The Metaphysics Of Formica

Two furniture movers load a royal blue Formica table into the back of a U-Haul truck: “Having caught a glimpse of himself in a mirror for the first time in over a decade, Karl, whose original cherry red top had been repainted and whose chrome trim had been stripped and replaced, did not immediately recognize himself, and it momentarily frightened him. He assuaged his fears, however, by telling himself that no matter how he had changed on the outside he would always remain the same on the inside, which was cold, aloof and indifferent to the suffering of the countless families who has treated him as nothing more than a kitchen table since 1957, and who had eaten their meals, drawn their pictures, and done their homework on him with something considerably less than his own disinterest, a state of being which he was certain had no proper definition.”

Two Excerpts from Understanding The Enemy: The Dialogue of Fear In Fear And Desire And Dr. Strangelove by Elizabeth F. Cooke (The Philosophy Of Stanley Kubrick, Edited By Jerold J. Abrams)

1. Part of the problem with these deliberations between nations and among branches of the same government is that the participants, rather than being individuals discussing a problem, are representatives of those larger entities. In all cases, these men are not individuals; they are their respective institutions, and they let those institutions determine their actions. Sartre refers to this pretending to be determined rather than free as “bad faith.” A person acts in bad faith when, for example, he allows his social role, such as his job, to dictate his actions, as if he were not free to quit that social role, as if that social role were something other than what he decided to make of it. In Dr. Strangelove, the procedures of international diplomacy are set up so that individuals represent their institutions, and those institutions are designed to engineer bad faith. Individuals are no longer free but are merely representations of their institutions. And the more an individual represents an institution, the less of an individual he is. This is exactly Camus’ own fear (for philosophy): that ideas take on a life of their own (as in Hegel), and people follow them as if they, as individuals, were not in control. Here Camus reminds us of the complexity of his view and that there are other ways to commit suicide-namely, forgetfulness of self. This is also Kubrick’s point: that institutions actually plan on forgetting the self and are, in fact, structured for exactly that purpose.

2. Kubrick shares the absurdist and existential philosophers’ view that we are ultimately alone, and we alone bear ultimate responsibility for our own lives. No universal truth can spare us this burden. And no shared cause or collective can offer a place to hide. Perhaps this is the contribution that Kubrick’s films have made to absurdist thought. Kubrick gives us nothing to hope for and nothing to escape into, but he helps us to recognize our condition and pushes us to be lucid about it. Whether we are up to the task is, or course, up to each of us alone.