We Are Not What Was Intended: Meaning and Nihilism in David Fincher’s Se7en

Stephen Mulhall

mullhall-katja pahor

I’m very pleased that the following remarks will appear in Slovene translation to mark the 20th anniversary of the release of Seven – David Fincher’s second film. That anniversary is well worth marking, not only because of the inherent interest of the film itself, but because it amounted to a successful re-commencement of Fincher’s career as a film director (after the unhappy experience of making his first film Alien³), and so the second beginning of a series of major cinematic works which inhabit and exploit the resources of mainstream Hollywood movie-making to subversive effect (each film finding its own beautiful way of framing and screening powerfully transgressive impulses).

The idea of marking it by reprinting a response to the film that I first composed some fifteen years ago, as part of an attempt to hold open the possibility of viewing films as philosophizing, hence as thinking in their own ways about the things about which philosophers think in their own ways, carries the happy suggestion that this possibility was successfully opened, and is still open, and in a manner that might facilitate conversation between inhabitants of the apparently various cultures that help make up the Continent of Europe (a continent whose internal and external borders are currently the subject of much violent anxiety and anxious violence). So I’d like to express my gratitude to the editor of this journal for creating this opportunity, and for allowing me to participate in the exchanges that his journal embodies.

David Fincher’s second film, with its focus on the hunt for a serial killer each of whose victims dies in a manner intended to exemplify one of the seven deadly sins, plainly develops further the interests which first found expression in Alien3 – the significance of religious belief, the possibility of making human sense of human life and of the world human beings make and inhabit, the idea of closure and its overcoming. But Se7en (1995) undeniably shows that Fincher is perfectly capable of utilizing narrative conventions when he wants to: it has a tightly organized and gripping narrative (written by Andrew Kevin Walker), in which its two detective protagonists race against time to locate and interpret the clues which will indicate not only the identity of the killer but the nature of his intentions before he can carry them out. But it also excels at manipulating the generic expectation of its audience (most famously with its climax, in which both the detectives and the killer are woven into the sequence of events they would normally be attempting either to prevent or to complete from the outside, as it were); and it is a critical study of the conditions which make such generic exercises possible – in particular, the assumption that the killer’s intentions and actions might make any sense, and hence the question of what it is for human actions as such to have meaning.

It is fundamental to the approach of Detective Somerset (Morgan Freeman) that the killings are not just deeds – more instances of the utterly unthinking, mindlessly brutal things human beings do to one another. They have a meaning, and if Somerset can understand their meaning, understand what the killer is trying to say through his treatment of his victims, then he might be able to predict their course and identify their perpetrator. What, then, is John Doe trying to say? What is the meaning of his tableaux?

It is tempting to answer that, in each case, an individual who is guilty of a particular deadly sin is murdered in a manner that confirms his guilt, and that simultaneously functions as a religious admonition to the broader human community in which such sinful behaviour is pervasive, and accepted without criticism or question – even lauded. However, one difficulty with this interpretation is that the dead are not in each case guilty of the relevant sin (in the ‘Lust’ murder, it is surely not the prostitute but her client who is lustful); another is that those who are guilty do not always die (this is true not only of the lustful client, but also of Victor Allen, the ‘Sloth’ victim, and of Detective Mills, the exemplar of ‘Wrath’). We might further question whether John Doe can simply be described as murdering any of his victims. What he rather does is offer them a choice: either he will kill them or they must perform an action exemplary of the sin he imputes to them (keep eating, cut off a pound of their own flesh, keep taking the drugs, have sex wearing a serrated dildo). In each case, their choice relieves him of the need to murder them: they rather kill themselves, choosing to act in the way that John Doe believes has already destroyed them spiritually, even when that action will result in their psychological and/or physical destruction. It might be more accurate to call this assisted suicide, or at least assisted self-destruction.

This description certainly fits the first four crimes (‘Gluttony’, ‘Greed’, ‘Sloth’, ‘Lust’); it doesn’t exactly fit the ‘Pride’ case, but here John Doe gives his victim the opportunity to phone for help, and she chooses to die of her injuries instead, so he is even less obviously her murderer; and in the ‘Envy’ and ‘Wrath’ cases, John Doe chooses his own death rather than refraining from an act expressive of his sinful envy (the beheading of Mill’s wife), and Mills chooses his own psychological and moral self-destruction rather than refraining from wreaking vengeance on Doe.

We cannot, therefore, take Doe’s sermons simply as enacting Old Testament wrath – as if its religious meaning is that of executing divine death sentences (after all, wrath is not the sin with which he identifies himself). Their moral seems rather to be: our sinfulness is pervasive, and deeply rooted in (original to) our natures, and it is killing us; even when it is not literally lethal, it kills the soul, the human spirit within us. My sermons are meant to make that self-destructiveness unmissably concrete, and thereby to give us a last chance of understanding what we are doing to ourselves, what we have become, and thus a last chance to do otherwise. As he puts it in the excerpt Somerset reads from his notebooks, ‘we are nothing; we are not what was intended’.

Note the ‘we’: Doe is not exempting himself from his diagnosis, as he could not in all consistency, given his sense of the absolute pervasiveness of sin. His sermons thus incorporate himself; their completion or closure depends upon his own willingness to be punished for his envy of Mills’ normal life, and his inclusion further implies that the whole sequence is an expression of envy. In what sense? In part, it is an envy of God – since Doe arrogates to himself the privilege of judging and punishing the souls of others that Christianity reserves to God alone; but, more generally, it indicates Doe’s belief that although he does what he does out of love, that love (which finds expression in the systematic torture and murder of other human beings for the sake of what he deems to be a greater good) is essentially misdirected. This is made clear by one of the texts that Somerset is seen photocopying in the library: it is an intellectual topography of Dante’s purgatory, in which all seven of the deadly sins are seen as distorted expressions of love – gluttony, lust and greed as forms of excessive love, sloth as a (in fact, the only) form of deficient love, and pride, envy and wrath as forms of misdirected love. (Hence, in every deadly sin, each expression of our failure to be what was intended, we can see what Doe thinks we were originally intended to be – beings constituted by properly proportioned and rightly directed love).

If John Doe does not exempt himself from his own diagnosis, neither does he exempt the detectives pursuing him, and hence the forces of law and order as such. Mills is directly incorporated into the sermons, because Doe recognizes that his otherwise admirable zeal to catch and punish those who do wrong is not properly proportioned or targeted – it can all too easily be turned upon his colleagues, his wife, even a humble newspaper photographer. And although the film generally opposes the character of Mill to that of Somerset, Mill’s maintenance of that zeal to do good is something which Somerset envies; in him, that zeal is not so much better proportioned or directed as on the point of extinction. Somerset’s personal oasis of calm and order in the city’s chaos is an attempt to exclude the world, and hence an expression of his sense of his own exclusion from that world, his freedom from its spiritual disorder; but when Mills makes his most unguarded declaration of his commitment to law and order in a bar, and accuses his partner of giving up on that commitment, Somerset implicitly acknowledges this critique by hurling away his metronome.

But, of course, the complicity of the forces of law and order in the sinful world that Doe diagnoses is more pervasive than this. Most of Mill’s and Somerset’s colleagues appear to share the moral apathy of the city’s population: every crime is just another job, of no human significance, eliciting no empathy with its victims and no particular condemnation of its perpetrator; this endless cycle of violence done and suffered is just what life is like, how it always has been and always will be. They are therefore incapable of understanding Doe’s enterprise as anything other than an extension of this cycle: more meaningless killing, more human lunacy. Hence, he provides them with a perfect candidate for the role of criminal – Victor Allen, whose upbringing and record exactly fit the psychological profile of a serial killer, right down to the fingerprinted plea for help found at the scene of the ‘Greed’ crime. Allen instead turns out to be the next victim – someone whose brain has been destroyed, and who exemplifies not only his own addiction to ‘Sloth’ but that of the police who are led unthinkingly to him. From Doe’s viewpoint, an even better word for this vice would be ‘despair’, the ultimate sin.

The question then arises: how far is the film itself complicit with Doe’s perception of the world? How far can Fincher be said to endorse the killer’s viewpoint? The film seems no less harshly to condemn the apathy that pervades its city than does Doe, since the highly sympathetic character of Somerset embodies that condemnation, and proposes as its only alternative exactly what Doe proposes – a properly directed love, a love which ‘costs, it takes effort, work’. And even the film’s most moving and beautifully realized vision of a life in which love is at work – the marriage of David and Tracy Mills – is shown to be threatened by its opposite, both from without (invaded by noise, unwilling to risk investing in its own future by bringing a child into the world) and within (Tracy’s secrets, David’s wrathfulness).

On the other hand, the film is deeply marked by the oppositions it sets up between Mills and Somerset, and some of them help to distance it from Doe’s self-understanding. The list of these oppositions is long (country v. city; youth v. age; black v. white; noise v. silence; children v. childlessness), but much of it involves variations on a single distinction – that between deeds and their meaning. Mills wants only to know what was done; he thinks that simply looking at the dead body should allow him to read the identity of the killer directly off it; he has no interest in small details but in the basic, self-evident shape of a situation. Somerset responds primarily to what a deed or situation might mean; he assumes that its true meaning will be hidden, difficult to interpret, and that significance can be squeezed indefinitely out of every small detail of a situation. Hence, Mills is entirely bemused by, and excluded from, those aspects of the human form of life in which meaning is focused, preserved and refined – libraries and the books they contain, religion, literature, music – what one might call human culture as such. Somerset is a citizen of this realm, an adept of scholarship; and the structures of significance that he lives and breathes are what make it possible for them to follow the clues that lead to John Doe.

However, the clue that leads them to John Doe’s door is an FBI printout of the killer’s library borrowings. In other words, John Doe is as much an adept of culture, of human practices of meaning-making and meaning-transmission, as is Somerset; they not only live in the same world, they have read the same books; the resources that Somerset deploys to locate Doe are the very resources he deploys in constructing his criminal tableaux. Dantean topography and Thomist theology allow us to understand what Doe’s crimes mean because they were capable of constituting a blueprint for it; Doe’s murderous activity can be mistaken for the work of a performance artist because human culture as such embodies the labours of the best thinkers and artists of the race to build significance into and out of the most savage, brutal and base aspects of human existence, to make the meaningless meaningful.

Suppose, then, that instead of approaching Doe’s tableaux as cultural constructs, directing our energies to decoding the significance he labours to build into his deeds, we instead strip out his aesthetically and intellectually pleasing symmetries and symbolisms and look at what he has actually done (within the film, Mills does this by looking at photographs of the crime scene, transcriptions that confront us with the thing itself and not some surrogate or symbol of it – as if cinema is inherently, materially drawn to seeing the world as Mills sees it). What we then see is the butchering of human flesh and blood. What Doe means to say is inscribed upon the bodies of his victims; hence, what he says and what he shows differ radically. He talks of spiritual suicide; but his sermons show the reducibility of human life to flesh (gluttony), blood (greed), skin and bone (sloth), sexuality (lust), a skull and its contents (pride, envy, wrath). The severed head of Doe’s final sermon does not merely represent or encapsulate envy and wrath; it is the material basis of the human capacity to represent the world at all, to see it as meaningful, and its detachment from the body literalizes the detachment from material reality that such constructions of culture can seem to embody.

Doe’s work is indeed full of meaning, as all human works are; but it is also strictly, intrinsically senseless – not merely the work of an unhinged mind, a lunatic, but an apotheosis of the distinctively human capacity to make meaning, a capacity whose exercise disguises from us the essential meaninglessness of the reality that is both its object and its source. This is why Doe filled 200 250-page notebooks; a team of officers working seven-day weeks around the clock would take years simply to get to the end of them. The problem is not that meaning is hard to find in Doe’s deeds, but that it is far too easy – his acts are full to overflowing with meaning, unsurveyably saturated in it; they incarnate the self-asphyxiating excess of signification that makes the human species what it is.

This sense of our humanity as being under threat from the very capacity that civilizes or humanizes us, of being hermetically sealed within our own systems of signification, is what gives such an apocalyptic atmosphere to the film’s climax. For, in Doe’s final tableau, the meaning of his deeds suddenly, shockingly expands to ingest not only him but his two pursuers;1 his sermons thereby not only swallow up good as well as evil, but also fuse the usually distinct generic functions of victim, perpetrator and pursuer – the orthodox narrative structure and drive of which this film seems to be a beautiful exemplar turns out to provide the condition for its own annihilation. On every level, closure reigns.

Little wonder, then, that Fincher ends his title sequence with a subliminal glimpse of the following scratched phrase – ‘No Key’. It tells us before we start that there will be no way out of this narrative, that there is no particular insight or super-clue that will make final sense of Doe’s deeds (in part because they have no meaning, in part because they mean too much), that there can be no key to the meaning of anything in human life – and indeed to the meaning of human life as such – because it is essentially meaningless (the natural product of natural causes, just one piece of the unstoppable, blind machinery that is nature, that system in which things and creatures just do what they do).

In this sense, a religious perspective is no more significant than any other perspective – its implications no more worthy of serious contemplation. And yet . . . If it is the seamless closure of the film’s final scene that conveys this message to us, then we should note that, in fact, Doe’s final sermon does not and cannot guarantee its own completion; indeed, we might rather argue that its most important moral is meant to be that the closure it represents is humanly avoidable, and that this is Christianity’s deepest significance. Doe’s sermons achieve closure only because Mills acts wrathfully; confronted with the knowledge of what Doe has done to his wife and unborn child, and hence done to him, he chooses to take revenge – to hurt the one who hurt him. But he could have chosen otherwise: he could have resolved to step back from that entirely natural human response, to allow the endless process of pain inflicted on one person being in turn inflicted on another, and so on another, to find its end in him. He could, in short, have suffered without himself inflicting suffering (as Ripley ends her life by doing). He did not; but, as Somerset realizes, Doe’s sermon could not have attained closure if Mills had refrained from doing unto others as they had done unto him (and the other elements of Doe’s sermon would have been equally definitively sabotaged if his victims had chosen not to do what came naturally to them, not to continue sinning).

What Doe, and hence Se7en, thereby delineates by negation is the distinctively Christian moral ideal that Fincher’s viewers first encountered in Alien3 – that of turning the other cheek, of breaking the seemingly endless sequence of human wrongdoing. But should we dwell on what is thereby delineated, or upon the fact that it is delineated by negation? If, in Fincher’s cinematic world, Christianity and nihilism are each other’s negation, and hence neither is representable without simultaneously representing the other, should we conclude that nihilism is the only way of achieving a truly thoroughgoing denial of Christianity, or that Christianity has always already acknowledged the worst that nihilism can tell us?

Ilustracija: Katja Pahor