What would you do if you found out that you were living in a story?
What would you do if your life and everything you believed in would be ultimately meaningless?
What would you do if you found out that you are fated to die?
…What would you do if you were in a situation that forced you to answer all of these questions combined?
While I was watching Stranger than Fiction, I couldn’t help but identify with Harold Crick. An IRS clerk hated by everybody, his only friends being at work, only following his daily routine day in and day out unchanging; it was all that I did in the early parts of my working at a Call Center. I even laughed a bit at the hopelessness of his situation despite feeling the weight of the drudgery he goes through (maybe a defense mechanism of sorts).
Let us analyze him and his story a little. Is that okay? Thanks.
He is the kind of guy who gets stepped on a lot, and has decided that, “All right, here comes another problem. Might as well take off my pants and bend over again…” He doesn’t spend much time for himself in between the waking hours he spends at work and at home. He has no greater aspiration than to see the world as a collection of graphs and figures. He has little self-esteem. Add the fact that his whole character design is the poster boy for the Everyman, and he is a representation of what most men are in our post-capitalist society: disenfranchised, depressed, and, most especially, have subjected themselves to their fates because they had lost all hope in despair. Much like Jack in Fight Club, only that Harold hadn’t broken himself into two… yet.
It is only just right that he gets hit with the dilemma he faces throughout the movie: because of some author’s fanciful prose, sooner or later Harold Crick would die.
But what does Crick do? He procrastinates at first, then denies the reality that some voice is following him, only to find out that it is fate knocking on his door to give him a ticket to his maker. Fate is not kind to Harold, maybe doesn’t want to be. He could have thought that maybe the world really wanted him dead. But blow after blow, and look at this: Harold Crick still stands. He has realized that dying is not nice, and decides to seriously spend all of his time avoiding this fate. He soldiers on, looking for his author, and once he meets her we expect him to fight her so she could not to kill him off. Or, at least, beg.
But what’s this? He reads the first draft of the book that he is in… and accepts his own death?
What is this? This is a total betrayal of everything that we had expected of him during the film. What happened to, ‘Live like you’re dying’? What happened to, ‘Screw destiny’? What happened to, ‘I’m not a character; I have my own free will!’? Harold just goes up and says, “This is a good way to die.” We know he didn’t die in the end, but what was that all about? Why go through all the trouble in the first place?
You see, Stranger is not just about avoiding death, living your life to the fullest, or changing your destiny. It is about the affirmation of life, the loving of fate, the folly of revolt. “The loving of fate? But what if you are fated to die?” one might ask. Harold Crick starts out as a man in rebellion, trying to look for a way to fight his fate. But later, as he starts living his life to the fullest, he realizes that fate is something that should be loved. So he does so.
Let us start.
Harold Crick – A man in revolt
What is Rebellion? Is it the pursuit of Liberty, Freedom or Justice? Not really. These are just objectives that Rebellion can aim for. In the truest sense Rebellion is, according to Albert Camus, the act of man saying ‘no’. There is a limit to what a slave can take. And when this limit is reached, the slave puts up a borderline. “Enough is enough”, he says, “I will not take this.” He says ‘no’ to the thing that denies him the respect his being deserves, but at the same time ‘yes’ to the thing that his being had gained: self-awareness.
This is what happened to Harold Crick. At first he was patient with fate’s demands. He worked as best as he could, he lived his life as ordinarily as he should, and he had bore the brunt of loneliness for so long. But why was someone narrating his life? Why was he going to die? It wasn’t fair of fate to do that to him; he had ‘paid his dues’. If anything, his life should have improved with everything he was doing, but now he was fated to die just like that. To reality, his life was meaningless. It had no concern for him at all. But to Harold Crick, his life was everything. So what did he do? He was left with no choice but to say ‘no’ to fate’s orders. For the first time in his life, he became aware of how cold a mistress fate was. He chose to rebel.
Let us look closely at the nature of Harold’s rebellion against fate, though. Do not mistake this rebellion as the desperate throes of a man facing death. A man in revolt only wants respect for what he has, and does not desire what others have (at first). Harold Crick wants fate’s respect for his life. He wants to defend what ‘I have the right to’, and holds this up as his only being. Of course, this puts him at odds with fate, since he wants to escape its shackles while fate himself wants him tied down. He follows fate, he dies. They have no choice but to fight each other.
One would think that Harold Crick would hate fate, hate his author by extension since they are the causes of his dilemma, and that the feeling would be mutual. But rebellion and hate are dissimilar to each other. Hate is negative at the onset, and, according to Scheler, can lead either to ‘unscrupulous ambition or bitterness… depending on whether it is a strong or weak person’. Rebellion may be negative at first, since it is the act of repulsing what is being pressed upon oneself, but it is actually positive in the fact that it evokes love for defending what it stands for. Again, according to Scheler, ‘(It) does not aim to conquer at first… only to impose.’ In short, Harold Crick only wanted to live, has decided in his own little way to love his life, and only wished that fate shared that love with him. To him, it seems that fate couldn’t care less, so he rebels.
Little did he know that fate, like it’s interaction with everybody else, actually loved him. It was he who did not understand how. Or rather, it was he who did not choose to understand how.
He would only understand it once he understood the thing fate had sent him: death.
Memento Mori – affirming life… by remembering death
The Romans had an ancient tradition. After a battle, the general will parade himself in the town. As the populace cheers him, his servant will stand behind, whispering into his ear the words, “Memento Mori.” You are nothing more than a man. Remember Death. Memento Mori was a principle that made men realize that their lives were short, that they will die and they had to live their lives to the fullest. There was no time to waste; men had to become great or else die meaningless lives.
Now look at Harold Crick. Not only had Memento Mori come to him, it had actually phased itself from reality into concept—Harold remembered death because death was always right on top of him. Harold is the general, and death itself is the servant whispering these words. He was forced to find what could possibly save him from it. He had to live life to the fullest. But how would he do it? Remember, Harold was a man in revolt against fate. A man in revolt is prepared to sacrifice even himself to defend what he is. So he had to be serious with his revolt, and this meant getting out of his routine, getting out of himself—He had to meet new people, get himself out of his shell and find that life was not all about the IRS, or numbers or his apartment. Life was all about… life. And his life, with death hanging right above his head, was too expensive to waste worrying about everything else.
Is anybody familiar with the trope where a character would realize that he was going to die, and then realize life’s value and lives it to the fullest? Clichéd, sure, but this is what happened to Harold Crick. What is different between Harold and other characters that went through this is that in the process of trying to save his life, Harold saw that he had to accept certain parts of it to move forward. He had to accept the truth that he was going to die in order to save himself from dying. He had to accept what was wrong with him in order to fix himself. He had to accept the fact that someone was controlling his life in order to overcome his fate. Look at the key word ‘accept’. In order to be able to control anything effectively, one has to accept its being and its limits. In order to control life, one has to accept one’s strengths, one’s weaknesses, one’s self.
In the process of living the life he had been missing out on, Harold Crick ultimately ended up realizing that he had to accept fate. Sure, he might die, but there were things he could choose to do before that. Harold Crick’s rebellion was against fate, but he was merely looking for fate’s love for his life. Now he had realized that in order to live a good life, one had to realize that fate had to be loved. So despite his death, a short but good life was much more preferable than a long but sorrowful one.
In truth, Harold Crick’s death was avoidable. He could have refused outright to die after reading the book then and there. He could have won, and his rebellion would have been fruitful. But after seeing something bigger than himself be at work, he made a choice. Despite his fate, he still had a choice.
And his choice showed that he truly affirmed life, and truly loved fate.
‘Love fate.’ What does that phrase mean? We all know what love means, but the meaning of the word ‘fate’ is something we have to look into deeper. Does it mean ‘Destiny’? Yes. ‘Fortune’? Yes. ‘Luck’? Of course. These are the most common synonyms and meanings we have for the word fate. But how about ‘Misfortune’? How about ‘Disaster’? ‘Tragedy’? ‘Hardship’? ‘Doom’? Normally, things like this are seen as something like ‘Bad luck’. But looking at them further, we will see that they are merely counterparts to the good aspects of fate. Fate is a coin, and it has two sides: good and bad. But whichever appearance it takes, fate is still fate. And in order to live life to the fullest, one must be able to not only appreciate fate and the good things it brings. True resilience, the true affirmation of life can only be achieved once one can take the full brunt of fate both good and bad.
This principle is called Amor Fati. Love Fate in Latin.
Harold Crick, the man in revolt, struggled against the absurdity of a world that wanted him dead. He tried fighting against fate, and while doing so has realized that he needed to cross the thin line between rebelling and accepting it in order to be happy. On this thin line, something comes to him that makes him realize that the acceptance of fate is what he really needs—Harold Crick reads the manuscript of his life, and finds that the only way that it would be a successful story is to sacrifice himself in saving a boy.
The man in revolt, who saw his life as a precious being worth defending, now sees it as a block to another one’s life. If he choses to save his life, the boy would have to die. Aghast with having to defend his own life at the cost of another, on top of realizing that fate had to be loved, Harold decided to affirm his life and accept what was coming to him. But why?
Living life without doing what you want, or spending it doing something you do not want is what Sartre calls ‘Bad Faith’. Not only does the individual fail to affirm life, he also fails to actualize himself, resulting in lifelong depression and despair. Would Harold Crick have been able to live with himself knowing that a little boy had to die in order for him to live? Of course not. Harold is too nice of a person to do it, too innocent to see the evil of his free will, and too emotional to detach himself from it in the case it did happen. If he chose to live, he would have lived a life of regret.
Seeing this future ahead of him, Harold also sees that his rebellion will only end up stamping on the life of another. As I had said earlier, rebellion only aims to impose, not to conquer. Unless it was a conscious decision of the rebel, it will never trespass on the rights of another who shares its same values. So Harold decides to accept what fate had put before him. He did not give into fate because of despair, but because of a life-affirming choice. He accepted fate, and by extension his life. Fate gave him a chance. He knew that it would end up saving the life of another, and saw this objective larger than himself. Fate actually loved Harold Crick’s life by giving him this chance.
So he put down his arms, bowed his head, and finally said, “Yes.” There was no need to revolt anymore.
Though the ending betrayed the whole purpose of the story (on purpose) by having Harold’s watch die instead, the preceding story still has a point: Stranger is all about existentialist values, especially in the affirmation of life. People are usually repelled by misfortune and sorrow, but we have to realize that they are parts of life; the flipside of the good things we have. Despite the bad things that life can throw at us, we have to accept that they happened. Even if they did not have a reason to happen, they happened. There is no way to reverse them except to face them head-on. True life affirmation means accepting life… but also accepting the fact that we are free to do what we want. Be like Harold Crick. Live your life and do what you want. Memento Mori, Amor Fati.