A man sits at a table littered with cigarette butts and empty cans of Lone Star. He’s thinking about time. He watches as the black coffee in his “Big Hug Mug” slowly cools, the steam withering and blowing away like the leaves in Fall. He’s thinking about death. The palms of guilty men, made slick by the countless hours of interrogation this table has been a witness to, has worn the top to a shiny gloss. He’s thinking about god. He’s sitting in front of two detectives; a camera watching and documenting his every move. He’s thinking about time, and what happens to us when the screaming finally stops.
” He’s thinking about time.”
How can he possibly explain to them the reality of all existence? They, the men in charge of solving a crime, are looking at the world through a pinhole. They want answers, but he has none that they could understand. He’s still thinking about time, about death, about god, and about what happens to us when the screaming finally stops.
He is Rust Cohle, one half of the detective team that drove HBO’s True Detective to the pinnacle of television back in 2014. He has seen thousands of lives ended during his time as an officer of the law. He’s heard the screaming of children in a room. What weighs so heavily on his soul is not the memories of these horrific events, however. It’s what happens when the circle of time comes back around.
Why should I live in history, huh? I don’t want to know anything anymore. This is a world where nothing is solved. Someone once told me that ‘time is a flat circle’. Everything we’ve ever done, or will do, we are gonna do over and over and over again. And that little boy, and that little girl, they’re going to be in that room again. And again. And again. Forever.
This speech, given by a grizzled Matthew McConaughey in his greatest performance, launched a thousand armchair philosophers into the stratosphere. The world, for a few moments, was consumed with this idea. People hopped online and researched the meaning behind the words, coming very close to connecting the dots that True Detective planted so perfectly in their minds. As they dug deeper, they became unnerved. It was a familiar feeling, too. The concept of time, in the context of its existentially mysterious nature, is the fulcrum on which the entire horror genre rests.
Nietzsche and Eternal Return
Most people know Friedrich Nietzsche, the 19th Century German philosopher, as kind of a bummer. They’re not completely wrong about that, seeing as this is the man who wrote that “God is dead” and “if you gaze too long into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you”. He wasn’t a total downer, though, for many of his lesser-known quotes deal with love, and life, and accepting one’s fate.
The theory that Cohle espouses in True Detective is one of eternal return, or eternal recurrence. Nietzsche is far from the first person to discuss this theory, as it is found in ancient teachings from India, Egypt, and Mesoamerica, but he is one of the first modern philosophers to try to understand it. Essentially, the theory states that our lives are bound to reoccur over and over for eternity. Stay with me, here, because this is truly important. It goes like this:
If time is truly infinite, meaning that there is no beginning or end, and if the First Law of Thermodynamics is true (this states that energy cannot be created or destroyed, only transferred or changed from one form to another), then the exact conditions that created your life will reoccur again. And again. And again. For eternity.
This theory was featured in many of Nietzsche’s works. In Notes on the Eternal Recurrence, he tells us that:
Your whole life, like a sandglass, will always be reversed and will ever run out again, — a long minute of time will elapse until all those conditions out of which you evolved return in the wheel of the cosmic process. And then you will find every pain and every pleasure, every friend and every enemy… and the whole fabric of things which make up your life.
So, from this perspective, time is not linear. It does not begin with birth and it does not end in death. Rust tells the detectives that, if you step away from our existence and try to see our timeline from a fourth dimension, you will see that it is a circle. He says:
In eternity, where there is no time, nothing can grow, nothing can become. Nothing changes. So, death created time to grow the things that it would kill. And you are reborn, but into the same life that you’ve always been born into. How many times have we had this conversation, detectives? Who knows? You can’t remember your lives. You can’t change your lives. And that is the terrible and secret fate of all life. You’re trapped. In a nightmare you keep waking up to.
After hearing this, you begin to understand where Cohle’s despair is coming from. He has seen the absolute worst of life. He has seen suffering beyond what any of us can comprehend. If the thought that he will have to re-see this bent him, then the idea that the never-ending circle of pain and torture could not be changed or broken broke him.
Stories Served on a Flat Circle
If you follow this line of logic, then our lives are nothing more than the horror films of the gods. Our entire existence and consciousness is laid out on a neat, spinning circle for them to watch. All of the happiness, pain, and fear, and suffering we experience plays out before them like a DVD. The credits roll when we meet our deaths, then the disc is started again. Our hell is no different than of Jack Torrance’s from The Shining (1980), or Sadako Yamamura’s from Ringu (1998). We are held to our fates, like Jack was bound to freeze, or Sadako was always meant to be thrown into that well. There’s nothing we can do to change it.
“.. our lives are nothing more than the horror films of the gods.”
What is it we are truly afraid of? It’s not Michael Myers and his knife. It’s not Pazuzu and his evil intentions. It’s not even the death we would receive at the end of those devices, because the explosion of neuron activity in our brains at the time of death would allow us at least a moment of relief. The real fear, the one that all of horror is based on, is the unknown nature of what happens after the credits roll. For Rust, and for anyone else who subscribes to Nietzsche’s teachings on eternal return, the idea that our lives are bound to reoccur is too much to bear. He thinks about those children, he thinks about the video he showed to Marty in his makeshift office, and he is afraid. When we think about our lives, and our eventual deaths, it isn’t the dying that scares us. It’s the possible hell that awaits our arrival.
All of True Detective’s first season revolves around this fear. We see, through the course of the episodes, Cohle and Marty team up to catch the bad guys over and over again. Cohle sees this as an example of eternal return, but that’s not the case. Throughout the season, we see different symbols and shapes presenting themselves to us. They are painted on walls; they are seen in a flock of birds as they take flight. They are seen in the darkened halls of Carcosa itself. What these symbols represent, and what Cohle finally begins to understand at the end, is that what appears to be a flat circle from a fourth dimension is actually a spiral.
In his incredible article on the subject over at Modern Mythology, James Curcio observes that even though these spirals still indicate a recurring existence, the plane at which the circle turns is never the same. What we do in our lives matters, for it makes the path of the circle change. The next time your circle comes around in the infinite universe, things might be somewhat different. Maybe my loved one won’t get cancer this time. Maybe those kids won’t be tortured by the religious demons in southern Louisiana. Maybe, just maybe, if I do enough to influence my reality in this life, the DVD will play a different ending the next time it plays across the unforgiving eyes of the gods.
At the end of the final episode, Cohle tells his partner that he has come to a realization. That everything is a part of the same story: Light versus Dark. Marty, looking up, declares that the dark has a lot more territory. He’s right, of course, but Cohle reminds him that at one point, there was only dark. That means that the light must be winning. It’s this progress against the darkness that proves time is not a “flat circle”, and that if we fight hard enough, if we scream loud enough, our story can be changed.
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