Fate and Freedom

…freedom can exist only if there is no there is. But who is the one saying this, if there is no philosophy and never will be?

—Frank Ruda,. Abolishing Freedom: A Plea for a Contemporary Use of Fatalism

For the past few months I’ve reserved Wednesdays for Noirish crime fiction. Rereading the classics and here and there some of the newer Grit Lit or Country Noir. Today was taking notes again on one of my favs, David Goodis. Dark Passage is one of those perfect pieces that no matter how you might try will never be reduplicated. Goodis had a sense of pacing, a way of presenting even the most contrived situations as if they were natural; fatal. In a Goodis story fatalism pervades every aspect of the ongoing paranoia that drives the characters. Yet, even as you watch the whole fatal accord play out there’s this sense in Goodis of this longing to overcome the fatality of being tragically isolated and alone in a universe of pain and suffering. It’s not some superficial yearning or hope for something better, but a deep need to find one other creature who understands and accepts you without some moral or religious bullshit hanging around the edges of a relationship.

We see that in Dark Passage where Parry, a man caught up in a fatal turn of events goes to prison for killing his wife; and, yet, we assume – and, this is key – that he’s innocent… but that’s just it isn’t it: Are any of us innocent? Isn’t to place ourselves at the mercy of society to be bound in all those dark webs of moral bullshit we’ve sought to escape from in our personal lives, only to end up bound within that dark passage between innocence and guilt like victims of our own fatal existence. Living as we do in a universe we did not seek out, born on a planet where existence is at best a festival of death, we seem driven by forces of irrational need rather than rational and ethical motivation. And, yet, society treats us as if we should be responsible for every aspect of our lives; and to make us pay if we slip up, make a wrong turn, enter a dark passage into that fatal lair where hell is but a endless flight to nowhere rather than an escape into freedom.

What I’ve always liked about Goodis is this subtle entanglement of his characters in other people, our need to overcome our loneliness that drives us to seek out others who like us have already entered that dark passage without return. It’s this sense of fatalism that actually engenders the very freedom that the characters do everything in their power to renege on. The moment a character becomes free is the moment they begin seeking ties to bind them back to the world of fatal systems and strategies of human society. People think they want to be free, but the truth is they can’t handle absolute freedom and isolation; instead what they really want is to be unfree in their misery and miserabilist beliefs. That’s what I love about noir: fate isn’t a quest for freedom, it’s a quest to become imprisoned by our own delusions and illusions.

Frank Ruda in his study of fatalism tells us there are three forms of it besides the comic:

Tragic fatalism claims that tragic conflict is unavoidable, that it is even mostly unavoidably produced in the very attempt of avoiding it, and that the (social and political) human condition therefore entails a conflict that one cannot but try to resolve, which thereby, first of all, constitutes the conflict as conflict. Comic fatalism, however, asserts against tragic fatalism that only one thing is unavoidable: we cannot avoid the insight that everything is always already lost and that our endeavors to do so are actually comic. We cannot avoid embracing the fact that there is less than nothing to embrace. There is therefore no human condition and no conflict. There is not even any true history or true life. How could there be any human condition properly speaking? Existentialist fatalism also emphasizes the human condition but ultimately asserts that freedom relies on freeing oneself from all external determination just to discover the nothingness inside of oneself— the nothingness that is freedom and the only thing we can rely on. Comic fatalism asserts against existentialist fatalism that there is not even a stable or given nothing or nothingness to rely on. Nihilistic fatalism, finally, emphasizes the nullity of everything and devalues all that is. Comic fatalism asserts against nihilistic fatalism that there is nothing to be devalued and that devaluation therefore is in itself a null gesture. Comic fatalism is close to what Nietzsche once coined “active nihilism,” which, he says, is the form of “the highest fatalism, but identical with chance and the creative.”1

More than anything it’s this sense of comic fatalism (“active nihilism”) that pervades Gaddis’s novels. Contingency and creativity. The power to subtract us from the social mores and customs of our era, to walk free of the entrapments of those nets that would bind us; and, yet, in the end realizing that there is no place to go, no place to run, no place to hide from this fatal world of others. We’re all trapped in unfreedom by the very nature of the game we established so long ago we’ve forgotten it is a game. Our only doom is forgetting just that: that we are free and don’t know it. So we turn away from it back to the unfreedom of others…


  1. Ruda, Frank. Abolishing Freedom: A Plea for a Contemporary Use of Fatalism (Provocations)

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