Grotesque Anatomy
Friday, January 23, 2004
  Finding Meaning By Making It
Eve Tushnet has written a wonderful analysis of Watchmen.  Although it's one of my favorite works of sequential art, I can't recall reading much commentary on this seminal work, certainly not anything this good.  I particularly liked Eve's tracking of various themes and motifs, especially the notion of imperfect, relativistic perception and interpretation:  "[T]he comic is full of Rorschach tests: What do you see?"  My only quibble with Eve's analysis would be with her take on some of the psychological makeups/motivations in the book.  Eve writes:
Rorschach's denial of any intrinsic meaning to the patterns and suffering in life, in his speech to Malcolm, is more obliquely in conflict with his actions at the climax (in which he seeks to uphold an absolute vision of justice that implies conformity to a preexisting, objective pattern), but again both moments feel utterly true to life.
To me, this doesn't really seem to be a conflict, even an oblique one.  I think people who come to doubt that life has any intrinsic meaning can be more motivated to create meaning where none exists.  We also see this in Malcom's actions after his optimistic "bleeding heart liberal" belief system has been shattered due to his interactions with Rorschach:  Helping strangers on the street, he says "In a world like this... it's all we can do, try to help each other.  It's all that means anything."  (This reminds me of a fallacy commonly heaped upon atheists:  Because we deny the existence of God, life can have no meaning for us.  Wrong.  Life has the meaning we choose to impart on it through our decisions, actions, and relationships -- in much the same way that made-up fiction gains meaning.  The pattern doesn't have to preexist for us to attempt to create and conform to it.)

I also saw Doctor Manhattan's actions at the end as more consistent than Eve did.  For me, Manhattan's revelation that human life had value stemmed more from his appreciation of the patterns and structures that govern and/or emerge from human existence.  Just as Manhattan was curious to tinker with the inner workings of watches when he was young (and human), now he plans to experiment with life itself.  This would help explain why he is sympathetic to Veidt's actions at the end:  Like him, Veidt sees the patterns and attempts to understand/manipulate them.  Veidt is a fellow watchman/maker.
By the way, here's the blog entry of mine that Eve was referring to.  (And, Eve:  I'd love to see you follow up with the thoughts you weren't able to get to in this essay.  So many people seem to remember Watchmen as only bleak or depressing that I'd love to see you tackle the use of humor in the work.)
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