Decent Films Mail > Mailbag #15

Re: Watchmen (2009)

While fully aware that this is a Christian website with a Christian world view, I wish you wouldn’t use either “atheist” or “anarchist” as immediate synonyms for “nihilistic”, as you seem to do in your review of Watchmen:

On another level, although he made some effort to imbue his characters with varying outlooks, Moore’s anarchic, atheistic worldview clearly informs the narrative as a whole.

Neither anarchism nor atheism imply nihilism, despite how the labels have been abused in the media. One can be both and still find meaning and value in things beyond government or God. I’d guess you would dispute that they are right in doing so, of course, but that’s beside the point.

Your point is well taken. It wasn’t my intention to imply — what I certainly do not believe — that an atheistic and/or anarchic outlook is ipso facto nihilistic. I do see, on rereading in context the sentence you cite, that I wasn’t as clear as I could have been, and the sentence could suggest the reading you indicate, and object to.

What I think I was trying to do in that sentence is this. I characterized the overarching authorial outlook of Watchmen as “anarchic” and “atheistic” because I understand that Moore self-identifies as an anarchist and an atheist, and I think that comes through in Watchmen. On the other hand, I refrained from specifying “nihilistic” in that particular connection, not because I thought it was implicit in the two adjectives I did use, but because even though I think that Watchmen as a work is nihilistic, I have no reason to think that Moore is or considers himself to be a nihilist.

So, far from intending to equate either anarchy or atheism with nihilism, I actually meant to bracket nihilism as a distinct issue that arises in the work in ways that do not necessarily directly reflect Moore’s personal outlook. I could have been clearer on that point, though, and can see why you felt it worth clarifying.

It does get a bit more complex than that, because while I agree that in practice anarchy and atheism don’t entail nihilism, I do think that in Watchmen the story’s nihilistic tendencies are not unrelated to the atheistic and anarchic outlook.

Going beyond the critical question, converging with your guess, I would at least say that I can’t begin to see what sense the categories of meaning and value would hold for me if I ceased to believe in some sort of transcendent reality and saw the deterministic/random cosmos as all that is. In other words, if I were an atheist, I think I would be forced to be a moral nihilist. I do understand that many atheists reject that conclusion — and blessings on them, they are the better for it — but to me the nihilists’ critique of morality seems compelling, absent something we can call “divinity” or “heaven” or something of the sort.

Such considerations, though, would be of very tertiary significance in responding to a work like Watchmen where my primary aim is to understand the work as it is, and to offer a critical response that reflects my worldview (in the values I presuppose), rather than imposing my worldview (by spinning the author’s world to conform to reality as I see it). So while I might argue philosophically that atheism in fact undermines meaning, I wouldn’t argue that an artist’s imaginative vision is nihilistic just because it is atheistic. Quite the contrary.

Hope that helps. Thanks again for writing.

Link to this entry

Coming Soon

Recently Added

In Theaters – Latest

In Theaters – All