“The Lighthouse” Movie: What the Heck is it About?
Postmodern Spirituality and Reasons to be Kind to Seagulls
What the heck is “The Lighthouse” movie about?
Many who see the film will probably think it’s bizarre, disturbing, strange, and off-putting.
The writer and director, Robert Eggers, might agree:
“…it is juvenile, grotesque, way over the top, and there are some really ham-fisted moments. And on top of that, it’s trying to be incredibly obscure and opaque.” 1
But let’s be honest: we hear a lot of complaining about Hollywood making endless sequels, remakes, reheated leftovers of the same tired old stories, and cookie-cutter, corporate committee-made blockbusters.
The implication, then, is we really want something fresh, original, and unique.
Well, we asked for it.
“Here you go,” said Eggers, fearlessly, and serves it up.
And what do we get?
Well, definitely not the Disney “happy ending guarantee.”
Not the Hallmark “lovers will live happily ever after, or your money back!”
It’s something more like theatrical Jägermeister: you don’t do it because it’s easy and tastes good; you do it more to see if you and your friends can handle it. Or not.
Misery porn and tales of psychological disintegration seem to be trending lately. (See The Joker, Judy, Ad Astra,
But one thing about The Lighthouse: it definitely seems to have something to say.
It’s not one of the movies-made-by-marketing-department theatrical Spam. It’s more like, well, art.
In this respect, The Lighthouse delivers.
But delivers what, exactly?
What was Eggers was trying to say?
We have no idea.
But some other interpretations have been offered that seem pretty wide of the mark. (From The New York Times, for example.) And if they’re chiming in with their read on this Rorschach of a movie, well, we thought we’d humbly offer our wild speculations, too.
The below will give away a lot of stuff in the film. If you don’t want that, see if first, then come back.
The basic story is this:
Two seemingly normal, responsible men go to work as lighthouse keepers on a remote New England island, and gradually go insane.
That’s pretty much it.
So, what does it mean?
To really get our take on this across, we’ll need to start with a few quotes.
The first from a teacher of Zen, D. T. Suzuki:
"This body of ours is something like an electric battery in which a mysterious power latently lies. When this power is not properly brought into operation, it either grows moldy and withers away or is warped and expresses itself abnormally. It is the object of Zen, therefore, to save us from going crazy or being crippled." 2
Another from a Catholic priest:
“We should have a fixed center which, like the hub of a wheel, governs our movements and from which all our actions go out and to which they return; a standard, also, or a code by which we distinguish the important from the unimportant, the end from the means, and which puts actions and experiences into their proper order; something stable, unaffected by change and yet capable of development, which makes it clear to us who we are and how matters stand with us. We lack this; we, the men of today, lack it more than did those who lived in earlier ages.” 3
And another from a Gnostic text:
“If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.” 4
These quotes point to a particular condition.
It has to do with “human potential.”
The basic idea is something roughly like this:
There’s a spiritual component of human nature.
The hypothesis here is that we aren’t merely animals with oversized brains, or apes with angst, or bags of genes with rationalizers attached.
(Science seems partial to offering us unflattering, fragmented definitions of ourselves lately.)
The basic idea is that there’s more to us than being good critters, there’s more to life than chasing food, shelter, Facebook friends and status symbols, there’s more to happiness than mere creature comforts.
“Human potential” is usually spoken of as something entirely positive.
We have potential for wonderful, profound, truly great things.
That idea gets thrown around a lot. We explore that side of it here.
But there is another side of it.
There’s potential in the other direction, also. That can be the kind of thing that gets fingers wagging: “You have so much potential! Why aren’t you (studying more, working harder, spending less time writing, etc)?”
So “potential” can go in two directions.
And it might work like a muscle: use it or lose it, as the saying goes.
And “losing it,” well, might not be an entirely pleasant experience.
So if that’s the case, some folks probably don’t use it, and lose it.
Well, there are plenty of reasons.
Here’s one, for example:
Some might never really hear much of anything that seems remotely valid about it.
Some might only hear that The Answer to The Game of Life lies solely in becoming rich, famous or being able to buy the right designer sneakers, for example.
Or, some might hear that there is no Answer to Life or the existential riddles life saddles us with, and the only option is just to huddle down, try to stay dry, and suffer through it as comfortably as we can.
Some folks may have never heard any credible alternative to either of these.
This could be due to a general disintegration that seems to have occurred recently in our usual outlets.
In the past, these outlets have usually come in such forms as religious or spiritual teaching, psychology, philosophy, various forms of personal development, or art.
But nowadays, frankly, certain aspects of these areas aren’t exactly in great shape.
Exposures to religious or spiritual teachings, for example, can often happen in a way that makes them seem utterly crazy, bizarre, or simply unbelievable. Encounters with psychology can consist of bizarre theories, untested methods, or laborious examinations of mundane emotions that are both endless and fruitless. Encounters with philosophy can seem like befuddling experiences of hyperintellectual disorientation, and for no apparent reason. Encounters in the “personal development” realm can range from mindless rah-rah cheerleading to verbal beratings to a strapping on of oppressive “think positive only!” mental filters. Art can be great for shaking booties on the dance floor, watching good guys bring bad guys to justice or love conquering all, offering visual spectacles or titillating stories and so on, but it often seem to go quiet when it comes to genuine, coherent and useful insights about life with actual meaning and depth.
- to name a few,
These angles are worst-case scenarios, admittedly, but not wholly uncommon.
There are plenty of other reasons why our existential muscles might atrophy.
Thousands of distractions, for example, custom-engineered to hijack our attention and direct it towards things that make someone else money.
And so on.
(This list could go on for a while.)
Add this together, and it sets the stage for actualizing our “human potential” only rarely. Or much more rare than what it could be.
And the end result of that can often lead to two outcomes: one is soft nihilism, which we explore here, and the other is violence as a result of inner atrophy (which Charles Bellinger, based on the work of Kierkegaard and Girard, explores and which we describe here.)
“Soft nihilism,” as we describe it, is an invisible but increasingly popular by-product of living through “The Death of God” (which some folks say we’re living through today.)
(And by the way: if you’re interested in seeing “The Death of God” as depicted dramatically by a talking, hormonal, hard-R-rated hot dog, see Sausage Party. Which is different-yet-similar from overcoming nihilism as depicted in DeadPool.)
Some folks, of course, think this is all a wonderful development.
Steven Pinker, for example, in Enlightenment Now, runs through a long, detailed, and thoroughly documented list of how things are actually peachy and aren’t really as grim as lots of people seem to think.
The idea is that things are great, in fact, and everyone is having a grand old time, or should be. Or at least, things could be a lot worse. And they were worse in some ways, and not that long ago.
And he seems, for the most part, correct. By many measurable standards, we really are doing better than ever. (Except for, you know, anxiety, loneliness, depression, addiction and suicide, for example. But we’re working on that.)
But here, The Lighthouse might make a counter-argument.
There’s another side to all this.
Maybe Pinker is totally right about all the stuff we can measure.
But maybe, in some ways, the really important stuff is what we can’t measure. Maybe, as Antoine de Saint Exupery said, “what is essential is invisible to the eye.”
With that stage set, let’s now get back to The Lighthouse.
Again: the two main characters start out as seemingly normal, responsible, regular guys, and eventually dissolve into insanity.
To answer this, let’s revisit the quotes above.
If Suzuki is correct, then there’s something within human nature – something, in his words, like a “battery.”
And if we ignore it or misuse it, then it “either grows moldy and withers away or is warped and expresses itself abnormally.”
The result of that will be either “going crazy” or “being crippled.”
Yes. Add a few bottles of whiskey and an extra dash or two of fish love, and that sounds like a roughly accurate depiction of exactly what happens in the third act of The Lighthouse.
There are plenty of directions we could run in here. What does the light in the lighthouse represent? What’s the nature of each man’s relation to the light? Why don’t they just leave each other alone and do their jobs?
But let’s focus on one simple observation: to all appearances, Winslow – the main character played by Robert Pattinson – appears to be, for practical purposes, atheistic.
Not that he ever rails against religion or God or anything, really, except his weird, gassy roommate and an annoying seagull.
From what we can tell, there’s nothing to even rail against.
There’s just an absence.
From what we can read of him, life seems to be merely a series of chores. His chief concern is apparently to keep his job. His ultimate dread, apparently, is nothing more profound than a negative review from Wade, his boss, which would presumably result in nothing more profound than him losing his job.
That seems to be the whole extent of his map of the world.
Aside from a longing for female companionship, he doesn’t seem to have any other interests, pleasures, or even pains. Only work. An emptiness, a lack, a sense of meaninglessness with no good answer to the “why” behind it all. He doesn’t seem to have any sense of purpose directed toward anything higher than keeping his job. Only he doesn’t have a smartphone to offer a thousand distractions.
To draw from one of the other quotes above, there is no “fixed center.” From what we can tell, there is no “hub” of his existential “wheel.”
Stuff just happens.
Call it spiritual repression, soft nihilism, being “tranquilized by the trivial” (Kierkegaard) or simply allowing one’s existential “battery” to atrophy (Suzuki). However you describe Winslow’s condition, there seems to be no apparent force in his life to counteract this.
But is that enough to warrant a total psychological disintegration?
That might go a bit far, right?
After all, plenty of atheists seem to be relatively happy, healthy, highly functioning and productive.5 If they were all going through the inner deterioration that Pattinson’s character did, well, things would be a lot clearer.
Fair enough. But that said, there’s plenty to explore here. Many “thriving atheists” that seem to get attention are elite, wealthy, highly intelligent, well-respected figures who get paid lots of money for sharing their opinions. We don’t seem to hear quite as much from atheistic life insurance telemarketers, aging grocery store baggers or struggling Willy Lowman-types.
But at any rate, our effort here isn’t to misdiagnose actual individuals, but to look at what Eggers was trying to say.
So, again: what happened to these two characters?
First of all, we can say a few words about what it isn’t.
Mainstream psychology, for example, would possibly offer something like this: “it was partly genes, partly environment.” Which is helpful to a degree of approximately zero.
Or “brain chemistry.” Once again: pretty much zero. Or diagnose them with some disorder or other, or a whole slew of them. Thanks.
Or there’s what the New York Times suggested: “its more suggestive theme is Wake punishing exploitation of Winslow.” 6
Trying to understand this story through the typical simplistic Marxist lens is like trying to map out a hurricane on a gum wrapper with a stubby yellow Crayola. “Exploitation” doesn’t seem to be anywhere close to the right county. If it was, then Winslow eventually turning the tables on Wade would have magically solved everything. The “oppressed” eventually did become the “oppressor,” after all, for a few minutes, at least.
Trying to force that model onto this story is putting a square peg in a black hole. There are deeper forces at work here.
But instead of delving into the broader questions of why we suffer in general, let’s refocus on the story itself, and look instead at the only clue Eggers himself seemed to offer:
Never, ever kill a seagull. They harbor the souls of men who have drowned.
In the story, that synopsis of a statement seems to be the only words of wisdom that the older, more experienced sea salt hands down to the younger.
And we all know where that’s headed.
Despite the warning, what Winslow soon does to a seagull could come straight out of a Tarantino movie.
So, what are we to make of all this?
Well, let’s put ourselves in Wade’s shoes for a moment.
The idea of men’s souls going into seagulls?
The idea of strikes the rational, scientific, objective, humanist, Pinker-friendly side of us as, frankly, absurd.
It’s obviously a silly, superstitious wives tale, told by idiots, full of nonsense. It’s the kind of thing dumb people used to believe before we all got smart and started Tweeting and playing Pokemon.
So, what does the seagull represent?
What else today is often seen and depicted as “superstitious wives tales”?
Yes: it sounds like the caricature of what many atheistic-types seem to think spirituality and religion is.
Many atheists, humanists, soft nihilists and so on describe nearly all forms of religion or spirituality as just that: an opiate of the masses (Marx), infantile wish-projections (Freud), fancy excuses for hanging out together (evolutionary psychologists), superstitious wives tales that the smart folks, at least, have evolved beyond, etc.
The basic idea is that things are great! – and if we could just shave off that last annoying nub of irrationality from our thinking, then well, we’d all be better off.
In other words, just kill the dumb seagull.
Prove the silly wives tale wrong, once and for all.
We’ll all be better off for it.
And then we all get to see how well that works out.
The wind turns, the oceans come to life, and for unknown, mysterious, inexplicable reasons, everything starts to promptly disintegrate into utter insanity.
They argue, for example, over whether Wade’s cooking is good or not.
It soon becomes clear that they took their last look at the distant shores of reason a while ago.
(An interesting anachronistic thought experiment here could have added a jolt of comedy: introduce some modern therapy methods into this scene of insanity. A conflict-resolution expert, for example, to help the two men could talk through and resolve their differences about whether that cooking is good or not. A counselor to help them process their feelings about the cooking, and feeling underappreciated for it. Or throw in a few bottles of Prozac. Or introduce a New Ager to tell them to start manifesting kindness or something. The result would be comedy.)
Eggers seems to be saying something similar as his earlier work, The Witch: there are powerful forces at work here that we don’t fully understand. These is stuff beyond of the reach of our nice, rational, objective, secular, domesticated, inoffensive approaches. Ones that Wade and Winslow, at least, seem unequipped to deal with.
That, and the whiskey probably didn’t help much.
And this is where we arrive at a dilemma of contemporary spirituality.
We can paint with a broad brush and divide ourselves into two large groups.
One approach is the atheistic perspective of religion and spirituality as superstitious wives tales.
Folks in this line of thinking opt for a generally secular life. And given the kind of Righteous Gemstone televangelist-like alternatives they’ve probably been exposed to, choosing this road can be hard to blame.
On the other side, a different group of folks see life without some kind of larger and more profound framework as an empty, trivial, meaningless, nihilistic road to nowhere. There are bills, demoralizing relationships, and decades of backbreaking work, and that’s all there is. There’s small talk, and “beyond here be monsters,” and some messy encounters with sea gulls. It’s spiritual repression.
Some see neither of the above approaches as particularly desirable.
Accepting preposterous-sounding old superstitions seems like a bad idea.
Yet rejecting them entirely, well, something seems wrong with that approach, also. (And in Wade’s case, that is entirely correct.)
So, what’s the answer here? Accept religion, or reject it?
As a quick side note: this question echoes the Spiritual Path of Forest Gump.
Forest answers this question by simply believing the “wives tales” and goes the way of tradition, as represented by “Mama always said…”
Jenny, on the other hand, is way too smart and sophisticated and modern for all that superstitious nonsense. She embarks on an adventurous journey of all the latest and greatest in experimentation and exploration that has her, at one point, very close to stepping off a ledge.
Both of these pose a question about the direction of the modern world: do we reject the past and start fresh, ala The Death of God, or do we reject The Death of God, and embrace the past?
This is something each of us faces individually, and something we’re facing as a society as well. The Death of God can happen on a personal level, or on a collective. And there seems to be a lot of arguing, in lots of different forms, about this question.
So, what’s a person, and modern culture, to do?
Is there a “solution” to this seeming dilemma?
There seems to be.
The dilemma, as depicted above, seems to be illusory. It’s a mirage created by false premises.
Somewhere between rational, tough-minded atheism on one side and irrational, woolly-minded superstition-chasing on the other (and a myriad of stuff in between) is a different alternative.
Would “authentic spirituality” be the right words to use here?
Let’s borrow those for now, and move on to a better question: what would that even look like?
When it comes to God and faith and why we suffer and why we’re here and what’s the point and so on – all the existential riddles we’re saddled with – we often seem to reduce our choices down to two options: either relativistic chaos, where anything goes, on the one hand, or restrictive oppression, where there’s only One Right Answer And It’s [ insert answer here ] on the other.
Modernism and especially Postmodernism has done some work toward deconstructing religion. All of this has weakened certain aspects, left others intact, and strengthened others. A key task, at this point, seems to be sorting out which is which.
But is there something that threads this needle?
Again, what would this look like?
What would a spirituality look like that’s both genuine, and no-nonsense?
Is there an approach that welcomes reason, skepticism, rationality, science, and clear thinking, yet also posits a more profound framework that we live our lives within?
Is there a route that questions nonsense, delusion, unfounded assumptions, mere superstitions, and sloppy thinking, yet also supplies positive, clear, coherent directives for living in a way that cultivates happiness, clarity, and sanity?
Is there a path that bypasses misguided fascinations with idle speculation, stale historical events, endless argument, and abstract hyperintellectual analysis and encourages, well, a fresh and practical use of “common sense,” “going there” and “seeing for yourself”?
Is there something that, if poor Wade and Winslow would have known about and put into practice, would have equipped them with whatever they needed to survive their miserable shift in the lighthouse?
Well, something like that might be better than a poke in the belly.
Something like this could be described in several different ways. “Contemplative spirituality,” or “experiential spirituality,” or genuine “orthodoxy” of various kinds, or a certain kind of “inner work,” or at its most basic level, simply improving our answers to life's most basic questions. Or plenty of others.
Suzuki’s answer was “Zen.” (And by that, he meant real Zen, not mere pop-minimalism or brief moments of calm.) “It is the object of Zen, therefore, to save us from going crazy or being crippled."
However it’s labeled, certain underlying dynamics seem to be at play within every spiritual tradition that works along these lines. Regardless of how it’s described or depicted, its effect on the individual is the same. It reaches into the depths of the human individual at the deepest level, reaches those buried potentials down there in the fathoms, and actualizes them in a way that brings them up from within. In this core dynamic, they seem to share a great deal in common.
And this dynamic is a good thing.
It cultivates sanity, clarity, and a kind of deep inner peace that isn’t dependent on Instagram followers or designer handbags. It provides a fresh source of ongoing inspiration that can sustain a person through the blows and bellows of life. It can become a source of inner strength. It can make it easier to avoid going full-Tarantino on annoying seagulls and to endure and even forgive farty roommates.
It can probably even stop and reverse a slow descent into insanity.
But of course, this approach rarely gets much press these days.
Maybe the Righteous Gemstone-types are just way more entertaining to watch, and make for better ratings, and so get all the airtime.
Maybe we’re all too busy arguing about whether our cooking is really good or not. Maybe we even think the cooking is actually what we’re fighting about, because we’re afraid to just stop for a minute and question our earlier assumptions, or even become aware of them, or consider the worldview the entire operation is based on, because we’re aware of the existential crisis we sense that would provoke. Maybe things have already gotten that bad.
Whatever the reason, it seems like some of this is worth looking into.
After all, maybe some pieces of the world today are, in their own ways, stuck on a remote island in old New England, keeping a lighthouse.
But maybe at least a few of us can heed The Lighthouse as a warning sign.
Maybe Eggers’ vision is trying to tell us, in its own unsettling way, that this doesn’t seem to be a road we really want to go down.
Maybe a much better road could be to try to pull ourselves together, and find a genuine center, and be nice to sea gulls, and to each other.
After all, if there really are batteries of some sort down deep in our nature, maybe it really is possible to figure out how to access them, and activate them, and see what good things they’re capable of. Better that, than to leave them sitting there, unused and neglected, where they’ll eventually start leaking acid all over the place.
If we’re all stuck in this Lighthouse together, let’s keep that sucker lit and shining. We can weather storms, and suffer through waves, and do our jobs: lighting the course where lonely ships can pass, and helping them arrive safely home.
2 D. T. Suzuki, Essays in Zen Buddhism, First Series, p13
3 Romano Guardini, The Art of Praying
4 The Gnostic Gospel of Thomas