Philosophy - Part 24 - Deeper into the Sunset Limited

Philosophy - Part 24 - Deeper into the Sunset Limited - by P.K.Odendaal - October 2012. 

Somehow this story haunts me often, and although I have spent much time on it here on the blog, it comes up again and again as a general life crisis for many people, although not for me personally. I know their position and their plight quite well, as I almost tripped in front of that train many years ago. Although we have gone much deeper than a superficial treatment of the disease, we have not explored its depths satisfactorily.
What is concept of the The Sunset Limited? It is the pinnacle of a life of self-destruction, ending sadly with an inevitable nihilistic act - in this case jumping in front of a train to commit suicide. It is clear from the story that White has no other viable option. If we listen to him carefully, we can clearly hear the words of Nietzsche in the background of his thoughts.

But what is more tragic, is Black's inability to touch his heart. Black has the basic answers, but cannot seem to connect with White, probably due to his lack of insight into the world of White and into the dynamics of conversations.
And that brings us to the basic, mundane and complex activity of conversations. It is something we do every day, and which we mess up every day, not being conscious of the emotional and intellectual dynamics between us and our conversation partner. It is also the activity that leaves scars in our psyche and that of our partner, because it is fraught with misunderstanding, ambiguity, competition, false emotions and many more.
We start at a basic simple conversation level, and move on to more profound issues, which we normally miss, not having progressed well in the conversation from superficiality to profoundness. Only once they can touch each other's hearts can we say that it was a meaningful conversation or discussion.
At any conversation between two physical people, there are six persons present: two persons in terms of what they think of themselves, two persons in terms of what they think of each other, and the two persons in terms of who or what they really are. The whole object of this game is to keep yourself protected under your false personality which covers anything, as a smokescreen, from your fears to your prides to your scars. And that is why all conversations begin with the weather. It is an impersonal subject that everybody knows something of, and no controversy or friction can originate from this preamble ... well, most of the time. It is so totally superficial, and should the conversation be ended here it would be totally unsatisfactorily, but void of conflict.
After this preamble, some people, like myself, will jump into the deep end of the conversation and emerge minutes later in a semi drowned condition, and that will end the conversation immediately and abruptly, with antagonism and resistance felt from both sides. Why? Because each one was waiting and longing for a love stroke in the form of a compliment. Compliments start off superficial, like in: I like your tie ... but just make sure before you say it that the other person is really wearing a tie. It is now time for him to deliver a compliment or a bon viveur. Somehow the formality and tension of the conversation must be broken, and many ploys are successful here. Thereafter you can plaster the compliments on real thick, if that helps, especially in the presence of monarchy and their progeny. There is nobody more in need of flattery than monarchy. With them it does not have to be disguised even, but in normal conversation it is best to disguise flattery with all sorts of veils. You can read more on this subject from the excellent books by Eric Berne: 'Games people play' - and 'I'm OK, you're OK'.
We can already see from this that White and Black never even got to this part of the conversation. They remained in the part called: You are good, but I am better - a game we all play and in which each party defends its home ground, however frail and idiosyncratic that may be. There is no progress in this type of conversation.
In contrast I wish to quote an anonymous saying which I believe in, although I do not practise it: 'I am not going to shame and blame, but I am going to take risks and expose my vulnerability to really connect with people'. That is the crux. We cannot progress in such a conversation if we do not expose our own vulnerability by exposing our real selves. After all, we are all humans - frail and unsure of ourselves, insecure and full of doubt, prejudiced and stereotyped, bored and worthless, uncomfortable with ourselves - and so is the person we are conversing with.
If we look closely at the text, that is all White is looking for and hoping for - a word from Black that can make him feel important and worth something. He tarries and it happens twenty times that he threatens to leave - and commit suicide, but then opts to stay, just in case there might be such a word forthcoming from Black - but it never comes. Each time Black comes up with a reason and argument that White should choose life, then White threatens to leave.
The piece is too deep and profound to discuss in a few short articles. If I wish to address this properly, I should write twenty articles just on the Sunset limited alone. Maybe I should, because it contains all the arguments and counter-arguments for death and life. However, I will leave that for another day.
I will however conclude with two serious arguments stated towards the end of this dialogue. The one is about the intensity of the argument to kill yourself, and the other about the fact that you have no choice. And these two are the crux of the argument which we will conclude with.
The first one is about the reasons for suicide - and I quote:
White:     I can't speak for others (he means for the 'low down' people that commit suicide, not from an understanding of the reasons they do it, but as a last way out, and they commit suicide by hanging themselves with a necktie from the steam pipes of their apartment buildings.) My own reasons centre around gradual loss of make-believe. That's all. A gradual enlightenment as to the nature of reality. Of the world.
Black:      It's them reasons that your brother don't know nothin about hangin by his necktie from the steam pipe down in the basement. He got his own dumb-ass reasons, but maybe if we could educate him to where some of them more elegant reasons was available to him and his buddies, then they'd be a lot of folks out there could off themselves with more joy in their hearts.
Absurd to the power on n. The argument here is that the more learned you are, the better reasons you have for committing suicide and therefore you would commit suicide with more conviction and happiness. This is true once you get to the point where you doubt everything and therefore rationalise to prove your legitimacy to kill yourself.
The second is the argument of the existentialists - from Buddha to Kafka. Their argument is that the whole of life is suffering and that death is the only way out of this. Here is the test:
White:     Alright. It's that the world is basically a forced labour camp from which the workers - perfectly innocent - are led forth by lottery, a few each day, to be executed. I don't think that this is just the way I see it. I think it's the way it is. Are there alternate views? Of course. Will any of them stand close scrutiny? No.
Black:      And they aint nothin to be done about it?
White:     No. The efforts that people undertake to improve the world invariably makes it worse. I used to think that there were exceptions. I don't think that now.
               The one thing I won't give up on is giving up. I expect that to carry me through. I'm depending on it. The things I believed in were very frail.. As I said. they won't be around for long and neither will I. But I don't think that's really the reason for my decision. I think it goes deeper. You can acclimate yourself to loss. You have to ...
               You give up the world line by line. Stoically. And then one day you realise that your courage is farcical. It doesn't mean anything. You've become an accomplice in your own annihilation (nihilism) and there is nothing you can do about it. Everything you do closes a door somewhere ahead of you. And finally there is only one door left.
... later ...
               Okay. Maybe you're right. Well, here's my views, Reverend. I yearn for the darkness. I pray for death. Real death. If I thought that in death I would meet the people I've known in life I don't know what I'd do. That would be the ultimate horror. The ultimate despair. If I had to meet my mother again and start all of that over, only this time without the prospect of death to look forward to? Well. That would be the final nightmare. Kafka on wheels (The reference here is to Franz Kafka, known as an existentialist, and by Kafka on wheels is meant the ultimate existentialism)
Black:      Professor. You don't want to see your own mama?
White:     No. I don't. I told you this would upset you. I want the dead to be dead. Forever. And I want to be one of them. Except that of course you can't be one of the dead, because what has no existence have no community. My heart warms just thinking about it. Silence. Blackness. Aloneness. peace. And all of it only a heartbeat away.
                Let me finish. I don't regard my state of mind as some pessimistic view of the world. I regard it as the world itself. Evolution cannot avoid bringing intelligent life ultimately to an awareness of one thing above all else and that one thing is futility.
               If people saw the world for what it truly is. saw their lives for what they truly are. Without dreams or illusions. I don't believe they could offer the first reason why they should not elect to die as soon as possible.
               I don't believe in God. Can you understand that? Look around you man. Can't you see? The clamour and din of those in torment has to be the sound most pleasing to his ear. And I loathe these discussions. The argument of the village atheist whose single passion is to revile endlessly that which he denies the existence of in the first place. Your fellowship is a fellowship of pain and nothing more.
                Show me a religion that prepares one for death. For nothingness. There's a church I might enter. Yours prepares one only for more life. For dreams and illusions and lies. If you could banish the fear of death from men's hearts they wouldn't live a day. 
What a brilliant argument of the intellectuals. McCarthy has said this so simply and forcefully. I could not have done it better. And still it is all lies. Lies they cling to. The insinuation here, which is true, is that the more you know, the easier it would be to commit suicide. 
Give me life. Give it to me intermingled with sorrow and pain and fear. With doubt and hope and courage. Anytime and every time.


  1. I heard a great argument with a false conclusion at the end. The premises that you have provided us with point to an entirely different conclusion than your own.

    Please reevaluate.

  2. I have drawn many conclusions in this series, and much as I wished for a more happy one (conclusion), I have been unable to do that. The balance of arguments, I think, will always go to the one bringing the most doubt, and the one tangled with the irrationality of emotion.
    If you care to elaborate somehow on your statement, I will be glad to revisit that.
    Thank you for your comment. I appreciate it.