Absurdity, or the Mystery in Broad Daylight
Many of us are familiar with the post-mortem plight of Sisyphus and his stone; in the one task given to him to make eternity meaningful, both Sisyphus and the stone cannot rest. But equally interesting are the conditions that brought Sisyphus to this point. First is the character’s own insouciance: Camus cites Homer that “Sisyphus was the wisest and most prudent of mortals. According to another tradition, however, he was disposed to practice the professional of highwayman.”5 Camus sees no contradiction between the two. Sisyphus courted danger by joking about the gods and was reputed to have stolen their secrets; he put Death in chains.
This is all in stark contrast to Walter White: in the pilot, he’s “apparently watching his cholesterol” and subjected to veggie bacon. His chemistry students at the high school are listless and unengaged, despite his enthusiasm in teaching; he works part-time at a car wash where he’s belittled by his know- nothing boss, Bogdan.
When it comes to the absurdity of existence, there is no difference between the life of Sisyphus and that of Walter White. They are both “absurd heroes” as much through their passions as through their torture.6 Camus explains that we know nothing about the mental or emotional states of Sisyphus in the underworld, rolling his rock, only that “if this myth is tragic, that is because its hero is conscious. Where would his torture be, indeed, if at every step the hope of succeeding upheld him?”7 On the other hand, the entirety of Breaking Bad is Walter White’s reaction, complex and often subtle, to his diagnosis of lung cancer. With a son who has cerebral palsy and a new daughter on the way, Walt finds it inconceivable that his family can go on without even his paltry school district salary. He needs cash and fast. So he looks up former student Jesse Pinkman:
Walt: Short speech. You lost your partner today. What’s his name? Emilio? Emilio is going to prison. The DEA took all your money, your lab. You got nothing. Square one. But you know the business. And I know the chemistry. I’m thinking maybe you and I could partner up.
Jesse: You want to cook crystal meth? You? You and, uh and me?
Walt: That’s right. Either that or I turn you in. (“Pilot”)
In some ways, Walt is successful in his goal to provide for his family after his impending death (albeit by a bullet, not by cancer): they secure about $10 million from Walt’s machinations against Elliot, the co-founder of Gray Matter.8 The irony is that this amount isn’t part of the $80 million that Walt had in the storage unit (“Felina”). As show creator Vince Gilligan paraphrases Saul Goodman’s advice about the futility of the entire enterprise in the penultimate episode: “You’ll never get it past the cops, and if somehow you manage to get to your family, the cops will find out about it and they’ll seize it because it’s drug money. And if miracle of miracles, you manage to get it past the cops, your family is not going to take it because it’s from you and they hate you. Especially your son, who is primarily the one you’re doing this for, so it’s an impossibility.”9 Seen in this way, all Walt’s efforts, his threats, his violence, and even his death are meaningless in a larger context—that is, they are absurd.
Yet Walt’s diagnosis and his decision to “break bad” are a particularly intriguing example of Sartre’s notion that we are “condemned to be free.” This implies that only the refusal to choose for oneself—which is the same, for Sartre, as choosing oneself—is an abdication of freedom. We are condemned to be free, not (as the pessimist might have it) to fail and not (as the optimist might claim) to succeed. “Success is not important to freedom,” Sartre explains. “The discussion which opposes common sense to [views of] philosophers stems here from a misunderstanding: the empirical and popular concept of ‘freedom’ which has been produced by historical, political, and moral circumstances is equivalent to ‘the ability to obtain the ends chosen.’ The technical and philosophical concept of freedom, the only one which we are considering here, means only the autonomy of choice.”10 And despite five years of deaths, violence, losses, and setbacks, it’s clear that Walt has embraced this autonomy when he tells Skyler in the final episode, “I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. And I was really—I was alive.”
The absurdity-as-meaninglessness of Walt’s humdrum existence before his drug enterprises seems to be contrasted with the danger and intrigue in assuming the mantle of “Heisenberg.” This street pseudonym is significant in our context for two reasons. First, it’s meaningless to both drug lords like Tuco and Hank Schrader and the DEA; in the latter case, decoding the significance of the name as that of a prominent physicist might have brought Hank to confront Walt much earlier. However, the name “Heisenberg” is popularly associated with the “uncertainty principle” that says that the momentum of a particle and its position in space cannot both be precisely measured at the same time. The essential duality of the two basic physical properties of the particles constituting all matter is analogous to Walt’s duality as law-abiding family man, on the one hand, and meth cook and dealer, on the other. But Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle also seems to be confirmation that there is something irrational at the core of the universe, something absurd—that is, it offers the notion that indeterminacy is the basis for all further physical determinations. Of course, this is the central doctrine of quantum mechanics, of which Heisenberg was the originator.11
Ultimately, Walt’s words to Skyler in the final episode about “doing it for himself’ reveal that it is only through willing himself free—through wit, violence, and force of will—that he has found self-realization. For Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, Walt’s recognition of this signals his acknowledgment of the transcendence of his subjectivity. The individual who, like Camus’ Sisyphus, sees their world and their place in it as absurd, confronts a double negation: first, the complex and potentially infinite world, organized as it is in terms of series of causes and effects, is nonetheless without the impress of a creator and therefore lacks an ultimate purpose. Yet humans—as the origin of nothingness in Sartre’s work—are precisely the sort of questioning creatures that philosophers have seen them to be since Thales and Socrates. “,..[T]he questioner, by the very fact that he is questioning, posits himself as in a state of indetermination; he does not know whether the reply will be affirmative or negative,” Sartre says.12 Furthermore, the effort to gain knowledge through questioning points to a negation at the heart of every knowing subject: the search for true knowledge is an admission of a lack of being in the questioner. “It would be in vain to deny that negation appears on the original basis of a relation of man to the world,” Sartre continues. “The world does not disclose its non-beings to one who has not first posited them as possibilities.”13 As the kind of creatures whose intentional consciousness is itself a negation (and as such, our “selves” are not constituted by an unchanging essence or spirit), consciousness—as Husserl pointed out—is always consciousness of something. Consciousness is always pointing away toward something that is its object: a thing in the world, a memory, an anticipation of future events. In this activity, we are constantly transcending our subjectivity, a process we can see played out on our screens, especially in the first two seasons of Breaking Bad, as Walt is confronted by situations that draw from him responses as surprising to his enemies as they are to the audience. One of the most memorable of these scenes occurs in “Crazy Handful of Nothin’” after Jesse fails to make a deal with Tuco and is beaten for his troubles. Then Walt arrives at Tuco’s building:
Tuco: What’s your name?
Tuco: Heisenberg. Okay. Have a seat, Heisenberg.
Walt: I don’t imagine I’ll be here very long.
Tuco: No? Alright, be that way. It’s your meeting. Why don’t you start talking and tell me what you want.
Walt: Fifty thousand dollars.
Tuco: (laughs) Oh man, fifty Gs? How you figure that?
Walt: Thirty-five for the pound of meth you stole and another fifteen for my partner’s pain and suffering.
Tuco: Partner? (puts out cigarette on his tongue) Oh yeah, I remember that little bitch. So you must be daddy.
Tuco: Let me get this straight. I steal your dope. I beat the piss out of your mule boy! And then you walk in here and you bring me more meth? ( laughs) Whew, that’s a brilliant plan, ese.
Walt: You got one part of that wrong. (picks up one of the crystals) This is not meth. (Walt turns around quickly and throws it toward the ground. The crystal explodes, shooting things out of the windows).
Tuco: Are you fucking nuts?!
Walt: You wanna find out?
Tuco: No, no, Gonzo, calma, calma, calma. You got balls, I’ll give you that. Alright, alright, I’ll give you your money. That crystal that your partner brought me...it sold faster than $10 ass in TJ. Let’s say you bring me another pound next week.
Walt: Money up front.
Tuco: Alright, money up front. Sometimes you gotta rob to keep your riches. Just as long as we got an understanding.
Walt: One pound is not gonna cut it. You have to take two.
Tuco: (laughs) Orale. Hey, what is that shit?
Walt: Fulminated mercury. With a little tweak of chemistry.
One of the charms of Breaking Bad is that we can’t easily predict where Walt’s quest for transcendence will take him next. In exploring this concept of transcendence in her 1944 essay “Pyrrhus and Cineas,” Simone de Beauvoir writes: “The paradox of the human condition is that every end can be surpassed, and yet, the project defines the end as an end. In order to surpass an end, it must first have been projected as something that is not to be surpassed. Man has no other way of existing.”14
Fundamentally, Walt seeks control, while Jesse seeks connection in Breaking Bad. The absurdity of their efforts toward transcendence is that they, like all of us, strive to reach a stable equilibrium in which all their projects have come to fruition. But this can never be, Beauvoir tells us:
Man can neither indefinitely reduce his being, nor expand it to infinity. He cannot find rest, and yet what is this movement that leads him nowhere? One finds the same antinomy in the realm of action as in that of speculation. Any stopping is impossible because transcendence is a perpetual surpassing. But an indefinite project is absurd since it leads to nothing. Here man dreams of an ideal symmetrical to that of the unconditioned God called for by speculative thought. He demands and unconditioned end for his acts such that it could not be surpassed, a term at once infinite and complete in which his transcendence would grasp itself anew without limiting itself. He cannot identify himself with infinity. But within his singular situation can he destine himself to do it?15
Sartre and Beauvoir both affirm the final question, albeit in very different ways. Beauvoir locates the source of authentic transcendence in our relationships with other people: “...[Ejvery man needs the freedom of other men and, in a sense, always wants it, even though he may be a tyrant,” she writes. “The only thing he fails to do is assume honestly the consequences of such a wish.”16 For Sartre, however, our ethical obligations are not to others so much as they are to become the sort of person that others might want to be as well. In this way, Sartre takes seriously the notion of facticity as an obstacle, not to transcending our own subjectivity per se, but to transcending it in such a way as to make a moral or ethical connection with an other.