Ask a Philosopher: What’s Up With True Detective’s Rust Cohle?

Photo: HBO

“I think human consciousness is a tragic misstep in evolution,” mutters Matthew McConaughey’s Rust Cohle in his version of ride-along small talk with partner Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson). While True Detective is heralded for its slow-burn mystery shrouded in atmosphere as thick as the bayou, half the fun of an episode is waiting to see which metaphysical concept Rust will tackle in monotone soliloquy. Life, death, religion, love, the fourth dimension, man’s physical self as a conduit for violent action — Rust has a line for every topic and, thankfully, is always willing to share. It’s easy to forget there may be answers at the end of True Detective’s tunnel when McConaughey continues to drop foggy poeticisms with such grace.

But do Rust’s nihilistic ruminations reflect a founded philosophical doctrine or is he spewing pure bunk? Is nihilism even the right word for it? With vague philosophy running through its veins, we asked Paul J. Ennis, an author and academic who holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from University College Dublin, to help us digest True Detective’s grand ideas and boil down Rust’s worldview into something founded in reality. Which may be pointless — because what is reality anyway?

What makes True Detective a TV show worth analyzing on a philosophical level?
Rust has a willingness to speak openly about ideas common to us all, but ones we are usually expected to suppress. There is a pressure to offer pockets of hope, redemption, or escape in our narratives, but True Detective seems intent on withholding that. However, grim television is not unknown, so I suspect what works here is just how nihilistic Rust’s pronouncements are; you simply don’t hear people arguing we should walk hand-and-hand into extinction on television very often. I’ve always been of the opinion that when you get down to it, everyone agrees, in their very bones, with Rust. Or, put another way, he is not saying [anything some of us haven’t thought before].

Are there specific scenes or bits of dialogue that made you realize that True Detective was a show actually wrestling with philosophy versus simply throwing around words to sound heady?
His dialogue with Marty in the car. It would have sounded eerily familiar to anyone who has been exposed to Thomas Ligotti’s The Conspiracy Against the Human Race. [Editor’s note: Early on in the series’ run, shorunner Nic Pizzolatto gave an interview to The Wall Street Journal in which he talked in depth about Ligotti.] In many ways, it’s a paraphrase of the central argument of that text. However, we witness a generalized pessimism throughout the interviews. Perhaps the second stand-out scene in this regard is his meditation on the eyes of murder victims. The idea that they would have welcomed it, that they were being released, is a very Ligotti-esque notion, but one that would have chimed well with many pessimists. I am sure that to many people that dialogue may have felt cheesy or obvious, but as a visualization of what the pessimist ultimately holds — that death is to be welcomed — it is pitch perfect and signals, to me, some wrestling with philosophical questions.

However, this only works if you have been through the mill of these texts. For example, Ligotti buys the arguments of some contemporary neuroscientists, which Rust would surely be familiar with, that there is no self and there is no free will. I see this strain throughout his monologues that life is a trap, a dream, or a program. Once you grasp that, and truly believe it, then you cannot help but see the self as akin to being trapped in a kind of nightmarish loop. In many ways, the self is the micro-scale of this nightmare and time is the macro-scale that he also touches on in terms of a ceaseless loop. There are some tensions between these positions, but common to both is the idea that we are puppets at the mercy of wider forces.

True Detective creator Nic Pizzolatto has recently talked about texts that influenced his writing of Rust, describing him as an “anti-natalist nihilism.” What can we learn about Rust as a person informed by works like Jim Crawford’s Confessions of an Antinatalist, Eugene Thacker’s In the Dust of this Planet, David Benatar’s Better to Have Never Been?
We would know that he is drawn to the extreme fringes of philosophical speculation and that much of the material he is reading is unpalatable to most people. We would also know that he sought out these texts perhaps after being dissatisfied with more mainstream mediations on our place in the universe. He is not at home in the world, expects nothing from it, and has a fundamental mistrust of all discourse of hope. It is also likely that he sees hypocrisy as the norm and is attuned to delusion as the natural state of the human mind. This is perhaps why he is so good at soliciting confessions.

Nuances dividing these thinkers aside, I’d say philosophically Rust considers consciousness an aberration or evolutionary error/mistake, that he is not concerned with filtering knowledge according to “the pathetic twinge of human self-esteem” [to quote philosopher Ray Brassier], and that, as an anti-natalist, he subscribes to the old maxim of “better to have never been born.” Better yet, many of these thinkers argue, as Rust mentions, that we should stop reproducing in order to end the cycle of existence.

This worldview is often correlated with self-destructiveness and I would say Rust’s fascination with murders, drugs, and the criminal lifestyle flower naturally from it. Despite this, I do not expect him to be the killer. It’s the fact that apparently normal people are killers that, I suspect, intrigues Rust, and since he knows what he is, the need to act out violently against others is likely lacking. He’s a bad man, but he knows the real bad men wear masks.

Pizzolatto is also quick to refute the notion that Rust is a pure nihilist, suggesting that compassion keeps him from being that easy to boil down. Do you see conflict in Rust between nihilism and a more hopeful life philosophy? What makes a “true” nihilist by the definitions of those who shaped the doctrine?
I’ve not seen it clearly yet, but there are signs of empathy in Rust that is not entirely alien to the nihilistic worldview, given the centrality of suffering, nihilism is pretty empathetic. I would say he is passionate and sensitive to those he sees as being crushed by various forms of power, which is often sustained by moral hypocrisy. I wouldn’t say hopefulness is quite the right word, but I would say a nihilist could find drive, if not meaning, from undermining those with power. We see this in his barely concealed contempt for Reverand Tuttle (and his intuition that he is a moral hypocrite) and his sympathy for the more honest and flawed former Rev. Theriot. 

I don’t see it as a conflict, but I can see how Pizzolatto would be worried about viewers seeing it that way. Regarding the true definition of a nihilist I don’t think there is one and nihilists are actually pretty hands-off as writers. Certainly the likes of Cioran or Ligotti tend not to debate other thinkers. It’s always been more a disposition or attitude than a doctrine. After all why not ‘live and let live’ when you barely believe in life anyway?

Would love to hear your thoughts on a few specific lines, like Rust’s profession, “I consider myself a realist, but in philosophical terms, I’m what’s called a pessimist.”
It’s something I’ve had to say myself many times. Basically, in a non-academic way, I consider myself just a brute “realist” in the classic sense of seeing the world in a very blunt, cynical manner. However, in academic philosophy the term realism has many different senses and, to avoid confusion with them, pessimism is used as an alternative. 

Do you see Rust’s actions or way of life reflecting his “realist” attitude?
I would say that Rust’s pessimistic realism is expressed in his suspicion toward institutions — the police department, organized religion — and toward the narratives people build around themselves. In the latter case, he expects people to be mired in self-deception, and that allows him to dig deeper behind the masks they wear to obscure what is really going on. However, there is a price to pay for this and we see that such a bleak understanding of the world can also result in the recklessness that forms part of his character. The austere, stoic lifestyle he lives, along with the drinking, is absolutely a result of thinking along these lines. Perhaps the moment this is clearest is when he realizes, whilst watching television with his girlfriend, that such a life is just not for him. He just can’t buy into it anymore. This is why I think the “I know what I am” line is so important.

Rust has a strange relationship with religion. He seems to loathe organized religion, badmouthing the “authoritative” God and saying that “certain linguistic anthropologists think religion is a linguistic virus.”
Religion as a linguistic virus is derived from a number of linguistic anthropologists, but more importantly for this scene, the idea was popularized by Richard Dawkins (the theory of memes). It is someone Rust would, of course, channel when faced with a religious audience. I suspect in many ways Rust is often reading other people through the lenses of this anthropological and evolutionary perspective. It allows him distance to analyze others according to their specific delusion. He often seems to test Marty at a very base, evolutionary level when it comes to masculinity and tellingly often comes out on top.

How would you describe Marty’s personal philosophy — family-oriented, religious, black-and-white sense of good and evil, yet someone prone to vices — in contrast to Rust’s? When does philosophy become a conversation about ethics?
Marty is a classic moral hypocrite albeit precisely the type of person who keeps society from collapsing. In many ways, he is just the Everyman and he carries out his “duty” in an extremely predictable way — almost as if he got married just so he could move on to have affairs as the next step. I don’t quite think it’s a philosophy so much as he has just soaked up ideas of how to be a man and tries to live according to them (without reflecting on it all too much as he senses where that leads).

Do you see Marty as a character designed to challenge Rust’s philosophical POV? Or confirm it?
Marty reads to me as a pragmatist who tries to navigate life by a series of codes of conduct. Not always good ones — men have codes for misbehaving. I don’t think it is designed to challenge or confirm Rust’s philosophical view so much as act as a blunt contrast to it; by having such a “normal” Everyman beside Rust, it intensifies his weirdness, almost like the “straight man” you find in comedy shows. However, I cannot be sure here that I am not reading Marty well since to me he, rather than Rust, is the weird one!

Time is a very important concept in the show, on macro and micro levels. In episode five, Rust ruminates on time being “a flat circle,” where events will continually repeat over and over again. Is there basis for this science-minded philosophy?
He seems to be discussing the idea in two distinct senses: one is, and here I am no expert, M-theory derived from theoretical physics that he discusses explicitly with the detectives. The more subtle existential angle he is touching on is the “eternal recurrence of the same” that Nietzsche introduced. There, the idea, and it is found in older traditions, too, is that the greatest horror for us is not to die, but to live the same lives on repeat for all eternity. In Nietzsche, this notion is designed to shake us up out of our passive lives. The challenge being, to paraphrase, whether you would be willing to carry on as you do if you knew it would all happen again (eternally). It’s a thought experiment, but some people read it metaphysically. For me, that particular scene seems designed to stress how easily he gets lost in his head more than something that will relate very directly to the story line. However, it reconnects up to Rust’s commitment to the fact that life is but a dream/nightmare — not in some flowery sense, but that the far grimmer awareness that structurally consciousness has the character of an elaborate continuous, but determinate in duration, fantasy.

How do you see the concept of evil playing out on the show?
This is tricky for me because I don’t believe in the concept of evil and suspect Rust does not technically believe in it either. It’s a very religious concept and for a pessimist would be seen as a word that obscures complexity. I honestly cannot say at the moment whether the show is going to end up as an expression of the inherent “evilness” at the heart of people, but I admit that would disappoint me. My hope is that the sense of supernatural foreboding found through the show will be explained, if it is at all, in a realist manner. That is to say, it will be the result of a human mind, which is already the darkest thing in nature. As Rust tells us in the car, consciousness is an aberration from nature.

If Rust’s beliefs about the world turn out to be true, how do you imagine the events playing out?
I would say that given Rust’s pessimism coupled with the slightly disturbed atmosphere he finds himself in, he is sure to discover increasingly unsettling things. I genuinely cannot imagine how it will end, which is an amazing feeling, but I would say that I believe we will discover that the “cult” is a cover for a wider network (and not just Tuttle) and that a large amount of powerful people are implicated. This would neatly blend two types of paranoia found in the show: the religious, supernatural fear of Satanic ritual cults and the anti-authoritarian pessimistic intuition that moral hypocrites are always covering up some misdeed or another.

Talking to a Philosopher About True Detective