Walt Whitman in Breaking Bad (And Other Gems of Onscreen Lit)
In Martin Amis’s short story “Career Move”, we hear about two writers: Alistair, a struggling screenwriter who’s had rejection after rejection from the narrowly-circulated Little Magazine, and Luke, the wealthy poet whose sonnet-- titled “Sonnet”-- is generating a buzz worldwide, and opening up a word of private jets and champagne on tap for him. Amis flips the real-world scenarios for these writers around for a joke-- a satisfying one, maybe, for poor poets, but the screen, small and big, often uses what we might call hard texts in interesting ways.
Walt Whitman in Breaking Bad
Warning: Breaking Bad spoilers ahead. Obviously.
Midway through Season 3 of Breaking Bad, after dark, in a multi-million dollar meth superlab, with the two people present garbed in luminous yellow hazmat suits, their hoods undone after a long day of manufacturing one of the most addictive, harmful and profitable drugs yet discovered, a poetry reading breaks out. An impromptu one, perhaps, but a reading nevertheless. There is one speaker, and one listener. The listener is Walter White (whose name recalls Whitman’s) terminal cancer patient and meth cook extraordinaire, about midway through his transformation from Mr. Chips to Scarface; the speaker is Gale Boetticher, self-proclaimed nerd, fan of opera and bonsai trees, and Walter’s heir apparent. He’ll soon be whacked on Walter’s orders as Walter tries to save his own skin.
The poem is “When I heard the Learn’d Astronomer”, It’s short, so here it is in full:
When I heard the learn’d astronomer;
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;
When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and
When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much
applause in the lecture-room,
How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.
Whitman wrote to the beat of his heart and mind, rather than to anything as stuffily European as pentameter or hendecasyllabics, so the lines freewheel, their lengths occasionally careering out of control, but the structure has a powerful symmetry. Four lines of repressive systematization, followed by four lines of the speaker rejecting this systematization in the profoundly physical way of walking out of the lecture theatre.
So how is the poem tied to Breaking Bad? Well, firstly, it sets up the Walt Whitman/Walter White connexion which will precipitate Hank rumbling Walt at the end of Season 4. Second, it’s a short blast of the good ol’ liberal arts into the face of an increasingly hardening, dehumanizing Walter White. I’ll admit that I misread “When I heard…” at first; I wondered how the speaker could be more enchanted by the stars by shunning knowledge about them, but it’s more symbolic than that: Whitman wants to admire Nature on his own terms, not through the prism of a preexisting system.
White systematizes by nature. He is a former chemist, now a meth cook who works to strict rules. As his meth cooking moves from an improvised RV to a purpose built lab, his money from thousands to millions of dollars, his personality becomes part of the system. His wife is unfaithful to him out of spite. He drives his children away. His obsession with the system of meth, with its purity, structure and value, replaces them. Even Whitman’s hymn to Transcendentalism, the anti-system philosophy that emerged in early-19th century America, can’t save him. And if poetry can’t save him, well, we know he’s gone for good.
Jean Baudrillard in The Matrix
The Matrix is full of philosophy, and philosophers, usually without much depth or coherence, but Jean Baudrillard is a deeper influence than most, even if he’s not particularly happy about it. His most famous book, Simulacra and Simulation, turns up as a prop in the movie, albeit hollowed out, and used to store contraband software.
We know the premise of The Matrix pretty well: that the world we think we live in is a fake, a dream world, that the real world is hideously ravaged by the human/machine war, and that humans are now grown in pods by machines for the power they generate, the image of the fake dream world being beamed into their brains. Humans versus machines, systems of control: these are all fairly run-of-the-mill sci-fi concerns. The idea of the Matrix itself, of a fake reality we’d rather believe in than reality itself, is relatively original, and comes straight from Baudrillard, who in turn adapted it into a philosophical treatise from a short story by Jorge Luis Borges.
Volume 2, Chapter 11 of Lewis Carroll’s Sylvie and Bruno includes a lengthy discussion of the largest scale at which a map would be useful; six feet to a mile, six yards, and eventually, at the point of ridiculousness a mile to a mile. Borges’s “On Exactitude In Science” takes this mile to a mile scale map seriously, depicting an empire which becomes obsessed with the accuracy of its cartography, so that:
In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer
satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck
a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the
Empire, and which coincided point for point with it.
The map eventually gets ruined, but its reality continues to exist:
In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map
Now, Baudrillard thinks that the map has become more real than the territory it represents. In the real world. He calls it “hyperreal”-- more real than reality. That sounds completely mental, but there are examples on a smaller scale: reading gossip about celebrities as a distraction from one’s own life, watching professional sport being played rather than playing it yourself, and experiencing victory only vicariously, etc. To Baudrillard, we live on the map, and the real world exists in the deserts:
It is the real, and not the map, whose vestiges persist here and there in the
deserts that are no longer those of the Empire, but ours: the desert of the
This is where Morpheus’s famous line in The Matrix comes from:
In fact, he would have originally made it even clearer; the original 1997 script namechecks Baudrillard directly. Baudrillard was dissatisfied with the film, arguing that the demarcation between the real world and the illusory one was too heavy, but I still think The Matrix is a remarkable achievement in terms of getting some pretty highfalutin Continental philosophy onto the silver screen.
William Shakespeare and Aldous Huxley in Demolition Man
Ok, so this is the (sort of) fun one.
First, let’s go back to 1610. Shakespeare, at the end of his dramatic career, is writing The Tempest. This elegantly crafted, almost symmetrical play, which seems to follow Aristotle’s dramatic unities to the letter, is usually read by critics as Shakespeare bidding farewell to the stage. The protagonist, Prospero, engineers the whole plot using his magical powers so that everything falls into place in the final scene. Part of his plan involves his daughter, Miranda, seeing a man who isn’t himself, her only lover Ferdinand, or the beast Caliban for the first time. She exclaims:
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in't!
Prospero immediately undercuts her, saying “‘Tis new to thee.” Most critics see Prospero’s magic as an analogue for Shakespeare’s dramatic powers, and “Tis new to thee” reads like the resigned sigh of someone who is done manipulating the audience, who has seen the gamut of emotion, and is ready to walk quietly away. The brave new world is tired and old to Prospero, and possibly to Shakespeare.
Aldous Huxley took the phrase “brave new world” as the title of his 1932 dystopian novel, and carried through some of Shakespeare’s irony. It’s often compared to Nineteen Eighty-Four, and while most critics agree that Orwell’s effort is the better novel, Brave New World, with its society sedated by throwaway consumerism, is undoubtedly the most accurate predictor of the future. The novel depicts a society not by fear, but by insidious use of technology. The state handles all reproduction through a kind of proto-gene conditioning, people lust after shiny gadgets which soon break, and monogamy is illegal: society is a dispassionate stupor, wrought by the shiny and the new.
Brave New World, in turn, spawned its own derivative works. It’s too much to say even that the 1994 blockbuster Demolition Man, starring both Stallone AND Snipes, as the 21st Century’s Most Ruthless Cop and the 21st Century’s Most Ruthless Criminal, respectively, is loosely based on Brave New World, but there are some interesting correspondences.
Sandra Bullock’s character is dubbed “Lenina Huxley”; Lenina being a prominent character in Brave New World, and Huxley, being well, you get it. The society is similarly defanged and dispassionate. Most importantly, as Stallone and Snipes fight across a city which no longer knows what fighting is, Snipes’s character Simon Phoenix, on the cusp of victory, quips “It's a brave new world - sorry you gotta go!”, relishing every second he gets to run riot in a society that doesn’t know how to fight back. Both the irony and the wide-eyed wonder of the phrase survive from Shakespeare to Snipes. Cosmic.
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