Futility Has A Point
I came across a write-up on Scott McCloud, a genius of comic theory, of which I know nothing about. Apparently, he recently published his first graphic novel in 25 years, The Sculptor. I like stories, so I was interested.
Take a look at the whole piece when you get the chance. Here is an excerpt that reveals his worldview at play. I really enjoyed seeing his approach, and was intrigued by his version of the “meaning of life.” I look forward to getting a copy of The Scultpor and seeing his ideas of beauty illustrated.
Here is his interaction with the main character, David, a struggling sculptor in New York. My thoughts below.
“I’ve been lucky throughout my entire career,” says McCloud. “I’ve had no trouble being seen. But as I rose up through that process, I also became more aware of the futility of truly lasting—how almost universal that tide of time is, and how gradually we are forgotten regardless of our best efforts, regardless of how much success we might have in our lifetime. Being forgotten is virtually inevitable.”
Although the vertical and architectural nature of New York City gives visual counterpart to that sense of rising and falling, it’s also a place where it’s easy to be feel at once surrounded by people and invisible—and a place attracts those hungry for significance. “The main appeal of New York City is the sense in which it commands the attention of the world, and the surging force of humanity converging on that one tiny point,” says McCloud. “David is also drawn to it in an almost animal way, like a salmon swimming upstream. He has to be in the light. He has to somehow have the attention of people, the warmth of that light on him.”
Despite this primal impulse to seek attention—one that can drive both the desire to create and procreate—The Sculptor points to what sounds like a cold shower conclusion: Although we often seek out fame or respect to validate our work and lives, seeking immortality is ultimately futile. Everything we do, everything we are, will ultimately be wiped away.
And that’s not only fine for McCloud, it’s liberating. “It’s not just OK to accept it as futile. It’s glorious and it’s human,” says McCloud. “If it can all leads to the same result, the same heat death, then those small human experiences can be as significant as the pyramids at Giza or Mount Everest. If nothing lasts, then experientially, somebody just putting their hand on your shoulder or the even taste of macaroni cheese can be something much more. If all of it is ephemeral, then all of it can be as permanent or significant as anything else.”
It’s an idea that goes to the heart of what we hope for from our lives: to accomplish something, to leave a legacy that lasts beyond our bodies. Although we see David create some massive and intricate works of sculpture, what I remember most from The Sculptor is something he didn’t show me: a moment when he whispers something in Meg’s ear that even readers don’t get to hear. In the final accounting of his life, what will be more valuable, the monuments we create and how long our names are remembered by strangers, or the moments we share with the people close we love, even if any trace of our existence vanishes from the Earth when they do?
While The Sculptor doesn’t necessarily provide an answer, its questions offer a shift in perspective that can imbue even smallest moments with tremendous value.
“This is a story more for the forgotten than the remembered,” McCloud says. “It’s not a story about artistic greatness; it’s a story about the futility of even wanting to be remembered, and the true beauty of pursuing that even in the face of futility. What distinguishes David is the degree to which he understands the futility, even as he continues to push against it. He knows how useless and pointless it all is, and he just keeps going. That, to me, is beautiful. That’s the mark of him as an artist more than anything he actually ever made.”
But is that really beautiful? Really?
Seriously, though. When I pan out, and ponder that my life were to mean nothing, but at least I gave it a good go, logically that is foolish. That does not make sense. Yet, yet. I can resonate and follow with McCloud here. Rationally, that is dumb. But, existentially and heart-wise, there lies a feeling and awareness of something beautiful despite the contradictory conclusion. Why?
You would only think it beautiful if you knew deep-down that pursuing that which dismisses your earthly fame is right and true.
He still hints at a way to find meaning after all. He portrays a worldview that sees pursuing life for life’s sake as meaningful. Being a human and doing what you love and being with whom you love is what makes life beautiful.
McCloud says it is beautiful to pursue meaninglessness, a life where your name will not live on forever. In fact, that is exactly where you find meaning. I actually agree with him here. That sounds a lot like losing your life to save it. Yes, forgetting the greatness of your name and giving up on building your own kingdom is what it’s all about.
As for the “universal tide of time,” wow. I’m grateful he brought this up and I’m eager to experience it in his novel. Is there even a more important tide to consider? All of us humans sense this dimension of time that cannot be escaped. Every one of us must face the fact that our time is coming. McCloud’s tale of David is really about someone looking for a way to deal.
Once again, we see a good story carve out room for the possibility of love being another dimension that truly counts. Normally, a lot of people would want to flush out that nonsense. But there are certain settings, like those recent Interstellar travels for example, that make it permissible.
Thank you, Scott McCloud, for bringing up important questions and realities.
For those nerds who are interested, here is a McCloud interview at Nerdist.