by Sam Buntz
There’s something about lazy, morally unallied characters that resonates with everyone (or, almost everyone). It’s refreshing to see one’s secret, inner aimlessness and lack of ideals dramatized—it awakens real sympathy. This is a definite paradox: we can care intensely about characters who don’t care at all. The classic example is Shakespeare’s Falstaff: perpetually mirthful, but devoid of moral direction. He’s endlessly creative, but he doesn’t use his creativity for a greater ethical purpose. It’s a toy for his own amusement (and that of others). Ibsen’s Peer Gynt is another good example: he compares himself to an onion, consisting of layers without an inner core, and continually acts like a cad while winning the reader or playgoer’s loyalty. Homer Simpson, the frat guys from Animal House, and any number of illustrious slackers are all fine, present-day instances of the same phenomenon.
A hollow person in a serious situation seems reprehensible—but in a situation with ethically low stakes, a hollow person can become a magnet for our affection. Perhaps this is because, before we side with good or evil, we all feel a similar sense of hollowness, of yet un-polarized being. We sympathize with these characters because we sympathize with ourselves. There’s a kind of crystalline innocence/ignorance to this personality—he isn’t bad, but he’s also unhampered by dogmatic notions of goodness. He is what theologians sometimes refer to as the “natural man”—a child of nature, and therefore innocent, but also corrupt; innocently corrupt. (Also, there are plenty of female examples of the same archetype—from life and art. Somehow, using “he or she” would’ve interrupted the flow of the last two sentences in a weird way).
Thomas Carlyle argued that, in life, we should journey from saying an “Eternal No” through a “Center of Indifference” to saying an “Eternal Yes.” In other words, we ought to proceed from being mindlessly destructive—kids crushing ants for fun—through the apathy and cynicism of adolescence, to the creative ideals of a fully realized adulthood. Obviously, many of us never make the full trek—and, in our own age, I would argue that making it to the “Center of Indifference” is actually a pretty big accomplishment. The members of ISIS and North Korea’s ruling clique clearly never made it there—they utter their “Eternal No” into the void.
But the valiantly indifferent are (at least, in our bad era) praiseworthy, if only because they haven’t regressed, haven’t ruined anything. They remain unsponsored and free—dwelling in possibility. (Purgatory has so much more room than hell… It’s pleasantly spacious, as it turns out). In a world rife with fanaticism, indifference is, as W.H. Auden said, “the least / We have to fear from man or beast.” I wouldn’t argue that not-giving-a-damn is a revolutionary act, or that we can’t do better than indifference—an Everlasting Yes is where we’re ultimately headed. But we’re so adept at doing worse—at being violently partial about any number of fleeting worries and cares—that indifference starts to seem like a counter-force as opposed to what it technically is, the absence of a position. A little lighthearted indifference goes a long way—in effect, it’s the real “chicken soup for the soul.”