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Life and Death in The Leftovers

Updated: Jan 30

Death points toward sheer mystery, a point of no return, about which nothing can be said. The annihilation of consciousness is abject discourse which cannot be named, it's taboo in Freudian parlance.


The mystery of death confronts humanity via the spectacle of life. Life is something known, but at the moment of perplexity, aporia, it becomes unknowable. Life-death is totem and taboo. Much like the philosopher Martin Heidegger suggests in traces of his Being and Time: Being is known and unknown, it's a forgotten language occluded by culture and technology.


The ultimate paradox lies in the dialectic of life and death; one cannot be without the other. Culture forces wo/man into oblivion of it, as quotidian life in the fashion of the philosopher is unlivable. Socrates is the Athenian paragon of the Logos, λóγος, the manifestation of the philosopher-king of Ancient Greece, whom once said that "All I know is that I don't know," in Plato's re-telling of his life in his Dialogues. In the Apology Plato's master is charged with treason by the tribunal of Athens for speaking the truth. What kind of life is the one dedicated to the analysis of mystery, if it inexorably paves a road toward tragedy? The answer is that at death Socrates was free, for his understanding of the condition of human unknowability led his spirit to help others embrace its central mystery; he was unafraid of death inasmuch as it poses the same mystery life does, the mysterium tremendum of existing is the fact that we exist. Plato's Allegory of the Cave demonstrates that dispelling the chains and shadows that keep humanity under illusion, opens the door to higher and more complex truths worthy of human exploration.


The Leftovers, Damon Lindelof's, and Tom Perrotta's 2014 HBO supernatural-mystery-drama television show raises these perennial issues. In this brief essay I want to discuss themes related to the dialectic of life and death embedded in the show, as to analyze the possibilities that arise in science-fiction narratives of the sort. Science fiction is a vehicle of wonder, and a receptacles of a deeper understanding of the limits of existence, and of the phenomenology of being beings thrown into the world.

We meet Kevin Garvey, the stoic chief of police of Mapleton, New York, who is trying to restore order to his life and his town, after an unexplained cataclysmic event occurred: About 2% of the world population vanished. Those who were left behind, the leftovers, are torn by the pathos of the tragic episode. The impossibility of what transpired during The Departure turns the universe upside down, because the nature of the world humanity thought under its control, reminded them that it cannot be domesticated.


A cult that goes by the name of the Guilty Remnant (G.R.) takes the streets of Mapleton to spread their message. Members of the Remnant dress in white, chain-smoke, and don't talk, they face this new world through the lens of nihilism. Nothing can be discerned about their random, anarchic behavior, insofar as they symbolize nothingness as the logical consequence of existential absurdity, that existence precedes essence. The Guilty Remnant seek to communicate that the world ended, they don't want people to forget the significance of The Departure, namely, That existence is meaningless, and That we cannot ever forget this truth, That we are fabrications of mind, and That our conjectures about nature are meaningless.

The nihilism of the G.R. plays a pivotal role in the show. The cult is the radical consequence of the post-apocalypse, eschatological atheists who preach to the saturated symbols and signifiers of the world. A flat world, an empty container of insignificant repetition. The members spread like cancer onscreen, and, as we learn more about them, we experience their rage. But herein lies the paradox: We also feel sympathy for what these people have lost along the way. Kevin's ex-wife, Laurie, is G.R. She was a successful psychiatrist and an exemplary mother and wife. But something in her broke and found a way to manifest itself through the philosophy of the Guilty Remnant, her unconscious fear found catharsis in the silent revoke of the Remnant. Laurie feels guilty for being incapable of giving her family what they need of her. In her brokenness, she discovers that the answer to life's mystery is full immersion into its entropy, the nihilist stoic for whom meaning is discovered in absolute egoism, and, ultimately, annihilation.

On the other hand, Kevin's manifestation of the consequences of the Departure is his increasing incapability to control his mind. He sleepwalks, hears things others cannot, and sees things others do not. During his psychotic raptures, the chief shoots dogs with a bolt rifle in the company of a man who could be a figment of his imagination. K. Garvey's enigmatic friend, a man who looks like a suburbia Hunter S. Thompson, tells him that, "Their dogs are no longer their dogs." John Doe knows something is not right. Kevin cannot deny that the world changed and that there is something broken in him, too. His brokenness forces him to undertake a shamanic odyssey to The Other Side, a venue embedded outside the limits of time. On The Other Side awaits an all-too-human struggle for meaning; a battle in which Chief Garvey wrestles with his archetypal demons as to search for Truth proper. He realizes that authentic love, conscience, and resoluteness, are The Answers to the nature of a reality torn apart by The Departure's nihilism; caring for Being, as the onto-phenomenal singularity holding life together.

I will leave you with a line of philosophic exploration, to attract you to this piece of modern television. The show's thesis is that death is outweighed by life, that is, consciousness is the mysterium tremendum, the openness of possibility, a creatio ex nihilo in search for the numinous. This epigram raises another one of Heidegger's preoccupations: The perplexing yet straightforward claim that being is time and that time is finite, that being authentic beings is the task of "coming to terms" with our mortality.


While Heidegger did not have the privilege of HBO, his suggestions are apropos. We have to take a step back and embrace the freedom of "being-there," of being beings thrown into the world. It is up to us to take the reins of existence in authenticity: Heed the calling of our consciousness to turn away from inauthentic being. Kevin Garvey is Heidegger's da-sein (roughly translated from German as "being-there"), an entity that subsists in the dialectic of order and chaos, absurdity and amazement. Da-sein's search for authenticity consists, as the philosopher Simon Critchley puts it, "In understanding the call, in wanting to have a conscience," and also, in making a choice "To become resolute" despite our broken condition.


By Fernando J. Villalovs

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