Written by Augustine
Image source: http://www.thecinetourist.net
The “On the Couch” series is compiled by several articles focusing on individual movie characters which are analyzed in terms of psychology, philosophy, literature and art.
(*)For readability reasons I am going to use Pierrot and not Ferdinand in order to refer to the character not the movie in general.
TW: Discussion of suicide but always in terms of Camus’ thought.
As the title of the article goes, today I am going to discuss Pierrot by drawing from philosophy and literature– specifically Camus’ absurdism and Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The aim of this short essay is to establish Pierrot as the absurd hero, a hero embarking on superficial nihilism and all the while acting as a mock-Hamlet figure to ultimately distort the same theories with which I am going to deconstruct him.
To clarify some things: I truly believe that despite evoking some basic Camus’ theories Pierrot ultimately fails in grasping the absurd meaning of life, fails in turning into another Sisyphus who is aware of life’s turmoils and pains, he fails in realizing the paradox of living and thus he commits suicide. In the words of Camus “[suicide] is confessing that life is too much for you or that you do not understand it” since “the absurd is an experience that must be lived through” i. In other words, Pierrot’s final act of removing his life (in an almost comic way if I could say) can be considered as the ultimate cowardice– and this is complimented by the fact that he is constantly presented as a pseudo Hamletean figure.
Before turning to Shakespeare though I need to elaborate more on the The Myth of Sisyphus as shaped in Camus’ thought.
For Camus, there is a fundamental conflict in what we actually want from the universe and what we find, which is formless chaos. In the beginning of his Sisyphus essay he questions whether the previous deduction justifies and glorifies the choice of committing suicide, since life seems meaningless and pointless. However, he examines a third way of dealing with this conflict: accepting this absurdity, that is a life devoid of purpose and learn to thrive in it. ii
The mythical Sisyphus proves to be the ultimate absurd hero for Camus: punished for eternity he is doomed to roll up a rock on a mountain, until it reaches the peak and then immediately is rolled back down by itself. That moment where Sisyphus reaches the peak and seconds before the rock rolls back by itself, this is when he accepts his meaningless condition and that is the reason he can indeed be happy; for he truly fathoms life’s pointlessness and does not care for any more than this. He accepts life as a meaningless struggle and that is for Camus what everyone should do: our situation is no different from Sisyphus, it is exactly the same and only by welcoming it, only then can we indeed find (and keep) the secret of happiness. iii
Going back to the movie and Pierrot what we witness from the very first minutes is an apathetic man towards everything and everyone. The only thing that he shows interest in is books and art. Throughout the movie we see him holding and reading Elie Faure’s “Histoire de l’Art” and when looking closely, one realizes that paintings are integrated in Godard’s directing. Postcards pinned on the walls, Picasso’s works and Modigliani’s famous Femme à la cravate— these are some of the artworks found in Marianne’s flat iv . However, I am not interested into exploring their meaning in relation to Godard’s direction. Rather, they provide a solid starting point for referring to Hamlet, a contemporary man contemplating the meaning of life, a director and an artist, somebody who despite all difficulties decided to stay until the end and ultimately deliver some kind of justice in his kingdom.
In his famous speech Hamlet ponders on the question of suicide: “To be, or not to be–that is the question/Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer/The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune/Or to take arms against a sea of troubles/And by opposing end them.” v Nevertheless, he concludes in favor of life: “But that the dread of something after death/The undiscovered country, from whose bourn/No traveller returns, puzzles the will/And makes us rather bear those ills we have/Than fly to others that we know not of” vi. On that note, we can possibly connect his view with Camus’ absurdism; yes, “conscience, does make cowards of us all” but both Hamlet and Camus propound the choice of a life of obstacles, never ending struggles and pains instead of avoiding and escaping from it through other means. To the core, these two philosophies glorify life and its ups and downs; even if at first they appear apathetic and even nihilistic one could argue.
Pierrot, on the other hand, is an artist without a purpose, a writer whose writings seem pointless, a lover whose love for Marianne seems tremendously apathetic. He abandons his family and delves into many adventures with her, but in the end he simply does not care whether they will live or die. He is accusing Marianne for not being so inclined to letters, poetry and literature as he is; and under this light his attraction to her is indeed corporal and nothing more.
By contrast, Hamlet sympathizes with the death of his father, he finds ways to “trap the conscience” of his uncle and proves that he is the one who killed the old king, he even exclaims his love for Ophelia upon her grave. He is stoic yes, but not harsh or callous, everything he does is already calculated and he always seems too fond of art and letters.
Pierrot is nothing more than a pseudo-Hamlet; a wanna be artist and a copycat. Even if as a nihilist in Nietzschean terms he realizes that “the highest values of life devalue themselves”vii, he avoids everything and chooses the “easiest” road (in Camus’ terms): suicide. He seems unable to connect with others around him, unable to self-reflect, never realizing the absurdity in our existence. He is a figure indifferently tiptoeing on the edge of insensitivity and lethargy; and that is why I also believe he serves as the embodiment of the contemporary pseudoartist, the sham of a sham.
iFrom Alfred Xue’s : “Pierrot Le Fou: The Initial Journey of the Absurd Hero”
iiiCheck note ii.
viCheck note v.