What Bad Is Not: Breaking Bad, Apophatic and Dramaturgic Continua from Creator to Viewer, and a Poetics of the Philosophy of Religion

Jesse Abbot

What can Walter White, a man who is convinced “[t]here’s nothing here but chemistry,” teach us about the potential phenomenology and texture of spiritual realities? Are there human possibilities that find their best descriptions in the realms of aesthetics, poetics, and discussions about literature? Does language fail us to an equal degree when we employ the vocabularies of verification-driven science and philosophy on the one hand and the often specialized language of religious thinkers, on the other?

If indeed there is nothing here but chemistry, we might brazenly ask, what is chemistry, really? And what might the nothing that is here be, but for the presence of that same chemistry?

It is certainly possible to view Breaking Bad meaningfully without doing or asking any such esoteric things. But Vince Gilligan is by many accounts a trickster, a man of disarming Southern gentlemanliness and charm who shocks his actors and writers with ingenious, yet often horrifying, ideas. Said his mother, Gail Gilligan, to David Segal of the New York Times in 2011, “Vince was an acolyte in the Catholic Church,” though, as she followed up, he also played Dungeons and Dragons. “There was certainly a lot of evil in that game,” she said, “but it never seemed to affect him adversely.”

At the intersection of these two worlds, entertain for just a moment J.R.R. Tolkien’s mystical concept of the holiness of the creative author: “Man, Sub-creator, the refracted light/through whom is splintered from a single

J. Abbot (h)

Tunxis Community College, Farmington, CT, USA © The Author(s) 2017

K.S. Decker et al. (eds.), Philosophy and Breaking Bad, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-40343-4_9

White/to many hues, and endlessly combined/in living shapes that move from mind to mind.”1 With Tolkien, we might conceptualize a site for the existence of a creative universe that can accommodate “a lot of evil” without necessarily succumbing to it.

I have long been preoccupied with the redemptive properties of tragedy: not solely to isolate what constitutes Aristotelian katharsis through art (e.g., viewing theater and film, or literary reading as a subset of poetics as a formal study), but also the nearly inevitable tragedy of an academic discourse that often yields to argumentative litigation, something purely eristic. The Buddhist traditions identify aggression as a principal identifying feature of being human, so redemption is not likely to be achieved in a heresiology that successfully roots out all purely emotive appeals, but rather in a constant recognition of this human state. Tragic figures are people obsessed, women and men possessed. They are invariably fanatical and humorless.

An earlier and more provisional discussion of the currents of this chapter appeared in an op-ed of the Jerusalem Post, when Breaking Bad was ending in October 2013. I was teaching my seminar in the philosophy of religion, and my students’ interest in the show coincided fortuitously with our exploration of the use of literature as a mediator between philosophical and scientific reasoning, on the one hand, and typical arguments advanced to support truth claims in faith traditions, on the other.

We were conceiving of the possibility of a poetics sharing territory with the terrain of philosophy (a vexed issue arguably already driven by a role of poetics in Continental circles) and religion; this “poetics of the philosophy of religion” could also benefit from the ambiguity of whether the “of’ is subjective or objective. So this can be a poetics that speaks principally to the questions of the philosophy of religion, but with its own agenda.

Our seminar took on such complexities, with surprising alacrity. The central, often interlocking, themes that drove our discussions for a week, as well as the op-ed in the Jerusalem Post, included the existence of God, overlaps between scientism and religious literalism, negative theology as a possible response to reductionism, a moral aesthetic, genius, the imagination, “creating a monster” in a lab, Vince Gilligan’s worldview and aesthetics, and Schleiermacher’s views on art as a diplomat to religious experience. I will again present and further develop several themes here. To these, I will add and address three more: Gus, demiurges, and the problem of evil; Walter Blanco, Metastasis, and Hugh Everett’s Many Worlds Interpretation (MWI) of quantum mechanics; and social and political implications of these inquiries.

As a branch of philosophy, the philosophy of religion continues to bear the imprint of logical positivism, which utilized the third step of Hume’s Fork in treating religious statements as nonsense. The latter half of the twentieth century allowed for some alternatives to this verdict; nonetheless, most of us who teach in this area still (appropriately) value some version of the thematic question: “Is this particular religious truth claim logical and supportable by reasonable evidence?” We ask questions such as “Can it be reasonable to conclude, as Christians have, that God has three persons?” Or “Does sound reasoning support the Quran permitting a man to marry up to four women, assuming he treats them equally, when the scripture does not permit a woman under any circumstances to marry more than one man, let alone up to four?” Or “Is it sound logic to conclude, as Buddhists do, that there exists no intrinsic permanent entity we might fairly call a ‘self’?” Or, as we might only half-jokingly ask, given the publicly verifiable literalistic beliefs of sects such as the Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas... “Does gay sex cause tornadoes and earthquakes?” However, at least a second line of questioning is also appropriate for a lot of us: “Is philosophical logic the only acceptable path to what a given religion conceives as truth?”

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