17 Sep 2012

Philosophy - Part 23 - Revisiting The Sunset Limited

Philosophy - Part 23 - Revisiting The Sunset Limited - by P.K.Odendaal - September 2012 

Some people approach me from time to time, to ask me for advice on social and spiritual matters, and although I almost always understand their problem and offer them some general help, I am usually unable to really understand what goes on inside them, why they have this question or problem, and what I should say to them - and I usually end up offering them the wrong or irrelevant advice.
When I saw the film 'The Sunset Limited', I had this overpowering desire to understand the dilemma of White and to offer him some advice - advice which Black was apparently unable to offer him, to prevent his second suicide attempt. And that is what started this series on philosophy.

I could have gone to the writer, Cormac McCarthy, and ask him what the underlying philosophies of the piece were, but that would have defeated the object and the excitement of the game. And that is the reason I took you on a journey with me, so that we might ultimately come up with some credible advice which would make a difference to the life of White, and save it - a thing Black could not do. If we could do that, then there might be life before death for people like White, of which there are millions in this world - people who are too learned to understand simple things - people who are atheists or agnostics and generally people who got caught up in the web of philosophy, who have eaten of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and who are therefore dying.
I have this yearly game with my children. We go on a ski holiday, and we ride with other people in cable cars. We would watch them, what they say to their friends and family travelling with them, whilst on these cable cars, and once we get off, we would all have a go at trying to figure out who they are, what they do, what they like, what inspires them and why they are here. See our previous article in 'Part 15 - What do you see'.
So, it was with excitement that I tried to play a similar game with White and Black in this film, looking at them from the outside. Whether I will succeed in coming up with some credible advice for White, I do not know, but I know that I like the game and the ride. If my analysis of the plight of White and Black is right or wrong, so let it be.
To recap on the story, the following : After ascertaining that there is nobody else on the platform, White tries to commit suicide by jumping in front of a train called the Sunset Limited. Unseen to him, Black is there to miraculously save him, as if it is God Himself who intervened in this suicide with an angel, and White lands in the arms of Black - a black unlearned Christian lay preacher - who saves him and takes him to his slum apartment to give him some help and support. He finds out that White is a professor and a learned man in philosophy and other social sciences, and does not know God or Jesus Christ, and has no hope. He spends time arguing with White to get him to alter his viewpoint and thoughts and prevent him from trying to commit suicide again, but ultimately Black is unable to do his and White leaves to go and complete the suicidal work he has started.
The whole story begs the question: Why did White land in this situation, and is there any help for him from anyone?
The conversation starts off with the notion of White, that he knows everything and that he will not listen to anything Black, or for that matter anyone else, says or thinks - the ploy of most atheists, agnostics and scientists - here is the script (My comments are in brackets):
White :    Do you really think that Jesus is in this room?
Black :     No, I don't think he's in the room
White :    You don't?
Black :     I know he is in the room. It's the way you put it, Professor. Be like me asking you do you think you have a coat on. You see what I mean?
White :    It's not the same thing. It's a matter of agreement. If you and I say that I have my coat on and Cecil says that I am naked and I have a green skin and a tail, then we might want to think about where we should put Cecil so that he won't hurt himself.
Black :     Who's Cecil?
White :    He's not anybody. He's just a hypothetical ... There's not any Cecil. He's just a person I made up to illustrate a point.
Black :     Made up??
White :    We're not going into this again, are we? It's not the same thing. The fact that I made Cecil up.
Black :     But you did make him up.
White :    Yes.
Black :     And his view of things don't count.
White :    No. That's why I made him up. I could have changed it around. I could have made you the one that didn't think I was wearing a coat.
Black :     And was green and all that shit you said.
White :    Yes.
Black :     But you didn't. You loaded it off on Cecil.
White :    Yes.
Black :     But Cecil can't defend himself 'cause the fact that he ain't in agreement with everybody else makes his word no good. I mean, aside from the fact that you made him up and he's green and everything.
White :    He's not the one who's green. I am. Where is this going?
Black :     I'm just trying to find out about Cecil.
(The innuendo here is that White is prepared to talk about Cecil who does not exist at all, but not about Jesus who does exist - and who cannot defend himself, being not there in flesh and blood, but only as a hypothetical - a figment in Black's mind.)
White :    Well, why couldn't Jesus be (only) in your head?
Black :     He is in  my head.
White :    Well, I don't understand what it is you're trying to tell me.
Black :     I know you don't honey. Look. The first thing you got to understand  is that I ain't got a original thought in my head (I did not eat from that tree). If it ain't got the lingerin' scent of divinity to it, then I ain't interested.
               But the point is, I done tried it the other way (like you). And I don't mean chippied, neither. Runnin' blindfold through the woods with the bit between your teeth (like yourself). Oh man. Didn't I try it though. If you can find a soul that give it a better shot than me, I'd like to meet him. And what do you reckon it got me?
White :    I don't know. What did it get you?
Black :     Death in life. That's what it got me.
White :    Death in life?
Black :     Yeah. Walking around death. Too dead to even know enough to lay down.
The argument is clear. I have been where you are going Professor. It leads unto death. You have eaten from the tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. You are dead, but you just do not know it. There is no life on the route you are following. I know that. I have tried and tested it. You just have to complete the act, by jumping in front of the train.
It is clear that White does not understand what Black says, and does not even consider understanding that. He knows better. Black is so low down the learning ladder, that he can't even think of listening to him. And here Black is giving him the low down on Paradise, life and death - the most basic facts anyone should know. If you followed me closely on this series, it will be clear as daylight what is transpiring here. White is a determinist, rationalist, materialist and now a fatalist, and later even a nihilist. Remember the words of Chesterton in Part 21: But if I disbelieve in immortality I must not think about it. For instance, when materialism leads men to complete fatalism (as it generally does), it is quite idle to pretend that it is in any sense a liberating force.
White now has to impress Black with his learning:
Black :     What is it you believe in?
White :    Probably I don't believe in a lot of things that I used to believe in, but that doesn't mean I don't believe in anything. I believe in lots of things, for instance. Books and music and art (I was a materialist). Things like that. Those are the kinds of things that have value to me. They're the foundations of civilisation. Or they used to have value. I suppose they don't have so much anymore.
Black :     What happened to them?
White :    People stopped valuing them. I stopped valuing them. To a certain extent. I'm not sure I could tell you why. That world is largely gone (I have become a fatalist). Soon it will be wholly gone (I am on my way to becoming a nihilist). The things that I loved were very frail. Very fragile (it was based on speculation and false assumptions dished up to me by so-called philosophers and scientists). I didn't know that. I thought they were indestructible. They weren't.
Black :     And that's what sent you off the edge of the platform. It wasn't nothing personal?
White :    It is personal. That's what an education does. It makes the world personal.
Black :     Well, I was just thinking that them is some pretty powerful words. I don't know that I got an answer about any of that and it might be that they ain't no answer (for sure not). But still I got to ask what is the use of notions such as them if it won't keep you glued down to the platform when the Sunset Limited comes through at eighty miles a hour.
White :    I don't have an answer to any of that either. Maybe it's not logical. I don't know. I don't care.
Black :     So let me get this straight. You saying that all this culture stuff is all that ever was between you and the Sunset Limited?
White :    Maybe you're right. Maybe I have no beliefs. I believe in the Sunset Limited. The things I believed in don't exist anymore. It's foolish to pretend that they do. Western Civilisation finally went up in smoke in the chimneys at Dachau, but I was too infatuated to see it. I see it now. 

Now that Black has listened to White's fantastical philosophy which could not keep him from suicide (glue him to the platform), it is time for Black to give his philosophy which would do that. He counters with a metaphor on food, to illustrate the balance between philosophy, rational thought, conventional wisdom and life in general.
Black takes a pot from the fridge, in which he has a concoction of many constituents, warms it up on the small hot plate, and serves it to White :
Black :     All right. You tell me if you like this.
White :    It looks good. (They eat). This is good. This is very good.
Black :     Supposed to be good. This is soul food my man.
White :    It's got what in it? Molasses? And Bananas of course. Mangos?
Black :     Got a mango or two in there. Rutabagas. They ain't easy to find.
White :    It's very good.
Black :     It gets better after a day or two. I just fixed this last night. You need to warm it up a few times to get the flavours right. You know where I learned to fix this? Right here in the ghettos of New York. They's a lot of influence in a dish like this. You got many parts of the world in that pot yonder. Different people.
               You know these French chefs in these uptown restaurants? (He refers to philosophers). You know what they like to cook?
White :    No.
Black :     Sweet breads. Tripe, Brains. All that shit they don't nobody eat. You know why that is?
White :    Because it's a challenge. You have to innovate.
Black :     A challenge. That's right. The stuff they cook is dead cheap. Most folks throws it out. Give it to the cat. But poor folks don't throw nothing out.
White :    I guess that's right.
Black :     It don't take a lot of skill to make a porterhouse steak taste good. But what if you can't buy no porterhouse steak? You still wants to eat something that tastes good. What you do then?
White :    Innovate.
Black :     That's right, Professor. And when do you innovate?
White :    When you don't have something that you want.
Black :     You fixin' to get a A plus. So who would that be? That ain't got what they want?
White :    Poor people. It's very good (referring to food).
Black :     Well, let me have your plate.
White :    Just a small portion.
Black :     That's all right, Professor. You need to eat. You done had yourself a pretty busy day.
(Here you can refer to a comment I made in Part 21: In which of these do I believe? In none of them of course. We cannot live a life of fulfillment, happiness, meaning, expectation, excitement, confusion, doubt and fantasy, if we do not believe in all the above forces and balance them in our lives.) 

               A lot of things is beyond my understanding. I know that. I say it again. If it ain't in this book (bible) then they's a good chance that I don't know it. Before I started readin' the bible, I was pretty much in that primacy thing myself. (White had said previously that he believed in the primacy of the intellect).
White :    Primacy thing?
Black :     Yeah. Not as bad as you. But pretty bad. I was pretty dumb, but I wasn't dumb enough to believe that what had got me nowhere in forty years was all of a sudden goin' to get me somewhere. I was dumb, but I was not that dumb. I seen what was there for the askin', and I decided to ask. And that's all I done. And it was hard. I'll tell you right now, Professor, it was hard. I was laying there all cut up and chained to that hospital bed and I was cryin' I hurt so bad and I thought they'd kill me if I did live and I tried to say it and tried to say it and after a while I just quit. I put all of that away from me. And I just said: Please help me (God). And he did.
               Well, that's my story, Professor. It's easy told. I don't make a move without Jesus. When I get up in the mornin' I just try to get a hold of his belt. Oh, every once in a while I'll catch myself slippin' into manual overdrive. But I catch myself.
White :    So you come to the end of your rope and you admit defeat and you are in despair and in this state you seize upon this whatever it is that has neither substance nor sense and you grab hold of it and hang on for dear life. Is that a fair portrayal?
               It doesn't make any sense.
Black :     Well, I thought when we was talkin' earlier, I heard you say they wasn't none of (your things) it made no sense. Talking about the history of the world and all such as that. Well, that's about as bad a case of the primacy as I ever heard. 

... later
White :    It's the first thing in that book there. The Garden of Eden. Knowledge as destructive to the spirit. Destructive to goodness.
Black :     I thought you ain't read this book?
White :    Everyone knows that story. It's probably the most famous story in there.
Black :     So why do you think that is?
White :    I suppose from the God point of view all knowledge is vanity. Or maybe it gives people the unhealthy illusion that they can outwit the devil. 

... later
Black :     (holding a newspaper in his hand and quoting from a fictitious newspaper article) Yeah, here it is. Friends report that the man had ignored all advice and had stated that he intended to pursue his own course. A close confidant stated: 'You couldn't tell the son of a bitch nothin'. Meanwhile, blood-spattered spectators at the hundred and fifty-fifth street station who were interviewed at the scene all reported that the man's last words as he hurtled towards the oncomin' commuter train were: I am right.

(Here I wish to quote from Chesterton: The men who really believe in themselves are all in lunatic asylums. It would be much truer to say that a man will certainly fail, because he believes in himself. Thoroughly worldly people never understand even the world; they rely altogether on a few cynical maxims which are not true. The madman is not the man who has lost his senses. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his senses.)
What is your prognosis. I will wish to hear. My personal view is that the script is correct in that White is again headed for the Sunset Limited.


  1. In a recent survey (2012) under philosophers all over the world it was found that 72.8% were Atheists and 75.1% were Scientific realists. Goodbye White!!!!

  2. As one who feeds from the tree,taking note of how the conversation concluded and Black's failure I bid adieu to our dear Professor

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  4. I'll write about it. I'm literature teacher myself (small language family though). I've been and i am where White is. Never in my life i encountered something so close to myself as his characters (learned quotes first from artist called "Nolongerhuman" who used it in his songs which lead me to find movie eventually). I had horrible life, to an extent i was changed to become strange and empty man for my whole life, a creature dangling in senseless articulation in howling void as white said. I won't explain what routes my soul had to traverse, what thresholds of understandings and torture i had to overcome so i would become nihilist. An advice for him? In all honesty death is truly single thing he deserves (such as me). At some point in life person gets not only broken but shattered by experiences that only way to survive (unknowingly) is to loose all hope, all last shreds of dreams and illusions person have so they could keep breathing. But to what end? I know what would change White, but he forsook all those hopes so long ago death is truly last hope he clings on. You see White started as idealist, probably read those great novels in history which made clear line between true human being and empty husks we are surrounded with. Over time he may have been poor, ill, persecuted... Over time he believed in true real total love, friendship and family but all those hopes were fragile (like mine). At some point an idea is born within him, an idea of Ivan Karamazov for example that only true place for such damned and tortured soul is eternal oblivion, emptiness of darkness. And darkness here is not evil, its like a thin blanket that shelters the weak and exhausted life, last cover in ones existence. What advice could he gain? Trust in God who he hates, who he wants dead cause he believed once? To wait, life would change? Life would, but he can't anymore. Scars are too deep to ever heal. Without beliefs, hopes in total solitude man is truly dead, he just needs to complete it... Like he tried.

    Myself i can't remember time when i didn't want to die. I'm smart, not so bad looking 32 years male, tall, kind, and probably one of best persons people will never know, but in the end the only real question is how long should i wait to relive what i already (as he did) know. Another 30 years? Ofc not. Hope i put in some insight on this character from one similar perspective... All the best.