Existentialism in The Gift:
Philosophy and Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Paul F. McDonald - August 18 2001
There has been discussion before revolving around whether or not Buffy the Vampire Slayer carries within it any traits of existentialism. I suppose most of it has taken place in the hushed forums of cyberspace, for if two people were to discuss these seemingly incompatible entities in the real world, they would probably register many funny looks, or even the occasional mean-spirited snicker. At any rate, it seems to me there are certain parallels between the two that one could draw if one were so inclined, particularly in the context of the 100th episode, The Gift.
The worldview presented in the philosophy of existentialism is that existence comes before essence, or that out character is built the more we live, and that to begin with, we are nothing. This could hold true in the Buffyverse - Buffy was a girl long before she was the Slayer. And since the show centers around adolescence in general, really all the characters have grown through their basic existences and into their true essences. The Willow who was more likely than not dressed by her mother and had seen "the softer side of Sears" was not the same Willow who was found levitating off the ground - complete with black-as-pitch eyes - shooting energy bolts out of her hands and incapacitating a Hellgod.
What I find truly interesting about existentialism is its prevailing idea that humanity's condition is defined by two primary elements - the tragic and the absurd. When seen in this context, Buffy goes from being compatible with this philosophy to simply representative of it. What could be more tragic than a star-crossed love affair between a vampire with a soul and a vampire slayer? What could be more absurd than going on a field trip only to discover some of your classmates were possessed by hyenas? Or vice versa?
- Buffy Slays, Therefore She Is -
Indeed, it is this uneasy combination of the tragic and the absurd that has driven the show's creative energy since Buffy arrived in Principal Flutie's office for admission to Sunnydale High. And likewise, though trapped in a tragic, absurd universe, moments of nobility and heroism can be found. The first really great example of this is when Buffy goes to confront the Master knowing that it is written she will die.
Of course, there is an uneasy dichotomy in the Buffyverse between destiny and free will. Buffy is the Chosen One - "Do the words 'sealed in fate' mean anything to you?" - called by some higher power over which she has no control. This might contradict one of the later tenets of existentialism, namely that there are no higher powers, and as such, humans are solely responsible for their fate. Choice is the only constant, and absolute freedom is a perpetual reality - though I would like to stress this is mainly the view of Jean-Paul Sartre, and one that is of course colored by his atheism.
There is something of Sartre in the Buffyverse. Yes, pre-Amends Angel was reading from him, but it goes much deeper than that. In his writings is a consistent struggle between the authentic life and the inauthentic one. His famous line about an artist "playing at being a waiter" comes to mind. This is right in accord with Buffy when she brooded over or even walked away from her calling, as well as Faith when she turned to the dark side, both playing at being a Slayer without fully realizing what it means.
So yes, we have earth as the sprawling battlefield in the cosmic war between The Powers That Be and The First, but I think we also have choices. Lots and lots of them. They even had an episode named after them. Paraphrasing Whistler in Becoming, the mortal characters in the Buffyverse are not simply puppets with the metaphysical powers pulling their strings, with no choice and no responsibility. Rather, before, during, and after the "big moments" there are characters exercising their free will. I mean, does having Slayer powers automatically make one the Slayer? No, Buffy was free to walk away, and did so at the end of season two, without being smitten down by the Powers. Likewise, it was Angel's choice not to serve evil during his yuletide crisis in season three, even before the miraculous snowfall.
Existentialists all agree the way one lives is important, and life is a true example of character. Same thing with slaying. It's not simply about being handed super powers and running about stabbing vampires with sharp pieces of wood. It's about not just exisiting as a Slayer, but having the essence of a hero. Sartre believes people often yearn for their essences to be fixed, to be determined for them. They long for them to be not unlike an object, as solid as a table or chair. But with every new decision we become a new person, one's life evoking their character as they journey through it. The Buffybot is an affirmation of this - a true human being like Buffy can never be programmed to act a certain way. And she herself realizes this - "it's not even real," negating the illusion of having no choice.
Throughout the series, no matter what the situation, no matter how bizarre, characters are shown to have access to choices. Sartre insisted everyone does, even people in prison. Spike is a wonderful example. The Initiative chip in his head did not instantaneously turn him into a good guy. For most of last season, he fought the Scooby gang at every turn, despite the fact that he could not hurt them physically. He consorted with the demonoid Adam to start a war that might kill them, and endlessly taunted them with words - "Maybe you two are the same tenth grade losers you've always been." It wasn't until this year that he fell in love with Buffy, and he chose to care about Joyce, bringing flowers after her death, and he chose to promise to protect Dawn. All the time exhibiting free will. At the end of this season, it was Ben who denied having a choice, trying to pin his actions on Glory, and he wound up dead as a result.
Yet Sartre is only one part of existentialism, and it carries over to incorporate many thinkers and ideas that seem quite disparate at first glance. Then again, it would be hard to imagine this philosophy without the input of Soren Kierkegaard and Friedreich Nietzsche, and it is through them that we can find substantial illumination regarding The Gift.
- The Sound of One Vampire Dusting -
Some have argued down the ending of the finale - with Buffy giving up her blood for Dawn's to close the portal - as a deux ex machina, a simple bait-and-switch. Furthermore, they have even argued that while Joss Whedon attempts to make the show about ethical and moral dilemmas, in the end Buffy did not have to kill her sister or sacrifice the reality of the universe and therefore did not make a genuine choice. Whatever the legitimacy of the first criticism, the second simply does not hold.
Kierkegaard, ever the Protestant's Protestant, once argued that modern philosophy was fundamentally flawed because it allowed one to get all tangled up in rhetoric and reason without ever coming to a solution. He himself felt that, above all else in life, "one thing is needful" - a decision. Whether it was a decision that was informed or uninformed, responsible or irresponsible, or moral or immoral, never entered into the equation. A decision and the conviction behind it provided the only means of real salvation.
And a decision Buffy made - she was not going to kill Dawn, no matter what. No matter if the world itself ended, the last thing she was going to make sure Dawn saw was her protecting her. And as for even her friends - "I'll kill anyone who gets near Dawn." At the end, the ritual has begun, reality is splitting apart, monsters are making their way into the world, and still Buffy nonchalantly shrugs it off, assuring her sister that "it doesn't matter."
It would take an enormous amount of persuasion to somehow demonstrate Buffy hadn't made a decision and wasn't firmly living by it. The moment of emotional paralysis in The Weight of the World came from Buffy temporarily giving up her existential freedom of choice. She walled herself up in her mind, psychologically convincing herself that there were no options left open to her, that her sister was already lost. Willow helped her recover - "Hello - your sister not dead yet" - and she was able to come back more fiercely determined. She had faced down the "dizziness of freedom" Kierkegaard spoke of, and with her decision overcame the fear and dread the situation had conjured up.
Talk about the existential theatre of the absurd that decision set into motion, however. Buffy's committed stance to protect Dawn - even at the expense of the rest of the universe - could not be labelled more eloquently than to be called absurd. But again, Kierkegaard believed in the virtue of such things.
In this example, I believe virtue can be found. In the classic treatise Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard philosophically investigated the story of the Old Testament Abraham who was called on to sacrifice his only son Isaac to God. In the end, due to his faith, Abraham was not required to actually perform the act. Deux ex machina, I suppose. Anyway, the situation with Buffy and Dawn - sister and sister, mother and daughter - really parallels this story. Only it is somewhat reversed, with Buffy refusing to sacrifice her sister - but still a decision was made and thus virtue was achieved, Buffy being able to die for Dawn and accept her gift in death.
Buffy's firm stance can best be understood in such a context. Though letting the universe die was even more absurd than killing one's own son, there are much the same thing - both are what Kierkegaard called the absolute relationship to the absolute. In such a state, the individual actually becomes higher than the universal. They transcend any kind of common sense, and cannot be communicated or logically defined. Each scenario invokes the "teleological suspension of the ethical," which goes past any form of localized morality, because it takes place in the realm of the absolute. Abraham's love for God was as immutable and absolute as Buffy's for Dawn, and in each circumstance, by deux ex machina or virtue of the absurd, the fatal consequences that once looked so certain dissipated like insubstantial whiffs of smoke.
Buffy intuitively knew what was needed in the end, and acted accordingly, diving off the tower and into the portal to seal the rift between dimensions. Her heart was full of love, and love led her to her gift. As Kierkegaard once wrote, "The conclusions of passion are the only reliable ones."
- I Am Confident in the Knowledge that I Slay Nothing -
There is also the Promethean aspect of Buffy that shows itself in the finale. Liberating him from the dusty confines of Greek mythology, Nietzsche took the tragic and heroic figure of Prometheus and used him as a symbol for strong-willed independence. Prometheus tricked Zeus and stole fire from the gods only to give it to mortal men, thus assuring their survival. Buffy, like Prometheus, stands up to Glory, careless of supernatural wrath, and offsets the authority of the gods. Despite their victories, Prometheus is eventually chained to a rock where birds eat out his liver every day only to have it grow back again each night, while Buffy has to give up her life.
Much speculation has been launched regarding how everyone's favorite Slayer might shrug off her mortal coil. To be sure, no one expected it quite so soon. But what a fine death it was, saving not just the world, but the universe, her sister, and by every indication, her own soul. Standing firm by a decision that was at once selfish and selfless, horrific and beautiful, in the end Buffy was able to transcend the colliding worlds she had been trapped in for five years, going past the only two options she thought she had, and embracing a death glorious in its implications.
Existentialists have said that the only thing one can truly claim is their death. Nietzsche's flamboyant prose spokesperson, Zarathrustra, proclaimed "Die at the right time!" and this was certainly echoed throughout The Gift. In it, a life was lived and suffered, a gift was given and a death was fulfilled, all enacted with repercussions still reverberating in the disbelieving, awe-struck faces of the Scooby Gang, as well as through the cosmos at large.
But in the end, after all the posturing and complaining, all the battles and apocalypses, Buffy figured it out, and she was okay. No longer confined to balancing on the tightrope of adolescence, suspended above the twin fires of high school and hellmouth, she leaped not out of faith but into it, a stunning, eternal moment of liberation. The kind of liberation that can only come not from escaping one's self, but rather embracing it, with all its flaws and eccentricities, strengths and weaknesses.
Standing atop the tower with the world coming to pieces around her, Buffy found her gift in the promise of an immortal sunrise. And with that, her eyes gleamed with potential when she turned to face Dawn. Even when unweaving the energy of the portal with her blood, being hit with a thousand jolts of eletricity, a serene acceptance passed over her face, an acceptance perhaps from dying at the right time. It captured in an instant Nietzsche's platitude "amor fati," otherwise known as love of fate.