Part 2 of 2
Read Part 1 here
The Gold Watch
We first encounter boxer Butch Coolidge at the beginning of Part 3, “Vincent Vega and Marsellus Wallace’s Wife.” The setting is a tittie bar owned by Marsellus Wallace. The time is mid-morning, so the bar is empty. Butch is a small timer near the end of his career. If he was going to make it, he would have made it already. So he is looking to scrape up some retirement money by throwing a fight. Marsellus Wallace offers him a large sum of cash to lose in the fifth round. Wallace plans to bet on Butch’s opponent and clean up.
Butch accepts the deal, then Wallace dispenses a bit of advice: “Now, the night of the fight, you may feel a slight sting. That’s pride fuckin’ wit ya. Fuck pride! Pride only hurts, it never helps. Fight through that shit. ’Cause a year from now, when you’re kickin’ it in the Caribbean, you’re gonna say, ‘Marsellus Wallace was right.’” Butch replies, “I’ve got no problem with that, Mr. Wallace.”
Just before Butch leaves, Vincent Vega and Jules Winnfield enter, fresh from their encounter with Pumpkin and Honey Bunny. As Butch approaches the bar, Vincent, who (as we all know) has had a really bad morning, taunts him as “palooka” and “punchy.” Butch is clearly incensed but lets it drop. Apparently, his pride is well in check.
We meet Butch again in Part 4, “The Gold Watch,” which begins with a flashback. It is 1972. Butch is about eight years old. He is watching TV when his mother introduces him to Captain Koons (Christopher Walken), who was in the same North Vietnamese Prisoner of War camp as Butch’s father, who died there.
Captain Koons has come to keep a promise to Butch’s father. He is delivering a wristwatch that was bought by Butch’s great-grandfather Erine Coolidge when he went off to fight in World War I. Twenty years later, he gave it to his son Dane Coolidge, who went off to fight in World War II as a Marine. Dane was killed at the battle of Wake Island. Knowing that he had little chance of survival, he entrusted a man named Winocki, a gunner on an Air Force transport plane, with the task of delivering his watch to his infant son whom he had never seen. The gunner kept his promise, and that same watch was on the wrist of Butch’s father when he was shot down over Hanoi. To keep the watch from being confiscated, Butch’s father hid it in his rectum. When he died, he entrusted it to Captain Koons, who hid it in his rectum until he was released. “And now, little man,” says Captain Koons, “I give the watch to you.”
Cut to the aftermath of the fight. A female cabbie, Esmeralda Villa Lobos, is listening to the radio as she waits outside the arena. We hear the announcers say that the other boxer, Floyd Ray Willis (a black man, according to the script) was killed and that Butch Coolidge fled the ring. Then Butch exits the arena from a window and jumps into the cab. He has broken his deal with Marsellus Wallace and is clearly on the run. But the question is: “Why did he fight to win, to the point of killing the other boxer?”
The natural interpretation is that his pride got the best of him. What stirred up his pride? The most plausible answer is his dream/recollection of the story of the gold watch. After all, everything in the story is connected to honor: the three generations of his family (patriotic folk from Tennessee) who fought in America’s wars, two of them giving their lives. The fact that we know that these wars were not in America’s interests, and that American men were sent to their deaths by aliens and traitors, does not alter the fact that the military cultivates an ethos of honor to overcome the fear of death. Furthermore, Winocki and Captain Koons both honored their promises to deliver the gold watch to the next Coolidge heir.
Thus the watch represents honor, the honor of fighting men, a fact that is not stained but enhanced by the detail that both Butch’s father and Captain Koons kept it hidden in their rectums for years. As Butch later says, his father “went through a lot” to give him that watch. What they went through commands respect.
So my initial interpretation was that Butch’s honor was stirred up by the recollection of the watch, thus he went into the ring and fought, not for money, but for honor. And since he had made a deal with Marsellus Wallace to throw the fight, he was risking his life to fight for honor. And he fought all-out, killing the other boxer. So Butch seems to have proved himself to be a man ruled by honor, not by desire.
Hegel on the Beginning of History
The duel to the death over honor is a remarkable phenomenon. Animals duel over dominance, which insures their access to mates. But these duels result in death only by accident, because the whole process is governed by their survival instincts, and their “egos” do not prevent them from surrendering when the fight is hopeless. The duel to the death over honor is a distinctly human thing.
Indeed, in his Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel claims that the duel to the death over honor is the beginning of history—and the beginning of a distinctly human form of existence and self-consciousness.
Prehistoric man is dominated by nature: the natural world around him and the natural world within him, namely his desires. History, for Hegel, is something different. It is the process of (1) our discovery of those parts of our nature that transcend mere animal desire, and (2) our creation of a society in accord with our true nature.
When we fully know ourselves as more than merely natural beings and finally live accordingly, then history will be over. (History can end, because as a process of discovery and construction, it is the kind of thing that can end.) Hegel claimed that history ended with the discovery that all men are free and the creation of a society that reflects that truth.
When two men duel to the death over honor, the external struggle between them conceals an internal struggle within each of them as they confront the possibility of being ruled by two different parts of their souls: desire, which includes the desire for self-preservation, and honor, which demands recognition of our worth by others.
When our sense of honor is offended, we become angry and seek to compel the offending party to respect us. If the other party is equally offended and intransigent, the struggle can escalate to the point where life is at stake.
At this point, two kinds of human beings distinguish themselves. Those who are ruled by their honor will sacrifice their lives to preserve it. Their motto is: “Death before dishonor.” Those who are ruled by their desires are more concerned to preserve their lives than their honor. They will sacrifice their honor to preserve their lives. Their motto is: “Dishonor before death.”
Suppose two honorable men fight to the death. One will live, one will die, but both will preserve their honor. But what if the vanquished party begs to be spared at the last moment at the price of his honor? What if his desire to survive is stronger than his sense of honor? In that case, he will become the slave of the victor.
The man who prefers death to dishonor is a natural master. The man who prefers dishonor to death—life at any price—is a natural slave. The natural master defines himself in terms of a distinctly human self-consciousness, an awareness of his transcendence over animal desire, the survival “instinct,” the whole realm of biological necessity. The natural slave, by contrast, is ruled by his animal nature and experiences his sense of honor as a danger to survival. The master uses the slave’s fear of death to compel him to work.
History thus begins with the emergence of a warrior aristocracy, a two-tiered society structured in terms of the oppositions between work and leisure, necessity and luxury, nature and culture. Slaves work so that the masters can enjoy leisure. Slaves secure the necessities of life so the masters can enjoy luxuries. Slaves conquer nature so masters can create culture. In a sense the whole realm of culture is a “luxury,” since none of it is necessitated by our animal desires. But in a higher sense, it is a necessity: a necessity of our distinctly human nature to understand itself and put its stamp upon the world.
The End of History
Hegel had the fanciful notion that there is a necessary “dialectic” between master and slave that will lead eventually lead to universal freedom, that at the end of history, the distinction between master and slave can be abolished, that all men are potential masters.
Now, to his credit, Hegel was a race realist. He was also quite realistic about the tendency of bourgeois capitalism to turn all men into spiritual slaves. Thus his view of the ideal state, which regulates economic life and reinforces the institutions that elevate human character against the corrupting influences of modernity, differs little from fascism. So in the end, Hegel’s high-flown talk about universal freedom seems unworthy of him, rather like Jefferson’s rhetorical gaffe that “all men are created equal.”
The true heirs to Hegel’s universalism are Marx and his followers, who really believed that the dialectic would lead to universal freedom. Alexandre Kojève, Hegel’s greatest 20th-century Marxist interpreter, came to believe that both Communism and bourgeois capitalism/liberal democracy were paths to Hegel’s vision of universal freedom. After the collapse of communism, Kojève’s pupil Francis Fukuyama declared that bourgeois capitalism and liberal democracy would create what Kojève called the “universal homogeneous state,” the global political and economic order in which all men would be free.
But both capitalism and communism are essentially materialistic systems. Yes, they made appeals to idealism, but primarily to motivate their subjects to fight for them. But if one system triumphed over the other, that necessity would no longer exist, and desire would be fully sovereign. Materialism would triumph. (And so it would have, were it not for the rise of another global enemy that is spiritual and warlike rather than materialistic: Islam.)
Thus Kojève came to believe that the universal homogeneous state would not be a society in which all men are masters, i.e., a society in which honor rules over desire. Rather, it would be a world in which all men are slaves, a society in which desire rules over honor.
This is the world of Nietzsche’s “Last Man,” the world of C. S. Lewis’s “Men without Chests” (honor is traditionally associated with the chest, just as reason is associated with the head and desire with the belly and points below). This is the postmodern world, where emancipated desire and corrosive individualism and irony have reduced all normative cultures to commodities that can be bought and sold, used and discarded.
This is the end of the path blazed by the first wave of modern philosophers: Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, David Hume, etc., all of whom envisioned a liberal order founded on the sovereignty of desire, in which reason is reduced to a technical-instrumental faculty and honor is checked or sublimated into economic competitiveness and the quest for material status symbols.
From this point of view, there is no significant difference between classical liberalism and left-liberalism. Both are based on the sovereignty of desire. Although left liberalism is more idealistic because it is dedicated to the impossible dream of overcoming natural inequality, whereas classical liberalism, always more vulgar, unimaginative, and morally complacent, is content with mere “bourgeois” legal equality.
The great theorists of liberalism offered mankind the same deal that Marsellus Wallace offered Butch: “Fuck pride. Think of the money.” And our ancestors took the deal. As Marsellus hands Butch the cash, he pauses to ask, “Are you my nigger?” “It certainly appears so,” Butch answers, then takes the money. In modernity, every man is the nigger, the spiritual slave, of any man with more money than him—to the precise extent that any contrary motives, such as pride or religious/intellectual enthusiasm, have been suppressed. (Marsellus, a black man, calls all of his hirelings niggers, but surely it gives him special pleasure to deem the white ones so.)
History Begins Again
But history can never really end as long as it is possible for men to choose to place honor above money. And that is always possible, given that we really do seem to have the ability to choose which part of our soul is sovereign.
It is, moreover, possible as long as the examples of our ancestors, better men than ourselves, can still stir us. When Esmeralda asks Butch what his name means, he replies “I’m an American, honey, our names don’t mean shit.” It is one of the funniest lines of the movie, but also one of the saddest. Americans are such a sorry lot of spiritual slaves because we don’t know who we are. We don’t know who our ancestors are. We don’t know what our names mean. So we don’t have to live up to them. Or if we do know, we allow the Marsellus Wallaces of the world to bribe us into forgetting about it.
Of course “Butch” means something. It is a fighting man’s name. Butch is a fighting man, from a long line of fighting men. Although he fights for money, not honor. But then, when he has reached the rock bottom of spiritual sordidness—when he sells himself as the nigger of a black gangster—he redeems himself. This is what makes Butch Coolidge seem so heroic.
But then we discover that we were completely wrong. Butch stops to make a phone call, and we learn that he has taken Marsellus’s money then leaked the word that the fix was in, which tilted the odds dramatically in favor of his opponent. Then Butch bet all of Marsellus’s money on himself and beat the other boxer—and he had to beat him, so he fought all-out and killed him—in order to win a huge payout. So Butch turns out to be a bigger crook than Marsellus Wallace. And we all know what happens to people who steal from Marsellus Wallace.
Butch meets his French girlfriend Fabienne at a cheap motel. They are cute together, and she obviously wants to have his children, explaining at length about how she wants to have a large, perfectly round potbelly. They plan to leave town the next morning, but Butch discovers that Fabienne forgot to pack his father’s gold watch.
Again, Butch is faced with a conflict between honor and desire, a conflict in which his life is at stake. Honor tells him to retrieve the watch, although he knows that he will have to risk his life to do so, because Wallace will surely stake out his apartment. Desire, most eminently the desire to stay alive, tells him to take the money and run. So now we see, for real, what kind of man Butch is. He chooses honor, risking his life to retrieve the watch.
Butch cautiously returns to his apartment and retrieves the watch. Astonished at the ease, he ducks into his kitchen for a snack (he has had no breakfast). As he waits for the toaster, he is startled to see a machine gun with a huge silencer lying on the counter. As he hefts the gun, he hears the toilet flush. The bathroom door opens, and there stands Vincent Vega, reading material in hand. The two men freeze, staring at each other. Then the toaster pops, breaking the spell, and Butch pulls the trigger, reducing Vega to a bullet-riddled corpse sprawled in the bathtub.
It could have been Jules Winnfield, but he followed his spiritual enthusiasm and left “the life.” Vincent, ruled by his desires, stayed in. Vincent, ruled by his desires, mocked Butch as “palooka” and “punchy,” daring him to retaliate. Which, eventually, he did. And given Vincent’s character, it is singularly appropriate that Butch got the drop on him while he was “taking a shit.”
Butch flees in Fabienne’s Honda. As he waits at a light, Marsellus Wallace crosses the street in front of him with coffee and donuts for the stake out. When the two men recognize each other, Butch floors it, running Marsellus down. But his car is hit by oncoming traffic. When Marsellus comes to and sees Butch, injured in the wrecked Honda, he pulls out a .45 and starts firing wildly as he staggers across the street. Butch ducks into a pawn shop, and when Marsellus follows, Butch knocks him down and starts punching him furiously: “Feel that sting? That’s pride, fuckin’ wit ya.’”
Unfortunately, they have blundered into no ordinary pawn shop. Maynard, the shop-keeper gets the drop on Butch with a shotgun then knocks him out cold. When he comes to, he and Marsellus are tied to chairs in a basement dungeon with red S&M ball gags in their mouths. Maynard explains that nobody kills anyone in his place of business except himself or Zed, who is arriving presently. Zed and Maynard are two homosexual hillbilly sadists who apparently plan to rape, torture, and murder Marsellus and Butch.
When Zed and Maynard take Marsellus in the other room to reenact a scene from Deliverance, Butch manages to free himself. He could just sneak out, saving himself and leaving Marsellus to a well-deserved fate. But Butch can’t do it. He chooses a riskier but more honorable path. He decides to rescue Marsellus. He looks around for a suitable weapon. First he hefts a claw hammer. Then a small chainsaw. Then a baseball bat. Finally, his eyes light on a samurai sword—the perfect symbol of honor.
He returns to the dungeon. Zed is raping Marsellus (who does look just like a hawg—a roasted one, complete with an apple in his mouth) while Maynard watches. Butch dispatches Maynard and taunts Zed. Marsellus, in the meantime, gets up, grabs Maynard’s shotgun, and blasts Zed in the groin. At this point, Marsellus could have killed Butch as well. (Butch was very, very stupid to let Marsellus get the drop on him.)
But Marsellus responds to Butch’s gallant gesture in kind. He agrees to drop his grievance against Butch if he does not tell anyone about what has happened and if he leaves L.A. never to return. I know it is unlikely. But if he got his soul back, maybe it is starting to kick in. (But not soon enough to save Zed from a “medieval” fate.)
Butch accepts the deal and roars off on Zed’s chopper to meet Fabienne. They still have time to catch their train to Tennessee. And on that happy note, the story (as opposed to the movie) of Pulp Fiction ends.
* * *
Even its detractors admit that Pulp Fiction is a stylishly directed, superbly acted, darkly comic movie. I hope I have convinced you that it is a deeply serious movie as well. Yes, Quentin Tarantino is a thoroughly repulsive and nihilistic human being, and everything he directed before and since Pulp Fiction reflects that. (See my reviews of Kill Bill, Vol. 1 and Inglourious Basterds.) But repugnant people create great art all the time, in spite of themselves. Yes, Pulp Fiction contains interracial couples, villainous bumbling whites, and noble, eloquent blacks. One just has to look beyond the casting to the story itself.
Pulp Fiction is only superficially anti-white. On a deeper level, it can aid us in rejecting modernity and recovering the spiritual foundations of something better.
Pulp Fiction is valuable for our cause as a critique of modernity in its final decadent phase, what Traditionalists call the Kali Yuga, Hegelians call the “end of history,” and idiots celebrate as postmodernity. Philosophically speaking, modernity is the emancipation of desire from reason, honor, culture, and tradition.
Pulp Fiction takes such philosophical abstractions and pairs them with unforgettably dramatic concrete images and events. Modernity is Marsellus Wallace telling us to fuck pride, take his money, and become his nigger. Modernity is coke, smack, and Jack Rabbit Slim’s. Modernity is Vincent Vega sprawled dead in a bathtub, Mia Wallace with a huge syringe stuck in her heart, and Jules Winnfield scooping up bits of brain and skull in the back seat of a blood-soaked car.
But Pulp Fiction does much more than just critique modernity. It also shows us an alternative. Not an alternative vision of society, but rather the spiritual basis of an alternative to modernity. Spiritually, modernity is the rule of desire. Part of the grip of modernity is that even people who intellectually reject it are still modern men who have no idea of how they could become anything else.
Most modern people lack the concepts necessary to think of themselves as anything more than desire-driven producer-consumers. Reason to them is just calculating options. Honor is just the narcissistic display of commodities that we are told symbolize status.
Pulp Fiction brilliantly concretizes and dramatizes the moments of decision when one chooses to be something more than a mere modern man: Jules Winnfield’s choice to follow his desires or his mystical conviction that God is sending him a message; Butch Coolidge’s choice to be a sneaky, bourgeois coward or a man of honor.
The spiritual man is Jules Winnfield, honestly confronting the fact that he has been lying to himself all his life, that he has been the tool of the “tyranny of evil men” (from Hobbes and Locke down to Marsellus Wallace), and instead “trying to be the shepherd.” The warrior is Captain Koons keeping his word and delivering the gold watch; the warrior is Butch Coolidge descending back into hell with a samurai sword to do justice. These are the kinds of men who can start history again and deliver our people from evil.
Plato claims that society is the soul writ large. If democracy is the rule of desire writ large, then the regime that corresponds to Butch Coolidge’s soul is a warrior aristocracy. The regime that corresponds to Jules Winnfield’s soul is a form of theocracy in which social order is based on a transcendent metaphysical order, what Evola called the idea of the Imperium. If Tarantino had tried to show us the political big picture, he would have gotten it all terribly wrong. But what he does show, he gets dead right. Mapping out the political alternative is our job.