“The Last Man on Earth”—Nietzsche, Sartre, and The Twilight Zone’s Future Philosophy (For a Kid in Texas)

Left: Burgess Meredith, as the last man wandering Los Angeles after a nuclear war in “Time Enough at Last.” Image from ad for The Twilight Zone, in the public domain. Top right: the Twilight Zone opening, 1959; image in the public domain. Bottom right: Book in “Where Is Everybody?” Tinted collage created by Barry Vacker, protected under the Fair Use Doctrine.

Note: I wrote this essay at the end of 2019 as an autobiographical tribute to The Twilight Zone and how it led me to Sartre and my existentialist stance. Given the Coronavirus pandemic, I wonder if the fears and empty streets will inform the existential stance of the youth who will become future thinkers—much like the Cold War influenced me. I also wonder if Black Mirror will shake up their worldviews like the Twilight Zone did to me. Time will tell…

It’s 2020 and The Twilight Zone remains spot-on! It’s Nietzsche and Sartre for America and the world, then and now. Future philosophy for Planet Earth. Why else would there still be The Twilight Zone marathons on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day—the symbolic ending of the past and the beginning of the future?

For me, the strangely starry skies of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone provided brilliant pop philosophy for decoding our existential conditions in technological society — filled with dreams and nightmares as we hurtle into the future on a tiny planet in a vast universe.

Future Philosophy for a Kid in Texas

Growing up in the suburbs of Texas, The Twilight Zone was my go-to existentialist primer, reruns airing in syndication on small local channels, usually late nights or Saturday mornings. Of course, I had no idea I was “existentialist,” but I eventually sensed I saw the world a bit different than most of the kids. The Twilight Zone, the Cold War, middle class suburbia, science-fiction films, and knowing it could all be destroyed in a flash of bright lights from 60,000 atomic bombs—it all informed my existential stance toward the world.

Pedaling my “stingray” bike around the hot Texas suburban streets (mostly devoid of cars because the parents were at work), I sometimes wondered: could my neighborhood become like the one in “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street”? Could our neighbors freak out in the paranoia of the Cold War? Were there secret bomb shelters beneath homes? The main dad in that episode was much like my architect father, calm and rational and scientific, even about UFOs and the Cold War.

I wondered: could we blow ourselves to radioactive smithereens, as shown in “Time Enough at Last”—one of the great anti-war, anti-nuke protests of all time? If so, what would that mean?

Most every day, then and now, I feel like “The Last Man on Earth,” the title of the book shown in the banner above. I do not mean the “last man” literally, I mean it existentially and philosophically. I am sure I am not alone.

I watched every old movie about “the last man on Earth”—such as Vincent Price in The Last Man on Earth and Charlton Heston in Planet of the Apes and The Omega Man. Pandemics, biological weapons, nuclear warfare, the result was the same—a dude wandering alone on Earth. There’s something about cities with empty streets or total devastation that captures the paradoxical sense that life might be utterly meaningless, yet life meant far more than saluting flags, praying to gods, raising a family, and working hard to get a big house and fancy car. It was that dual feeling of 1) meaninglessness, 2) and life means much more than what I saw all around me.

The Twilight Zone and such movies made me question the established version of reality, as presented by the Cold War trifecta of Madison Avenue, the Pentagon, and the local churchgoers worried about commies and teenagers getting it on in parked cars or the nearby Motel 6. Endless propaganda spewing from TV, pulpits, and the Pentagon.

My family’s suburban bliss ended in divorce, a Twilight Zone-like ending in which both parents described very different realities about what went down. I still went to college, dropped out and went back, while also vowing to have no kids, no marriages, and no big house. So far, so good.

At the University of Texas at Austin, artsy-brainy girlfriends introduced me to thinkers and artists like Sartre, Nietzsche, McLuhan, Baudrillard, Donald Judd, Jackson Pollock, Maya Deren, Simone de Beauvoir, Michaelangelo Antonioni, Monica Vitti, Kraftwerk, and Philip Glass. Add on tons of film noir and French New Wave. Without doubt, these girlfriends massively raised my cultural IQ and made me a better dude all around. Way better! And we all liked watching The Twilight Zone, sometimes with tequila shots. I learned to “read” The Twilight Zone at multiple levels.

Now, decades later, a PhD in hand and 25 years as a writer, college prof, and mixed-media artist — The Twilight Zone still speaks to me about the ultimate human condition, individually and collectively. Who are we, where are we going, and what does it mean?

About where we are going in the future, The Twilight Zone dealt with robots, cloning, and simulated realities.[Listed in endnote 1] It also gave us warnings about the illusions of Edens and small towns, often presented in society as counters to a future spiraling out of control. [2] My favorites were about cultural acceleration and regression in the future, especially the ones featuring “the last man on Earth.” [3]

Little did I realize as a kid that The Twilight Zone was providing a TV primer on Friedrich Nietzsche’s most profound philosophical question. In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche speculated that since humans are the superior species that evolved from apes, there might be an equally greater species that would evolve from humans. This is what he termed the “Overman” (or “Ubermensch” or “Superman”). Nietzsche wondered:

“What is the ape to man? A laughing-stock, a thing of shame. And just the same shall man be to the Superman: a laughing-stock, a thing of shame ….man is a rope stretched between the animal and the Superman — a rope over an abyss.”[1]

So what comes next? What will emerge in the next stage of human evolution, especially our intellectual and cultural evolution? I struggled to ponder those questions as I pedaled my bike around the neighborhood, with three-bedroom houses, two-car garages, occasional swimming pools, and nicely trimmed lawns with water sprinklers to keep the grass green in the blazing summers of Texas. And that bright sun reflected off the shiny B-52 bombers taking off from a nearby airbase, loaded with nuclear bombs.

In broad brushstrokes, The Twilight Zone depicts humanity over the abyss of massive technological and cultural change, facing choices and responsibilities from which there is no exit. Many key episodes portray the existential conditions of mid-century modernity—at once accelerating forward with technological civilization and regressing into tribal warfare on a global scale. On the precipice of utopia and apocalypse, a new future or a cop out.

The Twilight Zone aired from 1959 to 1964 at the height of the Cold War. The first season (1959–60) coincided with the peak period of bomb production by the Pentagon — during that two-year period, an astounding 14,000 nuclear warheads were produced for the US arsenal. Episodes of The Twilight Zone showed the madness of nuclear warfare, perhaps none more famously than the 1959 classic: “Time Enough at Last.”

Burgess Meredith plays the bookworm survivor of a nuclear blast in Los Angeles, who, just before he is going to commit suicide amid the destruction, discovers a library full of books. Spoiler alert: In one of the most famous endings in television history, he leans down to pick up a book and breaks his thick glasses. It is truly a horrifying and heartbreaking scene. (Back then, I’m told, lenses were made of glass, not like the plastic of today).

The Twilight Zone also aired just as the space age was exploding into the global consciousness, going from a few satellites circling the Earth to rockets that could send astronauts to the moon. Side-by-side were the dystopian and utopian possibilities facing modernity — the specter of a nuclear apocalypse and shimmer of space-age apotheosis. Many episodes dealt with war and nuclear annihilation, along with space exploration and humanity taking its first steps into the cosmos.

The Twilight Zone episodes often posed the question (directly or subtly): who will be the last man on Earth? Of course, using terminology for 2020, the question is who will be the last human on Earth?

Will the last human be a few solitary figures wandering the charred landscapes of atomic warfare? Will the last human be the advanced simian trapped in primal fears, the tribal ape with a ticking bomb? Do we remain tethered to the ape, the laughing-stock of Nietzsche?

Or will the last human be the species that survives to build a peaceful planetary civilization and explore the universe beyond Earth? Will we become the Overman in the next phase of human evolution, transcending the ape-man to become the space-man?

No Exit

Often overlooked, the era of The Twilight Zone was the peak moment for the influence of existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, who won the 1964 Nobel Prize for Literature. There is no doubt Serling read some Sartre or seriously channeled the existentialist vibe in scripting The Twilight Zone.

According to Sartre, it is when we are astride the abyss that we have our greatest freedom and greatest responsibility— the moment when we are simultaneously confronting the universe and the void between now and the future. There is no exit from such freedom, no exit from the responsibility to choose. As explained in Being and Nothingness, such moments lie at the heart of human existence and our relation to it. Thus, we may experience what Sartre called “vertigo” and “bad faith” (denial) in knowing that we — and we alone — must project ourselves into the future with a sense of meaning, purpose, and hope. Anything less is a cop out

The Twilight Zone is filled with characters experiencing vertigo and acting with bad faith, yet facing no exit from the situation in which they find themselves. If there is a single episode that expresses the underlying anxiety toward global warfare and our place in a universe of trillions of galaxies, it is the very first episode of The Twilight Zone: “Where is Everybody?

The story of a future astronaut who loses his sanity in during a NASA test of the effects of loneliness on journeys of space exploration. Obviously, the episode is a metaphor for our existential condition on a tiny rock hurtling through space and time. The episode concludes with Serling’s voiceover:

“Up there, up there in the vastness of space, in the void that is sky, up there is an enemy known as isolation. It sits there in the stars waiting, waiting with the patience of eons, forever waiting in the Twilight Zone.”

It’s 2020 and we are still astride Nietzsche’s abyss in The Twilight Zone, still accelerating forward and regressing backward — yearning to traverse the cosmos like Star Trek, but still trapped and thumping our chests in Twitter.

“The Void That is Sky”: Apollo and Hubble

A decade after the lonely-confident astronaut cracked due to cosmic loneliness, NASA fulfilled his vision by sending Apollo 8 and Apollo 11 to the moon, televised for the world to see. The astronauts showed pictures of Earth floating in the black of the cosmic void, an image so radical it rocked worldviews. Back on Earth, a billion people looked on with awe and wonder, along with the wonder of “where is everybody?” on the blue and white orb. Where are the nations, the cities, the skyscrapers?

Twenty years after Apollo, NASA launched the Hubble Space Telescope to gaze into the “void that is sky.” Via Apollo, we’ve walked on the 4.5 billion-year-old moon, and via the Hubble, we’ve peered across the vast voids and two trillion galaxies in the observable universe — and there is not a Creator in sight.

As Nietzsche said Thus Spoke Zarathustra, long before Apollo and Hubble: “God is dead.” Apollo’s photos of Earth from space and the Hubble Deep Field images have obliterated the rationales supporting the dominant narratives (theology, nationalism, and tribalism) we use to explain our origins, meaning, and destiny. Our lonely species remains astride the abyss of Apollo and Hubble, free to evolve but trapped in bad faith—in a universe filled with “No Exit” signs.

2020: The Place is Here, The Time is Now

In describing the astronaut’s existence in the box, the military official is describing life in technological civilization on planet Earth—as it hurtles through the cosmic void.

We can feed our stomachs with fast food and takeout from the hipster restaurants. We pump in the A/C to heat and cool the oxygen in our urban pads, we have the indoor plumbing for the waste materials. We have an array of electronic screens for reading, recreation, and movies. And for that companionship and barrior of loneliness, we have dating sites and social media: Tinder, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and the others. Like the astronaut in the box still on Earth, we’re wired for an alternate reality, earbuds plugged in and eyes glued to screens

But, the nukes are still here, along with a polluted planet, climate disruption, species extinction, mass shootings, 24/7 media spectacle, celebrities as philosophers, robots traversing Mars, and space telescopes peering across 100 billion light years — it’s all like a perpetual planetary Twilight Zone episode.

Steven Pinker says most everything is getting better and he has compiled a mass of evidence to support that view. At the same time, I also see deep undercurrents of regression and reversal.

The stock market is at an all-time high, consumer society is proliferating, medical breakthroughs continue, and wind turbines and electric cars are spreading. We see an explosion of artistic creativity as wealth increases in nations around the world. Tourism and trade are operating on a global scale. I can eat at any number of hipster restaurants, order a laptop from Amazon with one click, and enjoy owning a minimalist loft that is all glass on one side (though modest in size; recall, no big house for me).

Amid our technological civilization, human identity remains as complex as ever, still too often bound up in unscientific beliefs and traditionalist ideologies such as racism, tribalism, and nationalism, hence the building of walls and homeland security states. Gender norms are expanding along with the cultural acceptance of increasing diversity of sexual preferences, all countered by envy from the uptight, still wedded to sacred scrolls.

In America, a reality-TV star and Twitter God is playing a deranged president, tweeting out hate and ignorance on an hourly basis. In Russia, Putin thumps his pudgy bare chest as his nation successfully tests how to disconnect itself from the internet. Though the USA and Russia peacefully co-exist on the International Space Station, China, Russia, and America are busy militarizing space. Trump even launched the Space Force, the fifth military branch.

The Cold War has been resurrected on the planet of the apes. The tribal drums are beating, Nietzsche’s laughing-stock is on the march—fearing the abyss and unaware there is no exit.

As a species, we’re torn between apes and astronauts — a species armed with nukes and space telescopes, a species of warring tribes and caretakers of a single planet floating in space, a species thumping its chest in Twitter and contemplating distant galaxies in the latest NASA-Hubble images. So who will be “the last human on Earth” — the apeman or the spaceman?

For the kid who grew up in Texas, that question has yet to be answered in The Twilight Zones of 2020.

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Barry Vacker is co-editor of the anthology Black Mirror and Critical Media Theory (2018) author of the 2001-inspired Specter of the Monolith (2017) and co-creator of the Media(s)cene mixed-media art installation (2019).

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[1] Episodes dealing with robots, cloning, and simulated humans included “The Lonely” (1.7), “The Trade-Ins” (3.31), “I Sing the Body Electric” (3.35), “In His Image” (4.1), and “Number 12 Looks Just Like You” (5.17). Episodes dealing with simulated realities included “Elegy” (1.20), “A World of Difference” (1.23), and “Stopover in a Quiet Town” (5.30).

[2] Episodes dealing with Edens, villages, and small towns included “Walking Distance” (1.5), “A Stop at Willoughby” (1.30), “It’s a Good Life” (3.8), and “Probe 7, Over and Out” (5.9).

[3] Cultural acceleration and deceleration: “The Odyssey of Flight 33” (2.18) and “A Kind of Stopwatch” (5.4). Nuclear apocalypse: “Time Enough at Last” (1.8), “Third from the Sun” (1.14), “Two” (3.1), “The Midnight Sun” (3.10), and “The Old Man in the Cave” (5.7).

Theorist of big spaces and big ideas. Writer and mixed-media artist. Existentialist w/o the angst. PhD: Univ of Texas at Austin.

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