Skip to content


True Detective and the nostalgia for evil

true-detective-S01-about-16x9-1True Detective has an unusual amount of theology for a cop show. The hero, Rustin Cohle, is a fervent atheist, who delivers soliloquies on the meaninglessness of existence as he and his partner drive to the next crime scene. Human consciousness is an ‘evolutionary misstep’, humans are ‘biological puppets’, religion is a consoling ‘fairy tale’ for morons.

Cohle has his own atheist fairy tales, however. He is drawn to Nietzsche’s theory of Eternal Return, according to which time circles round and repeats itself. The baddies he is chasing happen to share this quirky cosmic theory. What are the chances! You can’t move for all the Nietzscheans in Louisiana.

Although it’s unusual for a TV cop show to be so overtly theological (or atheological), True Detective in fact comes from a long tradition of thinking theologically through detective fiction, which stretches back through PD James, Dorothy L. Sayers and Father Roland Knox all the way to GK Chesterton (or, if you want to go back further, to Daniel, the first sleuth in literature).

tumblr_m8hhehHdkY1royoaao1_1280As crime writer Jason Webster recently argued, the detective is a sort of priest-figure for secular modernity. Crucially – and in accordance with the second of Father Knox’ ‘Ten Commandments for Detective Fiction’ – the detective does not rely on divine assistance to solve crimes. Instead, they try to solve the problem of evil and suffering using only their natural attributes of intelligence, empathy and scientific method.

They may also be assisted by the technocratic bureaucracy of the police force – the detective novel arose in the 19th century, side-by-side with the establishment of state police systems. However, detective fiction often shows a sort of Weberian ambivalence towards bureaucracy – it is corrupt or simply an annoying obstacle to the Nietzschean genius of the detective (think Dirty Harry).

Although the detective is a secular priest-substitute, they exhibit many of the features of their predecessor. The detective is often a ‘man of sorrows’, a solitary figure, isolated and driven to the brink of destruction by his passion for truth and justice. He or she has a burning sense that the universe must be intelligible, it must make sense. This transcendental longing is a religious impulse – why should we care so passionately about truth and justice, if the universe is a farrago of atoms?

The detective-priest follows the clues, uncover the crimes, and free the kidnapped victims like Jesus harrowing Hell. They reveal the hidden machinations of the Enemy. They can do this because, like a priest, they know the dark depths of the human heart. GK Chesterton’s Father Brown says a good detective must know the capacity for evil within themselves, within all of us. The detective’s ability to get a confession is also priest-like – although Cohle in True Detective tends to listen sympathetically before leaning over and whispering ‘you should probably kill yourself’.

Rustin Cohle as messianic Man of Sorrows
Rustin Cohle as messianic Man of Sorrows

Above all, as Chesterton wrote, the detective story gives us a religious sense that the landscape of modernity is filled with signs, clues, glimpses of a higher pattern. It becomes a landscape infused with meaning, redeemed from banality and meaninglessness. And yet the code we are deciphering is not God’s, but the murderer’s.

The murderer has taken the place of God. They have – particularly in recent crime dramas – become a sort of Nietzschean myth-maker, creating the legend of themselves, and using their victims as materials.

The pioneer of this idea of the serial killer as myth-maker is Thomas Harris – in Silence of the Lambs, the serial killer literally uses other people as material for his Nietzschean self-construction. Red Dragon has a similar idea of the serial killer authoring themselves, transforming themselves into something new through their acts of violence.

The serial killer as Nietzschean myth-maker in Thomas Harris' Red Dragon
The serial killer as Nietzschean myth-maker in Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon

We also meet the serial killer as myth-maker in David Fincher’s films – John Doe in Se7en uses his victims as materials for his ‘masterpiece’. We see it in David Peace’s Red Riding books, where the murdering paedophiles give themselves mythical identities – the Wolf, the Swan, the King. True Detective clearly owes a lot to Red Riding – it has a similarly layered time structure and sense of the sediment of evil building up over time. And it also involves a paedophile ring with mythical pretensions, who wear animal masks and call themselves things like the Yellow King.

In all of these, the murderer is the artist, the detective a mere literary critic. To solve the crime, they go not to forensics or ballistics, but to the library to read Dante. The author of True Detective used to teach English in academia, and his hero even looks like an academic, with a corduroy jacket and a leather-bound journal.

This is the strange conclusion then – we are so starved of myths and of meaning in secular modernity, that we turn with something like relief to the work of serial killers, to pore over their mythical patterns, like the obsessive amateur sleuth played by Jake Gyllenhall in David Fincher’s Zodiac.

The detective as literary critic
The detective as literary critic

The murderer redeems our world from ennui and triviality. Violence redeems it. Mortality redeems it – think how, in the 24-hour frenzy of narcissism and triviality that is Twitter, each celebrity death, no matter how minor the celebrity, is greeted with awed and mawkish reverence.

Our continued fondness for detective fiction shows we have a nostalgia for evil. There is no such thing as evil in a strictly materialist world-view. There are only various medical pathologies – autism, personality disorder, psychopathology. TS Eliot said ‘all psychology ends either in glands or theology’. In psychiatry it ends in glands. As Nietszche foresaw, once God has died, one can quickly feel a terrible flatness and boredom. That ancient cosmic battle between Good and Evil is revealed to be a neurological puppet-show, nothing more.

We have lost the dignity of sin. Some morbid souls still long for that dignity. One of them was Baudelaire. As TS Eliot perceived, Baudelaire’s attraction to evil is a rejection of naturalism ‘in favour of Heaven and Hell’. Eliot wrote: ‘In…an age of bustle, programmes, platforms, scientific progress, humanitarianism and revolutions which proved nothing, Baudelaire perceived that what really matters is Sin and Redemption…and the possibility of damnation’. Damnation becomes ‘a relief…a form of salvation from the ennui of modern life, because it at last gives some significance to living’.

Lars Von Trier is another morbid soul. The heroine of his new film, Nymphomaniac, insists that her nature is evil, even though she is not religious. Her interviewer asks her: ‘why would you hold onto the least sympathetic concept in religion – the idea of sin – while rejecting the rest of it’?  The answer is because there is a pride and dignity in sin, which medical materialism takes away.

Roger Scruton: can high culture be a substitute for religion?

Last month I interviewed the philosopher Roger Scruton – the interview is on YouTube, above. If you want to download it as an MP3 just copy the URL and take it here.

The interview was inspired by this interesting article which Roger wrote for Aeon Magazine, in which he warned that modern culture was being submerged under a sea of fake emotions, fake culture and fake intellectuals. I read his book Modern Culture, and became interested in his idea of how high culture took the place of Christianity in the last two hundred years as an ethical guide and educator of our emotions.

Scruton suggests that, during the Enlightenment, as religion started to lose its central place in our society, art and literature took its place. They ‘ceased to be recreations, and became studies, devoted, as divinity had been devoted, to the nurturing and refining of the soul’. High culture gives us objects of beauty, the sublime contemplation of which lifts our souls from the transient and gives us intimations of the eternal. It gives our lives a sense of meaning (even if that meaning is tragic): ‘Our lives are transfigured in art, and redeemed of their arbitrariness, their contingency and littleness’. High culture transforms our raw emotions, particularly our feelings about love and death, giving what could be savage and destructive emotions a shape, a meaning, and a place in communal life.

Scruton also believes that high culture acts as a sort of cult. He follows Nietzsche in suggesting the root of culture is in cult, not just etymologically but psychologically. It provides an alternative sort of community for a society that has “out-lived its gods”. He writes:

A high culture is a tradition, in which objects made for aesthetic contemplation renew through their allusive power the experience of membership. Religion may wither and festivals decline without destroying high culture, which creates its own ‘imagined community’, and which offers, through the aesthetic experience, a ‘rite of passage’.

I wish someone had told me, as I sat in an Oxford tutorial picking over Virginia Woolf, that I was going through a cultic rite of passage. I would have felt a lot more heroic.

Barbarians at the gate

The problem, as Scruton and other cultural conservatives like Allan Bloom see it, is that at some point – probably around the 1960s – high culture lost its cultural authority, and instead our societies became submerged in a sea of crude barbarism (rock and roll, TV, Hollywood etc) which totally lacked the ability to educate our emotions and shape them to their highest form. Instead, the rise of popular culture has meant a 60-year rush to the lowest common denominator of emotion, intelligence and even audio frequency, culminating in the zombie sub-woofer of Skrillex or the face-stomping brutality of David Guetta (Scruton doesn’t exactly put it like that, but that’s pretty much what he means).

When we try to face the serious things in life (love, death), we either do so through a sort of violent fantasy that is really a form of wish fulfillment, in porn or war-porn, in which there is little education of the emotions. Or we create highly sentimental or kitsch art in which the higher emotions are ‘faked’.

Meanwhile, a generation of ‘fake intellectuals’ have undone high culture from the inside, by subverting traditional ideas of beauty, truth and justice and putting in their place a sort of irresponsible and ultimately meaningless wordplay that appeals to a certain sort of pretentious undergraduate (Scruton is no fan of post-1968 French intellectuals like Deleuze, Lacan and Derrida, as we discuss).

I suggest to him in our interview that things aren’t perhaps as bad as all that – the most popular commercial radio station in the UK is not Technobadger FM (despite my constant promotion of it) but Classics FM. And the modernist literature once confined to a small elite is now widely read at schools and universities. High culture has, if anything, become the province of the masses. But I just want, quickly, to explore his idea that high culture could be some kind of replacement for Christianity.

Why high culture is no substitute for religion

There are several problems with this idea, as I put to him in the interview. Firstly, it’s elitist. The best religions, including Christianity, work partly because they are inclusive both to the intellectuals and to the masses. They have esoteric philosophical ideas for the chin-strokers, and rousingly emotive hymns, rituals and festivals for the masses. The reason Stoicism or Neo-Platonism never took off in the Roman Empire was because they only offered theories for the elite, and nothing meatier and more emotional for the masses. So high culture fails to include the poorly educated, while Jesus was sublimely inclusive, hanging out with fishermen, prostitutes, tax collectors, shepherds and other social outcasts. What would Jesus make of Glyndebourne?

Secondly, as Scruton himself notes, in aesthetics, the focus is on the signifer (the work of art) rather than the signified (God, nature, the cosmos etc). So when Oscar Wilde says he admires the ritual of Catholicism, what he really means is he digs the incense, the costumes, the chanting, the candles. Religion becomes reduced to an aesthetic display, a show, a spectacle.

Thirdly, related to the last point, in high culture, the priest or prophet figure becomes replaced by the artist. We start to see, from the Enlightenment on, a profane veneration of the artist as sacred prophet – we start to get scenes of German women kneeling at the feet of The Master, Friedrich Wagner. The problem with this is your average artist is a very different kettle of fish to a priest. Artists may be inspired geniuses, but they are also often very bad human beings, who exploit everyone around them for the sake of their art. So it’s a pretty poor exchange to swap priests for artists. You end up with the worship of rock stars and thousands of groupies offering their bodies up for a night with their God. Priests may not be as glamorous or as good at publicity as rock stars, but the best of them are quietly devoted to the service of others rather than the glorification of self.

Fourthly, in high culture there is no necessary connection to good works, to charity, to washing the feet of your fellow humans. Instead, the goal is the aesthete’s delicious enjoyment of their own sentiments. It’s ultimately a rather subjective and selfish form of self-gratification, compared to the selfless humanitarian work that religion seems to inspire in some people (though clearly good works without a bit of selfish culture can be quite philistine – as Mathew Arnold argued in Culture and Anarchy. There’s a delicate balance between devotion to others and the cultivation of the self).

All alone

Finally, I don’t think the ‘imagined community’ of high culture is any substitute for the actual community of a church, an umaah or sangha. When you read, you read alone. When you go to a concert, you go alone or with a friend, you sit next to strangers, and you leave as strangers. Only in an ecstasy-fueled rave is there any sort of community to rival the close and loving community of genuine religious communities (and that only lasts three hours or so, while you’re up. Then you come down and creep into bed for two days and never see your new best mates again).

The lessons of Christianity for the Skeptic / atheist movement

I think it’s useful to think of these things with respect to atheism / skepticism too, particularly as atheists set up churches and imagine themselves as secular religions. I’m all for creating closer ethical communities, with or without God. But the fledgling ‘church of atheism’ has a long way to go. Firstly, we’ve noted that religion acts as an educator of the emotions. This is not the case with Skepticism. While Skeptics may pride themselves on being a ‘cognitive elite’, they often seem quite an emotionally-challenged community. This is particularly obvious in the Skeptic movement’s favourite art. Skeptics adore superhero, sci-fi and fantasy works, which typically glorify power and technical prowess, without any deep understanding of love, tragedy or mortality. That’s not always true (Lord of the Rings has a decent sense of tragedy) but it’s mainly true. Skeptic science may be rich, but the artistic culture beloved of Skepticism is emotionally flat and adolescent.

The fantasy culture beloved of many Skeptics is emotionally challenged

Secondly, Skeptic or atheist culture does not seem to me to be that inclusive. The tribe defines itself as the ‘cognitive elite’, as a tribe of ‘Brights’ or ‘geeks’. It is mainly a tribe of university-educated middle-class white males. One of the things that Christianity has which atheism has yet to have is, as Rowan Williams put it eloquently in his debate with Richard Dawkins last month, a “refusal to ignore those who are at the edge of their society”. Christianity, inspired by the example of the outcast Jesus and his outcast tribe, has a strong sense of mission to help the marginalised, the weak and the vulnerable. Of course one doesn’t have to be a Christian to have such a mission (think of George Orwell). But it seems to help. The Skeptic / atheist movement by contrast seems often to be a celebration of the congregation’s smartness compared to the ignorant masses.

A love for the weak and the marginalised may be the key to Christianity’s emotional education. I’m not sure that atheist / Skeptic communities allow people to share their own weakness and vulnerability, in a way that the best religious communities do, from Alpha to L’Arche to Alcoholics Anonymous. Religions ‘educate our emotions’ partly by allowing us to open up to one another and admit our shameful sense of weakness and vulnerability. Skeptics, by contrast, often seem to be in rigid suits of protective emotional armour, and to be far more comfortable with impersonal subjects like astronomy or IT. If they do express emotions, it’s either a geeky love of sci-fi / fantasy or highly vindictive attacks on their enemies.

This lack of emotional availability and vulnerability extends to the leaders of the Skeptic / atheist movement. Two comedians have set up an ‘atheist church’ in Islington. Well and good. But are they available to their congregation throughout the week, night and day, to offer them support? Alain de Botton says he wants to start up a Religion for Atheists. Fine and dandy. But I’ve given several classes at the School of Life, and I’ve never once seen him there. By contrast, Nicky Gumbel – who set up the Alpha Course – is at his church leading the course every single Wednesday, and serves his church every other day of the week too. He devotes the same amount of relentless energy serving his church as Alain de Botton does to pursuing book sales. I’m not criticising Alain for that – I am the same, only lazier and less successful. I’m just saying, that’s the difference between a writer and a priest, and between culture and religion.


In other news this week:

Here is a wonderful essay from Aeon by the philosopher Stephen Asma, on our emotional similarity with other mammals.

How to get more girls into science subjects at university? Perhaps by taking Psychology A-Level more seriously – girls make up 70% of the students for that subject, and typically get twice as good results as boys.

The LSE in London has a new exhibition looking at the relationship between fiction and philosophy.

A shocking piece in the New York Times on young people getting addicted to Adderall through ADHD prescriptions.

A piece from the BPS Digest warning that CBT self-help books might do more harm than good for some depressed people prone to rumination, if they just encourage more rumination.

Birkbeck is home to a wonderful interdisciplinary project on dreams and dreaming. Listen to the talks at a recent seminar here, including Robin Carhart-Harris (yes, the Imperial investigator into magic mushrooms and ecstasy, also known as The Man With The Best Job In London) talking about the neuroscience of dreaming.

And finally, this coming Tuesday I’m leading another evening session in the Philosophy For Life course at Queen Mary, in the Lock-Keeper’s Cottage from 6pm. This Tuesday we’re discussing the Stoics. It’s going to be great – come along.It’s free and open to everyone. Here is a photo from this Tuesday’s session.

See you next week,