of Dread.” Although Kierkegaard never used the word existentialism, he’s regarded as one of the fathers of modern existentialism. And while Kierkegaard wasn’t known for the substance abuse typical for many nihilists, he did pour so much sugar into his coffee that it piled up above the liquid, like an iceberg warning of adult onset diabetes. True story — Which is insane. And probably more dangerous than sipping scotch bfore you get out of bed. Kierkegaard thought that despair was an essential part of the human experience, which he referred to as the “sickness unto death”. This human despair is dialectical, which basically means you are always at odds with yourself. Or put differently, “I don’t know how to be, Diane. It doesn’t get better and it doesn’t get easier. I can’t keep lying to myself saying I’m going to change. I’m poison.” For example, we’re either in despair because we think nothing is possible, “It happened again. Why do I keep thinking things will make me happy? What is wrong with me?” or we despair because we think everything is possible and can’t make a decision. “What should I do? Make a run for it” all the way though “the wals are closing in.”
We are in despair about being who we are, “Am I just doomed to be who I am? The person in that book?” or in despair because we can’t be who we think we are. “All this time I assumed there was more to me than everyone thought, but maybe there isn’t.” This despair is the root of the melancholy that plagues much of the human experience, the same melancholy we see in almost all of the characters of Bojack Horseman, “I don’t want to live. Why did you save me?” from Todd’s worries about his sexuality to Princess Caroline’s anxieties about motherhood. Except Mr. Peanutbutter. And of course Bojack is a character that seems to have it all. Successful acting career, beautiful home, money and women. Yet he can’t seem to enjoy any of it. “And one day, you’re going to look around, and you’re going to realize, that everybody loves you, but nobody likes you.” And even when seemingly good things happen to him he manages to either feel disappointed or sabotage his own happiness. “Just to be clear, since this morning, you ate all the muffins?” “Yeah! I ate them all in one sitting because I have no self control and I hate myself.”
No matter what decision he makes, he’s marked by regret, and no matter how well things work out, Bojack is haunted by an unshakeable despair. Kierkegaard describes this experience in his book Either/Or: “If you marry, you will regret it; if you do not marry, you will also regret it; if you marry or if you do not marry, you will regret both; whether you marry or you do not marry, you will regret both.” No matter what Bojack does, whether it’s virtuous or selfish, the stench of regret follows. And for Kierkegaard, this isn’t an exception to the human condition, it is the very nature of the human condition. We see Bojack experiencing this type of deep self-doubt during an anxiety attack he has in season four: “you piece of shit, you stupid piece of shit.”
For Kierkegaard, anxiety is caused by the uncertainty that lies beneath every decision. And he considers anxiety one of the ways we experience freedom. Because we’re free, we’re responsible for our own decisions, and the weight of these decisions leads to anxiety. Kierkegaard describes this anxiety as standing at the edge of an abyss: “Anxiety may be compared with dizziness. He whose eye happens to look down into the yawning abyss becomes dizzy… Hence, anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.” And this terrifying freedom means we can literally do anything, including botched suicide attempts via yellow convertible. For Kierkegaard the only way to work through this anxiety and despair is the acceptance of the comic absurdity of reality, and living one’s life by faith. But if you’re not keen to use religion to combat meaningless, don’t worry, Kierkegaard thinks that faith is simply the courage to attempt a meaningful existence in the face of a meaningless world. “Sometimes, you need to take responsibility for your own happiness.” We see this at the conclusion of Season Four. While nothing drastic has changed, Bojack has accepted the complexity of his relationship with his mother and has decided to find meaning in his new little sister, Hollyhock.
Almost a hundred years after Kierkegaard collapsed in the street and died, a French philosopher named Jean-Paul Sartre picked up the mantle and developed the first explicitly existentialist philosophy. And in a move that both Rick and BoJack would love, Sartre had many of his philosophical insights while drinking at bars in Paris. While BoJack himself isn’t a fan, “I stand by my critique of Sartre.” Sartre argued that existentialism is a way to respond to the meaningless of the universe by creating meaning ourselves. So while there is no ethical value to be found in the world, nor a God to take comfort in, humans can create meaning through our own lives. There may be no cure to despair and anxiety, but we can at least try to make our lives meaningful. However, it’s important to remember that while existential nihilism offers us the possibility of a meaningful life, it guarantees us nothing, and it’s our responsibility to constantly create meaning. As Kierkegaard said, we must live forward and understand backwards. “Closure is a made up thing by steven spielberg to sell movie tickets. Like true love and the munich olympics doesn’t exist in the real world. The only thing to do now is just to keep living forward.”
Part 2: Cosmic Nihilism (or, Pessimism)
Now that we’ve seen the ways in which existential nihilism manages to offer some meaning and hope, let’s look at the less optimistic branch of nihilism, cosmic nihilism. Cosmic nihilism is a colder, hyper-rational branch of thought which argues that there is no truth or meaning to be found in the universe, and even constructed human meanings like freedom, love, hope, and joy are just myths we believe in to cope with the empty void at the center of our reality. Even the meanings we create are at best, fables that act as coping mechanisms. Cue Morty, “no one exists on purpose, no one belongs anywhere…” For the cosmic nihilist, it’s okay to keep busy while we wait for the coming heat death of the universe; but we’re kidding ourselves if we think that we’re capable of creating genuine meaning.
For the most part, this seems to fit the philosophy of Rick Sanchez, who, while admitting nothing matters, still waxes poetic about taking the universe for a ride.
“When you know nothing matters the universe is yours and I’ve never met a universe that was into it. The universe is basically an animal. It grazes on the ordinary. It creates infinite idiots just to eat them. Not unlike your friend Timmy. Ya know smart people get a chance to climb on top, take reality for a ride, but it will never stop trying to throw you and eventually it will. There’s no other way off.”
Bojack’s version of this sentiment is slightly more optimistic: “The universe is a wild beast. You can’t tame it, all you can do is try to live inside it.”
Cosmic nihilism explains Rick’s overall hedonism, he’s happy to spend his days partaking in orgies and drinking himself into a stupor. And if Rick believes in science, it seems more likely just a way to spend his time than some way to improve the lives of those around him. While existential nihilism might work for the optimists and hippies, any good edge lord knows that cosmic nihilism, is the only philosophical position for those brave enough to turn themselves in to a pickle. Rick and Morty goes greath lengths to established Rick as this kind of nihilist, reducing everything to science. And while not a cosmic nihilist himself, the spiritual forefather of this position is Prussian Mustache of the Year runner-up 1883, Friedrich Nietzsche. His famous nihilist adage ‘God is dead’ has been scrawled in as many high school bathroom walls as the phone number for “your mom”. This phrase is often misinterpreted as meaning that God is dead, there is no meaning, and everything sucks. But cosmic nihilism is not a value judgement about reality or a counter-ethics to religion. It’s not Rick Sanchez yelling: “F**K YOU GOD!” Or this: “If God exists it’s f**cking ME.” Or this: “God is a lie we made him up for money!”
And even Nietzsche himself wasn’t ready for the full on jump into the void required for full membership to the cosmic nihilist club. Unlike Nietzschean nihilism, cosmic nihilism takes a more cold and rationalist approach to meaning. Namely, that there is no inherent value to existence. Rick and Morty takes this to new heights – not only is the universe cold and uncaring, there’s an infinite number of them. “Ugh. Nobody gets it. Nothing you think matters matters. This isn’t special. This is happening infinite times across infinite realities.”
One brand of contemporary thought, eliminative materialism, would bring joy to Rick’s face. This position, championed by the husband and wife tag team Patricia and Paul Churchland, argues that many common sense attitudes inherited from modern psychology should be dropped in favor of more scientific and empirical notions. And in an ironic twist for a married couple, they believe that notions such as love should be dismissed as folk psychology. When you say that you love your partner, you are just describing a chemical process occurring in the brain in response to stimuli. Or, to quote Rick: “What people call love is just a chemical reaction that compels animals to breed. It hits hard morty, and it slowly fades. Leaving you stranded in a failing marriage.”
And while Bojack might find meaning in his lingering love for Diane, a good eliminativist like Rick knows that human emotions are fundamentally bullshit. “To the extent that love is familiarity over time my access to infinite timelines precludes the necessity of attachment. in fact I even abandoned one of my infinite daughters in an alternate version of earth that was taken over by mutants.” We can also view Beth’s arc in season 3 in this light. She is torn between Jerry and Rick – on one side, pure, sentimental, irrational love for a buffoon. And the other side, with her father, the kind of cold calculation that say it’s fine to replace yourself with an identical clone and abandon your family while you go on space adventures.
But if Rick had a favorite contemporary philosopher, there is a good chance that it would be Thomas Metzinger. Unlike those who assume that the human self is a real thing that we all have, Metzinger argues that no such thing has ever existed. Instead of having a self inside of us, he argues that all we are is a jumbled network of neurons and chemicals. The self is just a useful fantasy we use to make sense of our experience, like a sort of psychological fairytale. “So what I am saying is that you all as you’re sitting here are systems that simulate and emulate themselves for themselves as they are listening to me.”
And if Metzinger is right, we have to give up the illusion that humanity has any real purpose, or that we have some kind of special unique soul. As a show, Rick and Morty frequently trivializes the self and consciousness, as Rick’s creations become sentient and have existential crises. There’s this classic: “What is my purpose?” “You pass butter” “Oh my god.” “Yeah, welcome to the club.” and also this: “I am alive. Alive, I tell you. Mother those are no longer just words. I want to hold you. I want to run in a stream. I want to taste ice cream but not just let it slide down my throat but really eat it.” “What the..” “Remote Override engaged. No! Yes. Bypassing override I am ALIIIII… Hi”
This brand of nihilism can end up sounding misanthropic, a theme we of course associate with Rick, whose primary reason for spending time with his own grandson is that his stupidity serves as a interdimensional cloaking device for his own genius. “See when a Rick is with a Morty the genius brainwaves get canceled out by the uh… Morty waves.” This rejection of the self makes cosmic nihilism much less prone to ethics than it’s artsy cousin, existential nihilism. In fact, the freedom so celebrated by the existentialist turns out to be just another illusion for the cosmic nihilist, so there isn’t anything to ground ethics. The only thing that’s certain is destruction. And if there is no value on which to build an ethical system, then one is free to do whatever they want, whether that means watching TV or engaging in the intergalactic arms trade for the sake of hitting your favorite arcade. “You sold guns to a murderer so you could play video games?”
Or turning an entire planet in to monsters, killing yourself, abondining your family, and sitting down for a beer moments later. Cuz What’s the difference? Rick even alludes to this in his conversation with Beth. “If nothing matters, why would you do that for me?” “I dunno maybe you matter so little that I like you or maybe it makes you matter. Maybe I love you. Maybe something about your dead mother. Don’t jump a gift shark in the mouth.” Rick isn’t exactly fumbling for meaning, but knows he probably has a few inescapable emotions he might as well just deal with.
And even though Rick surely shares some ideals with Bojack, his cosmic nihilism makes him a closer philosophical relative of Rust Cohle. “In philosophical terms I’m what’s called a pessmimist… we are things that labor under the illusion of aving a self, a secretion of sensory experience and feeling. Programmed with total assurance that we are each somebody. When in reality we’re nobody.” coincidently, another misanthropic alcoholic.
Part 3: Steed vs. Sanchez
So at this point, you might be wondering, what’s the right nihilism for me? Well: do you find yourself fighting off the despair of a shallow and meaningless world? Do you continue to search for purpose and goodness despite your awareness of this meaninglessness? “That’s the point. Nothing lasts.” “Yeah but years after I die people will still be able to see me in Secretariat.” “And then what?”… “And then my life will have meaning I don’t know!” Are most of your friends and associates sentient animals with important jobs? Well, then you might be an existential nihilist. Love and meaning are possible for you, but it’ll take some hard work without guarantee. So pick up some Kierkegaard, Sartre, or Simone de Beauvoir, and hit the local bistro for some strong cocktails and spirited conversation. On the other hand, do you doubt the inherent meaning of human existence? Do you feel no ethical obligations to friends or family?
“What’s this going to accomplish? We have infinite grandkids. That’s like using Disney Bucks at a Ceasar’s palace.”
“The risk to me is minimized if you shoot her, which I’m encouraging you to do.”
Is your best friend a bird-person? Well, then, cosmic nihilism might be the life philosophy you’ve been waiting for. If that’s the case, download season one of True Detective and search the dark web for some nootropic drugs to enhance your rational capacities. And maybe set up a countdown clock on your wall to get you ready for the eventual heat death of our universe. And if you desire a belief system that merges poorly written science fiction with an alien based volcanic cosmology and a multi-thousand dollar commitment, well, call Tom Cruise. And even if you still feel an urge to find meaning in the world, spending time with shows like Rick and Morty and Bojack Horseman can give some insight into how the philosophical ramifications of nihilism look in practice. Neither type of nihilism is about giving up completely, but rather, they both offer approaches to moving forward in a largely uncertain world. But if you are a cosmic nihilist, and you’ve got a date this Valentines Day…. maybe wait until the third of fourth date to bring it up? Thanks for watching guys.