Notes on Interstellar: American Stoicism vs. The General Theory of Relativity

(Warning: This is not a review in any normal sense of the word, but an analysis. If you want my review, here it is: If you’re a rightist with a high IQ, go see Interstellar. Otherwise, go see the Spongebob movie. This analysis assumes that you have seen the film, so no synopsis is provided. Don’t bother reading this until you’ve seen Interstellar – it won’t make any sense until you do. Also, it will be a little disjointed because I have no desire to repeat what others have said or what you could learn about the movie by reading IMDB).

I have at times referred to Christopher Nolan’s last film, The Dark Knight Rises, as “Batman vs. the French Revolution”, which, though meant lightheartedly, I believe is ultimately a fairly accurate assessment of it (spoiler: Batman wins). There is no doubt that, intentional or not, there is a rightist flavor to many of Nolan’s films. His latest, Interstellar, is no different, though it is not rightist in the mainstream conservative sense, nor in the neoreactionary sense, nor even really in the identitarian sense. The rightism on display in Interstellar is of an older sort; a sort that hearkens back to the pre-Modern, pre-Industrial age. This doubtless makes it a bit difficult for most people to fully wrap their heads around. As I noted in my last piece, we are all ultimately native-born sons of Modernity, no matter how we may wish otherwise. As a technologist once told me, two people on opposite ends of a paradigm shift really have no way to fully understand each other, and there have been many paradigm shifts since the Modern/Industrial age began, such that Nolan being able to successfully call back to times before it at all is an impressive feat. Connecting with these themes takes a bit of careful analysis, and I will do my best to provide some here.

To start with, yes, there is a lot of Classical pagan Stoicism in Interstellar. Don’t worry if it’s been a while since you read Epictetus though – fortunately, there is something of a lifeline in the film that we may grasp as we try to pull ourselves closer to its center. This is found in Interstellar’s mix of Classical Stoicism and Americanism. The Americanism here, however, is also of an older sort – the Americanism of the Old Republic (by which I mean, again, pre-Modern, pre-Industrial) and its old (small-r) republican virtues. This is not so odd a combination as one might think. The Old Republic was in itself an attempt at a Classical/pagan revival of sorts, founded largely by those who held to Deism, a sort of monotheistic paganism in which, like the gods of Olympus, the One God stayed mostly apart and aloof from mankind and his travails. It consciously, intentionally called back to several aspects of the ancient world. This included a resuscitation, with a few updates, of the Roman Republic’s form of government as a means to rule over what was intended to be a small-time farmer’s republic, run by a meritocratically-selected natural aristocracy of gentlemen-farmers elected by independent freeholders. It is easy to see how this would not survive Industrialism and urbanization, and in fact, other than on paper, it really hasn’t. And yet, there are enough echoes of the Old Republic imprinted on the hearts of Americans (those who bother learning the history of their country at all, that is), that it still resonates with us to at least some degree.

It is here where we can find perhaps the most prominent thread that leads from Greece to the Old Republic to Interstellar – the film’s revival of the Farmer-Hero. Like Odysseus, like Cincinnatus, and like Washington, Cooper is called away from his fields, his home and hearth, and his children to face a great and necessary task (and one that is dangerous to the brink of being suicidal). Like Odysseus, Cooper reaches his destination and then spends the rest of his time desperately trying to return to his fields and his family. There is something of a disconnect in this; an inconsistency that is both undeniable and ultimately necessary in order to reconcile the Classical and the American aspects of the film’s soul (with Cooper serving as the embodiment of that soul). To be American, Cooper must embrace Manifest Destiny; to be Classical, he must above all else want, like Odysseus, to return home. This is papered over with the explanation that he wants to return to save his family, but without preparing the new world for them, how would he accomplish that? Perhaps the elder Dr. Brand’s theory would work (which it ultimately does, thanks to Cooper’s daughter) and they could all go live in cylinders orbiting Saturn, but if he was so convinced that it would, why did he leave on the mission to explore the new worlds in the first place? This is not very convincing, and thus on the level of a character, analyzed logically, this can rightly seen as inconsistent. Yet we must remember that this is art, and it doesn’t have to be logically consistent (TDKR had some serious logical inconsistencies as well, and they didn’t matter either). Consistency is necessary in the hard sciences, but the rules that work in the hard sciences don’t work well in other spheres of human endeavor. In areas like philosophy, religion, art, and governance, consistency is for autistics and midwit trolls looking for “gotchas” by which to cheaply “win” internet debates; everyone else understands that life is just too complex for perfect consistency.

(It is worth noting that there are no cities in Interstellar – none on Earth, nor even in space, where the humans living in space stations have recreated farm villages inside their vast cylindrical space stations, despite what one would assume would be a desperate need for living space for the masses of surviving humans. Another logical inconsistency, yet another conscious, and necessary, artistic choice. In the world of Interstellar, for all the high technology on display in the film, there is little room for the artificial or unnecessary, much less the unheroic [and big cities are certainly all of these – one may recall the ancient Chinese dictum that the only two necessary professions are farmer and soldier]. Big cities are also dehumanizing, and Interstellar is about what it means to be human, so it is little wonder that Nolan avoided them).

So Nolan squares the circle by having Cooper act inconsistently in a strictly logical sense, and yet in terms of the artistic and philosophical content of Interstellar, it is a clever and effective way to fuse two threads that must be fused.

Since Cooper really is the living embodiment of the soul of this film, he is worth dwelling on a bit more. He is, as so many things are in this film, a throwback, though not to a time so far distant as some other aspects of it. Cooper represents a class of people who are disappearing from American life in the 21st century, but who were greatly prominent in the 20th: the smart blue-collar types that once made up the high end of the working class. It was from this class of people that America drew its industrialists, its generals, its airline pilots, and ultimately its astronauts. Now the working class has been largely destroyed; everyone is expected to go to college (even if they study something useless), live in a big city or its near suburbs (even if that environment is totally unsuited to them), and work 8-to-5 in an air-conditioned building in front of a computer screen (even if it makes them miserable) – blue collar work is looked down upon with disdain and those who do it are regarded as failures, and working with one’s hands (whether in a rural setting or an urban one) is ever-more unprofitable due to a combination of factors that includes such things as the rise of huge agribusiness and the inundation of the labor market with a flood of penniless Third Worlders. But it was not always so. Once in this country, the idea that the man who was landing a spacecraft on the moon knew how to drive a combine (and had learned to do so at 14) was not only not shocking, but was expected. This class of people had an attitude and a set of mannerisms to them that is now rare, but I have known enough people of that sort to recognize it when I see it. Among its traits are an easy confidence that may accurately be described as a “modest swagger”, a sensible and levelheaded intellectualism combined with a genuine lack of disdain for those who are not of an intellectual bent, a good-natured and easy way with people contrasted with a strong distaste for double-talkers and blowhards, a sense of humor that is gently sarcastic, a natural and unaffected plain-spokenness, a capacity for understanding complexity matched with a taste for drawing concrete bottom lines, and a natural capacity for motivation and leadership. Cooper is a good examplar of this type, and Nolan does a fine job of writing dialog that shows it (it is worth noting that Matthew McConaughey’s native rustic twang, which he has suppressed for roles in the past, is in full effect in Interstellar, and I have no doubt that this was completely intentional).

The loss of this class of people – of, let’s be honest, this class of men – is a tragedy for what was the historic American nation. These were the men who made our past glories possible, and we are no longer producing them (certainly in nowhere near sufficient numbers, at least) because our society is no longer geared towards producing them. This will not go well for us.

Just as interesting as the class implications of Cooper’s personality is the fact that this personality type is shared by the robot TARS (and to a somewhat lesser extent by CASE as well). It is perhaps another example of logical inconsistency – Why in the world would someone in the late 21st century design a near-indestructible robot with an advanced AI and program it with a 20th century working class personality? – that is nonetheless reasonable and necessary from an emotional and philosophical standpoint. Cooper and TARS are kindred spirits, with the same upper blue-collar American swagger and dry sense of humor to them. Nolan’s movies (like Kubrick’s) are noted for being emotionally cold, and yet the bond between the two is, while appropriately understated, both prominent and unmistakable. It briefly seems as if Cooper means to betray this bond (understandably, perhaps, if he wishes to gain the data he needs to save his family, and yet it is without a doubt emotionally unsatisfying) by sending TARS into Gargantua to relay measurements back to the ship. Yet when Cooper sends himself into the black hole as well in order to save the mission, and it becomes clear that he and TARS planned this in advance (TARS’s comment “See you on the other side” was less spiritual and more literal than it at first appeared), the emotional polarity of the decision becomes reversed. Here we see Cooper as leader, and TARS as his loyal servant* – Cooper has not ordered TARS to do anything that he wasn’t prepared to do himself. And of course Cooper chose TARS to take with him – TARS is his robot, his retainer, his squire, and will, without fear or complaint, follow his master into the dark unknown, and go against the gates of Hades with him.

(Yes, I know that he’s a robot. I know that he doesn’t have genuine feelings, and will do what he’s ordered. I also know that this is a movie. Again, it doesn’t matter if it makes logical sense; it’s art).

A total contrast to Cooper is presented by Dr. Mann (Matt Damon, assiduously suppressing his own working-class Boston accent). Mann (name surely not coincidental) says all of the right things as far as this film’s ethical foundations are concerned, and they are all very pagan sentiments about the survival of the species (for which one could just as easily substitute volk, tribe, nation, empire) being more important than the survival of any one individual, and the need of the individual to accept this. He is hailed as “the best of us” for advocating, and for inspiring others to believe, an idea that is basically a repackaged version of the old Roman sentiment: “Dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori”. Yet things go bad quickly when “the best of us” (believed in too eagerly by the not-as-worldly-as-Cooper NASA team) turns out to not be so great after all; when it is discovered that, despite his own apparent best efforts, Mann cannot quite get himself to believe his own lofty ideals. He is not evil (not in the sense of the word that Hollywood understands and normally projects); he is merely a coward – and yet in the Stoic world, this is enough to make one a villain. He lacks both Christian hope and pagan fortitude, and thus, faced with the prospect of his own death, sinks into a self-preservationist semi-insanity in which he lies, and sacrifices others to save himself, and finds ways to rationalize it all away. Unable to force himself to find the faith required for Christian hope or the inner strength required for pagan fortitude, he is left with only cold rationality; with Scientism, which, it seems, is not enough (in making this point, Interstellar provides a strong contrast with the nasty atheist nihilism of Danny Boyle’s Sunshine, an otherwise very similar film). What Nolan asserts is that man needs more than equations and rationality – it is Stoicism or Grace, or, finally, it will be panic and madness. As much as some may wish to believe otherwise, it is only natural – as Dr. Mann points out, it is simply the survival instinct in action.

(Think of that the next time someone tells you about “social constructs”).

The end of Cooper’s journey represents an peculiarly Classical pagan view of time and the future. The ancients consulted oracles and engaged in astrology in order to know the future, but (as incredible as it may seem to Moderns) not to change it. They didn’t even believe that they could. Here it must be remembered that Oedipus Rex was a cautionary tale – it reminded the Greeks that once one’s fate has been decided, it cannot be changed. To believe that it can be constitutes that worst of sins of Greek tragedy, hubris. Oedipus does try to escape his fate, but instead he himself becomes the instrument of the fulfillment of the prophecy that he so desperately sought to thwart. So too does Cooper come full circle by becoming the driving force behind his own journey. He initially tries to deliver to his past self the message to stay on his farm, yet once he realizes/remembers that this is futile, he accepts his fate and sends himself the messages that will start him on his path. Like Oedipus, he is powerless to be anything other than the instrument of the fulfillment of the destiny chosen for him by the gods (yes, technically they aren’t, but for the film’s purposes they might as well be). For his quick acceptance and eventual willing participation in this, the gods reward him with an end that’s better than the one Oedipus ended up with, though it is still at least bittersweet.

Cooper’s recollection, early in the film, of his wife telling him that as parents they exist to be memories for their children, is one of the most Stoic and pagan of sentiments expressed in the film. The pagans were deeply concerned about being remembered, which for them was the most important way in which they lived after death (this drive to be remembered explains much of the pagan emphasis on family – for who will, or should, remember you more than your own descendants? – and of the ambition seen in Roman society). Cooper’s experiences with time means that this will work both ways – his daughter’s memories of him propelled her forward as she solved her equation and saved her people, and at the end of the movie, she has died and exists for him only as a memory. This is deeply unnatural, and the tragedy of it is the price paid for his walk among the gods, even if there was a good reason for it.

One last question comes to mind when considering this film: the importance of the Dylan Thomas poem that the elder Dr. Brand recites over and over throughout it. Was it merely a sort of noble lie on Dr. Brand’s part, to try to keep others focused on an impossible task that was at least better than panic or nihilistic resignation? Was it a statement of fortitude and defiance in the face of the inevitable? Or perhaps did Dr. Brand, deep down, believe that a solution was possible, even if he couldn’t find it? Certainly, Murph took the poem’s advice to heart, and eventually did find the solution. As angry as she was with him when she discovered his lie, it is worth noting that the words of the poem were inscribed on the monument found inside the space station that Cooper wakes up in at the end of the film. If she had a hand in creating the place (and, as it is named after her, one might presume that she did) the poem wouldn’t be there unless she had come to understand its importance and, perhaps, to make peace with Dr. Brand.

Even more than The Dark Knight Rises, Interstellar deserves analysis and interpretation, especially among that alt-right. I hope that my disconnected thoughts can spur some conversations about this most uncommon film. Many thanks to Aidan Coyne (@raptros_ on Twitter) for having gone along with me to see the it, and for having given me inspiration for some of the ideas I explored here.

(*There was, in that scene, a definite feeling of TARS as a high-tech Samwise Gamgee to Cooper’s Frodo Baggins, with Gargantua as the Mt. Doom that must be entered, no matter how terrifying it may be).