Above: Adult Swim's "Rick and Morty"
By Chris Salazar
Nietzsche proclaimed that “God is dead." And we killed him. But Rick Sanchez, the beloved, eponymous and sardonic scientist of the animated series "Rick and Morty," illustrates the profundity of existentialist angst in a universe devoid of benevolence.
As the global order frays at the ends, and cosmic inertia extends the edges of an indifferent universe, the transience of existence lures the armor of nihilism. But Rick, the belching alcoholic, genius, whose character embodies a Kierkegaardian anxiety, the bodily pleasures of Camus and the rebelliousness of Sartre, returns for a long-awaited third season to break the fourth wall, satirically advising against overindulgences in reflection.
“What about the universe where Hitler cures cancer?” Rick said to his naïve 14-year-old do-gooder nephew, Morty, as they dragged and buried the corpses of their parallel-dimension selves. “The answer is don’t think about it.”
Rick’s callous admonition underscores a numbing realization: In an infinite number of realities, absolute truth drowns under a torrent of limitless possibilities. There is no providence. No inherent meaning. Science is no longer the means to some greater end--it is the end. It becomes a paradoxical refuge without closure because reverence prevails where material explanations falter. And to the smartest man in the multiverse, everything is intelligible. In a word, Rick is jaded.
And that's part of his charm. His brilliance pierces through mendacity. He understands that existence is ultimately pointless. So, while "Rick and Morty" is unflinchingly hilarious, its hilarity is drawn from the horrors of cosmic disregard.
H.P. Lovecraft was the quintessential sci-fi horror writer who wrote of the utter insignificance of humanity. Creators Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon even pay a brief homage to the American author in the opening sequence of the show, as Rick and Morty are tailed by Cthulhu, one of Lovecraft's mythical creatures who belongs to the pantheon of ancient and frighting deities, otherwise known as Great Old One's.
Lovecraft's science fiction brings to bear the incongruity of life's apparent significance and the cold vastness of eternity. And every episode of "Rick and Morty" is fraught with the same existential motif.
The animated series, if nothing else besides the priceless toilet humor, begs the viewer to recognize the irrelevance of living, the terrifying absurdity of the human condition. It's a reality that philosophers and the layperson alike must wrestle with.
"There is only one truly serious philosophical question," wrote Albert Camus, the French-Algerian novelist, journalist and playwright, in the Myth of Sisyphus, "and that is suicide."
Camus' provocation was both literal and figurative. That is, someone can either commit physical suicide or philosophical suicide. The former is a finality, while the latter is a delusion, a conceptual trick which obscures the absurd--the futile search for meaning in a meaningless universe. The heroic response, to Camus, is: Acceptance.
Accept that life is absurd. Accept that, in the end, every individual struggle, no, all of human kinds struggle ends in dust. The heroic response is to gaze into the void, and manufacture meaning in spite of its worthlessness.
And, like Camus, Rick relishes in his vices. There's no sense in denying the variety of life's pleasures to appease the social dictates of gratification abstinence. As the series unfolds, Rick's brazenness is reminiscent of Jean-Paul Sartre's rebellion against the current of "bad faith" and the capitalistic machine.
Sartre, the preeminent existentialist philosopher of the twentieth century, was concerned with the habitual deceptions people commit. To live in "bad faith" is to fall prey to the mistaken belief that choice and the fear of its consequences implies that people do not actually have the freedom to choose. But, to Sartre, that simply represents the safe, default choice where the individual is subject to the mercy of circumstance. It's simply a failure in recognition, a lapse in the multiplicity of options available to pursue. But, it's not as if hordes of alternatives are a cure all.
"Marry, and you will regret it; don't marry, you will also regret it; marry or don't marry, you will regret it either way," wrote Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher and theologian. "Laugh at the world's foolishness, you will regret it; weep over it you will regret that too; laugh at the worlds foolishness or weep over it, you will regret both."
While Rick tends toward negligence throughout the show, in the episode "Auto Erotic Assimilation" he succumbs to his loneliness as his former fling, Unity, a collective hive mind entity, reignites an old flame only to later realize it would never work out, and leaves just as abruptly as she (it?) returned.
The heartbreak that saturates the end of that episode is an honest glimpse into the character whose adored not for his courageous acts but for his laxity. Rick, despite his apathetic exterior, is human and longs for a glimmer of sincere connection.
So, while profane humor pervades the series, the import is to recognize the absurd nature of an ephemeral existence, and endeavor to achieve. Because, as the connoisseur of indecency and interdimensional space travel, with a flare for hive mind partners, Rick nonetheless aims to uproot the machine--even if it's all in vain.