Berserk, Sisyphus, and The Indomitable Human Spirit
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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