Cohle Just Went Full Ahab: Thoughts After Episode 5 of True Detective

So many commenters have speculated back and forth about the potential of a supernatural element hiding at the end of True Detective, but it’s worth remembering that monsters are metaphors that invoke one or more anxieties. Sometimes those anxieties are localized and unique to a particular population and sometimes they are more universal and archetypal. Fantasy, horror, and the weird should not create a sense of uncanniness in us as reasonable, logical people, but they do. Because, as adults, are we afraid of monsters? No, because we are anxious about what they represent, even if it’s not stated directly. If there is an expectation of the supernatural in True Detective, it’s because those anxieties are easier to deal with indirectly and externally, through a monster.

True Detective is rooted in two genres that were invented by one writer, Edgar Allen Poe, and Poe’s deep anxieties with the world were the result of a progression of ideas that started with the Romantic writers and their pursuit of the Sublime. The Romantics, effusively pouring forth a set of ideals about the innate grandeur of nature as it unfolds, sought to experience the feelings of terror and awe in the face of Sublimity. They believed that we had a place in that largeness: that we were equal to nature’s splendor and vastness.

But then came Poe who, standing under a night sky that for only the previous 300 years (since the Copernican Revolution and The Renaissance) had been transforming from a canopy of pinpricked velvet just beyond our reach to an increasingly unfathomable depth, speculated that, if there are stars everywhere, why isn’t the night sky wholly white? His speculations proliferated into a strange new awareness that the stars might actually be so far away that their light hasn’t had time to reach the Earth. Without physically moving at all, Poe experienced the intellectual equivalent of an epic pull-back shot, starting on his face looking skyward, and pulling back to the edges of a suddenly larger universe, as far as his imagination could speculate. This is the experience of the Sublime, but, as opposed to those Romantic thinkers in America, Britain and Germany, Poe didn’t see himself (or humanity) as an equal participant in the vastness of unfolding natural processes, rather, he speculated that we are subjected to the horrors of an ancient and indifferent universe “out there”.

The best example of Poe’s relationship to this “Dark Sublime” is in his The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness “fleshed out” and retold the final chapters of Poe’s novel and further “monsterized” that same anxiety Poe articulated several decades earlier. Lovecraft also incorporated Chamber’s Carcosa, which Chambers described as a place:

“where black stars hang in the heavens; where the shadows of men’s thoughts lengthen in the afternoon, when the twin suns sink into the lake of Hali; and my mind will bear forever the memory of the Pallid Mask. I pray God will curse the writer, as the writer has cursed the world with this beautiful, stupendous creation, terrible in its simplicity, irresistible in its truth—a world which now trembles before the King in Yellow.”

Where black stars hang—on the other side of the universe where the sky is white and the starlight recedes rather than approaches. This is the place on the other side of the looking glass, from Cohle’s fourth dimension, where Poe’s mind went to realize how vast a universe must be that starlight takes an eternity to make it to our insignificant corner.

Monsters, I’ve said above, are metaphors we use to give form to the formless anxieties we share on either a provincial scale (i.e. localized tall tales and legends) or, at best, universally (Frankenstein, Dracula, Cthulhu, The King in Yellow, etc.). These stories cause us anxiety in spite of our logical relationship to their worlds. In the second story of Chamber’s novel entitled “The Mask,” for example, a young sculptor stumbles across a chemical solution that will turn living tissue to stone which leads to him literally objectify the woman he loves, because she doesn’t return his affections. Any person who passed seventh grade chemistry knows that such chemical solutions don’t exist (and it’s highly unlikely that a sculptor might “stumble upon its formula”), so the science is predicated on pure superstition. But, oddly, the anxiety remains. We know there are no such things as monsters, yet Chamber’s inventions, like Poe’s and Lovecraft’s, still cause something inside us to stir. The King in Yellow, an actual entity invoked by reading the play of the same name, continues to speak to something we fear yet only intuit referentially through a metaphorical monster.

True Detective, the metanarratival masterpiece (so far I believe it is—we hope it ends as strongly as it’s begun) written in three acts, suggests that it is that play within the story cycle of Chambers. The “meta” aspect of the story, as I’ve said before, changes the subject/object relationship between viewer and story. The story, as an object, is a thing to be consumed and left behind, like a used up commodity. We are first drawn to it because the story speaks to something inside of us of which we are only slightly aware, if at all. The philosopher Luis Althusser observed that idea systems (ideologies) “interpellate” us. His example of the interpellative act was the moment when a cop yells “hey you!” and the guilty party inside us unconsciously turns to look. The cop can also be described as the political institution, the value system, or the religious system we have already been indoctrinated to. The objectified book or film, like that cop, like a Reddit post, like a television show, says “hey you!” and the thing in us that is already developing in that direction (whether consciously or not), responds in varying degrees of conscientiousness.

But that’s where it ends when the medium is the object. When the subject/object relationship switches (in the metanarrative), and the medium becomes the subject, the second part of the “hey you” phrase isn’t followed by the expectation that you’ll just fall in lock step with the behaviors expected of someone who might respond in the affirmative. It’s a “hey you” followed by a “did you know that I knew you’d respond, and the linguistic program I used to call you, of which you might not be aware, works like this…”

“You’re not bad,” the cop (Rustin Cohle) says to the archetypal “bad guy,” “It’s not you. There’s a weight. It’s got fish hooks in your heart and soul.”

Rust Cohle seems to understand his subject (us) well, and can draw out the response he needs to further his investigation into the Dora Lange case (a pursuit of The Yellow King)—a case that strikes him as particularly compelling because it transcends the typical murder scene:

“We’d encountered a meta-psychotic, which I had to explain to Marty, what meta-psychotic was.

This is gonna happen again, or it’s happened before, both. It’s fantasy enactment, ritual, fetishization, iconography. This is his vision. Her body is a paraphilic love map.”

And that is the historical relationship between art, Hollywood, porn, and the continuous violence against women in general, both political and personal—through images and text, that proliferates because we watch, we click and upvote, we tune in and pay the admission, and we feed it endlessly through our participation. The meta-psychotic is the monsterization of an anxiety toward a presence we collectively intuit, and Rust is the archetypal arch nemesis of such a thing.

Marty, a version of both Dr. Watson and Ahab’s Starbuck, Challenges Cohle’s approach and defends his everyman alternative:

Marty: I’ve noticed you have a tendency toward myopia, tunnel vision. Blows investigations.

Vision skews, twists evidence. You’re obsessive.

Rust: You’re obsessive, too, just not about the job.

Marty: Not, me, brother. I keep things even, separate, like the way I can have this one beer without needing 20.

Rust: People incapable of guilt usually do have a good time.

Marty: Try not to be too hard on myself.

Rust Well, that’s real big of you.

Marty: You know the real difference between you and me?

Rust: Yeah. Denial.

Marty: The difference is that I know the difference between an idea and a fact. You are incapable of admitting doubt. Now, that sounds like denial to me.

Marty: I doubt that.

Marty and Rust are two sides of a male perspective toward the particularities of the case. Marty, the “everyman,” maintains a basic sense of denial toward the low-level, acceptable misogyny in which he’s scarcely even aware he participates. That’s why he has an affair and blames his mistress for breaking apart his family. That’s why, when the time comes to talk to his daughter about the graphic drawings of sex and molestation she’s drawn to entertain her friends, he mutes the basketball game so he can watch and talk, giving similar weight to both. He simply doesn’t realize that there is a presence in her life, and the Meta aspect of the show reminds us that there is a presence in all of our lives to which women, and most insidiously, girls, are subjected. It is, and always has been right under our nose as well as Marty’s. For Cohle, the death of his daughter “spared me the sin of being a father,” but not the sin of being a man. He simply doesn’t deny his culpability in a system of exploitation, and that lack of denial allows him the depth of empathy toward wickedness that he uses to interrogate criminals. It’s Nietzsche’s warning about staring into the abyss, which, after all, is a distorted mirror image of ourselves.

Cohle’s father role, plucked from his individual life, seems to have transformed into a more public, more pervasive father-like awareness of violence toward women. His approach to the case echoes this ever present vigilance, and makes him, compared to many of those fathers who have the luxury of raising their daughters, abrasive and deeply aware of his ideologically complicit role as a man in a way Marty can’t. Marty describes Cohle in a peculiar way that suggests Cohle’s enemies don’t stop at their physical presence in this world. Consider:

“Rust would pick a fight with the sky if he didn’t like its shade of blue.”

So, unlike the protagonists of Lovecraft, Chambers, and Poe, Marty invokes a completely different kind of character from the post Romantic period who used his professional skill, but left behind the strictures of his post to wage his own battle with a monster of the Dark Sublime.

Starbuck said to Ahab, “To be enraged with a dumb brute that acted out of blind instinct is blasphemous.”

To which Ahab responds:

“Speak not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me. Look ye, Starbuck, all visible objects are but as pasteboard masks. Some inscrutable yet reasoning thing puts forth the molding of their features. The white whale tasks me; he heaps me. Yet he is but a mask. ‘Tis the thing behind the mask I chiefly hate; the malignant thing that has plagued mankind since time began; the thing that maws and mutilates our race, not killing us outright but letting us live on, with half a heart and half a lung.”

Since September 11th, 2001, we have been witness to dozens of massive events on the level of the Sublime that have caused a shift in public thinking toward institutions of power and even capitalism itself. The problem is that those institutions are so vast and so unaccountable that most people, even those who realize that there is something wrong, lose steam and eventually turn away toward something that offers to absolve us of our responsibility. It’s hard to think critically.

“Transference of fear and self-loathing to an authoritative vessel is a catharsis. Certain linguistic anthropologists think that religion is a language virus that creates pathways in the brain that dull critical thinking…” Cohle in the revivalist tent.

That vessel, which tinges our collective intuition as an anxiety that there are forces that push all of society—invisibly, intellectually, emotionally, large like the hurricane that pushed the sea to swallow the entire Gulf region, or a properly maintained PR campaign, or the ubiquitous objectification of women—can manifest itself, as Poe’s anxiety of the universe or Melville’s anxiously borne witness of the Industrial Revolution, as a Demi-god, a demon, a whale, or, in this case, The Yellow King. It is the progenitor of that dark thing in all of us that responds affirmatively to the most destructive of interpellators, that dehumanizes, that celebrates our objectification and nullifies our resistance because of our participation and, in the end, our exhaustion. If Cohle, the True Detective, is our present incarnation of Ahab in Western Civilization’s claustrophobic, internal ocean of pessimism, nihilism, accepted violence toward women (and, by extension, everyone), then, as viewers, we should be hearing the water lapping at the sides of our collective boat, and expecting the beast that afflicts us all, on one level or another, approaching from the abyss. Cohle, a hero for the age of the NSA and the social engineering capabilities of Western Democracies, will be standing at the bow flanked by his Starbuckian Marty, spear in hand, ready to sacrifice himself to the deeper quest of bringing the monsters from a sublime darkness back to the mortal flesh. In the end, isn’t Ahab wrapping himself into conflict with his sublime quarry, the same as Cohle saying, “I contemplate the moment in the garden, the idea of allowing your own crucifixion?” And aren’t both of these acts on behalf of us all?

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