The Existential Itch: “It’s the most human thing we can do”

Hindsight gives those of us with writerly instincts the fodder of a script — as if everything is packaged with intent that falls together like a play or a film with a twist.

It was nearly impossible for me to avoid falling in love with science fiction — first, the blended SF/horror films of the first half of the twentieth century, and then, SF novels, often prompted by films — because of my mother’s influence.

That boyhood romance with a genre blurred into my teenage addiction to comic books, Marvel superheroes; I was mostly unaware that this fascination branched into reading, drawing, and the most powerful heroine of all, collecting.

And then by college, I found myself often sitting alone for hours, in the library or my dorm room, reading existential philosophy.

To me now, approaching 60, that all makes perfect sense, although it likely doesn’t to many others.

Insecurity and low self-esteem mixed generously with searing anxiety — this was my cocktail for a frantic pursuit of who I was since mostly I felt an acute awareness that I was unlike most people, most humans.

Crawling out of the heaping ignorance that was my upbringing, simply the facts of my culture and home norms, I consumed SF, comic books, and then philosophy uncritically. In some ways, this allowed me to fall in love without the pressure of acknowledging all the problems I would come to recognize in these seemingly unrelated texts that shaped me.

Let me work backwards.

Existentialism immediately resonated with me; again, in my ignorance, in my true state of being unlike most humans, I never read existential philosophy as some negative or dark portrayal of the human condition.

In fact, existential explanations for the human condition were a tremendous relief since they echoed how I mostly viewed the world (although in a much cruder way).

To feel passion is to suffer; and thus, to seek a life without suffering is to seek a life without passion. As Sartre dramatized, then, hell is other people.

To love deeply is necessarily to hurt deeply, and this math of being fully human, for me, reinforced my commitment to seek passion and love, to resist the urge to avoid suffering (since it is unavoidable).

Sartre’s No Exit as well as Camus’s “The Myth of Sisyphus” and The Strangerremains powerful texts for what being human means to me.

SF and comic books, I realize now, prepared me for this as they both had been salve for my own struggles with questions about the human condition.

It seems fitting, then, that one of the seminal SF loves of my life was Blade Runner (1982). I was 21, and still naive enough to fall in love with its SF brilliance while not yet critical enough to recognize that, like most SF and comic books (and pop culture or literature), the film presented some real problems about whether or not the work reflected or endorsed sexism, racism, and other regrettable norms of the modern human condition.

I saw Blade Runner in the theater, alone and during the day. Nearly everyone else who attended left during the film, but I sat entranced. I have watched it dozens of times since.

And now, finally, I just viewed Blade Runner 2049, a much delayed sequel.

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Robin Wright and Sylvia Hoeks in Blade Runner 2049 (2017) [Photo by Stephen Vaughan — © 2017 Alcon Entertainment, LLC.]

Both films remain grounded in the ideas of Philip K. Dick without remaining strictly true to Dick’s characters and plot found in Do Android’s Dream of Electric Sheep?

As Dick explained:

The two basic topics which fascinate me are “What is reality?” and “What constitutes the authentic human being?” Over the twenty-seven years in which I have published novels and stories I have investigated these two interrelated topics over and over again.

Like the original, Blade Runner 2049 depends a great deal on atmosphere, which may allow the casual viewer to ignore some real problems, or at least questions that need to be answered.

Anna Smith reported:

“Blade Runner 2049 has a women problem,” cried the internet this weekend, as the critically praised sci-fi sequel hit cinemas. Tweets and blogs cited the fact that female characters were treated as sex objects, and that the narrative was almost entirely driven by men, including Ryan Gosling’s replicant-hunter K and his predecessor Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford). Outrage quickly spread, including from those who had not yet seen the film.

Smith later concedes that the film at the very least presents a mixed message:

And, indeed, there are a number of [female] characters. Robin Wright is terrific but underused as K’s slick, strong, black-clad boss, Lieutenant Joshi, and Sylvia Hoeks’s icy baddie Luv is great fun, but in thrall to her male boss (sinister replicant-creator Wallace, played by Jared Leto). Mackenzie Davis’s Mariette shows initial promise as a strong character who can give as good as she gets, but she is also a sex worker who is literally used as a puppet. Visually, sexualised images of women dominate the stunning futuristic cityscapes, from pirouetting ballerinas to giant statues of naked women in heels looming over K as he goes on his journey. Of course, one of the themes of Blade Runner 2049 is a world littered with artifice, from replicants to sexbots — but these mainly seem to cater to heterosexual males. A hint of a woman considering a “pleasure model” is brief and unexplored. Meanwhile Wright’s Joshi appears attracted to K, but she is not permitted to use him for her sexual pleasure. Where is her holographic lover, her Joi?

In the original film, Deckard (Harrison Ford) falls in love with a replicant (and may be one himself); and the sequel introduces “K” (Ryan Gossling) with a hologram girlfriend (one who hires a prostitute, Mariette [Mackenzie Davis], so the hologram and “K” can experience “real” sex).

So these works of SF use android women to make a commentary about idealizing and objectifying women? Or are these works themselves idealizing and objectifying women?

Evidence for the former may be that two women utter directly some of the essential Dick themes of the film:

Mariette: More human than humans.

Freysa: Dying for the right cause. It’s the most human thing we can do.

Blade Runner 2049 continues the debate about what counts as real and what makes humans human. The sequel includes the rise of replicants, fighting against their slavery in a quest to be “[m]ore human than humans,” and teases out the possibility of androids reproducing.

I recognize this time around the problems with the sequel, ones that occur in the original, but I will come back to this film again and again. I must find a way to resolve for myself why I flinched when “K”‘s hologram girlfriend is destroyed — although I suspect we all want love, and see in those who have it a thing to be treasured.

But this film, and all its existential meanderings, comes as I myself am struggling with an existential itch, trying to reassemble a puzzle that I once held dear, a puzzle scattered and I feared permanently ruined.

After about 13 months of self-exile from one of my passions, road cycling, I am now able to stand back and realize the loss that comes with trying to find ways to avoid suffering.

In the last week, I have ventured back onto the road with my cycling friends. Despite the rides being relatively brief (a couple hours each) and typical winter casual rides, I felt the same elation I may have allowed myself to ignore after thirty-plus years riding, may have been unable to recall after the accident that shook me into admitting I was done with road cycling.

Certainly, life provides no guarantees, and we can seek a life as free of unnecessary suffering as possible; we should be making that true for others (and here Blade Runner 2049 does makes a case for how unnecessarily awful the world is for children and women).

Deckard tells “K,” “Sometimes to love someone, you got to be a stranger,” a confession or justification for never seeing his child with Rachael, his replicant lover.

Later when Deckard is being used to find that child, Niander Wallace offers a key point about Deckard’s quest to avoid his own suffering and the suffering of those he loved: “It was very clever to keep yourself empty of information, and all it cost you was everything.”

To live is to risk everything. To avoid risk is to avoid life. And love.

Maybe few things are more fully human than our need to be reminded of this over and over as long as we are fortunate enough to have the options.

Written by

P. L. Thomas, Professor of Education Furman University, taught high school English before moving to teacher education. https://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/

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