Professed Nietzscheans do not have a great track record when it comes to actually understanding Nietzsche. There’s even an entire Wikipedia page dedicated to the topic of misunderstanding Nietzsche, but the following is a more practical test to determine whether someone claiming to create their own values is really Nietzschean about it: is this person capable of laughing at literally anything? Of feeling nothing but joy when it comes to reconciling oneself to one’s fate? Moondog, the protagonist from Harmony Korine’s new comedy The Beach Bum (2019), passes the test with flying colours.
Brooding Teenagers are very serious people. Life is pain, and there is not much room for ironic distance in light of one’s own existential troubles. If this is an adequate sketch of the Brooding Teenage mindset, it is more than a little ironic that Nietzsche, often championed by the very same Brooding Teenagers, thought it was precisely a serious mind that quenched the free-spiritedness of which human beings are capable. Seriousness leads to resolve, which leads to a closed mind. And is not a closed mind the surest sign of unfreedom? This is from the beginning of Nietzsche’s The Gay Science:
To laugh at oneself as one would have to laugh in order to laugh from the whole truth — for that, not even the best have had enough sense of truth, and the most gifted have had far too little genius! Perhaps even laughter still has a future — when the proposition ‘The species is everything, an individual is always nothing’ has become part of humanity and this ultimate liberation and irresponsibility is accessible to everyone at all times. Perhaps laughter will then have formed an alliance with wisdom; perhaps only ‘gay science’ will remain. (2001, Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy edition, translated by Josefine Nauckhoff, 27-28)
There’s much to unpack here, but I will stick with the main message that when the modern (Darwinian) sciences promise a model of humanity that can fully predict its behaviour, the only freedom that we can attain, will not come from mastering these sciences, but from the capacity to laugh at these predictions, regardless of their truth. In other words, Nietzsche suggests here that true freedom comes with both an awareness and a defiance of natural laws (survival of the fittest, etc.) that seem to determine our lives on a biological level without leaving room for individual freedom (“the species is everything, an individual is always nothing”). And since Nietzsche thought that morality has functioned as merely another way in which the species has tried to maintain itself (a way of keeping each other in check), true defiance cannot consist of condemnation or disapproval, but must take an entirely amoral shape (‘beyond good and evil’): laughter, in alliance with wisdom.
Laughing is an art which Moondog (played very well by Matthew McConaughey) has perfected. Really, besides drinking, drugs, and some poetry, laughing is the only thing he ever actually does. It’s a disarming, infectious laugh, making you feel sympathy for a guy who really is no more than a beach bum. In that respect, director and writer Harmony Korine does a remarkable job in keeping you interested in what is essentially a 95 minute long character study of a Floridian version of The Dude. Like The Big Lebowski, there is no capable, but rather a comically inept individual at the heart of the film, the plot being driven forward by external events that happen to (rather than being initiated by) the protagonist. But unlike the Coen brothers (for whom The Dude remains an anti-hero, or an ironic hero at best) Korine at least seems to restrain the irony this far: Moondog really is a heroic individual, not in spite, but because he is a beach bum.
You’d be forgiven for not thinking that Korine is presenting us with his take on the Nietzschean Übermensch, someone more human than human, who has realised their own freedom by creating their own values. Still, the Nietzschean angle seems clear and undeniable to me. For one thing, the film’s trailer prominently figures Eumir Deodato’s “Also Sprach Zarathustra (2001)”, the jazz funk rendition of Richard Strauss’ composition inspired by Nietzsche’s most well-known work Also sprach Zarathustra. For another, Moondog really does live by his own values: he’s not particularly mean, nor is he especially nice, he’s just someone who’s made a conscious decision to get drunk, have fun and party everyday (Korine really excels in convincing you that this is the autonomous decision of a grown-up individual).
Most importantly though, Moondog’s laughter really is the kind that flows “from the whole truth”: he not only finds everything funny, everything in fact becomes funny through Moondog’s laughter. McConaughey really shows his skill as an actor here, for instance in the scene where Moondog delivers lines of poetry, “One day I will swallow up the world… And when I do, I hope y’all perish violently…”, interspersed with jovial shrieks of hilarity that somehow make you smile at the dismal meaning of the poem and so render you an accomplice to a joke you yourself do not quite understand.
So Moondog is free; a heroic individual because he has created his own values and he has shown the value of those values to us. The question that remains, is what it means for a value to be one’s own. For one thing, are there not a lot of people like Moondog, striving to live life as if it were one big party? And if that is the case, how original is Moondog, really? Or more troublingly, even if Moondog is exemplary in succeeding at this particular lifestyle, is this not a way of life marked by escapism if nothing else? A way of saying “no” to ordinary life, rather than saying “yes” to a particular path of one’s own making? Korine wastes no time on these possible objections and this is definitely a shortcoming of the film: one would have liked to see a little more elaboration on Moondog’s belief system. Incidentally, one senses here another sharp contrast with The Big Lebowski, which has literally given rise to a religious/philosophical following of people living their life in accordance with Dudeist principles. It would be difficult to see Moondog accomplishing the same feat.
Still. His laughter is infectious.