Whistling Into the Void: The Epistemological Horror of The Empty Man
(Warning: This philosophical exploration of The Empty Man contains spoilers!)
The Empty Man plumes the dark side of human belief formation and knowledge construction. First time director, David Prior, narrativizes ideas and casts them as philosophical fable. The Empty Man is horror epistemology for the modern world.
In philosophy, epistemology is the branch of study concerned with knowledge. Specifically, epistemology focuses on questions having to do with knowledge construction and distinctions between belief and knowledge, between truth and lies. Epistemology asks questions like, “What is knowledge and how do we go about acquiring it?” “How do we distinguish truth from falsehood?” “What is the difference between knowledge and belief?” The epistemological pursuit of The Empty Man, focuses on the following terrain: what does knowledge look like in a “post-truth world”? What happens to the human craving for meaning in a universe with no certain answers?
Much about The Empty Man is intentionally ambiguous and, indeed, life’s uncertainty is one of the central themes of the movie. Appropriately, the name of the school featured in the film is Jacques Derrida High School, a playful nod to the philosophical undercurrent running through The Empty Man. Jacques Derrida is a French post-modernist philosopher who lived and wrote in the latter half of the 20th century. Derrida is considered a “deconstructionist.” Deconstruction is the name given to a particular way of approaching and interpreting texts. The fundamental claim of the deconstructionist is that a text or theory can never be reduced to one single “true” meaning, for the simple reason that truth is not static but rather ever-changing. There is no single meaning, but rather multiple meanings possible in any interpretive act. These different meanings are influenced by things like historical placement, genre expectation, usage of language, intended audience, etc. A deconstructionist is apt to look toward these smaller components as a means of approaching the whole.
Deconstructionists, including Derrida, are part of a larger movement in philosophy called post-modernism. One of the primary characteristics shared by post-modern philosophers is a tendency to question the existence of a single universal meaning governing everyone and everything at all places and times. This creates a psychological tension, however, for humans are meaning seeking creatures. As Aristotle observed over two thousand years ago, “All humans, by their nature, desire to know.” But what if there is no single truth to be known? Like The Empty Man himself, the human quest for knowledge is suspended mid-point on a cosmic bridge, ever seeking meaning where there is no certain meaning to be found. We are fishing for truth over the post-truth abyss.
However, there is an important distinction to note between the concepts of post-modernism and post-truth. Post-modernism encourages a robust skepticism toward all “grand narratives,” claiming that truths are tethered to historical and personal circumstances. However, this is not a denial of truth, rather it is a qualified version of truth-seeking. Derrida writes extensively about “finding truth on the boundaries and in the margins” (1). He does not discard the idea of truth so much as redefine its contours. Post-truth, on the other hand, seeks to recategorize truth altogether. In a post-truth context, “facts” and “lies” stand on equal ground and are seen primarily as tools to exercise control over other people and one’s environment. The insidious air of the post-truth atmosphere is one Hannah Arendt writes about extensively in relation to the rise of Hitler, which she witnessed first-hand. Arendt observed, “The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist” (2). So, while a postmodernist might speak about “multiple perspectives” and “alternate interpretations,” someone speaking the language of post-truth will talk about “alternate facts.”
This distinction is important in The Empty Man. Director David Prior employs the tools of post-modern ambiguity; however, he also offers a critique, or an examination, of what it means to live in a post-truth world. The film is an exploration of the dangers incurred when relinquishing interpretive agency over our own lives. Loss of meaning creates the abyss over which we are suspended. However, the psychic tension of meaninglessness is unsustainable for it is impossible to build a home over the abyss. We are neither here nor there, so become bridge-dwellers, conjuring idols out of the abyss. Inner emptiness creates a receptacle, and it is our interpretation of the world that fills this receptacle; interpretation bestows meaning. The post-modernist offers multiple tools for interpretation, whereas a post-truthist denies the possibility of interpretation at all.
In as much as we can assume responsibility and agency over our lives it is via the act of interpretation. This is the creative interpretive impulse endorsed by Derrida when he speaks of “interpreting in the margins.” The Empty Man exemplifies the horrors we incur when we relinquish the interpretative impulse in relation to our own lives; lack of interpretative meaning creates a void, and this void eventually swallows human lives whole.
The brilliant twenty-minute, pre-credit opening of The Empty Man gives the viewer almost all the key themes of the movie. The film pays homage to its genre by re-purposing and re-interpreting key moments in earlier horror movies. We catch glimpses of The Exorcist prologue, in which Westerners are placed in eastern settings and seem both out of place and ill at ease as they encounter spiritual traditions they do not understand. The opening scenes of The Empty Man are filled with fluttering prayer flags and prayer wheels spinning, while the wind whistles and moans, persistent and disturbingly pervasive. While hiking, a group of young Americans encounter an archaic Nepalese bridge stretched out forbiddingly over a seemingly bottomless chasm and flanked by barren, oxygen-less mountain peaks. This symbolic triad of bridges, wheels, and wind pervades the entire film, providing both welcome regularity and creeping, uncanny discomfort.
Like The Exorcist, invoking a non-Western culture in these opening scenes, highlights a certain type of incessant, unmoored anxiety that seems to be the hallmark of modern America. While many types of Buddhism are characterized by set cyclic rituals without becoming overly preoccupied with the beliefs underlying these rituals, most Western monotheistic religions are exclusively focused on belief systems. This Western emphasis on universal belief systems and universal truths is the raw material for much of the dread created in The Empty Man. It is the crumbling of these old systems that creates the vacuum in which the film’s action takes place. Our characters are constantly crossing bridges; they are suspended mid-air belonging neither here nor there, and unable to remain at rest anywhere. If nature abhors a vacuum, then human nature refuses to tolerate it at all, preferring to grasp at any straw of meaning, rather than reside in ambiguity. The universe might have gone silent, no longer able to provide humans with ready-made meaning, but there are plenty of human-made systems ready and eager to do so.
In The Empty Man universe, The Pontifex Group is one such organization. This group is an apocalyptic doomsday day cult, preaching the gospel of the end times, while also hastening its arrival. Their motto is, “We transmit, you receive.” Pontifex, while conjuring echoes of Western Catholicism, is also the Latin word for bridge. The group’s liturgy pays homage to “nothingness,” and turns the concept of the void into a religious creed. Instead of worshipping truth, Pontifex worships truth’s absence. The cult systematizes the Buddhist concept of emptiness, turning it into an idol and an ideology. When the old god dies, another is created, and in America it is also monetized. Pontifex’s headquarters resembles neo-Greco/Roman architecture, reminding the viewer that, for all the Pontifex group’s bastardized appropriation of Buddhist principles, the true nature of the group is distinctly Western European and American.
Prior is adept at localizing the general feeling of loneliness and grief that permeates so much of our cultural landscape right now. Grief and isolation are given earthy substance in James Badge Dale’s lead performance which is strikingly physical in the otherwise heady filmic landscape we are navigating. When we first meet Dale (his character’s name is James la Sombra) he is taking his morning jog, working up a good sweat, and of course, running over a bridge. The character is both “Every Man” and, as we later find out, “Empty Man.” Dale’s earthy performance grounds the movie. La Sombra is a proxy for the audience and Dale’s pitch-perfect disorientation and growing unease mirrors our own.
The film’s setting features slow decay and rot. Whether this is evidenced in the repetition of dying flowers visible in practically every scene, sometimes hidden in wallpaper or featured in paintings, or whether it is the presence of an abandoned stuffed animal or neglected backyard, the film’s environment is one of decline and deterioration. The Pontifex Group takes this decay and elevates it to religious observance. Just as mantras are repeated throughout the film, the symbolic language of decay is a blanket that envelops and clings to every scene
The power of repetition is a key thematic idea in the movie, and is layered into the cinematography and sound design, so that we see and hear key symbols and ideas repeated like a mantra. One of the first sounds we hear in the opening scene of the film is wind blowing through a Himalayan Forest. The earth is whistling, and all of our main characters will literally follow suit, whether it be by blowing into an ancient bone flute or an empty bottle (3). In echoes of M.R. James’, Oh Whistle My Lad, and I’ll Come to You, the whistle is both a summons and a warning. “Whistle and ye shall find.” But find what? The whistle is a call necessitating a response. Eventually the response to the call assumes an air of inevitability and primacy. The whistling wind precedes and outlasts any individual life, as though it is calling us into existence, and then calling us away.
Our protagonist’s last name is la Sombra, which is Spanish for shade or shadow. Fittingly, the concept of “the empty man” starts as in idea, a shadow in the mind, but after enough repetition, characters start to see him and interact with him. Philosophers have long noted the difficulty in establishing a “reality test” that would discern the difference between our “believing something to be real,” and it really being so. We are stuck inside our own consciousness, and it seems the most we can ever say is, “It feels real.” There is no “Matrix test” we can administer. In this sense, what feels real, what we believe to be real, determines our reality.
The power of human consciousness to shape individual reality, and the consequences incurred when we willingly abnegate this responsibility, is the epistemological horror explored in The Empty Man. To concede interpretive agency over our own lives leaves us in a wildly vulnerable state. Even if we concede that there is no God or any single historical destiny that awaits us, this does not mean we should exalt nihilism or lack of meaning into a god in its own right. To do so is simply giving up one idol for another. Acquiescing our own cognitive agency undermines our relationship to ourselves and the larger world. Skepticism is one thing but denying our direct experience of the world in favor of another’s interpretation creates an abyss of self-abnegation. As a character in The Empty Man observes, certain ideas “poison the atmosphere and change people.” The idea that possesses you is not your own.
A bridge is a system of meaning and meaning forms an epistemology or way of knowing the world. Within the terrain of our own inner lives, we have an obligation to be our own bridge-makers. While it might be true that the universe is indifferent to our plight, we need not be indifferent to ourselves. There is no need to throw ourselves headlong into the void. The void will outlast us and find us soon enough without our summoning it. There might not be one single truth that makes sense of the entire cosmos, but there is certainly a manner of truth-seeking that is distinctly human. To seek meaning in the margins is still to seek meaning. The Empty Man suggests we would do well to heed and answer our own call and become our own bridge-builders instead of whistling and waiting to see who shows up.
(1) Derrida explains what he means by “interpreting in the margins” most famously in Margins of Philosophy (1972). The bulk of this work is spent in a close reading and interpretation of Plato. While Derrida’s work is not always straightforward, to say the least, Margins is a terrific place to find specific examples of Derrida’s interpretive theory. Derrida does not shun “truth language” at all, he simply discourages settling on a single answer, preferring multiple modes of interpretation over any single one.
(2) Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism is a profoundly disturbing historical testament. Arendt shares her first-hand experience as a Jewish, college age, native citizen of Germany during the Nazi-era. It is unparalleled both for its first-hand historical detail and its insightful interpretation of events (an interpretation that is equal parts philosophy, sociology, and psychology). Arendt wrote the book in the immediate aftermath World War II. The bulk of this massive work was written in the U.S., where Arendt and her husband settled after barely escaping Germany and again barely escaping occupied France, where she initially tried to live (until the French government began collaborating with the German government and subsequently deported thousands of Jews back to Germany and to an almost certain death). While the book was first published in 1951, Arendt would spend decades revising it for various subsequent printings. Arendt’s thesis, however, remained consistent: pervasive loneliness coupled with a denial of our own direct experience of the world leaves us radically vulnerable to external manipulation.
(3) The themes of the movie are embedded in the sound design. Whenever a character whistles into a bottle, or in the opening scenes a bone flute, the note created is the same and is always D. Similarly, when the wind “whistles,” it is also in the key of D minor. The relationship between the sound of the “earth’s breath” (i.e., the wind) and “human breath” reinforces the idea that humans are part of the earth, which is part of the galaxy, which is part of the cosmos. As above, so below. Just as sound is temporal, so is a human life. No matter how large or how small, the same fate awaits all: a brief flash followed by decay, death, and ultimately silence.