Parts 1 & 2; Czech translation here
Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction is one of my favorite movies. I didn’t want to like it. I didn’t even want to see it. Everything I’d heard made me think it would be thoroughly nihilistic and quite unpleasant. But then someone at a party described Pulp Fiction as a movie about “greatness of soul at the end of history,” and that caught my attention, because at the time I immersed for the nth time in Plato’s Republic, the core of which is an account of the human soul, as well as Alexandre Kojève’s Introduction to the Reading of Hegel, from which Francis Fukuyama derived his “end of history” trope.
The very idea of mentioning Plato and Hegel in the same breath with Quentin Tarantino may seem absurd, but bear with me. Pulp Fiction is not a decadent film. It is a film about the most fundamental metaphysical and moral choices we can make—that just happens to be set in the midst of the criminal underclass of a decadent society. The basic issue to be decided is whether to live according to material or spiritual values—to satisfy one’s individual desires or to subordinate these to serve something higher: the common good, one’s personal sense of honor, or a religious calling. This deep seriousness makes Pulp Fiction more than just clever, dark-comic nihilism. It is a genuinely great movie.
The three main characters of Pulp Fiction are two hit men, one black (Jules Winnfield, brilliantly played by Samuel L. Jackson) and one white (Vincent Vega, played by John Travolta), and a corrupt boxer, Butch Coolidge (Bruce Willis).
Each of these men represents a particular spiritual type, defined in terms of which part of his soul rules the others. Jules Winfield is a spiritual man, meaning that in a conflict between spiritual and material considerations, he follows the spiritual path. Butch Coolidge is an honor-driven man, meaning that in a conflict between honor and the satisfaction of his desires (even to the point of preserving his life), he chooses honor. Vincent Vega is ruled entirely by his desires, meaning that in a conflict between his desires and honor or spiritual motives, he chooses his desires.
These types of individuals correspond to the three fundamental Indo-European social “functions”/castes as explained by Georges Dumézil and reflected in Plato’s Republic. The spiritual man corresponds to the priestly function/caste. The honor-driven man corresponds to the warrior function/caste. The desire-ruled man corresponds to the economic function/caste.
Pulp Fiction tells the overlapping stories of these three men in a complex, non-linear fashion. The meaning of the movie becomes clearer, however, if we discuss the story in chronological order.
The Outline of the Movie
The titles in quotes are Quentin Tarantino’s. The others are mine.
Part 1: The Diner: Two criminals known as “Pumpkin” (Tim Roth) and “Honey Bunny” (Amanda Plummer) decide to rob a diner.
Part 2: The Killing: Hitmen Vincent Vega and Jules Winnfield kill several people and recover a briefcase containing contents stolen from their employer, gangster Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames).
Part 3: “Vincent Vega and Marsellus Wallace’s Wife”: Vincent Vega takes Marsellus Wallace’s wife Mia out for dinner and dancing.
Part 4: “The Gold Watch”: Boxer Butch Coolidge double-crosses Marsellus Wallace and prepares to flee town when he discovers that he has to return to his apartment to recover his father’s gold watch. (The prologue of this scene is a flashback that explains the significance of the watch.)
Part 5: “The Bonnie Situation”: Vincent Vega and Jules Winnfield have to dispose of the body of one of their associates who is accidentally shot in their car in broad daylight.
Part 6: The Diner Again: After disposing of the body, Vincent and Jules decide to have breakfast at a diner, only to have their meal interrupted by Pumpkin and Honey Bunny’s robbery.
The Chronology of Events
1. The flashback to Butch’s childhood
2. The Killing
3. “The Bonnie Situation”
4. The Diner/The Diner Again
5. “Vincent Vega and Marsellus Wallace’s Wife”
6. “The Gold Watch”
Pulp Fiction is set in Los Angeles and environs in the early 1990s. The movie was filmed in 1993 and released in 1994.
Jules Winnfield, the Spiritual Man
Let’s begin the story with the killing. It is early morning. Jules Winnfield has come to pick up Vincent Vega for a job. When we meet Vincent Vega he has just returned to Los Angeles from three years in Amsterdam.
After three years in one of Europe’s greatest cities, what has rubbed off on him? Vincent’s conversation focuses entirely on fast food, drink, and drugs: what the Dutch eat with their French fries, what the French call a Quarter Pounder with Cheese (Royale with Cheese—on account of the metric system), where you can buy beer, the laws governing marijuana use in Holland, etc. Vincent, as we come to learn, is not stupid. He is intelligent and witty. But he is totally ruled by his desires.
Vincent and his partner Jules Winnfield go to an apartment occupied by four young thieves, three white and one black, who have stolen a briefcase from the black gangster Marsellus Wallace, who is Vega and Winnfield’s employer. The two hit men are let into the apartment by the black thief Marvin, who has betrayed his white friends to the black gangster Wallace and his black enforcer Winnfield. After recovering the briefcase, Winnfield kills two of the white thieves, sadistically toying with their leader, Brett, including shooting him in the leg and a quoting the Bible at him before finishing him off. This ends Part 2, “The Killing.”
The storyline resumes in Part 5, “The Bonnie Situation,” when the third white, who has been hiding in the bathroom, bursts out firing a .357 Magnum. All six shots miss. Jules and Vincent then shoot the gunman, collect the briefcase, and depart with Marvin in tow.
Jules interprets the fact that the bullets missed as “divine intervention.” “God came down from heaven and stopped the bullets.” Vincent interprets it as merely “luck,” a “freak occurrence,” “this shit happens.” These fundamentally different interpretations reveal fundamentally different characters. As we have already seen, Vincent is ruled by his desires. Thus it makes sense that he would interpret the event in fundamentally materialistic terms as a meaningless freak accident. Jules, by contrast, gives the event a spiritual interpretation, revealing an openness to a higher reality and thus to motives higher than the satisfaction of mere material interests.
In the getaway car, Vincent turns to Marvin for his opinion of the event. Vincent is holding his gun, pointed at Marvin. Marvin, who seems none too bright, says he has no opinion. Then Vincent blows Marvin’s head off, drenching the interior of the car in blood. Vincent claims it is an accident, although he was none too pleased that Marvin had not mentioned that the third white thief was hiding in the bathroom with a “hand cannon.” Still, Vincent is a rather calculating and risk-averse individual. Before the hit, he meticulously questions Jules about the number of people they are facing and keeps insisting that they should have brought shotguns. Thus intentionally killing Marvin in a car in broad daylight seems uncharacteristically reckless.
To avoid being pulled over driving a car bathed in blood, Jules drives to the nearby house of his friend Jimmy (played by Quentin Tarantino himself). Jimmy is not amused. He tells his friends that he is not in the “dead nigger storage” business. His wife Bonnie, a nurse working graveyard at a hospital, will be home in an hour, and the killers, the corpse, and the car will have to be gone. Jules calls Marsellus, who dispatches Winston Wolf (Harvey Keitell), who apparently has some experience in these matters. The whole scene is played in a darkly comic way, wallowing in the grossness of the blood and the corpse, as well as the moral sordidness of its casual disposal. Marvin is “nobody who will be missed,” and, truly, there are plenty more where he came from.
After Wolf disposes of the body and departs, “The Bonnie Situation” has been resolved, and the last part of the movie commences: Part 6, The Diner Again.
Jules and Vincent decide to have breakfast at a local diner (it truly has been a long morning). Vincent orders pancakes and sausages, Jules coffee and a muffin. When Vincent offers Jules some sausage, Jules refuses on the ground that pigs are unclean animals, to which Vincent retorts in a childish voice, “Sausages tastes good. Pork chops taste good.” Again Vincent shows that he is fundamentally ruled by his desires, whereas Jules has higher standards, in this case aesthetic. (Jewish dietary laws are explicitly rejected as his motive, but spiritual men routinely codify their moral and aesthetic preferences as religious commandments.)
Then the conversation returns to the bullets that missed. Vincent again dismisses it as a freak accident. Jules again insists that it was divine intervention, a message from God. He has decided to quit “the life”—meaning the life of a killer—and “wander the earth like Kane in Kung Fu,” getting in adventures and meeting people until God tells him he is where he ought to be. Vincent, who is immune to the spiritual and focused entirely on the material, knows exactly what people with no jobs and no money who wander the earth are. They are bums. Jules is proposing to be nothing more than a bum. Vincent, whose entire life seems to be ruled by his digestive tract, then interrupts the conversation “to take a shit.”
When Vincent is in the toilet, Pumpkin and Honey Bunny launch their robbery and the movie comes full circle. It goes quite well, until Pumpkin tries to take Marsellus’ case from Jules. Jules gets the drop on him, then in an absolutely riveting speech, explains that he will not kill them because he is “in a transitional period” (transitioning out of “the life”). His brush with death has brought on “a moment of clarity.” He now sees through the excuses and self-deceptions he has used to rationalize his life as a criminal. He sees that he has been nothing more than a tool of “the tyranny of evil men.” He keeps the briefcase. Pumpkin and Honey Bunny depart, followed by Jules and Vincent.
At this point, the movie ends, but we are not even half-way into the story. If Tarantino had originally meant to present the movie in chronological order, Samuel L. Jackson’s absolutely riveting delivery makes it easy to understand why he chose to make this the final scene. Everything after it would seem like an anticlimax.
Next in the story is Part 3, “Vincent Vega and Marsellus Wallace’s Wife.” Vincent and Jules, having departed the diner, arrive at a bar owned by their employer, Marsellus Wallace. The scene begins with Wallace speaking to Butch Coolidge, the boxer, but I will save my discussion of this scene until later, when I discuss “The Gold Watch.” Although we do not see it happen, Jules presumably tenders his resignation and departs on his spiritual quest. We learn nothing more about his fate.
Since Jules Winnfield is now departing from the story, this is the appropriate place to explore another way in which spiritual themes play a role in Pulp Fiction. What is in Marsellus Wallace’s briefcase? When Vincent opens the briefcase in The Killing, a golden light shines out of it. Vincent takes a drag on his cigarette and stares, transfixed. In The Diner Again, when Pumpkin demands that Jules open the briefcase, again we see a golden glow. With a look of awe on his face, Pumpkin asks: “Is that what I think it is?” Jules nods yes, then Pumpkin says, “It’s beautiful.”
An interpretation that I find appealing has been floating around the internet since 1994: The briefcase contains Marsellus Wallace’s soul. He has sold it, or it has been stolen, but in any case he wants it back. This interpretation fits in with a number of details in the movie in addition to the strange glow and the looks of awe: The combination of the briefcase is 666, the Number of the Beast. Jules tells Pumpkin that the briefcase contains his boss’s “dirty laundry,” and indeed, Marsellus Wallace has a lot of dirty laundry, a lot of sins upon his soul.
The first thing we see of Marsellus Wallace is the back of his shaved head. At the base of his skull is a large Band-Aid. One wonders if something has been removed. It has been suggested that his soul was removed through the back of his head, although the idea apparently has no basis in myth or tradition. If Jules and Vincent were trying to recover Marsellus Wallace’s soul, it would also explain why God might indeed want to intervene on their behalf. And as for the death of the four thieves: Well, they are the devil’s little helpers anyway.
Vincent Vega: The Desire-Driven Man
Although Jules Winnfield quits “the life,” Vincent Vega stays in Marsellus’s employ, and his next job is to take Mrs. Wallace out for a night on the town while Mr. Wallace is away.
Am I the only one to whom this does not sound like a good idea? During the opening sequence of The Killing, we learn that Marsellus’ white wife Mia (Uma Thurman) is a failed actress. (She was in a pilot.) We also hear that Marsellus had another of his associates, Atwan Rockamora, thrown off a fourth storey balcony for giving Mia a foot massage. (Those of us who on this basis suspected Tarantino of being a foot fetishist were vindicated by the Kill Bill movies.)
For Vincent, the first order of business in taking out his boss’s wife is to buy some heroin. He goes to the house of his dealer Lance (Eric Stolz). As Vincent waits for Lance, he listens to a disquisition on body-piercing from Lance’s wife Jody (Rosanna Arquette). Having purchased and injected some spendy gourmet heroin, Vincent departs for the Wallace residence to pick up Mia.
We soon learn that Mia is cut from the same cloth as Vincent: she is witty, playful, and entirely dominated by her desires. Cocaine is her drug of choice, along with alcohol and cigarettes. Everything about this couple is extremely cool, from Vincent’s car to their clothes, their music, their witty repartee, and their wonderful dance scene. But their most disarming traits are their sensitivity and old-fashioned manners. It is impossible to dislike Vincent and Mia. It is hard not to envy them. Their lives would be a fun vacation from our lives. This whole segment of Pulp Fiction does full justice to both the allure and the emptiness of their postmodern hedonism.
Mia has Vincent take her to Jack Rabbit Slim’s, a 50s nostalgia restaurant in which the booths are classic cars and the waiters and waitresses dress up like 50s movie and pop stars. (The prices, however, are very much in the 90s.) Vincent sums the place up brilliantly, in one of the movie’s best lines: “It’s like a wax museum with a pulse.” After Buddy Holly takes their order, Mia slips into the bathroom to snort some coke. After dinner, they doff their shoes then compete in, and win, the Jack Rabbit Slim’s twist contest. There is a great deal of clever dialogue, but the overall impression is that Vincent and Mia have only one use for their intelligence: to accumulate novel experiences and undergo pleasant sensations.
Cut to the end of the evening. Vincent and Mia stagger back to the Wallace residence. Having eaten, drunk, danced, laughed, and shot up, Vincent’s desires are now moving in a sexual direction. But first he has “to take a piss.” He ducks into the bathroom to get a grip on himself. Here we see the roles of reason and morality in a desire-dominated life.
For Plato, reason is a multi-faceted faculty embracing everything from induction from sense experience to calculating options and outcomes to mystical insight into transcendent truths. All human beings use reason, but only the spiritual individual accesses its highest powers. Jules Winnfield’s conviction that God was sending him a message is an example of the highest, mystical function of reason, although it seems none too reasonable to the rest of us.
For desire-ruled individuals like Vincent, however, reason is merely a tool to satisfy their desires. It is empirical and calculative. Modern philosophy, no matter how rational it professes to be, tends to define reason merely as a tool for the satisfaction of desire, which makes even professed rationalists hedonists in the end.
Vincent wants to fuck Mia. (There is no point in putting a finer word on it.) This, he claims, is “a test of character,” and he shows that modernity defines character, like reason, in a way that leaves desire firmly in control. Vincent would enjoy fucking Mia. But he would not enjoy the probable consequences if Marsellus finds out. (Mia denies the foot massage story, but who knows . . .)
Vincent does not choose against sex with Mia based on his sense of the honorable or the sacred. Rather, he masters one desire by rationally counter-posing other, greater desires: the desires to remain alive and on good terms with his boss. Thus he resolves that he is going to have a drink, say goodnight, be a perfect gentleman, then go home and jerk off.
Vincent, in short, achieves self-mastery though rational self-indulgence. Reason for Vincent means hedonistic calculus. Character means the ability to sacrifice present pleasures for future pleasures. These are the highest virtues to which a hedonist can aspire.
While Vincent is communing in the toilet with the cleverer demons of his nature, Mia is getting bored in the other room. Vincent has gallantly offered Mia his coat, which she is still wearing. In a pocket, she finds his bag of heroin. Thinking it is cocaine, she snorts some of it, sending her into an immediate overdose. When Vincent finds her—glassy eyed, foaming at the mouth, bleeding from the nose, a grotesque parody of Man Ray’s “Tears”—he panics. He is a no-doubt wanted criminal. So is his boss. So he cannot take Mia to an emergency room. Too many questions. So he drives her to the house of his dealer Lance, where, after a good deal of dark-comic hysteria, he revives Mia by stabbing her in the heart with a huge syringe full of adrenaline, shocking her back to consciousness. (“Pretty trippy” chortles Jody. Then her friend Trudi celebrates life with another bong hit.)
As the bedraggled pair stumble back to the Wallace house, they no longer look so cool and attractive. They look like death warmed over. One knows that all their coolness, cleverness, and wit—not to mention what passes for reason and character in their lives—will not be enough to save them from the consequences of their affluent hedonism: addiction, degradation, and death by misadventure. (As an “anti-drug” film, Pulp Fiction is second only to Requiem for a Dream.)
Postmodernism, Hedonism, & Death
The story of “Vincent Vega and Marsellus Wallace’s Wife” beautifully illustrates two philosophical theses: (1) there is an inner identity between postmodern culture and hedonism, and (2) hedonism, taken to an extreme, can lead to its self-overcoming by arranging an encounter with death—an encounter which, if survived, can expand one’s awareness of one’s self and the world to embrace non-hedonistic motives and actions.
This is not the place for a whole theory of postmodernism. “Postmodernism” is one of those academically fashionable weasel-words like “paradigm” that have now seeped into middlebrow and even lowbrow discourse. Those of us who have fundamental and principled critiques of modernity quickly learned that postmodernism is not postmodern enough. Indeed, in most ways, it is just an intensification of the worst features of modernity.
For my purposes, postmodernity is an attitude toward culture characterized by (1) eclecticism or bricolage, meaning the mixing of different cultures and traditions, i.e., multiculturalism, and (2) irony, detachment, and playfulness toward culture, which is what allows us to mix and manipulate cultures in the first place. The opposite of multiculturalism is cultural integrity and exclusivity. The opposite of irony is earnestness. The opposite of detachment is identification. The opposite of playfulness is seriousness.
The core of a genuine culture is a worldview, an interpretation of existence and our place in it, as well as of our nature and the best form of life for us. These are serious matters. Because of the fundamental seriousness of a living culture, each one is characterized by a unity of style, the other side of which is an exclusion of foreign cultural forms. After all, if one takes one’s own worldview seriously, one cannot take incompatible worldviews with equal seriousness. (Yes, cultures do borrow from one another, but a serious culture only borrows what it can assimilate to its own worldview and use for its greater glory.)
The core of a living culture is not primarily a set of ideas, but of ideals. Ideals are ideas that make normative claims upon us. They don’t just tell us what is, but what ought to be. Like Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” ideals demand that we change our lives. The core of a living culture is a pantheon of ideals that is experienced as numinous and enthralling. An individual formed by a living culture has a fundamental sense of identification with and participation in his culture. He cannot separate himself from it, and since it is the source of his ideas of his nature, the good life, the cosmos, and his place in it, his attitude toward culture is fundamentally earnest and serious, even pious. In a very deep sense, he does not own his culture, he is owned by it.
In terms of their relationship to culture, human beings fall into two basic categories: healthy and unhealthy. Healthy human beings experience the ideals that define a culture as a challenge, as a tonic. The gap between the ideal and the real is bridged by a longing of the soul for perfection. This longing is a tension, like the tension of the bowstring or the lyre, that makes human greatness possible. Culture forms human beings not merely by evoking idealistic longings, but also by suppressing, shaping, stylizing, and sublimating our natural desires. Culture has an element of mortification. But healthy organisms embrace this ascetic dimension as a pathway to ennoblement through self-transcendence.
Unhealthy organisms experience culture in a radically different way. Ideals are not experienced as a challenge to quicken and mobilize the life force. Instead, they are experienced as a threat, an insult, an external imposition, a gnawing thorn in the flesh. The unhealthy organism wishes to free itself from the tension created by ideals—which it experiences as nothing more than unreasonable expectations (unreasonable by the standards of an immanentized reason, a mere hedonistic calculus). The unhealthy organism does not wish to suppress and sublimate his natural desires. He wishes to validate them as good enough and then express them. He wants to give them free reign, not pull back on the bit.
Unfortunately, the decadent have Will to Power too. Thus they have been able to free themselves and their desires from the tyranny of normative culture and institute a decadent counter-culture in its place. This is the true meaning of “postmodernism.” Postmodernism replaces participation with detachment, earnestness with irony, seriousness with playfulness, enthrallment with emancipation. Such attitudes demythologize and profane the pantheon of numinous ideals that is the beating heart of a living culture.
Culture henceforth becomes merely a wax museum: a realm of dead, decontextualized artifacts and ideas. When a culture is eviscerated of its defining worldview, all integrity, all unity of style is lost. Cultural integrity gives way to multiculturalism, which is merely a pretentious way of describing a shopping mall where artifacts are bought and sold, mixed and matched to satisfy emancipated consumer desires: a wax museum jumping to the pulse of commerce. This is the world of Pulp Fiction.
Yet, as Pulp Fiction also shows, even when desire becomes emancipated and sovereign, it has a tendency to dialectically overcome itself. As William Blake said, “The fool who persists in his folly will become wise.” As much as hedonists wish to become mere happy animals, they remain botched human beings. The human soul still contains longings for something more than mere satiation of natural desires. These longings, moreover, are closely intertwined with these desires. For instance, merely natural desires are few and easily satisfied. But the human imagination can multiply desires to infinity. Most of these artificial desires, moreover, are for objects that satisfy a need for honor, recognition, status, not mere natural creature comforts. Hedonism is not an animal existence, but merely a perverted and profaned human existence.
If animal life is all about contentment, plenitude, fullness—the fulfillment of our natural desires—then a distinctly human mode of existence emerges when hominids mortify the flesh in the name of something higher. Hegel believed that the perforation of the flesh was the first expression of human spirit in animal existence.
This throws light on the discourse on body piercing delivered by Jody, the wife of Lance the drug dealer. Jody, it is safe to say, is about as complete a hedonist as has ever existed. Yet Jody has had her body pierced sixteen times, including her left nipple, her clitoris, and her tongue. And in each instance, she used a needle rather than a relatively quick and painless piercing gun. As she says, “That gun goes against the whole idea behind piercing.”
Well then, one has to ask, “What is the whole idea behind piercing?” Yes, piercing is fashionable. Yes, it is involved with sexual fetishism. (But fetishism is not mere desire either.) Yes, it is now big business. But the phenomenon cannot merely be reduced to hedonistic self-indulgence. It hurts. And it is irreversible.
Thus, in a world of casual and meaningless self-indulgence, piercing and its first cousin tattooing are deeply significant; they are tests; they are limit experiences; they are encounters with something—something in ourselves and in the world—that transcends the economy of desire. They are re-enactments of the primal anthropogenetic act within the context of a decadent and dehumanizing society.
But to “mortify” the flesh means literally to kill it. Each little hole is a little death, which derives its meaning from a big death, a whole death, death itself. And it is an encounter with death itself that is truly anthropogenetic—at least potentially so.
Jules and Vincent had a brush with death, but the bullets missed. For Jules, this brought on a moment of clarity. His self-deceptions were breached, he saw his life for what it really was, and he changed it. But the experience was wasted on Vincent.
Vincent and Mia Wallace also had a brush with death. (Mia’s death would surely have entailed Vincent’s death.) But again, it was wasted on Vincent. (We never learn how it affected Mia.)
For Hegel, however, the truly anthropogenetic encounter with death is not a mere “near miss,” but rather an intentionally undertaken battle to the death over honor, which is the subject of Part 4, “The Gold Watch,” to which we now turn.
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.