Berserk, Sisyphus, and The Indomitable Human Spirit

Berserk Guts
This article contains spoilers for manga series Berserk written by Kentaro Miura.

Berserk‘s world is oppressive. The small amount of human characters with a positive outlook are treated as naïve. The one who gets it the worst, however, is our protagonist, Guts. Chased every single night by demons, unable to allow people to get close to him for fear of them getting hurt. When he does accrue a ragtag group of friends he is really the only competent fighter against stronger demons leading to a feeling of responsibility for the entire crew. Guts’ body and mind are continuously beaten down. He can’t catch a break for most of the story, with his most recent respite being interrupted by an incredibly devastating sequence. But that’s not what defines Guts. Guts’ character comes from pushing through it all. Not once in the story has Guts given up; whether he’s coming at it with anger or from a healthier place, Guts always pushes forward. That’s the reason Guts is so popular and why he’s the embodiment of the idea of the indomitable human spirit.

The indomitable human spirit is a phrase first memetically used in October 23, 2021 with a Twitter post about a man rolling a blunt with no hands. The image depicts the idea of unshakeable effort despite hardship.

The human spirit is indomitable
Image captioned: “The human spirit is indomitable”

While this depiction is exclusively joking in manner without much greater commentary, the memes to come wouldn’t follow this format. Eventually the memes got more and more wholesome, more and more uplifting. It’s no coincidence that these memes came out in the most difficult, loneliest times that Gen Z and Millennials have experienced.

The Cruel Indifference of the Universe

Albert Camus starts his book, The Myth of Sisyphus with,

“There is but one serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy”

Camus’ philosophy is already stripping everything else back to the bare essentials. Is life worth living? This is the central question of Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus. Camus iterates on existentialist ideas that there is no inherit order in the world and there is no God or any other higher beings. We’re stuck in this world of chaos and pain. Camus also brings attention to the fact that humans inherently desire order. We create religions to make sense of these things, we wonder what our purpose is, we join groups with hierarchy, we recount history as stories that have morals and purposes. Camus calls out this dichotomy between human desire and a universe of disorder absurd. A cruel joke put forward by the universe.

Philosopher Albert Camus
Philosopher Albert Camus.

Guts spends the first chronological arc of Berserk, The Golden Age, learning to surpass his childhood trauma, learning to love, and accepting the friendship of others. Guts makes a lot of progress in this arc, becoming very close friends with Griffith and the other members of the Band of the Hawk and opening up about his trauma to Casca, confiding in her and beginning a healthy relationship with her. Even though everything didn’t go perfectly by any means, Guts made a lot of progress in this stage of his life, progressing from an anti-social loner to a social man with healthy friendships and relationships. This was all torn away in one heart wrenching event. The Eclipse.

The Eclipse
The Eclipse.

Gen-Z is a generation marked by tragedy and paranoia. Born in the midst of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the first generation, raised with the internet already at our fingertips, trauma and chaos was demonstrated very early to this generation. Videos depicting death were easily accessible, ISIS beheadings shared virally, stories of murder, terrorism, despotism, corruption, and horror were accessible with a few clicks. Evidence of the absolute chaos of this universe ingrained in impressionable brains. Many children suffered during the 2008 financial crisis with parents losing jobs. Finances and debt were concepts instilled in the youth before their age hit the double digits. At the end of their adolescence in 2020 the pandemic hit and the chaos became even more incredibly apparent. Nothing is fair, the world is disorder.

The story of Sisyphus, the titular Greek myth referenced in the title of Albert Camus’ book, goes as follows. Sisyphus, characterized as an incredibly tricky and cunning man, cheated death twice by escaping the underworld. As punishment, Hades condemned him to push a massive boulder up a steep hill only for it to roll down the hill again. Sisyphus must repeat this task for all eternity, getting nowhere and demonstrating the ultimate act of futility.

Sisyphus' eternal task
Sisyphus’ eternal task.

The Eclipse tears absolutely everything away from Guts. Griffith, his closest friend, betrays the entire Band of the Hawk for his own ultimate gain. Each member of the Band is ruthlessly and horrifically slaughtered by the demons unleashed by Griffith in this event. All those connections brutally executed in front of him. To cap off the horror Griffith brutally violates Casca in front of Guts, shattering her mind from the trauma. It doesn’t matter how many hundreds of demons Guts kills. Each and every one of this friendships dies. His relationship is shattered. His arm torn off and forced to watch the brutality, Guts is completely helpless.

Memes and Memetic Comedy

The original definition of meme goes as follows:

meme, unit of cultural information spread by imitation.

(Rogers)

Basically a concept perpetuated throughout culture that isn’t explicitly taught. For example, in the United States the meme of freedom is pretty prevalent. The concept of arranged marriages is constricting and an archaic practice. What they wear, how they express themselves, is not to be hindered at all. While purely logical debates are still common, telling someone their subjective opinion is incorrect is looked down upon. These concepts are passed from person to person; a contagious way of thinking.

Stoicism
Stoicism, where not expressing your emotions is a core tenant. This cultural meme is now mostly looked down upon by younger generations.

Memetic comedy works much the same way. As memes develop they usually begin as an original joke that receives iterations. While the meme iterates its common for the joke to become almost completely incomprehensible if you have no knowledge of the original. This joke receives more and more iterations until the meme burns out. This parallels the life cycle of the original concept of a meme with the main difference being that a memetic joke can go out of fashion incredibly quickly. Posting a meme that has burned out is looked down upon in the same fashion that people look down at cultural memes that they deem as obsolete.

A meme that is obsolete, and out of fashion
A meme that is obsolete, and out of fashion.

Humor used as a coping mechanism is something put forward by Freud that has been researched and proven to be a useful coping mechanism for stress and depression. What does memetic comedy express when a common cultural theme is prevalent in these disseminating ideas? Memes about depression and other mental illnesses have become more apparent. On top of that these memes forgo the veiled quality of mental illness in older media and addresses them bluntly and openly. Any foray into a central meme hub makes this apparent. As a cultural meme this is mirrored. Acceptance and tolerance of mental illness and understanding is a newer cultural meme that has been widely accepted, eliminating the previous meme of mental illness as a taboo subject. What does this say about memes about “The Indomitable Human Spirit”?

The Indomitable Human Spirit
Generic example of the anatomy of a “The Indomitable Human Spirit” meme.

The anatomy of many of the memes about “The Indomitable Human Spirit” usually contrasts the “The Indomitable Human Spirit” with “The Cruel Indifference of the Universe”.

These memes, like the works of Camus and the Berserk manga, don’t deny that the universe is indeed cruel. The memes portray the human spirit persevering anyways. This epitomizes humor as a coping mechanism. The point of these memes, these units of culture, created by people of our generation speaks volumes. Even though many of these pictures are funny, the ultimate point is incredibly sincere: though the universe is, by nature, meaningless, oppressive, and crushing, we, as humanity must keep going, in spite of the universe.

The Indomitable Human Spirit

Everything is stripped of Guts: his found family, his love, endlessly hunted by demons sent out to finish the job The Eclipse started, and aggression at every turn, though he has to redefine his goal of revenge against Griffith to protect Casca, the recent events of the manga, destroying the peace Guts fought hard for, he still does not give up. He fights in spite of all this.

Camus says this absurd reality, the cruelty of the universe, is not met with suicide, or giving up. Camus tells the reader to revolt. Fight in spite of it all. Camus writes that this is how you find meaning. Sisyphus watches the boulder fall again and again, yet he continues to push. You could see Sisyphus as a complete exercise in futility but if we accept this, we accept the futility of our own existence. Guts receives the moniker “The Struggler” and this perfectly encapsulates the ideas presented by the memes and Camus. Guts struggles when there is no end in sight. Us, as humanity, are all Sisyphean. We are all Strugglers. We toil day after day. We fight though there is no meaning and this, paradoxically, becomes our meaning. “Indeed,” Albert Camus writes, “we must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

We must continue to fight. We must revolt. “The Cruel Indifference of the Universe” means nothing in the face of our “The Indomitable Human Spirit”. Laugh in spite of tragedy. Love in spite of hatred. Find joy in spite of sadness. Live in spite of death. Struggle. This is our meaning.

Apathy
Indomitable human
Indomitable human spirit

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Freelance undergrad Creative Writing major at Cornerstone University.
Edited by Sunni Rashad.

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49 Comments

  1. Guts is the embodiment of the indomitable human spirit.

  2. I knew even from going through the Golden Age a couple times that the series was peppered pretty well with philosophy.

  3. Livia Li
    0

    I read Berserk back when I was 16/17 and was really enthralled by it. I used to re-read it every week or so. I’m not entirely sure what drawn me to it but years later I almost entirely avoid it. As sad as it is, watching this just further cements my fatalism, or at least my version of fatalism.

  4. I’ve been getting into philosophy and psychology because of Berserk.

  5. Griffith after the Eclipse is the ideal “inferior human”. Now you decide how you like this.

  6. Ayla Wall
    1

    I rarely read any comics or graphic novels, but I was looking for some philosophical/psychological anime to share with my daughter. This article lit up my curiosity, so we decided to watch the 97 anime; but since the Golden Age is just a flashback and the real story develops further, I dived into the manga. Found out Berserk is definitively a deeper master piece. The story and the art caught me, and it shook many things I took for granted.

    Berserk goes beyond character development. It really started to question modernist social structures and beliefs, and post-modernist stances. It’s a true shame the author passed away just when his work was about to reach its climax and conclusion. It would have been very interesting to see what new values Miura proposed as an artist.

    • At it’s heart Berserk really is a tragedy and it doesn’t need an ending. It’s had several moments you could argue most tragedies would have ended already, it’s delivered many powerful messages to people, and even if it’s never finished it’s already told probably one of my favorite tragedy stories ever.

  7. It’s not nietzchean or nihilist, because then it indicates that nothing matters in this world, which begs the question why are guts and a lot of supporting characters even trying to fight destiny.

    • Nietzsche uses tragedy as a dualism between good and evil, Dionysius and Apollo and Berserk doesn’t really represent that many good things the end objective is criticizing modern culture that has supressed the bad part and is only left with the good part making it weak, a slave. (english isnt my native language so talking about philoshy is kinda hard I dont know if I got what I want to say through)

    • It is rather ironic that Nietzches life affirming ideas condemning the supposed Christian impulse for allowing reason and morality to birth evil were in turn were co opted by an evil and idealistic regime to justify perhaps the most egregious sins humanity has ever witnessed.

  8. Wonderful. I do love how Berserk is built around so much complexity in humanity and shows its enlightenment through such philosophies.

  9. Trystan
    2

    Tiktok has made Guts and Berserk mainstream. What do you all think about that?

    • The more the merrier! Welcome all fellow strugglers, we’re in this together.

    • Happy to see it. As long as it’s having a genuine impact on people, not just edgelords loving it due to the blood and rape, then I’m glad to see it getting popular. Underneath all the violence and despair, at it’s heart, it’s very much a story about overcoming hardship, growing because of it and celebrating The Indomitable Human Spirit.

      While naturally I’d ideally prefer if everyone who is a fan were to get really deep into the details and specifics and come to understand the amazing philosophies it explores, if a gym bro only cares about it because he wants to look like Guts does and uses Guts as a role model, and then actually acts on that to improve himself, then it’s still sorta delivering on the message it has regardless.

      • Yeah I’ve always said despite the dark nature of it at its core it’s about overcoming nihilism. Every human, at some point in their life, has those existential questions about existence. Why are we here? What’s the point? Why do we suffer? In berserk you have Guts, who has endured unimaginable tragedy and has every reason and justification to throw the towel in but he doesn’t. He continues fighting on in spite of everything. If that’s not uplifting I don’t know what is

    • More people can experience peak fiction.

    • Cuddle Pig
      1

      I don’t really agree it’s becoming mainstream but i would have absolutely no problems with that.

    • I’m a new fan. Started reading 3 days ago and I am unable to do anything else lol. I’m at chapter 316 currently.

      I have NEVER been interested in manga. I thought they were weird if I’m being honest. The ones I flipped through over the years just did nothing for me. I like The Watchman and Maus graphic novels, but that was it. Most of my fantasy reading has been all of JRRT ME literature.

      But this series, Berserk, has utterly captivated me. I can’t consume it fast enough.

    • I’m a fan since 2006. If it gets us a new and well adapted anime with insane quality, I’m happy.

    • Clarence
      0

      Honestly, it bothers me allot. Since now that its main stream, more people are complaining about it being too sexualized which NEVER occured to me when i read it on my own.

    • i discovered berserk last week and i am pissed that it is becoming so mainstream

    • It has always been massive within the anime/manga community, so it’s pretty much the same.

    • Im fine BUT nothing should change.

  10. This is a great breakdown. I really like Albert Camus but I’ve never tried looking at how Miura uses the thought of philosophers other than Nietzsche to incorporate into his work.

    • Miura incorporated lots of philosophies, religions, and inspirations into his work. It’s one of the main reasons I love the series so much.

  11. In addition to this, there’s also a whole lot of Jungian philosophy involved in how Guts overcomes his inner demons through the lost children arc…

    • The Jungian idea of the “shadow” plays a massive role in the story and I love how it’s implemented and personified as the beast of darkness.

      • Hamilton
        1

        Yup. Killing all those apostles was symbolic of him gaining control of the monster inside of him! Berserk never ceases to blow my mind. 🙂

  12. Ibrahim
    1

    The craziest thing about berserk and how detailed it is, guts always had his armor on his left hand protecting it. This being the arm he lost in the eclipse, it’s crazy to see even what we try hardest to protect can all be taken away by fate and one’s desire.

  13. Words cannot describe how this series has touched my heart. Kentaro, you were a genius. R.I.P.

  14. I love the scene where Guts as a boy lets himself go to the vision of that beautiful moon, lets himself be thrown into his arms, as the last, beautiful vision before leaving, Guts was ready to die. With everything that had happened to him and with the world collapsing on him with so much violence without it being his fault, Guts knew he couldn’t continue. But the world didn’t give him a moment’s respite, the wolf pack attacked him, he knew he should die. But it was not so, he defended himself from the wolves with his sword and his last strength, resisting all that suffering inside and outside of him, and resisting the desire of the moon. And then, from the pain he felt for the wound and what had happened to him, he screams, a cry of liberation. In that scream he is angry with the world, for not making him die as a child as he should be, he was angry with the world also for being so cruel to him, he was also angry with Gambino, for selling him and for continuing to kill him , and also with Sys, for saving him as a child, or maybe not? But surely he was angry with himself, for being born, for killing Gambino, and above all for surviving the wolf pack, he felt agony and despair, why would he want to survive? It seemed so easy and relaxing to let you go to the moon forever, but it didn’t. I love that liberating scream.

  15. im gonna ramble a little bit. i think, originally griffith’s entire character is about defying the structures that keep people outside, it is what it’s all about at first. he dreams to have a castle but low-born people never get to be kings so the system inherently works against him, it’s his individual dedication to his dream that makes him have a fighting chance, or at least it’s what everyone in band of the hawk believes. they want griffith to win because if someone like him won, it would mean there was a chance for them to escape their own oppressive power structures.

    however griffith’s entire dream stands on becoming the oppressor, his rebellion means becoming the system as an endgame, rather than continuous denial of monarchy and feudalism. exploiting his people for his dream is what he does and that is the only way to become a king, which he realizes it during the eclipse and eventually succumbs to this idea, believing it is inevitable and moral right to continue the journey or all of it meant nothing.

    guts philosophy about oppressive systems is more cynical and hands on approach. resist at all cost against everything, against all feudals and all kings and all beliefs. his life and survival without abandoning agency and freedom is all that matters to him, which is a huge task to take for one person but it is all he has ever known, symbolizing it through absurdly large sword that no one person can hold. guts philosophy is denial of all ideologies and systems, a continuous state of personal anarchy, which saves him from everything because all ideologies eventually die and he doesn’t follow the dead because he never joined them. he doesnt have a dream, an absolute purpose, or just a normal way to live other than his sword and the desire to resist, so he makes a claim that he doesn’t need any, just as long as he survives and doesnt get killed, he is doing fine. though sometimes he does express his active hatred for gods because of the eclipse, hunting down the apostles for the sake of it even if it’s not to reach god hand, but eventually he stops doing that and only does it through self retaliation, but in his essence he just resists and becomes his own self. but gut’s sins are more insidiously corrupting, more and more people he kills through his animalistic instincts to survive, more he becomes the animal and loses his humanity, it’s well embodied in his berserker armor which will eventually turn him into skull knight, like what nietzche said about the abyss.

    yes, after an eclipse and birth of a new world through the egg, griffith granted everyone one wish that they wanted the most, which for guts was his own purpose, yet ironically griffith himself gave guts the purpose as a form of revenge against femto and its apostles. however i don’t like this plot point very much because to me guts signifies the lack of purpose in life that pushes against everything trying to consume him and his individual self. he is just a flash and bones, an animal that’s trying to survive in harsh world.

  16. Berserk is dripping with concepts inspired by the Philosopher Nietzsche.

  17. Griffith and Guts represent a a philosophical conflict in the western mind. Guts is kierkegaard, Plato, Jesus and Marcus Aurelius. They stress stoicism and responsibility. The white hawk is Ayn rand Aristotle Nietzsche. Stressing individualism and drive.

  18. This opened my mind on Berserk.

  19. The absurdism of Berserk pulled me from my drug related PTSD. Seeing someone never give up and succumb to nihilism is somewhat inspiring.

  20. You could make the case for Griffith embodying elements of Rand’s Objectivism- primarily the rational self-interest bit here and there. He literally puts his “friend’s” well-being on the line in sacrifice on the altar of his dream (and literally sacrifices them during the eclipse).

    Even his first interaction with Casca (when she’s in danger of being raped and murdered) could be read as him empowering her to take control of her own destiny, or as him not wanting to stick his neck out for her to help her in a time of need. Both could be read into an Objectivist light. Obviously Objectivism and Nihilism share elements, but I always saw Griffith as more the former than the latter.

  21. ms campis
    0

    If there’s one thing Guts taught me is that no matter what dark place your in, you to can find the will and heart to push forward no matter how hard when shit hits the fan and still have that drive to find a purpose….. There is a way for all of us.

  22. Guts is not a human nor a monster or unworldly being but a enigma of the most human emotion, hatred.

  23. Anastasia
    0

    Berserk is the best in entertainment I have ever experienced. A shame Miura could not finish it. Tragic and sadly fitting.

  24. You can only enjoy manga and cinema if you have knowledge of philosophy of Nietzsche, kiergard, Dostoyevsky etc etc etc man’s struggle is eternal and divine.

  25. Guts is a r victim survivor and practically has hell itself thrown at him and again and again he continues to persevere. No matter what, he never gives up. It truly is an inspiring story for me.

  26. I like the idea of Guts, not only the idea of his motivations into acting the acts he does. Even though he knows that tens of thousands of men and women lives are under his hands, he takes responsibility for that. I don’t mind how much he kills, he acts because he understand what he must do. In order to not loose himself, after the Golden Arc, he was reborn to be a harbinger of wanting to run away. Wanting to survive without living servitude to what you call god, he knows and lives up to his name, the Black Swordsman the Struggler.

    • Gabriella
      0

      Killing because he understands that people would grieve and then again people would petty and rejoice for a act of violence. Not caring about humanity but still holding onto it because he’s a hawk, a friend, a lover, and a brother.

  27. Diamond
    1

    Super interesting piece on one of my favorite pieces of fiction ever. Although I disagree with a lot of what you noted.

  28. Dumbledore
    3

    I love berserk so much!

  29. Guts shows us that no matter what happens in our lives, we have to keep pushing forward for our sake, and for the sake of the people we love.

  30. Good read, and very inspiring. The memetic culture of the upcoming generations is such an effective coping mechanism.

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