Perhaps, no question is more emblematic of modern and postmodern literature than the question of identity, which is tied closely to questions of belief and morality. The traditional, pre-modern individual defines themselves based on strict categories and accepts and zealously defends the roles and rules associated with that identity. After the Enlightenment, less emphasis was placed on roles in society. This role-based, hierarchical worldview was replaced by greater concern for universal and objective knowable truths, which were in many cases no less strict in guiding one’s life. One modern reaction against this approach—historically, gaining strength after the perceived failures of Western civilization with the Great War—is to reject all beliefs and even the possibility of objective knowledge.
While deeply ironic and humorous, the Cohen brothers’ film, The Big Lebowski (1998), is at its heart a story of conflict between these two views, as well as a notable presentation of a third option—a pragmatic way forward for the postmodern world.
Walter: Rules and Kant
The Germans represent the attempt at achieving authenticity through nihilism—that by ridding oneself of beliefs and acting with no rules, one can be truly authentic or free. Walter Sobchak represents the opposite. A strict adherence to societally defined roles and rules, regardless of context, serves to fundamentally direct all of his actions. His identity is tied to being “right.” Neither approach, however, is presented as genuine or successful, as neither the Germans nor Walter manage to act consistent to their own standards. The Dude, however, living by a more pragmatic philosophy reminiscent of John Dewey’s Reconstruction in Philosophy (1926), is notable for his flexibility. This allows his identity to remain in flux. He accepts whatever influences come his way without attempting to conform himself to any exogenous role. He learns pragmatically and incorporates new information into his life.
Walter Sobchak is most notable for his strict adherence to rules, even rules taken entirely out of context. In this way his character takes on Kantian ethics: certain acts are right, others are wrong, and context, utility, and proportionality play no role. His most iconic line, “This isn’t ‘Nam, Smokey, there are rules!” is symbolic of his overall attitude towards life. Whether it’s pulling a gun to enforce a minor bowling infraction, or insisting that the Supreme Court having “roundly rejected prior restraint” authorizes him to swear in a coffee shop. The adherence to rules, and more broadly being “right,” defines much of Walter’s action.
Walter also shows an almost pre-Enlightenment attachment to using defined roles or positions in society, and living his life according to the expectations of those roles. Two elements of his identity seem to govern his life—being a Vietnam veteran, and being Jewish. No character doubts Walter’s veteran status. His Judaism is questioned, however, as it seems to be a relic of his marriage to his ex-wife, Cynthia. At any rate, Walter’s relationship to Judaism seems to be primarily in following its rules, particularly regarding shabbat, on which he “sure as shit doesn’t fucking roll.” As far as we can tell, he sees Judaism primarily as a set of rules and exhibits no particular spirituality. He repeatedly invokes his veteran status—when asked to keep it down in a coffee shop, he insists that his buddies “died face down in the muck” (a phrase he repeats later in the film) for his right to finish his coffee. When Brandt, a millionaire’s aid, asks who he is, he responds simply that “I’m a FUCKING VETERAN.” While admitting that in many cases there is “no literal connection” between his current situations and Vietnam, Walter nonetheless uses his identity as a Jewish veteran to make sense of the world, so that nearly every action is dictated by the formal rules of Judaism or the conventional expectations of a Vietnam veteran.
This need to follow properly established rules and roles seems to be tied to a need for authority and rectitude. When explaining why he’s caring for his ex-wife’s dog, his reasoning is that “the fucking dog has fucking papers”—the existence of the papers serving as a guarantee of the dog’s importance. Indeed, his biggest fear seems to be a lack of rules. While he seethes at “krauts” and “anti-semites,” when confronted with nihilists, he proclaims, “Say what you want about the tenets of National Socialism, at least it’s an ethos.”
Even in an inherently transgressive, criminal interaction—a hostage situation—the obsession with rules shows through. When faced with armed “kidnappers” who in fact have no hostage, Walter insists, “There’s no ransom if you don’t have a fucking hostage. That’s what ransom is. Those are the fucking rules.” Walter follows these rules, and what is technically “correct,” to an extreme. This is best demonstrated by his most common phrase: “Am I wrong?” Eight times Walter uses this phrase to justify his actions, from brandishing a weapon at a bowling alley, to attempting to scam hostage-takers out of a million dollars. The self-image that Walter has built up for himself depends on being right, no matter how harsh or anti-social his rectitude comes off to others. His version of authenticity forbids him to make even the most reasonable compromises.
On the contrary, at key moments the role Walter has built fails him. This is obvious nearly every time he gets hung up on rules—he breaks them more egregiously than he enforces them. In one breath he admonishes the Dude that “Chinaman is not the preferred nomenclature,” while at the same time referring to Saddam Hussein as “that camel fucker.” He notes that keeping a “marmot” (in fact, a ferret) in city limits is not legal, and yet owns an Uzi in Los Angeles County. His desire to observe shabbat is repeatedly frustrated. Even his insistence on not being wrong fails him at two critical junctures. First, his insistence that he is always technically correct (even if he is admittedly “an asshole” about it, as the Dude alleges) fails him, as does his insistence on tying everything to his veteran status, when confronting the “millionaire” Jeffrey, “the Big Lebowski.” Upon seeing the wheelchair-bound Lebwoski, Walter insists, “I’ve seen a lot of spinals, Dude, and this guy is a fake. A fucking goldbricker. This guy fucking walks. I’ve never been more certain of anything in my life!”
Despite Walter’s certainty, supposedly gained from his military experience, the Big Lebowski is not in fact capable of walking, and Walter is forced to admit to being wrong. Shortly thereafter, Walter suffers another terrible loss: despite his physical dominance in the fight with the Germans, he is unable to save Donny, who dies of a heart attack. Donny and the Dude had both begged Walter to avoid the fight, but Walter’s stubborn insistence that “what’s mine is mine” made it inevitable, and apparently due to the stress of the fight, Donny’s heart gives out. While technically right in his claim that the Germans wouldn’t hurt Donny, he nonetheless loses a friend (it would seem, one of only two he has in the world).
This stands as a sharp rebuke of his entire guiding principles: even being technically correct, and physically imposing, Walter has suffered a loss, due to being unwilling to take advice from his friends and unable to see beyond his strict worldview. Perhaps that’s why, in his last scene in the film (Donny’s funeral), Walter is finally chastened by the Dude’s rhetorical question—“What the fuck does anything have to do with Vietnam?” This leads to Walter’s first genuine apology in the film (and perhaps a chance at real authenticity in his future life).
Walter’s conservatism is a brilliant caricature. He represents many of the values held deeply by North American and European Conservatives—patriotism, religiosity, and “straight shooting.” He is a walking, breathing t-shirt that says, “Facts don’t care about your feelings, snowflake.” Ultimately, this entire caricature is shown to be inadequate, as his frequent wrongness and failure to live up to his own standards shows. In many ways, his is the story of self-assured Western civilization in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, which, despite its physical power and belief in its absolute objective rightness, suffered dramatic losses that shook that self-assurance—as losing Donny seems to have shaken Walter’s.
The Germans: Nothing and Nietzche
Historically, the response for many to this shattering of traditional values has been nihilism—a willingness to jettison all beliefs. This reaction is personified in Walter and the Dude’s primary nemesis, the nihilistic Germans, or as Walter describes them, “Cabbage-eating sons of bitches . . . Nihilist. Dipshit.”
The Germans, particularly their apparent leader, Dieter, insist that they believe in nothing, and with their thick accents and oft-repeated nihilism, they seem to be caricatures of the Nietzchean response to the collapse of traditional values—values such as patriotism and religiosity—which run Walter’s life.
Dieter is first encountered passed out in a pool, to which Bunny off-handedly mentions that Dieter is a nihilist. The claim of believing in nothing is repeated as a sort of mantra, intended to bring strength and indeed invincibility to the members of the trio. When attempting to intimidate the Dude and make him believe that they will “cut off his Johnson,” Dieter insists, “We believe in nothing. NOTHING!” And as Dieter’s ear is being chewed off, Dieter insists, “I fuck you! You can’t hurt me! I believe in nothing!” In this way, they represent one popular modern and postmodern response to living in a rapidly changing world, where truth seems undefined and undefinable, and belief therefore untenable. Initially, this seems like a reasonable response—after all, nothing in the plot of the film is as it seems: the conflict revolves around the fake kidnap of the wife of a fake millionaire, and specifically about the disappearance of a million dollars that also never existed. Given this backdrop, one might expect the Germans to do relatively better than the rule-bound Walter Sobchak. The film, however, shows their path as, if anything, more disastrous.
The Germans’ own words, and the actions they suffer, reveal the practical difficulties and limitations of nihilism. Confronted with the discovery of their ruse, and Walter and the Dude’s refusal to hand over “the money,” Kieffer, referring to Dieter, complains, “It’s not fair! His girlfriend gave up her toe!” Walter immediately calls out this failure to adhere to nihilistic principles, retorting, “Fair? Who’s the fucking nihilist here?” Clearly, Kieffer has not fully internalized nihilism; his mind still works in terms of rules and fairness. He pays for his mental weakness as well—despite holding an Uzi, he hesitates in the showdown with Walter and takes a bowling ball to the gut as a result. It seems Dieter is made of sterner stuff. He continues to proclaim his nihilism, even as Walter chews off his ear. However, his claim is equally hollow—immediately after shouting for the last time that he believes in nothing, Dieter takes a blow to the face that ends his career as a kidnapper. In the background, the group’s song—audible in the original soundtrack as “Wir Glauben Nichts [We Believe in Nothing]”—continues to play until Walter smashes the third German with a boombox.
In the end, the three nihilists are not made immune by their belief in nothing, and their attempt to make reality what they want it to be (by writing a ransom note and attempting to collect a ransom despite not having a hostage) fails spectacularly. Their rejection of traditional beliefs and values is a philosophical version of the central action of the film: they’ve thrown out a ringer for a ringer, jettisoned out one set of impossible standards only to replace them with yet another.
The Dude: Experiences and Dewey
Who comes out at the end as being the most authentic and successful character in the film? The Dude himself. Unlike Walter, the Germans, and even the Big Lebowski, the Dude doesn’t bother too much with his self-image. He likes what he likes and never puts on airs, but at the same time, he is unafraid of changing and incorporating new experiences into his persona. If Walter is a somewhat vulgar, unexamined Kant, and the Germans are shallow reflections of Nietzsche, the Dude embodies John Dewey’s pragmatism, examining every situation for what it is rather than trying to mold it to his preconceptions.
Like one would expect of the Nihilists, the Dude does not concern himself with the niceties of society. He has the same drink no matter with whom he drinks. He cannot pretend to like the Eagles, even to save himself from being thrown out of a cab. In a “millionaire’s” house, discussing what he believes to be a life-and-death situation, he lights up a joint. At the same time, he does not seem to behave according to any particular role or persona. He simply is who he is. This consistency in behavior is balanced by a willingness to go with the flow and allow himself to change and adapt to new experiences, rather than being tied to an absolute external-source identity, like Walter or Dieter.
When Maude asks the Dude to tell her about himself, he responds with a list of experiences and actions, rather than the one-dimensional self-descriptions given by Dieter or Walter. The way these experiences are incorporated into who the Dude is aligns perfectly with Dewey’s pragmatic definition of experience: “adaptive courses of action, habits, active functions, connections of doing and undergoing.” The Dude is who he is because of what he has done and experienced. Unlike Walter, who clings to a couple of a priori categories (Veteran, Jewish), for the Dude, each of these experiences has contributed to who he is without casting him in a role he needs to fill.
The Dude also differs from his friend in the realm of ethics. Walter is a classic example of a person hindered by his insistence on, to use Dewey’s words, “authoritative guidance by a higher faculty.” Rather than viewing the world as it is, he insists on viewing all situations through the lens of set rules that exist irrespective of the actual circumstances. The Dude, on the other hand, manages to correct this error without falling into Nihilism. He does so by being open, as Dewey suggests, to having experiences mold and shape his outlook.
Without question, the Dude is the hero of the film, and the audience is never led to doubt the rightness of his motivations, even if they lack Walter’s deontological sureness. The situation with his rug exemplifies this: he doesn’t doubt that the thugs who peed on his rug committed an objectively immoral act. He seeks redress from the millionaire Lebowski, and when denied, he takes it upon himself to replace the rug through subterfuge. It would be difficult to justify this series of actions by any single deontological principle, but all are reasonable responses to the experiences and particulars of the situation. In this way, he exemplifies Dewey’s ideal moral approach. Dewey wrote about how philosophers were finally abandoning the insistence on deriving all ethics and morality from universals, and instead shifting to make ethical prescription based on specific facts and the experience of life. By questioning Walter’s rigid code of conduct, the Dude adopts this pragmatic, more experience-oriented way of approaching the world. This also allows him a dynamism the less pragmatic characters lack.
Read “The Power of One Idea“
The openness to incorporating new experiences is best revealed in the Dude’s speech patterns. Repeatedly, the Dude uses words or phrases he’s just heard in a few scenes previously. From imitating George H. W. Bush’s repeated “will not stand,” to parroting Maude’s “parlance of our times,” to his trademark phrase “abides” (“the Dude abides,” in contrast to the Big Lebowski, who “will not abide” another toe), the Dude keeps his lexicon nimble. His flexible language symbolizes his overall dynamic character.
Rather than passively experiencing the world, or aggressively trying to shape it to his expectations or definitions, the Dude constantly adjusts himself to reflect the experiences he’s had. Despite his utter unwillingness to pretend to be something he is not or to change his ways for anyone, the Dude does not suffer from the static self-concept restricting Walter and Dieter. Neither a doctrinaire nor a nihilist, the Dude takes a pragmatic view, assessing every situation and attempting to respond appropriately and never above using the words or beliefs of others for his own needs. There is a distinctly modern fear that doing so—adopting too much of the environment around us—will cause us to lose our identity. The Dude does not seem to share this fear, and indeed it seems impossible for him to lose his identity, despite (or perhaps, because of) his seeming lack of concern with authenticity.
The universe of the film seems to smile on the Dude’s approach, while its events mock Walter and the Nihilists. Twice the omniscient narrator, the closest to a deity featured in the film, appears on screen. The first time he asks the Dude: “Do you have to use so many cuss words?”, only to be met with “What the fuck are you talking about?” The narrator merely chuckles, apparently impressed by the Dude’s authenticity. Compared to Walter, whose response to a similar request was to immediately cite (incorrectly) a Supreme Court precedent, the Dude’s unconcerned response gives deep insight into his character. He simply talks how he talks, not to make a point about rules, like Walter, or to make a point about the lack of rules, like the Germans. The Dude later repeats some wisdom he had learned from the narrator, and as if by invocation, the narrator himself re-appears to trade a few words, ending with a sort of benediction: “Take it easy, I know you will.”
At the end of the film the narrator delivers a conclusion addressed to the audience, assuring us that the Dude will, in fact, take it easy, and that he has conceived a child with Maude, the Big Lewboski’s daughter, ensuring that “the whole durned human comedy keeps perpetuatin’ itself.” This fourth-wall-breaking endorsement of the Dude shows the value of his unique approach to life. This model of being unintentionally, unselfconsciously authentic but unafraid to adapt and change—allowing any experience to contribute to shaping who he is—is uniquely suited to the modern world. Drawing a great deal from the lessons of philosophy as it reconstructed itself after the trauma of the early twentieth century, this pragmatic approach is one from which the Walters and Dieters of the world could learn a great deal.