Visioneers: An Examination of the
Existentially Intolerable, and Its Implications
Essay First Submitted for PP218: Existentialism.
Wilfrid Laurier University. 2014.
The existentialist philosophers aim to provide both an effective, explanative metaphysics for understanding our nature and relation to the world, as well as the practical and philosophical consequences of this state of being. Due to its roots as an inherently practical philosophy, one of the major focuses of existentialism is providing solutions for what to do when our lives become anything from troublesome to downright intolerable. This second circumstance is demonstrated to great effect in the 2008 film Visioneers, in which a middle aged man George is faced with a truly intolerable existence where he suffers from the constant pains of his work, his family and social life, and the potential that he may, quite literally, explode due to his continued nightly dreaming. While the existentialists would no doubt agree that George and the world he inhabits represent a very specific kind of bad faith, in that it is not just George denying his own fundamental nature as a free individual, their opinions of how to deal with his predicament are less uniform. Camus’ view appears to insist that George embrace his situation for the inherent misery that it is, and find comfort in it, while Sartre demands a more active liberation. From examining both sides, it seems clear that Camus’ view, while perhaps effective for less severe situations, fails to effectively provide a solution for George’s existential nightmare, while Sartre’s notion of radical freedom and responsibility allow him to liberate himself both from his own inhibitions and from a society that demands his acceptance of a truly unacceptable existential compromise.
The world portrayed in Visioneers is a dystopian world whose true horrors and methods of oppression are only clearly visible through the lens of existentialism. The story follows George Washington Winsterhammerman, patriarch of a disjointed family and middle management employee of the omnipotent and omnipresent Jeffers Corporation. The film opens straight into the on-going epidemic of ‘explosions’, a rash of spontaneous human combustions that has begun to spread across the United States, with no apparent cure and a seemingly inexplicable connection to dreams and other ostensibly metaphysical symptoms. As the story progresses, George and his world become increasingly unravelled as explosions increase in frequency, and George becomes more and more desperate about his own dreams, his deteriorating family and work life, and the sudden return of his brother from what he claims was a dream inspired quest for meaning and relevance in his life. While there are several key themes and recurring motifs throughout the film, one of the central themes of particular relevance for existentialists is the overwhelming prevalence of inauthentic living, or ‘bad faith’ in Sartrian terms. This goes deeper than a single individual, becoming part of both the programmed reality of the Jeffers brand world, the majority of its inhabitants, and the root of its approach to dealing with the explosion epidemic. This view has been internalized by nearly all members of society, and is contrasted to great effect by the actions and attitudes of Georges brother Julien, and to a lesser extent his son, both of whom embody the existentialist attitude of Sartre and others, and who see rebellion against the influence of societal bad faith as necessary for true self affirmation.
The majority of the central characters of Visioneers can be fit into two broad categories with a few exceptions; the first category being those accepting the alleged necessity of the Jeffers brand way of life. This group contains many, if not all characters in the early stages of the movie, but is best exemplified by the telethon host Bern Goodman, and Georges ‘life coach’ Rodger. Bern Goodman runs a telethon throughout the movie to raise money and awareness for explosions (though where or how this money is spent remains a mystery until near the end of the film). During his first appearance, he brings on a disabled man named Joe, who had been given a few weeks to live due to his dreams of being able to walk again. Despite his inability to talk coherently, and his outwardly nervous and uncomfortable disposition, Bern holds up Joe as an example to all people in society, stating that “we could be like joe, if we stomp out pain wherever we find it, and learn to see the beauty that is all around us!” This is equally echoed by Rodger, who is seen as both a life coach for George and for Bern during his final appearance. At the conclusion of his session with George, he berates Georges depression, accusing him of being ungrateful for the many benefits of his material and social circumstances. While it may seem counter intuitive to the existential school of thought to adopt such positions, Camus’ own philosophy prescribes just such an attitude towards the world in the face of the conflict between ones own freedom, and the banal world.
Camus’ philosophy may seem to propose an effective solution to the problems posed by Georges world in Visioneers with its emphasis on reconciliation between individual freedoms and aspirations, and the structured banal nature of the world. However, the solution posed by Camus is utterly incapable of overcoming the adversity faced in this world, because it is ultimately far to passive. Camus stresses that the nature of human life is a constant struggle between the nature of the world and existence, and the awakening of the individual to this nature and the subsequent necessity to cope or perish. In this struggle, there are two main choices, recovery of suicide, and that given the inherently disappointing nature of existence, this recovery solution is essentially that of the Sisyphusian ‘revolutionary.’ In order to be happy, we must take ownership of our absurd situation, and like Sisyphus, find meaning in banality, and be content with ownership of the life lived. Thus by preserving the absurd relationship between our desire for a free, yet determined life and the world that offers no such promise, we find reason enough to keep ourselves alive. This is the point at which the views of the Jeffers Corporation and its followers become clear in Camus’ philosophy. The work of the telethon, the urgings of Rodger to George that his attitude is in fact the problem, and the later use of emotional inhibiters as a last ditch attempt to prevent people from being flooded with negative emotions all tie into the necessity to accept the world and come to terms with it in a passive sense as the guiding attitude of the Jeffers way of life. Georges doctor further demonstrates this with his prescription of ‘anti-dream’ products, aimed at helping George realize the fundamental connection of banal meaninglessness that all humans share with the universe at large. However, despite all these efforts, the explosions continue to multiply, and the world becomes more and more desperate for a solution. From Camus’ perspective, these people are choosing the option of suicide rather than recovery and revolt, but in reality they are merely reacting appropriately to their circumstance of utter hopelessness and meaninglessness, for which the Jeffers Corporation nor Camus can offer an effective solution. Luckily, Georges brother provides one that leads George to a very different future than the one of tension, pointless revolt and passivity that Camus would afford him.
The movement against the prescribed order of the Jeffers Corporation is best summed up by Georges own brother Julien, and his pursuit of dreams that inspires George to the ultimate act of existential liberation. Julien, once a top ranking member of the Jeffers Corporation, gave up his position and comfortable, socially approved life to chase his dreams in South America, returning to the U.S. when he was prompted by a dream to begin pole vaulting in the family house’s back yard as he had as a child. During his time there, he begins to indirectly guide George away from his acceptance of the Jeffers way of life, first by forcing him to accept his own dissatisfaction rather than bury it (through playful antagonism and reinforcement of his furious outbursts), then finally by silently assuring George to pursue his dreams in the face of apparent failure. This culminates in the final, critical choice of the movie, in which George, while the world continues to disintegrate around him, is confronted by the real Mr. Jeffers who recognizes that George has reached the point of understanding that he cannot hope to live a happy existence in this world while his dreams haunt him. Mr Jeffers then tells him that the only thing that will allow him to live as a cog in the machine, and truly avoid this pain, is to“kill the thing you love,” and destroy the source of his dreams and pain. While it may be the case that Camus would disagree with Mr. Jeffers’ insistence of elimination of pain as a rejection of the tension created by absurdity, this does not change the fact that his own solution remains too passive to solve Georges problems. Camus’s version locks George in bad faith, accepting a predestined life and trusting that by relinquishing his freedom of self determination he will have happiness and stability, and this will lead only to an eventual explosion. Thus, for George quiet contemplation, or eking out what joyous moments he can from life are insufficient to surmount such existentially intolerable conditions. George concludes the same and refuses to kill the one source of joy in his life, in this case his coworker Charisma, his only truly emotive relation in the entire film. Instead he embraced his dreams and finding happiness, as his brother hoped he would.
Georges refusal of submission to the Jeffers way of life represents a very specific type of Sartrian freedom, namely that of self creation and self valuation through struggle. This was also expressed by earlier thinkers such as Friedrich Nietzsche, though unlike the will to power which stresses the aim of life as being the accumulation of power, Georges actions strove towards self actualization in seeing his dreams to fruition. For Sartre this exists in the form of a fundamental, yet essentially undefined desire in all human beings to ‘be,’ and this manifests itself as we live through our actions, reactions, and their consequences. For George and many of those around him, this ability to manifest themselves as beings is undermined, if not outright denied to them by the socially defined parameters of happiness espoused by the Jeffers Corporation. This however provides the framework by which George achieves his liberation from his bad faith existence. Unlike the individual-centric versions of bad faith traditionally examined by existentialists, the situation of Visioneers is a social divestment of responsibility, where the elimination of freedom and the acceptance of a defined nature of being is the only acceptable standard. George’s response to this therefore becomes a choice between killing his dreams, which in Sartrian terms would correspond to his transcendent desires, and breaking from his bad faith dependence on his factical self as a defined member of society and the Jeffers Corporation. His choice therefore demonstrates his willingness to sacrifice the comfort of bad faith in order to risk his freedom and the potentiality of failure, fully embracing his inherent responsibility for his actions. This also has an additional level of symbolic meaning, as it is a rebellion against more than just his own chains, but against the entirety of a society that he knows he can no longer participate due to his choice to preserve his dreams. These are acceptable terms for George however, and the final scene of the movie highlights both the abandonment of his previous life, his commitment to his new life with Charisma, and his reconciliation with his dreams demands for freedom.
The theme of bad faith present throughout Visioneers is a unique and important version that demonstrates that the issues confronting our individual existential identity are not simply matters of our own choices, freedoms and their consequences. George’s journey from reluctant dreamer to existential revolutionary shows that there are certain types of existence that are more than a simple matter of absurd relations between free individuals and an inherently meaningless world. Camus’ belief that the tension of absurdity is the root of meaningful interactions and contemplations, while sufficient in certain instances, fails to adequately account for the truly hopeless situation that George faces in the Jeffers Corporations ‘perfect world.’ Only by coming to terms with his fundamental choice, and choosing to forsake a defined and safe existence for freedom and the inherent uncertainty of operating outside of the strictures of the society. Suicide has been seen as an example of an ultimate choice that can always be made by existentialists. If this is the case, then a key distinction raised by Huey P. Newton can be used to explain the choice made by George, and that distinction is between reactionary and revolutionary suicide. In the reactionary case, the person takes their life because they see no hope of escaping their intolerable circumstances. In Visioneers, these are the victims of explosions, forced to choose between a truly empty existence or death. George on the other hand represents the sacrifice of a revolutionary suicide, where the person throws themselves against their oppressors, even in the knowledge that death is a very real possibility, in the hopes of achieving freedom and a change in circumstance. Ultimately Georges act does not result in his death in a physical sense, but does represent the death of his bad faith and the element that held him back from developing as a radically free individual. In this sense, the existentialist must always be willing to face the death of a certain existence for the sake of a meaningful one.
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Drake, Jared. "Visioneers." Premiered 2008 06 12. Alliance Films 111815. 2009. DVD
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