Why True Detective season one is counter-cultural

NOTE: This post contains thematic spoilers related to character development.

Living with the anxiousness of our current predicament[note]You know what I mean…alienation, “fear of missing out”, creating our own special identities, etc. [/note], what type of person can  claim to simply enjoy life? It is a frequently recurring question in contemporary philosophy, seeing as how the great ethical imperative of our time is “Enjoy!” but no one seems to ultimately derive any lasting enjoyment from the world we’ve created for ourselves. So who is it that has stripped away their illusions – has stopped deluding themselves about work, success, love and sex – and can now really enjoy the pleasures of life without contradiction and anxiety? Who can lay claim to the naive (in the best sense of the word) and childlike vision of life? 

Today it is asserted by the secular world that religion is an impediment to this simple enjoyment. What is asserted in its place is a grab bag of alternatives from which we are encouraged to mix and match, like good consumers.  Hedonism. The Nietzchean joy of transvaluation, of creating your own identity and values ad infinitum. Sexual profligacy. The findings of “science.”

But I would like to concentrate on one particular archetype of person that we’re probably all familiar with: the one with the cynical scientific worldview. Come on, you know what I am talking about. Usually a young white male, disaffected, whose primary crusades are directed against what he considers the accumulated illusions of mankind: art, religion, the self. Art is a means by which a potential mate distinguishes himself from his competitors by highlighting qualities which promote survival like intelligence and high-level thought, he says. Religion is a primitive way of explaining a terrifying reality. The self is an illusion, though a useful one from a biological perspective. And so on.

What I first would like to draw attention to is that usually this worldview is used to somehow lay claim to that ever-elusive childlike enjoyment of life. Only by ridding ourselves of our illusions can we accept our situation and enjoy what little time we have. 

The ethical claim of this sort of atheism doesn’t depend on its fearless truth -telling so much as its assertion that stripping yourself of “illusions” is the key to happiness. (Photo by Zoe Margolis [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

But this assertion can only go so far, because of course religious people can just as easily think of themselves of having no illusions, of being the people who truly confront reality as it is. In that case, the argument is just transplanted back to metaphysics, and since the new atheists don’t accept any metaphysical claims that aren’t backed up by scientific experiments, they switch back to their ethical claim of having “no illusions” and present their claims as epistemically superior.

Leaving aside the various merits of their approach (and there are some), I wish to draw attention to what I think is most important part of this archetype. I assert that science is a much smaller domain of “reality knowing” than this archetype in question usually thinks. As such, they still need to supplement their worldview with smatterings of philosophy and even religion and mysticism. This claim of mine is purely anecdotal – based on my many experiences talking with such people  – but I’m willing to wager that it is nearly universal. The total sphere of human experience is too large to be coextensive with the field of science. It needs to be supplemented.

And so where is our young cynic to turn? Why, to the true creators of his worldview, of course. Not the scientists of the past, because they were almost all convinced Christians. No, to Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Buddhism and usually a mixture of all three[note]the Buddhism is already mixed into the Schopanhauer at the very least[/note].

Detective Cohle in True Detective starts out talking about evolution, but it is only a matter of time before he is talking about Eternal Recurrence. That is no fluke, but a natural process. And a flawed one, if you can’t see it through to the end as he does.


The dominant narrative path for our (anti)heroes today is: a state of naiveté; an intermediate state of difficulty where their innocence conflicts with the realities of daily life; and finally emerging a more “complex” person, able to appreciate life’s ambiguities.[note]It is interesting to note that this narrative theme is completely contemporary. Narratives before modernity oftentimes vindicated virtue that someone already possessed from the beginning of the tale. Odysseus doesn’t get more complex, he gets, in many ways, less, slaughtering his wife’s suiters who thought he was dead[/note]. True Detective, though, is counter-cultural: Detective Cohle goes through the opposite journey[note]I call this counter-cultural because a lot of our present paranoia depends on the notion that complexity and ambiguity are the necessary end point for ethical living.[/note]. He starts as unable to focus on anything but life’s ambiguities. Science for him confirms what he already believes: that human life is a mistake; a cosmic joke; nature gone wrong. At the beginning of the show he is more a depressed scientist of sorts, but by the middle of the first season he is starting to sound like the kind of mystic I describe above.

When Reggie Ledoux tells him that “Time is a flat circle,” he tells him to “shut the fuck up,” but is soon quoting the same thing favorably to his fellow detectives. If you pretend that our evolution from nature is a kind of philosophical truth-bomb[note]The philosophical implications that arise from Darwinian evolution are greatly exaggerated[/note] like Cohle does, it is only a matter of time before you’re talking about time being a flat circle and the futility of the self. The philosophy fills in the gaps left behind by science’s cold facts, and Nietzsche is perfectly willing to help out.

Detective Marty Hart correctly perceives a desperation in Cohle’s frequent musings. “You sound panicked” he says as Cohle is deriding the tent-revival church service they’re witnessing. (Hart has his own journey to go on that is similar in many ways to Cohle’s. His frequent attempts to compartmentalize are not, as he rationalizes, an attempt to maintain the love in his life, but an attempt to avoid it.)

The Cohle we see for most of the show is the cynic I described in Part I taken to his logical conclusion: he drops the pretense that getting rid of your illusions will lead to happiness. Indeed, he mocks the notion. He’d rather be honest with himself. Hart is the kind of guy who could sit down and enjoy a good hamburger from time to time. Cohle never could.

Until the last ten minutes of the show. Cohle reveals that he’s had a spiritual epiphany: love exists as a sustaining and real spiritual force. This ending is oftentimes mocked by critics and fans who think this is some kind of feel-good cop-out, an Oprah-style ending for a show mired in darkness and evil. They’re incorrect. Cohle isn’t saying something trite like “Love conquers all” or “Love rules the world.” He knows very well that the World is precisely the thing not ruled by love. Rather he asserts that love is from the depths – he repeatedly mentions sinking deeper and deeper – but oftentimes inaccessible to us because of our repression of the fact that love comes from the people around us and therefore we’re dependent on them.

The ancillary part of his epiphany is that he had to go through the darkness to get there. He reaches this conclusion in Carcosa, the place of ultimate evil and degradation. He sees what appears to be the universe, referring to the conversation he had with Hart on the way there when he was talking about his visions[note]”Yeah, back then, the visions, yeah most of the time I was convinced…Shit…I’d lost it. But there were other times…I thought I was mainlining the secret truth of the universe”[/note]. It isn’t the sort of epiphany that Hart could have, simply because Hart’s approach to life isn’t dialectical enough; as he says, he tries to keep things “separate”; he doesn’t like to confront things (at least until the end, when he confronts that he has been damaged by what he’s experienced). So in a very real way, Cohle’s former cynicism is vindicated, it just didn’t go far enough. You are supposed to confront the darkness, to have “no illusions”, even to lose yourself in despair if necessary. Just as long as when you hit the bottom you can accept a metaphysical flip like Cohle, a metanoia, a “change of heart”. At the bottom of suffering is love, and not some nebulous “life force”, but the love of Persons. We participate in it bodily. Cohle goes from denying the self to asserting the eternity of personality. Cohle becomes the kind of guy who could enjoy a hamburger. He goes through the reverse of the stereotypical modern narrative; the story actually ends with him embracing the world as light vs. dark. Instead of naiveté to complexity he goes from complexity to naiveté through suffering. Christ told us to become like children, but in order to become a child you first need to be an adult.