Image: Illustration by Megan Kenyon

Existentialism in Cosmic Horror: Is Rick Sanchez a happy man?

What life lessons can we learn from cosmic horrors like Rick & Morty? How can faith in the irrational help one overcome one’s existential crisis?

For those who have not seen Rick & Morty, let me briefly sketch the plot. Rick Sanchez is an accomplished scientist who invented an interdimensional portal gun, which allows him to teleport through time and space. This invention led him to abandon his daughter (Beth) in her youth, causing severe attachment issues. And after decades of venturing across the universe, Rick returned to wreak havoc on his family. By this point Beth had married Jerry Smith, a gentle man with whom she had two children: Morty and Summer. Rick is fond of Morty, whom he consistently drags out of school to take on wacky adventures.

Rick and Jerry are at odds, as is customary between a father and son-in-law. Jerry blames Rick for many things: his delicate relationship with Beth, Morty’s poor attendance in school, and continuously bringing aliens into the house. While Rick blames Jerry for spoiling his daughter’s potential and frequently mocks him for being foolish, cowardly, and unemployed. Morty is torn between the two, as the young man figures out the type of life he wants to lead.

Rick & Morty is a cosmic horror, a genre coined by H.P. Lovecraft (1890 – 1937), which encourages us to consider how insignificant our lives are in a vast and meaningless universe.  The ability to travel through time and space, however fun it would be, complicates the idea that life has any inherent meaning. It is hard to imagine being happy in a universe where we are but one of infinite replicates, on one of many planets with sentient life, where all belief in ‘God is dead’. Individuality, companionship, and morality inevitably lose their value when we discard the idea that time is linear.

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Rick is the show’s anti-hero, who embraces the belief that life is meaningless. He uses this nihilism to justify just about anything: robbery, battery, inebriety, homicide, suicide, regicide, genocide, the list goes on. Rick is an apoplectic old man, who drowns his sorrows in alcohol, gambling, sex, and any other form of instant gratification available to him (which is pretty much all of them). Despite being dubbed ‘the smartest man in the universe’ he is depicted as someone suffering from severe depression. Rick may have mastered science, but he has not yet mastered the art of happiness.

Jerry is juxtaposed to Rick. He is a simple man of a buffoonish nature who cherishes the little things, like dinnertime with his family. We do occasionally see Jerry angry, though this is usually due to Rick’s reckless behaviour. Despite being the subject of violence, ridicule, and divorce Jerry always manages to crack a smile. Jerry is no super-scientist, though he is also no alcoholic – the phrase ‘ignorance is bliss’ comes to mind. Jerry finds happiness amidst all the confusion, while Rick falls prey to an existential crisis.

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Existentialism was developed throughout the nineteenth and twentieth century and is commonly associated with five philosophers: Søren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Albert Camus. They all challenge the Ancient Greek doctrine of essentialism – the belief that our essence (purpose) exists before we are born and that to live a meaningful life, we must discover and actualise this essence. Some people are born as soldiers and others as scholars, for example, one born as a soldier would find no meaning living as a scholar and vice versa.

Existentialists reject essentialism, arguing that existence precedes essence (we are born without a purpose) and that it is our own burden and responsibility to find meaning in life. This search for meaning in an objectively meaningless world often causes an angst (unfocused anxiety with ourselves and the world generally), which we must overcome to be happy and fulfilled. Leo Tolstoy presents a detailed account of his own existential crisis in A Confession (1882), in which he attempts to answer the age-old question – ‘what is the meaning of life?’

After losing his faith in Christianity at a young age, Tolstoy spent years searching for the meaning of life using ‘rational knowledge.’ Studying tirelessly amongst the ‘learned and wealthy,’ these classes brought him no closer to the answer. Instead, this led him to live an untempered life – ‘I was a fornicator and a cheat. Lying, stealing, promiscuity of every kind, drunkenness, violence, murder – there was not a crime I did not commit.’ This sounds a little like Grandpa Rick.

It was not until rediscovering his faith in Christianity amongst the ‘simple working people’ some years later, that Tolstoy realised the value of faith in allowing him to live a happy and meaningful life. Decades of rationally searching for answers to the unanswerable brought him no solace. It was the “irrational” knowledge provided by religion that eased his uncertainty and allowed him to overcome his existential crisis (angst). Tolstoy’s story is one of religious conversion, but it is also one of intellectual humility.

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Intellectuals often burden themselves with trying to answer all questions about our universe and existence, taking pride in having thought about things more than others. But no amount of rational knowledge could adequately explain the meaning of life. Those who place all their faith in logic and reason can cause themselves much distress, because whether in the real world or that of Rick & Morty, ultimately, life is rather irrational.

We are vulnerable and confused creatures in a fickle and complicated world, who endure suffering from the day we are born, until we one day tip over and die. We are mourned by those who loved us (if any did) and are eventually forgotten. Our lives, however valuable they might seem to us, are insignificant in the grand scheme of things. Happiness is found less through understanding these uncomfortable truths about our universe and existence than through accepting them. Acceptance comes easier to those who recognise that rationality has limits.

Rick Sanchez and Leo Tolstoy have much in common. Their sadness stems from an insatiable curiosity, which led them to the rational conclusion that life has no objective meaning. Tolstoy realised that this bleak conclusion may lead us down a dark path unless we give ourselves something to live for. Rick, on the other hand, refuses to place his faith in anything irrational and does nothing to imbue his life with meaning subjectively, which leaves him miserable and unfulfilled. The precocious Morty is slowly realising the error in his Grandpa’s ways; Rick’s intellectual intelligence might be second to none, but he has the emotional intelligence of a child.

Jerry is not a devout Christian – no one in the Rick & Morty universe is. But he seems to have harnessed the essence of religious teaching better than all other characters. In a universe stripped of all meaning, Jerry accepts the absurdity of life and is content with his existence. Although dim-witted, he understands the need to give life meaning if one wishes to be happy. His happiness, however irrational, comes from being a loyal husband to Beth and loving father to Morty and Summer. This ability to appreciate every little thing is truly a mark of genius.

The Ricks of this world look everywhere for happiness and find nothing, while the Jerrys look nowhere and find everything. There is much we could all learn from the simple, but also very humble, Jerry Smith.

This articles was originally published on Wildfellzine under the titled: Is Rick Sanchez a happy man?

Hamza King

Hamza is a researcher and public speaking teacher, who is interested religion, politics, and philosophy.