Considering the Lobster

In David Foster Wallace’s iconic essay, “Consider the Lobster,” the late writer provocatively pondered the ethical ambiguities of lobster cooking. That the essay was for Gourmet magazine was part of what made it great. DFW was playing right to the blue blood liberal guilt of many of his readers when he wrote:

“Is it all right to boil a sentient creature alive just for our gustatory pleasure? A related set of concerns: Is the previous question irksomely PC or sentimental? What does ‘all right’ even mean in this context? Is the whole thing just a matter of personal choice?”

The essay is a brilliant example of the sort of deadpan/innocent subversion that made DFW so special. In pondering lobsters and their difference and likeness to us, DFW disturbed as much as he entertained.

A similar spirit exists in Yorgos Lanthimos’ new film, The Lobster, which has become a sort of arthouse hit this summer. The darkly comical film is set in a dystopian world where single adults are sent to a country hotel where they have 45 days to find a romantic partner, otherwise they are turned into an animal (they get to choose what kind of animal). Apparently individualism and loner-type behavior has become so pervasive that these sorts of hotels are essential to force matchups. Colin Farrell stars as David, a newly single man who has decided that, should he not find a match in the 45-day window, he will opt to be turned into a lobster. Why? “Because lobsters live for over one hundred years, are blue-blooded like aristocrats, and stay fertile all their lives,” offers David as his reasoning. Plus: “I also like the sea very much.”

David is similar to a lobster in other ways. His nearsightedness (a key plot point) mirrors that of lobsters, who don’t really have much in they way of eyesight. Lobsters are solitary creatures that prefer dark parts of the ocean where they are far from other lobsters. As DFW points out in his essay, they “dislike the crowding that’s part of their captivity in tanks…. one reason why lobsters’ claws are banded on capture is to keep them from attacking one another under the stress of close-quarter storage.”

One of the motifs of The Lobster, of course, is the likening of humans to beasts. The “you will turn into an animal after 45 days” conceit is not just a random plot point. It’s central to the observations Lanthimos is trying to make.

How, after all, are we humans actually different than animals? In The Lobster the humans are mostly Darwinian creatures fighting simply to survive natural selection. The film is full of Hunger Games-style hunts. When characters die there are no tears. Sex is very urge-driven and emotionless. Even the characters who do find “matches” do it merely for their own survival (avoiding being turned into camels or horses). It’s a dog-eat-dog world, in more ways than one.

In diagnosing (in vivid detail) the experience of a lobster being boiled alive, David Foster Wallace fascinatingly wonders whether the mere fact of resisting death (e.g. how lobsters desperately try to push off the pot lid and claw out of boiling water in the seconds before they perish) should be enough give us pause: “To my lay mind, the lobster’s behavior in the kettle appears to be the expression of a preference; and it may well be that an ability to form preferences is the decisive criterion for real suffering.”

I’m not sure I’m convinced by this criterion for “real suffering,” whatever that may be, and I’m not sure I’d characterize escaping death as an expression of preference. Anything that breathes will, necessarily prefer to keep breathing. It’s survival instinct. What separates man from beast, it seems to me, is that the former can choose against this preference (choosing even death) out of love for another, whereas the animal will choose survival every time.

The Lobster’s open-ended final scene puts it on the viewer to decide, on this criteria, if our protagonists are humane or beastly. Certainly the film’s commentary on the beastliness of 21st century humanity is apt. It is becoming more and more clear that in today’s world self-interest and survival are the things that most drive us. It’s a kill or be killed world that is increasingly incapable of discussing the morality of collateral damage (the suffering of others inflicted by our self-centeredness), whether it be our resistance to care for the plight of refugees or the homeless, or the ease with which we discard the unborn.

Only those with the capacity to set aside their self-interest and “consider the lobster,” so to speak, will be able to keep culture from spiraling into a full-on Hunger Games Darwinian abyss. That’s why it’s so important that Christians not capitulate to the prevailing fear and narcissism and self-interestedness of our age. We must be counter culturally disinterested in ourselves and shockingly interested in the flourishing of others. In a world on the brink, where savagery is often perceived as the only means of survival (see The Walking Dead… the great zeitgeist-capturing show of our times), God is imaged in the ones who put themselves at risk for others. This is a Jesus-like posture: running into the burning building (or plague-ridden city or Ebola-infested country, etc.) to save strangers because their lives are precious. This cruciform posture is the most human posture, for in it we image God in a way dogs and cows and lobsters do not.