What is it like to live like that? In Season 1 Episode 11, one of Rick’s old alien friends talks with Morty.
Bird Person: Morty, do you know what “wubba lubba dub dub” means?
Morty: Oh, that’s just Rick’s stupid nonsense catchphrase.
Bird Person: It’s not nonsense at all. In my people’s tongue, it means, “I am in great pain. Please help me.”
Morty: Well, I got news for ya — he’s saying it ironically.
Bird Person: No, Morty. Your grandfather is indeed in very deep pain. That is why he must numb himself.
There’s speculation that something as abstract as “life is meaningless” isn’t really the reference here, that Rick must have some kind of tear-jerking backstory that will get filled in as the series goes on. The conclusion of season 2 suggests that at least Rick’s life consists of more than ironic despair. All the same, I think the writers are also dealing with more basic existential problems here that most dramas couldn’t handle and most comedies wouldn’t find funny. These issues are at least real sincere problems with life as we experience it: the insolubles. Questions like “why am I here?” or “what does anything mean?” Unsatisfying answers meant despair for the tinyverse creator and the butter robot. Unfulfillable purpose made the Meseeks go insane. What is Morty’s solution? Watch TV. What is Rick’s solution? Focus on science.
Now, for myself, an essay from Thomas Nagel on Camus and “The Absurd” shed some light on at least some aspects of the problem.
First, recognizing a limited purpose (i.e. to pass butter, to power a battery, to improve someone’s golf game) does not satisfy the need for meaning:
“If we learned that we were being raised to provide food for other creatures fond of human flesh, who planned to turn us into cutlets before we got too stringy-even if we learned that the human race had been developed by animal breeders precisely fort his purpose – that would still not give our lives meaning, for two reasons. First,we would still be in the dark as to the significance of the lives of those other beings; second, although we might acknowledge that this culinary role would make our lives meaningful to them, it is not clear how it would make them meaningful to us.“
Second, recognizing a limited size or lifespan does not actually make something meaningless:
“What we say to convey the absurdity of our lives often has to do with space or time: we are tiny specks in the infinite vastness of the universe;our lives are mere instants even on a geological time scale, let alone a cosmic one; we will all be dead any minute. But of course none of these evident facts can be what makes life absurd, if it is absurd. For suppose we lived forever; would not a life that is absurd if it lasts seventy years be infinitely absurd if it lasted through eternity? And if our lives are absurd given our present size, why would they be any less absurd if we filled the universe (either because we were larger or because the universe was smaller)?“
In a sense, I wanted to return to that first note from the pilot. “There is no God – gotta rip that bandaid off.” Theism is treated as a band-aid for reality, to which the proper response is this, according to Nagel: “It need not be a matter for agony unless we make it so. Nor need it evoke a defiant contempt of fate that allows us to feel brave or proud. Such dramatics, even if carried on in private, betray a failure to appreciate the cosmic unimportance of the situation. If sub specie aeternitatis there is no reason to believe that anything matters, then that doesn’t matter either, and we can approach our absurd lives with irony instead of heroism or despair.” This is where Rick is at right now, and maybe Morty is right when he tells Bird Person that even despair has to be ironic in the postmodern context.
First, if we accept Nagel’s point that size, longevity etc. really has no bearing on whether or not life is meaningless (either it is or it isn’t, apart from these metrics) the problem becomes rather more intimate. Does my life have meaning right here right now for as long as it lasts at exactly the size and breadth that it is? One of the popular conceptions of religious responses to questions like this is that they are crutches – a contrived way of avoiding the question and pursuing some kind of collective purpose we invent for ourselves. In reality, there have been lots of Christians who didn’t avoid the question at all, but embraced it. Thomas Merton says in his little book on contemplative prayer that “The monk…experiences in himself the emptiness, the lack of authenticity, the quest for fidelity, the ‘lostness’ of modern man, but he experiences all this in an altogether different and deeper way than does man in the modern world, to whom this disconcerting awareness of himself and of his world comes rather as an experience of boredom and of spiritual disorientation.” Kierkegaard insisted in Fear and Trembling that the first movement of faith was infinite resignation, the admission that one had to resign everything apparent to futility. In Paul Tillich’s Courage to Be, he says that any kind of courage to authentically exist must “accept, as its precondition, the state of meaninglessness.” In a sense, religious answers actually engage much more fully with meaninglessness by avoiding half-measures that are the actual crutches of dealing with despair, even ironic despair.
Let us consider, for just a moment though, why this kind of problem of meaninglessness is really only beginning to inject itself into cartoons and ordinary media. Tolstoy says in his Law of Love and Law of Violence that “this is what people are saying today, as if suggesting that religious consciousness, or faith, is a condition unnatural to man, as if it is something exceptional that must be taught and instilled in him. But this is only said by people who, as a result of a particular condition of the Christian world, are temporarily lacking in the most essential and natural condition of human life: faith.” If Tolstoy is right, it’s actually only because we’re starting to enter into a society where the religious answers to questions of meaning have finally started to disappear from popular consciousness.
Tolstoy’s engagement on this issue has been one of perennial significance for me. He goes on, saying “Just as work is not something artificial, contrived and ordained by man, but is something unavoidable, without which man cannot live, the same is true of faith, that is to say the awareness of one’s relationship to the Infinite, and the guidance for conduct that results from it. … it is the most natural feature of human nature, without which man, like a bird without wings, has never, and could never, live.” Tolstoy’s criticism fits the problem of Rick’s recommendation that Morty transcends and focuses on science, the idea “that we need absolutely nothing because science, by virtue of its very aim of investigating all that exists, can give no guidance to human life.” This is not to say we adopt faith for some kind of ulterior motive, consciously adopting a crutch to give us direction. On the contrary, “a religious believer behaves in a certain way, not because he believes in things unseen, or expects rewards for his conduct, but because once he has defined his position in the world it is natural for him to act according to this position.” This is the position defined is that “the essence of any religion lies solely in the answer to the question: why do I exist, and what is my relationship to the infinite universe that surrounds me?” This is where finitude – where we as finite beings – must find solid ground. We find it in something infinite that affirms itself, something that exists in itself necessarily and isn’t contingent on anything, something that grants meaning because it does not exist by chance and is not subject to change. As Tillich puts it, “the divine self-affirmation is the power that makes the self-affirmation of the finite being, the courage to be, possible.” Popular dismissals of religion will spend most of their time discussing textual details or trying to reason out how some particular doctrine fits with another one or how any of that matches something scientifically demonstrable – but here is the real crux that Tolstoy was aware of: “answers given by faith … had the advantage of introducing to every answer a relationship between the finite and the infinite, without which there can be no solution.”
The few times when Rick gets humanized in the series its usually in relation to his grandchildren. In Season 1 episode 10, Rick is hooked up to some kind of memory scanning device, and he actually tears up when remembering picking up baby Morty. At the end of season 1, he says he has a new catchphrase, “I love my grandkids.” Each time he says he’s just kidding, but this is the thin strand that anchors Rick to caring about anything – something he writes off elsewhere as nothing but a biochemical bi-product of the drive to breed. On some fundamental level, Rick cares about his family for reasons he can’t rationalize. His basic intuition is to love – but he can’t give an explanation for it and so he suppresses it. Tolstoy again: “you are a randomly united lump of something. This lump decomposes and the fermentation is called your life. The lump will disintigrate and the fermentation will end, together with all your questions. This is the answer given by the exact side of knowledge, and if it adheres strictly to its principles, it cannot answer otherwise.” This seems to be the exact type of thing Rick is contemplating in, for example, the end of Season 2 Episode 3 – or when he informs his grandchildren that they are both demonstrably pieces of shit (Season 2, Episode 1). This is the answer to questions of value when we attempt to answer them via scientific method. As the Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. explained, “…there are no innate, intrinsic differences among a human being, a baboon or a grain of sand.” I think Rick and Morty repeatedly demonstrates that this fact makes Rick unhappy. Tolstoy responds, “…and if you are unhappy – and I know that you are unhappy – remember that what has been suggested here was not invented by me, but is the fruit of the spiritual works of all the best and loftiest minds and hearts of mankind, and is the only means of deliverance from your unhappiness, providing the greatest well-being man can attain in this life.”